Acclaimed storyteller, folklorist and author Diane Wolkstein died on January 31 following emergency heart surgery while traveling in Taiwan. She was 70.
Both Wolkstein’s storytelling and printed works delved into the culture and mythology of many countries, and she often traveled to a country and spent time there when conducting her research. She was in Taiwan last month working on her most recent project, the epic Chinese story of the Monkey King.
Wolkstein wrote more than 20 books, including The Magic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales (Random House, 1978), Oom Razoon (HarperCollins, 1991), and The Red Lion (Crowell, 1977), all of which were named ALA Notable Books.
Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (HarperCollins, 1983), which she co-authored with Samuel Noah Kramer, is considered a classic retelling of the great Sumerian epic.
However, though praised as an author, it was Wolkstein’s talent as a storyteller that won her international fame, and many credit her for reviving interest in the art of storytelling fairly early in her career. “The meaning of life is in stories,” she once said. “It is the way I understand life and it is the way I often connect to people.”
In 1967, she was named the New York City Storyteller in recognition of the storytelling events she staged in the parks around the city. In 1972, she began the first graduate storytelling program in the country at Bank Street College. She was also instrumental in establishing a summer Saturday morning tradition where stories are told at the base of the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park. Well versed in the Danish storyteller, she authored an article for School Library Journal, “The Finest Quality Dirt,” in 2005 in honor of Andersen’s 200th birthday. During the 2012 season, she performed at the park four times.
A founding member of both America’s National Storytelling Conference and the Storytelling Center of New York City, she was recognized in 2007 when New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg named June 22 of that year “Diane Wolkstein Day” in honor of her 40 years of storytelling for the people of NYC.
Wolkstein also taught mythology at New York University for 18 years, hosted the Stories from Many Lands program on NYC public radio for 13 years, and taught the art of storytelling through her many classes, workshops, and conferences.
“She has been a storytelling idol to me and was an inspiration to become one myself as a children’s librarian,” Gretchen Casseroti, assistant director for public services at Darien Library, CT, tells SLJ. “Her gift of bringing the world’s stories to children will be missed.”
Wolkstein was born on November 11, 1942, in New Jersey. She received degrees from Smith College and Bank Street College. She is survived by her daughter, Rachel Zucker, three grandsons, and her mother Ruth, a librarian. A memorial celebrating her life will be planned for later this year.