Story Is King | How To Be a Great Storyteller

There are many reasons to tell stories to children. To begin with, when children listen to and focus on a story told to them, they are developing listening, comprehension, and analytical skills.
Illustration by Tim Cook

Illustration by Tim Cook

In this article

21 Classic Folk & Fairy Tales

10 Literary Tales To Tell

More on storytelling

Online, Freeman presents a list of websites for storytellers and deconstructs a favorite folktale, offering tips on learning it and telling it aloud.

Adapted from The Handbook for Storytellers and The Handbook for Storytime Programs (both ALA Editions, 2015) by Judy Freeman and Caroline Feller Bauer. Used with permission.

You’ve just read a story that you loved, and you can’t wait to share it with someone. You start talking about it, and before you know it, you’re telling it, and your listeners are enthralled. It’s such a satisfying experience that you decide to learn about storytelling and even hold story hours.

There are many reasons to tell stories to children. Pragmatically speaking, storytelling is all about language. When children listen and focus on a story told to them, they are developing listening, comprehension, and analytical skills. In terms of higher-level thinking, storytelling helps children recall details, summarize sequence, and visualize and describe the settings and scenes.

They can speculate on what will happen next, and afterward, cite the clues that support their predictions. They can analyze the story structure, discuss plot elements, and evaluate, debate, and make their own judgments about why the characters behaved the way they did. They can compare and contrast other similar stories.

Finally, they can synthesize the experience in a creative way, perhaps acting out the story, writing an original tale using the same structure, or retelling the story from another character’s point of view. All the strategies we use to analyze and evaluate other texts, both fiction and nonfiction, work just as well, if not better, when a story is told.

Hearing stories also makes a child want to read more of them. Storytelling helps turn kids into readers. But perhaps the best reason to tell stories is that it brings joy to the teller and listener alike.

Historically, public librarians have done more to introduce children to stories than anyone. They routinely hold weekly programs of songs, stories, crafts, and activities for babies through teens. Often, these programs are dependent on reading aloud, not storytelling, but you can easily integrate storytelling into a weekly session. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve read a picture book aloud so many times, you already know the story. Try telling it without the book and see how it goes. You will get hooked on telling.

If you are a school librarian with a structured schedule, you have a built-in weekly audience and can probably slot in storytelling on a regular basis. If a social studies class is studying Native Americans, explorers, or the 50 states, offer to tell stories related to those subjects. If students are learning about astronomy, animals, or weather in science class, propose a program of pourquoi tales that provide listeners with a very different explanation of scientific phenomena.

Ready to get started? Let’s look at a few simple steps.


The key to a successful program lies in the story or stories you use. Above all, choose stories that you love and that fit your personality. If you think of yourself as vivacious and sparkling, you might enjoy telling a funny or silly folktale; if you are naturally quiet or shy, it might work best to choose a romantic or magical tale. You don’t have to actually sit down and analyze your psyche, but your selections will reflect your inner self. What you are looking for are stories that speak to you—that sing to you, even. Sometimes they will grab you by the throat and demand, “Tell me to someone!”

You’ll need to read through many stories until you find some that appeal to you. Everything you read—a family anecdote, a folktale, a picture book, a self-contained chapter of a novel, a piece of narrative nonfiction, a newspaper article, or something you come across online—is fair game. Go through the accompanying lists of picture books and folktales and mark off the ones that surprise, startle, and satisfy you. Your job is to figure out which stories you can’t live without. You need to develop your own singular repertoire from a variety of sources.

There are storytellers out there who have done some of the heavy lifting for you, publishing collections of tales that are easy to tell, and giving you step-by-step directions on how to tell them well. Margaret Read MacDonald, Anne Pellowski, Dianne de las Casas, Pleasant DeSpain, and storytelling spouses Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss have all written multiple books filled with deliciously fast and funny stories you can read today and tell tomorrow. These folks are masters, so why not try out some of their tried-and-trues? If you hear a friend or a professional storyteller tell a tale you love, make it yours. There are scores of storytelling videos on YouTube. Borrow like crazy. Add your own spin, plus any bells and whistles that made the telling work for you. (Of course, if you tell a story you heard from someone else, be sure to give credit to your source.)

If you find texts of some of your stories online, bookmark or save them on your computer, but also print hard copies, making sure the URL is on the first page in case you need to find it again. You will be grateful for that hard copy, which you can either tuck away in your folder for later or carry around with you everywhere while you are learning the story. With books, be sure to write the source of the story, so you can track it down easily if necessary.


When you select a story to tell, begin by reading it all the way through at least three times. Then start telling it to yourself. If you forget a section, stop for that session. The next time, reread the story and start telling it to yourself from the beginning. Try to get as far as you can before you get stuck. Pretty soon, you’ll find that you’ve just retold the entire tale.

There’s no one way to master a story; we all have our own methods of learning new material. Some select a story and retype it, especially if it’s in picture-book format. They feel that this process helps them get the essence of the tale into their heads. Others prefer to copy it by hand, as a sort of kinesthetic learning experience—the story travels up their arm as they write it and nestles in their brain so they can better remember it. Try listing in sequence the major events of a story in your mind or on paper. After all, you can’t kill the dragon until the hero has met that fearsome beast. Think logically, and you will learn logically.

If you are an auditory learner, record the story on your phone and play it while you do chores, or in the car, narrating it aloud while trying to keep up with the pace of the recorded version. It will help with phrasing, fluency, and expression, and you’ll begin to see the story unfold in your mind’s eye like a movie. Keep your eyes on the road but keep talking.


Like the first draft of a novel, a new story will be full of rough spots that need fixing. It will sound choppy. You’ll forget parts. It will be inelegant. Read it again and then tell it again. It will improve a bit every time, so keep at it.

You’ll be amazed at the number of spare moments you can find in your day: standing in line to get into a movie, waiting for a bus, soaking in the tub, microwaving leftovers. How wonderful to put all that time to real use! People may look at you funny, seeing you mumble a story to yourself, but pay them no mind. The story is king.


Once you get through several unimpeded tellings, it’s time to try your tale on someone else. Everyone is a potential guinea pig, starting with family members. Children are critical and appreciative, roommates are amused, spouses are sometimes bored, and pets are noncommittal. Friends are willing, at least the first time. But strangers, caught unaware, can be the best listeners of all.

Try this: you are on a train or a bus. The mom across from you is trying, without success, to quiet down her obstreperous child. Lean over and say, “Can I tell you a story?” Do it. It’s good practice. Once you’ve told it a dozen times, it will be yours forever.


Now you are ready to tell your tale to a real audience, whether it’s a preschool story hour, a class of third graders, or an assembly program for middle school kids.

My most important advice? Do not act out the story. Don’t leap from side to side to show your audience who is speaking in a dialogue. Characterization emerges through descriptive language: “a little wisp of a girl,” or “he was so thin he could only eat noodles.” Let the language tell the story.

After you start telling the story to audiences, you will find yourself making subtle changes. Guess what? You have just made it your very own.

Freeman-Judy_Contrib_WebJudy Freeman ( is a consultant, writer, and speaker on children’s literature and the coauthor with Caroline Feller Bauer of the revised edition of The Handbook for Storytellers and The Handbook for Storytime Programs (both ALA Editions, 2015).

Back to the top.

21 Classic Folk & Fairy Tales

1606-StoryIsKing-SB-ClassicFolk-REVHere are a few favorite tales that aren’t overly difficult to learn.

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock. retold by Eric A. Kimmel. illus. by Janet Stevens. Holiday House.

The trickster makes off with everyone’s food. Also in this comical series: Anansi and the Magic Stick (2001), Anansi and the Talking Melon (1994), and Anansi Goes Fishing (1992).

“Butterball” in The Troll with No Heart in His Body, and Other Tales of Trolls from Norway. Lise Lunge-Larsen. illus. by Betsy Bowen. Houghton Mifflin.

Butterball, a young boy, is carried away by a troll but finds a way to get free.

“The Cow-Tail Switch” in The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories. retold by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. Holt.

To which of his seven sons should Ogaloussa the hunter bequeath his cow-tail switch, for helping to bring him back from the dead?

Epossumondas. retold by Coleen Salley. illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt.

Each time a little possum tries to carry home gifts from his auntie, his exasperated mama says, “Epossumondas, you don’t have the sense you were born with.”

Fin M’Coul, the Giant of Knockmany Hill. retold and illus. by Tomie dePaola. Holiday House.

The Irish giant and his clever wife, Oonah, outsmart the giant Cucullin.

The Funny Little Woman. Arlene Mosel. illus. by Blair Lent. Dutton.

Japanese ogres kidnap a woman to cook their rice.

Grandma and the Great Gourd: A Bengali Folktale. retold by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. illus. by Susy Pilgrim Waters. Roaring Brook.

On her way to visit her daughter, Grandma encounters a hungry fox, a black bear, and a tiger; all want to eat her.

How Chipmunk Got His Stripes: A Tale of Bragging and Teasing. Joseph Bruchac and James Bruchac. illus. by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. Dial.

In this Native American tale, Brown Squirrel asks bragging Bear to stop the sun from rising.

The Hungry Coat: A Tale from Turkey. retold and illus. by Demi. S. & S./Margaret K. McElderry.

Ostracized for wearing an old, smelly coat to a rich friend’s banquet, Nasrettin Hoca returns wearing a fine silk coat and feeds his dinner to it.

Mabela the Clever. retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. illus. by Tim Coffey. Albert Whitman.

In this story from Sierra Leone (with a chantable refrain), Mabela is the only mouse who pays attention when the big orange cat entreats the mice to follow her into the forest.

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale. retold by Carmen Agra Deedy. illus. by Michael Austin. Peachtree.

Grandmother gives Martina advice about finding a husband.

Monkey: A Trickster Tale from India. retold and illus. by Gerald McDermott. HMH.

Monkey climbs on Crocodile’s back to get to the mangoes on a nearby island.

Pandora. Robert Burleigh. illus. by Raúl Colón. Harcourt/Silver Whistle.

Pandora is warned not to open the mysterious jar that Zeus gave to her husband.

“The People Could Fly” in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. retold by Virginia Hamilton. illus. by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Knopf.

In the land of slavery, Sarah and her baby escape the overseer’s whip by flying to Free-dom. See also the picture book version of the story.

“Sody Sallyratus” in Grandfather Tales. retold by Richard Chase. illus. by Berkeley Williams Jr. Houghton Mifflin.

Off to the store to buy some sody sallyratus (baking soda), a little boy, his sister, an old man, and an old woman are eaten by a mean old bear.

“Talk” in The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories. retold by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. Henry Holt.

A farmer, digging up yams in his garden, is flummoxed when a yam speaks to him.

Tasty Baby Belly Buttons: A Japanese Folktale. retold by Judy Sierra. illus. by Meilo So. Knopf.

When the wicked oni kidnap the village babies, Uriko-hime sets out to rescue them.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff. retold by Peter C. Asbjørnsen and J.E. Moe. illus. by Marcia Brown. Harcourt.

Three goat brothers encounter a fierce troll guarding a bridge.

Too Much Noise. Ann McGovern. illus. by Simms Taback. Houghton Mifflin.

A man can’t sleep until he brings all his animals into the house.

Tops & Bottoms. Janet Stevens. illus. by author. Harcourt.

Hare offers to plant and harvest crops for Bear and split the veggies. It seems like a good idea….

Two of Everything: A Chinese Folktale. retold by Lily Toy Hong. illus. by author. Albert Whitman.

Poor old Mr. Haktak is astonished to find that whatever he throws into a pot automatically doubles.

Back to the top.

10 Literary Tales To Tell

“Abasement” from The Weighty Word Book . Paul M. Levitt, et al. illus. by Janet Stevens. Court Wayne.

Because of his incompetence, Benjamin Van Der Bellows is demoted from his 44th-floor office to the basement.

1606-StoryIsKing-SB-capsCaps for Sale. Esphyr Slobodkina. illus. by author. HarperCollins.

“You monkeys, you. Give me back my caps!” demands the peddler.

The Chicken of the Family. Mary Amato. illus. by Delphine Durand. Putnam.

“We have a secret to tell you. You’re a chicken,” Henrietta’s siblings inform her.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. Doreen Cronin. illus. by Betsy Lewin. S & S.

Farmer Brown’s cows demand a typewriter in exchange for their milk.

1606-StoryIsKing-SB-HenryHenry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. Ellen Levine. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Scholastic.

How the enslaved Henry “Box” Brown became known as the man who mailed himself to freedom in 1849.

Mary’s Penny. Tanya Landmann. illus. by Richard Holland. Candlewick.

A farmer’s sons compete to take over his farm, though it’s the smart daughter who proves that brains are better than brawn.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes. Eric Litwin. illus. by James Dean. HarperCollins.

The feline steps in strawberries, blueberries, and mud, each of which turns his new shoes a different color.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story. Cynthia Rylant. illus. by Chris K. Soentpiet. Orchard.

Frankie dreams of getting a toy doctor’s kit as he waits each year for the Christmas Train to appear.

1606-StoryIsKing-SB-SplintersSplinters. Kevin Sylvester. illus. by the author. Tundra.

Made to clean uniforms and tape hockey sticks by Coach Blister (who favors her own two daughters), a poor, aspiring skater, is at last aided by her fairy goaltender.

“The Rainhat” in Once Upon a Time. Judy Freeman. Libraries Unlimited.

A paper-folding story about a little girl who doesn’t have a rain hat.

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Donna O Butler

I'm an experienced teller and librariarn who was fortunate to have benefitted from workshops led by amazing teller Jackie Torrance and librarian Caroline Feller Bauer. These are great tips, but please, librarians and tellers: Work at developing your own style and versions of stories. Be respectful of copyright. Be respectful of a teller's unique style and avoid recording a teller without their permission or approval. Tellers work very hard to develop material, just as writers do. Speaking of writers: Focus on folktales, tellers. They're easier to adapt to your own voice. When telling to older audiences, I occasionally take along a beautifully written picture or chapter book and explain that while I'm a teller, some books are so beautifully written they MUST be read aloud. That way, I don't lose any of the beauty and don't run the risk of missing words or unconsciously changing the plot to suit my own idea of how the book should be written. All that being said, HAVE FUN! Telling stories to children and adults is one of my greatest joys.

Posted : Jun 18, 2016 07:26

Judy Freemaan

Thank you all for your kind words. Excellent tips, Donna. Thanks so much for adding your voice to this. Mind you, this article is a very brief excerpt compiled from Handbooks for Storytellers and Handbook for Storytime Programs which weigh in at 900+ pages together and are jampacked with stories, ideas, and sheer fun. Caroline and Jackie were storytelling treasures, weren't they? I had the great good fortune to have seen them both in action. And Susan--telling stories is the best thing you'll ever do with your kids, I promise. Judy Freeman

Posted : Jun 20, 2016 09:14

Susann Farrell

Thank you so much for this fantastic advice! I've been contemplating taking up storytelling and this has me sold!

Posted : Jun 16, 2016 12:17

Jackie Clark Mancuso

Thank you, Judy, for these terrific ideas.! I’m bookmarking this one.

Posted : Jun 15, 2016 02:31

Roxie Munro

Wow, what a useful, thoughtful, and accessible piece by Judy Freeman. Bookmark or print it out, people!

Posted : Jun 15, 2016 12:31