Magical Moving Stories

tara mcgowanDecember 7th was World Kamishibai Day, and we were honored to invite the amazing Dr. Tara McGowan for a special international story time at our library! While I have performed kamishibai in elementary school classrooms (and blogged about it extensively here) I am no match for the sheer talent of Tara – bilingual kamishibai historian, scholar, and artist extraordinaire!

tara performsIf you don’t have time to jump over my kamishibai post, I’ll quickly summarize: Kamishibai (pronounced kah-me-she-bye) is a form of Japanese storytelling that involves illustrated story cards and a small, portable stage (you can also perform without the stage). While telling the tale, you pull the cards out of the side of the stage to make the story progress.

It’s colorful, dynamic, simple, and absolutely intended to be enjoyed by an audience. And the art on the cards! Wow! Here is one from The One-Inch Boy:

The One Inch Boy illustrated by Hisao Suzuki

Issun-boshi (The One Inch Boy). Written by Joji Tsubota, illustrated by Hisao Suzuki

Tara began her story time with a little history. She brought a copy of Allen Say’s book, Kamishibai Man (which Tara wrote the afterword for by the way!) and talked briefly about the evolution of this art form. Then, with a little audience help, she launched into her performance, which consisted of four short kamishibai stories.

tara performs montageIt’s difficult to capture the liveliness of a kamishibai performance with photos (and I didn’t want to be obtrusive and shoot a video). But Tara is a MASTER storyteller. Seamlessly mixing Japanese and English, she uses her voice in an incredibly lively way, both to narrate and express sound and motion. She varies the way she pulls to cards to build suspense or depict action, and is in constant communication with her audience.

The story time kids also made tachi-e puppets (you’ll find the instructions here).

lantern ghostAfter story time, I caught up with Tara to chat about her work, and the art of kamishibai:


How long have you been performing kamishibai?

Since 2000, so almost 2 decades now.

Can you tell us a little about its history?

The kind of kamishibai commonly performed today was first introduced to the streets of Japan in 1929. The first street kamishibai of this type were based on films because silent films in Japan almost always had a movie narrator standing next to the screen, providing an oral soundtrack. These movie narrators, known as benshi, were enormously popular, so kamishibai storytellers on the streets tried to emulate their vocal style, while moving the pictures in the stage in tandem with their telling. When sound came to film, many former benshi are said to have turned to kamishibai instead. The puppet style of kamishibai, called tachi-e (standing pictures), began much earlier in the 19th century, inspired by magic-lantern shows. Both kinds of kamishibai were used to sell candy or other treats on the street corners, especially in urban areas.

What do you like about kamishibai storytelling versus other kinds of storytelling?

I started out performing oral storytelling, without props, and I still like oral storytelling best for interacting with an audience and being able to tell more emotionally complex tales. As a performer, I experience the two forms very differently. With oral storytelling, the audience sees their own version of what the storyteller is evoking with his or her words and gestures, but, with kamishibai, the storyteller’s role is to bring the images on the cards to life. The interaction with the audience is less direct because the storyteller and the audience are all focused on the movement of the cards.

When kamishibai illustrations are designed well, they can work magic! But, just like with picture books, there are many poorly designed kamishibai out there. As a visual artist, I find designing my own kamishibai stories to be an ever-stimulating challenge, and it’s great to get immediate feedback from a live audience to know what is working or what needs changing. I also really enjoy working with people of all ages to create and perform their own kamishibai.

You’ve done scores of kamishibai workshops with kids and teens. What’s your experience working with them on their stories?

The most remarkable experiences I have had with teaching students to create and perform their own kamishibai is to see how it can bring even extremely shy kids out of their shell. When someone has spent a great deal of time creating and illustrating a story, they want to share it, and this becomes a strong motivation for overcoming stage fright. Also, because the cards are the focus of attention, the performer can take more of a backseat position. It is up to them whether they want to draw the audiences’ focus to themselves or keep it focused on the cards, and learning to direct audiences in this way is very empowering for young people and also a great skill to have!

You’re bilingual, and have traveled to Japan for both research and performances. What, in your experience, are some differences between kamishibai in Japan, and kamishibai in America?

One of the main differences I see is that many people in Japan have associations with kamishibai based on its sometimes troubling historical role, first as a street-performance art and then as a powerful tool for war propaganda during World War II. People outside Japan tend to romanticize the street-performance artists, but actually, they were not viewed at all favorably by many parents and educators at the time. The stories were considered violent and sensationalistic, much like video games today.

Kamishibai performers in Japan today continue to feel pressure to elevate the format and distance it from the negative aspects of its past. Since the war, the few publishers who still sell kamishibai tend to choose shorter and shorter stories for very young audiences, so kamishibai is increasingly viewed by people in Japan as a simple format only for small children. Of course, there are also many kamishibai performers in Japan who are trying to change people’s attitudes toward the format and forge new directions for the medium. Among tezukuri, or “hand-made,” kamishibai performers, you see stories of all genres and for all ages.

Outside Japan, performers don’t have negative associations, based on kamishibai’s past, but they do bring to the format their own cultural traditions. In Mexico, I saw many flamboyantly decorated stages, which I have never seen in Japan, and in Slovenia, I saw kamishibai used as a medium to perform songs and poetry. This is also something I have not seen as much in Japan.

Do you have a favorite kamishibai story?

I have many favorites, but, if I had to pick one, I think it would be “Nya-on, the Kitten,” illustrated by my dear friend Kyoko Watanabe. It is a simple story, but the sophistication of her design never ceases to amaze me. She is able to express changes in point-of-view visually by showing each scene from a carefully chosen camera angle, and the transitions from one card to the next are so clever. I use this story often, even with teenagers, to teach point-of-view in storytelling and how it can be expressed visually.


If you are interested in learning more about kamishibai, and possibly bringing it into your own classroom or library, Tara has written a book about this very subject (see below). It’s definitely worth checking out!

kamishibai classroom

Used with permission of the author (Libraries Unlimited, 2010).

Historical Hairdos

historic hairdosVC Salon, you are amazing. Last week, 5 stylists donated their time and significant skills to give 6 girls totally historic makeovers. And we don’t mean “historic” as in slang for “awesome” (even though the results were awesome). We mean historic as let’s-go-back-in-history-and-do-a-Marie-Antoinette-updo historic.

Located in Robbinsville, New Jersey, VC Salon & Spa was founded in 1995 by Angela Pantaleon. A quick peek at the salon’s about us page confirms the dedication, playfulness and fun they bring to their workplace. Also, look how gorgeous it is!

vc salon and spa 1vc salon and spa 2vc salon and spa 3The collaboration was lead by stylist Delia Salguero. We provided her with the models and pages of historic photos, and Delia recruited the stylists. The stylists then selected the model, the hairdo, and also put together costumes and accessories for the photo shoot.

vc salon and spa 4The models were volunteers Cotsen Critix, our children’s literary society. You might recognize one of the faces below. Yes, that’s Hope, our blog’s teen tester and Cotsen Critix alumna!

modelsAlong with the costumes and the hair came makeup, including one wicked pair of fake eyelashes. So…are you ready to see some historic makeovers?


model 1

Hair: Jennifer Bossert Graziani
Makeup: Delia Salguero


model 2model 2 side

Hair: Bailey O’Brien


model 3

Hair: Tatiana Rivadeneira
Makeup: Tatiana Rivadeneira


model 4model 4 back

Hair: Brenna Roth
Makeup: Tatiana Rivadeneira


model 5

Hair: Tatiana Rivadeneira
Makeup: Delia Salguero


model 6 side

Hair: Delia Salguero
Makeup: Delia Salguero


Many thanks to VC Salon for hosting historic hairdos! A big round of applause to stylists Jennifer Bossert Graziani, Bailey O’Brien, Tatiana Rivadeneira, Brenna Roth, and Delia Salguero for sharing your talent with us. Thank you to our models, who patiently sat in chairs, got fogged with hairspray, and in some cases wore eye makeup for the first time, all in the name of style. Finally, much appreciation and gratitude to Delia Salguero for coordinating the event.

delia and the girls

Delia and the girls. You rock!

History Outdoes Itself

1 new-york historical society lipman children's history library Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce the Barbara K Lipman Children’s History Library? This gorgeous gem is adjacent to the stunning DiMenna Children’s History Museum, which in turn is located inside the amazing New-York Historical Society, Central Park West.

While the New-York Historical Society was established in 1804, the Children’s Museum is a more recent edition, springing to life in 2011. The museum and the library have a packed programming schedule, from historical book clubs to living history days. They’ve also recently introduced a new initiative, History Detective Briefcases. It’s incredibly clever. I’ll circle back to it at the end of this post. But for now…on to the children’s library!

I always head straight for the books, and these shelves do not disappoint. To the left as you enter the library are multiple stories of bookshelves filled with historical fiction and non-fiction picture books and chapter books. The curved benches not only serve as handy reading desks, they also act as risers for school group visits.

2 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryNotice the colorful books on the uppermost shelves? Those are old books that have been painted! So the easily-reachable lower shelves contain the books for kids to browse. But the painted books fill out the upper shelves, looking beautiful and colorful.

3 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryThe history library doesn’t just contain books, however. Multiple exhibit cases are built into the shelves and tables in unique ways. For example, see the “Amazing Atlas” case below?

4 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryThere’s another case hidden behind it, displaying a curved panorama of period ships!

5 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryAnother exhibit clever case? Check out the library ladder in the photo below.

1 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryThe ladder holds 4 cases, each displaying artifacts related to reading and writing. By the way, the case next to ladder contains the original mold for the famous Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.

6 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryAlso, did you notice the NYC skyline soaring above the shelves in the library? That’s the actual north-south-east-west skyline you see from the roof of the New-York Historical Society building. A photographer shot the views from the roof, and then the exhibit fabricators transported them to the library walls.

7 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryAnd now, my favorite exhibit case, which is masquerading as a card catalog:

8 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryPull open the drawers to view multiple exhibit cases. Notice the exhibit label you can just see in the lower right hand corner? Yup, it’s modeled after an old catalog card. I love it!

9 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryThe cases are marvelous, but I also want to give a big nod to the artifacts in the cases. Book-making tools, period paper dolls, detailed model ships, colorful illustrated books – these are actual collections items carefully selected and displayed for the youngest patrons.

10 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryIn the beginning of the post, I mentioned the New-York Historical Society’s new History Detective Briefcases. So very, very cool. They’re currently part of a new educational initiative on the building’s 4th floor.

11 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryThese handsome little cases are filled with activity cards, tools, and art supplies. There are several types to choose from. Here’s just one of them:

12 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryTucked across the very back of each briefcase are activity cards matching the 4th floor exhibits. Grab a case, read the cards, and use the contents of the case to explore and learn more about the exhibits. HOW FANTASTIC IS THIS???

13 new-york historical society lipman children's history libraryIf you haven’t been to the New-York Historical Society, please head there posthaste. It’s beautiful, and the exhibits are fantastic. Additionally (and for me, most importantly) kids are warmly welcomed to learn from, and engage with, the exhibits. History, for everyone!


Thank you to Alice Stevenson, Director of the DiMenna Children’s History Museum, for allowing us to visit your amazing space!