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 (which I will blog about Friday, promise!).

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).

Lion-Hearted Hero

lion hearted heroWhen a sneaky burglar strikes, it’s up to you and your lion companion to save the day! We made these simple oatmeal container lions, and then caught a story time crook.

We read How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens (Henry Holt, 2012). When a lion strolls into town to purchase a hat, the townspeople are less then pleased. Fortunately, a little girl named Iris isn’t afraid of the lion, and correctly recognizes him as a well-mannered friend. Hiding the lion, however, is a little difficult. And mom is VERY upset to discover him in the house. Hiding in town once more, the lion discovers and thwarts a robbery in progress. This act wins over everyone…except Iris, who already knew how fantastic her lion friend is!

You’ll need:

  • 1 large oatmeal container
  • Construction paper
  • 1 cone party hat
  • Scissors and tape/glue for construction
  • Markers for decorating
  • Hot glue

lion

We used construction paper and a large oatmeal container to create your lion. It’s easiest to use hot glue to attach the bottom legs, mane, tail, and eyes to the container. Tape and/or glue works for everything else! You can use black construction paper for the nose, or a bit of self-adhesive foam like we did. Draw the eyes with markers, or use wiggle eyes.

I set my phone to sound an alarm close to when the kids were finishing their lions. Then I announced that the library had just sent out an alert – a burglar was on the premises! The kids and their lions headed out to the library’s lobby, where Miss Melinda was hiding, dressed in black pants, jacket, and ski mask. She also had a big pillow case with a “$” on it. As Miss Melinda made a break for it across the lobby, the kids gave chase…

chasing miss melinda Eventually, she was cornered and tagged repeatedly by oatmeal container lions. Which, admittedly, was a first for her!

miss melinda and the lionsAfter the triumphant capture of the burglar, the kids returned to the program area to make hats for their lions (which is the reward he asks for in the book). These were cone party hats, cut down to 5″. The kids decorated them with stickers and a duck quill. Very snazzy.

lion hat

Rangers at the Ready

rangers at the ready

Bust out your compass and conjure up some snaplights! The Blue Ranger Patrol is prepared for all eventualities…including the supernatural ones. Those handsome Squirrel badges and neckerchiefs were earned at To Be Continued, our chapter book story time for 6-8 year-olds.

We read Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire by John August (Roaring Brook Press, 2018). After moving from place to place, Arlo Finch, his big sister Jaycee, and their mom have landed in Pine Mountain, Colorado. Pine Mountain is remote, the cabin is creepy, and Arlo’s Uncle Wade is even creepier. Also, something is wrong with the surrounding woods, beginning with the ghost dog that prowls the property. Arlo joins the Rangers, which is not unlike Boy/Girl Scouts until you factor in the seemingly supernatural abilities of his fellow patrol members. As time passes, Arlo and his friends learn not only the secrets of the Long Woods – they also learn its many dangers.

Arlo and his fellow Rangers have some memorable camp outs, so we decided to replicate that by setting up a tent (which you might recognize from this story time) in our gallery…

patrol in tentAfter “night fell” (i.e. I turned off all the overhead lights), individual campers journeyed to our gallery tree for a survival quiz. I queried them about 3 scenarios involving creatures from the book. You definitely have to read the books to know the answers (which are in bold below):

1) You’re camping with your patrol and see some dancing lights in the woods. Do you: a) Follow them; b) Take a photo; c) Tell your patrol leader you see something unusual?

2) A nightmare had just emerged from the woods in front of you! Do you: a) Run – they aren’t very fast; b) Throw salt at it; c) Conjure a snaplight.

3) A hag is chasing you through the Long Woods! Do you: a) Throw salt at her; b) Climb a tree; c) Throw Faerie beetles at her.

After correctly answering the quiz, campers were asked to demonstrate a “snaplight,” which is a short-lasting light Rangers can produce by snapping their fingers in the Long Woods. In our case, the snaplights were glow sticks, which do produce a very satisfying snap! before beginning to glow.

snaplightThe final activity was making a water compass using a sewing needle, a button magnet, and a bowl of water. I demonstrated how to do it, and then gave each kid a little kit to try at home (here are the instructions if you’re interested).

demo of water compassIn the book, Rangers earn patches for each level of accomplishment, and Squirrel is the first level. So, after completing the creature quiz, snaplight trial, and learning about compasses, campers were awarded a blue neckerchief (purchased for $2 each in the t-shirt decorating section of Michaels Craft store) and a a Squirrel patch (you can print your own set here):

squirrel patchArlo Finch in the Valley of Fire was massively popular with the kids in our program – it’s scary, suspenseful, and also very funny. I was delighted to learn that the sequel, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon will be released February 2019. YES!