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).

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!

Potter After Hours

potter after hours at the franklin instituteKatie is once again off on wild adventures. Remember that time she spent a year in Europe? Or how about when she dropped by Antiques Roadshow? This time, Katie journeyed to the Franklin Institute for a veeeeeery special Harry Potter event. Take it away, Katie!


It’s universally understood the Harry Potter series has captured the hearts of children, but adults are just as passionate about Harry and his adventures at Hogwarts. I count myself as one of those adults who is a Harry Potter fanatic, so naturally I leapt at the opportunity to attend Wizard School, an after-hours adult only program held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

katie at the franklin insitute science after hoursThe Franklin Institute is one of the oldest museums in the United States dedicated to science education and research, and it is absolutely one of my favorite places to take my son when we have a free day. Named after Benjamin Franklin, the Franklin Institute has four floors of amazing science exhibitions, a planetarium, IMAX theatre, and even a telescope observatory on the roof.

Science After Hours is a series of events the Franklin Institute holds for adults 21+ and is designed around a specific theme, like Wizard School, with demonstrations, live speakers, music and dancing, activities, a chance to explore the entire museum at night, and…a cash bar.

As soon as I arrived, I snagged a cup of Butter Beer and started wandering through the museum to various activity tables. Wizard’s Chess anyone?

wizarding chess at the franklin instituteIn the Giant Heart exhibit, I tested to see if I was a pure blood by pouring a glass of clear liquid into a second glass of clear liquid. If the mixture turned red, you were a pure blood. If it didn’t, you were a Muggle. The magic is a pH indicator, phenolphthalein, being mixed with water and reacting to sodium carbonate, which is present in the second glass. The sodium carbonate and phenolphthalein react and turn the liquid red. If one glass didn’t have the chemical, the liquid remained clear. My glass turned red – I’m a pure blood witch!

pure blood testing at the franklin instituteI made my way past a very long line of people waiting to make a magical amulet so I could watch part of the Raptores Maximus show. Mike Dupuy, a local falconer and educator, introduced several of his birds of prey. Including Mr. Big Owl, a Eurasian owl who had the most stunning orange eyes.

mike dupuy with mr. big owl franklin instituteNext, I journeyed on to Pepper Hall, where I was greeted by 2 very long lines: 1) Make your own wand; and 2) Visit the Slimy Serpent, Critter, and Creature Magic Supply Shoppe. The Supply Shoppe was a tremendous display of potions ingredients and various critters you may discover as a student at Hogwarts, including snakes, spiders, frogs and even a jar of leeches. But I opted for wand making because I was curious to see how the Franklin Institute would handle a wand craft for well over a thousand people after our experience with our much smaller Wand Works event.

The wand craft was impressively simple, but quite impactful. As you approached the front of the line, you selected a colored light bulb with wire legs (identical to the bulbs we tested in the Circuit Clay kit). You moved forward and were given a small button cell battery and a paper straw that had been cut on one end to provide a slit for the battery to rest. Volunteers demonstrated how to slide the two legs of the bulb onto each side of the battery, illuminating the bulb, and then gave you two pieces of tape to secure the bulb onto the battery and secure the battery into the slit at the top of your straw.

The final step was a wood clothespin, which is where you insert the paper straw. The clothespin is wrapped with more tape to keep the straw from falling out and becomes the handle of the wand. After the wand is complete, there were tables with markers, star stickers and tiny jewels to bedazzle your wand. No two wands were alike!

wand making at the franklin instituteI tried to attend a presentation called The Absolutely True Fake Story of the Philosopher’s Stone. I should have used an Apparition spell to get me to the theater faster because the seats were full by the time I arrived. Not deterred, I walked through Platform 3.14 to see the Hogwarts Express (cleverly disguised as a Baldwin 60000 locomotive engine, which is on permanent display in the Train Factory exhibit).

platform 3.14 at franklin instituteMany of the demonstration tables had student volunteers from nearby colleges, including Drexel University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. The students were enthusiastically full of scientific information – such as the possibility of real-life invisibility cloaks (i.e. lasers and thermal imaging cameras). They were ready to be peppered with questions from everyone. Including Voldemort.

voldemort at the franklin instituteThe OwlCapella group from Temple University was serenading those in the ticketing atrium who had paused to rest their feet or have a snack, and I got a good laugh when I noticed Harry Potter conducting, unbeknownst to the choir. Total Potterbomb.

owlcappella at franklin instituteThe grand finale was held in the Franklin Memorial Hall, in front of a giant statue of Benjamin Franklin. Everyone was asked to raise their newly made wands and chant the Incendio spell. The result was a mighty green fireball explosion, courtesy of about a dozen large balloons filled with hydrogen. Very cool.


And just in case you’re wondering, Dr. Dana has ignited giant fireballs in the name of wizardry as well. You’ll find that here.

Wizard School was so popular, the Franklin Institute added a second date at the end of November! Dr. Dana and I are eagerly awaiting the Science After Hours schedule for 2019 with hopes there will be another literary related evening for us to enjoy. Stay tuned!