The Sheer Magic of “Once Upon a Time. . .”

- by Elaine Isaak

I spent the past week camping out with a youth group, having a good time, but it was not until the last night of the trip that I revealed to them my SuperPower.  If you are reading this blog, chances are, it is a power that we share:  the magic of storytelling.

We’d been expecting rain all week, but the last night, it finally struck, so we returned to camp, faced with the choice of staying on the increasingly dark bus, or splitting up to return to our little tents, and one of the students asked me to tell a story.  (preferably a horror story, these being teenagers in the woods, in the dark. . .)

Earlier in the day, they had suddenly (and at last) taken an interest in the fact that, aside from being part-time Adventure Staff, I also write fantasy novels.  They were chatting about a book most of them had read, and I offered my critique of it, so they wanted to know about my books.  Before I knew it, I had six teens hanging on my every word.  “But–what happened next?”  They waved away our leader when it was time for one of them to climb the crag because she wanted to know, too.

I was captivated by those eager faces–kids who had been cynical, snide, catty, cliqueish (as well as helpful, friendly, inquisitive, in that unique blend that makes teens so much fun) hunkered down side by side, in a way that would have looked familiar to the natives who used to walk these forests a few centuries ago, or to the first humans who painted the story of their hunt on the wall of a cave.  We were mutually snared by the power of story.

I’ve studied the art of oral storytelling as well as writing books, and even once won the novice division of a bardic competition run by the local Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation group.  Horror is not my specialty, but I managed to convert a recently published short story into a very effective spooky tale, which prompted our leader to wish he’d known about the tale in advance, so he could prepare a practical joke to freak out, er, *amuse* the kids even more.  This lead to a request for more, and I pulled out some folktales I used to tell–after insisting that someone needed to fill my water bottle, and someone leapt up to do so.  There’s nothing that renews a storytellers spirit like the enthusiasm of a new audience.

When we returned to the pick-up spot to wait for parents, hanging around, getting bored, I remembered my superpower.  I sat down in front of them–five kids left, all looking different directions and moaning–and said the magic words, “Once upon a time. . .”  Their eyes grew large, their voices hushed, and we travelled together to a different time.


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