Stories, stories everywhere

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Nursery rhymes, fables, fairy tales, legends, folk tales, jokes, yarns, tall tales. These are types of stories people love to tell. Perhaps a storyteller has come to your school or library, just the way traveling bards, minstrels, or troubadours used to journey from town to town telling stories or singing songs.

Do you still hear stories at bedtime? Have your parents ever told you about things that happened when they were kids? Every culture has its stories and storytellers. For thousands of years, stories have taught children values, traditions, and history. (Or just lulled them to sleep!)

Sometimes a person telling a story uses a puppet, a picture, or some other prop. In fact, humans have figured out all kinds of ways to tell stories. And when you think about it, there are stories being told or waiting to be heard all around you, every day.

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Let's look at some of the ways stories are told.

Cave paintings, to columns, to comic books

More than 20,000 years ago, people living in France drew pictures of animals on the walls of caves. The pictures are still there today. We can only guess what they mean, but some people think the drawings were used to tell stories.

Each drawing might be an important point in the story, they say, to help storyteller and listeners remember and imagine what happened next.

Trajan was a Roman general and emperor who began his reign 1,000 years ago, AD 98. He ruled for 19 years. Many of his accomplishments are recorded in pictures carved on a 100-foot-high marble column that still stands in Rome. Pictures spiral all the way up the column showing Trajan talking with soldiers and directing his subjects. The images tell the story of two wars.

The Hmong people of Vietnam and Laos have created beautiful embroidery for 2,000 years. About 20 years ago they started making "storycloths." Stitched scenes show daily life, festivals, or big events - like the time a tiger walked into the village!

Comic books use lots of pictures, too. The first American comic book appeared in 1934. It wasn't a story at all, just a collection of comic strips that had run in newspapers. In 1938, Superman became the first comic-book hero.

Writing: the first recording technology

From children's books with few words and many pictures to long novels with no pictures at all, books have told stories ever since writing first appeared in Egypt and Mesopotamia about 5,500 years ago. The simplest form of writing, ideographs, are pictures that tell stories, in a way. A stylized drawing of a person might mean "human," and a smiling face mean "happy."

Written words recorded stories. But since authors weren't there to perform the stories, they had to describe them so clearly that readers could "see" their own pictures of what happened. A written story could also include feelings and thoughts that you might not be able to see in a picture.

Did the Greeks really sing their plays?

Another way to tell a story is to act it out. In a play, people tell the story with their actions and words. It can be difficult to show some events on a stage, such as men on horseback or an erupting volcano. That's why big events in plays sometimes happen offstage and actors just tell the audience what happened.

It's easier to show such things as wild animals or forest fires in a movie. Special effects can make even magical or impossible things look real. It's even easier to do this in a cartoon or animated film, where anything can happen!

Plays and movies sometimes add music to help tell the story. The music plays a small but important role. Sometimes, music alone can tell a story.

You probably know the song about the "Itsy Bitsy Spider" who climbed up the water spout. Many other popular songs tell stories about falling in love or breaking up with someone.

Opera is an elaborate way to tell a story with music. The first operas were performed in Florence, Italy, in the 1590s. A group of noblemen, poets, and musicians got interested in the plays of ancient Greece. They were convinced that the Greeks had sung their plays. The Florentines called their re-creations of Greek plays opera in musica (musical work). Opera was born.

Music can also tell a story without words. "Peter and the Wolf," by Sergei Prokofiev, is called a "symphonic fairy tale" because it tells a fairy tale through music (though there's a narrator telling the story as well). The music makes you feel the story's events and moods.

Bedrich Smetana wrote a "symphonic poem" in 1874 about a river. Called "The Moldau," the music conveys the feeling of traveling along the European river and expresses the composer's feelings about it and the countryside. In music like this, no words are used at all, but you can still experience changing emotions and imagine different events.

Dance also tells stories. Many native American dances tell stories about hunting, nature, or the lives of tribespeople. In the Kiowa jingle dance, women wear dresses covered with jingles to tell the story of a girl whose father makes her a dress covered with jingles.

And don't forget ballet. Some of our most familiar ballets come from the fairy tales of different cultures. "Swan Lake" (1895) tells the story of a woman who is turned into a swan. The dancers must move like swans on the stage as they tell the story. Movement and music convey emotions and events.

Can you think of other ways we tell stories? Did I leave any out?

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