Guest Interview: April Nicolle on Oral Storytelling


4Mothers is delighted to present the following interview with April Nicolle as our guest for this week’s topic of Bedtime Stories. April is the Storyteller in Residence at a Toronto District School Board school where she tells stories to children from kindergarten to Grade 8 as part of their curriculum. She also is a storyteller at Evergreen Brick Works where she shares stories of the history and adventures found in the Don Valley. April can be heard at various other locations throughout the city, including many of the local libraries and other schools including the Waldorf Academy. April is an executive member of Storytellers for Children.


What inspired you to become a storyteller?

My sister Heather was a puppeteer and a Waldorf teacher, and oral storytelling is an important component of Waldorf education. I’d attend storytelling events with my sister and was an active listener for ten years before telling stories myself – I had a baby so had more reasons than ever to start.

What were your favourite stories as a child?

My grandfather was Irish, and I’d have to say that the Irish folktales are probably my favourite.  I always believed that little people existed; they are so magical and mystical, especially as they lived in the wild.

Do you have a favourite stories now?

I’m rediscovering the Brothers Grimm stories.  They are fascinating, and as my daughter gets older, they’re helping us on the journey from childhood to adulthood – for my daughter travelling that journey, and me as a parent to that transformation.  Through the stories, we can talk and acknowledge the challenges, which are not necessarily bad, but they are there.

Usually I tell these stories rather than read them (although I do read to my daughter also).  I’m actually in the process of writing modernized versions of the Grimm stories for adults, and share them through festivals, Toronto Public Library programs, and different seasonal programs.

What are the differences between storytelling and reading stories, and why is storytelling important?

With a written story, it’s only told with one voice – the author’s voice.  You can bring in more elements to an oral story, including things from your own life so there is more scope for personal participation.  Oral storytelling connects directly to everyone’s imagination and a whole inner world of dreaming and understanding.

I’m also doing research on lost and forgotten stories, and you can take pieces from different storytellers and create a story from that.  Oral storytelling can open up and address the omissions in written stories, so that a girl can be the hero not always the princess who is saved.

Storytelling can tell the stories that publishers don’t publish, the stories that have been overlooked or excluded.  There are so many fables that haven’t been shared.  For example, Leonardo da Vinci had his own collection of fables – in his time period he was known first as storyteller before an inventor or painter.  Then there are the fables of Eastern cultures and animal stories found in Aboriginal cultures, which are easy for children to understand and adults to relate to.  Shorter stories are easier to start with and you can expand from there.

Culturally, we don’t take the time to sit and listen to stories.  I’ve been teaching for almost 10 years at the Centre for Indigenous Theatre, an Aboriginal post-secondary arts school – I teach technical theatre and stage combat there.  I can sit and listen to the students and Elders tell stories in their languages.  As a listener I can still understand the story through gesture and facial expressions, and I am happy to take away from the story what I can.  An oral story can be told to an audience different ages and based on their different life experiences, people will take away different things.

Has telling stories changed for you over time?

Yes, very much so.  I started telling more traditional children’s stories, lap rhymes, and finger plays.  When I became involved with opening a school focused on holistic education, the value of oral tradition was recognized.  The teachers brought forth their curriculum and I would create a complementary oral storytelling component and help deliver it.  Through workshops and observing me, many of the teachers now tell stories themselves in the classroom.

What advice do you have to adults who would like to try oral storytelling?

Go for the familiar.  Look around the room.  If you’re lying in bed at night, maybe the story starts with, “There was a boy named [your son’s name] and he looked out of the window and saw stars. He decided to take a trip on one…”  Then go from there.  Ask your child to help you – they love to participate.  As parents, we tell stories all the time. It’s not as foreign or as separate as we make it.

What advice do you have to children who would like to try oral storytelling?

They don’t need advice – they know how to do it.  Just expose them to as many stories,  in written or in oral form,   as possible.

Where can I learn more about oral storytelling? - hosts Friday night storytelling every fourth Friday of the month at Pegasus Studios – everyone in the circle gets to tell a story.  The next one is on November 28th.

* The Great Big Afternoon of Storytelling at Riverdale Farm - Saturday June 6th, 2015.

* Three Wishes Festival Toronto – June 12-13, 2015 – offers family workshops and lots of storytelling events. - A storytelling school in Toronto that run workshops for storytellers and hosts the largest two week storytelling festival in Canada - March 20-29th, 2015.

* Open Door at St. David’s and Mosaic Storytelling Festival – a storytelling festival held in the winter months at St. David’s in the east end of Toronto

* Parent-Child Mother Goose – runs good programs in west end Toronto

Sally Jaeger programs

* And check out your local library for special storytelling events

Loving Bedtime Stories (or Maybe Something Else)


I’m a diehard for bedtime stories.  It’s a rare night when they’re missed in our house, and that’s usually because we’re coming home really late from some outside adventure, and kids are either asleep or so tired they might as well be.  I’ll fight for this window of storytime against competing needs, and I’m not the only one.  My boys are mystified if something interferes with their stories, and I’ve discovered that even if it really isn’t the right time for a bedtime story, it’s often the path of least resistance to sleep to just read a quick one – just scratch the itch – and then settle everyone into bed.

It’s nice to now that bedtime stories are supposedly good for children in many ways, but I can tell you that the ritual at our house is based on pleasure – mine as much as the boys.  I have three very energetic sons, but they settle quietly right into me during storytime in bed and listen to all kinds of stories, even when the boys are quite a distance for the target audience (our age ranges from 3 to 8).  I love it.

Reading up on bedtime stories for this week’s conversation here at 4Mothers, I felt like I should have been really enthusiastic that our nighttime reading ritual is so highly touted by the experts as producing smarter, more intuitive, more attached, more imaginative children.  Maybe it’s my mood, and maybe I’m prickly, but it kind of got my back up.  It somehow struck me as another might-as-well-be-mandatory requirement of parents, one of those tangible ways we can prove how good we are at parenting, and we do.

But there are so many kinds of parents out there, and so many kinds of parenting.  In university I volunteered with an organization that tutored adults who couldn’t read and write well for any number of reasons – learning disabilities, falling through the cracks at school, surviving much bigger life issues than literacy.  I remember one student was a tall, good-looking musician whose young son was reading better than he could, and the father sought literacy tutoring in hopes of sharing more of his son’s life.  Improving literacy skills as an adult is usually a long process that takes a lot of dedicated time, and I don’t know how far this student got; it’s quite likely that he wouldn’t have been able to match pace with the learning of a young child for whom reading comes easily.

That father may not be reading bedtime stories to his child but I think there’s every chance he’s an ace father.  I just feel like giving a shout-out to him and other parents who don’t read their kids bedtime stories (even if they are literate to the nines), in case they’re feeling down about it.  Because maybe you do other things instead.  Maybe you run with them everyday instead, or drive two hours on the weekend to make sure they know their grandparents.  Maybe you have a long fuse, or you’ve got a short fuse but you’re working on it.  Maybe you have a quiet understanding with your child that she is loved completely.

Books and bedtime are so amazing – I love them so much.  I just want to make sure that love isn’t pushing anyone else around, because it’s a big, beautiful world out there, and books are just one part of it.

Bedtime Stories: Glorious for all of 2 minutes . . .and then the fighting starts.

photo (54)I remember being pregnant with my first son. I was sure of a lot of things. I was sure that I would never let him sleep in my bed, bribe him to be on his best behaviour or lose my cool during a temper tantrum.

I was also steadfast in my belief that I would read to my children every night. I had visions of us curled on the bed, propped up with pillows and covered in a fluffy duvet. The boys would lull off to sleep with visions of Peter, Tinkerbell and Captain Hook as I would sneak out of the room and head downstairs, settle into my favourite chair with a cup of hot chocolate and my novel of the moment.

And since then I have eaten more than my fair share of humble pie while buying another package of Sponge Bob Band-Aids just to escape the drugstore with a few less tears.

I was pregnant with my second son when my first son turned 6 months old. I battled through first trimester exhaustion all while getting up at least once a night to feed. The bedtime ritual was simple: try to stay awake long enough to put the baby down in his crib.

My second son was a screamer. He cried all day long but really turned it on between 7 and 9 in the evening. Every night he would bawl; his face mottled and his voice hoarse. We tried everything that every book, website and expert recommended. Eventually we resorted to laying him in his crib and blasting Andrea Bocelli from a disc player. These were desperate times. As baby #2 grew hysterical, baby #1 was cranky, tired, and pulling at my leg. The bedtime ritual wasn’t so simple: bath, change, bottle and bed all with one hand, and wailing in my ear.

Eventually the crying stopped, I developed a bad case of amnesia and got pregnant for a third time, with my third son.

Baby #1 was now three years old (and still waking up in the night), Baby #2 was 2 years old (and had mercifully reserved his crying periods to other times of the day) and I would start counting down to bedtime around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, compulsively checking the time. By 7:30 the bedtime ritual began: I would push them into bed with a kiss on the cheek, only to collapse onto the couch with a sigh. I had made it through another day.

I know the benefits of reading to children. And I do. But not at bedtime. None of us do well at the end of the day. When I try to read a bedtime story everything is glorious for all of about 2 minutes and then it starts: jockeying for position closest to me, complaints over the story choice, whining over whose turn it is to choose the book, someone’s breathing on someone, someone’s touching someone, someone’s foot is fidgeting. Nerves are shot, tensions are high and the tears start.

Instead we read on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for swimming lessons to start or the doctor to call our name. I keep the novel, currently Stuart Little, in my over-sized purse (also something I was never going to do as mom) to pull out at those ordinary times transforming them into those special, unplanned moments that really make up motherhood.

Bedtime Stories Are My Abiding Delight

I am a big believer in making time, and lots of it, for books before bed.  My family was even interviewed about it once by Andrea Gordon at the Toronto Star.

Four years later, and the boys are bigger and, significantly, they play a lot more hockey.  All three boys play competitive hockey, and we make 10-12 trips to the rink a week.  This is a good thing, mostly, and I’m a little bit proud and a lot relieved to be raising kids who are so eager to be fit and healthy and active.  (Not my DNA.)  However, hockey eats into time for all kinds of things: playdates, family dinners, unstructured time, and, yes, bedtime stories.

Time is never found, it’s made, and I make time for bedtime reading whenever it’s remotely possible, which is still usually four times a week of an hour of reading aloud before bed.  I am a stickler for bedtimes, because some of us are quite cranky if we don’t get a full night’s sleep, even if some of us are in our forties.  But if I can squeeze in a chapter before Youngest’s bedtime, I will always go the extra mile to do so.  I’m now reading aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and it’s all Harry Potter all the time.  After Youngest pops off to bed, Middlest reads by himself, sometimes curled up with me and my book, and sometimes for up to two hours before it’s time for his lights out.  (Definitely my DNA.)  It’s a magical time.  I am so profoundly grateful for it.

endgameEldest does not read with predictable regularity any more, though, and that saddens me.  He is at the rink most often, and he comes home late.  He will occasionally get immersed in a series, but it’s not a dependable thing.  I recently heard an interview that impressed me so much, I went out and bought the book for him.  (Seriously, go listen to this interview: James Frey being interviewed by a boy named Joshua for The Guardian.  It’s not often I am more impressed by the interviewer than the interviewee, but this kid is sharp.)  Anyway, I learned from this interview that James Frey’s new YA novel The Calling, the first in the Endgame trilogy, has a puzzle built into it, and the first person to solve the puzzle has a chance to win $500,000 of James Frey’s own dollars, currently sitting in a vault in Las Vegas in gold bars.  “This will get his attention,” I thought.  I’m glad to say that while it did get his attention, and while he did find my enthusiasm about the interview infectious, he did not make a huge effort to read the book quickly to solve the puzzle to win the gold.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m glad that money was not sufficient enticement.  I have a quiet faith that one day, when there is somewhat less hockey (and soccer and basketball and swimming) on his schedule, Eldest will make his way back to daily and lengthy engagements with a book.  Reading is my abiding delight, and I do so want them to have that kind of pleasure in their daily lives.

Talking About Bedtime Stories


Given that November on 4Mothers revolves loosely around the theme of sleep, it was  easy for us to decide upon a theme for this week – we’ll all be writing about bedtime stories.

Do you engage in this nighttime ritual?  Proponents can’t say enough about the benefits of bedtime stories, but not everyone does it.  Parents and children reading together at the close of day has a special place in many hearts, although it’s so easy to imagine other beautiful nighttime practices – I remember feeling breathless when Judy Collins lovingly recounted at a Unique Lives event that when she was a girl, her father would sing her to sleep every night.

So what is the magic of bedtime stories?  Is it the togetherness or the stories or the brainy-ness or just the do-ableness of it?  Do you do something altogether different that works better for your family?

Were you read to as a child, and do you read to your children now?  What are your favourite bedtime reads, when you were young, and now that you’re not so young anymore?  This and more this week at 4Mothers.  Stay tuned.

What We’re Reading

From Beth-Anne

Everything is Perfect When You're a Liar_Oxford

Everything’s Perfect When You’re a Liar by Kelly Oxford

It’s true, right? Everything is perfect when you lie. Or post to Facebook. Kelly Oxford and I are of the same vintage, both of us grew up in suburbia, and both of us now have little kids. She’s a tad inappropriate and her humor may be offensive to some and me, well, I kinda like that. Probably because that’s the not like me at all. I laughed at Kelly’s stories from childhood, and cringed at times when she gave TMI but what’s appealing is that she’s honest. She lays it out for everyone to dissect, criticize and judge and that takes a lot of chutzpah. More than I will ever have.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This novel originally published in 1943 has cemented a spot on my “favourite books of all-time” list. It’s got everything that tickles my fancy: it’s set in the early 1900s in the tenements of New York City, the idea of the American Dream is alive and well, a story about coming of age, the characters are flawed but loveable, the family is both dysfunctional and relatable at the same time, and the writing is descriptive but not overly so – just enough to keep that “movie” playing in your head.


Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert

I didn’t actually read this book, I listened to it on my walks to and from the school when I drop –off and pick-up the boys. I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love and knowing that this was an entirely different “story”; I still went for it because even though some people find Elizabeth Gilbert’s introspection obnoxious and annoying, I like it. I wish that I had more of her courage (impulsivity?), her capacity to love (insecurity?) and her sense of adventure (immaturity?). Committed is about the long, and often arduous months leading up to her marriage to Felipe, a man she met while on a spiritual journey to Indonesia who is Brazilian-born but of Australian citizenship. Let’s just say that getting to the alter was much more difficult than settling on a dress and booking a DJ. And in true Elizabeth Gilbert form, she has to hyper-analyze every aspect of her impending marriage, her self and her destructive flaws.

From Nathalie

imagesIC9Z2J8OHow to Be Both

Ali Smith

So, so, sosososo good.  I heard Ali Smith read from this book in a Guardian books podcast.  I heard her read from the book, and I knew I had to have it, and I heard her reading it to me in my head and I was utterly smitten.

How to Be Both is a story in two parts: one contemporary, one set 400 years ago in Italy; one about grief and loss, and one about art; one about a girl and one about a boy.  Except that these are not the tidy divisions we may think they are, and the two parts bleed into one another in so many intricate ways that I felt fireworks going off inside my head.  Interestingly, the print run of this book was done in two versions: you might get the version that has the contemporary story first, or you might get the version that has the Renaissance story first.  It’s a book that plays with how to be both.

It is my turn to host my book club this month, and the host chooses the book.  I desperately wanted to pick this one, because it would be so fascinating to have a group discussion about what difference it makes what order you read the story.

I did not pick this for my book club, though, because I love it too much.  I don’t want to know if anyone did not love it or like it or want to make Ali Smith queen of the world.

I have gone on to read three other books by her this month.  Seriously.  Queen of the world.  (She’d probably like to have a more articulate #1 fan….)

atationStation Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel

This is the book that I did end up choosing for my book club.  The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which most of the Earth’s population has died of a rogue flu.  In this world, a troupe of actors and musicians travel from one settlement to another, performing music and Shakespeare, because, as a line from Star Trek has it, “survival is insufficient.”  I love that.  All the characters’ lives fit together like a puzzle being assembled.  I was very happily borne along waiting to see how all of the pieces of the story would come together.  Truly a page-turner to keep you up well past your bedtime.


vicThe Victoria Vanishes

Christopher Fowler

I wish I could remember where I first heard about this series of police procedurals.  They are brilliant.  This one, the first one I read, is from the middle of the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, and I never begin a series in the middle, but this was the one I found, and I read it anyway and I fell head over heels.  The detecting duo are old and cantankerous, and I am loving the characters as much as the plots.  This volume, aside from being a very cleverly plotted mystery, was full of historical information about London’s pubs.  On the strength of this one, I was hooked, and I bought the rest of the series from The Sleuth of Baker Street, a wonderful bookstore devoted to mysteries.  Thank heavens for bookstores like The Sleuth that understand my madness and enable my bibliophilic habits by opening the store on a day it’s usually closed just so that I could pick up my order and did not have to wait a minute longer to feed my addiction.  If you shop there, in person or on-line, and I hope you will, please tell them that Nathalie Foy sent you and is very happily immersed in her pile of Bryant and May goodness!

Bedridden, and Glad About It

Twelve years ago, in a life I can still remember but rarely think about, I was in an accident and sustained compression fractures in my spine.  A year off work and a lot of good fortune later, I made a full recovery.

A full recovery is not the same as having my old back though; it’s not the same as it once was.  It’s sensitive now, protests more, will not stay silent if I ignore it.  Finding out the hard way, I realized that I needed to care for my back with stretching and strengthening or it would seize.  And mostly I felt lucky that such basic interventions could go so far with a back with well-earned trust issues.

But I fell off the wagon with this a few months ago, and my back started to hurt, sometimes enough to prevent sleep.  With the embarrassment of a slow learner, I confess I did nothing about this.  It’s true that I was extremely busy.  But I should have known.

I dropped my children off at school on Monday morning and bent over while trying to clean up the kitchen.  I have been in bed almost continuously since.

People who don’t have back trouble (including me pre-accident) don’t quite understand what it means.  The back hurts, yes, but it also means you can’t walk, lift your arm, turn your head, or cough.  Everything stops.

It’s wildly inconvenient.  In addition to the predictable whatever for dinner and sending children to school without socks and spousal double-duty and help from family and friends, there were other consequences.  I was so looking forward to attending a soapmaking workshop at my new store on Tuesday, and this blog presented the chance to attend a kids’ event so enticing that I informed my kids’ school two weeks ago that they’d miss school on Wednesday afternoon.  I couldn’t go to anything, of course.  Everything stopped.

And yet.  Bored and bedridden and in pain, yet I have to confess to another real feeling these past few days:  relief.  Life has been something of a runaway train lately, and I am doing my best to keep my head about me while riding it.  For the moment, I can’t (or won’t) get off – I’ve assessed and re-assessed everything I’m doing, and I don’t want to give anything up.  It’s exciting but, well, I’m not really in control of this ride.

Lying down, with time moving more slowly at least for a little while, has been a reprieve, a relaxing of my hold on things.  It’s temporary, and hardly a vacation.  But it is a pause, and I find myself, somewhat incredibly, grateful for it.

I’m suspicious sometimes, of just how much the mind and body are in cohoots… did my body just do for me what my mind wouldn’t do but perhaps should have?  All I know is that when I finish writing this, I’m going back to bed to rest, and to sleep, because there’s nothing else I can do, and I’m kind of glad of it.

Remembrance Day Books: For children, youth and you

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. – by John McCrae, 1915


A Poppy is to Remember by Heather Patterson


In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield


On Juno Beach: Canada’s D Day Heroes by Hugh Brewster


The Kids Book of Canada at War by Elizabeth MacLeod


Hanna’s Suitcase – Karen Levine

For older children:


The Bite of the Mango – by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland


Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees by Deborah Ellis

For more suggestions visit The Canadian Children’s Book Centre, a wonderful resource!

For You:

Some of my favourite war stories told by some of my favourite Canadian authors.


Far To Go by Alison Pick


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels


Hanna’s Diary by Hanna Spencer


November Nights

10409459_10154861075470014_5627303319057549844_n[1]At the gym this morning, after his swimming lesson, Littlest said to a woman in the changing room that he had already practiced hockey, built Lego, had Second Breakfast and watched television that day.  It was 11:00.  He wasn’t doing a kid’s version of an adult’s litany of I’m so busy; he was just answering her question about how his morning had been.  It had been full.  And so was his afternoon: we walked home from the gym, grabbed warm milk to go on the way, raked leaves for two hours, he built more Lego, we took Middlest to an afternoon class, he did an hour of math homework, we walked home, bought marshmallows and hot dogs on the way, and we ate dinner and dessert al fresco around a bonfire.

By 6:30, the fire was dying out, and so was he.

I needed a glass of wine to go with my s’mores because, honestly, the rush and the push tries my patience six ways from Sunday, but part of the exercise of the bonfire was to sit and to stop and to rest at the end of a busy weekend.   The boys ate and drifted into the house, the bonfire that was meant to be a reward for yard work was left to my husband and me, and we had the gift of an uninterrupted 30 minutes by the fire.  I heard the wind in what remains of the maple leaves and the pop of firewood.  I felt my body ache with raking and stiffen from resting.  And resting, I see that these boys of mine thrive on the constant activity that tries me.  Lack of sleep, hunger, boredom: these are the predictable things that set off bombs, but busyness does not faze them.

November nights close in early, and I love the dark and the cold and the early nudge to bed.   Sleep and flannel sheets seem all the more welcome after a day that’s been jam packed and spent outdoors.

We all climbed into our beds with the smell of smoke on our bodies and the sense of satisfaction that comes with getting things done.  The leaves are raked, the week is closed, and memories made around a fire to cap off the day.