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.

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.

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.

More Precious Than Sleep

sleep picI’m a big believer in sleep.  For the kids, for my husband, and for me.  I think it’s key to health and equilibrium.  I can still function when sleep-deprived, but should only do this alone – I have a short fuse when I’m tired.  And being a bit of a night owl, I’ve more than once cajoled myself to sleep with the truth that it’s the best thing I can do for my kids the next day.

But we’ll trump sleep for something worth it.  A holiday maybe, a party, a special something that’s worth the tiredness. Something worth exchanging sanity for, and we do this with some regularity because we’re lucky enough to have reason to.  Gratefully two of my kids can sleep in – my youngest needs company in the bed for this to work, but he can do it.

My middle son can’t though… he is pretty much up in the morning no matter when he goes to bed.  I find this kind of fascinating, since I can’t relate to it at all.  He goes downstairs and plays quietly by himself (I took the time to teach him that!) and waits for the rest of us.  And by night, he’s often really quite beat.

At 5 yesterday morning, he had a nightmare and came to me.  He dreamt of a witch, who was trying to eat him.  No tears, but he said he was upset by the dream and walked into my arms when I opened them.  And I knew it would plow me under the next day, but I held him there for over an hour.  I was hoping we’d fall back asleep, but kind of knew we wouldn’t.  It was too close to morning for him to fall asleep again, and I can’t sleep with him awake.

As it turns out, the next day went well – there was no reason to regret the late night the way I sometimes do.  But even if there’d been more drama, I still don’t think I’d regret the night before.  He’s a bit stoic, my middle guy, and doesn’t always accept help; I was glad when he allowed himself to be comforted in the night, and to be comforted by me.  I believe completely in the powers of sleep, but there are some things even more precious, and I don’t want to miss them.

Mindfulness, Meditation, and Making the Most of the Day

056It must be about 15 years ago now that I went to my first yoga class.  I had finished law school and landed a job at the University of Toronto, where I would stay for awhile before becoming a litigator.  The Associate Dean of the law school was my supervisor, a bright light at the school whose work ethic and good judgment was jettisoning her career at rapid speed.  This type of life is predictably stressful, and it was she who recommended that I try yoga, because it had done wonders for her:  “It sounds cliche, but it’s transformative,” she said.

This wasn’t an endorsement that I could ignore so I went.  And shoot, it wasn’t transformative.  I just felt twisty and disconnected and wondered what the deep rumbly noises all around me were (ujjayi breathing).  In other words, I had no idea what I was doing or why, which kind of means that I really wasn’t there.

Gratefully I tried again, with a very good friend who introduced me to an Indian teacher from whom she first learned in India, and who she continued to follow when he moved to Canada.  And the classes were, well, transformative.  It was my first real foray into meditation, or less loftily, simple calming the mind (I’m pretty sure he would not call those classes meditation by a long shot, but it’s me writing the post).  My body was doing all kinds of interesting things, but focusing on one’s breathing for an hour and a half (even when it’s raggedy and you should cool it a bit with the pose), is profoundly restful for the mind.

Mindfulness is a pretty catchy term, which is always a signal that one should explain what one’s definition of it is.  For me, it means being more awake to my surroundings and my choices, to live more intentionally.  I have been doing this for quite a few years now, sometimes with great success, and sometimes not.  At the moment, I am operating in a less successful window.  I could cite some reasons, but why bother – I’m just (over-)busy, much like you.

But if my hold on being mindful were stronger, I would know that it is precisely during such times when meditation and a calm mind is most needed and most helpful.  I woke up yesterday really feeling like a shift was due, and set my sights on a 30 minute window for a mindful meditation.  An unexpected turn in my husband’s schedule eliminated this possibility; I was with my 3 year old until the end of the school day, when I’d have my boys on my own until bedtime.

I’m vulnerable to being plowed under when best laid plans like these don’t materialize, but in one of my better moves, I noticed that the weather was clear and warm-for-fall, and my boy and I went outside.  I finally set up the cages for my mushroom logs (best-tasting mushrooms ever, by the way) to keep the darn raccoons away, and the neglected garden got some attention, with some of it put to bed (not the kale though, it’s still going strong). We were outside for a long time, my little guy sometimes helping me, sometimes doing his own thing, almost always talking to me.  We worked.  I worked, but I stopped often to see his centipede, or to find the wet hat lost in the summer, or to pick chamomile.  We came into the house hungry and happy and settled.

It was not a meditation, but it was mindful, and it felt like a breather for an over-active mind.   I was active and productive at home, and yet the world slowed down for me, and the conscious choosing of my time felt grounded and right.  The benefits felt similar to those from meditation, and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on mindfulness when my allocated 30 minutes of meditation slipped away, because there was still a whole day remaining.

It won’t do for the purists I know, but maybe meditation or at least its benefits can come in different forms, and maybe it’s not quite elusive this way.  A walking meditation maybe, a listening meditation, a gardening meditation, a playing meditation.  Just actually noticing where you are and making the most of it meditation.

Yesterday this happened.  Today is a new day.  I’m going to try.

Snakes and Lattes: Board Game Cafe

logo-lattes-blackWhen we were getting to know each other, a past boyfriend asked me what I liked to do for fun when I was a girl.  The idea I think was this information could be a window into our who we are now, as adults.  He said he liked to draw (which I did not like to do).  I also remember that I did not like playing with dolls, or pretend house, dress-up, or building.  My repertoire of fun was limited:  I liked to read, do puzzles, and play games.

So it surprised me that it was not until last year that I learned of Snakes and Lattes, which claims to be North America’s first board game cafe.  It’s a place where, for a $5 cover, you can sit and play games until the cows come home.  All the gaming while, you can have coffee/tea and snacks, or a casual meal, delivered to your playing table.

The main appeal of the cafe, of course, are the games.  We’re going leaps and bounds beyond Monopoly and Battleship here, although of course the tried and true are here and popular enough.  There are hundreds and hundreds of games, from traditional favourites to new weird and wonderful that neither of us have ever heard of.  When the options start to overwhelm, you can consult a Game Guru, aka an employee who knows a strange lot about the bazillion games on offer and will guide you to choosing something that you’ll like.

One of the nicest things about Snakes and Lattes is that it appeals to all generations.  I have a friend who is a big more of a board gamer than I am, and this cafe is for her both a destination on date night and for her children for (the whole of) a Sunday afternoon.  You gotta love the democracy of a good game.

I also love – and here my biases are pretty well-defined – that these games are played without screens and with other people and not in a basement.  It’s almost quaint, the idea of a board game, which for me is extra reason to applaud how successful this cafe has become.

Another thing about this place, it’s open like all the time during the week – an ungodly 7am on weekdays (what is it, a bakery?) until “late”.  Weekends commence at a more normal 11am until “late”.

Predictably they sell games too, although the real appeal is getting to play games in a public place with other people willing to do the same thing – kind of like an adult opportunity for parallel play.  It’s a friendly place, with a nice vibe, and if anything can take the possibly ever so slightly nerdy edge off of board games, this is it.

ps.  If you have not tried it, and like politically very wrong humour that targets everyone, Cards Against Humanity is a memorable choice , and good for a group, especially if there is wine.  Or tequila.

pps.  Snakes and Lattes did not ask me to write this and I got no free games out of it.  Darn.

My First Clothing Swap – So Much Fun!

020When a friend recently downsized to a smaller home, she suggested to a few friends that we do a clothing swap.  I replied with a quick “yes” even though I’d never participated in one before.  I didn’t really know what to expect or (a bit worryingly) whether I’d have much to offer to the swap, but it sounded like a good excuse reason to get together so I was in.

The morning arrived.  Just four of us showed up in the end.  Somehow even though we’d never done this before, we seemed to bring similar sized bins of clothing.  We decided to meet in my shop (I have a shop! will tell more soon), in a large room that served as a collective changeroom, complete with gigantic mirror.

Before we could lay out our clothing on the table, one woman dived into her bin and pulled out a beautiful pair of beaded sandals.  They claimed to be a 7, but were much too big for her.  Two sets of feet later and the sandals had found a new home.  Our toes were in the water; time to jump in!

Three of us were similar enough in size, and we tolerated the other one whose clothing tags bore numbers like 2 or 0.  0!  But even she got a few things… the pieces that had become way too tight for the rest of us seemed to hang on her just so.

We brought the clothes out, suggested them for someone, picked up something else, passed something on, nodded approvingly when a good swap was made.  There were no rules or order really; it just seemed to work out.  Especially nice was being able to part with those particular pieces, sometimes quite treasured, knowing the good homes they were headed to.

In the end, we all had armfuls of new-to-us clothing, with the rest destined for the local thrift store.

I don’t even know what to say about all this, except that it was So. Much. Fun.

How often do you get together with friends and play dress up?  I didn’t even do this as a kid.  Maybe some of you manage it, especially if you like shopping with company.  I don’t though, and being a bit more serious-minded than is may be helpful sometimes, finding a morning to strip off clothes and put more on with three girlfriends doing exactly the same thing was just plain good fun.

I felt so light and happy after our gathering, and of course this was so little due to the (amazing new) digs in my bin.  And it wasn’t just me; everyone chimed in to comment on the pleasure of the swap.  I got the feeling it was almost a needed good time.  We each carry our loads – this friend was in tears over some trouble with her child, that friend’s husband just had another stroke – and we weren’t even really talking!  Our clothing swap experiment may have been, even briefly, just a really effective antidote to our very real, everyday cares.  I know I couldn’t have spent my morning in any better way.

Plus you should see my new camel coat.

[We just winged our clothing swap and it worked out beautifully, probably because it was small and among friends.  For more specifics on how to organize one – which I’d so recommend! – there are some good articles out there.   For Torontonians, there’s Swap Don’t Shop!, which hosts regular clothing swaps in the city.  Next up for us might be a jewellery swap!] 

Yoga With Kids

270Along with pretty much everything else, yoga has been on a hiatus lately and I’ve been feeling it.  But I fit in it yesterday.  I was with my youngest babe, and for whatever reason, he suggested it.  It’s been a good long while since we’ve done any yoga and honestly I don’t even know how he would know to ask for it.  But I’ve been meaning to get back to it anyway, and there’s no time like the present, so in popped the video.

I did this even though in exactly six minutes I had to pick up my older boys from school, but I figured six minutes is a huge improvement on the nothing I’ve been doing, and my body would benefit from anything.

And then I had the happy (and kind of surprising) experience of mentioning it to the boys after school and hearing:  “Yeah!  Yoga!  Let’s do yoga!  Yoga, yoga!!”

So we traipsed up the stairs and into the bedroom where the computer is and got started.  There is absolutely no room for four of us; there’s barely room for two.  We squished two (sometimes three) on the floor, and one (sometimes two) on the bed.  Yes, my children did yoga on the bed.

Yoga with the kids is also more vocal than when I do it alone.  I heard:

I’m the best at this!

Is this supposed to hurt?

What does she mean take 5 breaths?  I already took 5 breaths!

My feet smell too bad.  I’m too close to my feet.

There’s space right here on Mommy!  See?

Who wants to play the game where we run and bump each other?

Meditation is not the name of the game when I do yoga with the kids, but it’s hard to imagine enjoying it more.  I am in awe of what practicing yoga can do for the body, mind and spirit, and yet there really is something to be said for a good belly laugh (or six).  I’m thankful for all of it.

Blogging, or a Way to Slow Things Down

004I had two thoughts when I read Beth-Anne’s post yesterday.  First, happy birthday!!  34 is doing wonders for you!

The second was wholehearted agreement that time often feels like it’s flying, and that I actually know of a way to slow things down, at least for me, and that’s to document what is happening during at least some of those days.  I blog.

I write something, and usually throw up a photograph (or 12).  I’ve spent three hours on a post; sometimes I blurt out whatever I can in the 12 minutes I have before my eyes close for the night, or throw up a picture if I have 12 seconds.  I don’t know how this works exactly, but the record-keeping seems to help me to experience what’s happened more deeply, to remember it better, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, to revel a little in the amazing bits.  And then, having such practiced this habit the night before, the next day I seem more alert to the life around me.  I breathe a little deeper, I notice a little more, I think of something else to write about.  Things slow down.

I’ve been blogging on a private site and here for over five years, and it might not be an exaggeration to say it’s been transformative.  Not completely on its own, because along with blogging I’m sure I was opening myself up to other positive and creative influences, but the personal blog was at the centre of much of this.

And then five months ago I stopped.

Mostly intentionally.  I decided to take on a large (for me, still providing primary childcare for three young kids) project that I believed would require all of my energies.  Many things slid, not just the blog.  Making things with the children and on my own, seeing friends and family, preparing and eating healthy foods – so many tenets that I enjoy and find meaning in kind of flew out the window.

It was not comfortable, and I’m not sure I managed it that well.  Yet I’m not quite sorry for it either.  Years ago I read Carl Honore who asserted in In Praise of Slow that slow living doesn’t mean that life must always be slow; it means that you are consciously choosing its pace.  Good slow living could therefore incorporate periods where life speeds right up, provided an assessment has been made that it’s worth it.  I felt like I did this and took a plunge (which I’ll be writing about soon!).

At some point though, perhaps a month ago, the pendulum swung to its outermost reach (where it really did not feel great), and began its arc of return.  My project was underway – nowhere near fruition but the birthing was done.  There is much more to be done, but now it’s going to get done with a bit more balance.  The period of continuous fast living is finished now.  I want to slow down, and gratefully, I actually know how.

A few days ago, for the first time in five months, I  wrote a personal blog.  And after I finish here, I’ll write another one.

I’ll tell you a secret about my post:  it’s going to be about shoes.  My three year old’s shoes, to be precise.  A few mornings ago, he curled up his toes and refused to put on his shoes.  This and other assertions of independence and will are becoming routine, and I had to get my other sons to school and the little guy to preschool, and resorted to tucking my struggling baby under one arm like a sleeping bag and toting him to the car, shoeless.  I put his shoes on the top of the car trunk while I buckled him in and the other boys climbed in.

If you are a parent yourself, you probably already know what happened – I arrived at school to discover one shoe on the car trunk.  I had forgotten to put the shoes in the car before leaving my garage and lost one en route somewhere.

Searching for shoes to go out today, I found that no pairs for my littlest except for a pair of flip flops, and as my son was wearing socks (which he really did not want to take off), this would not do.  Imagine my delight when I found two shoes – both running shoes, to boot – a left and a right.  Not a matching pair, but a pair.  Boon accepted.  We could leave, and I felt grateful.

The post was composed in my mind, and I later took the snapshot.  It’s just a brief and random bit about the day, not the most impactful or important, but I choose it anyway.  Now I’ll log it into my memory.  A nod to the day, a moment to take a deep inhale, and to say thank you for all of this.  Short, sweet, and slow.