(Posted March 9, 2009)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- It seems like everybody is writing children's books. Madonna, Carly Simon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Spike Lee, even Katie Couric has done a kid's book, written using Katherine Couric as her author credit. Why not add 14 Juniata College students, all of them creating children's stories as part of the college's "Storytelling" course, into the mix?

Well, the final assignment for the course, which is currently under way as a spring semester class, is to write and illustrate an original children's story, but the goal of the student authors is not a book contract, but rather positive reactions from classmates, children and other audiences.

"The story is primordial, storytelling has entertained all of humanity. It's central to business and industry; the company is comprised of individual stories of success, advice and wisdom."

"The story is primordial, storytelling has entertained all of humanity," says Grace Fala, professor of communication at Juniata, who created the course in 2002. "Storytelling is useful for careers after college; it's central to business and industry; the company is comprised of individual stories of success, advice and wisdom."

Fala takes the 14 storytellers taking the course on a three-pronged educational journey that starts with the theoretical. Fala has the class study historical and contemporary stories from a variety of cultures. The class reads stories from Europe, China, Korea, India, Russia, Africa and many other countries.

To build critical skills, the students are required to read and critique children's books, as well as films that emphasize storytelling. As the course develops, the students also offer criticism of the stories created by all the members of the class.

The creative part of the course asks each student to tell an original story every week, created around an assigned theme. Eventually, each student will choose the best if these weekly assignments to expand into their final story assignment.

"I have one requirement and that is that every story must have a moral," Fala explains. "I want the storytellers to focus on meaning."

The students look at 14 films and 42 children's books. The films range from "Chicken Run" to "Secondhand Lions," to "King of Hearts." The books are surprisingly devoid of famous authors such as Dr. Seuss. Fala prefers simplicity of storyline to entertainment value and some of the books she assigns the students are "The Little Red Hen," nursery rhymes and bedtime stories.

The assigned speech topics include writing an animal story, an adaptation of a fairy tale or a love story. "Storytelling seems to inspire too much detail when students are asked to create a story," Fala explains. "Typically they make their stories unnecessarily complicated. In the end we want them to go from the complex to simple stories."

After the March 7-15 spring break, the class focuses on the story that will become the final children's story. The students are asked to hone the story at a series of presentations before different audiences. The stories will be told before an audience of grade-schoolers at Highland Park Elementary School in Lewistown April 29 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., followed by story presentations at the Mifflin County Library in Allensville, Pa.

The students also tell their stories to senior citizens at Westminster Woods. This year, some of the residents will travel to Juniata to hear the presentations. "The elders often have a unique perspective on the stories they hear, bringing a meaning of their own to the story," Fala says.

Each student's final story is told as part of the course's final project at a public reading May 3 at a picnic at Fala's farm. The presenters can invite parents, peers or friends. The final story must be illustrated and presented as a book. Students can opt to draw their illustrations of use collage or photography.

Fala not only is interested in the creativity of the students' stories but also their ability to adapt the same story for different audiences.

"When they watch their peers tell stories or get feedback from children they become better storytellers," she says. "It becomes a collaborative and communal experience for them."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.