Walking into Camp Agape is wonderful. I’m greeted with smiles and cheers of “the storyteller’s here!” People might think kids who have a parent or caregiver or two under supervision of the Vermont Correctional Department might be nothing but trouble. Will kids with troubled backgrounds stay still and listen to folk and fairy tales? They are kids. They are the same as any other child; of course they will. They may take a bit of settling down. Some have not been exposed to role-modelling for this sort of presentation. It is unlikely these kids have been taken to the theatre or seen any kind of performance outside of school. But once they settle down, once they hear the words, something magical happens. They fall, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into the tale and are captured by story.
I did a similar presentation in New Hampshire visiting the state prison [Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin, NH]. At this event, I was presenting to inmates and their families who were visiting.* Some of the men had committed serious crimes, and the ones I spoke to showed a great deal of remorse. Many who shared thoughts with me told me they did not want their children to follow them; the inmates wanted better for their children.
Imagine, for a moment, walking up to a prison, a massive walled building surrounded by razor wire. Imagine walking in through a security system, hearing the person taking you in to see your father declaring they have no sharp objects or being told they need to cover up more. Imagine you are four feet tall looking up at a large burly prison guard who may not be smiling. It was a little unnerving for me the first time I visited a prison. Imagine how a kid feels visiting a prison for the first time. I was told some kids don’t want to visit. These children did not ask for this.
Telling stories to young people with these huge challenges in their lives is not always easy. Some of these kids are tough way beyond their age and see some folk and fairy tales as stories for babies. Other stories can be triggering if the kids have been exposed to or witnessed violence. Choosing the right stories is tricky. Even Goldilocks can seem condescending or judgmental. But when the right story is told the children settle down and listen. They get the stories, sometimes more so than children with far greater privileges.
I told the story of the Golden Ball, which is a pretty heavy story, at Camp Agape. I told it in my own way, with humor, downplaying the violence, describing the girls seeing their distorted reflections in the golden orbs they choose to accept. Two boys came up to me after the telling and thanked me. One of the boys had been interrupting the stories, but he got it. He liked the story, and when I asked him why, thinking the gore appealed to him, he told me. He liked it was about greed and consequences; it had a moral. I did not give the story a moral, but he found one. This boy might be seen as a troublemaker to some, but he is a child with many challenges and is just trying to navigate his life the best way he can. With the humor and fun of the stories, the kids can be kids. They can escape the realities of the real world for a while.
I have seen people not give kids with challenges like these the time of day. I have seen folks put them down. These kids have been dealt a rough hand, and not of their choosing. They are still children, and they want to be loved, cared for, given the same opportunities as others. They want to play and have fun. They need role models. Programs CLiF provides help.
Watching these young people pick out books for themselves after a presentation is a treat for me, let alone them. Some of these children do not have their own books at home. Sometimes I get a child asking me: “When do I have to return it?” It kills me. My own daughter has her own pretty extensive bookshelf filled with reading material. It gives me great pleasure to tell the child that they do not have to return it, that it is their book to keep forever. For some it would be like being handed the keys for a sports car or a brand new house, but it is ‘just’ a book.
The greatest thrill for me, however, is finding a book for a kid who does not initially want one. And seeing them sit down, smile and read is the best feeling. CLiF is not only providing a much needed service for these children by giving them books, and helping with literacy. CLiF is showing these youngsters that people care about them, that someone wants them to succeed. I am just the delivery boy, taking the books and dropping them into the hands of eager kids after telling them a few stories. That’s how it is for me, and on a totally selfish level, I love it.
Simon Brooks is one of 62 professional storytellers, authors, and illustrators CLiF sends to schools, summer and after school programs, libraries, homeless shelters, prisons, and just about anywhere children and families gather in Vermont and New Hampshire to tell stories and encourage a love of reading and writing. Simon has been a popular CLiF presenter for over a decade, telling his unique versions of folk and fairy tales with panache to thousands of kids and families. Simon told stories at 20 CLiF Summer Readers sites this summer, including at long-time CLiF Summer Readers partner Camp Agape, which is a free summer camp for Vermont children with an incarcerated parent. Pictured above is Simon telling stories at Camp Agape last summer.
Simon’s collected stories, Under the Oaken Bough, will be published in Fall 2017. You can find Simon at www.diamondscree.com.
*This event was a Family Literacy Celebration Day at the Northern NH Correctional Facility, one of CLiF’s three current partnering prisons through our Children of Prison Inmates program. CLiF storytellers lead regular seminars for inmates on strategies for connecting with kids over books and stories and model storytelling for visiting families. As with all CLiF programs, children choose new books to keep, or in the case of parent seminars in prisons, the parents choose books for their children and write personal notes in them, and CLiF sends the books home. Watch this video to learn more about the Children of Prison Inmates program.