JUDE BARBACK envies all the Kiwi kids who will get to see and hear the amazing storyteller Mona Williams in action as she tours New Zealand schools this year.
Hearing Mona Williams’ voice takes me back about 25 years. I remember being captivated by the storyteller’s mesmerizing tales and her charismatic presence as a student at Matamata Intermediate.
Astonishingly, she remembers visiting my old school.
“I remember the children put on a lunch for me and they brought out the biggest grapes I have ever seen. My eyes were popping out of head, they were so big.”
I don’t recall the grapes, but I can instantly envisage them, thanks to Williams’ way with words and her command of imagery.
It is remarkable that she should remember her Matamata visit, because by my calculations, Williams has been storytelling, in some guise, for over fifty years.
In fact, she’s been telling stories her whole life.
“Actually storytelling found me,” she says. “We couldn’t afford a television, so we’d tell stories.”
The Guyanan-born storyteller has since been entertaining children with her stories for decades. She’s toured New Zealand and Australian schools extensively, and has been invited to share her storytelling with audiences all around the globe.
Williams began working as a radio announcer for a children’s show in 1964 and it was during this gig that she started enthralling her young audiences with tales of when she’d been naughty. Two years later, she left for the United States and began working in television. With the backdrop of the civil rights movement, she worked on an African-American programme Roots and Branches which earned Williams and all the programme's participants an Emmy in the Ethnic Programmes Division.
She is also a teacher - the sort of English teacher everyone wishes they'd had. She thrives on making novels, short stories and Shakespearean works come alive for the most unlikely and reluctant students, including those who count English as their second language. Her time in the Middle East she recalls with particular fondness, recounting with animation her experience of bringing Shakespeare’s Macbeth to life for Arabic children at international schools.
However, New Zealand is definitely home, she says, with feeling. It has been ever since she became a resident in 1971.
Upon arriving in New Zealand back then, the Fulbright scholar and Stanford University graduate says employers didn’t know what to make of her overseas qualifications and experience, and she initially struggled to find employment and to make ends meet.
Before too long, though, she found herself writing for the School Journal.
“Children were accustomed to Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy,” she said, “and I was a bit different. They wanted me to really tell the story.”
She began visiting schools and telling her stories. Schools would thank her for her time with a basket of groceries. It wasn’t until then she realized that story telling could actually be a viable vocation. To this day she is grateful for the generosity exuded by New Zealand schools.
I ask Williams what sets storytelling apart from other facets of literacy.
“It’s the immediacy,” she says. “With reading, on the other hand, you have to analyse the written form. You have to decode the squiggle.”
A good story should have complexity – children can understand stories at two or three levels, she says. It should entertain. There should be props and costumes. It should be rich and true to the saga.
“It’s about telling it as a story, not just recounting the narrative.”
To demonstrate, she incorporates passages of Macbeth seamlessly into our conversation, with such perfect expression and intonation that I am momentarily distracted from what I am supposed to be doing. I am reminded of my 10-year-old self, in my intermediate school uniform, spellbound by the exotic storyteller.
Many Kiwi kids will be fortunate enough to experience this escapism and the magic of Mona Williams in person as she prepares to tour New Zealand and Australian schools this year, an experience - if my weary memory serves me correctly - that is not to be missed.
Mona Williams' booking agent can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.