Stories: Tools for Coping

Rose Owens


            It was three weeks before Christmas. The mother of two young boys had taken her own life during the night. The emotional wound was still fresh. The funeral had not yet been held. I was invited to tell stories in the third grade classroom of the younger boy from this family. Counselors had talked to the class, to the child.  The teacher felt that the students needed to have their minds taken off this tragedy.  What stories would I tell?


The Littleton High School massacre had been splashed across the media for days. My middle school students had watched it on TV, read the newspaper reports and discussed it with teachers and counselors. One boy carried a map of the Littleton High School in his pocket.  He frequently pulled it out to look at it and talk about it.  He was accomplishing little work.  I could tell that my students felt vulnerable.  What stories should I tell?


            I had been asked to substitute in a second grade class for emotionally disturbed students. They had experienced much frustration and teasing in their short lives.  They were struggling to cope.  What stories did these children need?


            Crissy was three years old and nearly blind. The physical disabilities that confined her to a wheel chair, also limited her ability to move her body or to speak.  She was having a hard time adjusting to preschool.  She cried when her mother left and continued to cry with only intermittent pauses throughout the afternoon. Crissy did not know me at all since this was the first time I had substituted in her classroom.  My simplest stories did not seem appropriate for this small child.  How could I reach out to her?


The gift of a story is one way to share coping strategies that may help individuals through emotional crisis. Emotions sometimes seem to overwhelm us as we are confronted by death, divorce, loss, anger, abuse, violence, bullying, teasing, etc.  Within any environment, there are individuals who already need these tools and children who will need them at some time in the future. Hawaiian storyteller and teacher, Diane Aoki, states that “sharing stories is a way to plant a seed of some kind which may not bear fruit immediately but may sometime.” A seed that is never planted will never grow - an option that is never considered can never be chosen. We all are affected by the emotional forces that surround us - we need to be given tools to help each of us cope.


One story is not a miracle drug to magically resolve a crisis.  A storyteller is not a healer with miracles in a magic bag, nor is a storyteller a psychologist -  the teller simply has a story to share. This story may have been selected carefully because it has wisdom imbedded in it. However, the role of the storyteller is not to provide therapy or moralize, but to offer the gift of story, allowing the listeners to participate in the process and to choose what they will receive and internalize. A storyteller may carefully choose a tale that has bits of hidden wisdom - one that she believes an individual or a group of listeners needs to hear.  Nevertheless, there are many different listeners in the same audience, and each will hear what storyteller Margaret Schwallie of Kalamazoo, Michigan refers to as “the story his own heart needs to hear.” It is entirely possible that none of the audience will discern the message that the storyteller intended to tell. The fact that one story can convey so many different messages contributes greatly to the power of storytelling.   


            Even though a story cannot be a magic solution, it is important to understand that stories do have the power to help healing occur – for stories can help us to connect with each other and with our inner self. The process of selecting stories with embedded “inner wisdom” that will provide coping tools involves reading and testing many different tales. Myths and traditional folktales are excellent sources for such stories because they have powerful metaphors that have been polished over time. These metaphors allow each listener to internalize as much or as little of the analogy as they are comfortable with.


“The Magic Brush” [Put in a link to take the reader to the Magic Brush] (a folk tale from China) is an example of a story that carries hidden resources. Because Ma Lien is a poor orphan boy, the village artist refuses to teach him. Having tried and failed to obtain knowledge and training through a traditional path, Ma Lien refuses to let his dream die. He decides to teach himself. Using the simple tools he has available - a stick and a patch of dirt, Ma Lien practices drawing the creatures he sees in the forest.  When an old Chinese gentleman miraculously gives Ma Lien the gift of a magic golden brush, Ma Lien is true to his promise that he will “paint for the good of the people”.  The boy uses ingenuity to outsmart the evil Chinese Emperor. By the end of the story, Ma Lien also understands what is best for himself.  


The story of Ma Lien is a many faceted jewel. Each storyteller or listener may hear other messages, but here are some samples of what I and my listeners have found in this story.

¨      Believe in yourself.  (Ma Lien knew he was capable of becoming an artist.)

¨      Don’t allow others to limit your choices.  (The artist refused to teach Ma Lien so he taught himself.)

¨      When one plan doesn’t work, try another plan.  (The artist refused to teach Ma Lien so Ma Lien decided to practice on his own.)

¨      How hard you are willing to work is more important than how much money or influence you have.  (Ma Lien was a poor orphan boy but he was able to succeed because he worked hard.)

¨      Doing the best you can with what you have brings rewards.  (Ma Lien drew with a stick in the dirt.  He was rewarded by increased skill and then with the gift of the magic brush.)

¨      We should help others. (Ma Lien used his brush for the good of the people.)

¨      Keep your promises even when it is difficult.  (Ma Lien refused to paint for the selfish Emperor and was cast into the dungeon.)

¨      Wealth and power does not guarantee happiness.  (Ma Lien chose to return to his village to paint and help the people.)


The storyteller’s role is to offer the gift of story - not explain what the story means.  Trying to impart the same bits of wisdom that are embedded in a story using a “lecture format” can be like turning off a light switch. I have seen and felt the wall go up between my middle school students (twelve to fifteen year olds) and myself when I attempted to discuss a sensitive issue.  But when I tell them a story, I feel them relax and settle into the story. There is no stress - no expectations. Each listener is free to take from the story whatever “speaks” to his personal needs or to simply enjoy the story. If we choose to discuss a story, it takes the form of exploring options and possibilities with the listeners rather than telling the listeners what that story means. No discussion question has a “right” or a “wrong” answer. Exploring the story in this manner allows the listener to internalize whatever meaning he chooses. 


New York storyteller Sue Tannehill suggests that we can "offer stories of characters who survive and thrive by their wits. . . sometimes it's the only weapon a kid has!" In these types of stories, there is no magical intervention - no granting of magic wishes - that allows the character to survive. The resolution comes through the actions of the hero or heroine. In “Tipingee”, a Haitian folktale, a small girl escapes evil by outwitting both her selfish stepmother and the witch. Another story, “Nadia the Willful”, portrays a young Bedouin girl who must cope with the grief of losing her brother.  At first she denies his death and feels angry, but these attempts to cope with her grief are unsuccessful. As the tale unfolds, Nadia draws upon her own memories to tell her brother’s story and finally bring healing to herself, her father and her tribe. In the West African story, “The Lion’s Whisker”, a new wife, must bring back the whisker of a lion to complete the magic charm that will make her step-child love her. She patiently earns the trust of the lion and accomplishes the dangerous task.  When she returns with the lion’s whisker, expecting the magical charm, she learns that she already has all she needs.  With patience, she is told, she will earn trust; and with trust, love will come in time. 


Personal stories may provide opportunities to share examples of the resilience of the human spirit. The stories of our lives can provide evidence that others have faced adversity and survived. Because a fire destroyed our living room and coated the rest of our home and belongings with soot, our family lived in a rental home for seven months while we rebuilt.  Sharing stories about this experience has helped me to connect with listeners, to prove that adversity can be overcome. My family, my home and I all survived and life goes on. Sheryl Karas, an author from Santa Cruz, California, states that people "tend to gravitate toward stories that speak to experiences they have had and are trying to work out or world experiences they want to make sense of." Stories about self-reliance can help the listener conclude that people can find ways to improve their lives.


When my middle school students were trying to make sense of the Littleton High School massacre, we discussed the tragedy in our classroom. But comments and questions popped up later during work periods, so I knew my students had not resolved their issues and that they felt vulnerable.  I decided to offer them some stories. I carefully chose three stories that I felt might give them the opportunity to internalize the message they needed or to allow them to discuss issues if they wished. 


I began by sharing an Aesop fable, “The Bundle of Sticks.”  I brought in a bundle of sticks and allowed the students to “experience” the story as I told it. In this fable, a father asks each of his children if they can break a bundle of sticks  and then, when the bundle is separated, he asks each child to break the stick he holds. As a storyteller, I offered them possible support through my tale. The story may have told them “We need to stick together. When we tear each other down, we weaken our community. We can accomplish more when we work together as a group than if we act individually.”


The students listened intently as I told “The King’s Hawk”, the story of a young ruler who impulsively acts in anger. The king becomes angry with his pet hawk for repeatedly knocking a cup of water from his hands and he kills the hawk.  When his drinking cup falls into a crevice and cannot be retrieved, the king climbs  to get a drink from the upper pool.  He finds a dead poisonous snake in the water. His loyal hawk, who had been trying to warn him of the danger, has been rewarded with death. Although the young king now realizes that his anger was not justified and he experiences sorrow for his actions, it is too late.  What he has done in anger cannot be undone.  


To conclude the program, I shared “The Story Spirits,  a story from Korea about revenge. A young Korean boy loves stories, so every night his old servant tells him a new tale. The young man feels that these stories belong only to him,  and he selfishly confines the story spirits in a leather bag. The story spirits want revenge and plan to kill the young man on his wedding day. He is saved by the intervention of the old servant, who overhears the plotting of the story spirits. This story was selected to open the possibility of discussing revenge. Is revenge justified? Are there other solutions when someone has been wronged?  


When I shared the stories, I left each listener free to internalize whatever personal meaning they chose. I allowed time after each story for comments but did not offer conclusions or require discussion. I did not put the solutions into words but allowed the listener to uncover their own understanding of the tale or simply enjoy the story. On that day my middle school students chose to simply listen. I will probably never know what (if any) hidden wisdom was internalized on that day.  My role was simply to offer the gift of story.


I believe the best stories are those that help us see the complexities faced by others – tales that connect us with each other. These stories heal the polarization that can overwhelm us all, calm those who are frightened as well as those who hate. These stories offer us the possibility of reconciliation. We need tales that teach children empathy and accountability, how to act and how to be. “Children are hungry for stories that help them feel hopeful and energetic. . . these stories will shelter us all."  (Mary Pipher)  [create a link to this reference in the bibliography.


The process of growing up can be complex. Part of this process is learning how to cope with frustrations, learning how to be happy even if things aren’t exactly the way you want them to be. The English folktale of “The Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle” allows young children to meet a little old lady who is never happy with what she has and she always wants more. Each house she wishes for is grander than the last but living in a grand house does not change her basic nature. She continues to complain and eventually she gets exactly what she deserves. The story ends with the little old lady being sent back to her vinegar bottle house. “The Happy Man’s Shirt” carries the same type of message and is suitable for older listeners. The king's son is ill and can only be cured if he can sleep one night in the shirt of a happy man.  When the happy man is found, he has no shirt.  Money could neither buy happiness nor restore health.  It’s who you are, not what you have that’s important. The message is embedded in both stories and each listener is free to explore the deeper meaning or to just enjoy the story. 


Another complexity that children deal with on a regular basis is anger—both their own and the anger of others.  When I had the opportunity to tell a story to a second grade class for emotionally disturbed children, I chose to tell the story of Mucky Moose. This story of a plucky little moose tells of how he finds  contentment in being different and ignores the teasing of others. This unique quality that makes him different becomes his strength as he outwits the wolf and calmly goes on being the person he wants to be.  I did not need to “tell” these students how they should act if someone teases them. They were already dealing with these issues on a daily basis. These young listeners were able to relate to Mucky Moose and the issues of teasing and controlling anger. Direct discussion of these topics might have created walls and closed down communication but the gift of a story allowed my students to assimilate models and ideas they needed in their own lives.


Sometimes your audience simply needs relief from their own problems - a few moments of forgetting when they can escape into a magical land where anything can happen. Grief is a heavy burden and the sheer weight of it can seem overwhelming. There are times when the grieving individual needs to leave the overwhelming here-and-now behind for another world for awhile. When you can leave a burden behind, to travel in the land of story, you may return stronger and more able to meet your challenges. 


At Christmas time, when my friend asked me to tell stories in her third grade classroom, she explained that a students’ mother had just committed suicide. This boy and his brother had found her body. This boy had chosen to attend school during the time between his mother’s death and her funeral, perhaps his way of reaching out for normalcy in his life. My friend was determined to make this school day as interesting as possible and to avoid dwelling further on this tragic event.  A guest storyteller was part of her plan. 


            What stories did I tell?  Christmas stories, I felt, would ignore the sadness of the occasion but stories about death would not allow the children the escape they may have needed. I chose to tell “Dragonfly's Tale”. This ancient Zuni story explains the origins of the dragonfly. In a time of famine, the Ashiwi tribe decided to travel to another tribe to seek help, but two children were accidentally left behind. The older boy wanted to distract his little sister's mind from hunger and missing her mother, so he created a creature out of cornhusks for little sister. How the dragonfly came to life and helped the two children is a magical story. During the time I was in the classroom, no mention was made of the death of their classmate's mother and yet through the story, messages were given that sometimes loved ones accidentally leave you behind. The person left behind has choices - and they can choose to go on. 


I am convinced that this was the right story for this group of listeners to hear at this moment. I want to believe that I helped the children in this class. No spoken word confirmed this - yet in my heart I know that I was empowered through the telling of this story.  Because my own emotions were so close to the surface, they slipped into the story, giving it a compelling, vibrant quality that is not always there under more normal circumstances.  Kids with intense personal concerns “are hungry for laughter, wonder and the kind of story which provides refreshment by lifting us out of the here-and-now” explains Oklahoma storyteller Fran Stallings. Sometimes a listener simply needs to feel the love that comes with any story.


In addition to offering a story that may provide emotional survival strategies, the storyteller has a responsibility to accept the listener as an individual. I was Crissy’s substitute teacher for preschool. Three year old Crissy was small and vulnerable. She was not happy being separated from her mother, in an unfamiliar place. Physical handicaps limited her movement and crying was the only way she could communicate verbally.  It was not unusual for Crissy to cry practically non-stop throughout the afternoon. I watched Crissy’s interactions. I observed that she seemed calmer during circle time and appeared to be listening some of the time. While Crissy was waiting for snacks to be prepared, I did a gentle “Tickle Mouse” finger play with her. There was no response - but she didn’t cry. I repeated it and then I tried “Here is a Bee Hive”, a lap rhyme which is, in essence, a little tale.  Again, no response - but no tears. I tried again. I gently took her hands and helped her do “Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake”.  After two or three repetitions, I stopped.  My arm was resting on the top of her wheel chair tray.  A minute later, I felt a small hand touch my arm. It was a deliberate motion on Crissy's part. I responded by repeating patty cake two or three more times.  This time I deliberately stopped and waited to see what would happen.  Crissy again reached out to take my arm.  I watched her face.  She was listening intently.  


We sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, and shared more interactive story-songs of “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on a Bed,” and “Five Little Monkeys Teasing Mr. Alligator.”  With each finger play, I adapted the movements to Crissy’s range of motion. Each time I stopped, her little hand reached out to take my arm.  Her eyes sparkled and she looked happier. I was told that this was the longest that Crissy had ever been quiet and that reaching out was a new behavior.  Crissy was a wonderful little listener!  She didn't get bored or tell me she had already heard that story. She simply listened and responded. I stopped by the classroom a week later and was told that “Crissy only cries now when her mother leaves.”  Perhaps she was ready to make this breakthrough on her own but I believe it was the power of storytelling that helped.  Even the tiniest of tales can truly make a difference! 


             The world is full of unique individuals, each one having value and worth.  It is essential that we meet people where they are, not where we think they should be.  There is a touch of arrogance in the concept that because I have a story to tell, the listener must be ready to hear it because I know it will help them. If a storyteller is able to abandon that "I" concept, the storyteller is then able to accept the individual listener and make a commitment to helping that individual where he is. With that commitment, the storyteller also accepts another implicit obligation. In addition to telling the stories that need to be told, the storyteller will also avoid telling stories that might hurt individuals. 


Why do people listen to stories?  Only the individual listener can say why he listens but storytellers offer some possible reasons:

¨      “Because when you hear a story it brightens up your own inner story.”  (Tuly Flint of Israel) 

¨      “I listen to stories because I want to cry and laugh without anyone getting hurt.”  (Mary Grace Ketner of Texas) 

¨      “Because you shake me up and force me to think.  Isn't that a sign of good story - one that shakes you on some level to laughter, tears, understanding, anger, fear, regret, joy?”  (Sean Buvala) 

¨      “The act of listening to stories helps us re-connect, or connect for the first time on a conscious level, with our own stories… or the stories we are living in the here-and now.”  (Audrey Galex of Georgia) 

¨      “Stories are often so satisfying because they manifest hope. Our lives are so full of failures and problems--little or large--that a happy ending is a relief.  (Tim Sheppard of England) 


            Sometimes stories echo the unspoken issues of your audience.  A story may allow the listener to feel these emotions or a non-threatening way to share them with others. It allows the listener protection and he can reach out for solutions and help, by discussing a story. As storyteller Papa Joe of New Hampshire says, “We all need a safe place to test emotions and behaviors.” Many adolescents find that safety in the story of “The Black Prince.”  This story has multiple themes; the insecurity of young love, assuming what another feels, acting on false assumptions and making choices that cannot be undone.  It is a story that allows teenagers to share thoughts and ideas that they would never share about themselves.


“There is something about the telling of stories that creates a recognized frame-work, that even quite young children can move around in with confidence and ease,” explains storyteller Allen Davies of Scotland. “Children are able to simultaneously believe utterly in the story whilst also knowing, at some level, that it’s not part of ordinary, everyday reality. Stories (so the cultural anthropologists tell us) once had a valuable place in society as... a way of creating a forum for discussing painful, difficult, even personal issues.  It worked because you could talk about things at one remove—talk about the story, not about . . . whatever the issue might be.” 


Eth Noh Tec, a storytelling duo from the San Francisco Bay Area, present a folktale they title “The Long Haired Girl.” The village desperately needs water and only this girl knows of a hidden spring. But the God of the Mountain has threatened the long haired girl with death if she reveals the secret.  Her hair turns white as she agonizes over her options. This courageous girl makes a difficult choice.  She tells the people where to find water and saves the village. The Spirit of the Banyan Tree intercedes and saves her from death. At the end of their performance, Nancy Wang steps outside her role as a storyteller to say, “Don’t keep an awful secret.  It’s important to tell the truth and share it with someone.” This story assures that other people can and will intercede to save you if you choose to tell.


            Stories teach us that good can triumph in spite of evil. “The babe in the cradle knows of the dragon,” said G.H. Chesterton, “he needs the stories to be aware of St. George.“  Evil is known by many names: violence, death, divorce, abuse, abandonment, loneliness, ridicule, bullying. Each individual needs to learn that sometimes victory is not necessarily escaping these evils - the victory can be that they have survived them. Somehow people need to discover that they have within themselves the strength and determination to fight their way through without letting these challenges conquer them. 


Every storytelling program needs balance and variety of stories - stories of magic, accomplishment, moral values, and historical or personal tales. Providing an assortment increases the opportunity that a storyteller will offer the "right" story to each individual. Stories’ magic is in revealing truths. But one storyteller telling one or two or three stories is not enough.  Both children and adult listeners need to hear many storytellers, many different stories, and even the same stories over and over again. And they must hear the stories now - before there is a need for the new choices that these stories may provide. Yes, one storyteller is not enough, but one storyteller is a beginning - one way to place tools for living into the hearts and memories of listeners!


Copyright 1999 Rose Owens


This is the text of the article which was published in The Healing Heart - Families, edited by Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert, New Society Publishers, 2003. 





Reference Books


The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1996.


Who's Afraid: Facing Children's Fears with Folktales, Norma J. Livo, Teacher's Ideas Press, Englewood, Co., 1994.



Stories That Offer Tools for Coping


“The Black Prince” told by Laura Simms

 Ready-To-Tell Tales: Sure-Fire Stories from America's Favorite Storytellers edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney, August House, Little Rock, AK, 1994.


“The Bundle of Sticks” (Aesop)

 The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennett, ed., Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993.


“Dragonfly’s Tale”

Dragonfly’s Tale,  Kristina Rodanas, Clarion Books, New York, 1992.

The Boy Who Made Dragonfly: A Zuni Myth, Tony Hillerman, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1986.


“The Happy Man’s Shirt” (Italy)

 Favorite Folktales from Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen, Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library, New York, 1988.


“The Story Spirits” (Korea)

Apples from Heaven: Multicultural Folk Tales about Stories and Storytellers, Naomi Baltuck, Linnet Books, 1995.


“I'm Tipingee, She's Tipingee, We're Tipingee Too” (Haiti)

The Magic Orange Tree and other Haitian Folktales, collected by Diane Wolkstein, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978.


“The King and His Hawk”, retold by James Baldwin, The Book of Virtues, William J. Bennet, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993.


“The Lion's Whisker”(West Africa)

Told by Len Cabral in  Ready-to-Tell Tales, David Holt & Bill Mooney, editors, August House Publishers, Inc., Little Rock, Ark., 1994.

The Lion's Whiskers and Other Ethiopian Tales, Brent Ashabranner and Russell Davis, Linnet Books, North Haven, Conn., 1997. 


“Ma Liang and His Magic Brush” (China)

 Ma Liang and His Magic Brush, China Books and Periodicals, 1981.

Tye May and the Magic Brush (China), Molly Garrett Bang,  Turtleback, 1992. 

The Magic Brush retold by Rose Owens  [link to story]


“Mucky Moose”

Mucky Moose, Jonathan Allen, Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 1990.


“Nadia the Willful” by  Sue Alexander

 Hey! Listen to This: Stories to Read Aloud, Jim Trelease, ed. Penguin Books, New York, 1992.


“The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle” (England)

Favorite Folktales from Around the World, edited by Jane Yolen, Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library, New York, 1988.


“The Waterfall of White Hair” (China)

Mother and Daughter Tales, Josephine Evetts-Secker, Abbeville Press, 1996. 


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