Honolulu Weekly, Tidbits from the Talk Story Fest, 2011

….Ruth Halpern from Oakland, California talked about how her spunky Grandma Elsie Loves Lists. As she listed each little anecdote, Halpern moved across the stage, literally portraying each stage of life until Grandma Elsie passed away. These kinds of stories, the ones about family and human relationships, rang true, and I was sad to part with the real-life characters so vividly described…..


Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1998

Ruth Halpern is a spellbinding master storyteller. Her eloquent voice, captivating tales and obvious respect for children are magical ingredients in these “Tales of Adventurous Heroines.” All superbly done are a Norwegian fairy tale, “The Princess on the Glass Hill”; the enjoyably “scary” “The Girl Who Wanted to Learn How to Shiver”; and the exotic “A Conversation in Signs,” in which a woman of peace protects her people from thieves in an unexpected way, They’re topped only by Halpern’s skillfully improvised, delightful fantasy, “Purple Styrofoam,” created with the help of an audience of children clearly transported into Halpern’s world of the imagination.

– Lynne Heffley


Parents’ Choice Foundation Gold Award

Parents’ Choice Gold Award With clarity, eloquent expression, and respect for young listeners, low-voiced Halpern spins “Tales of Adventurous Heroines” into storytelling gold. The opener, set in the Middle East of long ago, tells of a woman who protects her band of peaceful pilgrims from desert marauders. How? She has “A Conversation in Signs” with their leader. Using the only way the pair can communicate (sign language), good defeats evil in an unexpected way. “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a Norwegian tale follows; it’s about a youngest son of a farmer, magical horses and an “impossible” task. “The Girl Who Wanted to Learn How to Shiver,” is an offbeat “scary” story, featuring a smart and fearless heroine. Halpern caps her virtuoso performance with “Purple Styrofoam,” about a child’s adventure in a city of mechanical dolls, the last improvised from children’s suggestions. Reviewed May 4, 1998.

– Lynne Heffley


Reading and Writing and Goblins, Oh My

San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 1995

The second-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley gleefully shouted out story ideas yesterday until one boy with a rakish grin came up with a tale about Little Red Riding Hood driving a big red Ferrari.The room erupted with laughter as the children imagined the spectacle, and the teacher, Ruth Halpern, beamed like the proud mother of a child who had just taken his first step. (More…)

Halpern is a professional storyteller who is using a time-honored oratory tradition to provide some modern inspiration in the classroom, and the young boys’ whimsical suggestion was exactly what she was looking for.

The 33-year-old Berkeley computer consultant says that teaching children how to tell a good story stimulates their minds and that an understanding of the art of improvisation is crucial to the process.

“For children who don’t like to read or write, a well-told story can unlock a lot of the magic that can be hidden in books,” said Halpern. “That is especially important today because television has taken away one of the most important jobs of the audience, which is the ability to create images in your head.”

Halpern has been telling stories to adults and children at schools and camps, during group rafting trips and at seminars and workshops for nine years. She said she was inspired during childhood by her father, who regaled her with accounts of a fictional superhero named Tom Tuchus, and her mother, who told her gripping stories about life when she was a child.

Fascinated by mythology and folklore, Halpern created her own major called “forms of narrative” at the University of California at Berkeley and began honing her skills immediately after graduation.

Concerned about an apparent decline in communications skills among children, she began the six-week workshop for kindergartners through third-graders at Jefferson School, on Ada Street, last month. The school cannot afford to pay her, so she teaches the class for free and supports herself with funds from a computer consulting business she runs on the side.

Halpern tells the children folk tales and other stories from a wide variety of cultures. She then discusses visualization and memory techniques, story mapping and presentation skills. She said the exercises drastically improve children’s’ memories and communicative skills and stimulate their interest in reading.

“Belief is a big components of truth,” Halpern said. “If you believe in magic, it will work. Allowing yourself to believe in the magic in a story will expose you to a different level of existence and make your life richer.”

During yesterday’s workshop, Halpern asked students to come up with a story that starts big and ends small.

Nicolas Stephens, 7, made up a story about a rich man who lost everything to burglars and thieves and ended up with nowhere to stand because the earth had been stolen from under his feet. A ponytailed girl told about a long word that kept dropping letters until only one letter was left.

Halpern said that until recently, the primary means of communicating cultural values and knowledge in many parts of the world was by telling stories. She said television, computers, telephones and other technology have transformed our world and are beginning to take away our ability to use our imaginations and dream.

“A friend of mine’s daughter recently saw a rainbow and said, ‘look Mom, it looks just like a gradient blend,’ which is a computer function,” Halpern said. “That illustrates the danger of kids getting too lost in technology rather that the textures of the real world. I want to give children that texture by nourishing them with stories.”

– Peter Fimrite


School Library Journal, November 1998

Ruth Halpern presents three folktales and one original story with strong, independent heroines who use wit and determination to achieve their goals. The smooth voiced storyteller starts with a conversation and promises her young and very polite audience that her stories will take them places “they never dreamed of but always wanted to go.” In the Norwegian tale, “The Princess on the Glass hill,” the young princess takes a hand in her destiny. In “A Conversation in Signs,” a story from the Middle East, a young woman outwits a band of thieves without saying a word. “The Girl Who Wanted to Learn How to Shiver” is an English tale about a young princess who finally gets a shudder down her spine when she encounters a young man fishing. The original story “Purple Styrofoam,” is done with audience participation. Stories are separated by pleasant appropriate musical interludes and Halpern keeps an even if sometimes slow moving pace. This tape would work nicely with a literature unit on female protagonists or as an additional resource for storytellers.

– Barbara S.Wysocki, Cora J. Benden Library, Rocky Hill, CT

Booklist – August, 1998

These four delightful tales are examples of storytelling at its best and will appeal to a wide range of listeners. “A Conversation in Signs” points to the consequences of misinterpretation; “The Princess on the Glass Hill” intriguingly combines stupid Jack tales and Atalanta’s golden apples; and “The Girl Who Wanted to Learn How to Shiver” is a seeker tale. All the tales are told before a live audience, but in “Purple Styrofoam,” storyteller Ruth Halpern seamlessly weaves ideas from a group of young girls into a thoughtful and interesting story. Halpern’s storytelling is fluid, imaginative, and involving. She uses folk- and fairy-tale conventions to celebrate the adventurous young woman in search of her true self. A solid hit for the storytelling shelves.

–Laurie Hartshorn

The Montclarion – February, 1999

Fifth-graders learn the art of storytelling

Oakland, CA–A group of fifth-graders stand in a circle, getting very mad.

Some glower, squinting their eyes and pulling their mouths into exaggerated frowns. Others stand still in stone-faced fury. Still others stamp their feet and shake their fists in the air.

Two minutes later, the fifth-graders are models of exhaustion, with slack faces and arms that seem to sag out of their sockets. Rather than a manifestation of the students’ inner conflict, the range of emotion are simply facial warm-up exercises for the intergenerational storytelling workshop that has come to Crocker Highlands Elementary School, Feb. 22.

“Now, show me how you would look at the end of an extremely boring day of sitting around and watching TV,” says Ruth Halpern, the professional storyteller who leads the workshop. “No sounds, just show me with your face.”

On cue, the students go wide-eyed and limp.

The workshop aims to teach students the art of storytelling, and warming up the face and body is the first step, explains Halpern to the children. Bringing a story to life and transfixing the audience requires more than a rote recitation of the tale. Eye contact, voice projection, careful word choice and thinking through a story before beginning to tell it are essential to good storytelling, says Halpern later. Or, as she tells the Crocker Highlands students, “The three essential tools of storytelling are body, voice, and imagination.”

Halpern asks the students to say their name and make a sound of their choice. Going around the circle, the fifth-graders meow, bark, growl, snap, stomp and laugh.

Although some storytellers say the story should tell itself, and downplay the gestures and physical movement used by Halpern, Halpern emphasizes body and voice in her workshops. She does so partly because physical storytelling engages children in a workshop setting, and because she believes that “the more fully you’re in your body, the more vividly you can convey (the story).”

Minnie Bateman, a storyteller who is co-teaching the workshop with Halpern, says she never memorizes stories word for word. “Storytelling comes from the heart and from what you know,” says Bateman. She is a member of Stagebridge, the oldest senior theater troupe in the country, which serves as a training program for senior actors and storytellers. Bateman. A popular storyteller who goes by the name of Mini Bee, tours local schools telling fairy, folk and personal tales to young children.

Halpern has been a professional storyteller for 10 years. She brought Monday’s workshop to Crocker Highlands as a member of Stagebridge, and works as an independent storyteller who does assemblies and workshops. She has also recorded an award-winning cassette, “She Set Out to Seek Her Fortune.”

In spite of the abundance of one-way interactions manifested by TV and computers, or maybe because of them, storytelling is enjoying a renaissance. “All of us have an innate nutritional need for stories,” says Halpern. It is important not just to tell, but to hear stories, she adds.

“The story-making instinct is very very basic to our instinctual process,” says Halpern. “For human beings, the way we make sense of our lives is to tell stories about them.”

Halpern and Bateman both say that students they visit seem to have a strong need for the interactive aspect of storytelling.

This kind of human contact is less and less available in our media-saturated culture, where the average 6-year-old has human-to-human contact only 15 percent of the day, says Halpern. “I think that people have a real hunger to hear individual voices,” she says.

Because a storyteller talks to an audience, rather than performing in front of them like an actor, it is a very intimate art, says Halpern. “In storytelling, there is a you there. I’m there at the heart of it.”

Another reason for the resurgence of storytelling is that children today are more curious about their families, say Bateman and Halpern. Telling tales is a traditional way to pass down information and family folklore through the generations, they maintain.

Generations ago, many immigrants left their family tales at Ellis Island-the immigration-processing center in New York that greeted the country’s newcomers-in an effort to assimilate into the American culture, says Halpern. “Now we’re realizing that those (stories) were lost treasures,” she says.

Monday’s meeting is Halpern’s second with the fifth-graders. In the first session, she asked the students to go home and ask their parents the story of how they got their names. Today, she invites the students to stand before the group and tell their story.

She gets a mixed reaction. Some students shoot their hands into the air, wriggling their fingers. Others avert their eyes and try to slump into the floor.

Raven Charles-Stone, a tall student with long dark braids, walks shyly across the circle, stands next to Halpern and relates her story. Her mother told her she got her name both from the bible and from the bird, Raven tells the group. “My mom said that the raven helps people and maybe one day I’ll help somebody too,” she says.

Next, the group plays “How Hot Was It?” Halpern asks the students to close their eyes and remember a time when it was really hot. “I mean, a day so hot that even when you’re sitting still, a drip of sweat goes down your spine,” says Halpern to her rapt audience. “Feel that hot breeze, like the breath from a hot oven.” She asks them to remember the smells of that day, how their shoes and scalps felt, and tells them that the details are necessary to paint a picture with words.

“It was so hot my nose caught on fire,” says one impish boy.

“I put a piece of bread outside and got toast,” says a girl.

Halpern says she loves working with fifth-graders. “They are totally intellectually alert,” she says. “Their spirit of participation and their imagination is still really free.”

Halpern says that kids need to feel they have a safe environment to tell their story. Repeated visits are the key to reconciling the internal conflict between their social inhibitions and their childlike imagination.

“They learn that people aren’t going to laugh at them as much as laugh with them,” says Bateman.

Storytelling can be a positive outlet for students who are out of the mainstream, says Halpern. Children who act out or who are the class clown are often skilled storytellers, she says.

And, says Halpern, “for kids who don’t read, storytelling is such a great avenue into language.”

Bateman, who has dyslexia, understands this well. She left school in the 10th grade and still doesn’t read easily. “I’ve been there,” she says. “I do everything the hard way.” She has put some of her facility for stories on tape for future generations.

After the workshop, Halpern and Bateman are buoyant. “They all had contributions, says Halpern. “They knew they had stories.”

–Suzanne Baker

San Ramon Valley Times, March 8, 1999

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day through eyes of storyteller

She speaks with expression, slowly at first, inviting the listener to lean closer, as she colorfully describes a ferry ride on a blustery day to the southernmost island of Ireland. Her voice is captivating and her stories are sure to intrigue and interest even the youngest audience.

Ruth Halpern, a storyteller, will present St. Patrick’s Day stories for the after-school program at the San Ramon Library at 3:30 P.M. March 17. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade are welcome to attend this free, 45-minute program, which is sponsored by the San Ramon Library Foundation.

A professional storyteller for the past 15 years, Halpern says she has traveled all over the world to collect stories from various cultures and most recently spent three weeks in Ireland and Scotland, where, she says, the people are natural storytellers and storytelling is not just an art form but also a form of conversation.

As a child growing up just outside Washington, Halpern was surrounded by storytellers and probably began her own storytelling as soon as she was able to talk. Later, after attending school in Ohio, she ended up at UC-Berkeley, where she designed her own major, “Forms of Narrative,” graduated and made a home for the past 17 years.

Storytelling is such a wonderful medium, Halpern says, because “everyone in the audience gets to make up their own pictures and be creative.” Storytelling, she adds, also provides a way to appreciate the beauty of language.

Telling a story to a child versus reading a book to a child allows eye contact between the storyteller and the child. The attention makes the audience feel very special, she adds.

To Halpern, a good story, “has to have a character I care about, vivid images so I can paint a picture in my mind, some suspense and the ability to make me laugh or cry. Preferably both.”

Halpern says she particularly likes tales about adventuresome heroines and produced a tape of such stories called, “She Set Out to Seek Her Fortune,” for which she was awarded the Parents’ Choice Award in 1998. She also enjoys improvisation in which she starts a story and invites the audience to participate with the telling.

Halpern says children will ask, “What are you going to read us?” She answers, “I’m not going to read. I knew these stories by heart.” They question how she remembers these stories without the book, to which she responds, “I remember the pictures, not the words.”

– Monica Lander