“AJ” keeps telling tales all over the place — but she’s no compulsive liar. While most of the Raglan woman’s stories are complete and utter fabrications, that’s simply the nature of her work.
AJ — full name Athene Jensen — has been on the road around the Waikato for five years now, enthralling kids with traditional tales and drawing them into imaginary worlds with her particular brand of interactive storytelling.
She starts with her treasure chest — nothing fancy, just a big rectangular cardboard-box construction with rounded lid and a lick of paint — which she opens up to reveal some simple props. She might use a jar to tell the story of a troll and a butterfly, or a two-litre plastic ice-cream container on her head as a hat which kids get to rap on as another tale unfolds.
Then there’s the golden goose from the treasure chest, and the kids are keen to “stick” their hands to it — and to each other — as the tale gets going. But there’s no such prop needed for The Giant Turnip fairytale. Any old adult can be the turnip, says AJ, and there’s no shortage of littlies clamouring to hold on tight to it and then to each other for effect.
AJ’s rendition of Stone Soup, however, has her young audiences clasping various papier mache vegetables that she chooses from the chest, waiting for their turn to add each to the soup pot, real or imagined.
All the time AJ’s delivering her compelling stories, she’s ad libbing, using different voices, and pulling funny faces. It’s all about involving her young protégés as she rabbits on: getting them to “run” for instance by slapping their hands on their knees — fast — as the hare is hellbent on beating the tortoise to the finish line.
They’re rollicking three-quarter hour storytelling sessions repeated in early childhood centres, kindergartens and at festivals all over the Waikato, and AJ reckons she’s told them so much now they’re “probably word perfect”.
And yes, she still gets nervous when tackling new stories with her young fans. Sometimes too, she admits, “I tell stories and they flop”. It’s a bit like being a comedian, she says.
But for the most part, AJ’s Travelling Tales business keeps her young clientele utterly entranced and enthralled. It’s a business she says she doesn’t have to advertise; it’s all word-of-mouth. “I’m quite well known in the early childhood arena — in the Waikato anyway.”
AJ was raised by parents who told stories. Her mum told of a youth which included growing up around the stockyards in Frankton, remembers AJ, while dad would take her and her sisters driving all over the country and would immediately launch into the Maori legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, for instance, when Lake Rotorua was spotted.
AJ in turn grew up and got to tell her own stories to a captive audience as a young early childhood teacher at the age of 20.
“Tell me a story, not with a book, with your mouth,” was the plea from the pre-schoolers, reminding AJ of herself begging her dad to “tell me about the one where the dog got the chicken”.
She’s honed those skills since setting up in business with a healthy grant — an enterprise allowance — from the Government to kick-start Travelling Tales.
“Storytelling is my passion,” says AJ. The 37-year-old, who lives in Raglan with her partner and a dog, admits to loving the “organic” nature of the art form.
Stories travel around the world, she says, being re-told and adapted for eager listeners. “They reflect our past and present societies and ways of life.”
AJ’s seen little ones soon learn to put simple well-structured stories together themselves, letting their own imaginations run riot with liberal dousings of the princesses and dragons of old.
Storytelling, she reckons, is just “paint for the imagination”.
While working with kids is paramount, AJ also runs storytelling seminars for adults at Waikato University where she’s currently indulging another passion and studying part-time for her masters degree in theatre studies.
“As adults,” she says, “we need to be honest and true to the kids in us. Kids are very cool.”
“Adults are cool too,” she adds, “just some of them have forgotten how to be cool.”
Edith Symes