Sharing Great Stories: A Conversation With Jim Weiss

By Barbara Danza, Epoch Times
September 5, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

Award-winning storyteller Jim Weiss is at it again with his latest audio recordings and companion books of beloved classics, including “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “American Tall Tales,” “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” “Spooky Classics for Children,” and “King Arthur and His Knights.”

Having forged a career out of making tales of history and literary classics accessible and joyfully entertaining to children and their families, Weiss’s distinctive voice is familiar one in many homes, especially those of homeschooling families, where he’s a bonafide celebrity.

Weiss has received more than 100 major awards from organizations such as the American Library Association, Parents’ Choice Foundation, Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, and Film Advisory Board for his remarkable work.

As a fan myself, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask Weiss about his career and his thoughts on engaging children through storytelling.

The Epoch Times: How did your love of storytelling develop?

Jim Weiss: It was a combination of factors. First, I was fortunate enough to have a father and grandfather who told us stories, and a mother who read aloud to us. So I associated stories with fun and also recognized how pleasant a source of learning they could be.

The Epoch Times: Have you always wanted to be a professional storyteller?

Mr. Weiss: I always loved stories, music, and writing. Before I took up storytelling as a profession, I was a singer and songwriter, but the stories kept forcing themselves to the surface. My wife says, “You always wanted to be a best-selling recording artist, and you became one—but you ended up recording a different sort of material.”

The Epoch Times: What was your favorite story as a child? What’s the favorite story you’ve recorded?

Mr. Weiss: I have many favorites, both from fiction and from history.  One reason I love my career is that I am constantly finding wonderful, new stories. I get very excited to share them with my listeners.

The Epoch Times: Why is it important to focus on classic literature?

Mr. Weiss: There are two primary reasons. First, these stories have lasted long enough to become “classics” because, fundamentally, they are great stories, built around great characters and exciting events. As a result, we refer to them in a sort of “shorthand” to explain events and people in our own lives: “She has a golden touch” means everything she tries succeeds or brings her money; “he’s a regular Benedict Arnold” refers to someone with turncoat or traitorous impulses. If you don’t know the stories, you miss the reference, so it is essential to know these basic stories.

Second, the greatest stories offer the chance to look on deeper levels for lessons we can apply in our own lives. Almost without exception, the classics can be learning tales. This is equally true for fiction and non-fiction classics, and it’s the reason that stories are the strongest vehicle for passing along our most deeply held beliefs to the next generation. They engage our emotions and our mind simultaneously, so we remember what we learned.   

The Epoch Times: Why do you think classics like these don’t get more attention in schools?

Mr. Weiss: I think classic stories should be a part of every curriculum. This should include classics from other cultures, too, because they offer insights into, and in some ways can validate, those cultures. They shine a light on how different people think and act. But many educators are so intent on enlarging their students’ understanding of other cultures that they fail to present, or spend time on, classics from the West. We need both.  

There is the additional factor that some educators think, “Oh, my students will never sit still for these stories.” Yet these same educators will tell you that nothing excites students more than Greek mythology. The educators see stories as a separate category, rather than teaching about the works of composers, scientists, visual artists, musicians, etc., through the stories of the people who created them.  

The Epoch Times: Do you have any advice for parents about choosing great literature for their children’s library?

Mr. Weiss: Try to share a variety of stories that focus on different eras and locations, as well as different types of characters. If you can tie a literary classic to the era or nation your child is already studying, you can bring that time or place to life.

The Epoch Times: What advice would you give parents about reading aloud to their children?

Mr. Weiss: Think of yourself as a translator. Don’t be afraid to stop and explain a point, although you should try not to break up the flow of the story in a really dramatic moment. Also, it’s all right to paraphrase a bit if you think that one section or sentence in an otherwise appropriate story is too intense or complex for your child at this particular age. You are still presenting the intent of the story. Later, your child will be ready for the original text.

If you want to change voices between characters, all you need to do is contrast high vs. low voices, loud vs. soft, smooth vs. jumpy, fast vs. slow, or other simple contrasts. Don’t get lost in the process, though; do it only if it works for you.

The Epoch Times: What do you think are the greatest benefits of listening to stories read or told aloud?

Mr. Weiss: First, there is nothing more likely to light a general love for learning than a great story told well.

Second, in listening to and reading stories, we also teach our brains how to organize materials in a useful format. Literally, we are learning how to learn and organize materials as we learn to follow the patterns and structure that most stories follow.

Third, sharing a story you care about with your child is one of the strongest ways you and he or she can bond emotionally. Consciously or not, children recognize when you are sharing something you really care about, and that you care enough about them to do this.

Fourth, there’s nothing better than watching that cartoon light bulb going on over the head of a listener who has suddenly found something new and exciting in her or his world. People tell me, “I’m a scientist/artist/engineer/composer/author because of that story you told about (fill in a name).” You just never know which story will be “the one” to open an entire field of interest, or potential career, to your child.

The Epoch Times: What motivates you to keep doing this work?

Mr. Weiss: Easy: It’s still fun.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza