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Ruth Sawyer and the Way of the Storyteller

Ruth Sawyer lived an extraordinary life. Though born many years before women had the right to vote, there is no doubt that she was a thoroughly independent and extremely intelligent woman with a knack for collecting stories and retelling them.

She did more than collect interesting tales and set them in books, although that would be enough for many writers. But Ruth did more. For her, connecting children with stories was critical.  After attending the Garland Kindergarten Training School, she moved to Cuba in 1900 to teach storytelling to teachers working with children who were orphaned during the Spanish-American War.

Cover to The Way of the StorytellerToday, storytimes and libraries go hand and hand, and Ruth was a pioneer in that field, starting the first storytime program at the New York Public Library in 1910. She also went around to other places both in the city and beyond, sort of an itinerant storyteller. Ruth went to women’s prisons and missions, carrying stories with her and picking up more stories from her audiences.

In the 1930s, a newspaper who hired her sent her to Spain just as the Spanish Civil War was breaking out to collect stories--a dangerous proposition, but with her pluck and ability to make friends wherever she went, Ruth stuck to her itinerary and used the material she gathered during those unsettled months to write several books both for children and adults, including the delightful travelogue laced with stories, My Spain: A Storyteller’s Year of Collecting.

Where did such an influential and fearless woman get her gumption? From another storyteller. Ruth came from a rather well-off family and shortly after she was born, the family moved to New York City. Her first years were surrounded by the sights of the metropolis. Johanna, an Irish-born servant who was a natural storyteller, filled the Sawyer children’s imaginations with tales from the Emerald Isle. When she was a grown woman, Ruth would share both Johanna’s stories and style and make a trip to Ireland to gather more stories from native tellers.

Cover to Roller SkatesBut her childhood experiences weren’t quite finished. After their father’s early death, the family became poorer and moved to their summer house in Maine full-time, trying to live off the land and the sea. It was a summer cottage, meaning it wasn’t weather-proofed, and the family had a very hard time keeping warm in the winter. Ruth captured the essence of both parts of her childhood in two novels for young people. Roller Skates, set on the streets of New York during the heroine Lucinda’s tenth year, has all the freedom of that magical time that lies in-between young childhood and being a teenager. It was a refreshing, joyous read and yet ahead of its era in tackling difficult subjects. Roller Skates won the Newbery Medal in 1937. That story continued in The Year of Jubilo, set on the windswept Maine coast as Lucinda’s life continued to parallel the author’s own.

Ruth Sawyer went on to write many books and separate stories but probably her most influential work is The Way of the Storyteller. It is a warm introduction to the art of storytelling and would still be a good choice for beginning tellers of tales, both written and spoken. Ruth had the academic background to understand the historical underpinnings of the tales she collected, tweaked, and retold.  In this one volume she gives what amounts to lectures on the nature of handed-down stories, a chronicle of her own experiences, and a selection of tales for beginning tellers to try.

Ruth Sawyer wrote down folktales for magazines, newspapers and story collections faithfully, but always with an eye to their retelling and their underlying truth. Unlike many writers of her time, she was not trying to teach any obvious, overriding lesson or moral. Their gist was more a way of being--and a way of being happy. As she remarked in her Newbery acceptance speech for Roller Skates:

“If this book has any point at all it lies in the fact of freedom for every child, in his own way, that he, too, may catch the music of the spheres....A free child is a happy child; and there is nothing more lovely; even a disagreeable child ceases to be disagreeable and is liked.”

Fast Facts:

Born: August 5, 1880 in Boston, Massachusetts to Francis Milton and Ethelinda J. (Smith) Sawyer.

Education: Garland Kindergarten Training School; B.S. in Education from Columbia University in 1904.

Married: Albert C. Durand, in 1911; children: David and Margaret

Notable Career Events: started first storytime program for children at the New York Public Library in 1910; her classic handbook on the art of storytelling, The Way of the Storyteller, was first published in 1942 and is still in print, used by generations of teachers, librarians, and other storytellers

Awards: Newbery Medal for Roller Skates (1937); received the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award in 1965; Journey Cake, Ho! (illustrated by her son-in-law, Robert McCloskey of Make Way for Ducklings! fame) and The Christmas Anna Angel, illustrated by Kate Seredy, both won the Caldecott Honor for illustration.

Died: June 3, 1970 in Lexington, Massachusetts*

Cover to The Remarkable Christmas of the Cobbler's Sons, one of her many Christmas storiesSources:

Literature Resource Center

Mulholland, Marion J. "Ruth Sawyer." American Writers for Children, 1900-1960. Ed. John Cech. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 22. Document UR: http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.crrl.org/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CH1200001965&v=2...

JSTOR

“Fairy Gold in a Storyteller's Yarn.”  Sheila R. Sullivan. Elementary English, Vol. 35, No. 8 (DECEMBER, 1958), pp. 502-507.

"’Roller Skates’ Wins Newbery Award." Muriel Gilbert. Bulletin of the American Library Association, Vol. 31, No. 7 (JULY, 1937), pp. 417-418. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25689150

Also on the Web:

*“Celebrated Storyteller Wrote of Maine,” Lewiston Evening Journal, March 13, 1971. (Magazine section, pg. 1)

This detailed newspaper story appeared within a year after her death.

Ruth Sawyer: A Fascinating History

Her family home in Maine is now a bed & breakfast.