How a youth comes to tell tall tales could be a tall tale itself, as much of the nation focuses on the Internet and other devices that keep people from sharing stories on a person-to-person basis. Yet, the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Finalists Alyssa Hansen, Brenna Barnson and Spencer Parkinson have accomplished feats that would make Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan smile.
These youth may not carry a snake lasso or a 20-foot long axe, but they do have a talent or two in their belt that makes them storytelling heroes.
When the call for youth tellers was sounded in Utah, Alyssa, Brenna, and Spencer answered it with original tall tales that reflected the awe and grandeur of the nation’s mountains, lakes, plains, and forests as shared by pioneers and frontiersmen from the 1820s to the 1860s.
From Fish Lake to the Great Salt Lake to Goblin Valley, the audiences learned how such fantastic features came to be in Utah. Three finalists were chosen to perform along six professional storytellers as part of the 2nd Annual Frontier Fest in Gardner Village of West Jordan, UT and were judged a second time to determine the champion.
Alyssa, the 2008 Youth Tall Tale Champion, admitted, “I almost created a story on how green jello was created but it evolved into something else.” As so many people from the honey state bring this refreshing dessert—filled normally with shredded carrots or any number of fruits and vegetables—to countless gatherings, it is only natural that someone would wonder its beginnings. Instead, Alyssa introduced us to Strong Willie and how the dinosaur eggs came to hatch in Fish Lake.
While reading about Paul Bunyan, the 8th grade homeschooler Alyssa envisioned that this giant must not have been the only one to roam America. Though having one experience with storytelling before the Youth Tall Tale Contest, she had discovered that participating in eight plays previous was enough to give her the desire to experiment with other arts. She had developed characters before, such as in the play “The Summer Garden”, a version of the Beauty and the Beast story.
Her favorite drama teacher, Mrs. Kelly Johnson, allowed her to evolve one of the goblins, Garmangarbis, with a character sketch and background that transformed a once intended sinister male character into a comic-relief female role. “She’s like a friend more than a teacher,” shared Alyssa when thinking of Mrs. Johnson.
Though Mrs. Johnson could not make the performance, Alyssa’s brother, Peter, was dragged to the Frontier Fest event “against his will”. After hearing his sister perform, he stated, “I liked listening to it” while Alyssa’s father noted, “She became a totally different person up there.” Grandma, grandpa, mom and three other siblings were among Alyssa’s cheerleaders.
Fourth grader Brenna Barnson also had family support to include her grandma, mom, and older sister. Brenna’s mother, Julie, beamed, “I didn’t have to push her or prompt her to write the story or to practice. I was pleased at how motivated she was to try this new thing.”
Known for her involvement with “Up with Kids”, a nonprofit musical theatre program to teach basics of acting and choreography, Brenna had graced the stage for several productions such as “Little Mermaid and Her Adventures with the Pirates of the Caribbean” and "Shrek 2 3/4" in which every kid gets a speaking part. Performing evolved into playing musical instruments including the piano, recorder, clarinet and even her nose (perhaps not as often as she used to do).
Brenna’s creativity is prime when in the backyard. She revealed, “I think the best when I am on the swing. Best time to think—all calm, swinging back and forth—except when I want to jump off the swing!” One of these moments outside inspired her “Sally and the Tricky Tiger” story. A tiger is delivered to a girl in Utah and a riddle match ensues. Eventually, the audience understands how the Great Salt Lake came to exist.
Brenna often drove past the lake on the way to her cousins in Tooele and the lake reminded her of a snowy land because of all the salt on the shores. One of her cousins warned her, “The worst thing you can do is walk into the Great Salt Lake with lots of scrapes!” There was also the time when Brenna used to live in West Valley City and the wind would blow the smells of the Great Salt Lake to her home. Brenna exclaimed, “It smelled like a skunk had died and I’d say ‘I’m playing inside!’”
Despite nervousness of using a clip-on microphone for the first time, at a certain point in the story she forgot she was wearing it. Brenna tapped into the confidence displayed by her professional storyteller inspirations: her mom and Grammy-award winner, Bill Harley. A couple months previous, Brenna won along with her class in the Bill Harley’s poetry contest. Her poem and another classmate’s piece were posted on his website and the class received signed CDs.
One of Bill Harley’s stories was the official beginning to 6th grader Spencer Parkinson’s involvement with storytelling. While driving to Goblin Valley, part of a former annual or bi-annual family tradition, then five-year-old Spencer listened intently to Bill Harley’s “The Teeny Tiny Ghost” story in the car.
By the time the tents were set up and people gathered around the campfire, Spencer could recite the story word-for-word. Some people had joined the gathering besides his family and several were known to ask, “How can such a little kid tell a story so well?”
Such comments catapulted Spencer’s creativity as he created stories such as a boy who had a name that sounded like a girl and wanted to avoid being a dork for such a name to a story about a guy known as the Abraham Lincoln Woodchip Genie.
Spencer loves telling tall tales as he explained, “There is no limit to what I can say. I can expand the truth beyond what it is expandable to.” With medieval characters like King Utah and Prince Wasatch, a magic ping-pong paddle and ball comes to be main focus for the story “How Goblin Valley was formed”. The ideas did not come so quickly to him as for a while he didn’t like the story. Then Ginger, Spencer’s mother, noticed, “It took 30 seconds, once he decided it was a magic ping pong ball, the whole story changed and it finished itself.”
When drawing medieval scenes or goblins, somehow a kid with a ping-pong paddle always crept into Spencer’s pictures. Earlier in the day while working on his tall tale, he also saw a television show with some made-up creatures. One of these creatures was named Blue who was horrible at playing ping-pong. Thus, the idea stuck and Spencer was ready to audition.
When he became a finalist, his sister’s Kindergarten teacher, now working on a storytelling masters at the Utah Valley University, was quick to invite her current storytelling class to watch Spencer perform at Frontier Fest. At least five of her classmates were there along with Spencer’s mother, brother, two sisters, granddad and grandmother. Dad had been there for Spencer through the practice times and gave appreciations for his work.
Spencer as well as Brenna and Alyssa dedicated much to give wonderful performances. They all had some advice for future youth tellers. Alyssa said, “You can think about your story too much before you perform it. You have to relax and let it flow through you.”
Sometimes, as Spencer commented, it is best to “just do it.” He liked the experience because he had a chance to make up stories. “And I’m good at it,” he expressed, “—at least that’s what my mom tells me.” Ginger quickly agreed and mentioned that when it came to participating in the Youth Tall Tale Contest, “This is really fun. . .but it’s an easier thing not to do it—but just go for it and do it.”
In case any doubt lingers, Brenna urged, “Jump in head first. I jumped head first into it without thought of any challenges I would face. Leap before you think. If I would have thought about it, I might have said ‘not this time’.” With a smile she added, “I’m glad I did it.”
For details on the rules or live audition dates for the Youth Tall Tale Contest, feel free to contact Rachel Hedman at (801) 870-5799 or at email@example.com.
Until we tell again,
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance