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Stories We Tell

August 5, 2014 | by

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It’s a strange coincidence that I should think to look up Ruth Sawyer today. Last night, I mentioned her book Roller Skates to a friend—I thought her nine-year-old daughter might enjoy it—but I had no idea that August 5 was her birthday.

Sawyer died in 1970, at the age of ninety. As a young woman, she traveled to Cuba, where she worked in kindergartens established for orphans of the Spanish American War, training their teachers in how to tell stories. Upon returning to New York, Sawyer obtained a scholarship to study storytelling and folklore. She went to work telling stories in the city’s school system, working primarily with immigrant children, and later founded the NYPL’s first storytelling program. Throughout her career, she would travel around the world collecting folktales, and for many years she volunteered as a storyteller at a women’s prison. Her Way of the Storyteller, from 1942, is still regarded as a landmark text—one full of charm and interest for the layman, too.

The stories she learned and the people she met inspired several of her many children’s books. But the most famous, Roller Skates, which won the Newbery in 1937, was, frankly, autobiographical: The story of one year in the life of a well-to-do New York ten-year-old. Like her heroine, Lucinda Wyman, Ruth Sawyer also spent 1890 away from her parents, who were traveling. Far from resenting their absence, she found the time living in a boarding house to be one of adventure and discovery. Read More »

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