From clickbait thumbnails to serious, serif font newspapers, stories of child heroes inundate our culture. Their exploits range from quotidian good deeds to revolutionary movement-building. Some, like Ruby Bridges, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg, become household names for their immense bravery amid adversity or their shattering of oppressive barriers.
The typical narrative of the child hero, the one dispersed by teachers, evening news segments and picture books, intends to tell children that they, too, can be brave, stand up for themselves and overcome trauma. Often, these narratives — which are already condescending in tone — ignore a glaring question: Why were these children subjected to traumas in the first place, and how can grownups stop that from happening again?
A Durham-based children’s storyteller and aerial performer Amy Godfrey wants to change the dominant narrative around children, and she wants to change how adults talk about and to them. Godfrey believes that children are full, autonomous individuals from the moment they are born, worthy of respect,attention and free will. Through her work, she is guiding a new generation to grow into emotionally intelligent adults capable of weathering and deconstructing the crises facing the world — an ambitious feat, woefully unaccomplished by generations of adults prior.
When I spoke to Amy, though, she couldn’t say that the next generation will fare any better, only that she hopes they will. She was sitting in her backyard on a Wednesday morning. Behind her was a fort adorned with flowers and a red picket fence with tufts of crawling ivy. On her Youtube channel, where some of her quarantine-era storytellings have been made public, she opens her videos with a welcome song. Seated “criss-cross applesauce” in the grass, banjo in hand, she sings, “Hello my friends / I’m glad that we’re together / Even though we’re far apart / You know my friends that this won’t last forever / Even though I know that it feels hard.”
Such a simple, sweet song, performed against this bucolic backdrop, may sound distant from the screeching electric guitars and hollers of punk rock, but Godfrey, a former punk rocker herself, sees her storytelling as an extension of her time in different bands.
“For years, I was trying to find ways to create events that were all-ages, where everyone would be welcome to come,” Godfrey said. “At some point I was like, ‘How can I do this and get paid to do it?’ So that’s where I got the idea of becoming a librarian.”
After receiving her master’s degree in library science, Godfrey worked as a tween librarian and later as a children’s librarian at Durham’s Southwest Regional Library. In that time, she developed a following for her dynamic and socially sensitive storytimes. Now that she has two kids of her own, she has transitioned out of her job as a public librarian and works independently in her children’s storytelling venture. She has partnered with Regulator Bookshop and Levin JCC, and she works alongside other vibrant local storytelling platforms, like Nolia’s Neighborhood. While Godfrey often chooses books that address important issues like race, gender and consent, she approaches her storytime not as a lecture but as a genuine conversation.
“We tend to look at children as these unmolded balls of clay that we need to shape and form into a respectable person, versus a full and complete human from the day they are born who just needs support,” Godfrey said. “I want children to feel seen. I want them to feel like what they have to say is important. I want them to feel heard.”
Victoria Facelli, who attended Godfrey’s storytimes first as a nanny and later as a mother, described herself as “probably Amy’s oldest fan.” She traced with enthusiasm some of the ways Godfrey has stood out as a storyteller: incorporating sign language into her storytimes; interacting with children individually, even over Zoom; and allowing conversation to occur naturally in the middle of her readings.
“One of the things I laugh about with other parents is that it’s literary criticism for toddlers,” Facelli said. “I really like how she doesn’t shy away from hard topics… [Godfrey] has this perspective that kids have the same right to media that we all do. They get to choose their media, and we can talk to them about it.”
As is the case with many performers, the transition to virtual programming has given Godfrey opportunities for creativity, although, as one would expect, the medium is far from ideal for capturing and keeping toddlers’ attention. Recently, she led the children in a game where they guessed her emotions as she was wearing a mask, normalizing consciousness of others’ feelings: an especially important task amid a pandemic that presents challenges to building community and friendship for children, Godfrey emphasized, as much as anyone else.
In a world facing a catastrophic convergence of structural racism, disease, climate change and persisting violence, community is necessary for safety. Building a community of people who can appropriately process their feelings of hurt, anger, desire or fear, who can listen and respect and love, is one step in the large, but possible, task of reimagining the world. In Durham libraries, coffee shops, homes and other spaces, in Amy Godfrey’s Zoom gatherings and in those of many others across the world, that process is underway.
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