Author weaves magic in stories

SPELLBOUND: Author Susan Perrow reads a story with students Frankie Perrow and Lennox Irwin at the Byron Bay Community School.
SPELLBOUND: Author Susan Perrow reads a story with students Frankie Perrow and Lennox Irwin at the Byron Bay Community School. Marc Stapelberg

IT WAS the Aquarius Festival, in 1973, that first brought internationally successful author Susan Perrow to the Northern Rivers.

Today she lives in Lennox Head but globetrots to countries including China, India, Denmark, Bulgaria and Canada, helping children and adults explore the power of storytelling.

Susan, whose natural ability as a teacher and raconteur colours every conversation, has worked with the victims of some of the world's most desperate crises, from children in Romanian orphanages to those in evacuation centres in the Philippines.

Most recently she created a Japanese collection of stories that includes tales of hope and resilience for the families who survived the 2011 tsunami.

"I write, collect and document stories that offer a therapeutic journey for the storyteller and the listener," explains Susan. Simply put, she weaves magic through narrative.

All stories are potentially healing, believes Susan.

"If a story makes people laugh or cry - or both - the laughter and tears can be healing.

"Folk and fairytales, through their universal themes and resolutions, have healing possibilities. They can offer courage for facing the trials of life, affirming our capacity to change and develop."

However Susan's main work is creating modern stories to change behaviour, develop positive values and build resilience.

"You let the imaginative journey do the work and, occasionally, a story can perform a miracle."

In Bulgaria, the local author helped a five-year-old girl who was terrified of going to sleep to break the cycle of fear and insomnia.

"Her father had died in his sleep," she explains. "The mother and the daughter were hugely sleep deprived as well as grieving.

"I found out that the little girl loved music boxes and so I helped the therapist to write a story around that, and the dream spirit. It worked."

The remarkable Susan began her journey with a teaching degree from the NRCAE in Lismore in 1976.

A mother of three boys now in their 30s, she was the founder and director of the Periwinkle Children's Centre in Byron Bay for 12 years, from 1985 to 1997.

In 2000, she developed a 150-hour unit on Storytelling for Southern Cross University and, in 2001, completed her Masters Research on Storytelling in a cross-cultural situation, post-apartheid South Africa.

Susan then worked as co-ordinator of a pilot program funded by the Australian Government under its Developing Stronger Families Project.

Her first book, Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour, was published in 2008 and has already sold 60,000 copies in Mandarin as well as been translated into several other languages, including Korean, Japanese, Croatian and Portuguese.

While the idea of writing a "healing story" may sound simple, Susan says every story needs to be individualised to be effective.

For this reason she runs workshops to help other adults develop therapeutic narratives.

"You need to carefully select metaphors as well as construct a journey or quest to meet the need of the situation and the age of the child," she says.

Storytelling as a teaching or therapeutic medium is a growing worldwide phenomenon, according to Susan, with Canada exploring it as a core part of the curriculum.

It is there the "Imaginative Research Education Group", which is dedicated to showing how learners' imaginations can be routinely engaged in everyday classrooms, was founded.

Says Susan: "We are so focussed on wanting to teach the logical side of the brain, but children think in stories."

In June this year she returned to Beijing to help her Chinese publisher promote the newly finished translation of her second book, Therapeutic Storytelling, that includes 20 illustrations by local Suffolk Park artist Lynn Taylor.

Susan is now working on an e-book series - A Spoonful of Stories - each book with a different theme, as well as liaising with the co-ordinator of a refugee organisation in Eastern Europe on some stories to help the children of Syrian refugees.

"I always feel that if I am able to help one person, my whole life's work has been worth it."

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