Heather Harlan says her earliest memories were of her parents putting her and her siblings to bed by reading or singing to them. “My father Lane sang to us from the Ozark Folksongs volumes Vance Randolph had edited. Dad earned a living as an attorney, but his affections for folk music and stories never wavered.”
Their mother Dorothy had a gift for discovering great children’s literature before corporate Hollywood did. Heather remembers vividly her mother asking other adults if they had ever heard of a book called Winnie-the-Pooh. Her mother then proceeded to insist those parents simply must read it to their children. She also recommended Mary Poppins, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and the Laura Ingles Wilder books such as Little House on the Prairie. Little wonder Heather’s mother went on to become a school librarian.
Her parents made sure she had piano lessons which coupled with many years of choral music in school and the church choir lay the foundation for her to take up guitar in late high school.
Heather grew up in Boonville, MO and delighted in the plays and speech classes there. As a student at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, she chose speech and drama as her focus of study and earned a BA with honors. Selection to the IC chapter of Phi Beta Kappa crowned her scholarly achievements.
As a teacher of four and five year olds at a pre-school in one of her first post-college jobs, Heather remembers she loved reading aloud to the children. Sharing picture books and creating a variety of character voices before and after nap were her favorite duties. She soon learned, however, if she forgot to bring a book when the young students were waiting in line to use the bathroom or wash hands, things would get chaotic at the speed of light.
“I found telling a story presented a way to help them focus and wait. I realized, too, the dynamics of telling were markedly different than reading a story. There was more eye contact, and I knew the little ones had to create the picture in their own heads instead of relying on an illustrator.”
She tried her hand at creating a few original stories for the pre-school children—the main challenge was capturing the details from the first telling, which the young students were sure to remember in the next telling.
Heather continued to wish she could fit drama into her life, but she knew from college days a commitment to a play was a major demand on one’s time for weeks. Heather learned early on, “It just didn’t fit with family life for me.”
It was a memorable day when she took her own two young children to hear a professional storyteller at the local library in Jacksonville, IL. “I left that Carnegie Library with the clear realization, ‘I could do that’.”
She was right. She began sharing stories at that library and local schools, churches and festivals. Heather soon realized the art form of storytelling strattles the fence between literature and theater—a perfect blend to satisfy her love of the spoken word and her desire to perform. She learned she could book her own shows, choose her own material, and schedule her own rehearsals. It fit much better with the personal demands of raising two children. She penned children’s songs as she strummed her Gibson guitar and completed two recording projects of children’s music—mostly original songs and the ever popular story of “The Pizza Feasta.”
Where does she find her stories? “For the most part I tell folk tales from all over the world. I find it rewarding to tell the tales of unknown global storytellers from generations past and keep stories alive and kicking.” She does have a few original tales such as “The Green Ribbon” about her Great Aunt Laura at Boonville High School in about 1912 on St. Patrick’s Day when she wore a green ribbon to school.
Heather’s performances are about connecting. First, she works to connect the audience with herself—as a teller, entertainer, someone who can hold their attention. Her next goal is to connect the audience with the stories and music she is sharing—is the pace right? Is it age appropriate? She also weighs what listeners seem to need next: a song, a story, a laugh, a chance to participate in the fun or a thoughtful moment to savor.
Finally, Heather notes, “My highest hope is to connect the audience members with each other. The most satisfying level of experience occurs when the audience members have the opportunity to break down walls and interact with each other—parents and children, spouses and friends or even strangers looking at one another, smiling, laughing, singing, clapping or drying a tear. Sharing that moment is the absolute best.”
Heather has shared her talents throughout Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. Invite her to your next event for entertainment, energy and insight!