'Painting pictures with words' - Shelton storyteller educates, entertains

SHELTON - Monica Peterson remembers, as a child, sitting with her grandfather, listening to him tell tales of his life in Italy.

His expressive style not only kept her engaged, but also began what has become a lifelong love of storytelling. Peterson, a long-time Shelton resident, spent years as an educator. But most recently she has dedicated her time to spreading her stories, for adults and children, to all who will listen.

“Painting pictures with words, that’s what I strive for,” said Peterson, who estimates she has told hundreds of stories in her 25 years telling tales. “What I try to do, what I feel I do, allows my audience to paint pictures in their minds as I speak.”

Peterson said the use of interesting words, and being expressive with her vocal tones and body language, helps people of all ages visualize the tales she tells.

The pandemic slowed her storytelling tours - forcing her to go the Zoom route - but as COVID-19 restrictions have waned, she has found places to pass on her knowledge of the area’s history through her words.

Her upcoming performances include Thursday, via Zoom at 6:30 p.m., through the Derby Neck Library; July 19 at 11 a.m. at the Woodbury Senior Center; July 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Beacon Falls Library; Aug. 20 at Windsor Kidspace; and Sept. 16 at 6:30 p.m., again at Beacon Falls Library.

For adults, Peterson tells Tales of New England and historical stories of bravery, foolishness, love and a touch of the supernatural - all based on local figures. She also hosts a show titled “An Evening with My Grandparents: Italian-American Family Lore,” an hour of tales from the man who sparked her love of storytelling.

“I tell children folk tales from around the world, traditional tales, but I have added my own twist to make them relatable to a modern audience,” Peterson said.

The key to effective storytelling is effective research, according to Peterson, who also displays photos and some artifacts depending on the stories she tells. For the children, she also has props, puppets, other items to help make the stories more interactive.

For Peterson, storytelling has proven to be a success. She has entertained crowds at the JFK Presidential Library, Jamaica Performing Arts Center, The Children's Museum of the Arts in Manhattan, New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut DEEP Great Park Pursuit and Connecticut Storytelling Festival, in addition to telling her stories at festivals, museums, libraries, schools and senior centers throughout the area.

For children, she also performs with harpist Wendy Kerner as The Amazing Math Wizards.

In addition to her one- and two-woman shows, Peterson also conducts workshops to teach storytelling skills to children and for teachers who want to improve their students’ language arts proficiency.

Peterson said her first love was art, but storytelling was not considered an art form in her younger days. So she shifted to drama. As an actress, she can be seen currently in “An Immigrant’s Story” with the theatrical troupe Themselves. She has also appeared in commercial work for companies such as Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.

She also has worked as an educator, spending 15 years in the Stamford Public School System teaching gifted education, kindergarten and fifth grade. In that time, she earned the Stamford Public Schools’ Spotlight Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Board of Education’s Staff Achievement Award.

Peterson said she uses storytelling to motivate students to write. As a result, her students have won competitions such as the Stamford Literary Competition and the Connecticut Consortium of Law and Citizenship’s Constitution Day Essay Contest.

“I found storytelling to be an advantage,” Peterson said about teaching children of all ages.

She recalled when she was a kindergarten teacher, storytelling was a major part of her teaching style. The result, she says, was the children improved their writing - in both quality and quantity. She said some students would write as many as eight pages of their own stories.

Peterson said her student storytellers have been invited to perform at the Connecticut Storytelling Festival with nationally recognized adult tellers. She has also worked with the Stratford Public School System in the area of math remediation.

“This is so important for me, to be able to pass on the knowledge and values of our culture to another generation in a fun, entertaining way,” Peterson said. “Children, and even adults, are learning without really realizing they are learning. And it is so much fun.”