The best books about people telling each other stories

Why am I passionate about this?

Nearly forty years ago, as a young poet, I started going to a storytelling circle in Toronto, thinking it would be a good venue to recite my poems. What I heard there awakened something in me. When I was a child, my parents read me wonder tales, and I soon began to read them on my own. Now I was hearing these stories, the way they were heard for millennia before anyone wrote them down. Today, I am a storyteller, I am married, and I am a professor who teaches a course on storytelling and writes about stories – all because of those weekly gatherings years ago and the storytellers there.


I wrote...

Imagining Holiness: Classic Hasidic Tales in Modern Times

By Justin Jaron Lewis,

Book cover of Imagining Holiness: Classic Hasidic Tales in Modern Times

What is my book about?

As a storyteller, I’m fascinated by the stories that Hasidic Jews tell each other to celebrate their Rebbes (teachers, healers, and guides). Many of these stories charm me. Some attract me so deeply that they have shaped my life choices. Others infuriate me. This book is my attempt to understand what makes Hasidic tales so captivating for me and many other people (Jewish or not). It’s a historical and literary study of some important printed collections of these stories from oral tradition. Some of my favourite stories are included, translated from the original Yiddish and Hebrew. I explore how much of the power of these stories lies in the tensions they express: body versus spirit, the modern world versus tradition, freedom versus law.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Folktales of the Canadian Sephardim

Justin Jaron Lewis Why did I love this book?

The Jewish stories I know best were first told in Yiddish, but there is so much more to Jewish storytelling.

This little book is a treasury of stories told by Moroccan Jewish immigrants to Canada, who spoke Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish, and French. The author introduces each storyteller and includes photos of them. Most of their stories happen in Morocco, but some in Montreal, including a bitterly humorous first impression, and an amazing miracle.

Many of these stories have a fairy-tale feeling – including the personal experiences. The Jnun (Jinns), also known as “our friends from the underworld” are very real to these storytellers, though they no longer bother people in Canada because there is so much metal around, keeping them away. 

By Andre Elbaz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Folktales of the Canadian Sephardim as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Folktales of the Canadian Sephardim, prepared under the auspices of the National Museum of Man, contains 80 folktales, legends and anecdotes collected by André Elbaz from Moroccan Jewish immigrants in Canada.Moroccan Sephardim have a rich oral literature, which is still alive among the older members of the community. However, the combined influence of mass emigration out of Morocco, and the ensuing disappearance of ancient communities rooted in North Africa, the new social mores and the levelling impact of mass- media are threatening the survival of these folktales in Canada. This first survey attempts to preserve from oblivion an interesting aspect…


Book cover of Burning Brightly: New Light on Old Tales Told Today

Justin Jaron Lewis Why did I love this book?

Stories come alive when people tell them to each other.

In my mid-20s, I happened upon a weekly gathering in Toronto, “1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling.” In a former synagogue turned art school – with candlelight shining on works in progress – people told old tales, by heart and with heart. This was the beginning of many things in my life, and this is the community that folklorist Kay Stone has written about.

She shows that the Toronto storytelling circle is part of a worldwide movement. She talks with great storytellers and explores favourite stories with them. And she shares her own struggle with a witch story from Grimms’ Fairy Tales, and how, as she told it again and again, she changed the story and the story changed her.

By Kay Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Burning Brightly as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Burning Brightly is the first full-length book treatment of professional storytelling in North America today. For some years there has been a major storytelling revival throughout the continent, with hundreds of local groups and centres springing up, and with storytelling becoming an important part of the professional training for librarians.

In the book, Stone explores storytelling through storytellers themselves, while providing enlightening commentary from her own background as a storyteller. Included in her analysis are informative discussions of organized storytelling communities, individual tellers, and tales. Issues such as the modern recontextualization of old tales and the role of women in…


Book cover of Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells

Justin Jaron Lewis Why did I love this book?

Stories can be dangerous. People who love storytelling are fascinated by Newfoundland, where isolation nourished a rich oral culture (in a distinct English dialect).

Barbara Rieti introduces many colourful Newfoundlanders and the stories they have to tell – but not about long-ago times. These stories are about witches who live among us, or who are dead but well-remembered.

You can imagine how dangerous it might be to be called a witch, even with witch-burning gone out of fashion. (In its place, people cast spells to give witches the burning pain of bladder infections.) But “witches” could also use their reputations to get things they needed.

The author is very scholarly and does not believe there is any real witchcraft or magic behind these stories – but some of them left me wondering!

By Barbara Rieti,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Making Witches as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There is a little-known tradition of witch lore in Newfoundland culture. Those believed to have the power to influence the fortunes of others are not mythological characters but neighbours, relations, or even friends. Drawing from her own interviews and a wealth of material from the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive, Barbara Rieti explores the range and depth of Newfoundland witch tradition, looking at why certain people acquired reputations as witches, and why others considered themselves bewitched. The tales that emerge - despite their seemingly fantastic elements of spells and black heart books, hags, and healing charms - concern everyday…


Book cover of Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World through Stories

Justin Jaron Lewis Why did I love this book?

This is a book about stories of the land I live on.

My home is in Winnipeg, on the edge of the flatland called “the Prairies” in Canada and “the Great Plains” in the United States. But the land doesn’t care about the Canada-US border. And that border is nothing but an imposition on the older nations whose territory I live in: the Red River Métis, and the Anishinaabeg.

These Indigenous Peoples have ancient living traditions of oral storytelling, and this book, by Anishinaabeg scholars, celebrates their stories’ spiritual, practical, and political power.

A teaching shared by storyteller Kathleen Delores Westcott tells us “the story is a living being. It’s alive.” That teaching has helped me to understand how stories attract us, get inside us, change, and move across boundaries. 

By Jill Doerfler (editor), Niigaanwew James Sinclair (editor), Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Centering Anishinaabeg Studies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For the Anishinaabeg people, who span a vast geographic region from the Great Lakes to the Plains and beyond, stories are vessels of knowledge. They are bagijiganan, offerings of the possibilities within Anishinaabeg life. Existing along a broad narrative spectrum, from aadizookaanag (traditional or sacred narratives) to dibaajimowinan (histories and news) - as well as everything in between - storytelling is one of the central practices and methods of individual and community existence. Stories create and understand, survive and endure, revitalize and persist. They honour the past, recognise the present, and provide visions of the future.

In remembering, (re)making, and…


Book cover of The Decameron

Justin Jaron Lewis Why did I love this book?

I’m including one book from long ago and far away – fourteenth-century Italy – because it leaped out at me from the bookshelf.

The Decameron is the most artistically complete written story about face-to-face storytelling – though I also love its rivals, One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales!

The book opens with the bubonic plague that devastated Florence in 1348. Ten wealthy young friends, women and men, leave the stricken city to vacation in the countryside. While servants prepare lavish meals, the friends spend their days relaxing, dancing – and telling naughty stories. The narrator delights in describing their reactions to each other’s storytelling.

Yes, stories can be holy and powerful, but sometimes we just need them to clown around for us! Many translations are available – read one that feels playful. 

By Giovanni Boccaccio,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked The Decameron as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the summer of 1348, as the Black Death ravages their city, ten young Florentines take refuge in the countryside...

Taken from the Greek, meaning 'ten-day event', Boccaccio's Decameron sees his characters amuse themselves by each telling a story a day, for the ten days of their confinement - a hundred stories of love and adventure, life and death, and surprising twists of fate. Less preoccupied with abstract concepts of morality or religion than earthly values, the tales range from the bawdy Peronella, hiding her lover in a tub, to Ser Cepperallo, who, despite his unholy effrontery, becomes a Saint.…


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Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

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What is my book about?

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What is this book about?

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