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How to Use Clip Art Storyboarding to Learn a Story Quickly
by Catherine Sarette

I'm in love with a new (to me) technique for learning a story quickly. Online clip art storyboarding* really works. *Storyboarding: Creating a series of panels of rough sketches outlining scene sequences and major changes of action or plot. The idea is to turn words into images, using the number and size of the panels to represent the rhythm and pacing of the story.

For a storyteller who is a visual learner, creating a storyboard can speed the understanding and retention of a new story. I've seen it recommended for years but it never worked for me. Art anxiety made me focus more on the pathetic inadequacy of my drawings than on learning the story. The pathetic inadequacy of my drawings made it impossible to "read" the storyboard when it was finished. (Is that a hat or a cat in panel three, and, over there in panel six, what … is … THAT?)

Online clip art storyboarding rocks. I just spent an enjoyable day learning three new stories almost effortlessly and remarkably anxiety-free. For an anxiety-ridden soul like me, this is a real breakthrough.

  • In Microsoft Word, create a table, four cells across. From there, the number and size of the cells can be adjusted for each row as you go, depending on what the story demands.
  • Instead of rough sketches, insert images from the online clip art collection.
  • From the Insert menu, choose Picture, then Clip Art.
  • At the pop-up screen, choose Clips Online.
  • Online clip art can be searched by subject and is easily downloaded.

On a Saturday, here's what I did. The first story was "Lazy Tok," from Eileen Colwell's A Storyteller's Choice. It begins, "Tok was born lazy. Everyone cooed over her. Such a sweet baby. The truth was, she was too lazy to cry." For the first panel, I searched for "babies" and quickly found a proud mother and father holding a new baby. Their pleasure is easy to see. The baby has sleepy eyes.

"She grew into a lazy girl. ... By the time she was grown, she was too lazy to work - too lazy even to find food for herself." I had a little trouble finding the right image for the second panel. "Sleeping" didn't work well, "Lazy" only returned one image - of a fat cartoon dragon lying blissfully on his back, which was nice since I needed one for my next story, "Lazy Dragon." I tried "Leisure," and "Relaxation" and finally got what I wanted under "Hammock." (Most searches are faster than that. If you can think of the right keyword, it's usually a quick trip to an appropriate image.)

Now, this process may seem like a waste of time. What does this search for clip art have to do with learning a story? A lot, as it turns out. As I searched the images, there was nothing in my mind but the story. I wasn't anxious about learning it or telling it. I wasn't veering off into thinking about other things. I was focused entirely on finding clip art to match the image I saw more and more clearly in my mind. By the time I found a young woman stretched languidly in a hammock between two palm trees (It's a West Indian tale) I knew her, Lazy Tok. I knew who she was.

The figures don't have to match the age, race, gender, or even species of the story characters. They don't have to match from panel to panel. They just have to depict such vivid body language that it transfers to the telling.

For "Lazy Dragon" from Myths and Legends of Dragons by Gilles Ragache, I used the same lazy clip art dragon for every panel where he's taking "a little rest." I put him in a text box which I copied and pasted on top of pertinent backgrounds. In front of a stove which has gone out, in front of jagged rocks that ought to be nicely rebuilt Mount Taishan, in front of scenes of increasingly furious volcanic eruption, in front of a drought-stricken landscape, lies the same smiling, sleeping image. Even behind a dungeon wall, the feet of this same image can be seen. He's lazily sleeping there, too.

I used a second, completely different clip art dragon for the scenes in which he smugly believes he's doing an excellent job and for a scene in which he's partying at his palace under the sea. I used a third dragon, different again, for his moments of sullen resistance and yet another one for his fantasy of himself when he pleads with the Celestial Empress to give him work more worthy of his talents. When he has to roll heavy boulders and carry stones, I used a rock-carrying image of a human being. Doesn't matter. No one else will see these figures. In my telling, those many dragons all transform into aspects of the one.

There were moments in my clip art search when my image of the character changed. I was looking for a wise woman for Margaret Read MacDonald's "Little Old Woman Who Hated Housework." "Wise" didn't get me anything, just a bunch of owls. "Priestess" was too esoteric. "Women" produced too many hits. "Faces" was good. I found someone there who changed how I saw the character. Instead of a wise, old fashioned grandmother, I found a modern woman in the act of taking off her sunglasses so that she can look you right in the eye while she delivers what she has to say. Perfect body language for a different, but no less wise, woman. In that same story, I used a cat for a fairy. The cat's happy dismantling of someone's knitting conveys the fairy's attitude just fine.

I added words to the images when I wanted to type out a chant or a particular phrase to help me remember it. When the Nipah Tree, and later the basket talks to Tok, I made a word balloon and typed out what it had to say. When the Little Old Woman sits in her kitchen chair, (actually, I think the image is of a man, but the posture is just right) the words "Clankety Clankety Clankety Clankety, Swishety, Swishety, Swishety Swishety, Flumpety, Flumpety, Flumpety, Flumpety, Clickety Clickety, Clickety, Clickety" surround her.

Often, I didn't need to type a phrase in order to remember it. During the search for a dragon to represent the "bad-tempered Master of Thunder," I muttered his name to myself over and over again, testing it against the images in the clip art file. I wasn't trying to learn it; I was trying to find it, but when it was found, it was also learned.

This was nothing but fun. It wasn't like work at all. For hours, my mind stayed tuned to the stories. I never worried whether I'd remember all the details or get them in the right order; the usual stuff of just starting to learn a story. I never forgot what I liked about each story, which often happens to me when the burden of repetitious learning overcomes the pleasure of the tale. I never lost the fresh and vivid associations of my first reading; instead, I refined and deepened them.

And when each storyboard was done, I opened my mouth and told the story. Fluently, first time out. Without the wincing reluctance that comes from knowing it's going to sound awful. Without referring back to the storyboard or the story itself. Without stammering and, in the case of "The Little Old Woman," without slavishly copying Margie MacDonald's voice tones and body language. I had leaped over days of practice.

Is that cool, or what?

Catherine Sarette is the Youth Services Coordinator for the Whatcom County Library System, which is located online at and physically in the northwest corner of beautiful Washington State. She has been (painfully) learning and (happily) telling stories to children in Whatcom County's libraries and schools since 1976. You may e-mail Catherine at:


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