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UCLA Extension storyteller draws on fairy tales, vocal performance to comfort kids

(Nicole Anisgard Parra)

By Drake Gardner

July 28, 2019 11:00 p.m.

Storytellers utilize audiobooks to help children escape at bedtime.

UCLA Extension instructor Janet Wilcox has been working with her students since 2016 to voice short fiction audiobooks for young patients and their families at the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. Her project is part of a public collection of stories on SoundCloud called “Kid’s Stories That Care,” which features stories ranging from two to 20 minutes long, and are available on iPads in patients’ hospital rooms. Historically, Wilcox said bedside stories have had a calming effect on children, which would benefit the patients.

“Art has the power to transport us to other worlds,” Wilcox said. “It gives us a break and refreshes us. I hope these stories allow the children to take a vacation from their everyday worries and concerns and feel more empowered and liberated.”

The audiobooks tend to follow typical stories for young children, focusing on children and their parents, fairy tales, animals or colors, Wilcox said. The process of creating one of the stories begins as a collaboration between her and the author – mostly writers outside of UCLA – as well as her students voicing the story. Wilcox said she often relies on the authors to help her cast the narrator because they have the most insight into the story.

Wilcox collaborated with author Marc Clark and her students to bring Clark’s print book “The Royal Fables: Stories From the Princes & Princesses of the Texas Children’s Hospital” into the audio project.

In 2014, Clark visited patients in the Texas Children’s Hospital cancer centers and asked the children to come up with a title for a prince or princess story ― he said he then chose five of them and wrote fairy tales such as “The Prince Who Never Cleaned His Room.” Now, the five fairy tales making up the book are separated into different audiobooks – as they follow stories inspired by young patients in a children’s hospital, Clark said his book was a good fit for the project.

“(Fairy tales) have withstood the challenges of our time and they’ve been with us since the beginning of storytelling,” Clark said. “Most people believe that fairy tales aren’t real and I’m of the opposite opinion.”

The audiobooks are voiced with their young audience in mind. When recording a voice-over, one has to imagine that they are telling it to a child they really know to stimulate authentic storytelling, Wilcox said. Acting is at the core of voice-over, she said, so one does not push intonations in their voice – they flow naturally as in real life, because one’s emotional needs influence how they speak and are dictated by the emotional subtext of the story.

However, characters’ voices may be improved by altering a vocal placement, such as by employing a high voice for a fairy princess, she said. In her class, Wilcox said she teaches her students how to make words come alive. When a student is selected to voice a story after auditioning, they receive guidance from both herself and the story’s author, Wilcox said.

“I may ask the student to do broader character vocal traits to distinguish a grandpa from a child,” Wilcox said. “Or I may suggest playing with the dynamic range of sound, so a section may be quieter, intimate and warmer, or more lively to simulate yelling. Every story has its own flavor and I always want to enrich that.”

While most of the tales are written by people outside of UCLA, fourth-year psychology student Ashley Lanuza was the first UCLA undergraduate student to contribute to the project, Wilcox said. Lanuza, who wrote “Brog The Frog’s Fly Catching Day,” said the story follows a frog who does not listen to the directions given by his mother and grandfather and is meant to illustrate the importance of teamwork in achieving one’s goals, she said. While preparing for the project, Lanuza said she would listen to audio samples of Wilcox’s students narrating her story and then select the voice she felt was most natural narrating the story.

For UCLA students interested in writing a story for the audiobook project, Lanuza said a writer must write coming from what they know, because one is more likely to have a personal connection to what they are writing.

“I hope my story imparts that the people in our lives really, really do care about us and even if it’s something that we don’t want to hear, they’re always thinking of the best for us,” Lanuza said.

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