Story by Michael Harthorne, photos courtesy of Laura Norton
It is a cold, windy January night in Fairhaven. The streets outside the library are empty, but inside more than 50 children, adults and students are crammed inside the Fireplace Reading Room. There are fussy children on the floor up front and a table of cookies in the back. Everyone is here to see a pint-sized storyteller with a growing reputation.
By the time the skinny 12-year-old girl in a light blue shirt and khaki pants stands up before the crowd to tell the story of Fiona, a clever girl who outsmarts the king of the leprechauns, it is standing room only. As she moves through the story, she explodes with energy while ricocheting between different voices and conjuring up images through gestures and facial expressions. When the story comes to a close, the room rips into applause.
The small girl with the long, brown hair, big smile and knack for public performances is Maya Norton. In her 12 short years, Norton has done an extraordinary number of things. She traveled around the country with her parents in an RV for two year, placing second in her division at the 2007 Bellingham gingerbread house contest and won acclaim for her portrayal of the title character in the Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth's spring 2007 production of "Peter Pan." Norton raised $5,000 for charity through her public speaking. She is also working on a number of novels.
Norton's most recent accomplishment was earning a spot at the National Youth Storytelling Showcase, part of the 2008 Smokey Mountain Storytelling Festival in Tennessee. The showcase invited only four middle-school-aged students in the entire country to show off their storytelling skills.
On another cold January day before her trip to Tennessee, Maya Norton and her mother Laura are sitting in a cozy coffee shop overlooking Bellingham Bay and reflecting on Maya's accomplishments and her newfound success at storytelling. Maya picks at a large chocolate chip cookie in between sips of hot chocolate.
"There's just so many great stories out there," Maya says, gesturing with her hands as if she were back on stage performing. "It's so fun to just share them with other people. It's no fun if you just know them, but it's fun to tell them to other people so they can have them."
Maya says she first got interested in storytelling in the fall when she took a class from Western professor Rosemary Vohs. She says she thought the class sounded like fun and some of her friends were taking it.
Maya had shown a predilection for acting and performing since she was young and storytelling flows from that, Laura Norton says. Being in front of a crowd comes naturally to Maya, Laura says.
"The first time she got on stage when she was 5 in a little church talent show, she wasn't nervous at all," Laura says. "She was actually really excited when she finished. That's not something her dad or I or anybody else in the family feels. We all have butterflies."
Maya's big break in storytelling came during Bellingham's Tellebration storytelling festival, which took place at the end of Vohs' class, Laura says. Maya was the only student in the class chosen to read at the festival and her performance prompted Vohs to send a tape of it to Tennessee in November.
Maya says she was surprised and nervous she was chosen to be part of the Smokey Mountain Festival because she has only told stories in public a few times, but she was excited to go nonetheless.
At the festival, Maya participated in the youth showcase and attended workshops and concerts with professional storytellers. Even though she did not win any awards during the competition, Maya says she had fun and, importantly, learned some new stories.
Despite her myriad of accomplishments and accolades, Maya says what she is most proud of is here work for the Heifer International Project, a charity that gives livestock to people in third-world countries.
Laura says she told Maya she could donate $100 to a charity of her choice and to research one she liked.
"When she was thinking about what she wanted to do, she said she wanted to buy this Heifer Gift Ark, which is two Heifers, and two goats and all these two-by-twos and it costs $5,000," Laura says. "We said, 'Oh no, that's not really what we're thinking.' She just said, 'OK, we're just going to go to our church and we're going to raise the money there,' and she did it. She just started speaking in front of the congregation. Some of the adults were just really inspired that there was a kid saying we should really do this."
Maya also talked at Sunday schools and organized a babysitting day to raise money, Laura says. In the end, with the help of other inspired children and adults, Maya was able to raise $5,700.
Vohs, like Laura, is quick to put Maya's accomplishments, especially in storytelling, squarely on Maya's shoulders.
"She's a real natural performer," Vohs says. "I can't take credit for her really because she comes from a very talkative and engaging family."
Maya says she will continue to tell stories and perform in public as long as she has an interest in it.
"I think that she will always be a storyteller, whether it's on stage or whether it's interpersonally," Vohs says. "She is an exceptional communicator. It think she'll always do stage work of some nature, whether its musicals or plays or acting."
Maya says she would also like to teach in the future, specifically in elementary school, which ties in with her love of telling stories.
"I like transmitting knowledge," she says, "and sharing what you know to other people."
As Maya is getting set to leave the coffee shop, she notices two of her friends entering. Her mother says she may stay and talk with them for a bit. On this afternoon, further achievements and experiences for this 12-year-old can wait a while.