Bendigo’s much-loved children’s storyteller Narelle Stone hands us a backstage pass to her amazing collection of characters.

By Lauren Mitchell – Photography by David Field

We’re at Narelle Stone’s Bendigo home, waiting to be ushered into the inner sanctum of Quirky Tales, lured by the promise of 100 puppets.
“I was just de-bilbying,” Narelle says, peeling off ears and swinging open her front door onto a long Edwardian hallway. Yes, de-bilbying is likely not a term you’ve heard before. In fact Narelle probably just made it up. The storyteller has a habit of doing that. Making stuff up. If the glove doesn’t fit, so to speak, she’ll fashion it into a fearsome fish or the likes.
“I couldn’t find a piranha puppet, so I made my own out of a green oven mitt, some polystyrene eyes and felt teeth,” Narelle says. “I can’t sew but it’s amazing what you can do with a hot glue gun.”
But back to the bilby. It’s Easter when we visit and Narelle is busy developing her latest storytime routine for the hundreds of Bendigo children she entertains each week at Jenny’s Early Learning Centres. She’s on a mission to ban the bunny in favour of an Australian animal. She couldn’t find a bilby puppet, so is making her own costume.
“Bilbies have pouches, so it makes sense that an Australian icon should be the Easter animal because they’ve got somewhere to put the eggs,” she says. “I’m slowly infiltrating…”
Narelle has been entertaining the city’s kids for 10 years, since her business Quirky Tales took its first tentative steps during a cultural festival at the Bendigo Library. Narelle says looking back it probably wasn’t too politically correct to dress as an American Indian, but it was a hit and she was hooked.
Today Narelle’s alter egos of Pirate Meg, Mermaid Meg, the Rainbow Fairy and Jingle the Naughty Elf are legendary among local children. As are her puppets. But there’s a higher purpose to the fun and frivolity. Narelle started using puppets to support her storytelling to help engage a generation of children often more accustomed to iPads than open books.
“Kids are very visual these days,” she says. “I am finding their attention spans are getting shorter and shorter and when I read them a book it’s sometimes really hard to keep their attention. I have to work hard, change my inflection, tone and volume, but if I bring out a puppet at the right time, I’ve got them. They’re right there.
“Using puppets also teaches kids to respect animals and be gentle with animals, without putting actual animals through the experience. The kids can see you put your hand in the puppet but they still want to pat them – they believe they’re real.”
In the hands of Narelle, they really do come to life. She says she’s always loved playing with puppets, even before she had an excuse to. “My collection started with a koala puppet bought from the Melbourne Zoo gift shop,” she says. “I was in the shop playing with it and people thought I had a real koala. That was it for me. That was in 2004, before I started my business.”
The puppet collection is organised in categories of Australian animals, other animals, people and finger puppets. Many are from Bendigo toyshop Mr Goodtimes and made by the American company Folkmanis, who Narelle says make some of the best puppets in the world. “I used to buy puppets to go with my books but now I find a puppet and think, I’ll find a book to go with that,” she says. “I’m always on the lookout for them. You don’t have to spend a lot, but I do.”
Quirky Tales is a culmination of Narelle’s interests and talents. She grew up a bookish kid in Kerang who loved art and the operettas she took part in at high school. After moving to Bendigo she joined the local theatre company.
“After school I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I wanted to do art and I loved drawing, but my folio wasn’t good enough to get into uni, so I did a humanities course instead.” That was at La Trobe University’s Bendigo Campus. Part-time work in the uni library led to an ongoing job and Narelle spent the next 26 years in academic libraries. “I fell into the job really,” she says.
A former colleague, Tammy Higgs, invited Narelle to perform that first storytelling gig as the Indian at the Bendigo Library. “Then Tammy said, you could do this as a business. I said, you’re kidding? Could I get paid to dress up and tell stories?”
When Narelle’s not doing that, she’s often at home developing her ‘show’, finding new children’s books to share, making costumes, searching for puppets. Although one of the most prized in her collection came to her, courtesy of her girlfriends, as a birthday gift. It’s a genuine Muppet puppet.
“Turns out you can get a puppet made to look like you,” Narelle says. “My friends described me to the Muppet Company, obviously as a princess with long blonde hair. Fancy having a Muppet that looks like you. I’ve just made it in the world, obviously. I’ve been immortalised as a Muppet.”
The kids don’t get to see this one, so consider yourself privileged here. Although for Narelle, the privilege as Bendigo’s storyteller to the kids is all hers. There have been many milestones along the way… Hosting Sam the Story Tram as part of the Bendigo Writers Festival and performing Peter and the Wolf with the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra being just a couple. “Really though, the highlights for me are the small ones,” she says. “It’s when you start telling stories to young children who aren’t interested and in the end they say ‘read it again’. They’re the nicest words I ever hear, ‘read it again’.”