Storyteller puts her craft into print, wins a national award

STORYTELLER Alice McGill has found her writing voice.

Her first children's book, "Molly Bannaky," was released in the fall, and "Miles' Song," a novel for young readers, will be out this month. A third book, "In the Hollow of Your Hand," which includes a compact disc, will be released in September.


The Long Reach resident has been a professional storyteller for 17 years. Her first book contract with Houghton Mifflin Co., publisher of her three books, came through an agent, Barrie Van Dyck. A storytelling friend, Robin Moore, had published a children's book and advised McGill to do the same. He recommended her to his agent.

McGill called Van Dyck, and after speaking for a minute or so Van Dyck told her, "I want to represent you. I hear your writing voice."


McGill was stunned and elated.

"Sweat commenced dropping down my back," she said.

About a week later, Van Dyck got McGill an offer from Houghton Mifflin to turn her story about Benjamin Bannaker's grandmother, Molly Bannaky, into a book.

It was no easy task for McGill. Her first draft was 62 pages, but her editor at Houghton Mifflin, Amy Flynn, wanted half that.

"This is your telling voice," Flynn said. "We want your writing voice."

So McGill taught herself to write. "I kept pounding away at it," she said. She completed the book in three drafts over a period of six weeks.

Last week, the International Reading Association named McGill the recipient of its 2000 Children's Book Award in the young reader category for "Molly Bannaky."

McGill says she has been telling stories all her life.


"I am from a storytelling culture," she says, "so I don't remember getting started."

In Scotland Neck, N.C., where McGill grew up in the 1940s, storytelling was a way of life. Her family told stories on the porch on summer evenings and shared tales around a potbellied stove in winter.

As a child, McGill had a favorite Br'er Rabbit folk tale, "Little Girl Bear," that she told at school when pupils told stories to their classmates each week.

"I just always felt that they were ours they were African-American stories," McGill said. "[Br'er Rabbit] was sort of like a safety valve for the oppressed. What they couldn't say, he said. What they couldn't do, he did for them, through story. He was fearless. He was tricky. And he was wise."

McGill, a schoolteacher by profession, incorporated storytelling into her classes. Her reputation spread by word of mouth. Eventually, McGill left her job to perform full time.

By 1990, she was getting so many bookings around the country that she moved to Columbia from Harford County to be closer to the airport.


In the beginning, she told traditional African-American folk tales. McGill soon added stories that she created, and she researched true stories to tell.

She became intrigued with Molly Bannaky's story while researching Benjamin Banneker, the 18th-century African-American mathematician and astronomer from Maryland. The family name, Bannaky, was changed to Banneker.

As described in McGill's book, Molly Walsh was an English dairy maid who was sent to America as an indentured servant for spilling two pails of milk.

After seven years, she gained her freedom, bought a farm and purchased Bannaky, an enslaved African man, to help her clear her land.

The two fell in love, McGill says, and broke Colonial law by marrying.

McGill's second book is the story of 12-year-old Miles, an enslaved house servant in 1851.


What made her write this story?

"That's like asking me, 'What made you breathe?' " McGill says. "Miles is also the name of my great-great-grandfather, and the story was passed down in the family about how, one day, he walked away [from slavery]."

McGill writes in a small office in her home.

"I can recluse myself in there," she said.

"Sometimes I listen to music. Blues music got me through 'Miles' Song.' "

The third book, "In the Hollow of Your Hand," is about lullabies that have been passed down from slavery. The songs she sings on the CD were compiled from those she heard as a child.


Her father, Samuel Pope, "used them to sing the babies to sleep," she said.

"My father was the singer in the family. He just had a glorious singing and storytelling voice. He really did. We always wanted to hear him sing. My mother used to back him up singing tenor."

The book's title comes from the words McGill's mother, Ella Pope, used to say to open her prayers:

Lord, it's me. I come before you, knee bent and body bound, begging for you, Lord, to hold my little children in the hollow of your hand.

"I like children," McGill says. "I had two of them. There's a little bit of child in all of us."

McGill will lead a workshop for adults interested in writing children's books, "Finding Your Own Writing Voice," from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday at the east Columbia library, 6600 Cradlerock Way.


Registration is required. Information: 410-313-7750.

Outstanding achievement

Long Reach resident Tim Daly received the 2000 Outstanding Individual Achievement Award in business from the Howard County Economic Development Authority last month.

Daly is founder and president of Access Travel Inc., an Internet-based travel agency that serves physically challenged people.

He was one of four honorees at the authority's sixth Equal Business Opportunity Awards ceremony Feb. 24.

EBO awards are granted to small businesses, with special emphasis on those owned by minorities, women and individuals with disabilities.


Daly was honored for his outstanding success and community involvement.