A Walk Down Storybook Trail

The Town of Jonesborough recently launched a new storytelling feature in Jimmy Neil Smith Park as part of a large-scale park rejuvenation project.

The scenic Storybook Trail winds through three acres of wooded land that is part of the International Storytelling Center’s downtown campus. Funded by local residents Harold and Nancy Dishner, the trail is lined with 18 placards that, together, tell a story from a children’s book. Families can walk along the path and read to — or with — their small children.

The semi-permanent placards will be changed to include the text and illustrations from a new children’s story two or three times a year. The first featured title is Everyone Has a Story to Tell, which was written by Rebecca Isbell and Marilyn Buchanan and illustrated by William Bledsoe. All three creators are local to Jonesborough, and copies of the book are available in ISC’s gift shop in person and online.

The project was inspired by the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation in Tennessee. The foundation’s Storybook Trails initiative has established outdoor reading experiences for young children and their families in parks scattered throughout the state. The Dishners recognized that the format was a natural fit with Jimmy Neil Smith Park, even though the privately owned land wasn’t eligible for the state program.

Jonesborough’s Storybook Trail has a three-prong goal of helping people form a deeper relationship with the natural world, providing a gentle form of exercise, and supporting kids who are learning to read. Research shows that childhood literacy and the oral tradition of storytelling are closely connected. Kids who frequently hear stories early in life often take to reading more easily when they are older.

Jonesborough alderman and ISC Board of Directors’ emeritus member Terry Countermine was a key figure in bringing the project to life. “It’s a good example of cooperation between the town and ISC,” Countermine says, noting that Jimmy Neil Smith Park was named for ISC’s founder. The National Storytelling Festival helped Jonesborough establish its branded identity as the “Storytelling Capital of the World,” and has served as the cornerstone of the town’s rich and thriving arts scene. The Jonesborough Repertory Theatre and the soon-to-open Jackson Theatre are located just steps away from ISC headquarters.

Countermine shares that he and other local stakeholders are forming a Friends of the Park group, in which locals are invited to participate. The collective will meet several times a year to make sure the placards get refreshed with new stories and that the grounds receive extra attention as needed.

In the meantime, the park and its new Storybook Trail remain open and accessible for visitors to enjoy year-round. The green space is an important part of community life, with people using it for picnics, walks, and special events (including weddings and Easter egg hunts) that mark milestones in Tennessee’s oldest town.

“We want to be as inclusive as possible,” Countermine says, echoing the values of the National Storytelling Festival and ISC to represent people from different cultures. The next title for the Storybook Trail is expected to be selected soon, and a belated grand opening celebration will be held this summer.