64 Parishes

Making Magic Happen

The 2022 Light Up for Literacy Award goes to Jeannine Pasini Beekman and Tracy Cunningham

Making Magic Happen

Photo by S. H. Stinson

Jeannine Pasini Beekman

It was a fateful reading of Paul Galdone’s Three Billy Goats Gruff that launched Jeannine Pasini Beekman into a career as a professional, world-touring storyteller. Then a program facilitator for Houston Public Library, Pasini Beekman realized she had stopped reading to the children and was instead telling the story from memory. Rolling with it, she put down the book and finished the folktale by performing it.

“What happened was extraordinary,” said Pasini Beekman. “The tension in the room shifted.” Her performances exploded in popularity, morphing into a profession that according to her has been “like living in a fairy tale.”

In the years since, Pasini Beekman has performed around the world, from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival to the People’s Republic of China as a member of the first American storytelling delegation to the country. She currently serves as a national training facilitator, storyteller, and scholar for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ Prime Time Family Reading Program. The Light Up for Literacy Award is only the latest feather in her cap; in 2021, she received the Circle of Excellence Award from the National Storytelling Network.

 

Tracy Cunningham. Photo by Michael Dominici

Tracy Cunningham, managing director of the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival and co-director of the New Orleans Writing Marathon, an organization providing writing retreats and workshops in and around the city, can pinpoint the moment in her childhood when her love of telling stories and creating memorable experiences merged. Her mother had planned a Halloween party for the neighborhood children, during which she read them a spooky poem.

“I was looking at the other kids, and they were so mesmerized by it,” recalled Cunningham. “And I just thought, ‘You know, books are magical things.’”

That realization has held constant throughout her career as a writer, high school English teacher, and event director. Today, Cunningham is renowned both locally and nationally for her ability to guide people of all ages to their fullest self-expression through writing by curating welcoming and well-planned experiences.

“Every time I get back to Oregon . . . I brag about how well the [New Orleans Writing Marathon] was organized and carried out,” noted Kim Stafford, associate professor emeritus at Lewis & Clark College. “People say, ‘Maybe we could do something like that here.’ And I have to say, ‘It would take a Tracy.’”

Morgan Randall agrees that books and stories are pretty magical. You can find her at morandall.com.