In Conversation: Mariana Villas-Boas

Mariana Villas-Boas is originally from Lisbon, Portugal. She grew up in the USA and lived in a handful of other European countries before arriving in Zürich in 2017. She left a 10-year career in law to begin a journey down the path of literature and writing. She is a winner of the FNAC Novos Talentos 2014 (Portugal) award and is currently working on a novel for adults. StoryLabs is a passion project based on her love of children’s literature and belief that stories deepen and strengthen us, while making our societies more cohesive. As she puts it: “We all need a whole lot of that right now.” Mariana talks with The Woolf’s Lindsey Grant.

Image courtesy Mariana Villas-Boas

Mariana, how did you come to the concept of StoryLabs?

My love for children’s literature never really left me after childhood. I’m a writer (of fiction for adults) so I obviously love other forms of literature too, but children’s literature has always held my imagination captive. There is just something intensely beautiful in that first contact with books and reading—the thin volumes lined up on the shelf, the touch and sound of the page, the beauty of intelligent illustrations. I could go on about this for a while, so let me practise some restraint here.

When I became a mother, reading with my child became a big part of our family life and that’s when I realized that a major shift had taken place since the childhood of the current generation of parents. When we were growing-up, we would read books from our general geographic region, but globalisation has made the world of children’s literature much broader (and sometimes difficult to navigate). You can discover a beautiful, die-cut book from a small Indian publisher or a handmade masterpiece by a Japanese graphic designer and have them dropped into your mailbox at the click of a finger. That ease also means there is a lot out there that I personally feel is not worth my child’s time or my budget. The challenge becomes separating the wheat from the chaff.

I realised that reading with my son created this safe space where we could touch on (sometimes challenging) topics that he didn’t yet have the words for, but interested him, and we could do this in a non-threatening way. At a certain point, it dawned on me I could do something really interesting with all this knowledge I’d been squirrelling away: create a project where we shared high-quality stories within the context of a wider discussion of non-fictional issues from our complex, but fascinating world.

And what is a StoryLab?

Screencap from StoryLabs site

Structurally, a StoryLab is a session where we come together to read and discuss high-quality children’s books (in English) in a classroom or museum setting. This structure is deceptively simple. Actually, each session is different and carefully curated. The stories are extensively researched and selected to feed into that session’s topic, which can be anything from yarn and political activism to looking versus seeing. With the children, we make connections between the stories, discuss the characters, ask and answer questions. Most importantly, we believe fiction and non-fiction are not contrary forces. Rather, fiction helps us better understand the outside world, so we use the stories as a bridge to explore beyond ourselves (a museum piece, a real world artist, a scientific discovery, a historical figure, a current event). There aren’t really any limits, so long as it is cohesive.

You once mentioned that schools seem to want you to state your intended reaction or response from the participants, whereas you feel that the point (and the reality) is that every child will have a different response. Can you talk more about that and what it looks like in real-time?

Before becoming a writer, I was a lawyer for 10 years so I’m wired to always be carefully prepared, but if you come at a creative project with a predetermined outcome in mind, you are really missing the point. The point is the unexpected. Children are very authentic in their reactions and it really is a beautiful thing to guide them down the path of stories and give lots of room for their questions and perceptions. There are no right or wrong answers, just different points of view. I make a point of weaving these into the session as they happen. If I don’t get interrupted, I’m not doing a good job.

What is ideal about the museum environment for StoryLabs?

The StoryLabs that I design for schools tend to be different from the ones for museums. In schools, I have fewer constraints in terms of topics and a little more experimentation is possible, but resources are much more limited and I don’t get to interact with the parents.

In the museum setting, I use storytelling as a tool to deepen awareness about something related to the museum—pieces in the permanent collection, a temporary exhibit, the museum building and grounds, the activities we are supposed to do in the museum, what museums are for. The end purpose is to refocus the children on something related to the museum experience in a way that doesn’t talk down to them, but rather reinforces their unique perspective. This creates the readers and museum-goers of the future. It is a quintessential form of audience development.

The parents are a part of the audience as well. At the beginning of each StoryLab, I’ll hand them a manifesto fleshing out the topic of the session. For example, in the StoryLab about yarn and political activism, I wrote about the use of yarn by suffragettes, the ‘pussyhats’ in the 2017 Women’s March and the male knitting groups that promote gender equality in South America. With the children, however, using any of these terms would not have been appropriate. Instead, we read two gorgeous books about young girls who improved the environment around them by making things with yarn, and we talked about what moved them and how they imparted change on the places where they lived. Then we dove into the story of a contemporary textile artist who sparked a global movement with her initial piece and moved on to an activity of our own. The two dimensions (adult and child) were deeply interconnected, but the language and approach were radically different. To see the adult’s pleasant surprise at this contrast—I will not lie—gives me pleasure, and I can only get this interaction with the parents in the museum setting.

Ultimately, art is open to interpretation, and the understanding of the artist’s intention cannot be controlled. How does this factor into the StoryLabs you craft? And into your own creative writing?

I give my own curiosity free rein to lead me where it will (which often lands me in surprising little corners of the world) and will wait until the end to assess whether or not what I have is good enough for a StoryLab. As for the audience’s perception of the StoryLabs, the element of surprise is the point. In reading and discussing the stories, the goal is not to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion, but to spark curiosity about a specific topic. We want to slow down, look deep and explore together. It’s about creating a dynamic. 

What is the ideal outcome of a StoryLab?

In June, I ran a week’s worth of StoryLabs at a well-known Montessori school in Zürich. I curated the session carefully, but ultimately there was no way to know if the topic would fly right over the children’s heads. It was a calculated risk. I spent an entire week at the school  and saw the children every day. The excitement was completely beyond anything I had imagined—the ones who had done the session came running, asking if I was coming to do another one. The ones who hadn’t yet wanted to know when it would be their turn. Even months later, when I cross paths with some of those children, I get asked when I will be coming back for another session. I guess I’m doing something right!

Finally, are there any books you are drawn to lately?

I would definitely say The Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston, which I’ve made the mantra of StoryLabs’ inaugural year (see article). It’s a truly magnificent book about the beauty of reading in childhood. Another book that keeps whirring through my mind lately is Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda. It’s not a book for every age, but it is really beautiful and a great way of commemorating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, which was written right here in Switzerland.


StoryLabs Website:
Mariana on Twitter: @Mariana_VillasB



Author: Libby O'Loghlin

Novelist, social entrepreneur, nutrition and narrative coach. Creative Director of The Woolf Quarterly; Co-Founder of WriteCon and The Powerhouse Zurich. Nature is my jam.

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