Illustration by Y. Rachov*


Picture Books and the Oral Tradition

As picture book writers we can learn a great deal from folktales. Traditional storytellers literally have to keep an audience engaged by HOW they tell a story as much or more than WHAT happens in the story.  If they don’t, the audience can walk away! This HOW can make all the difference in picture books, too.  And, the HOW comes down to how we use language to EVOKE through word choice, rhythm, repetition and more.

What we have to lose or gain is exemplified by the history of folktales in printed form.  “Jack and the Beanstalk” had been told and heard for countless years before it appeared in print.  Early printed retellings strived to match the literary style of novels. George Cruikshank’s 1854 retelling is painfully ornate, distant and slow. He takes 136 words before mentioning the cow.

In the reign of King Alfred the Great–so called because he was very clever and very good–there lived a poor woman, who had a son and a daughter, the little girl’s name was Ady, and the boy’s name was Jack.  Their home was a very long way from London, in a deep valley, surrounded by rocks and mountains as steep as the side of a house and as high as the clouds, so that nobody could get to the top of them;  and the only way into this valley was by the sea-shore, large water-falls poured down the sides of the rocks, and formed a river which ran through the valley to the sea.  Their dwelling was a small cottage with a nice garden, in which they grew vegetables and flowers, and they had a cow.

In contrast, Walter de la Mare’s retelling in TALES TOLD AGAIN (1927) shares the same core information in half the words.  Without long descriptions of scenery the story moves quickly to the action.

 There was once a boy named Jack, and he lived with his mother, who was a widow.  All they possessed was one old cow.  What was worse, it looked as if they would never have anything else, for Jack although he had his good points, was idle.  At least, he wasn’t exactly idle, but he hated doing what he didn’t LIKE doing–and that was most things.

Alan Garner, an author steeped in the oral tradition, shares the same basic narrative information in his JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (1992) through yet another voice and rhythm.  His word count is higher than de la Mare’s, but notice the evocative use of repetition and internal rhythms. By the way he piles up the list of misfortunes Garner makes us feel their burden. He creates an emotional setting without needing lots of adjectives. 

      Once upon a time Jack and his mother lived on a common in a poor tumbledown house of sorts, with only a white cow to keep them.  Every day Jack picked up snapping wood and sticks for the fire; his mother dug the garden; and the white cow grazed the lane side.

      But one morning Jack’s mother said, “Jack,” she said, “the crock’s empty; the garden’s bare; we’ve got no meat; we’ve got no money; and the white cow is dry.  You must take her to the market and sell her.

Like traditional storytellers, picture book writers compose for the ear. This gives us more input toward the final book than many think. The typical steps in film are: #1 text, #2 director & actor interpretation, #3 cinematography/images, and #4 musical sound track.  With picture books our steps are very different: #1 TEXT that is also MUSICAL SOUND TRACK, #2 editor/director’s experience of that text/sound track, and #3 illustrator’s response and extension of that text/sound track.

Before we lament not having control over the choice of illustrator and his imagination we are wise to step back and see if we have made the most of our opportunities to influence him through the sound track of our text.

Coming soon:  Varieties and Values of Repetition


*from KUTKHA THE RAVEN (1976). Translated from the Russian by Malysh Publishers, 1981.