Folk Tales & Picture Books
Writers are interested in folk tales for the same reason that painters are interested in still-life arrangements; because they illustrate essential principles of storytelling.
Northrop Frye * Fables of Identity
As a child in elementary school I was often told to write a story, but I was never told what a story was or what it required beyond capital letters and punctuation. Imagine being told to make a cherry pie, but not being told it needs a bottom and top crust, that more that just cherries are required for the middle, nor the fact it has to be baked.
No matter how experienced or old we may be it is always beneficial to return to the basics of story if we want to write one. And, the best of the basics are to be found in tried and true folktales. Why? Folktales began as live performance. If the teller and story didn’t keep the audience’s attention the audience walked away. The successful storyteller/writer had to be keenly aware of the audience’s desires, energy, and responses. Folk tales are based in oral language, which is also the heart of picture books.
Picture books have a long history of retelling folk tales. However, for our purpose of exploring basic story structure it’s wise to focus non-illustrated collections and the words alone. Action, rhythm and pace are vital. Adjectives are few, but when they appear they, too, are vital. Feel the plot as it moves. Savor the satisfying ring of the conclusion as it responds to the opening paragraph.
Read collections of folk tales suitable for children. Like printed literature, the majority of folk tales are not for children. It is also important to look for editors/retellers who are aware of the oral/aural nature of folktales. The earliest collections of folktales were significant, but were typically rigid word for word translations. The last thirty years has brought an enriched understanding of folk tales as an intimate, oral experience with the audience and the importance of sharing that quality in print.
Most important of all, read folk tales. Then read them again. And when we begin to write, consider whether or not our writing will keep the young listeners engaged and in their seats. If not, it’s time to revise.
Suggested Folk Tale Collections to Explore
BEAT THE STORY-DRUM, PUM-PUM told by Ashley Bryan. Atheneum, 1987.
PUTTING THE WORLD IN A NUTSHELL: THE ART OF THE FORMULA TALE by Sheila Dailey. Wilson, 1994.
SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.
WHY THE LEOPARD HAS SPOTS: DAN STORIES FROM LIBERIA told by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret Lippert. Fulcrum, 1999.
WORLD FOLKTALES: A SCRIBNER RESOURCE COLLECTION edited by Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert B. Cross. Scribners, 1980