Archives for posts with tag: storytelling

Learning From the Past That’s Also Very Present

 “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 in Fable of Identity

If you want to know what makes for a popular and lasting story read and reread the best-known folktales of your culture.  Why? They’ve lasted through cycles of literary concerns and fads. And, at the same time, they remain alive and fresh to each generation. These stories continue to keep children’s imaginations bubbling and their respective bums in a chair. Clearly, they have a lot to teach us.

There are all but countless picture book editions of folktales, but don’t rush to those first. One of the things folktales can teach us is how to write half of a whole. The verbal style of folktales leaves plenty of space and possibilities for the listener to create her own illustrations. That’s exactly what we must do as picture book authors who do not illustrate. Explore the folktale’s economy of language, crisp sentences, and active verbs.

Collections of folktales come in all shapes, sizes, and voices. The editions most valuable to us are those written by people who have actually told them aloud. These storytellers/writers know the differences between oral language and written language. Even though they’ve told the tales aloud, they also had to make certain “translations” when they prepared them for the page.

 So, where to start? The answer is simple: Margaret Read MacDonald. She has spent decades telling stories, working as a children’s librarian composing books and collections, and has a PhD in folklore. If anyone lives a blend of scholarship and storytelling in the trenches, it is Margaret Read MacDonald. If you’ve not explored her collections or her picture books, you’ve missed an opportunity to learn and enrich your craft.

Collections to Explore

 MORE READY-TO-TELL TALES FROM AROUND THE WORLD edited by David Holt & Bill Mooney. August House, 2000.

THE PARENT’S GUIDE TO STORYTELLING: HOW TO MAKE UP NEW STORIES AND RETELL OLD FAVORITES by Margaret Read Macdonald. August House, 2001 (1995).

SHAKE-IT-UP TALES: STORIES TO SING, DANCE, DRUM, AND ACT OUT told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2000.

THREE MINUTE TALES: STORIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD told by Margaret Read MacDonald. August House, 2004.

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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.

Illustration by Y. Rachov

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