When it comes to studying traditional literature, you quickly realize this area is full of patterns, motifs, and archetypes. You can have three wishes, or four trials or seven siblings and magical helpers, evil villains, and talking animals. In keeping with that notion, I would like to highlight SEVEN attributes and advantages of folktales, fairy tales, and myths for teaching and learning.
- Storytelling: We all tell stories every day. If you talk to someone about your day, share a childhood memory, or describe an event, you are very likely framing it as a story. Psychologists tell us that traditional literature grows out of our basic human need to explain ourselves and our world. And every culture has stories that provide this needed function, with uncanny similarities across languages and cultures. As we work with students, we can share stories from a variety of cultures as we incorporate traditional literature into our story times or read aloud repertoires. One excellent new resource is Supporting Diversity and Inclusion with Story: Authentic Folktales and Discussion Guides by Lynn Ford and Sherry Norfolk (2020). Locate the root culture on a map and show students where the story comes from. Look for other connections to make between the story's culture and other traditions from the culture via arts, crafts, and songs.
- Multimedia: Look for storytelling videos on YouTube and other outlets, such as the Center for Digital Storytelling (https://www.storycenter.org/) and Marshall Cavendish's Story Teller (https://storytellermc.com/), as well as authors' own websites. The National Storytelling Network (http://www.storynet.org) of the National Storytelling Association can help you locate storytellers and storytelling festivals in your area. And, of course, there are many animated and live action films based on folktales and fairy tales available, such as live action and animated Disney versions of Cinderella, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and others. Seek permission before sharing these media adaptations, of course.
- Variants: Sharing multiple versions or variants of one folktale is an excellent way to approach traditional literature. Here, one story becomes the focus, rather than a single book title. By highlighting the basic story elements or motifs in one tale, like the mistreated girl, the obnoxious sister(s), the magical task, we can help children see the building blocks of stories, while developing their awareness of the similarities and differences across cultures. My favorite root tale is "Cinderella" or "good sister/bad sister" tale because there are so many picture book versions available rooted in so many different cultures. Folklorists have identified more than 3,000 stories that qualify as Cinderella variants worldwide; almost every culture, every nation, has at least one variant.
- Parodies: Children really enjoy the "fractured" fairy tale or fairy tale parody in which authors have altered, caricatured, or modernized the characters, setting, plots, or language of more traditional well-known tales. These books are especially appealing for more advanced readers or older kids familiar with the basic versions. However, many children have missed the so-called "originals" or know tales from other cultural traditions and not the usual "Three Bears" or "Cinderella" root tales. Thus a parody is less meaningful if they don't understand what is being parodied. You may find it valuable to compare the fractured versions with the traditional European (or other) antecedents that provide opportunities to discuss the differences. One recent example in picture book form is La Princesa and the Pea (Putnam, 2017) by Susan Middleton Elya and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal with art inspired by the culture of Peru.
- Art: Traditional tales have been very popular in the children's publishing market over the years and many well-written and beautifully illustrated versions can be found that have immense appeal across grade levels. This generally takes the form of a picture book featuring a single folktale, legend, or myth. Several individuals have built quite a reputation for illustrating traditional oral tales for children. Artists like Ashley Bryan, Jerry Pinkney, Paul. O. Zelinsky and others have brought their award-winning artistry to their interpretations of classic folk and fairy tales like Beautiful Blackbird, The Lion and the Mouse, and Rapunzel. A new artist, Bethan Woollvin, has brought her vivid, graphic technique and feisty, feminist sensibility to creating new tales, Little Red, Rapunzel, and Hansel & Gretel.
- Culture: Through folktales, children can gain insight into the customs and values of many nations and cultures. Most of today's retellers and adapters and illustrators conduct careful research to be sure they capture the cultural traditions relevant to the story in rich and accurate ways. Of course, individual storytellers add their own interpretations, as do the illustrators who help create the picture book versions. For example, check out the new picture book version of Mulan by Faye-Lynn Wu, illustrated by Joy Ang or the novel Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin—just in time to compare these with the new film version of this ancient Chinese legend.
- Fantasy: There are many allusions to traditional literature and folktales in longer works of contemporary fiction and fantasy. For example, many modern fantasies echo literary motifs and patterns found in myths and legends, such as in the Percy Jackson series, Heroes of Olympus series, Kane Chronicles, Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series, and the Trials of Apollo series, all by Rick Riordan. These books have mythic and legendary characters that parallel Prometheus, Aeneas, Odysseus, Jason, and King Arthur. Students can begin to see that many protagonists lack important information about their births, set out on quests to correct wrongs, have access to magic in their fights against evil, and once successful, return home to help others. They will glean even more from the story with a prior knowledge of the root tales from traditional literature.
CHILDREN'S LITERATURE IN ACTION
One Book in Action: Beautiful Blackbird
To focus on one book of traditional tales, let's look at Ashley Bryan's Beautiful Blackbird (Atheneum, 2003), winner of the Coretta Scott King award for illustration in 2004, as a model for folktale study. In this African folktale, the birds of the forest envy Blackbird his unique dark beauty since they are only made of colors, and they beg him to share his blackness with them. As he decorates each of them with a bit of black, he also teaches them about the quality of inner beauty and individuality. This rousing and musical adaptation of a tale of the Ila-speaking people of Zambia begs to be read aloud, chanted, and performed. And obviously the art of the book is prize-worthy with its riot of color in cut-paper collage images of birds of all shapes and sizes.
Reading Aloud Blackbird
The true test of a folktale is its read aloud–ability since folktales are all originally oral tales and intended to be passed on from teller to listener. Bryan's Beautiful Blackbird is an outstanding example of this quality with strong rhythm and much internal rhyme plus several rousing quatrains for the group to join in on as a whole. As you read the whole story, kids can echo you line by line on the refrains, for example:
Beak to beak, peck, peck, peck,
Spread your wings, stretch your neck.
Black is beautiful, uh-huh!
Black is beautiful, uh-huh!
For an even more dramatic and interactive experience, the story can be performed as a readers' theater experience. There are distinct bits of dialogue for two individual characters, Blackbird and Ringdove, plus group parts for the colorful birds and the small birds. A narrator rounds out the cast. Once children have heard and enjoyed the story, they may find it even more engaging to make the story come alive by dramatizing it in this fashion. (No memorization required.) Simple props could be added for extra effect, like feathers or die-cut bird shapes in multiple colors (one black).
The story lends itself beautifully to an old-fashioned flannel board retelling with simple bird shapes in red, green, yellow, purple, orange, blue, pink, and, of course, black. Add a lake, a tree, and Blackbird's medicine gourd bowl and black feather brush, and you can retell the story in a concrete and visible way. (These pieces could then be used as simple props for a readers' theater dramatization, too.) Folktales are ideal for drama and flannel boards because of their oral roots. They were meant to be heard, told, acted out, and interpreted.
Blackbird Art Activities
Beautiful Blackbird could also spawn a variety of fun craft activities, from decorating precut colorful birds with black marker, paint, or yarn, to coloring crayon relief drawings (colorful pictures colored over with black crayon and then scratched to reveal color), to experimenting with cut paper art as Ashley Bryan does in the illustrations for this book (with adult supervision, please). In the book's endpapers, Bryan even includes images of the scissors he used to create the illustrations and notes that they were his mother's sewing and embroidery scissors. Children can investigate what artistic traditions might exist in their own families or share what their own favorite artistic media might be. Blackbird was, of all things, an artist, and the book subtly emphasizes the important place art has in the community.
Music and Dancing with Blackbird
This folktale also incorporates dancing as an important part of the bird community, and this provides a wonderful opportunity to invite movement as a follow-up to reading the book. The book specifically mentions four dances: the "Beak and Wing Dance," the "Show Claws Slide," the "Sun-Up Dance," and the "Sun-Down Dance." Bryan provides an explanatory rhyme for the "Show Claws Slide" that begs for physical interpretation:
Tip tap toe to the left, spin around,
Toe tap tip to the right, stroke the ground.
Wings flip-flapping as you glide,
Forward and backward in a Show Claws Slide.
For the other dances, a little interpretation is welcome. And for an added bonus, find or make simple musical instruments modeled after the African kalimba or drum to accompany the dance (http://www.kalimba.co.za/).
More Blackbird Connections
Finally, encourage the children to seek out other African folktales, such as the Caldecott winner Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon (Puffin, 2004), or the Caldecott honor book, Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott (Holt, 1972). Older readers may enjoy In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World by Virginia Hamilton (Harcourt, 1988), which includes one creation tale from Zambia, or Favorite African Folktales edited by Nelson Mandela (W. W. Norton, 2004). Or consider connecting with companion poems about "blackness," such as "Listen Children" by Lucille Clifton from Wade Hudson's Pass It On, African-American Poetry for Children (Scholastic, 1993) or Langston Hughes's classic poem "My People" found in his collection The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (Knopf, 2007) or in the picture book version of the same poem illustrated by Charles R. Smith Jr. (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
Ashley Bryan is also a consummate storyteller and performer, and we are fortunate to have an audio recording of Beautiful Blackbird by Bryan himself. Look for Ashley Bryan's Beautiful Blackbird and Other Folktales audio CD (Audio Bookshelf, 2004). It also includes stories from his notable collection, Ashley Bryan's African Tales, Uh-Huh (Atheneum, 1998), an excellent companion book. Check your area for the availability of other storytellers (http://www.storynet.org/) to bring the live experience of listening to a tale to the children in person. In particular, look for those with knowledge of African stories to connect with Beautiful Blackbird.
To learn more about the setting for Beautiful Blackbird, lead children in locating Zambia on a world map and in a bit of Internet searching for more information and images of the modern country of Zambia via the Zambia National Tourist Board (http://www.zambiatourism.com/) or the National Homepage of Zambia (http://www.zambia.co.zm/).
From Sylvia Vardell's Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, third edition. For more information visit Libraries Unlimited. You can also find professional learning activities, handouts, and related Web resources on the book's companion website at https://books.librariesunlimited.com/childrens-literature-in-action/.