Thursday, February 01, 2007

Three Ninety Eight Thursdays Go to China and Reflect on Folktales in General


One of the really neat things about reading folktales is that you start to recognize similar themes and storylines with the folktales that you already know. Or noticing that things usually happen in threes. Things like that.

One of the most famous examples is the Cinderella story, and I'll discuss several versions of the Cinderella story next week. However, there are also many versions of the Little Red Riding Hood/Cap story, from the Arabic "Lyla and the Wolf" to the Italian Cappuccetto Rosso.

In the story of Lon Po Po, three girls trick a wolf pretending to be their Po Po (grandmother). The book, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1990, does not shy away from the darker aspects of fairy tales, including violence. Namely, the wolf's heart is broken into a million pieces.

The Amazon user reviews on Lon Po Po are a perfect illustration of the controversy between folktale enthusiasts and those appalled at the violence and characterization in the stories. Let's tackle these things, one by one.

First, the violence. Yes, there is violence in fairy tales, especially if you read the original Grimm fairy tales. That is undeniable. It's also undeniable that children's movies (was anyone else weirded out about the next door neighbor in Toy Story? The kid who tortured his toys?) and television shows, particularly the classic cartoons (remember the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote?) contain violence.

The complaints about the characterization in Lon Po Po center around the stereotype of a mean and vicious wolf. There are some serious wolf admirers out there, and it's understandable. First of all, they are beautiful creatures, have fascinating behaviors, and are our closest cousins to our domesticated dogs.

Well, the wolves should feel right at home with old women, who are usually depicted as witches, and the stepmothers of the world, who are apparently obsessed with making their stepdaughters' lives a living nightmare (when they aren't trying to poison them with apples).

Jim Trelease, in his Read Aloud Handbook, makes excellent points about folktales, and rather than me ramble on, I'm going to quote him:

"What characterizes the fairy tale-sets it apart from the rest of children's literature-is the fact that it speaks to the very heart and soul of the child. It admits to the child what so many parents and teachers spend hours trying to cover up or avoid. The fairy tale confirms what the child has been thinking all along-that it is a cold, cruel world out there and it's waiting to eat him alive.

Now, if that were all the fairy tale said, it would have died out long ago. But it goes one step further. It addresses itself to the child's sense of courage and adventure. The tale advises the child: Take your courage in hand and go out to meet the world head on. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the fairy tale offers this promise: If you have courage and if you persist, you can overcome any obstacle, conquer any foe. And best of all, you can achieve your heart's desire."

Now, some folks are still not in favor of reading certain folktales to children. For some, it's the violence. For others, it's the depiction of women needing to be saved by princes. Although I agree with Trelease, I understand those viewpoints. However, we do have some great collections of peaceful or female positive folktales that you might be interested in, and those can be found at the end of this post.

Trelease has more to say on the importance of fairy/folk tales in his Read Aloud Handbook. He's also scheduled to speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book (Charlottesville). He's retiring after his latest round of engagements, so this may be your last chance to hear this dynamic speaker.

Peaceful folktales:

Peace Tales: World Folktales To Talk About

Women-positive folktales:

Fiesta Femenina: Celebrating Women in Mexican Folktale

Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folk Tales From Around the World

The Serpent Slayer: And Other Stories of Strong Women

Cut From the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale

We can't leave the boys out. Men's looks are just as prized in fairy tales as are women's looks. Jane Yolen has a great collection of male positive folktales featuring brains and wit in Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys.

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