Folktales are one of my top favorite types of stories; when patrons ask for read alouds for elementary school classes, I always take them to our J 398 section and start pulling titles. Throughout humanity, folktales and fables have communicated universal messages about cooperation, being appreciative for what you have, the comeuppance of tricksters, and the triumph of the small over the powerful that continue to resonate with listeners young and old.
Since we just celebrated National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, you might be wondering what the difference is between fairy tales and folktales. It's not easy to have a hard and fast rule, but one of the best ways to differentiate the two is that fairy tales pretty much end with a "happily ever after" ending. Think Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, etc that are popular in our culture (most cultures have fairy tales, with Cinderella-type stories being perhaps the most universal fairy tale). Fairy tales usually involve royalty, dragons, witches, and other supernatural beings. Folktales, on the other hand, do not always have a happy ending for the character; indeed, like the famous Anansi stories from West Africa, the main character often suffers to learn a lesson. The main character might also be portrayed as foolish, sneaky, vain, or some other negative trait, which is usually not the case in fairy tales (going back to Cinderella as an example--Cinderella is good, downtrodden, and taken advantage of by her family, but eventually triumphs). On the other hand, folktales might also feature characters that outsmart those of a higher station or class. While this collection of titles doesn't include all my favorite folktales, here is a sampling of some of our outstanding folktales:
Although we don't know much about the ancient Greek storyteller named Aesop, the stories attributed to him continue to bring home universal truths, particularly The Boy Who Cried Wolf. B.G. Hennessy's retelling of the boy who told a falsehood one too many times is a cautious reminder about the importance of truth-telling.
How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale is a Saudi folktale starring Jouha, a popular "wise fool" found in many Middle Eastern folktales. When Jouha takes his donkeys to market, he consistently forgets to count the donkey upon which he rides, causing him great consternation that a donkey is missing. As the subtitle suggests, this is a helpful story in learning how to count in Arabic!
Jewish folktales are often filled with humor at the expense of the main character, as is the case with It Could Always be Worse (1978 Caldecott Honor book). When a man visits his rabbi to get guidance on how to manage his crazy, noisy, and cramped household, the rabbi instructs him to bring in his farm animals. With each subsequent consultation from the rabbi, the house gets even more crowded...until the rabbi's final suggestion leads him to be thankful for his original situation.
Margaret Read MacDonald's many folktale retellings are top-notch reads, but Mabela the Clever, originally told by the Limba community in Sierra Leone, is my favorite. A sneaky cat manages to trick the mice into joining his Secret Cat Society (with fatal results), until the smallest mouse figures out what's really going on. It has a great refrain that lends itself easily to audience participation, which is a cool bonus!
While I love folktales and fairy tales, I admit that our most popular stories often feature stereotypical attributes and behavior of both girls and boys. If you're searching for an alternative to traditional prince and princess stories, check out Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls and Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales For Strong Boys. Both collections feature authentic folktales from diverse communities (France, Afghanistan, England, Sioux, and more) that glorify brains over brawn and beauty, adapted by master storyteller Jane Yolen.
Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales is a classic in folklore collections. Well-known African American folktales with Bruh Rabbit and other animals are included, as well as folktales about slaves that outsmart their slaveowners. The title story is also available as a picture book.
Rabbit loves the snow; he just can't get enough! When Rabbit starts a traditional Iroquois drum and song dance to coax snowfall, the other animals are NOT happy...because it's summer! Rabbit continues his dance, undeterred, until he finally gets a lesson about too much of a good thing (and at inappropriate times!). It's also one of the great "how [name of animal] got its tail/stripes/etc" found across many cultures. Rabbit's Snow Dance: A Traditional Iroquois Story is a magnificent read aloud by esteemed Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac and his son, James.
Cautionary tales about spreading gossip are found in many different cultures, such as The Rumor. Jataka tales are Buddhist tales that often feature the Buddha as a wise animal that teaches lessons about sharing, compassion, and the difference between good and evil. This Jataka tale features a hare, who upon hearing a mango fall to the ground, is convinced that the world is ending, and turns all the other animals into a tizzy until they reach the lion, who is determined to get to the bottom of the situation. Sounds familiar? Of course! It's very much like the Chicken Little/Henny Penny stories!
Tales Our Abuelitas Told: A Hispanic Folktale Collection is a master lesson in folktale collections; not only does it include marvelous retellings of popular Hispanic tales, but it also includes intriguing information on the origins of Hispanic folklore in general as well as notes on each folktale. The illustrations are also evocative of Hispanic art.
Southern culture is renowned for its storytelling, whether it involves African-American folktales in the Deep South, Cajun stories from southeastern Louisiana, or tales from the Appalachian mountains. With a Whoop and a Holler: A Bushel of Lore From Way Down South is an outstanding collection of Southern folklore, divided by regions (The Bayou, The Deep South, and The Mountains).Notes on each regional variations is included. Nancy van Laan's Cajun retellings are expertly cadenced, with the other stories including regional dialect that rings authentic but not so much that non-natives would find it difficult to read aloud.
We have so many amazing stories awaiting new listeners in our J 398 section! Browse through our collection next time you visit, or ask for more recommendations.
Jennifer Schultz, Youth Services Librarian, Fauquier County Public Library