“The eye and the ear are different listeners”–Jane Yolen

Posted on January 21, 2007. Filed under: Children's Literature, Storytelling |

Jane Yolen fascinates me. I’ve long been aware of her reputation as a fantasy writer and have recently come to appreciate her talents as a folklorist and storyteller. But here’s the thing: I’ve never liked her fantasy stories. Admitedly, I haven’t read the novels, just stories collected in various magazines and anthologies. But I thought the characters were flat, the tales a little too neatly worked out to be credible. Until I started reading her folklore work, I just couldn’t figure out why she was so respected, so beloved even. And now I know. She writes for the ear, not for the eye.

Yep, I was trying to read her stories as I would other high-fantasy favorites. I wanted chewy prose with long involved sentences and freshly coined vocabulary, nuanced characters who felt as flawed and hopeful as friends, rich settings, intricate plots. It never concerned me that works so freighted down don’t read aloud particularly well. Yolen’s short works, by contrast, are a storyteller’s dream. The archetypal characters are fun to dramatize, the language simple enough to invite embellishment (particularly with sound effects), and the plots straightforward enough to follow in an oral telling. Reading her work aloud has opened its richness for me. Makes me wonder what else I’ve been missing.

And, I’d never have thought to do it if it hadn’t been for Yolen herself. I’m going to venture out and make a BIG recommendation here. I think anybody who’s telling or reading aloud fairy tales, folktales, myths, religious stories, even urban legends ought to have look at Yolen’s book of essays, Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood. It’s short, only 123 pages, and written with the same humor and clarity as her stories, though here that clarity is employed at the task of untangling some fairly convoluted lore (finessing Bettelheim, exploring the persistence of myth, discussing dragons, censorship and the problems with mass media as a delivery system). Cinderella’s origins are a good example. According to Yolen, whose scholarship and logic are sound enough to persuade even me–Cinderella’s originally from China (the whole tiny-shoe thing goes back to foot binding) and she wasn’t originally all that nice or that helpless.

Yolen also speaks directly to the problem I was having with her work. She argues quite eloquently that works of traditional “literature” or works like hers that are so steeped in that approach, need to be told or read aloud. My recent experiences with her work have certainly borne out that assertion. We have been loving both the recipes and tales (read aloud multiple times already) in Fairy Tale Feasts: A Literary Cookbook for Young Readers & Eaters. Homeschoolers looking for a way to get more out of meal times? It’s a fun way to bring books into the kitchen and make the stories more…appetizing (!?)…for reluctant readers. The recipes are relatively simple, appropriate for parents and childen to do together, though there’s not much here I’d turn a child loose on alone. And ones we’ve tried are quite bland–something of a downer for adults, but if you’ve got a choosy child, they might be a good fit as is. If not, well, as with the tales, feel free to embellish.

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