“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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Peace Tales for MLK Jr. Day

Posted on January 15, 2007. Filed under: Storytelling |

What I’m reading right now, to celebrate the holiday is Margaret Read MacDonald’s Peace Tales: World Folktales to Talk About.

King’s focus was, of course, racial equality. But what I believe distinguished him as a leader was his process: “nonviolent direct action.” In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he lays out the process as follows: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” For King, “nonviolent direct actions,” processes we have come to know as “resistance” or “protests”–tellingly, both words that carry connotations of anger and conflict–had to be thoroughly grounded in principles of peace. It was not enough for him that people attend sit-ins and rallies keeping their anger turned down to a simmer–he insisted on the transformation of that angry energy into something new: fellowship, faith, steadfastness in the struggle. My own political life has been changed by his example.

For me, it’s no longer enough to respond to racial injustice, to gender inequity, to fear-mongering, war-making and a multitude of other social ills with self-righteousness, with the escalation of my own anger. It’s time for transformation, for conducting my political life in a spirit of love, of reaching out. And of late, that’s taken the form of sharing MacDonald’s book, letting children see what peace looks like. How it can be enacted. Here’s a quick example.

MacDonald offers two versions of a short tale about two goats who live on adjacent mountains. They routinely cross a bridge into one another’s territories and graze, until one day they both find themselves on the bridge at the same time. In the first version of the tale, they challenge one another, lock horns and both end up falling into the river, sputtering mad that the other’s stubborness has caused such trouble. In the second version, they work together to carefully negotiate around one another, allowing each to cross simultaneously–but it’s not easy. They do, however, each leave the encounter impressed by the other’s ability to cooperate.

MacDonald’s introduction and her notes on the collection of the tales are well worth reading. As are the many, many documents by Martin Luther King Jr., available at the Stanford website, along with BIG lesson plans and other excellent curricular materials (See Liberation Curriculum):



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