Choosing High Quality Children's Literature/Traditional Literature
by Amie Rice and Angel Liang
"Literature serves an important function in our society, for children shape their reality about themselves and others based on much of what they read. Students' attitudes, values, and beliefs are influenced by children's literature" (As cited in Diamond, B.J., & Moore, M.A. 1995, p. 11). Young (2004) gave a clear description of traditional literature in the introduction to the book Happily Ever After: Sharing Folk Literature With Elementary and Middle School Students:
|“||Also known as traditional literature, folk literature is essentially the canon of tales or stories of a people, passed down orally through many generations. Folklore referring to a variety of oral lore including greetings, jokes, remedies, stories, etc. emerges from the folk, or grass roots, culture and becomes folk literature when it is recorded in written form. (p. 2)||”|
- was transmitted from one generation to another through oral storytelling
- was narrated mostly
- had no identified authors
- explained the origin of natural events and reveals the social, political, and spiritual beliefs of society
Traditional literature includes these features:
- Short plots
- Concentrated and fast paced action, which adds interest
- Two-dimensional characters that could easily be identified as either good or bad
- Unimportant setting
- Limited themes, such as good vs. evil and right vs. wrong
- Happy endings
Young (2004) also indicated that "traditional literature has served to educate listeners/readers about the creation of the world, the history of its people, and the moral values a particular culture holds dear" (p. 5). Such "oral history" and "oral deed" was a corridor, which enabled people to get to know the cultures of various foreign countries or tribes. In the past, traditional stories were once presented to adult (and sometimes child) audiences, but they have become a major part of children's literature during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the stories' content, however, involved crude humor and sexual implications. The criterion for selecting a traditional tale might depend on the reader or audience who would be enjoying the tale. As a prerequisite, it would be wise to consider the age and appropriateness of the content for the reader or audience.
Criteria for Selecting Traditional Literature
According to Donna E. Norton (2007, p. 212 and 253-254), traditional literature should be enjoyable to the reader and the following criteria should be considered:
- the ages, interests, and prior knowledge of the reader
- the amount of text written in the tale and the attention span of the reader
- the traditional literature features, including a satisfying ending
- the writing stays true to the oral storytelling style
- helps the reader understand the world and its cultural traditions
- displays the connections between various types of stories around the world (i.e. Cinderella tales)
- teaches appreciation of culture and art from different countries
- portrays the culture accurately and not stereotypically
- uses dialects and languages of different countries
- inspires creativity through artistic expression (i.e. drama, writing, art, etc.)
- acknowledges the goodness, compassion, bravery and the human struggles of people from other countries
- author's note was included at the beginning or the end with more information about the tale and its culture
Types of Traditional Literature
Listed below are the common types of traditional literature:
Folktales, literally, were the tales of the folk. Folktales were understandable light literature, which flew orally from the general public. Folktales were divided into several categories. This was a brief introduction of a few that were presented from Types of Folktales.
- Cumulative tale - repetitive tales that were added on to as the story progressed (i.e. The Gingerbread Man)
- Pourquoi tale - tale used to explain why animals or humans have certain characteristic (i.e. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears)
- Beast tale
- Trickster tale
- Noddlehead (Noodlehead), and numbskull tale
- Realistic tale - tales based on an actual historical event or figure in history (i.e. Blue Beard)
- Fairy tale
The Grimm Brothers, Jacob (1785–1863), and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859), were both well-known linguists in Germany and famous for collecting fairy tales and folktales. Their household tales such as The Bremen Town-Musicians, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Grethel were diffused worldwide.
Another collector of some of the more popular traditional tales, Charles Perrault, preceded the Grimm Brothers by collecting French folktales and modifying them to be appropriate for the aristocratic French courts. According to Lydie Jean (2007), his modified tales were unique because Perrault "remade a popular style by keeping the structure of the stories and some typical phrases, and he created a sense of belonging with intellectuals and aristocrats by using precious vocabulary and respecting the requirements of the salons fairy tale writing" (p. 279). In other words, Perrault was able to bridge the enjoyment of several classes of French society without directly offending each class. Jean (2007) mentioned that "his success was quite uncommon: fairy tales were usually not popular among the lower classes" (p. 278), which preferred the vulgarity of traditional tales. Some of his well-known retellings were Little Red Riding Hood, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, and Blue Beard.
An excellent example of a folktale that met the high quality criteria of traditional literature was All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet retold by Barbara Helen Berger. This tale was a simple story about a boy traveling to the holy city and finally reaching it. The small amount of text in this story might help readers with short attention spans focus on the story at hand.
Tall tales were unique to American folk literature because the characters were based on historical figures or folk heroes who were just as EXAGGERATED as the situations they were put in. Most of the characters were usually larger than life and their occupations were included within the tall tales to further define the characters' traits. Two famous characters were Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.
Reminiscent of Paul Bunyan, Doňa Flor: A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman with a Great Big Heart by Pat Mora, was about a giant woman who helped her neighbors and the surrounding animals with her big heart and physical strength. These similarities among tall tale characters displayed connections between various types of stories around the world, in accordance with the criteria for traditional literature listed above.
Fables were short, brief stories that were intended to teach a moral lesson. Talking animals were featured as having human characteristics in these stories. Aesop's Fables are the best-known fables.
Jerry Pinkney's rendition of fables, Aesop's Fables, was an example of high quality children's literature. Each fable was one page in length and was accompanied with a picture and simplified moral.
Other sample such as The Tree on the Mountain was the 17th book embodied in Outer Chapters of a Chinese Taoist ancient book, Zhuangzi. The story was about the Tao philosopher, Zhuangzi, and his followers as they attempt to understand two dilemmas: a tree remained uncut by a woodcutter because its wood was good for nothing, but a goose was killed because it could not cackle like the other geese. In other words, the tree on the mountain was seen as worthless to the woodcutter and therefore remained living, whereas the goose who couldn't cackle was useless to the host and therefore worth killing for dinner. As a result of these dilemmas, Zhuangzi explained that it was wise to avoid stereotypes or subjectivity when making decisions/judgments. Zhuangzi, who was good at writing apologues (allegorical narratives with morals) and seizing every chance to convey his philosophical thinking, related his explanations to the Tao and its Attributes.
A good example of a ballad is the book Frog Went A-Courtin' retold by John Langstaff. It originated in Scotland hundreds of years ago and it has no author. This ballad was sung or told to children from generation to generation.
Partitioned into The Folk Epic and the Literary Epic, epics were long narratives in verse form that told about the adventure of a hero or some historical events. In some classification systems, an epic was a sub-category of a myth, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad. These major ancient Greek epic poems were created by Homer, a legendary ancient Greek blind poet.
One of the more popular epics, The Iliad, has been retold by several authors in order to make it accessible to readers of every age. It was, however, more difficult to find a version where the author's writing stays true to the oral storytelling style. Rosemary Sutcliff's retelling, Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad, included aspects of the original epic's verses and metaphors throughout the book, which reflected the oral storytelling style. For example, Sutcliff (1993) included, "In the high and far off days when men were heroes and walked with the gods,...." (p. 6).
A myth is a sacred story from an ancient time. It explained people's origins and beliefs of the universe and of life, or the culture's moral values in human terms. Myths also included the powers that control the human world and the relationship between those powers and human beings. Atlantis: the Myth was a famed example. Although Greek, Roman, and Norse myths were some of the most famous myths, other myths from around the world had similar attributes. For example, the characters, in general, were gods and goddesses observing human life from a setting that was high above earth.
A collection of myths called The Children's Book of Myths and Legends: Extraordinary Stories from Around the World retold by Ronne Randall, related to the criteria of teaching appreciation for different countries. Throughout the book, myths (and legends) from many countries were categorized based on the origins, beliefs, and adventures of different cultures (i.e. tales of creation and death, etc.). These comparisons might help the reader gain a greater understanding and appreciation of different countries' myths.
A legend was a saga that concerned people, places, and events from the past. They were usually about a saint, a historic hero, or a major incident that was based on either a true historical happening or associated with a particular place and time in history; for instance, Arthurian Legend and The Story of El Dorado.
The Two Mountains: An Aztec Legend retold by Eric A. Kimmel, was about a god and goddess who fall in love while disobeying their parents' wishes. The couple was married but they defied a sacred promise, which caused them to become mortal and bound to the earth as two mountains for eternity. This legend's descriptions provided the reader with a greater understanding of the world by reflecting the cultural traditions (and beliefs) of the Nahua people (who were the descendants of the Aztecs).
Most people did not like to classify religious stories with traditional literature because it insinuates that these stories were fictionalized, like myths, and denounced religion. However, religious tales did have features of traditional literature. According to Tunnell and Jacobs (2000), religious tales involved a "human's quest to discover and share with one another the truth concerning the spiritual aspects of existence" (p. 72), which were first told through oral storytelling. Some examples of religious tales were The Bhagavad Gita - The Divine Song of God and The Old Testament. Also, tales associated with religious celebrations and holidays were considered religious stories, such as the Christmas story of La Befana from Italy.
The Tale of Three Trees: A Traditional Folktale retold by Angela Elwell Hunt, was about three trees who grew up to become the lumber used to create the manger, the fishing boat, and the cross for Jesus Christ. The third tree, which became the cross, discovered that God's love was more powerful than hatred and this gives strength to His Christian followers. Although this religious tale discussed the hardships Jesus Christ encountered on the cross, the features of traditional literature were present and did include a satisfying ending for its readers.
Cinderella Tales were types of fairy tales that shared characteristics and motifs with hundreds of other versions from around the world. Some of the shared similarities were:
|Three Daughters/Sisters||two were deceitful and envious and often conspired against the third|
|The Youngest Daughter||was usually the third daughter/sister who was passive and displayed kindness and honesty, which matched her beauty|
|Terrible Mother||was cruel, irrational, jealous, and was portrayed as the mother, stepmother, witch, or queen|
|Supernatural Helpers||were kindly, sometimes invisible helpers that assisted the heroine, such as a Fairy Godmother|
|Magical Object||was magical and powerful, like a magic wand|
|Transformation||a change occurred, usually by magic.|
|Hansome Higher status male||was usually a prince or other form of royalty|
|Test of Worthiness||a test or task that determined the worthiness of a character, such as the shoe test (i.e. the glass slipper fits)|
A good example of a Cinderella story was Little Gold Star: A Spanish American Cinderella Tale retold by Robert D. San Souci. This story comprised the essence of "Cinderella" and it was revised from the Spanish origin, which maintained the Spanish dialects and languages. With Sergio Martinez's vivid and transparent style of drawing, the illustrations might inspire and attract readers as well.
Links for Traditional Literature
- - Brothers Grimm Animated Movie Clip of The Bird, The Mouse, and the Sausage (Click on the butterfly to begin the movie clip).
- Chinese Fables - Scroll over button in upper right hand corner (under the roof) for English
- Aaron's World of Stories - list of traditional literature
- Aesop Prize and Accolade Winners - traditional literature books written in English for children
- Oral Literature and Traditional Literature Online - list of tales
- Links to Traditional Literature - lesson plans and activities
- Paul O. Zelinsky books - retold and/or illustrated traditional tales
- Cumulative tales
- More Cindrella Tales
- Lesson plans - for traditional literature
- Mythic Journeys - myths from different regions of the world
- Starfall Bookshelf - interactive reading of traditional literature
- Fables, Fairy Tales, and Folklore - list
- Kids' Space Storybook - read tales from other countries and kids can create own tales
- Guidelines for Teaching With Folktales
- Myths, Folktales, and Fairy Tales - Scholastic website for writing traditional tales
- Diamond, B.J., & Moore, M.A. (1995). Multicultural Literacy: Mirroring the Reality of the Classroom. New York: Longman Publishers.
- Hunt, A. E. (1989). The tale of three trees: A traditional tale. Illinois: David C. Cook.
- Jean, L. (2007). Charles perrault's paradox: How aristocratic fairy tales became synonymous with folklore conservation. TRAMES, 11(3), 276-283. Retrieved April 21, 2007, from Academic
- Search Complete database.
- Kimmel, E. A. (2000). The two mountains: An Aztec legend. New York: Holiday House.
- Langstaff, J. (1955). Frog went a-courtin'. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company.
- Lesser, R. (1984). Hansel and Gretel. New York: Dutton Children's Books.
- Lynch-Brown, C., & Tomlinson C. M. (2007). Essentials of children's literature: (6th ed.). Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon.
- Mora, P. (2005). Doña Flor: A tall tale about a giant woman with a great big heart. New York: Random House, Inc.
- Norton, D.E. (2007). Through the eyes of a child: An introduction to children's literature : (7th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
- Pinkney, J. (2000). Aesop's fables. New York: SeaStar Books.
- Randall, R. (2001). The children's book of myths and legends: Extraordinary stories from around the world. England: Barnes & Noble, Inc.
- Rosenberg, D. (1997). Folklore, myths, and legends: (1st ed.). Illinois: McGraw-Hill.
- San Souci, Robert D. (2000). Little gold star: A Spanish American Cinderella tale. New York: HarperCollins.
- Sutcliff, R. (1993). Black ships before Troy: The story of the Iliad. New York: Delacorte Press.
- Tunnell, M.O., & Jacobs, J.S. (2000). Children's literature, briefly: (2nd ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
- Tunnell, M.O., & Jacobs, J.S. (2007). Children’s literature, briefly: (4th ed.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
- Young, T.A. (Ed.) (2004). Happily ever after: Sharing folk literature with elementary and middle school students. Delaware: International Reading Association.
- Zelinsky, P.O. (1996). Rumplestiltskin. New York: Puffin.
- Zelinsky, P.O. (2002). Rapunzel. New York: Puffin.