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Respect the Source:
Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part Two

by Betsy Hearne

Folktales belong to all of us, but we do not own them. Like the air we breathe and the earth we stand on, they are ours to take care of for a short while. The more we give to them, the more we find in them. in recreating a folktale for children in picture-book form, we are borrowing an old story, adding to it, and returning it to the world renewed. That is the ideal scenario, but sometimes more is subtracted from the story than is added.

Achieving a balance between old and new depends on equal respect for both old and new, for what we've received and what we have to give, for the "original" source of a story (i.e., where we heard or read it) and for the possibilities of re-creating it. If for no other reason, we should respect a story's past because we shall soon become part of it.

Respect is not synonymous with reverence, adulation, sentimentality, nostalgia, or solemnity. if fact, humor is an important part of taking folklore seriously. Respect does mean identifying the specific culture and source from which a story has been taken (see "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part One," SLJ, July 1993, pp. 22-27) and, beyond that, charging the picture book, through narrative adaptation and visual treatment, with providing context for a text derived from either oral or printed sources. Folktales are not born and nourished in isolation; they grow from social experience and cultural tradition. When evaluating the escalating volume of picture-book folklore for children, I propose—beyond a standard requirement for source citation—that a text adapted from folklore be judged for its balance of two traditions: the one from which it is drawn and the one that it is entering.

Selecting Tales to Tell

How do contemporary adaptation and art reflect a folktale's culture of origin? And, what are the implications when these origins are—and are not—reflected accurately? Unfortunately, there's no checklist answer, but there is a lot to think about.

We should be aware, for instance, that the Coyote of children's literature is lopsided. We see only his sly, funny side without realizing how bawdy and scatological many Coyote stories are. Brer Rabbit can be mean when he needs to be, and sometimes when he doesn't need to be—just like us humans. We see his meanness in Julius Lester's re-creations, but not in Disney's, where the mean stories or story bits have been de-selected.

In Western European traditions, we know that "Sleeping Beauty" has appeared more often in mainstream collections than "Mollie Whuppie," which leads some feminist critics to believe that the selection of folktales is a reflection of social reality and perhaps even a tool of oppression. Whatever we think about the issue of popularizing passive heroines, we must acknowledge that selection counts. Among other things, selection dictates how much a story will need to be adapted to translate from one culture to another, and how readily it will be absorbed.

Ed Young has re-created a number of Chinese folktales. His illustrations for Ai-Ling Louie's Yeh Shen: A Cinderella Story from China (Philomel, 1982) were received with critical acclaim, and his illustrated adaptation of the active-heroine-centered Lon Po Po: A Red Riding Hood Story from China (Philimel, 1989) won the Caldecott Medal. (Lon Po Po, by the way, had no source note.) However, two other books—one featuring his illustrations for Lafcadio Hearn's The Voice of the Great Bell (Little, 1989, OP) and the other, Red Thread (Philomel, 1993), labeled folklore by Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication but with no source notes—have elicited mixed reactions from those who perceive the heroines as sacrificial. (See the exchange of letters disagreeing on The Voice of the Great Bell in SLJ, February 1990, pp.65 and 68.)

Here we run into a conflict of political correctnesses. Ed Young is Chinese-American, and we want to see Chinese folktales adapted and/or illustrated by such a skilled artist; yet the themes may run counter to deeply held values in our own culture. How can we criticize Chinese folklore for being Chinese? how do the Chinese variants differ? How do illustrations interplay with and affect a retelling? And, how can we compare the picture-book version with traditional variants in the absence of any source note?

Establishing Cultural Authority

What defines an authority in creating or evaluating picture-book folklore? A well-read expert? Someone raised in the culture represented by the story? Can only members of an ethnic group truly represent the lore of that group? How can we tell? By the name? The skin color? Does the absence of an author or artist's photograph mean an African-American folktale has been adapted by a WASP? if so, does that mean a majority is ripping off a minority, or honoring it? Graciela italiano has addressed this controversy in a paper delivered at the 1992 Allerton Institute. (1) She underscores the importance of knowing a cultural tradition, from the standpoint of both experience and study, over the formal qualification of being a card-carrying member of the culture. At the same conference Hazel Rochman argued eloquently against the misconception that "only Indians can really judge books about Indians, Jews about Jews . . . locking us into smaller and tighter boxes." (2)

By birth, Paul Goble is English, but he clearly found a spiritual home with the Sioux. he has lived among them, has been adopted by the, and has drawn, respectfully, from their lore for a good percentage of his lifetime. (Note how carefully he ascribes his sources.) I was born in the South and spent my first 17 years there. Later, I lived in Israel for two years and studied Jewish history and folklore intensively at the Hebrew University. My knowledge of these two cultures differs qualitatively and quantitatively but allows me some insight into each. Understanding depends less on biology than on knowledge and experience.

Crossing Cultures

Certainly, authority includes the power of imagination and that illusive quality, perception. Some storytellers and artists seem to manage quantum leaps from one culture to another without violating either. Underlying their apparent ease, however, is usually a great deal of skill based on understated knowledge and underrated experience. The success of all storytelling—in any medium, time, or tradition—depends on a blend of creativity and craft. To that extent, admittedly, it's the quality of art and narrative that determines how well a tale translates from a culture's oral tradition into a contemporary picture book.

Yet, the criteria that define good storytelling vary from culture to culture. Both Native American and African stories tend to seem much more episodic than do European ones. For this reason, picture-book adaptors often reshape and rephrase stories to a closer alignment with familiar configurations of beginning, middle, and end. Trickery, villainy, violence, and sexuality are almost always toned down or tuned out completely. heroes and heroines are modified to suit new social conventions. Depending on whether the changes involved minor details or basic elements of the tale, the culture of origin may be lost completely or revitalized in a cross-cultural translation.

Leanne Hinton's Ishi's Tale of Lizard (Farrar, 1992) is a brave and innovative book because it risks unfamiliarity in retaining an original storytelling voice that will be new to listeners. After acknowledgements and an introduction describing the culture that died with Ishi, the last of the Yahi people, Hinton describes the way his stories were transcribed and translated, and how she has adapted them as truly as possible to the words he used.

He made arrows.
He worked at his arrowmaking.
At dawn, he smoothed down the arrow-shaft canes.
He made arrows. He rubbed the arrow shafts smooth.
He worked at his arrowmaking.
That's what he did.

Read aloud, this text begins to fall into a choral/response pattern all its own. From both an artistic and folkloric point of view, Ishi's story of Lizard is an intriguing one, and young listeners or independent readers will find that the repetition makes for rhythmic reading aloud. Punctuated by the refrain "That's what he did," Ishi's tale describes Lizard sending a long-tailed relative out to get wood for arrow shafts, killing a grizzly that eats the relative (swallowed alive and rescued, like Litte Red Riding Hood), dancing with women and children, gathering pine nuts, and escaping his enemies. The chant-like narrative is illustrated with Susan Roth's highly textured rice paper collages that stylized the figures and landscape with a modern sensibility that never violates the traditional tone, but rather intensifies it. As a picture book, this makes landmark efforts not to abandon its cultural context for easy listening by contemporary preschool children. At the same time, a young audience given to understanding differences in culture will accept the fragmented quality of the text with ease in response to the sturdy cadence and striking art.

Old Stories, New Art

Taking art out of context raises the same questions as taking text out of context. What happens when we apply new art to old stories? Is changing cultures as easy as changing clothes when it comes to illustrating picture-book folklore? Ideally, the traditional and the contemporary are linked through graphic motif, artistic tone, and/or visual setting. For an anthology in the Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series, Beauties and Beasts (Oryx, 1993), I recently requested permission to reprint a variant from Barbara Walker's A Treasury of Turkish Folktales (Linnet, 1988). She granted it with one reservation: The story could be reprinted only on condition that it was accompanied by illustrations or designs authentic to Turkish art.

I believe what Walker rightly finds unacceptable is artistic fakelore—not the creation of new art to accompany an adaptation, but the use of folk art motifs misappropriated from a culture or misapplied from one culture to another. Unless an artist is steeped in a folk art tradition or willing to do a lot of research—again, Paul Goble comes to mind—it may be better for him or her to translate the tale into an entirely new graphic mode, as Robert Andrew Parker does in Bierhorst's The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (Morrow, 1993), than to borrow art motifs and superimpose them uncertainly or awkwardly. When artist try to imitate a "naive" or "primitive" style, stiffly elaborated with designs that may be drawn from pottery or ritual objects, the result is often art that's neither authentically crafted nor freely imaginative.

As important as accuracy in graphic translation is fidelity of tone. Pairing a dignified creation myth—or, for that matter, an irreverent trickster tale—with cutesy pictures is a real mismatch even if the borders are laden with traditional motifs. Too many homely folktales have been overwhelmed with sentimental and/or glamorous visual images out of sync with the story.

The conventional bit of wisdom that teachers pass on to would-be writers can apply to illustrators as well: Create from what you know. That's not to circumscribe a creative reach for the unknown; rather, it's to prescribe reaching from a sturdy base to avoid falling flat. the artist Shonto Begay works traditional graphic motifs into Ma'ii and Cousin Horned Toad: A Traditional Navajo Story (Scholastic 1992) on a subtle, unselfconscious—and therefore unobtrusive—level that supports the tale without distracting from or overshadowing it. the storytelling and story art are naturally bonded by a cultural context with which Begay is so deeply familiar that he never glamorized it from the distance of idyllic adulation of commercial calculation.

Janet Stevens brings none of Begay's Native American background to Coyote Steals the Blanket (Holiday House, 1993). Yet, her illustrations have all the daring pizzazz and dashing speed of its main character. "I go where I want, I do what I want, and I take what I want," brags Coyote, so when Hummingbird warns him not to touch the beautiful blankets up ahead, we know he will, and we know he'll suffer the wrath of the rocks on whom the blankets are draped. With a bold mix of crayon and watercolor, a cinematic page design, and an unerring sense of animal anatomy exaggerated to funny effect, Stevens rivets the reader's attention on this extended chase scene. And, her desert colors, sandstone shapes, and loose-limbed, scraggly-whiskered trickster will keep every eye moving to catch up with the characters. The cover shows Coyote quivering with canine defiance; the pages that follow show an inherent kinship between Coyote's line of action and Stevens' linear action. As in Goble's Iktomi and the Boulder (Orchard, 1988), there is an element of parody here (a trend in today's picture books) to which Coyote naturally lends himself and which makes Stevens' illustration an actual commentary on the text. This is not Native American art like Begay's, but it is homely, ingeniously funny art in keeping with the story. Save winsome elaborations for a French fairy tale, where they fit.

An Oral Tradition in Print

That goes for verbal elaborations too. Robust sound is a more important aspect of adaptation than are the literary curlicues that often glaze adapted folklore. Some adaptations drown a story with words. What shapes a folktale are its memorable elements, not its complex fictional details. Like poetry, folktales come alive out loud. Repetition is an important aspect of folklore narrative patterns, but repetition can be inventive or it can be boring. Compare Coyote's opening line in Stevens' book, quoted above, with the opening lines of another recent retelling: "Coyote was walking along when a man came down the road. The man was riding a fine horse. He was dressed in fancy clothes. He wore a fancy hat." It's true that this is supposed to be an easy-to-read text, compared to Stevens's read-aloud text, but one sounds like Coyote bragging and the other sounds like feet dragging. Ashley Bryan is a veteran proponent of the out-loud sound, which he translates from speech to print with confidence. Witness this introduction to Ma Sheep Thunder and Son Ram Lightning in a Nigerian folktale, The Story of Lightning & Thunder (Atheneum, 1993):

"A long time ago, I mean a long, long, time ago, if you wanted to pat Lightning or chat with Thunder, you could do it. Uh-huh, you could . . . You could stop for a chat or to pat or just wave as you walked on by. They watched the flow, the come and the go, of the people from the country, the people from the town. When they tired of looking one way, they could always turn around."

Bryan has a sense of the oral tradition's musical play. He does not put into print what he hasn't polished aloud, and his graphic patterns of color, shape, and line reflect the rhythmic patterns of his narrative—a practice true to folklore, to folklore's new picture-book medium, and to folklore's newest audience of children.

A Call to Arms

Folklore and children's literature have always interlaced and overlapped. (3) The recent renaissance in picture-book folktales, however, is unprecedented. Unfortunately, stories have suffered as a result of a changing emphasis in children's book marketing strategy—from institutional sales, which are dependent on librarians experienced in using picture-book folktales with children, to bookstore sales, which are dependent on graphics to catch the eye of an occasional shopper. What's lost in that switch is the professional knowledge involved in selecting a text for its oral durability.

We need picture books that work with children, not as coffee-table aesthetics or political correction to kids' social sensibilities, but as stories that speak in the language of suspense, surprise, and narrative pattern; as illustration that holds hands with a story instead of overpowering it; as folklore that speaks from a clearly delineated cultural tradition. And, professional librarians themselves need more critical evaluation of folktales in picture-book format, especially folktales from cultures unfamiliar to a European majority. Exploring in depth the specifics of adapting text and art from a particular culture belongs to a longer critical story, but the general need for a more careful treatment of the picture book as context for folklore is clear and urgent.

This call to folkloristic arms should not strike fear in anyone's heart. We have answered such calls before. For many years, reviewers and award committees of professional librarians evaluated illustration in picture books without making much effort to explore the elements and terminology of art. Because we're a profession idealistic enough to respond positively to criticism, we have improved our powers of observation and articulation considerably in analyzing picture-book illustration. We can do the same for folklore.

We can ask for source citations and more critical reviews; we can compare adaptations to their printed sources (interlibrary loan works for librarians as well as their patrons) and see what's been changed in tone and content; we can consider what context graphic art provides for a story; we can make more informed selections, not by hard and fast rules, but by judging the balance of each book. And, we can make sure that storytelling courses, as part of the professional training for children's librarianship, include enough folkloristic theory to start this process and that veteran librarians have a chance—through in-service training and book discussion—to meet these new demands. We can, in short, educate ourselves on the use and abuse of folklore at an intersection of traditions.


  1. Italiano, Graciela. "Reading Latin America: Issues in the Evaluation of Latino Children's Books in Spanish and English" in Evaluating Children's Books: A Critical Look, Betsy Hearne and Roger Sutton, eds. Champaign: Univ. of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, in press.
  2. Rochman, Hazel. "And Yet . . .Beyond Political Correctness," in Evaluating Children's Books.
  3. Hearne, Betsy. "Patterns of Sound, Sight, and Story: From Literature to Literacy." The Lion and the Unicorn (16:1), pp. 17-42.

School Library Journal, August 1993 (pp. 33-37). Used by permission.

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