Spotlight on Traditional Literature

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.”
― Gene Roddenberry

Spotlight on Traditional Literature 

Traditional literature: folktales, fairy tales, legends, and myths. I love to read them. T loves to hear them. Most kids do, in my experience. Why? And why should we read them?

Young children crave predictability and repetition; traditional literature is rife with it. Justice is served. People learn their lessons. Characters are flat with easily recognized motives. Settings are often vague (at the edge of a forest, in a castle, etc.) and easy to imagine anywhere in the world. All these combine to make for a place of security from which to confront the reality of good and bad and to explore unfamiliar concepts. And equally important, both for why we love them and why we should read them: they cultivate imagination.

Fantastic beasts, magic, and anthropomorphized animals spark the imagination. How often do children act out magical stories that they've read, improvising and expanding on the original story. If we don't give children the resources, how can they create? It is widely acknowledged that folktales ignite imagination. And it is imagination that we most need to solve problems. We as a society need problem solvers, and folktales foster imagination and creative thinking. Pourquoi tales, for example, which have long been a personal favorite, model creative reasoning and imagination. Sure, we know that animals have evolved in ways to help them survive, but it is so much more enjoyable to imagine that the crow's beak fell off and was worn down as a tool by the woman using it, as in How Raven Got His Crooked Nose.

Traditional literature helps children understand justice in safe and predictable scenarios. Children have an innate sense of fairness, and seeing justice meted out in fairy tales and folktales allows them to confront "bad" situations from a secure standpoint. Lying, tricking, and stealing is bad; people who do it will not prosper. This is a common theme, and we see it played out again and again, as in Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, where Anansi himself is tricked after he tricks the other animals out of their food. Or in "The Magic Mortar," where one brother's greed leads to theft and his own death in the book Urashima Taro and Other Japanese Children's Favorite Stories. As I mentioned in my review of Good Night, Wind, folktales can help us understand appropriate behavior.

Perhaps most obviously, reading literature from many cultures allows us to connect with distant peoples. In The Atlas of Monsters, it is easy to see similar legends appear throughout the world. A myriad of vampire, werewolf, dragon, and zombie creatures appear across the globe. So many monsters protect nature. So many others eat children. The cross-cultural similarities in legends are hard to miss, and it's not much of a leap to understand that people are not so different themselves. Conversely, legends can shed light on the unique aspects of a particular culture. Through the lens of traditional tales we can see what has played an important role in people's lives, be it rain, the ocean, religion, etc. Mountains, for example, and magic-wielding priests, appear prominently in Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends. It doesn't take much to see how significantly the geography and religious history of Iceland have shaped its cultural history.

So, do ancient legends, far-fetched magic tales, and foreign explanations have any bearing on our children? Absolutely! Read them, enjoy them, and know that they are laying the groundwork for thoughtfulness, creativity, and global citizenship.

There are so many offerings when it comes to traditional literature, and I've chosen to focus on a handful of current and forthcoming publications simply because I had to limit what I assessed somehow. Below are four books, each with stories from a different continent, with The Atlas of Monsters pulling together legends from everywhere. In the future, I think it would be fun and interesting to make a study of a particular tradition, or a particular story across many traditions.

The Atlas of Monsters
By Sandra Lawrence and Stuart Hill, 2019

T’s most important thing to know: It’s a spooky one.
T’s favorite part: The legendary things. The legends. That’s what I like.

Quite literally an atlas of monsters. Each continent is depicted with illustrations of monsters located in their geographic origins. The monsters's traits are explained and a few short legends are narrated.

What sets it apart: Readers must solve a mystery left by the geographer who mapped out the monsters.

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable
By Barbara J. Atwater, Ethan J. Atwater, and Mindy Dwyer, 2018

T’s most important thing to know: It is that Raven had a big accident. Well, a girl is picking fast, and she’s being very fast and her grandma says, “Settle down and hear a story.” And then she does. And then her grandma tells her to take your time when the story is over.
T’s favorite part: Mine? It is that it is good. And my favorite part is when he takes human form.

A retelling of the fable explaining the raven’s straight nose fell off and was found by an old woman. She uses it as a tool, wearing it down. When he retrieves it and hastily reattaches it, it is crooked.

What sets it apart: Dena’ina words are incorporated into the text, with a pronunciation guide and definitions.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends
By J. M. Bedell, 2016

A collection of short Icelandic legends, divided into six categories including trolls, hidden people (elves), and ghosts.

What sets it apart: The brevity of each legend makes it easy to pick up any time and the authenticity is palpable. These are not modern retellings. I can just imagine hearing one of these tales in passing, maybe after Sunday Mass, when so-and-so says, “Did you hear about that ghost over at Myrká? Gudrún saw it!”

Urashima Taro and Other Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories
By Florence Sakade and Yoshio Hayashi, 2018

T’s most important thing to know: Well, it is this: There’s many stories.
T’s favorite part: My favorite thing is that it has a lot of stories in it. “Why the Red Elf Cried.”

Very obviously, a collection of fairy tales. We loved reading about the dragon who was befriended by a little boy and the little elf that cried over losing a friend. All of these stories were new to us, and we both loved the pictures.

What sets it apart: The publisher explains that it has tried to “remain true to the spirit of the Japanese originals” while explaining “customs and situations that Western readers might not understand.”

Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock
By Eric A. Kimmel and Janet Stevens, 1988

T’s most important thing to know:
He plays tricks on people – I mean animals. You get to see Anansi’s house when he’s leaving it.
T’s favorite part: That there’s so many characters. That he plays tricks.

Anansi tricks the other animals out of their food using a magical moss covered rock. Little Bush Deer refused to be tricked and turned the tables on Anansi. The other animals were able to reclaim their food.

What sets it apart: Little Bush Deer is hidden in the background of almost each page. T loves screaming out, “There she is!” and pointing her out on each page.

Review copies were provided in exchange for honest reviews for these books: The Atlas of Monsters from Running Press Kids, How Raven Got His Crooked Nose from West Margin, and Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends from Interlink Books

Further Reading: 

Lukens, Rebecca J. A Critical Handbook of Children's Literature.
Martha Crippen, Martha. "The Value of Children's Literature
Norton, Donna. Through the Eyes of a Child.
VisikoKnox-Johnson, Leilani. "The Positive Impacts of Fairy Tales for Children"