Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?

By Marilyn Carpenter, Eastern Washington University, Cheney, WA

boundLast week I wrote about the challenge of evaluating fairy tales for cultural authenticity and the tools that help meet that challenge. In this post I explore the question: should there be zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in fairy tales? I’ll by describing the process of evaluating a novel-length version of Cinderella set in China.

When the book Bound, by Donna Jo Napoli, arrived in my office I grabbed it to read immediately. I had previously read all Napoli’s novel-length versions of the fairy tales like Zel and Beast. These tales were favorites of mine. My students also had enjoyed them. I was eager to have a new book to booktalk for my teen literature class. I was especially interested in Bound since it was a Cinderella story set in China, so I started reading it with a positive view based on my previous experiences with the author and her books.

My process of evaluating always starts with reading all the front and back matter of the book to discover as much as possible before I start the story. Napoli’s Acknowledgments begin the book and provide insight into her research for the story. In the Acknowledgments she thanks several people with Chinese surnames for their help with the book. She also mentions an article, The First Recorded Cinderella Story, that she read. She describes how one person answered her questions about Ming China, the historical period that is the setting for the novel.

In her Postscript, Napoli tells how she taught for a summer at a University in Beijing and describes how she read extensively for six years before writing the book. Napoli also explains her reasons for selecting the period and place for the setting.

This information verified for me that the author had undertaken extensive research about China and had personal experiences in China. When I started to read, I was quickly pulled into the story. I was particularly interested in how Napoli filled in the gaps of the Chinese Cinderella story I knew, Yeh Shen, a picture book version. Along with enjoying the story I learned more about the history of China. I felt that the themes were strong and would spark discussion on the part of my students. I was eager to share the book with them. Before doing so I checked reviews of the book. Bound received a starred review in Booklist, published by the American Library Association. It also received strong reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus.

There was a further check I wanted to conduct. I gave Bound to valued colleague, Dr. Jane Liu. Jane was the director of our graduate program and I had worked closely with her in developing a class, A Global View Through Children’s Literature. Jane grew up in China, lived through the Cultural Revolution, and returned to China often for visits to her family. Jane could give me an insider’s point of view regarding the book.

Jane kindly spent some time reading the book and then talking to me about her response to it. She found many cultural details in the story that were inaccurate. “Napoli conveyed the bigger ideas of Chinese culture, but she put in details that were not accurate,” she said. Jane’s discomfort about the book meant she would not recommend it. I was reminded of what Kathy Short wrote about in Details Matter-Especially if it’s my culture!

My strong reaction to this minor detail reminds me that what I can shrug aside when the error comes from another culture is not easy to dismiss when it’s my culture. It’s not so much the detail as the immediate concern that if the author or illustrator could get those surface details wrong, then how much insight does that person have into the deeper cultural values and beliefs.

Jane’s response to the book set me to thinking about the problem of detecting cultural inaccuracies when one is not member of the culture. I decided to do more research about the book. I learned that I was not alone in having a positive view of the book. I discovered that Bound had received numerous awards: American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Books, Publishers Weekly Best Books, Kirkus Editor’s Choice, Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth. None of the reviews I read mentioned cultural inaccuracies. I was puzzled about why there had been such omissions? It appeared that the reviewers had the same problem as I had. Without insider knowledge it is impossible to evaluate the cultural aspects of the book. Napoli had carefully prepared to write the book, but since she is not an insider to the culture she could not help making some errors.

I am left with questions about evaluating fairy tales that are set in cultures other than my own. Should we have zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in a book? Or, should we tolerate minor inaccuracies when only a few books about a culture are available? How do we evaluate a book for cultural authenticity if we are an outsider to that culture? Can we expect to find insiders for every book we read that features a culture we are not knowledgeable about? Should books about other cultures only be written by insiders? I welcome your comments to help me explore this issue.

In the meantime here is my review of an original fairy tale that will delight young readers. Jane recommends it too.

Lin, Grace. (2009). Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Little Brown. 282 pages. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-11427-1. Grade 3-6.
Young Minli’s life of poverty is enriched by the fantastic stories her father tells her every night. The stories inspire her to undertake a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon to learn how to improve her family’s fortune. Along the way she meets a dragon who accompanies her on her journey. This intricate fantasy includes the stories Minli hears from her father as well as new stories she experiences on her way. This beautifully crafted novel features illustrations in jewel-like tones by the author. Her note at the end lists the books on Chinese folktales that inspired her fantasy.

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5 thoughts on “Fairy Tales: Zero Tolerance?

  1. Rosie Hewett says:

    Marilyn,
    you asked alot of good questions throughout your review and I wanted to add a couple more. Isn’t the book fiction, isn’t writing a story about adding a few embellishments, and can we truely be completely and totally knowledgeable about every aspect of our culture even when differences in regions exist? Just a thought.

    Rosie Hewett

  2. Liz Dejean says:

    Marilyn –
    Rosie makes a valid point. Even in small countries there can be disagreements about cultural “truths,” and China is not small. I would be interested to see responses from Napoli and her informants about the points Jane raises.

    – Liz

  3. Marilyn Carpenter says:

    At this time it would not be possible to have Dr. Liu give specific examples. However, her concerns were about “cultural details.” As Liz has written above in a country as large as China there could be disagreement over such “details.”
    Marilyn

  4. Rogue Spyware says:

    “Should we have zero tolerance for cultural inaccuracies in a book?”
    No. The book is a work of fiction. The author may have tried to be as culturally congruent as she could, but does not owe it to her audience to be culturally accurate. She owes her audience an enjoyable read, and since it is based on a fairy tale she owes her readers an enjoyable escape too. If this were non-fiction I’d have a different view. When you market your book as non-fiction it most definitely should be accurate in all ways.

    This does not mean that the reader should take the author’s version of the story as truth. If the reader wants to know how culturally accurate the story is then they can do research to find out, but it is not the author’s responsibility to educate in a fiction book.

    Take Hollywood for example. Michael Moore’s “documentaries”, and more recently found out Al Gore’s global warming movie, are known to have fiction in them yet they are marketed as documentaries. This is wrong, and detrimental to any watching as they would take it as fact BECAUSE it is a documentary. Conversely, let’s hope no one believes our military acts as James Cameron portrayed it in Avatar. The difference is one is marketed as fiction and the other is not. If you want to know about a culture don’t rely on a fantasy book or movie to enlighten you.

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