Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 2

Climbing Rosa

By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University

As Rachel Young, former Art of Storytelling student learned, Hungarian folktales often begin with these lines: “Once there was, or once there wasn’t…” This introduction could easily be applied to a retelling of Climbing Rosa. Retold by Shelley Fowles, this story is about a girl who is an expert at climbing because she is forced by her stepmother and stepsister to sleep on the roof of their house. This skill gives her an advantage when the king has had enough of his son’s reading, reading, reading and holds a contest in which the prize is none other than the prince himself. In order to win the prince, a girl must climb a very tall tree and bring back seeds.

Rosa’s stepmother and stepsister Irma hear about the contest and dare Rosa to enter. When Rosa takes up the challenge, Irma, even though she is frightened, climbs right behind her. Story listeners and readers will rightly predict that the stepsister will try to steal the seeds that Rosa finds. When Irma does so, Rosa falls from the tree and lands on the prince. Rosa, at first angry at Irma for snatching the seeds, happily discovers that when she shakes her head seeds fly out from her hair. Rosa marries the delighted prince. And in the end, perhaps truer to sibling rivalry than some other fairy and folktales, Rosa leaves her scaredy-cat, deceitful stepsister up in the tree to be rescued… at a later date.

The story is quite satisfying to listeners and tellers on many levels. While the single-dimensional characters common in folklore are evidenced in this story, the fact that Rosa is a physically strong and independent minded girl is a plus. The relationships between the characters and the ending ring true.

Shelley Fowles’s folk art illustrations suggest traditional Hungarian dress, architecture, and artifacts. The bright colors in these illustrations will attract the eyes of young readers. Using acrylics and pen-and-ink to share flowered details and patterns, Fowles’s paintings provide cultural continuity and capture the humor. The illustrations also suggest the pacing in the story, which could be a plus for those who are looking at this book as a source for oral storytelling.

What is your response to this story? What messages might story listeners take away from a retelling of this tale? How could you dramatize the action in the story? Can this story support a goal of sharing global perspectives with young listeners?

Climbing Rosa presents a conundrum for librarians and teachers who want to record an oral version of this story to share via the Web. The author’s note states that the story is based on a number of retellings including “The Tree that Reached Up to the Sky” (Dégh). I was able to access that book from the TWU library and read that version. I agree with Kathleen Odean’s Booklist review; Shelley Fowles’s variant “bears little resemblance to the Hungarian tale listed as its source” (48). The story as told in Dégh’s collection involves a swineherd who climbs the king’s tree in order to bring back its fruit and determine the tree’s origin. Dégh’s version, however, includes encounters with old women, a five-legged talking horse, a dragon with twelve heads, and a great deal of coincidence and magic.

The Library of Congress catalogued Climbing Rosa as “fiction;” it is not shelved in the 398.2 section of the library. So one question is this: Is this story in the public domain? The author seems to suggest it is, but with this conflicting information, what is an ethical online storyteller to do?

Next week’s title will be When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animals eran personas: Un cuento huichol retold by Bonnie Larson based on a story told and illustrated by Modesto Rivera Lemus.

Works Cited

Dégh, Linda. Ed. Folktales of Hungry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Print.

Fowles, Shelley. Climbing Rosa. London: Frances Lincoln, 2006. Print.

Odean, Kathleen. “Climbing Rosa.” Booklist 102.15 (2006): 48.

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