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.

Please visit wowlit.org to browse or search our growing database of books, to read one of our two on-line journals, or to learn more about our mission.

10 thoughts on “Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 2

  1. Anita Shaw says:

    Dr. Moreillon,
    I enjoyed the character of Rosa who was unique despite being a one-dimensional character like you noted. She does not come across as a meek, submissive feminine character that does not have any strong emotions of her own. She is wise, too, in whether to openly express her thoughts when taunted by family. For example, when teased by her stepmom and stepsister about how she climbs like a monkey, Rosa thinks of how she would love to get away from them even if it meant climbing a tree and how much her stepmom looks like a “poodle in a lampshade.” On several occasions Rosa’s comments made me chuckle.

    As I read the folktale I kept comparing it to the familiar Cinderella story. Rosa is encouraged (although as a means of trickery) to try and win the tree climbing competition in order to gain the prince’s hand in marriage, whereas Cinderella had to receive help in order to go to the ball. Both female characters desire marriage to a prince, but Rosa seems to retain her individual personality before, during, and after the marriage. I view the character of Cinderella more in the role of victim, but Rosa as a self-determined, tough female up to a challenge. Although quite different from Illyes’ (2013) version, I believe Fowles (2006) retelling has something different to offer listeners in the way of a female “heroine” who despite difficulties succeeds and makes a better life for herself.

    Anita Shaw

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

    Illyes, Gyula. 2013. “The Tree that Reached the Sky: A Hungarian Folk Tale.” Hungarian Review 4(6). http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/20131201_the_tree_that_reached_the_sky_a_hungarian_folk_tale

  2. Anita Shaw says:

    Dr. Moreillon,
    I enjoyed the character of Rosa who was unique despite being a one-dimensional character like you noted. She doesn’t come across as a meek, submissive feminine character that doesn’t have any strong emotions of her own. She is wise, too, in whether to openly express her thoughts when taunted by family. For example, when teased by her stepmom and stepsister about how she climbs like a monkey, Rosa thinks of how she would love to get away from them even if it meant climbing a tree and how much her stepmom looks like a “poodle in a lampshade.” On several occasions Rosa’s comments made me chuckle.

    As I read the folktale I kept comparing it to the familiar Cinderella story. Rosa is encouraged (although as a means of trickery) to try and win the tree climbing competition in order to gain the prince’s hand in marriage, whereas Cinderella had to receive help in order to go to the ball. Both female characters desire marriage to a prince, but Rosa seems to retain her individual personality before, during, and after the marriage. I view the character of Cinderella more in the role of victim, but Rosa as a self-determined, tough female up to a challenge. Although quite different from Illyes’ (2013) version, I believe Fowles (2006) retelling has something different to offer listeners in the way of a female “heroine” who despite difficulties succeeds and makes a better life for herself.
    Anita Shaw

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

    Illyes, Gyula. 2013. “The Tree that Reached the Sky: A Hungarian Folk Tale.” Hungarian Review 4(6). http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/20131201_the_tree_that_reached_the_sky_a_hungarian_folk_tale

  3. Amy Stafford says:

    Shelley Fowles’ illustrations are wonderful and, as Dr. Moreillon mentions, authentic to traditional Hungarian style. There is a folk art quality to the, as well.

    As to the cultural authenticity of the story, I tend to question it in terms of its representation of traditional Hungarian beliefs, practices, and cultural norms. In a brief entry at the International Models Project on Women’s Rights website, Anton Babak writes, “Hungary has been a patriarchal society as most of the European countries since the Middle Ages” (2013). Babak also writes that Hungary has striven for equal rights and treatment of women in more recent years.

    It can then be said that Fowles version of the folk tale represents Hungary’s work towards equality and respect for women. In addition, there is only a semblance of similarity between Climbing Rosa and “The Tree that Reached the Sky” (Illyes 2013). Both stories contain a king who engages his people in a contest that rewards the winner with his offspring’’s hand in marriage and both stories contain an incredibly tall tree. The similarities end there. In one the protagonist or hero is female and the other is male. One contains many adventures after the protagonist reaching the summit of the tree, and the other quickly ends with the protagonist falling from the tree and directly into the arms of her husband-to-be.

    Perhaps this is a matter of semantics, but I wonder if the note in the beginning of Climbing Rosa should read “inspired by” instead of “based on.” For arguments say, let’s say that “based on” implies an adaptation of an existing work that keeps the spirit of the story, while “inspired by” means that some elements of the original are used but that the spirit of the story (those things which make it particularly unique) is not there.

    Although Climbing Rosa is a wonderful story with a strong and plucky female protagonist who can be admired for her bravery and sense of humor, I lean toward considering this story as “inspired by.” I would love to hear other thoughts on this.

    Babak, Anton. 2013. “Summary: Cultural Patterns of Conduct in Hungary.” IMPOWR.org.
    http://www.impowr.org/content/summary-cultural-patterns-conduct-hungary

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

    Illyes, Gyula. 2013. “The Tree that Reached the Sky: A Hungarian Folk Tale.” Hungarian Review 4(6). http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/20131201_the_tree_that_reached_the_sky_a_hungarian_folk_tale

    • Janelle Valera says:

      Hi Amy,
      I absolutely love what you said about “inspired by” versus “based on.” I agree that you are right on that “Climbing Rosa” is more inspired by “The Tree that Reached the Sky,” rather than based upon it. In this regard, I tend to view the book more as a fun female empowering tale with a Hungarian cultural twist, than an actual traditional Hungarian folktale.

      This is not to say that “Climbing Rosa” does not have its merits. In fact, I believe an excellent story hour introducing Hungarian culture could be designed around this story. I can very easily imagine this work transformed into a felt-board story, utilizing the very distinct textiles of traditional Hungary to make up the characters and visual pieces. Pair this with Johannes Brahms Hungarian Dance pieces (no. 5 being the most famous) for a bit of music enhancement. Provide traditional Hungarian foods for children to sample, such as Goulash (stew), Zsemle (bread rolls), and Babapiskota (lady finger desserts) for an even richer experience. Building upon the cultural elements presented in “Climbing Rosa” makes for a simple but potentially powerful introduction to, not only Hungary, but cultures everywhere to very young learners. Ideally a true traditional folktale would be preferable in featuring Hungary for a story hour, but since locating simple, short folktales for early learners is often difficult, substituting “Climbing Rosa,” which is more age appropriate to story hours, is understandable. My only caution would be to emphasize that “Climbing Rosa” is NOT a traditional tale but “inspired by” traditional tale. With this acknowledgment, I believe “Climbing Rosa” to make a wonderful addition to a library story hour highlighting Hungarian culture. What do you think?
      Janelle

  4. Kerol Harrod says:

    Hi, Dr. M.

    Thank you for your introduction to this book. First I have to say that I really like Rosa as a character. She’s strong, fearless, and willing to climb out of her bleak situation and make a positive change for herself. Shelley Fowles does a nice job of crafting this nuanced and witty retelling of a classic Hungarian folk tale. You can’t help but admire Rosa’s spirit, which is big enough to carry this character-driven story to its amusing conclusion.

    That being said, the story’s authenticity is up for debate. The folk tale as it appears in Hungarian Review (Illyés 2013) is quite different. Instead of a quest to retrieve seeds from the giant tree, the original story features a journey to get a single apple. Instead of marrying off a lazy son, the traditional tale features suitors vying for the hand of the king’s daughter. Though they don’t go into much detail, reviews of Climbing Rosa by Maggie Hommel (2006) and Kathleen Odean (2006) make the point that the addition of the Cinderella elements make the story less authentic. This all makes me wonder: At what point does a story become so different than what it represents that it loses its cultural significance?

    Marilyn Carpenter asks two important questions in her discussion of cultural authenticity. “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?” (Carpenter 2012). These are fair questions, and they speak to how we approach retellings of folk tales.

    As you mention in your introduction, Climbing Rosa “presents a conundrum for librarians and teachers” in terms of categorization. When I searched the book in Worldcat (www.worldcat.org), I found that some libraries shelve it as fiction while others shelve it in nonfiction with the folk tales. The case could be made for both.

    Consider the case of another Cinderella retelling: Bubba the Cowboy Prince: A Fractured Texas Tale (Ketteman 1997). In this book, Bubba is tormented by his stepfather and stepbrothers, and they want to keep him from going to Miz Lurleen’s dance. Luckily, Bubba meets Miz Godcow, who gets him ready for the dance. After losing his boot (instead of a slipper), Bubba is found by Miz Lurleen and they live happily ever after. As a native Texan, I think it’s a very witty remaking of Cinderella. I’m under no impression that this book accurately represents anything but stereotypes of Texans, but I’m okay with that. The wide variance with the original Cinderella tale could also be why it’s categorized as easy fiction.

    As Sylvia Vardell (2008) points out, Bubba “is not attempting to reflect a root culture” (79), and knowing that goes a long way to making sense of the categorization. Maybe Shelley Fowle’s book is fractured without saying so, and that’s why it’s not officially listed as a folk tale. Either way, she does a marvelous job of illustrating this fun-filled book. I highly recommend it.

    Thanks,
    Kerol Harrod

    References

    Carpenter, Marilyn. 2012. “Culturally Authentic Fairytales” and “Fairytales: Zero Tolerance?” Exploring Fairytales – Parts 1 and 2. WOW Currents Blog. 19 Dec. http://wowlit.org/blog/2009/09/28/fairy-tales-zero-tolerance/ (retrieved March 13, 2014).

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

    Hommel, Maggie. 2006. “[Climbing Rosa].” Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 59 (8): 351-351. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2060/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brd&AN=510556931&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

    Illyés, Gyula. 2013. The Tree that Reached the Sky: A Hungarian Folk Tale. Hungarian Review 4 (6). http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/20131201_the_tree_that_reached_the_sky_a_hungarian_folk_tale

    Ketteman, Helen. 1997. Bubba the cowboy prince : a fractured Texas tale. Illustrated by James Warhola. New York : Scholastic Press.

    Odean, Kathleen. 2006. “[Climbing Rosa].” Booklist 102 (15): 48-48. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2048/login?url=http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2060/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brd&AN=518503005&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

    Vardell, Sylvia M. 2008. Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide. Libraries Unlimited: Westport, CT.

  5. Anita Shaw says:

    Dr. Moreillon, Amy, and Kerol,

    I have to agree that labeling Shelley Fowles’ book as a folktale is debatable and has resulted in the book being classified both as fiction and non-fiction. According to the Random House Dictionary (2014) a folktale is “a tale or legend originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially one forming part of the oral tradition of the common people.” Elements of Fowles’ book do not appear to have originated from the Hungarian people, so the question remains whether it is actually a folktale.

    As you commented, Amy and Dr. Moreillon, the illustrations are quite detailed and enhance the telling of the story. I visited the American Hungarian Museum online (http://magyarmuzeum.org/) which had photographs of authentic Hungarian costume dress, instruments, and textiles and it appears that the book illustrations in these areas are authentic. One particular scene in the book, however, gave me pause. About nine pages into the book when the stepmom and stepsister are telling Rosa she climbs like a monkey, there is an illustration of Rosa holding what looks to be a toothbrush and toothpaste! To me this adds to the humor in the book, but certainly does not seem “authentic.” Regardless, the story is quite enjoyable and remains an example of the difficulties that can appear when trying to categorize books.

    Anita Shaw

    American Hungarian Museum: Magyar Folklor Muzeum. 2014. “An Invitation to Visit the American Hungarian Museum.” Accessed March 9. http://magyarmuzeum.org.

    Folktale. Dictionary.com Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/folktale (accessed: March 14, 2014).
    Fowles, Shelley. 2006. Climbing Rosa. London: Frances Lincoln Limited.

  6. Kerol Harrod says:

    Great conversation, everyone. As Dr. Moreillon, Anita, and Amy have all said, the illustrations in this book are really amazing. Thank you, Anita, for the link to the American Hungarian Museum (http://magyarmuzeum.org). Shelley Fowles accurately represents many of the patterns and motifs I see in the Hungarian artwork and textiles featured on this site. She has an uncanny ability to mix bright, intricate patterns inside darker, more stylized artwork in Climbing Rosa.

    These dual levels of intricacy in the illustrations are mirrored, I would argue, with a dichotomy taking place in the narrative: nature and civilization. Rosa sleeps in a bed on the roof of her step-family’s house. She is exposed, unprotected, and vulnerable, yet this image of her on the roof symbolizes her ability to mediate nature and civilization. Rosa battles both nature and civilization on her climb up the tree, fighting off Irma (who is actually ‘climbing Rosa’ at times) as she searches for seeds. In the end, Rosa has climbed the giant tree and also climbed from her state of vulnerability to become a princess.

    I can imagine there will be more outdoor activities now that the prince is married to Rosa, and perhaps Rosa will read more books now that she doesn’t have to sleep on the roof every night.

    But what about her sister Irma? The last page of the books says “she is still stuck up that tree.” Now Irma is the one vulnerable and exposed, and this symbolizes Rosa’s ability to use nature to tame civilization. I like Rosa’s strength of character, and I’ve enjoyed learning more about Rosa’s world with this discussion group.

    Thanks,

    Kerol

    Works Cited

    American Hungarian Museum: Magyar Folklor Muzeum. 2014. “An Invitation to Visit the American Hungarian Museum.” Accessed March 9. http://magyarmuzeum.org.

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

  7. Amy Stafford says:

    Anita, I had not noticed the toothbrush until you mentioned it. That definitely adds to the humor of the story!

    I do have to wonder how many other books located in Dewey classification 398.2 for folk literature are also inspired by a traditional tale rather than based on a traditional tale. Perhaps it is not such a worry if we have a wide enough knowledge base of the most well-known folktales such as those by Aesop, Hans Christian Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm, to name a few. Otherwise, if I were to write a paper or conduct a series of storytelling sessions about works truly based on traditional tales, I would likely spend many, many hours research the validity of each and everyone. My point is that perhaps Fowles’ (2006) modernization of the Hungarian tale by Illyes (2013) has just enough elements in both plot, characters, and illustration to at least honor a piece of the Hungarian culture while also bringing with it more progressive ideas such as female independence and empowerment.

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

    Illyes, Gyula. 2013. “The Tree that Reached the Sky: A Hungarian Folk Tale.” Hungarian Review 4(6). http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/20131201_the_tree_that_reached_the_sky_a_hungarian_folk_tale

    • Note: Some of the most celebrated fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen are not from the oral tradition; they are his original stories and are classified as works of fiction. Examples: “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Thumbelina”… Fairy tale collectors, who have mixed these stories in with the folk and fairy tales he retold from the oral tradition, have confused the issue.

  8. Janelle Valera says:

    Dr. Moreilllon and other web followers,
    As noted by Dr. Moreillon, Climbing Rosa, as retold by Shelley Fowles, presents a bit of a conundrum. Is it a public domain folktale, open for digital retelling or is the tale copyright protected as an original telling by Ms. Fowles? I would argue that Fowles’ work constitutes an original piece written in 2006 and is therefore protected under U.S. copyright laws. As such the work should not be digitally retold for an online audience. In the “About the Story” author’s note, the author specifically mentioned Linda Degh’s book Hungarian Folktales and the “Tree that Reached the Sky” story as her resource (Degh, 1965). As my classmates have already noted, a direct comparison of the two stories reveal that Ms. Fowles instituted a quiet a few creative liberties. She changed the gender of the main characters, renamed the characters, and introduced significant plot twists, as well as omitting several dominant plot twists from the original. In doing so, I believe that she deviated sufficiently enough from the original, that Climbing Rosa is no longer the same traditional Hungarian tale from which she based the story. The original tale may be in the public domain, but Fowles’ adaptation is not.
    Perhaps I am too bold to argue that the Library of Congress cataloging of Climbing Rosa is an error? As a practicing public librarian (who is known to occasionally catalog children’s books) I have always considered the call numbers offered by the Library of Congress in the CIP (cataloging in publication) page, to be a suggestion, rather than a hard set rule as to the classification of the book. As stated in the Library of Congress website,
    “A Cataloging in Publication record (aka CIP data) is a bibliographic record prepared by the Library of Congress for a book that has not yet been published. When the book is published, the publisher includes the CIP data on the copyright page thereby facilitating book processing for libraries and book dealers” (LOC website, 2014).
    The key word “facilitating” implies to me that any Dewey or Library of Congress distinctions made by the Library of Congress are simply guides. Therefore, I have been known to “relocate” items designated as a 398.2 to the picture books section, and vice versa. Translating this back to Climbing Rosa, I would not base my decision on whether a folktale is in the public domain, based upon its Dewey classification from the Library of Congress CIP page at the beginning of the book. Rather, as a responsible storyteller interested in an online retelling of Climbing Rosa, I would contact either Ms. Fowlers myself or the U.S. Copyright Office directly for questions regarding the public domain status of Ms. Fowles’ tale.
    An additional resource of great assistance, I found an article written by storyteller Aaron Shepard, entitled “Researching the Folktale” (1996). Although the article is a bit dated, the information presented speaks directly to a storyteller who wrestles with the copyright and authenticity issues discussed in the blog. I recommend anyone interested to follow up with this article.
    I welcome any responses, questions, or comments.
    Works Cited
    Degh, Linda Ed. Folktales of Hungry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Print
    Fowles, Shelley. Climbing Rosa. London: Frances Lincoln, 2006. Print.
    Library of Congress. Cataloging in Publication Program. Retrieved 03/15/2014. http://www.loc.gov/publish/cip/. Website.
    Shepard, Aaron. Researching the Folktale. SCBWI Bulletin. 02/1996. http://www.aaronshep.com/storytelling/A65.html . Online resource.

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