By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University
Each year the United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) selects and promotes a list of Outstanding International Books (OIB) for children and young adults. On the USBBY Web site, the annual list divided by instructional levels (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12), is available as a downloadable bookmark. Educators can also find a Google map showing the setting of each book or the place of its publication.
As a storyteller and teacher of storytelling, I am always on the lookout for stories in the public domain that are suitable for oral telling in schools and libraries. When the annual OIB is announced, I especially notice the traditional literature titles that appear on the list. I am pleased to read and recommend the folktales, fables, legends, and myths that have been deemed worthy of USBBY recognition. On the WOW Currents this month, graduate students in LS5633: The Art of Storytelling and I will discuss five traditional literature books that have appeared on OIB lists in the past few years. We have read and shared our personal responses and connections to these titles in literature circles within our online course management tool. While we will post our responses on the blog, we will also share our process as storytellers who seek to determine the cultural authenticity of these stories. We invite you to join in the conversation.
Folktales, which are shelved in the Dewey decimal library in 398.2, is the genre I recommend for school- and community-based tellers who want to share tales that story listeners can read in published texts and perhaps learn to retell themselves. While published retellings from books cannot be told verbatim, no one owns the copyright to the stories themselves, and tellers are free to adapt and retell their own versions. One challenge for tellers is to ensure that the variants they are using as springboards for their own retellings are culturally authentic and accurate. We use the term “culturally authentic” to mean the story elements ring true with the language(s), values, norms, traditions, religion(s), gender roles, and the like of a particular culture. For example, using the word “majestic” to describe a mountain in a story about a culture without a tradition of royalty would be inauthentic. Accuracy refers to whether or not the details are correct. Using a family name that would not exist in a particular culture could be an example of an inaccuracy. (See Details Matter—especially if it’s my culture!)
Noticing the cultural background of the author or illustrator can be important. Many believe that “cultural insiders” who grew up within a culture are more likely to portray their heritage cultures with authenticity and accuracy. To write or tell stories from a “cultural outsider’s perspective” requires more than careful research. It requires outsiders to know how their own lives connect with the insider’s culture; that they enter into the experiences and language of a culture by having “sat down at the table” with cultural insiders (Woodson 45). Reading the author’s or illustrator’s note or source notes can provide additional information about the research process and the support the author or illustrator may have received from within a cultural community.
Even with some assurances by virtue of choosing a carefully vetted book from the OIB list, tellers will still want to do their homework. We often find that published book reviews do not address authenticity and accuracy. (The book reviews on WOW Review are an exception.) This requires tellers, especially those who are telling stories from outside their own cultural backgrounds, to conduct research, consult with one or more cultural insiders, and seek additional feedback from their audiences. This process can be lengthy especially if the story deviates from researchable aspects of the culture (e.g. children that disobey their parents in cultures in which that act goes against cultural norms). For the next five weeks, we will wrestle these two central concepts for storytellers, authenticity and accuracy, and share our personal responses to five OIB list titles. We will begin with three folktale collections, then a retelling of well-known Aesop’s fables, and finally a myth in graphic novel format.
When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew: Tales of Ti-Jean (Andrews and Petriĉić) is a collection of Canadian folktales that appeared on the 2012 OIB list. When I read this book, I had a surprising realization that the only other Canadian traditional literature I had ever read was from indigenous cultures. While Canada is one of two nearest geographic neighbors to the U.S., their folktale tradition was completely unknown to me. This particular collection is from the French-Canadian oral narrative tradition.
British-born author Jan Andrews, who is the founding president of Storytellers of Canada, offers readers a brief note about Ti-Jean, which means “Little John” in French (short for “petit” Jean). She notes, “He is wise, he’s foolish. The only thing he isn’t ever is rich” (11). Says Andrews, Ti-Jean stories have a long oral history and in her author’s note, gives readers permission to retell or to make up Ti-Jean stories. Some of the tales include little songs or refrains, some in French, which offer tellers a handy way to invite audience participation. Illustrator Dušan Petriĉić depicts the antics of Ti-Jean with black pencil and Photoshop software. His work adds humor to the character’s pratfalls and missteps.
According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, French Canadian folklore “enjoyed a ‘golden age’ of oral literature lasting into the 20th century. This was largely a result of French colonial policy, which did not allow the establishment of a press in New France, and later of the policies of English authorities, who consistently used English to introduce that language and Protestantism.” This historical perspective reminds me that some stories remain in the oral folk tradition for political reasons; they were not allowed to be published. This also makes a connection for me with the first story in the collection, “Ti-Jean and the Princess of Tomboso,” in which our folk hero gets over on the princess. Besting royalty could have been a common desire of the “folk” at the time these stories were first being told and retold in French-speaking Canada.
The author writes this in the source notes for this book, “The stories have been with us a long time now. All have come to us from Europe, but it seems they might no longer need the kings and queens that are so much a part of European history. The stories might need the history that is our own” (69). With his innocence and blind-luck, does Ti-Jean give us a peak into the human psyche? Does he show us anything about being French Canadian? What are your connections? How do you know if these tales are culturally authentic?
Next Week: The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Fernando Vilela
Andrews, Jan. When Apples Grew Noses and White Horses Flew: Tales of Ti-Jean. Boston: Groundwood Books, 2011. Print.
“Folklore.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/folklore>.
Short, Kathy G. “Details Matter—especially if it’s my culture!” WOW Currents Blog. 29 Jun. 2009. Web. 15 Mar. 2013. http://tinyurl.com/detailsmatter
Woodson, Jacqueline. “Who Can Tell My Story?” Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children’s Literature. Eds. Dana L. Fox and Kathy G. Short. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers, 2003. 41-45. Print.
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