Old stories are like large snowballs rolling down a hill. They grow, gathering details with each telling. Sometimes they break apart into two or three stories; sometimes they hold together and become a cycle of related tales, or even an epic. Sometimes the added details were invented on the spot by a storyteller, in Ireland called a shanachie, and some were brought from other stories from other lands. (Milligan, 2003, author's note)
Bryce Milligan's words are an appropriate opening for a column featuring or folk literature--those tales, fables, legends, nursery rhymes, and myths passed down orally with no known tellers, or authors. Folk literature accounts for only a small slice of folklore, which includes, among other things, rhymes, jokes, stories, superstitions, traditions, sayings, and customs. Through publication in written form by retellers, folk stories complete the metamorsphosis from folklore to folk literature.
Teachers, librarians, and children all delight in the many types of folk literature available. This genre provides engaging reading experiences for students because they enjoy the wit, humor, clever word choice, and the fact that the good characters are rewarded and misfortune falls upon the bad.
Folk literature introduces students to many cultures, and it quickly becomes apparent that virtues such as honesty, hard work, mercy and forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, and learning are honored across cultures (Young, 2004). "Folk literature contains references to a society's values: what the people value; what they laugh at; what they scorn, fear, or desire; and how they see themselves" (Young & Ferguson, 1998, p. 259). In the words of Rudolfo Anaya, "Stories help us understand and appreciate other people and they hold many valuable lessons" (1999, p. 16).
Traditional literature also provides students with a frame of reference to bring to the literature and cultures they will later encounter. Jane Yolen referred to this as creating a landscape of allusion. "As the child hears more stories and tales that are linked in both obvious and subtle ways, that landscape is broadened and deepened, and becomes fully populated with memorable characters" (Yolen, 1981, p. 15). Many allusions to folk literature appear in works of fantasy by some of children's favorite authors. Indeed, many fantasy stories by authors such as Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Mollie Hunter, Ursula K. Le Guin, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Laurence Yep echo literary patterns found in myths and legends. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books provide an excellent case in point, with a protagonist who lacks important information about his heritage, and who uses magic in his fights against evil. Indeed, the Harry Potter books offer many rich folk allusions, such as three-headed dogs, dragons, trolls, unicorns, and magic mirrors. David Colbert's The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter: A Treasury of Myths, Legends, and Fascinating Facts (2001) presents a multitude of folk connections to Rowling's books.
Folk literature is published in many formats for children. Picture-book retellings of single tales abound; The Bachelor and the Bean retold by Shelley Fowles (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2002), Frank R. Stockton's The Bee-Man...
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