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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Where Have All the Folktales Gone?

In a recent review of Bobbi Miller’s One Fine Trade, I mentioned that it was a pity that there weren’t more folktales published these days.  Each year New York Public Library produces a list of 100 Books for Reading and Sharing, and there has always been a folktale component to that list.  In recent years, however, it has become more and more difficult to locate the little buggers.  Why is this?

Here may be the solution: I heard from a couple authors after I wrote the review saying that publishers simply weren’t interested in publishing such fare. Said one writer:

"Nobody wants folktales anymore! The books are scarce because editors aren’t buying them. They tell us writers directly, ‘Don’t send us folktales. We’re not buying them. Period!’

It’s been especially frustrating this past year. I’ve been told to my face, ‘. . . I love your work. Please send me something. Just not a picture book or a folktale.’

Librarians and everyone else who loves folktales and believes they’re important for children need to speak out because as far as I can tell, there are none in the pipeline."


None in the pipeline?  A shocking state of affairs.  Books of folklore will not burn up The New York Times bestseller list, tis true, but they are as essential to a library collection as fiction and fact.  Folklore is our very history.  The thought that publishes are doing away with them entirely is disheartening to say the least.

But perhaps the author was wrong.  Tell it to me straight, folks.  Look me in the eye.  Are folktales for kids really going the way of the dodo?

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Susan E says:

    Ahhh…folktales. I have a love-hate relationship with my 398.2 section. It’s bursting at the seams with never-checked-out lore from all corners of the world. Do I weed it? This year, I went against all advice I’d received in library school and got rid of a good chunk of it. The teachers and students only want to look at the up-to-date and attractive versions (not to mention easier to read) – especially comparing and contrasting the “original” with the “fractured” or “ethnic” versions. Many folktales are a hard sell…so I’m not really buying them either, unless it’s a replacement copy. (James Marshall, Paul Zelinsky, Jerry Pinkney…thank you for your work!!!)

    I’m a k-4 librarian in New Jersey.

  2. Susan Mello says:

    Well, I teach K & 1st, and I spend an entire month on folktales. The teachers is my building also check out folktales. Granted they only check out the same ones…they have their favorites like everyone else.
    I read an article when I was in library school (2006-2008) that said parents believe folktales to be too violent. I also think parents may not like the missing parent (aka dead) that occurs in folktales a lot. Lastly, I don’t think some parents have the appreciation of the roots of literature like librarians and teachers. And…whether we like it or not, the parents do most of the purchasing. So, publishers listen to the dollar signs. Okay, there are my 2 cents.
    P.S. I am very jealous that so many of you are at ALA. I have never been. But I cannot manage Book Expo and ALA in the same year. Have fun!

  3. lisachellman says:

    No more folktales? Really? I feel like not a month goes by without two or three new ones darkening our doorstep. Depending on how folktales are reviewed, they are ordered either by yours truly or the librarian who develops our nonfiction collection. When I’m the one reading the review, I tend to skip retellings of oft-told tales unless they get truly exceptional reviews. But there are some old tales I’d love to see spruced up. In particular it seems that patrons want more Grimm, etc., adaptations for younger children. And personally I’d love to see brighter, fresher illustrations for many old stories. I feel like every edition of “Jack and the Beanstalk” we own is butt-ugly (to use the official terminology).

  4. lisachellman says:

    Addendum: what I am personally sick of seeing is folktales retold in a new setting for the sake of “multiculturalism.” True multiculturalism would bring to light stories of different cultures, not simply rehash traditional European tales with characters with different skin color, etc. (Thinking Rachel Isadora here…) And what’s with Eric Kimmel retelling all these old favorites with different Mexican tapas? What’s next, a retelling of Cinderella wherein a plain cob of corn gets dressed up in mayonnaise and Parmesan cheese so she can meet El Gran Elote at the fiesta?

  5. Elizabeth O. Dulemba says:

    Hi Betsy,
    I have to comment! Folktales may be dying in the larger publishing houses, but not the smaller ones. This Fall I celebrate the release of my first picture book as both author and illustrator – Soap, soap, soap ~ Jabón, jabón, jabón! – a bilingual (and all-English) adaptation of the classic Appalachian Jack/folktale, “Soap, soap, soap.” (A review copy should be on its way to you soon.) It’s been thoroughly modernized (no violence, although there is a lot of mud) and told with a Latino main character named Hugo. My first book with Raven Tree Press (as illustrator) was also a folktale adaptation of the classic “Jack and the Bean Stalk” – Paco and the Giant Chile Plant ~ Paco y la planta de chile gigante. (Lisa, I hope you’ll give it a look.) My publisher, Raven Tree Press specializes in bilingual picture books so they especially appreciate folktales. Learning a new language can be hard enough for multi-cultural kids – sometimes a familiar story can help them over that hump and give them a story with which they can connect more easily. And while I agree many of the old folktales require some serious reworking for modern day palettes, it can certainly be done. The bones (ha!) of those classic stories – the journeys, challenges, and feelings of childhood – will never get old.
    *ahem* – want your soap box back now? :)
    e
    Children’s Book Illustrator/Author
    Elizabeth O. Dulemba
    dulemba.com

  6. Reka says:

    Sadly this is not a new thing–folktales have been very hard to publish successfully for at least a decade. From the 70s to the early 90s there was a flood of wonderful folktales from around the world, lushly illustrated and beautifully told. Then we in publishing started to hear from booksellers that they didn’t need another folktale from, for example, China because they already had the Chinese version of Cinderella, etc. (And yes, the Disney princess factor seems to have had a lot to do with this.) Thankfully librarians and educators understood the need for folktales long after booksellers felt they were impossible to sell, but with ever-shrinking library and school budgets even those stalwart folks have cut back on their purchases of folktales. Maybe they feel they have enough from earlier years to cover folklore units? I’ve been lucky enough to edit a few that did find a supportive audience, but at the time we knew it was a gamble to publish them and that if they succeeded, which they did, it would be the exception rather than the rule. It breaks my heart, because I adore folktales and think they’re hugely important for kids to read.

  7. janeyolen says:

    I have several folktale manuscripts not getting bought. The reason? Only librarians and teachers want them, but the big box stores and the online bookstores won’t carry them. Once upon a time the school market was 85-90% of the children’s book sales and it is now down well below 40% and falling still. I feel awful about that, but the publishers are chasing the dollars. They have to, I suppose, in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, school and library budgets are small, and getting smaller. And all that media stuff they now have to buy pushes out the books.

    Still–I have these manuscripts. . .

    I love writing/retelling/inventing
    folklore (or fakelore, which is what Alan
    Dundes the famous folklorist called them).

    Have I mentioned those manuscripts?

    Jane

  8. Shutta Crum says:

    As an author (and librarian), I have to comment as well.

    There was such a glut of folktales being published in the 1990s that publishing houses saw the folktale market dwindle as we got into the new millenium. Many 398.2 sections in libraries were running out of room.

    It is true, today many publishers simply tell writers “we don’t want folktales.” If you skim the Children’s Writers & Illustrator’s Market guide you will see that fact stressed repeatedly in the publisher submission guidelines.

    Does it mean none are getting through? No. Many smaller publishers are still willing to take a chance on a folktale.

    I believe we librarians are acutely aware of how important folktales are in a global society. However, many publishers are looking/must look at the bottom line. Few folktales sell to general bookstore patrons, to families, or to gift-buyers. The primary markets are schools and public libraries. And we all know which way the budgets are going for libraries these days. Many libraries are barely hanging on for dear life–are fighting just to keep their doors open. So the library/school market is now slender in this regard, as well.

    What we can do is advocate for more folktales on committees, on blogs (Yay, Betsy!)and whenever we speak with kids or the general public.

    We may not need to return to the folktale-heavy lists of the 90s, but we do need to sustain folktale pubilshing as a way of sharing our cultures, even in lean times. Besides, many of those well-laden 398.2 shelves from the 1990s have since been weeded and need revitalizing!

    Shutta

  9. Susan VH says:

    Marshall Cavendish pubs An Apple Pie For Dinner, my retelling of an English folktale, next month. The ms was acquired because of its seasonality – fall apple-picking/pie-baking time – not because of its folktale origins. While I was shopping Apple Pie and a few other reworked folktales (Elizabeth, I have a version of Soap, Soap, Soap too – you beat me to the marketplace!), I heard the “no folktales, thank you very much” refrain again and again. Discouraging. I’ve often thought of submitting w/o mentioning the dreaded FT word. Would be interesting to see if eds.’ reactions would be any different.

    Susan VanHecke

    http://www.AnApplePieForDinner.com
    http://www.SusanVanHecke.com

  10. Anon says:

    Check out Hinky Pink (Atheneum) by Megan McDonald. An enchanting retelling of a folk tale. Hinky Pink was Notable book in 2008 and is illustrated by Brian Floca (Moonshot 2009).

  11. Alana Abbott says:

    Maybe it’s just that less familiar folk tales are being released, so they fly under the radar? I’ve reviewed two or three martial arts related folk tales for School Library Journal since I started reviewing for them a few years ago. There’s certainly not a huge glut of them on the market right now, and the lesser known tales may be harder sells — even though once you’ve got six versions of Rapunzel or Cinderella on the shelf, you don’t really need one more. Some classic retellings are still in print, I imagine. I’ll certainly buy the Zelinski Rapunzel when I start building a fairy tale picture-book collection at home.

  12. Fuse #8 says:

    Note to Self: Stop posting interesting topics of discussion when unavailable to comment as well.

  13. Judith says:

    Reading folktales is an essential part of our cultural psyche. In our multicultural society we have a wealth of stories from around the world to share with children. Writers need look for a new angle and adjust the story to fit the market. That’s basically what has happened to the tales as they were passed down orally through the centuries. I won’t give up, I love them too much. When I was a school librarian, I worked hard on highlighting this section with my students and with the parents. I hope publishers will reconsider this market in the future.

  14. Dzagbe Cudjoe says:

    “Where Have All the Folktales Gone”? Perhaps you would like to take a look at my book “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me”.

  15. LSCHL70573@aol.com says:

    The children in my school library are mad about folktales, and teachers always use them when they study different cultures. There’s always a big chunk of 398′s on the shelving carts, and if I put out a big display of folktales in the morning, by late afternoon only a few are left (the ones with the sepia covers!)

    The thought that Jane Yolen has unpublished folktales breaks my heart. If someone would publish them, they’d be boomeranging all around my library!

  16. Dzagbe Cudjoe says:

    “Where Have All the Folktales Gone”?
    Perhaps my book “Tales My Ghanaian Grandmother Told Me” might be of interest.
    ISBN 9781934925874

  17. Deck says:

    While not a book of Folktales, Alma Alexander’s young adult Worldweavers series, features some figures from Native American Folktales, Coyote the trickster, for example, and Grandmother Spider.

  18. kbookwoman says:

    I absolutely love well-produced folktales that incorporate traditonal re-tellings with lovely new illustrations, or clever take-offs of old tales. I grew up on the Grimm, Lang and Perault collections, and definitely appreciate the current availability of multicultural tales since it has always been the universal commonalities of struggles, and the resourceful overcoming of obstacles that intrigued me. There are many wonderful re-tellings, Ada. Aardema, and Climo are just a few of the consistantly good ones. Unfortunately, there are some that are very poorly done, and the fact that they get published may depress the market for better material. I hope that folklore is always part of our cultural experience, and that quality work like that of Ed Young continue to be published.

  19. David Ziegler says:

    I agree with several posters above that folk tales are important and need to be available to children, parents and teachers, especially in the increasingly diverse populations that we serve. Maybe we librarians need to send that message to publishers and booksellers when we attend BEA or ALA. Too bad someone like Jane Yolen doesn’t have manuscripts of folktales just waiting to be published … Perhaps a certain blogger could do a top 100 Folk and Fairy Tales list to get everyone enthused and get the word out that Folk tales (and Fairy Tales) are great!

  20. Susan G. says:

    I am passionate about the place of traditional literature in public and school libraries. So much so that i teach a graduate course at Western’s library school on just that subject.
    As one of many elective courses this term it had full enrollment (25)plus 15 on the waiting list. I think i am not alone. Folktales and myths are stories from our collective human experience and imagination that have survived orally for thousands of years before held fast in print. They contain hard-won wisdom, metaphor, structure and insight all of which is contained within sparse, rhythmic prose. The very young to the very old can recognize themselves within and young people can play with the eternal themes and constructs to find meaning for themselves and the world they fantasize about. Low circs and low sales come from our lack of understanding and knowledge of this deeply rich art form. Get educated, read a good folktale or myth-perhaps both.

  21. David Macinnis Gill says:

    Maybe retellings aren’t popular at the moment in children’s, but the YA market has several that have come our recently, including Alex Flinn’s BEASTLY, Malinda Lo’s ASH, and my own updated Faustian tale, SOUL ENCHILADA.

  22. Martyn says:

    The South Dakota State Historical Society Press has published 5 folktales over the past 5 years or so. The point of the Prairie Tale Series has been to reintroduce unknown or less-well-known folk and fairy tales from the Great Plains using modern illustrations. The series has included some of our best-selling books. I think there is a market there for folktales as long as they are produced in the right kind of way.