My Biography: Discussion Transcript

Did anyone in your family tell you stories?

Oh yes: Different people told stories. My mother used to make up her own stories, and tell them to my brother and me. They were usually magical, and sometimes she added a song. Both my parents told me stories about family history — how my grandparents and great- grandparents came to the United States from Russia, Poland and Lithuania. I never really heard either of them tell fairy tales, but of course, I loved to read them (there's more about that in the bio section of this website.) I did love to listen to the radio; and one program — called " The Singing Lady" had a storyteller with a soft, melodic voice who spun all kinds of tales — from mystery stories, to myths, to Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. So I have to count her (the late Eileen Wicker) as one of my early influences as well. If you don't think of " Once upon a time" as the only kind of story that " counts", I imagine you hear lots of tales, every day, from people in your family and neighborhood. Everybody has their own " folktales!"

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

Hi — Playing music has always been an important part of my life — so if I'm not teaching, performing, or writing, I love to take time out to sing, do some drumming, or listen to music with family and friends. Just recently, I've started to enjoy COOKING new kinds of recipes (Middle Eastern!). I'm reading mystery novels, and, even though I'm involved with work in the oral tradition — I do enjoy going to movies — and seeing what film narrative is all about.

If someone could only read one of your books, which one would you want them to read?

Well…. That's hard to answer! (You know -like asking a parent — which is your favorite child.) Who is the person? How old are they? What are they interested in? If you like music — then I would say Patakin: World Tales of Drums and Drummers. If you like to think about solving puzzling questions and riddles — then I would suggest The Cow of No Color. If you love fairy tales, and collecting different versions, I would suggest The Way Meat Loves Salt.

One of the things I love about book writing is hearing from different people about what the books and stories meant to them — and to know the stories themselves found some new listeners and readers.

Do you have a favorite story from one of your books?

Like asking which is a favorite book (a previous question) it's tough to choose "just one" so here are a few: "Shiva and the Ash Demon from Patakin: World tales of Drums and Drummers"; "The Two Brothers" from The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales; two stories that became picture books — The Golden Flower: A Taino Myth from Puerto Rico and In the Month of Kislev: A Story for Hanukkah — and ' A Riddle and a Kiss" from Tales for the Seventh Day.

Maybe what makes these stories special is how I learned them, and my experience in performing and telling them to children, teachers and families -so with each of them I have special memories of people and places. Ask me another time — and my answer might be different!

Do you have a favorite author or authors?

Sure! Since college — D.H. Lawrence — novels, short stories and poems. I read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte at least once a year (despite films, TV movies and now a musical — the book is where Jane is alive!); Beloved by Toni Morrison is an incredible book — and very powerful; and short stories by Chekhov. When I was a kid, but even now, I'll go back to classics that I read many times — Peter Pan; The Wind in the Willows; Bedknob and Broomstick and The Rescuers. It's entirely possible, though, that one of my truly all time favorite books is The Jungle Book (Mowgli stories) by Rudyard Kipling and I'm just getting to know and love the work of a Yiddish writer named Ansky — whose stories — like The Dybbuk — are haunting, real and prophetic.

What is the funniest thing that happened to you when you were a kid? Did you write a story about it?

When I was ten years old, I was away at sleep away camp for the first time — in upstate New York. It was a farm camp, which for me was a great change, since I'd spent most of my time growing up in New York City. One day, the camp went to a county fair — where they had a calf-wrestling contest. You had to race across part of the fairway racetrack (locked off with wooden partitions), grab a calf, and pull it into about a 4-foot square outlined with lime — on the turf.

You could only win if all 4 feet of the calf were inside the square.

I decided to try. All the other kids had grown up on farms, and seemed pretty strong to me — but at the whistle, I ran as fast as I could, grabbed a brown and white spotted calf from the pen — and pulled it — kicking, scrambling and bawling — until I got it — all four feet (or hooves) into the box. The prize was $25.00 — and the judge seemed pretty surprised to announce — when he asked my name and where I was from — that the winner was a 10-year-old girl from Manhattan!

And now — I've written the story! Thanks for your question.

Do you ever make up your own tales or are they always based on an existing one?

Hi. Most of my books are picture books (like The Way Meat Loves Salt: A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish Tradition) where I'm retelling a story; or folktale collections (like Patakin: World Tales of Drums and Drummers or my new book Tales for the Seventh Day.) Sometimes, I'll have an idea for a story that is connected to the cultural tradition I'm working on, but has never been told or written before (two examples of that are " The Magician's Spell" in The Uninvited Guest and Other Jewish Holiday Tales and "Leah's Journey" in Tales for the Seventh Day.) But whether the story is a retelling or original, I'll always include source notes (usually in the back of the book) to share with readers how I learned, came to know, or was inspired to write the story. Being a storyteller helps my writing, because I'm always working, not just on the printed page, but performing or telling stories. This keeps them alive in my mind! (You might want to hear " A Riddle and A Kiss" in this workshop site; or else on Teacher Radio
( Just go to " Past Programs" and click on Nov. 13 — to hear " Mottke's Chicken" and have fun!

How is oral storytelling different from written storytelling?

Telling stories, you are in direct contact with your " readers"
(i.e. the listeners.) A story might change a little bit, depending
on whom the listeners are, where the story is being told, even the time of day. With written text — the person who gives voice to the images, words, ideas and feelings is YOU (the reader) — but the writer gives the materials needed by describing actions, people or environments ("... the tall tree stood by itself in a wide meadow".) In oral narrative, the storyteller might be able to "describe" or signify complex situations by raising the eyebrow, changing the level of voice, body, or hand gestures. Each way of communicating stories is complex; but " the tools of the trade" are different. One other difference: in live storytelling, listeners can ask questions or participate in other ways. Vivian Paley once said, " Storytelling is the most ancient of communal occupations." Can't have true storytelling without a group of people (at least two!) listening, commenting and responding. Try it out one time, and you'll see.

In order for a community's folklore to survive, must the community be somewhat isolated from the outside influences of corporations, the media, and outsiders? How does folklore survive in this day and age?

Folklore does not only exist in communities that might be considered " isolated." Today, folklorists look at different forms of stories and traditions that take place in urban, rural and even suburban areas. Also, not only in the U.S., but in different parts of the world, people are creating ways to preserve their languages and traditions using festivals and community events, publications — film and even the Internet. For additional information see:

Global Storytelling: Report from Tenerife — an article in Book Links
(published by the American Library Association) July 1999 about a storytelling festival in the Canary Islands of Spain — (by me.)

You can also contact folklore organizations in your state to find out about projects and documentation in your area. Museums are another great resource, as in many cases they have catalogues of past and current exhibits on folk arts. Take a look at website of the American folk life Center for listings on national resources and projects.

What are the main differences you can see among folktale genres from different cultures?

The idea of folktale genres is really a part of Western scholarship that goes back to mid 19th century (see What is Folklore? at this site) The scholar who did the most to establish a guiding collection and analytic approach was Stith Thompson who with his collaborator Antti Aarne researched and edited the multi-volume work Motif-Index to Folk Literature. So that's one place to start looking and understanding how western scholars gather and categorize world folktales.

Although folklore has terms like myths, legends, fables, tall tales — maybe the easiest way to think about stories in different cultures is not what they are called — in English — but how and why they are told — and for whom? Some stories are very sacred, and are only told at certain times of the year. Other stories — like riddle stories, or even tales of the supernatural, might be told in homes, at bedtime or family gatherings. Sometimes, stories are told to remember important people, rulers or ancestors. One way to get a glimpse of different cultural perspectives on the meaning and ramification of different kinds of stories is to hear from tellers who see "both sides" of their own traditions; and can " translate" what some of those subtle differences are. If you can, try and locate a copy of Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition Vol. XVII, No. 3 1992 for some wonderful pieces on The Oral Tradition with writers like Chinua Achebe (great Nigerian novelist) and Arthur Amiotte (Lakota artist and writer.) Also, see anything by Joseph Bruchac, but especially Tell Me a Tale. And have fun!

Why do you think stories are so important in people's lives?

Stories — especially folktales — give ways for people to see, feel and understand life from many different perspectives — both personal and cultural. Because many of these stories have been passed down from on generation to the next, they can offer a kind of collective wisdom, wisdom that has been shared by many people in different times and places — so we all get to learn from each other.

Sometimes, a folktale may be puzzling. Then, I want to know more about the people who told this story. Where did those ideas and images come from? So — stories really help us know the world. Sometimes, I've told stories like Older Brother, Younger Brother: A Folktale from Korea; or Sing Little Sack: A Folktale from Puerto Rico, and children listening will say: "My grandmother told me that story! Or " I didn't know people from that country had such interesting stories!" Either way, these stories help us connect to each other — and of course, stories can open up the imagination — so that, even without TV, movies or video, our own minds can create the picture and feelings. This might be the greatest gift that reading and listening to stories can give to people — both children and adults — in all different languages — the gift of our own minds at work!

Why do you write folktales? How come you like it better than other kinds of stories?

Well, you could look at another question on this bulletin board (under "Your Tales — why are stories important?") for some of the answer: that in my life, stories like folktales, myths and legends have helped me see and understand, in some way, the history and values of people around me — and my own heritage and family history as well. Everytime I hear or learn a new tale, a little bit more of the world opens up — then, when I share it as a writer, children and adults in other places have a chance to know these tales — and have their own ideas, questions or responses. This way, the stories stay alive, and keep growing. Sometimes, I'll change or re-shape the story, because in my own imagination, I'll see different images or actions — but I always let my readers know (usually in the source notes, at the back of the book) where and how I first learned the story. Apart from learning and sharing culture, values and history, folktales offer a wonderful way to play with language — stories have no limits!

Of course, as a reader, I like all kinds of books — from novels to biography. These days I'm especially fascinated by mystery writing and detective stories. Maybe some day I'll write one!

What's the difference between folktales and folklore? I always get mixed up.

Hi there. Since folktales and folklore are often used interchangeably, it's no wonder there's confusion. Here's one way to help clarify:

Folklore is a field of study, which has been around in academic life since at least the mid- 19th century (see definition, background, examples and descriptions on this workshop site.) Folktales — as one area of folklore study and expressions — could be considered an umbrella term for many kinds of narrative forms that are produced and created by and for different communities and cultural groups — primarily through the oral tradition. Sometimes, the term does include sacred stories — like myth cycles, as well as origin tales and trickster stories (appearing in many Native American, African and African Diaspora traditions) but more specifically, the term folktale connotes range of non-sacred stories, such as 'wonder tales', "marchen' or "household" tales associated with storytelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle East; and more globally — riddle tales, fables, ballads, legends of saints and holy figures — ad infinitum — all of which have been shared among peoples of the earth through travel, war, migration and other forms of cultural encounters. Folktales, therefore, are never frozen in time, but evolve and change with the communities and people who create them.

For additional references see:
The Study of Folklore edited by Alan Dundes.
The Folktale by Stith Thompson
A Voice for the People: The Life and Work of Harold Courlander (Jaffe)
The World of Storytelling by Anne Pellowski

In our 5th grade class we have been spending a lot of time writing and studying the writing process. We would like to ask you a question about your writing. We have read a few of your books in class and we notice that you write about many different cultures. Why do you choose to write about different cultures? Do you have friends from other cultures who you learn folklore from? We are a school of mixed cultures and we are very interested in the topic. Thank you for your response and for your great books!

Hi everybody and thanks for your questions. You can find some of the answer to why I write about different cultures in a part of this workshop called " About the Author." I grew up in New York City, in a neighborhood a lot like the Lower East Side, so I was always listening to people speaking different languages — Russian, Spanish, Polish and more. Since I went to public school, there were also kids from different places in all of my classes — so I learned something about who they were, and what their background was — just from playing in the yard, going on trips and doing projects. I always liked folktales as a way to get to know about people; and enjoyed learning new languages
(French was the first, then came Hebrew and Spanish.) So, I guess if you combine all of those things, combined with a love of reading, books, stories and music, it all gave me motivations to study folklore, tell stories — and become a teacher myself. Now that I do book writing, I am especially grateful to the incredible generosity of friends, students and teachers who have inspired me to keep on this path. If you have a chance, take a look at source notes -like in Tales for the Seventh Day — where I have a chance to list not only other books — but also people — who helped me learn about the tales. To me, one of the most satisfying parts of writing a book is sharing names and work of all the people who helped make it happen. (You might even find the name of someone you know!)