|My Biography: Discussion Transcript
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!"
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.
could only read one of your books, which one would you want them
. 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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
(www.scholastic.com/teacherradio) 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?
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:
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
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.
the main differences you can see among folktale genres from different
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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!
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:
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.
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!)