97 – Yanagita Kunio

Yanagita Kunio is known as “The Father of Japanese Folklore.” If not for him, many ancient Japanese legends would have been lost to the tides of modernization. He established folklore as a legitimate field of academic study as he traveled his nation, carefully listening to the thoughts, concerns, and stories or ordinary people. Yanagita is little known in the Western world, but his contributions are just as important as – and remarkably similar to – those of the Brothers Grimm.

Without the work of early folklorists, many commonly known children’s stories – and the works they’ve inspired – wouldn’t exist today. Fields such as literature, film, art, and even comic books would be much poorer without the hard work done by Yanagita to preserve Japan’s shared cultural memory.

Activity: Discover Early Folklorists

Have students research the lives and work of the people who helped to establish the field of folklore in the 19th Century. Students can, in groups or as individuals, write and present reports that summarize the biography and work of an early folklorist. Encourage students to choose subjects from around the world so that biographies and folklore work can be compared and contrasted.

74 – The Jewish Roots of Holes

Holes by Louis Sachar has remained a favorite book of mine for years. Its author drew heavily on Ashkenazi Jewish folklore when writing this story, reinterpreting Eastern European storytelling traditions to help them fit in a new American home. The ending of Holes has just a touch of Texas justice to it, showing how this style of storytelling changed when it came to a new country.

Activity: The Folklore of Ashkenaz

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research has an excellent online course about Ashkenazi Jewish folklore that I found very helpful when preparing for this episode. In learning more details about the songs, stories, and even superstitions of Yiddish folk culture, I was able to recognize how these traditions had influenced Louis Sachar when he was writing Holes. Some portions may work for younger children, but most of the course is at an academic level better suited for teens and adults.

You can find this free online course at yivo.org/Folklore-of-Ashkenaz.

If you haven’t got time for the entire course, a selection of short videos featured during the classes can be found in this playlist. The videos entitled “What is Jewish about Jewish folklore?” are most relevant to the storytelling style in Holes and can be useful to parents and teachers presenting this book to children.

Activity: Dig a Hole

The title of Holes could be interpreted as symbolic, but mostly it is not. This is literally a book about digging holes in the ground. So why not take your students out and dig one? Kids can learn a lot about themselves and what they can accomplish by doing something physically challenging with hand tools. Find somewhere appropriate to dig a hole and dig one! Compare students’ experiences with those of Stanley Yelnats as he improves in strength and technique over the course of the novel.

66 – Audiobook: Aschenputtel (1819 Second Edition)

This is a presentation of “Aschenputtel” as published in the 1819 second edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Translated and performed by T.Q. Townsend. This audiobook may be freely used for non-profit educational purposes.

Illustration: Hermann Vogel

The audiobook is also available on YouTube:

Aschenputtel (1819)
Translated by T.Q. Townsend

The wife of a rich man fell ill and realized she was about to die. She called her only daughter to her bedside and said to her: “Keep your faith and be a good girl. Then God will bless you and I will do my best to look down from heaven and watch over you.” Then the mother closed her eyes and died.

Every day, the girl went to her mother’s grave and wept. She remembered to be pious and good, just as her mother had told her. The winter snows came and covered the grave like a white blanket, and when the summer sun came and took it away, the man took another wife.

The new stepmother had two daughters that she brought with her, but while their faces were fair, their hearts were ugly. Then times became hard for the poor girl.

“Why is this useless thing in the room?” the new ladies asked. “Whoever eats bread should earn it first. Away with this scullery maid,” they laughed, leading the girl into the kitchen. She was given the heaviest work to do, getting up early in the morning to carry water, make the fires, cook, and wash. The stepsisters tormented her, mocked her, and threw the peas and lentils into the ashes, so that she had to pick them all out and clean them again. In the evenings, when the poor girl was tired, she had no bed to sleep in, so she would lie down in the ashes by the hearth to keep warm. Soon she became so dirty and dusty that the stepsisters called her Aschenputtel.

The father prepared one day to go to a market town, and he asked his two stepdaughters what gifts they would like him to bring. “Beautiful clothing,” said one sister. “Sparkling gems,” said the other.

“And you, Aschenputtel?” asked the father. “What do you want?”

“Father, all I want is the first twig that knocks against your hat on the way home,” Aschenputtel answered.

The Father rode away to the market, and as he rode through a thicket on the way back, a hazel tree brushed against him and knocked off his hat. So he broke off a twig and added it to the bundle containing lovely gowns and fine jewels. When he got home he gave the lovely gifts to his stepdaughters and handed the twig to Aschenputtel.

Aschenputtel took the bit of hazel and went to her mother’s grave. She planted the twig in the dark soil and wept so much that the tears spilled all over the green leaves. The cutting took root and soon became a beautiful tree. Aschenputtel visited the grave three times every day to weep and pray. Every time a little bird would visit the tree, and it had the power to give her anything she needed.

It happened that the king declared that there would be a three-day festival, during which his son would choose a bride. The two stepsisters were invited. They called Aschenputtel, saying, “Comb our hair. Brush and buckle our shoes. We will go and dance at the king’s ball.”

Aschenputtel wished with all her heart that she might go too, and begged her stepmother that she might be allowed to do so.

“You, Aschenputtel?” sneered the Stepmother. “You have nothing fit to wear. You shouldn’t be allowed to attend, no matter how badly you want to go. But I’ll tell you what. If you can sort and clean these lentils in two hours, I’ll let you go to the ball.” And with that, she threw a bowl of lentils into the ashes.

As soon as the Stepmother was gone, Aschenputtel went to the garden door and cried out:

“You sweet little doves, you lovebirds! All you birds under the heavens, please help me! Put the good ones in the pot and the bad ones in your crop!”

Two white doves fluttered through the kitchen window. Then came the lovebirds, and finally many little birds flocked down from the sky and went down to the ashes. The birds nodded their heads and began their work. Pick, pick! Pick, pick! They threw all the good grains into the pot, and swallowed the hard ones as a reward. Hardly an hour had passed when the work was all done and the birds fluttered away. Aschenputtel brought the pot of clean lentils to her Stepmother, smiling because she believed that now she would be allowed to come along to the ball.

But the stepmother only sneered “No, Aschenputtel. You have nothing to wear and may not go to the dance.”

Aschenputtel began to weep, and then the Stepmother said, “I’ll tell you what. If you can pick out two bowls in the next hour, I’ll change my mind.” The Stepmother flung two bowls full of lentils into the ashes, thinking to herself that Aschenputtel would never manage the task.

As soon as the Stepmother had gone, Aschenputtel hurried once more to the back door and cried out:

“You sweet little doves, you lovebirds! All you birds under the heavens, please help me! Put the good ones in the pot and the bad ones in your crop!”

Once again two white doves fluttered through the kitchen window. Then the lovebirds came back, and finally the little birds flocked down from the sky and went down to the ashes. The birds nodded their heads and began their work once more. Pick, pick! Pick, pick! They threw all the good grains into the pot, and swallowed the hard ones as a reward. Before half an hour had passed, all the work was done and the birds flew away.

Aschenputtel brought the bowls to her stepmother, filled with hope that she could come along. But the stepmother only said, “It’s useless. You can’t come with us. You have nothing to wear. You can’t dance; we would be ashamed to be seen with you.”

And then the stepmother and her daughters went away to the ball. Once she was all alone, Aschenputtel went to her mother’s grave under the hazel tree and called out:

“Shake, shake, little tree! Gold and silver give to me!”

Then the little bird perched among the hazel branches threw down a gown made of gold and silver cloth, and a pair of slippers embroidered with silk and silver. Aschenputtel put on the lovely clothing and went to the festival. Her stepsisters and stepmother did not recognize her, thinking the lovely, richly dressed maiden must be some foreign princess. They never imagined it could be Aschenputtel, who they believed was lying in the ashes at home.

As soon as he saw Aschenputtel, the king’s son ran to take her by the hand and asked her to dance. He spent the entire evening by her side and would dance with no one else. If anyone else came to ask Aschenputtel to dance, the prince would tell them, “she is my partner!”

Aschenputtel danced and danced until it was time to go home. The king’s son begged, “let me escort you home,” wishing to know which family the beautiful girl belonged to. But as they neared her house, Aschenputtel managed to slip away and ran to hide in the dovecote. The king’s son waited until the father came home and told him about the mysterious girl who was hiding in the birds’ house.

The father wondered to himself if the maiden were Aschenputtel, but he said nothing. Instead he called for an axe and a pickaxe and cut the dovecote in two. But there was nobody in it. When the family went into the house, they saw Aschenputtel lying among the cinders in her old dirty clothes, with her dim oil lamp hanging by the chimney. She had managed to slip out the other side of the dovecote, return the beautiful clothing to the bird sitting in the tree over the grave, and return to the kitchen in her old gray gown before anyone could see her.

The next day, after the father, stepmother, and stepsisters had gone away to the ball, Aschenputtel returned to the hazel tree and called out:

“Shake, shake, little tree! Gold and silver give to me!”

Then the little bird threw down an even more splendid dress than the one from the day before. When Aschenputtel arrived at the ball, everyone was amazed at her beauty. The king’s son had been waiting for her, and when he saw her he took her by the hand and danced with her only. If anyone else came to ask Aschenputtel to dance, the prince would tell them, “she is my partner!”

When evening came and it was time to go, the King’s son tried to follow her again, but she slipped away and fled into the garden behind her house. There stood a beautiful, tall pear tree full of delicious fruit. Aschenputtel climbed it quickly so that the King’s son could not see her anymore. The prince waited until the father came home and said to him, “The mysterious maiden escaped from me. I think she jumped into your pear tree.”

The father wondered once again if the maiden were Aschenputtel, but once again he said nothing. Instead he sent for an ax and cut down the pear tree, but there was nobody in it. When the family went inside, they found Aschenputtel lying by the fireplace as usual. She had jumped down from the tree on the other side, returned her lovely gown to the bird sitting in the hazel tree, and put her old gray dress back on before anyone could spot her.

On the third day, when the father, stepmother, and stepsisters had gone to the ball, Aschenputtel returned to her mother’s grave and said to the little tree:

“Shake, shake, little tree! Gold and silver give to me!”

And then the bird threw down a dress that was more magnificent than any that had ever been seen, with slippers made all of gold. When Aschenputtel arrived at the ball, everyone was so amazed that they could not even speak. The king’s son danced with Aschenputtel alone, and for a third time if anyone else asked her to dance, he would say right away: “She is my partner.”

When evening came, Aschenputtel took her leave and the king’s son begged to escort her home. She sprang away, hoping to escape as before. But as she fled the palace, her left shoe was lost, for the king’s son had ordered that the stairs be coated with pitch. The king’s son retrieved the shoe. The next day he issued a declaration which announced, “the one who fits this golden slipper shall be my wife!”

When the stepsisters heard this, they were very happy, for they had beautiful feet. When it was her turn to try, the elder sister went into her room with the shoe while her mother stood by. But the slipper was too small for her, and her big toe stuck out.

The stepmother handed her daughter a knife and told her, “cut off your toe. When you’re queen, you won’t need to walk anymore.”

And so the girl cut off her toe and squeezed her foot into the shoe. Then she went to see the king’s son. Believing he had found his bride, he lifted the elder sister onto his horse and began to ride away with her. But on the way out they passed the hazel tree growing over the grave, and two doves sitting there cried out:

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
A bloody shoe! How can that be?
The slipper doesn’t fit at all.
Go back! Find your true bride from the ball!”

The king’s son looked down and saw the blood spurting from the foot. He turned his horse around and brought the false bride home.

“This isn’t the right one. Have the other sister try on the shoe,” the king’s son ordered.

And so the younger sister took the golden slipper up to her room to try it on. But her heel was too big, and it did not fit. Then her mother handed her the knife and said, “Cut off your heel. When you’re queen, you won’t need to walk anymore.” And so the girl cut off a piece of her heel and squeezed her foot into the shoe. Then she went to see the king’s son. Believing that he had at last found his true love, he lifted the younger sister onto his horse and began to ride away with her. But once again, as they passed the hazel tree growing over the grave, the two doves cried out:

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
A bloody shoe! How can that be?
The slipper doesn’t fit at all.
Go back! Find your true bride from the ball!”

The king’s son looked down and saw that so much blood was coming out of the shoe that it had dyed the girl’s stockings quite red. He turned his horse around and brought the false bride home.

“She’s not the right one either,” he said. “Isn’t there another daughter here?”

“No,” replied the father. “There’s only one nasty little cinderwench that my first wife left behind when she died, but she couldn’t be your bride.”

The king’s son insisted on seeing Aschenputtel, but the stepmother refused, pleading, “Oh, no, she’s much too dirty to be seen by you.”

But at last the king’s son ordered that the girl be presented to him. When she heard about her royal visitor, Aschenputtel washed her hands and face, then went and bowed before the king’s son. He gave her the golden slipper. She slipped her heavy boot from her left foot, and then stepped into the golden shoe. She stood wearing it as if it had been made for her alone. She bowed her head to him, and at last the king’s son recognized her face.

“This is my true love!” he declared.

The stepmother and stepsisters were both terrified and pale with anger. The king’s son put Aschenputtel on his horse and rode away with her. As they passed the hazel tree, the two doves called out:

“Turn and see! Turn and see!
No blood in the shoe will be
The fit is perfect – can’t you tell?
Now there will be wedding bells!”

And as they finished their song, they both flew down and sat upon Aschenputtel’s shoulders, one upon the right and the other on the left.

On the day of Aschenputtel’s marriage to the king’s son, the stepsisters came, hoping to get something for themselves out of this happiness. The eldest stood at the right of the church door and the youngest on the left. When Aschenputtel and the King’s son went into the church, the doves pecked out an eye from each stepsister. When the couple came back out again, the doves pecked out their other eyes. And so they were punished with blindness for their wickedness.

52 – How to Tell a Bedtime Story

Bedtime stories aren’t strictly considered literature, but they are a very important part of childhood and unfortunately are one of the least documented types of stories for children.

But what are the traits of an effective bedtime story? I can only rely on personal experience here, but to me, bedtime stories should have the following traits:

      • The story must make enough of an impression for the child to want to hear it over and over again
      • The story should usually feature the child who is listening to the story as the protagonist
      • The plot should feature a repetitive pattern
      • The story should be calming and predictable
      • The resolution of the story should be familiar and comforting

As an example of an effective bedtime story, I have written down “The Butterfly Story,” which I made up over time to tell to one of my children. You can try telling this story to your kids, but be sure to change the name of the protagonist as well as the person who receives the flowers to whatever suits your audience best.

Activity: Record a Family Bedtime Story

Bedtime stories are a very important part of early childhood, yet the stories parents make up for children are rarely recorded or shared. Think about your childhood or do some research with older family members to learn more about the history of stories told within your family, then record the story. Consider questions such as:

      • When was the story made up?
      • Who made it up?
      • How did the story change over time?
      • Which children heard the story and how old were they when they liked to hear it?
      • Has the story been shared with more than one generation?

Family stories, once preserved, can then be shared.

46 – The Mythology of Watership Down

Watership Down by Richard Adams is great for teenagers, but it’s quite long and has dark and violent themes, making it inappropriate for younger children. However, set within the larger story of rabbits journeying to establish a new home, there are five folktales which can be read separately. Some are funny, and some are sad, but all of them have a lot in common with real folktales from around the world.

Activity: Etiological Tales

Read “The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams. This is an etiological tale, explaining how rabbits got their fluffy white tails and powerful hind legs. Find other folktales from around the world that give the etiology for other animals. Then research the actual evolutionary origins of the animals. Students might make interesting observations by comparing ancient folklore with modern science.

Activity: Trickster Tales

Read “The King’s Lettuce” or “The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog” as found in Watership Down by Richard Adams. These are trickster tales, showing how El-ahrairah managed to use his wits to get food for himself and his people. Have students write and perform a skit portraying one or both of these stories. Encourage them to emphasize El-ahrairah’s cunning deceptions.

Activity: Is it Ever Ok to Lie?

Read “The Trial of El-ahrairah” from Watership Down by Richard Adams. In this tale, the prince of rabbits engages in an elaborate deception, getting away with the theft of food by tricking everyone into thinking the only witness to the crime has lost his mind and can’t be trusted. Afterwards, lead a discussion asking students whether they feel it is acceptable to lie, cheat, and steal in order to survive.

Activity: You Can’t Cheat Death

This activity should only be done with older students who can handle a heavy and serious discussion. Read “The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inlé” (Chapter 31 of Watership Down). Then ask students the following questions:

      • Was it foolish for El-ahrairah to even try to convince the Black Rabbit to grant his request?
      • Did El-ahrairah give up at the right time, or should have have stopped his quest sooner?
      • Why didn’t the younger rabbits understand or appreciate what El-ahrairah had done?
      • Should Frith have restored El-ahrairah’s ears, tail, and whiskers?

45 – Androcles

The Aesop Fable “Androcles” is about the value of friendship and kindness. It’s also a critique of the cruel way many people treat one another. It’s less known today, but it’s been a very important story for nearly two thousand years, inspiring many works of art by musicians, sculptors, painters, dancers, and playwrights all over the world. Children can add to this tradition by learning the original tale and the creativity it has inspired.

The audio and text for the story of Androcles can be found on the Folk Tales Page: childrensliteraturepodcast.com/folk-tales/

Activity: Make A Work of Art based on “Androcles”

Ask students to produce a new work of art based on Androcles. This could include:

      • An illustration of a scene from the story
      • A sculpture of one of the characters
      • A script for a skit based on the story
      • A short story inspired by the original fable
      • A dance that interprets all or part of the story

New works of art do not need to exactly reproduce the tale as it was originally written. Young artists can focus tightly on a single characters, theme, or plot point, or use the fable as inspiration for a completely new work of art.

30 – A Cinderella Story from Ancient China

“Ye Xian” is a story first published over 1,000 years ago, but it follows the familiar pattern of Cinderella stories from all over the world. People often mistakenly think that Cinderella stories are just about pretty dresses, going to parties, and depending on a man instead of taking care of yourself. But what these stories are really about is social and economic power, featuring wise young women who make the best choices available to them to escape from a bad life into a better one.

This story contains many classic elements of a Cinderella tale — an orphaned young woman mistreated by abusive relatives, magical assistance to help her enter the world of the wealthy and powerful, and finally an escape from her desperate existence due to her own good virtues. There’s even a missing shoe!

The story can be understood easily by modern readers, but learning a little about traditional Chinese beliefs and the symbolism of certain colors and animals can help readers have a deeper appreciation for this charming story from long ago.

If your kids want to hear the story of “Ye Xian” on its own, it can be found on the Folk Tales page with other stories from around the world.

Activity: What Can Modern Builders Learn from a Yaodong?

As land grows more expensive, houses become more difficult and costly to build, and building materials have to be shipped ever longer distances,  home ownership becomes unrealistic for more and more people. We ought to consider ways that houses can be made less expensive, create less pollution, and cause less long-term damage to our world. Sometimes it helps to look back in order to know the best path forward.

The setting for “Ye Xian” is in an area where people lived in a type of home called a yaodong. The word directly means “house cave,” but these are not natural caves. They are comfortable homes cut from rock using very old and very effective engineering techniques. Students can investigate the ways a traditional Chinese yaodong might help builders create modern homes that are beautiful, comfortable, affordable, and don’t damage the environment.

Have students search for images of traditional and modern yaodongs. There are two styles, both usually cut from a kind of terrain called loess. The most common style is cut directly into a natural hillside. Another style involves excavating a square pit, shaping it into a courtyard, and then cutting caves into the walls. Students can research the engineering of both styles of yaodong, comparing the traits and advantages of each style. Students can learn about the following concepts in building:

Insulation – Cave homes keep a steady temperature because rock does not heat up or cool down quickly.
Energy efficiency – Cave homes use less fuel to keep people warm or cool because of the cave’s good insulation. This saves money and reduces pollution.
Soundproofing – Cave homes are quiet because sound waves don’t travel very well through rock.
Weatherproofing – Cave homes, when built correctly, do not let water or wind into the home.
Sustainable – Because cave homes are carved directly out of rock, very few building materials need to be brought in from other places. The excavated stone can be crushed into gravel for roads or used as building blocks for other structures. This saves money and means less pollution is created by making building materials and transporting them to construction sites. Fewer trees need to be cut down to build a yaodong, since wood might only be used for doors, window frames, or furniture.

The results of research can be shared in a written report, class presentation, video, or art project.

7 – How the Brothers Grimm Saved Folk Culture

Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm but usually the only fact people know about these men is that they were the authors of a book of fairy tales. And even this is only partly true. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected folk tales, and then they edited them into Kinder- und Hausmärchen, or Children’s and Household Tales, which became the heart of the fairy tale canon.

The Brothers Grimm were dedicated to preserving folklore at a time when war, economic change, and the loss of large, multigenerational families were destroying folk traditions. It would be nice to say that dictators with imperial ambitions no longer posed a threat to the unique cultures of smaller neighbors, but unfortunately the plight of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is alarmingly relevant given the present-day war in Ukraine.

Activity: Collect and Preserve Folktales

Within your family, school, or community, have children think of sources for local legends and stories. Are there famous local sites? Notable citizens from the past? Family bedtime stories or songs? Have children record these bits of folklore. Then, decide who will edit and arrange the works. Consider which items have most value to preserving the folk memories of your family and community. Once the stories are assembled, share them in a way that gives free access to as many people as possible and encourages others to make new creative works based on this folklore.

I have written down and recorded a folktale from my own family. It’s called “Ricky the Racer” and was made up by my grandfather back in the 1950’s. This story has now been in my family for four generations as I am now telling it to my own children. You can listen to “Ricky the Racer” and learn the folk history of this tale here.