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.