When you read and listen to what folks in the publishing industry want these days you often hear, “No folktales please, except if there’s a fresh, new twist.” This really bugs me, because let’s face it – even if the stories are ancient, the children are always fresh and new. That’s why they’re such a delightful audience. They have never heard the traditional tales. To them, the stories are completely novel and as exciting and captivating as when they first were told.
The effort to give children fresh and new versions of old stories may actually deprive them of the originals and keep them from learning the sources of many allusions. I have many times heard teachers bemoan the fact that their students don’t understand references such as “if the shoe fits,” or “the sky is falling.” Additionally, if children never hear the original version of a story, they’ll never even know that what they are reading or listening to is a clever twist on an old theme.
I am surprised time and again by the fresh insights children have into old stories. One time I was telling a group of early elementary children about an elusive, shy creature called the River Sprite who lives behind certain waterfalls. Not many have seen him because he chooses waterfalls deep in the woods, in places not frequented by visitors except the most intrepid. Although you haven’t seen him, you have perhaps heard him. You see, the River Sprite is an exquisite violin player and if you are lucky, you may hear his music soaring above the rushing water. If you truly desire to become a great violinist, you might persuade him to teach you his art. To do this you must go to his waterfall on a Thursday and offer him a leg of mutton. Don’t be skimpy. There must be lots of meat on the bone or else he’ll only teach you to tune your instrument and perhaps to play a little ditty. But if you are generous, he’ll teach you his art and your playing will surpass your wildest expectations.
As I was talking to the class about the River Sprite, one little girl nodded her head vigorously. Finally she could not restrain herself and burst out, “I know of a waterfall where a River Sprite lives! I’ve heard his music.” Everyone sat up straight. The little girl explained how she had come upon this waterfall and what it had sounded like.
I next told a story about the Sprite, and when I finished, the little girl’s hand went up. “What is mutton?” she wanted to know. I explained that a leg of mutton was about the same as a leg of lamb. Again she nodded her head and I could see she was thinking furiously. After a bit her hand shot up again and this time she asked, “Does he want it cooked or raw?”
Now that was a great, fresh and new question that I had never heard before. I had to think hard about all that I knew about River Sprites and their ways before I dared answer.
Who needs new twists on old stories when young children already embody all those qualities?
Oh, and he wants it raw, in case you need to know.
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