Many of us, when we hear the words fairytale and folktale wonder if they are one and the same, or if there is a difference. Actually, fairytales, sometimes also referred to as wonder tales, are one kind of folktale. Other types are pourquoi tales (the word is French and means “why”), animal adventure stories, cumulative tales, trickster tales, and noodle head stories.What they all have in common is that they were born in the oral tradition and survived by being told and retold for centuries. They have no known original author and belonged to everyone, to the folk, hence the term folktale.
The storytellers told different stories to different audiences and it’s a mistake to think that all folktales are appropriate for children regardless of age. Some are wonderful for the very young while others are clearly intended for a more mature audience (indeed, some are quite x-rated). However, one type with broad appeal is the pourquoi story.
These tales explain how and why things came to be. Like all folktales, they are almost a universe in miniature because people across the world and across time have pondered the same kinds of questions. These can be as big as why there is death or why the sun and the moon are in the sky or as small as how an animal or plant got its physical markings or unique shape. The stories always delight with their odd, but somehow logical and fascinating explanations
Even though we tend to think of these tales as coming from a time when there was no adequate scientific explanation for things, it is important to note that they were rarely told as absolute fact, but are the result of keen observations of the natural world. They are filled with a deep understanding of the environment around us as well as gentle reminders about the consequences of our actions. Certainly, to look at the wonders of the world through the window of the pourquoi story are a must.
There are so many possible ways to use and to group these stories together that entire books could be filled with ideas. In fact one has. Check out Anne-Marie Kraus’ Folktale Themes and Activities for Children, Vol. 1: Pourquoi Tales (1998). If you don’t have time for that, here are a smattering of ideas:
Stories about landforms make an excellent entry into studying various regions of the country:
Legends of Landforms by Carol Vogle (1999) is an outstanding collection of Native American stories about landscape forms like the Grand Canyon, Mount Shasta, the Badlands and Devil’s Tower.
Robert D. San Souci’s Two Bear Cubs explains how El Capitan in Yosemite came about.
Kathy-Jo Wargin, The Legend of Sleeping Bear tells the poignant story of how the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan came to be and The Legend of Mackinac Island how it came about. Although they are not strictly landform stories, Kathy-Jo with illustrator Dave Geister has also written the charming pourquoi stories The Legend of Minnesota and The Legend of Wisconsin.
Stories about animal characteristics are terrific accompaniments to a study on animal camouflage and adaptation. They’re also wonderful inspiration for creative writing. Children, after all, always wonder why. Have them begin, “long, long ago” and end with something like “and that’s why whales have spouts” or “that’s why dogs turn around before they lie down.” Some stories to get them started are:
Joseph Bruchac’s The Boy Who Lived With the Bears (1995) is a wonderful collection of stories about animal characteristics such as “How the Birds Got their Feathers,” and “Rabbit’s Snow Dance” which explains how rabbit got his split lip, short front legs and stubby tail. One of the stories, How Chipmunk Got His Stripes has been issued as an individual book (2001). All these are well suited for younger children and contain gentle lessons about behavior.
Virginia Hamilton’s When Birds Could Sing and Bats Could Talk is a stellar African American collection of stories that explains it all from the cardinal’s color to buzzard’s bald head. Barry Moser’s illustrations don’t exactly hurt!
I have to give special mention to How and Why Stories by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss because not only does this collection of 25 pourquoi stories contain some of my all time favorites such as “Why Bear Has a Stumpy Tail” and “Why Cats Lick their Paws After Eating,” but this collection also has useful tips for how to become a storyteller with specific suggestions for each individual story. It is aimed at getting children to tell, but it’s good for any age.
Flower and berry characteristics are among my own personal favorites as evidenced by my very first book (written with the incomparable Margi Preus), The Legend of the Ladyslipper. Another of my books, The Hidden Folk, includes a story called “The Ivory Cups” which explains the origin of the lily of the valley as well as a funny tale (“Tulips and Parsely”) about how parsley came to be. Other excellent books on this theme are Tomie de Paola’s The Legend of the Bluebonnet and The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush. I adore Teri Sloat’s Berry Magic about how arctic berries got their intense color and flavor. Another favorite is the late Barbara Juster Esbensen‘s Star Maiden: An Ojibwa Story about a star girl that fell to earth and now lives among us as a water lily. Any unit on this theme must include Joseph Bruchac’s Native Plant Stories which tells how wild rice, corn and other native plants and trees came to be.
As I said earlier, the sky’s the limit in this genre. You could group stories around hundreds of themes from customs to life cycles and in the pourquoi tale, part 2, we’ll look at a few more ideas because they are so inherently interesting and give both wonderful cultural lessons and a broader perspective on the world.