We are Story Animals

Posted January 29th, 2013

Bobbi Miller is a writer with a sense of the absurd and a love of language at play that is simply infectious. She knows stories inside and out, from back and beyond, and can stitch words together with such dazzling energy and soaring wit that you find yourself helplessly laughing and totally engrossed in whatever yarn she spins. Her rambunctious, rowdy, rollicking retellings of tall tales beg to be read aloud again and again. But Bobbi does more than delight in words. She is also knowledgeable, thoughtful, and articulate about folktales, their place and value in children’s lives. I am so honored that she is sharing her profound insights with us here.

Story ProofWe are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.

Stories are so old, so intimately connected with language, some researchers suggest that language was created to express stories. In fact, evolutionary biologists now believe we are hardwired to think in story forms. Cognitive scientists know that stories help us understand and remember information for longer periods. Researchers have found that telling stories at an early age helps develop math abilities and language literacy. And teachers know that understanding the story process helps young readers understand the organization of language.

A simple definition of a folktale would be that it is a traditional story, usually dressed in metaphor and symbol, told by a people—of a particular community, group, or nation—to help explain how and why things happen, how one meets the challenges of life, or how one might become a better, or wiser, person. But such a simple definition negates a bigger truth embedded in these tales. Traditional tales are like icebergs; we see only the tip. Jung would call this tip the “personal unconscious,” the aspect of story derived from personal experience and acquisition. But the greater meaning of the tale lies beneath this surface of consciousness. Carl Jung calls this deeper layer the collective unconscious, an inherited “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is defined in all individuals.” (Man and His Symbols, 1968).

As Rafe Martin tells us, traditional tales belong to the world of the imagined, to the portals of dreams. “They are the eternal literature of humanity.”

Remember the child’s game, “Telephone”? Everyone sits in a circle, and then the teacher whispers a joke or a story to the student next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one sitting next to her. That student whispers the same story to the one next to her until the story makes its way around the circle. The last student recites the story to the group. Of course, with each retelling, the child puts her own spin on the tale, sometimes reordering the events, recasting it in personal symbols, and reinventing characters as she understands them. That’s the folklore process in action. Someone tells a story. That story is told and retold, and with every telling, the story changes as the teller makes it her own. Despite the many changes the story underwent, there remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” Not necessarily factual, but certainly true to what it means to be human.

Big River's DaughterNowhere do we see this process more beautifully illustrated than in the tall tale tradition. American tall tales are a particular favorite of mine. My three pictures (One Fine Trade (2009), Davy Crockett Gets Hitched (2009), and Miss Sally Ann and the Panther (2012), are all retellings of traditional tales. At the heart of my middle grade novel, Big River’s Daughter (2013), is a combination of folklore and history. Although the tall tale was not invented in America, it certainly found a special place in American identity. When Ernest Baughman compiled his study Type and Motif—Index of the Folktales of England and North America (1966), he found that more than half of the tale types and motifs collects by folklorists in America were humorous, and most of these (3,710 out of a total of 3,871) were tall tales. In comparison, among the 3,966 tales collected in England and Lowland Scotland, only 29 were tall tales.

Davy Crockett stampEuropeans left behind their own ancient histories to seek a new life in an unknown land. Upon arrival, they found that they needed to redefine themselves as a people. If the new land was a sanctuary in which they could pursue “life, liberty, and prosperity,” it also proved an overwhelmingly strange and alien place. These new immigrants dealt with their insecurities when faced with forces greater than themselves by overwhelming these forces through the “magnification” of the self, epitomized in the unrestrained exploits of Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and many others. From the beginnings of the westward movement, the near incomprehensible vastness of the landscape, the extraordinary fertility of the land, and the variety of natural “peculiarities” inspired a humor of extravagance and exaggeration. The immigrant’s need to affirm the value of a culture independent of European refinements, constraints, and mores created a humor that became exclusive. The immigrants purged their terror of the overwhelming trials of life by minimizing it, and the storyteller as narrator became superior to circumstance with wit and humor.

In true rough-and-tumble fashion, the hero and heroine of the tall tale mocks and defies convention. The tall-talk of the tall tale, like the hero who inhabits these tales, is as wild and unabashed as the frontier that created it. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight, structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaliciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. The grander language captured the bigger ideas of frontier life.

In reading such tales, a young reader develops an appreciation for language itself, for language is more than mere words: the rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed. What is at risk in this age of minimalist language and truncated text talk if the traditional tale fades away? If language reflects what lives inside us, our hopes, our dreams, our history, what does this truncated text talk reveal about us?

One Potato, Two PotatoesAs Mary and Herbert Knapp suggest, the traditional tale plays a vital role in holding together “the frayed, factory-made fabric of our lives.” Such tales connect us to the past and to each other, exist when people share an identity, “and since all of us once belonged to that group of human beings we call children, the folklore of childhood brings together all of us.” (One Potato, Two Potato: The Secret Education of American Children, 1976).

For a discussion on traditional tales in publishing, please see my “Conversation with Many: Where Have All the Folktales Gone?” This conversation features writers, editors, agents, and librarians — a gathering of wisdom from those who share the love of the traditional tale — as they explore such questions as: have we outgrown our need for folktales? Are there contemporary complements? Where do the retold, re-imagined, and refurbished folktales fit in a folktale collection? This conversation is companion to an article in the SCBWI Bulletin [July/August 2010 issue]

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Bobbi MillerA story collector,  storyteller, and a writer who teaches writing, Bobbi Miller earned her MFA in children’s writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and a MA in children’s literature at Simmons College. Her picture books, One Fine Trade and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched made the Bank Street College of Education List for Best Children’s Book of the Year 2010. Her third picture book, Miss Sally Ann and the Panther, was released in 2012. Bobbi’s first middle grade novel, Big River’s Daughter, will be published in 2013.

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