Having traveled across the world, telling stories and publishing books on every culture from Panama to Thailand and everywhere in between, Dr. Margaret Read MacDonald is recognized as a leading expert on folktales, with the PhD to prove it. We asked her to sit down with us to discuss exactly where storytelling has taken her, how she began on that journey, and what she hopes to encourage educators to continue doing in their classrooms. In this episode, we discuss the theory on how stories come to be, why it’s important for adults to listen to folktales just as much as children, and how to make the most out of family time. Enjoy!
Raven: You’ve been traveling all over the world for quite a while now. You’ve visited and learned about many different cultures. Is it your personal mission to help save stories and folktales that might be lost?
Margaret: It actually is, and that’s why I put them into my books. I put them into books for two reasons. One is to make them available to teachers and librarians. I want it to be really easy for them to learn the stories, so I make all the stories as simple as possible. I look for stories that have lots of repetition so they would be easy for telling and be really fun to share. The kids love repetition in a story. Second, I am also interested in finding stories that almost no one has heard and bringing them back to life and making them easily available again. A lot of the stories in my books haven’t been available in English before.
R: Recently, I watched a video of one of your conferences—I think it was a keynote in Malaysia—and you were discussing the theory of the transmission of stories versus their invention. Some people theorize that, for example, a story may have originated in Africa, spread across the world, until eventually we found a similar story in East Asia. However, there’s also the potential that the two stories were invented separately. Could you discuss that a bit more?
Margaret: Folklorists are always looking at stories, going around the world and comparing various strands. You can find almost the same story being told all around the world, and often you can tell it has traveled from place to place and has been altered a little bit as it is shared. But, occasionally you come across a story that pretty clearly has not traveled to another culture. A great example is the Borneo story I tell about the girl who marries the snake. In that story, a girl and her mother are in a house held up by stilts near the river. A snake comes up into the house and calls for the girl to marry him. She refuses, and he cries and cries until the mother and the girl have to climb up onto the roof to escape the rising water of his tears.
R: Is there a similar story from another culture?
Margaret: There’s a very similar story from the Amazon about a girl who sees a snake coming that wants to marry her. Instead of the snake crying, it calls for a giant armadillo to come and dig a hole for a river to flood the house. It’s the same motif: a girl and her mother up in their house, the snake says you’ve got to marry me, the girl says no, and they get flooded. So, we have the same exact motif in completely different places with nothing in between. Clearly, they were invented independently. It’s because of our human minds—we all think alike, and we all imagine the same kinds of situations. Stories are invented independently all around the world and they evolve in different places at different times.
R: You’ve stressed in several of your other interviews that you love folktales. Is it because they’re accessible to everyone, and that they are capable of being told in many different ways while still maintaining the same foundation?
Margaret: Exactly. I think of a story as a stone in a stream. It gets rolled over and over and over until it becomes perfectly round, and a story is the same way. It gets told and told and told until it forms a really nice perfect shape, and it flows.
R: How do you think stories are important for adults and not just for children?
Margaret: They don’t apply just to children. These stories talk about issues that affect all of us. They tell us about how to be kind, how to get along with people, and they’re playful. In most cultures, children are part of the storytelling event. The tales appeal to both children and adults. Often livelier, fun stories are told early in the evening and later, after the children have fallen asleep, the adults can turn to more serious tales. Unfortunately, in our culture, we have stopped sharing stories in the family setting and tend to think of them as something for schools and public libraries only.
R: Why do you think that is?
Margaret: Well, probably the loss of “free” time. The onset of 24/7 cable television and the internet. There’s less time to sit around to talk or just share the day’s events. My family and I have a summer home, and we have a point of not having any TV because it takes away from our family time. When my grandkids come up to our cabin, they want stories every night, so their parents get them in bed, and then I go up and tell them a couple of stories. They can choose the story, or I can. I have a little grandson who’s three and he wants the same story every night! It’s a little aggravating. I told him the Icelandic story of Bukolla, the cow. Then he just gets in bed and all he wants is, “Cow! Cow!” Then the next night he wants to hear it again and goes, “Cow! Cow!” And as soon as I finish telling it, he begins again, “Cow! COW!” So I have to tell it all over again until finally he falls asleep – whew!
R: Yes, I have a younger brother and he always wanted to watch the same movie when we were kids. He never got tired of it!
Margaret: It’s very satisfying because the child understands the story. They know what’s going to happen next. They can anticipate, and it feels like their story. It feels like it belongs to them.
R: I was wondering how you can take a story that has a horrific setting or plot, like people being eaten alive or getting kidnapped, and then make the story more comfortable for children?
Margaret: Well, at times cultures have thought differently about children. There was a time when they thought it was okay to scare the living daylights out of kids in order to make them behave. Now that’s changed. When I was working in Hawaii on the bookmobile, I was doing Punch and Judy shows all the time, which were great fun. You know, Punch would kill everybody, and the audience would yell, “Well, throw him out the window!” and I’d throw the puppet out the window. It’s a lot of fun, but it wouldn’t work now. Today those actions are considered brutal and not suitable for children. In England, those stories were traditional fare for kids. I think we’ve gotten a little gentler and quieter in the ways we like to deal with children. Remember scary stories still have a central motif, so you can soften them and leave out some of the gore or violence if you want to share it with younger children, or just alter them for your audience.
R: Right, one of the great things about folktales is that there is a moral to the story. Children are going to learn something useful from them no matter what.
Margaret: Exactly, you can retain the moral without chopping off the wicked stepsister’s feet. You can have the story without all the violence and still have the same moral.
R: I was amazed at what a prolific writer you are. You have been telling stories since 1964, published your first book in 1982, and since then have published sixty-five books, over twenty of them with August House. How do you come up with a theme or a collection of stories?
Margaret: Yes, well, basically I try to think of what is needed. The Round Book I wrote because we didn’t have a good round book in the library. I thought, “Gee, we need a book,” so I asked a friend, Winifred Jaeger, to help me because she’s a musician. The Skit Book, the same way. There wasn’t a book on camp skits in the library that was very useful, and so I thought we needed one. That was the easiest book I ever wrote because I just asked my daughters and their friends who were in junior high school at the time to tell me any skits they had ever done, so when I had a hundred and one, I had a book. It’s actually the folklore of children. They’re all stories that were passed around from kid to kid. For the story collections, again, we needed some shorter stories for folks to use, and so Three Minute Tales came from that. Then Five Minute Tales came because I think I had a hundred stories from the Three Minute Tales book, and Liz Parkhurst, the editor said, “Some of these take a little longer to tell.” I had timed them all, but I talk very, very fast. So she pulled out the longer ones and said, “Now you have a start for a second book called Five-Minute Tales.”
R: How is that different from writing a picture book?
Margaret: Essentially, with the picture books, I find a story that I think would be delightful as a picture book. Fun for parents, fun for kids, fun for teachers to share. Then I tell it many, many times, type it up, and rewrite it. I probably rewrite the story about fifty times to get the story just right for a picture book.
R: I have The Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog in front of me now, and it is so beautiful. I really respect the amount of artistry that Julie Paschkis put into it, and I love how she includes the meaning of the flowers on the inside cover panels.
Margaret: Yes, it’s a very valuable part of the book. With every single page, the flower shown there carries the emotional meaning of what’s happening on that page. Then if you go back to the end papers, you can see that. It’s just really remarkable. I’m really fortunate when I’m with someone who will allow me to work with the illustrators, like August House has allowed me to actually work with Julie. She does live here in Seattle, so I was able to go to her house and get to know her, and that was very useful.
R: Yes, a lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into creating a children’s book. Is it really that easy?
Margaret: No, a picture book is actually the hardest thing that I do. It has to be absolutely perfect. It’s like a piece of poetry, and you have to have every word in the right place. I rewrite, and think about the page turn – how the story flows across the page turn – and how much text to have on each page. You can’t have too much text. Then after I get the sketches from the illustrators back, I have to make sure that their illustrations actually fit what I’ve written. I might change a few words to make the text fit a little bit more with what they’ve illustrated.
R: Folktales, like poetry, are meant to be spoken, so I really love that analogy.
Margaret: Exactly, folktales were originally meant to be spoken and listened to. It’s all about the way the story sounds. To me, storytelling is all about the way it sounds. I know some people learn stories by visualizing pictures, but I don’t—I just hear sounds. And the language is what’s important to me, the way it sounds. Then after I’ve got the picture book essentially finished, I’d give it to my son-in-law (who used to work for Microsoft and wouldn’t really know how to read a picture book), and I had him read it out loud. If he stumbled over it, then I knew I didn’t get the wording quite right. I have to rewrite it until when he reads it, it sounds really smooth. It has to be so good that any random father who has never read a book out loud before, could pick it up, read it, and it’s going to sound absolutely right.