Thursday, January 26, 2012

Blog Tour with Kate Coombs, celebrating Hans My Hedgehog!

Welcome to my stop on Kate Coombs' blog tour, celebrating the release of her new folktale retelling, Hans My Hedgehog! In case you missed it, I posted a review of this delightful retelling yesterday.

I'm very interested in contemporary folktale retellings right now, because my new library program, the Elephant and Piggie Kids' Club, is focused on folktales and puppetry (and Elephant and Piggie, of course). I asked Kate Coombs some questions about herself in general and folktales in particular and she had some interesting answers. Enjoy!

So. Who are you really, Kate Coombs?

I'm a person who's in love with words and the books that hold them. As a child, I knew I would grow up to be an author, and a children's fantasy writer, at that. I wrote a lot of plays and poems at an early age.

Other than that, I'd say I am someone who likes chocolate a little too much. I come from a large, multiethnic family (we're all adopted). I also have some close friends who make my life very rich.

I collect folk art, seashells, and—since I moved from California to Utah last summer—winter clothes and a much-appreciated ice scraper.

[Only one ice scraper!? Since I moved to Wisconsin from Texas four years ago, I have accumulated FIVE.]

Having just finished the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, I've been thinking a lot about back matter - sources, bibliography, etc. How important is it to communicate to readers where your story came from?

I wrote an author's note for Hans My Hedgehog in part because I had been hearing a lot about back matter, which told me there was an audience out there of people who wanted to know about story sources. Besides, I made some significant changes to the story, so I wanted to be very clear about that.

Should we/how can we explain story sources to kids, other than the standard "this story was told a long time ago by people in x country?" Is it important to do so?

The author's note is mostly for adults. I like to tell kids that 200 or 300 years ago, before there were TVs or radios or the Internet or movies or even electric lights and books, people used to sit around telling stories to entertain each other. Then, when books did come along, guys like the Brothers Grimm in Germany went around and wrote down a bunch of those old stories. Hans My Hedgehog is one folktale they recorded. So are some of the Disney princess stories, though they've been changed quite a bit.

What is the purpose of giving this kind of credit, after all? We acknowledge the original creator of the work in as much as that's possible, which is only fair. In addition, we give the story a context, sort of like saying to someone you've just met, "Where are you from?" It does matter, but it's just one piece of the puzzle.

[Good points! I like to preserve what I think of as "the continuity of stories" by teaching kids the delightful little ending rhymes that show up in many Germanic folktales. My favorite is "Snip Snap Snout/My Tale's Told Out!" which also works as a quick clapping rhyme]

This is kind of a tired question, but I'm going to bring it up again - in telling folktales to young audiences (I'm thinking preschool) do we sanitize them? For example, I have parents who were shocked, SHOCKED, that the gingerbread boy gets eaten at the end. I've always wimped out on the wolf eating the first two little pigs. Should children hear these stories in their original form?

I do think any need for sanitizing varies by age, as well as by the child in question. My cousin's son was terrified of Disney movies as a toddler—and if you think about it, most of them have really scary chase or fight scenes full of roaring monsters and billowing black-and-purple clouds with lightning glaring through them towards the end.

Pre-K kids are usually up for the "3's": The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Plus maybe The Little Red Hen. Little Red Riding Hood is questionable for some little ones, and something like Hansel and Gretel is obviously not a good story for toddlers.

But, as you said, the question comes up even in the case of the simpler folktales. I mean, I can see why people want to save those first two pig brothers. It's just so tempting. Of course, we are forgetting that a story like that was actually intended to punish the lazy pigs and reward the hard-working pig. It doesn't teach much of a lesson if the two lazy brothers escape unscathed. And since children can be pretty ruthless about justice, they are often fine with this turn of events.

On a related note, some rather young kids are blithe about all this violence because they see it over and over on TV, if only in cartoons. And they are right in one sense—the violence in a story like The Gingerbread Boy or The Three Little Pigs is cartoonish. It's all in fun, delightfully gruesome in the same way that a ghost story like The Teeny Tiny Woman is delightfully frightful.

On top of that question, retellings! How much of the original story should a retelling encompass - is it ok to change endings, genders, and behaviors of the characters?

This may sound like a copout, but I am completely sincere when I say that a retelling works just fine with quite a few changes as long as it retains the spirit of the original. This is probably easier to see in middle grade and young adult novelizations of fairy tales. A story like Ella Enchanted remains true to Cinderella in one way, while Marissa Meyer's new book Cinder remains true to it in another.

To go into a little more detail about Cinderella, what these novelizations and retellings retain is a sense of injustice that resonates with everyone, but especially with children of a certain age (and particularly middle children!). That is, as we used to put it, "Nobody loves me/Everybody hates me/I'm going to go eat worms." The glass slipper and the pumpkin coach are marvelous details, but what really matters is the feeling of familial persecution and the relief of having other people turn out to be so much more discerning about how wonderful one really is. In this story, "other people" means the handsome prince and, by extension, the entire society he represents. So, while we tend to focus on the romance in talking about this classic fairy tale, I suspect Cinderella is mostly about being able to say vicariously to that unappreciative group of people known as family, "Neener, neener, I am too important!"

[Ha! You are so right. I loved the way you kept the main theme of Hans and some of the quirky details, like riding a rooster, but took out some of the abrupt violence which is an element that makes many Grimm tales difficult to tell without changes.]

What did you change in retelling Hans my Hedgehog and why?

When I was first asked to retell Hans, the editor told me that the original was "violent and meandering." I read the Grimms' tale and had to agree. As I explain in my author's note, in the original story Hans' parents hate him, the pig herd is slaughtered, Hans treats the first princess very badly, and the way Hans is reclaimed from hedgehoghood is both draggy and depressing. So those are some key things I changed.

More important, what did I keep? The strangeness of a boy who is half hedgehog, of course—and the resulting social ostracism. The music, though I changed the bagpipe to a fiddle (illustrator John Nickle's idea) and made the music part of the magic. I kept the pigs, but I saved their lives and made them the amusing instrument of Hans' revenge on the first king. I retained the promises two kings made in the forest and the way they handled those promises when Hans came calling. In particular, I kept Hans' perseverance in the face of adversity. I do feel I was true to the story. In fact, I'd like to think I was a little truer. The original didn't hang together very well, which is one reason it hasn't been retold much over the years.

It seems like the number of new folk and fairy tale retellings dwindles every year. Are these stories still relevant?

The number of new folk and fairy tale retellings is definitely dwindling. The theory is that parents are pushing their children to read chapter books earlier, so picture books for 6- to 8-year-olds are getting squeezed out. As one of my editors told me last year, her acquisitions team only wants picture books for toddlers at this point.

I think this shows a real lack of understanding on the part of parents and publishers about the role of picture books in promoting the growth of young readers in that in-between stage, whether the books are used as read-alouds or for independent reading. I know I used to read some amazing longer picture books to first graders, and they became really driven to improve their reading because of the sheer stunning power of those books. One of their favorites was The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. It's a Southern American variation of a weirdly wonderful European folktale.

[It's definitely parents - kids still want and need picture books. I was able to have some third grade classes visit the library and check out books on their own a few years ago. I gave them complete freedom of choice, and guess what they picked for their two books each? Almost all of them chose a longer picture book, often old favorites, and then something that just caught their eye, nonfiction or a graphic novel.]

How do we present them to kids when often the older ones think they're childish and the little ones can't sit still for long stories anymore? (The gradual shortening of attention spans in young children is a whole 'nother issue, but trust me, it's there.)

When my first picture book came out, I found that first graders couldn't understand it very well, and it went completely over the heads of kindergartners. It's a rather sophisticated original folktale. Second graders were on board, however. Age really does have a lot to do with the success of a particular book. William Steig's The Magic Pebble, for example, is a great story, but it's pretty complex for many five-year-olds. It would be even harder for a three-year-old to follow with any degree of patience.

I have found that most 6- to 8-year-olds really enjoy listening to longer picture books. Just don't ever betray their trust by reading them books that aren't utterly fantastic!

Another consideration is whether you have just one child or a group. One child can focus, not just because of adult attention, but because she isn't distracted by all those other kids.

There are some pretty eerie-cool books for slightly older kids who think folktales are babyish. The story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, retold by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft, is one that comes to mind. When I took those picture books seriously, the older kids seemed to feel they could join me. A great story is a great story.

[I'm hoping my new program will appeal to the 6-8 year old crowds, if only I can get parents to bring them! I'm planning to ease into longer and more mature folktales so that parents of toddlers and young preschoolers, who I'm sure will show up, won't be shocked!]

Along those lines, do you have any thoughts on storytelling? I haven't been successful in getting audiences for storytellers who don't have any bells and whistles - is storytelling dying along with the folktale, or is there still hope?

I think if the storyteller is sucked into the story, kids will be, too. But you have to play the audience to hook them in the first place, and that's not always easy. Right age, right story, and a touch of magic...then it works.

In the library setting, it may be partly a question of hooking busy parents, and that's even trickier. Maybe the kids would like to come and listen, but their parents are too intent on rushing around to bring them.

Recommendation time! What are your favorite folk and fairy tales to share with young audiences? 

I'm going to name books for those slightly older primary grade kids since I think they're less familiar to many library-goers. I've already mentioned The Talking Eggs, a real winner. Bony Legs by Joanna Cole and Derek Zimmer is another goodie—notice that it's also a Baba Yaga story. It's intended as an easy reader, but I've had older students who really got into it. East of the Sun, West of the Moon is a long but wonderful story. Mercer Mayer and P.J. Lynch have both done nice versions.

A crazy, fun story not everyone is familiar with is Three Perfect Peaches. The version I have is by Cynthia DeFelice and Mary DeMarsh, illustrated by Irene Trivas. Aaron Shepard's retelling of One-Eye! Two-Eyes! Three-Eyes! as illustrated by Gary Clement is lively and appealing, with some cheerfully deliberate anachronisms in the artwork.

I'll just list several others I like: Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, retold by Anthony L. Manna and Christodoula Mitakidou and illustrated by Giselle Potter; The Language of Birds, retold by Rafe Martin and illustrated by Susan Gaber; Little Sister and the Month Brothers, retold by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers and illustrated by Margot Tomes; Caldecott winner The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, retold by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz; Iron John, retold by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Winslow Pels; The Water of Life, retold by Barbara Rogasky and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman; Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins, retold and illustrated by Lauren Mills; and The Tinderbox, a rather dire Hans Christian Andersen story recently retold by Stephen Mitchell and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline.

[Great recommendations! Some of these are new to me and I can't wait to try them out. I love Iron John by the way, and that's one where Mayer retold the story in a very similar way to Hans, taking out the random violence and keeping the basic themes of love and faithfulness that drive the story]

Are there good retellings out there for the preschool crowd?

Oh, that's a little harder! I have already mentioned classics such as the "3" stories. Byron Barton has retold a few such tales for very young readers in board book format, but they probably work best as bedtime stories. Pre-K kids have trouble sitting still for a story in a group—they're just so easily distracted by one another, along with whatever's out the window, a loose bit of carpet, a single ant, you name it. Cumulative tales, well-rhymed stories, sung stories, and chants are most effective with smaller children. And really, some of those books are also from the oral tradition. Look at Mother Goose, for example.

Michael Rosen's Little Rabbit Foo-Foo and Simms Taback's There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly are the kinds of books I'm thinking about. Also, surprisingly, The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night, illustrated by Peter Spier. I used to sing that one to first graders, and the kids were charmed.

Ultimately, the famous "3" stories and tales like The Little Red Hen or The Gingerbread Man are cumulative, have a refrain, or use some other predictable pattern: e.g., porridge, porridge, porridge; chair, chair, chair; bed, bed, bed—three cumulative sets, perhaps? These patterns no doubt help explain why they work with little listeners.

What is your experience in sharing these stories with audiences?

I can usually hook them, and I never use bells and whistles. Of course, I have an extremely high story immersion factor myself, and I think it's contagious. But the wrong book for the wrong age group is a hard sell, no matter what. I've had a few flops in amongst my storytelling successes, believe me! Yet my deep belief in the power of story keeps me going—and keeps me writing.

[Thanks so much for stopping by with us today Kate! I hope other librarians will be inspired to use some of your suggestions to add more folktales to their storytime curriculums. And, of course, everyone should check out your delightful new tale, Hans My Hedgehog!!]

1 comment:

KateCoombs said...

Thanks for hosting me, Jennifer, and for your interesting commentary!