Do We All Need to Share the Same Building Blocks of Story?

Ten or fifteen years ago I learned not to take even basic assumptions for granted.

I used to teach a course called “Children’s Literature” at a public university. My students were future teachers–mainly K-8, but also secondary school.  A large percentage of them were first and second generation and primarily from Mexico/Central America.

Children’s literature is divided into different genres of lit, just as is literature for adults.  For children, the genres include picture books, young adult novels, poetry, traditional literature, and more. Traditional lit covers fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. Picture books based on “Hansel and Gretel” or “The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly” are both picture books and traditional lit.

I liked to teach stories from the different continents. I particularly enjoyed taking a tale, such as “Cinderella,” which is told in various parts of the world and looking at the cultural differences.  Seven hundred folk (pre-picture books and movies) versions of this one tale exist.

One academic quarter, I got a flyer in my department mailbox about a play being put on by the drama department. It sounded ideal as it was coming at a time we were studying folk and fairy tales. The play was a spoof on some of the traditional tales. Since it occurred ten to fifteen years ago, I can’t remember for sure which tales were included or who wrote it, but they were very well-known tales–maybe “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Goldilocks.”  I brought a couple of my classes to a performance of the play. It was hilarious; I laughed all the way through.

At least, I thought it was hilarious. But most of my students sat there stone-faced. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

The next time class met, we discussed our responses to the play. It turned out that most of my students had never been exposed to these basic tales of the English-speaking and European worlds.  Without knowing the originals, the parodies made no sense.

That showed me that we don’t all share as many of the same basic building blocks of culture, as I had imagined. I knew that these stories were widely available in Spanish, so that wasn’t the problem.

To accommodate my students, I thought, well then, we can spend more time integrating Mexican tales of La Llorona and Quetzalcoatl. Some students thought this was great.

Español: La LLorona, leyenda Nederlands: La_Ll...

Español: La LLorona, leyenda Nederlands: La_Llorona, Mexicaanse folklore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But I had another disappointment when I discovered that so many students didn’t have knowledge of tales from the country of their birth or their parents’ birth either. And why? They said their parents didn’t tell them stories. They didn’t have time–too busy working and too tired when they weren’t.

It wasn’t too late, though. It might have been college, but we were in the luxurious world of Children’s Literature, so we read all the tales I could fit into the class. The parodies and revisions worked well together with the originals, but not on their own. That’s ok. It made us all better readers to look at them side-by-side.

So now my pedogogical and philosophical question is: do we all need to share the same building blocks of story?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Writing

15 responses to “Do We All Need to Share the Same Building Blocks of Story?

  1. Since folk tales have so much in common with one another–no matter which culture they come from–we often do have a basic understanding of their elements, regardless of any changes in character name, setting, etc. The problem, which I think your post brings out, is that too many children are not read to or told stories at home. Storytelling does not have the value in many families, like it used to, and there really is no replacement for it–for listening to a story told by a parent or loved one. Even the schools can’t make up for not having been read to or told stories from the time a child is an infant. Thanks for your post!

    • Luanne

      What a great point you make (points, I think)! So you think there is a problem in general with children not getting stories told or read to them any longer. It’s true about character names and settings changing in tales, but some of the elements remaining the same. I mean, that’s how we know that a Cinderella story from China is still a “Cinderella” story like the French and German ones we’re familiar with–because it has a lot of the same elements.

  2. jeannieunbottled

    I have no answer to your question. However, if people watch TV and movies, if they practice a religion, they are picking up stories, and some of these stories might be what Jung considered universal. If such stories exist, then people do have some of the same building blocks.

    • Luanne

      This is all true. As far as universal stories go, start looking at movies to find “Cinderella” stories–keep your mind open as she might be a boy or a dog or even an older adult.

  3. We just discussed this in an Intro to Fiction writing course. The theory was presented that humanity shares the same consciousness and therefore the same shape for stories. Fables, myths and cultural stories, although varied in their ideas, characters, etc. all share similar shapes across cultures. Pretty cool to think about.

    • Luanne

      I think this is true, and there is a book which I recently read which I found to be amazing: The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. I should write a post about that book :). But I have a friend who has lived for a long time in a few 3rd world countries, and she says there are other ways of telling stories that lack a narrative in the way we think of it. I wonder what your instructor would make of that!

  4. There are groups who have made it their mandate to try to ban all those old nursery rhymes, folk tales and fairy tales because they have violence in them. We grew up with those stories and didn’t turn into monsters because of them. But now, we have kids with no cultural background knowledge who aren’t read to but are parked in front of violent videos instead. Are we winning yet?

    • Luanne

      Anneli, this is a big beef of mine. While I don’t like violent videogames for children at all, I think the old tales have a place–complete with their scary components. I love Disney, but don’t want to see all the tales Disnified. No, we’re not winning . . . .

      • Glad I’m not alone in feeling that. I don’t think those fairy tales hurt me one bit and I feel richer for knowing them.

        • Luanne

          I so agree. In the memoir I’m writing I am including an event that happened when I was frightened by one of those old tales. The immediate response by adults was censorship. What now seems traumatic was the censorship.

  5. Like so many universal, bigger-than-me challenges, I have vowed to do what I can in my own little world, with the hope that it has the ripple effect. I read and write stories for my children and my little grands…do my best to pass down the enthusiasm of story.
    Great post, Luanne, thank you!

  6. Your post reinforces how fortunate I was growing up. It’s sad to think of a childhood absent of fairy tales. Great job, Luanne!

    • Luanne

      Isn’t that so true for some of us, though. Excellent point, Jill. We were so fortunate. Above all, they help shape us into creators, people with creative ways of thinking and doing.

  7. This post reminded me (lovingly) of the “Rachael and Ashley” stories my husband used to tell the kids, sometimes with “Dolly over the door” included. He made them up, and sometimes they were a little scary. When that happened, I would just leave the room.:).

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