Friday 28 August 2015

In the Beginning there were Folk Tales (by Malachy Doyle)

My very first picture book was The Great Castle of Marshmangle. I wrote it 19 years ago, and life was never the same again.


I'd been writing for two or three years by then, but in October 1996 I went on a week-long Writing for Children course at the Ty Newydd residential writing centre in Wales. The tutors were Kevin Crossley-Holland and Valerie Bloom, and not only were they brilliant, but they were immensely encouraging of me and my writing. I've since taught courses at Ty Newydd with both Kevin and Valerie, and it's always a delight to be giving back to new writers, a thrill to be back at such a wonderful place, and a particular delight to see them both again.  

Kevin talked a lot about retelling folk tale, and about the responsibilities of approaching traditional material.
'Yes,' he said, 'many folk tales are dark, but naming the terrors helps children understand them - it's damaging to pretend there are no terrors.'
Yes, he said, they may be about people a world and an age away from us, but 'the deeper we look the more we're willing to grant humanity to those who are unlike us - to see that they are who we are - to realise that there's so little difference between us all that it's not worth mentioning.'
'Folk tale is healing and reconciliatory' he said. 'It looks for common ground between all of us who are human. The stories decode a hidden world but also celebrate a shared identity.' 
(And yes, I was taking notes, and yes, I have them still. I was a most determined apprentice!)

He asked us to find a folk tale, to take a folk-motif, and make it our own. He told us that his book Storm, one of my all-time favourites, came from an eight line section in a Scottish folk tale of a girl who goes on a night journey. I found a story called The Ghosts and the Game of Football in a Patrick Kennedy collection and turned it into one called Famous Seamus that went down a treat on the Friday night read-around. It eventually found its form as The Football Ghosts, published nine years later by Egmont in their Banana Books strand - particularly pleasing as Kevin's Storm, a Carnegie medal winner, was also a Banana Book.


And I've been doing it ever since - playing with folk tale. Probably somewhere approaching half of my books, including many of my picture books, either retell folk tales or more often use lines, ideas, motifs from folk tales as a starting point. If they've survived for hundreds, for thousands of years, changing with every telling, then there's obviously some core of truth and relevance and entertainment that will survive one more retelling, one more adaptation.

I got back from Ty Newydd in October 96, all fired up and searching for folk-tale inspiration. I was reading Ciaran Carson's superb book on Irish traditional music, Last Night's Fun, and was very taken with a story he quoted from the musician and story-collector Seamus Ennis. (It also appears in Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales as Master of all Masters). So I wrote a picture book, and then, just to be sure, rang Ciaran Carson to check he didn't mind (and to clear with him that there weren't likely to be any copyright problems). Faber and Andersen made immediate offers, I went with Andersen, and it became my first book with the legendary Klaus Flugge (and the very lovely editor, Janice Thompson).

I had great fun, aided by my then teenage daughter Hannah (who's recently illustrated my Pete and the Five-a-Side Vampires), coming up with all the wordplay: Smoulderglow for fire, Soggadrop for water, Sandcastle Stompers for wellington boots, Brainbox Banana for a top hat... A teacher once told me her class had found the book invaluable when they were studying kennings - and was shocked when I told the class I hadn't a clue what one was. Oh, and I just loved the illustrations for the book by the masterly Paul Hess

It got loads of foreign editions and I was up and running: thanks to Kevin and Valerie, to Ty Newydd, to the wonderful and never-ending resource that is traditional story.


Jonathan Emmett said...

Great post, Malachy.

I'm a big fan of folk tales. The anthologies of folk tales written by Ruth Manning Sanders and illustrated by Robin Jacques were among my favourite reads when I was at primary school and I read every one I could get my hands on.

Many of my own stories are inspired or adapted from folk tales, including "Danny Dreadnought Saves the World", which was published earlier this year and is a contemporary re-telling of the Brothers Grimm tale "The Boy Who Set Out to Find out What Fear Was." In my updated version the Ogre's castle of the Grimm version was replaced by an alien spacecraft. That story was also published as one of Egmont's Banana books, just like yours and Kevin's.

My son and I were big fans of Kevin Crossley-Holland's Arthur Trilogy which I read to him at bedtimes. Kevin's comment that "naming the terrors helps children understand them - it's damaging to pretend there are no terrors." is spot on and is as relevant to picture books as children's novels.

Anne Booth said...

Thank you so much. I love folk tales and traditional songs but, strangely, never thought of using them in my picture books or novels - this has really inspired me!

Candy Gourlay said...

A great post. Thank you!

Ramona said...

One of my favourite posts so far - so much learnt from your wonderful advice - and now I know what Kennings are - something I use often but had no idea they had a name. :-)