Monday, 22 October 2018

Finding and Finessing a Folktale by Chitra Soundar

I’ve started teaching a course on picture books and as I break down the basics to other writers, I realised that I’m articulating my own understanding. My writing, especially in the medium of picture books, comes from my lifelong love of picture books, from this moment, I was handed this book when I was 7.

I read picture books and comics as much as I can, growing up, and when I started writing way back in 2003. I still read way too many picture books and often most ideas present themselves to me in 12 spreads.

Along with this love for picture books, I’m also a storyteller. I think I told stories even when I was four and the love for oral storytelling never really left me even when I was working in the corporate world.

Here is my process of how I search, find and finesse a folktale for a modern audience.

Finding a story: I usually choose a story from my own culture or a trickster tale. I read quite a few stories from collections I’ve accumulated over the years to identify which story connects with me. I need to get the “theme” of the story and I want to be able to see the story in scenes, rather than a quick joke.

If I do choose a story that is not from a culture I’m familiar with, I would check if there are enough independent “first-hand” sources I can rely on for accuracy of representation. I’d want to know if this story has been retold or adapted or written about by people who are native to that culture and what do they think of it. Often folktales have hidden allegory and meaning that will work at a different level than the “story” itself and I might inadvertently cause hurt or offence to people by re-telling this story.

Check out a research paper on this here

My search takes me into libraries, Internet archives of ancient texts and research notes because modern retellings or “collections” might be derivative and I would try and find as many “native” sources I can.

Evaluating for a Modern Audience: There are many funny stories in Aesop fables or Panchatantra or our epics that might not be suitable for today’s children. Many of these stories are true to their time and geography. So a story about “girls knowing their place” or “a cruel stepmother” or "old women are witches" are not only inappropriate but also harmful for today’s child.

So I read and understand the underlying concepts of each of these folktales and think about whether the protagonist and the events of the story are telling a tale suitable for today and beyond. While we can’t go back and erase our past, or justify some of the notions, the least we could do is not to propagate unhelpful stereotypes – whether it’s about gender, age, sexual orientation or cultures.

Adapting the Story: Now comes the techniques of writing a picture book. I need to know enough about the story to be able to adapt it. As I said before, I would try and find as many variants of the story I can. I’ll try and find archives with original text or translations.

Having absorbed the story, these are my techniques to adapt the story:

a)    Understanding its spine – what’s the story really about? What’s the message and essence of the story? In this, oral storytelling and adapting have the same goal. I normally break down a story into 10 simple scenes or sentences. Or 5 things I need to remember and then distill it into “a message”. Once I know this, I can then adapt the story and still be able to keep the essence.

b)    Who are the characters? Especially when I’m working with trickster tales, the characters in the story are crucial for the logic of the story to work. Like Stork and the Fox in Aesop Fables, or the Crocodile and the Monkey in Panchatantra. The characteristics and the “character” – who is evil, who is tricking whom, who is symbolised as clever – all of that will need to be worked out. Often keeping the same characters as per the original story is sufficient. Sometimes I’d want to change it. When changing the characters, I’ve to make sure that the “symbolic” nature of their characters will still work.          

It’s important to know the cultural archetypes here. In some cultures some animals and birds are clever / evil / cunning and if I need to credit the culture, then using an alternate one or the wrong one will take away the authenticity.

c)     What’s the punch line and how do I get there? I’ll need to understand what are the relevant scenes that need to have happened for the punch line to work. But at the same time, we need 12 scenes in the picture book that are different from each other.

Here’s where research pays off – knowing the geography of the story, knowing the other characters will help.

Also as a storyteller, the embellishing happens here – adding more scenes to show the allegory or the true nature of the characters will help a child reader understand the punch line better.

d)    Word count and other practical considerations: Most modern picture books are under 400 words with exceptions of course. I need to be able to tell the 12 scenes with enough happening between the scenes and still keeping the word count down.

The other thing I’ll think about is viewpoint – which character is telling the story? Am I going to use the voice of a storyteller? Is my language going to be modern or folktale-ish? Is this story going to be billed as a re-telling or an adaptation?

e)    Adapting vs Retelling – Whether it’s the Gruffalo or the True story of the Three Little Pigs, or my own A Jar of Picklesand a Pinch of Justice or Pattan’s Pumpkin – the story can be hidden under a completely new setting, cast of characters and a modern retelling. 

         Whether or not the reader knows the underlying story, it will still be fun for them. Of course,               in all of my adaptations, I’ve made it clear that I’ve adapted traditional tales. Sometimes a story            is in folk-legend widely that you might not need to mention it.

For those who are starting out to write picture books and grappling with “where do I get ideas?”, adapting folktales can be a wonderful exercise in research, structure and plotting. Folk tales have plots that have worked for hundreds of years and can be useful in showing us how to construct a regaling tale.

If you enjoyed reading this post, do share your favourite folktale adaptations in the comments.

Chitra Soundar is the author of many picture books and retellings. Her latest book is an original story of two polar bear cubs discovering the world. Find out more about You’re Snug with Me, illustrated by Poonam Mistry and published by Lantana Publishing here.

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