Thursday, September 28, 2017

GUEST POST: Folktale-ISH by Lauri Fortino


by Lauri Fortino

Is your story a folktale? When my picture book The Peddler’s Bed was published, many readers said it had the feel of a folktale. Some even thought it was a retelling of a folktale. It isn’t. And actually, I never set out to write a folktale. I just wrote a story.
But that got me thinking, what is a folktale? And what elements go into a story to give it that folktale-ish feel? Let’s explore.

Let’s start with the definition of folktale. Merriam-Webster defines folktale as “a
characteristically anonymous, timeless, and placeless tale circulated orally among a people” or “a story made up and handed down by the common people.” The American Heritage Dictionary says a folktale is “a story or legend forming part of an oral tradition.”

This definition from the American Folklore website ( is a little clearer: “Folktales are generally passed down from one generation to another and often take on the characteristics of the time and place in which they are told. Folktales speak to universal and timeless themes, and help folks make sense of their existence or cope with the world in which they live.”

Research has taught me that fairy tales are a subcategory of folktales, as are fables. Fairy tales include magical elements, imaginary beings, and make-believe worlds. (e.g. Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel) 

Fables are usually short stories with animals as characters, and a clear moral at the end. (e.g. The Tortoise and the Hare, The Fox and the Crow)

Folktales do not have to have magic or clear morals. But all true folktales should be the product of a traditional, often oral, narrative, anonymously authored and passed down, rather than the creative work of a particular author.

Some examples of classic folktales include, Lon Po Po, Stone Soup, The Twelve Months, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Rapunzel, and The Ugly Duckling. There are many, many others from around the world, and from every culture. Check your local library for more titles.

Now that we know what true folktales are, what elements can we borrow from them to help create a folktale-ish feel in our own stories?

*  Exotic setting, characters, and culture
* Time and place that evoke a bygone era
* Word Choice/Language Use
* Lesson/Moral (A word of caution: Most publishers today aren’t interested in stories that teach lessons or clearly state morals. If your goal is to be traditionally published, I suggest you learn to weave your message in-in a subtle way.)
* Art Style
* Magical Twist/Imaginary Creatures

Let’s take a look at a few new titles and how they’ve used the elements above to create that folktale-ish feel. You’ll notice that the elements often overlap or are closely related. Also, you should be aware that sometimes the elements appear in the text, sometimes in the illustrations, and sometimes in both.

1. Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and Divya Srinivasan (2017): 

· Exotic setting and characters. Most of the story takes place in the palace of a Hindu king and queen. The main character is a princess.

· Bygone era. This is actually stated in the first sentence. Cinnamon was a princess, a long time ago, in a small hot country, where everything was very old.

· Word choice, language use. Phrases such as, he moved like a god through the world, which is how tigers move, and words like Rajah and Rani are used deliberately to make clear that a specific culture is portrayed in the story.

· A Lesson. Honestly, I found the subtle lesson of this story difficult to interpret. I actually took away several messages: Expressing feelings when appropriate, speaking when necessary, living free of material things, and attaining enlightenment. 

2. Ossiri and the Bala Mengro by Richard O’Neill, Katharine Quarmby, and Hanna Tolson (2016):

· Exotic setting and characters. This story is about a family of Romani, also known as traveling people or gypsies, in Europe.

· Word choice, language use. Romani culture is expressed through words and phrases like Tattin Django, Bala Mengro, and Daddo.

· A Lesson. Surprisingly, this book has a not-so-subtle message. It’s actually stated near the end of the story. The stranger had asked Ossiri many questions, but had forgotten to ask why the Bala Mengro liked her music. Perhaps it was because she played from the heart, not for gain. Again, most publishers today don’t want stories that blatantly teach lessons or state morals. But there are always exceptions, and this book is one of them. 

· Imaginary Creature. The Bala Mengro is identified as an ogre and described as “a huge hairy monster, as tall as a barn.”

3. The Lonely Giant by Sophie Ambrose (2016):

· A Lesson. There is a subtle message here about caring for the natural world.

· Imaginary Creature. Obviously, this story is about a giant.

4. Grandmother Thorn by Katey Howes and Rebecca Hahn (2017):

· Exotic setting and characters. This story takes place in a little village in Japan. The characters are dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. (see below)

· Bygone era. How the characters are depicted, in traditional dress, evokes a bygone era, especially the traveling merchant (his clothing and his cart). So here, it is more the art than the text that creates a long-ago feel.

· Word choice, language use. Japanese culture is expressed through words like Ojiisan and dorayaki.

· A Lesson. In this story, there is a subtle message about accepting that some things are beyond our control, and about embracing the possibilities that may come from change.

· Art Style. In her sewn and painted hand-crafted artwork, the illustrator used many patterns that clearly reflect traditional Japanese style.

5. The Peddler’s Bed by Lauri Fortino and Bong Redila (2015):

· Bygone era. My book features a traveling peddler dressed in a dapper suit with gloves and cane, a horse-drawn cart, and an outdoor water pump. All of these things bring to mind a bygone era. Also, the polite manner in which the characters speak has an old-fashioned ring to it. (see below)

· Word choice, language use. The characters speak in a very polite, rather formal way to one another, using words and phrases that aren’t used as much today, which, again, conveys a past era: “It’s a fine day.”, “Truly.”, “I’d be delighted.”, “Do come in and have a bite to eat.”

· A Lesson. My book subtly expresses the importance of kindness and generosity towards others, no matter our circumstances.

I encourage you to read these titles as well as classic folktales to get a better feel for how to incorporate folktale elements into your stories.


A few other things I’ve noticed about traditional folktales-not all, but many, include:

· Lengthy text (excluding fables, which are quite short). Long texts are not recommended for today’s picture books. Keep your story under 1000 words. Five hundred words is average and many picture books have even fewer. Just because your story may be folktale-ish doesn’t mean it should be overly long. Learn how to write a picture book for today’s market and apply that same knowledge to writing a story that feels like a folktale. Remember, folktales were originally shared orally. The storyteller could make the story any length they wished. Today, shorter stories prevail in picture books.

· A main character who must use cleverness to defeat or outsmart evil

· A main character who must discover the answer to a riddle or secret

· Elements like hunger, weariness, or cold weather

· Rich kingdoms and poor villages

· A focus on dysfunctional families (think Cinderella)

· A focus on beauty, usually of the main character


NOTE from Lynne of My Word Playground - 

As a big fan of folktales myself, and my Moldilocks and the 3 Scares coming from Sterling Children's Books in the future, I want to thank Lauri for this fabulous post!

Please leave a comment to thank Lauri for sharing these wonderful points. If we reach 50 comments, one lucky winner will be able to choose a picture book from my 2016 Cybils stash. I will e-mail the winner with the list and mail out as soon as the book is chosen. And please hurry and comment, because I will be donating the remainder of the books to a good cause soon. 

Please subscribe to/follow this blog and check back for reviews of the 2017 Cybils nominations! 


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for sharing your fabulous post with me and my readers, Lauri! XO

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by My Word Playground, Jessica, and don't forget to subscribe to posts!

    2. Thanks so much, Jessica! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. I liked how you explained the elements of folktale-ish stories. Will be more aware of these elements when reading and reviewing new and traditional titles.

    1. I agree! She was so helpful. Thanks for stopping by My Word Playground, @Virginia Frazier.

    2. Virginia, so glad you found my post useful!