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Traditional Literature

Materials for Youth 6: Traditional Literature
from Annette Lamb on Vimeo.
To read the transcript of this video, go to the transcript page.

Storytelling is the way that people of all ages make meaning in their lives. From simple anecdotes to thought-provoking conversations, we hear and tell stories throughout the day. We share our stories in person, on the phone, and through social media. These stories are told and retold through words and pictures.

Traditional literature tell stories that were originally shared through oral tradition. The stories have been spread by word mouth and ultimately recorded as print materials.

Often passed from generation to generation, the stories may take a formulaic approach that can be seen across cultures. The characters are often stereotypes representing traditional views of “good” and “evil”. These types of stories help youth cope with their daily world (Bettelheim, 1976).

where the mountin meets the moonMuch of this literature has passed the test of time because they’re just plain good stories. Stories of King Arthur and Johnny Appleseed have been shared from generation to generation. The phrases “once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” have become a part of our culture and are associated with make believe and fun.

You many wonder about the application of traditional literature to today’s world. Keep in mind that many of the stories we read today have characters, themes, and plots that originated in earlier times. Think how many of current books use the basic structure of the “Cinderella” story. In addition, the popular genre of fantasy plays an important role in traditional literature.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009) written and illustrated by Grace Lin is a beautiful example of how Chinese folk-inspired characters and stories can be presented in a way that appeals to today’s youth.

Tomie dePaola is well-known for re-telling traditional literature such as The Legend of the Bluebonnet (1983).

blubonnetAuthor Spotlight: Tomie dePaola
Visit the author’s website.

Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato: An Irish Folktale
The Legend of the Bluebonnet (1983)
The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush (1988)
The Legend of the Persian Carpet (1993)
The Legend of the Poinsettia (1994)
Strega Nona (1975)

Categories of Traditional Literature

While modern stories usually include well-developed, multi-dimensional characters, and complex plots, traditional stories generally use stereotypical “good” and “evil” characters, straight forward plots, and story lines that include reward and punishment based on kindness, mercy, and justice.

Folklore is a general term that relates to the many traditions included in a particular culture or subculture. Narratives are one element of folklore.

Folktales and Fairytales

whyFolktales are the most general stories of a culture. Many of the basic story lines are repeated around the world with different characters and settings.

Some folktales have a particular structure. “Why” stories focus on answering a question such as Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1975) retold by Verna Aardema. Stone Arch Books has produced a series of “How and Why” graphic novels for youth based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories such as How the Leopard Got His Spots (2012) and How the Camel Got His Hump (2012).

I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly (1997) and The House that Jack Built (2004) retold by Simms Taback are examples of cumulative tales that build with each addition to the story.

Some folktales often feature specialty characters. For instance, trickster tales feature a cunning or mischievous character that out-wits other characters. They are popular in Native American culture. Similarly, noodle tales feature buffoons or stupid characters that get into trouble and make silly mistakes.

Many folktales feature anthropomorphized animals. Gerald McDermott is well-known for his trickster tales with anthropomorphized animals like coyote, monkey, and raven.

spiderAuthor Spotlight: Gerald McDermott
Read an article dedicated to this popular author/illustrator.

Anansi the Spider: a Tale from the Ashanti
Arrow to the Sun: a Pueblo Indian Tale (1974)
Coyote: a Trickster Tale from the American Southwest (1994)
Monkey: a Trickster Tale from India (2011)
Raven: a Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest (1993)
The Stone-cutter: a Japanese Tale (1975)

Fairytales are a specific type of folktale. They may include fairies, witches, magical objects, and even talking animals. Charles Perrault (1628-1703) was a French author who wrote many well-known fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and Sleeping Beauty. Many of his works were rewritten by the Brothers Grimm.

Mother Goose is an imaginary author often associated with fairy tales and nursery rhymes. The character was identified in books as early as the 17th century. Charles Perrault published Tales of Mother Goose in 1697. Books like Sylvia Long's Mother Goose (1999) by Sylvia Long continue the tradition. The image below is from the electronic version of the book.


Classic stories like Snow White and Rapunzel are a couple examples of fairy tales. Although youth probably know Rapunzel best through the Disney movie Tangled, there have been many other retellings such as Paul O. Zelinsky’s (1997) Rapunzel that retells the Brother’s Grimm version. The image below left shows the cover from the traditional story of Rapunzel and the book cover below right shows a leveled reader for children based on the Disney version.


Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) was a Danish author who published fairy tales including The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, and The Emperor's New Clothes. He first published the book Fairy Tales in 1835. Many of his works have become popular Disney movies as well as Disney children's books. In addition, they're popular as apps. Snow Queen from Timecode is based on the Hans Christian Andersen. Containing seven chapters and over 300 interactive objects, the book engages school-aged children for hours.

Increasingly fairytales are being adapted as ebooks and interactive apps. Fairy Tales Children Stories by Lazy Bird is an app containing 50 custom fairy tales.


Ballads, Epics, and Legends

The terms ballad, epic, and legend are often used interchangeably, however there are subtle differences.

A ballad is a narrative written in verse and set to music. They often involve hero stories. Ballads are sometimes retold as picture books. Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1988 (2000) written by Ernest L. Thayer and illustrated by Christopher Bing is a faux-scrapbook version of this famous ballad. The image below shows a two page spread from the book.

Casey at Bat

An epic is a work of poetry with a theme related to heroism. The Iliad, Odyssey, and Beowulf are examples. Graphic novel versions of Beowulf are popular. Some scholars also consider epic prose such as Thousand and One Nights in this category. Epic fantasy such as Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is considered epic because of it’s long time span encompassing many years.

Legends are historical narrative that reflect folk belief. They often have roots in fact, but have been elaborated on through history. King Arthur and Robin Hood are examples. Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is rooted in legend.

Merlin and the Making of a King (2004) by Margaret Hodges retells four legends related to King Arthur.


A fable is a short fictional story featuring characters such as animals, mythical creature, or other elements of nature that are anthropomorphic. The narrative often includes a moral lesson. Aesop's Fables are probably the best known stories, but there are many others.

Aesop’s Fables (2000) by Jerry Pinkney contains almost 60 fables. Fables (1983) by Arnold Lobel is an excellent collection of fables with attractive illustrations. Click the two-page spread below right to read the fable. Think about the relationship between the text and the image. Was the illustration effective?

fable coverFables

try itTry It!
Explore The Aesop for Children illustrated by Milo Winter from the Library of Congress. Web-based versions of these fables are common. Do a search for Aesop Fable app and you'll find lots of great examples at the iTunes App Store and Google Store.


creationMyths often tell the story of ancestors, supernatural beings, heroes, gods, or goddesses with special powers. Sometimes myths try to describe aspects of customs or explain natural events such as the sun or lightning. These stories sometimes contain mythical characters such as mermaids, unicorns, or dragons.

All cultures have myths. For example, the classical mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans is familiar to most people. The stories of Native American people are also well-known. The same myths can often be found in different parts of the world. For example, creation stories related to plants, animals, and people are common among many cultures. The Norse people are another group with well-known myths.

In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World (1988) (shown on right) by Virginia Hamilton contains a collection of myths focused on the topic of creation.

Recently, authors are combining traditional mythology with fantasy elements.

Nancy Farmer’s The Sea of Trolls trilogy (shown below) is a great example of a young adult trilogy that blends Norse mythology with an invented story that connected with today’s readers. The trilogy includes The Sea of Trolls (2004), The Land of the Silver Apples (2006), and The Island of the Blessed (2009).


The Percy Jackson and the Olympians pentalogy (2005-2009) by Rick Riordan weaves Greek mythology with modern fantasy elements. Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus is a sequel series.

Tall Tales

john henryA tall tale is a uniquely American story form that features
(1) a larger-than-life, or superhuman, main character with a specific task,
(2) a problem that is solved in a humorous or outrageous way,
(3) exaggerated details that describe things larger than they really are, and
(4) characters who use everyday language. Many tall tales are based on actual people or on a composite of actual people.

Exaggeration is the major element in tall tales. Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, Pecos Bill, and Paul Bunyan are well-known examples. Although rooted in American culture, tall tales can be found in other cultures too.

The picture book format is popular for tall tales. John Henry (1991) by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney is an award-winning example.

Steven Kellogg is well-known for retelling tall tales. His endearing illustrations bring stories like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan to life.

paulAuthor Spotlight: Steven Kellogg
Visit the author’s website.

Johnny Appleseed (1988)
Paul Bunyan: A Tall Tale (1984)
Pecos Bill: A Tall Tale (1986)
Mike Fink: A Tall Tale (1996)
Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett (1995)

Multicultural Perspectives

Every culture has its own traditional literature. East and Thomas (2007, 125) encourage teachers and librarians to make use of the many folktales from around the world.

"Folktales offer many opportunities to explore cultural traditions. They also allow readers to compare and contrast, to analyze plot sequence, to demonstrate comprehension, and to understand the characteristics of this genre. Since they are part of the oral tradition of literature, they are great for retelling, dramatization with props, and the development of presentation skills."

It's useful to identify authors associated with particular cultures. For instance, Joseph Bruchac is well-known for his works related to Native American culture.

chipAuthors You Should Know

Joseph Bruchac - Native American
Leo and Diane Dillon - African
Virginia Hamilton - African American
Trina Schart Hyman - European
Ed Young - Asian
Paul O. Zelinsky - European

golemBooks You Should Know

The Dark-Thirty
(1992) by Patricia McKissack
Genies, Meanies, and Magic Rings: Three Tales from the Arabian Nights (2007) by Stephen Mitchell
The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses (1978) by Paul Goble
Golem (1996) by David Wisniewksi
Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys (2003) by Jane Yolen
The Mitten: A Ukrainian Folktale (1989) by Jan Brett
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters: An African Tale (1987) by John Steptoe
The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) by Virginia Hamilton
Rumpelstiltskin (1986) by Paul O. Zelinsky
Stone Soup (1947) by Marcia Brown
Swamp Angel (1994) by Anne Issacs
Zen Shorts (2005) by John Muth

Many stories carry similar plots and patterns found in other cultures, but may have variants in the characters and settings that are unique. Most children are familiar with Trina Schart Hyman’s (1982) version of Little Red Riding House. However, Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China (1989) by Ed Young is an excellent version set in China. The Gingerbread Man is another great story with multicultural retellings available.

cinderellaIt’s fun to pick out the differences and similarities in a Chinese or Icelandic retelling of Cinderella, for example, although it can be a shock if you don’t know that’s the basis of the plot when you start reading the book. Cinderella stories have been retold in cultures around the world. Compare a couple of the examples below:

Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story (2002) by Tomie dePaola
Cendrillon: A Cajun Cinderella (1998) by Sheila Hébert-Collins - Cajun American
Cinderella (2005) retold by Barbara McClintock - French
The Egyptian Cinderella (1989) retold by Shirley Climo - Egyptian
The Gift of the Crocodile (2000) retold by Judy Sierra - Indonesian
The Golden Sandal (1999) retold by Rebecca Hickox - Middle Eastern
The Irish Cinderlad (1996) by Shirley Climo - Irish
The Korean Cinderella (1993) bu Shirley Climo - Korean
The Way Meat Loves Salt (1998) retold by Nina Jaffe - Jewish
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (1987) retold by John Steptoe - African
The Persian Cinderella (1999) by Shirley Climo - Persian
The Rough-Face Girl (1992) retold by Rafe Martin - Native American
Smoky Mountain Rose (2000) retold by Alan Schroeder - American
The Turkey Girl: A Zuni Cinderella Story (1996) by Ed Young - Native American
Yeh-Shen (1990) retold by Ai-Ling, Louie - Chinese

try itTry It!
Go to the Cinderella Around the World project to explore a school project that explored various versions of Cinderella. Think about a project you could coordinate using another popular theme. Go to the Folk and Fairy Tales Varient page from the Allen County Public Library for lots of examples of other classic fairy tale stories.

Religious Perspectives

noahTales based on religious beliefs such as the stories of Moses and Noah’s Ark fall under the umbrella of traditional literature, and not just those from the Judeo-Christian faiths. Noah’s Art (2002) by Jerry Pinkney is an example.

Having knowledge of the Bible as literature is important to western cultures so statements like “the patience of Job,” “toppling like the walls of Jericho,” and numerous other Biblical references in contemporary literature and conversation can be understood.

In this day where religion plays such an important part in world politics, it is important for children to understand other faiths as well. Many traditional literature books for children can help youth become aware of these differences from an early age.

For instance, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors (2012) by Hena Khan and Mehrdokht Amini is a wonderful way to introduce the world of Islam to young readers.

Read Sanders, Jennifer, Foyil, Kris & Graff, Jennifer M. (2010). Conveying a stance of religious pluralism in children’s literature. Children’s Literature in Education, 41, 168–188.


Read Lambert, Megan (November/December 2013). Faith in reading. Horn Book, 55-59.

Modern Takes on Traditional Literature

Many authors have enjoyed playing with traditional literature. While some writers simply adapt the themes to new environments, others completely reinvent the tales or give them a new twist. For instance, The Spider and the Fly (2002) by Tony DiTerlizzi is an example of a classic story that has been retold through stunning visuals.

Diane Stanley (2004) is well-known for her stunning biography picture books, but she also reinterprets classic folktales like The Giant and the Beanstalk (2004), Goldie and the Three Bears (2003), and Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter (1997).

Unfortunately, some English adaptations of global folktales have rewritten the stories to reflect Western European values and story structures. In many cases, the cultural authenticity of these folktales is lost. For instance, Disney movie screenwriters have been accused of rewriting tales to fit the values of modern American culture.

Read Hsieh, Ivy Haoyin & Matoush, Marylou M. (2012). Filial Daughter, Woman Warrior, or Identity-Seeking Fairytale Princess: Fostering Critical Awareness Through Mulan. Children’s Literature in Education, 43, 213–222.

The Fairy Tale Detectives (2007+ series) by Michael Buckley immerse youth in the characters of the Brothers Grimm through mystery series focusing on the Sister’s Grimm and The Goose Girl (2003) by Shannon Hale is based on a Brother’s Grimm story.

The Interrupting Chicken (2010) by David Ezra Stein is a wonderful example of humor connecting modern and traditional stories. It’s bedtime and little red chicken is reading traditional stories familiar to most children. The participatory elements make children feel like they’re a part of a secret. Click the image below right to see a sample page.


Mo Willems reimagined a classic story renaming it Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (2012). Click the images below to read a couple sample pages. It's hilarious.


Jon Scieszka is known for reimagining classic works like the Three Little Pigs and the Frog Prince.

trueAuthor Spotlight: Jon Scieszka
Visit his author website.

The Frog Prince, Continued (1991)
The Book that Jack Wrote (1994)
Squids will be Squids (1998)
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992)
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs (1989)

try itTry It!
Go to Fairy Tales, Old and New from Madison Public Library. Notice the settings for the new versions of traditional stories. Think about how these new settings might appeal to particular youth.

The Benefits of Traditional Literature

Occasionally, parents and teachers may express concerns about the contents of folktales. It’s important to make them aware that these stories are unlikely to harm their children.

Tunnell (2012) identified four common concerns: psychological fantasy, violence, frightening for young children, and a waste of time. According to Tunnell (2012, 113),

“some adults fear that fantasy stories will lead children to be somehow out of touch with reality - to suffer from fantasy in the clinical, psychological sense of the word. Psychological fantasy - the inability of the mind to distinguish what is real - does not result from reading literary fantasy. In fact, children who read stories that contain unrealistic elements - animals that talk, magical events, time travel - are actually less at risk of losing touch with the realities of daily life.”

Tunnell (2012, 113) notes the concerns of critics who wonder if “violent acts in some traditional tales will breed violence in young children.” However, this concern is also unfounded. The research shows that children with “rich fantasy lives” aren’t more likely to be aggressive. Instead, most traditional stories model the cultural value of rewarding appropriate behavior.

While many traditional stories can be scary, Tunnell (2012) notes that the plot elements are far from the lives of children and are unlikely to cause “real-world” fears. Most traditional stories evoke a message of hope.

Finally, some adults feel that traditional stories are not important because they aren’t connected to the “real world”. However, it’s important to remember that fantasy can stimulate creativity and imagination in children.

Evaluation of Traditional Literature

Books chosen in this area, whether for the class assignment, for your own children or grandchildren, or for your library collection, should meet specific evaluation criteria to ensure the “tradition” of the traditional literature.

First, what do the professionals say in reviews and other selection guides? Materials chosen should always pass this initial test.

Disney and other publishers of movies and merchandise present a unique case for libraries. These stories are often based on traditional literature, but have been updated and “jazzed up” for today’s multimedia audience. Although they may not be the best works of literature, Disney’s characters and books are extremely popular. Reluctant readers may be willing to dive into a leveled reader focusing on stories associated with Frozen, Cars, or Toy Story. Keep in mind that the popularity of these books will quickly wane as the popularity of the movie diminishes.

Huck and Kiefer (2004, p. 244) outline the following six evaluation guidelines specific to folktales, including tall tales, fables, myths, epics, and religious stories:

Please keep these criteria in mind as you examine the different books that you critique.

For lots of journal articles related to fairytales, go to Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies.


Bettelheim, B. (1976). The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf.

East, Kathy & Thomas, Rebecca L. (2007). Across Cultures: A Guide to Multicultural Literature for Children. Libraries Unlimited. Available as eBook through IUPUI.

Huck, C. S., & Kiefer, B. Z. (2004). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, 8th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Irwin, Marilyn (2013). Materials for Youth. Lecture notes.

Stoodt, Barbara (1996). Children’s Literature. Macmillian Education.

Tunnell, Michael O., Jacobs, James S., Young, Terrell A., & Bryan, Gregory (2012). Children’s Literature, Briefly. Fifth Edition. Pearson.

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