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Researching the Folktale

By Aaron Shepard

Excerpted from The Business of Writing for Children, Shepard Publications, 2019, and also printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, Feb.–Mar. 1996

For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriting Page at www.aaronshep.com.

Copyright © 1996, 2000, 2004, 2013, 2019 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.

Folktale retellers are being watched. Editors, reviewers, and librarians are demanding greater authenticity in retellings, along with documentation of sources. And retellers must watch themselves as well, to avoid infringing copyright law.

What it all means is that retellers must conduct more thorough research than ever before, both for sources and for cultural background.

Where Did It Come From?

When you come across a folktale you might like to retell, your first question should be, “Where did this story come from?” Did the author collect the story firsthand? If so, there will probably be some mention of that in an introduction, foreword, or author note.

But most folktales in children’s collections are retold from earlier versions. (Often the author was not as careful about copyright law as you should try to be!) Your job then is to trace the story back to its earliest printed source. This is the version that will be most authentic, because someone did collect it firsthand.

If you’re lucky, the book where you first read the folktale will have a note to identify the source or sources used by the author. But usually you’ll need to search for these on your own. And even if a source note was provided, you may be able to find other and possibly better sources than the author’s.

A word of caution: Many original stories are written in a folktale style, and some of these may even falsely claim to be folktales. An experienced student of folklore can usually tell the difference, but most people can’t. This makes it all the more important to search for a source.

The Long Arm of the Law

Authenticity is not the only reason to search for the earliest printed version. You are also trying to step out of reach of the long arm of the law—the copyright law, that is.

Many people believe that folktales cannot be copyrighted. It’s true that the tale itself is in the public domain, but how the tale is retold belongs to the author. For instance, the author is likely to have named a character, created dialog, or modified a plot incident. Original elements like these are covered by copyright, and for as long as the story is legally protected, you’re not supposed to use them.

To avoid problems, then, work with at least one version that is no longer in copyright and that you can use as your primary source. If that’s not possible, you might work with several distinct versions—retellings from different firsthand sources—in order to reconstruct the tale in generic form.

In most countries, copyright protection is figured simply to last for the author’s lifetime plus a set number of years beyond. In Canada, for instance, it’s the author’s lifetime plus 50 years; in the United Kingdom, it’s lifetime plus 70. In the United States, though, copyright has changed greatly over time, making the situation much more complex. Here are the basics for works originally published in the United States. (Note: This information is based on U.S. copyright law as of 2019 but should not be taken as definitive legal advice. For confirmation, details, and updates, visit the U.S. Copyright Office online, at www.loc.gov/copyright).

In the U.S., works can be said to fall into one of three periods, depending on when they were first published or copyrighted.

  • Later period. Most works with a copyright date of 1978 or later are protected for the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. That means they’re protected at least till 2048. After that, determining their status may mean first figuring out if the author is still alive, and if not, then the date of death—all of which may be hard or impossible to find for all but the most prominent authors.

  • Early period. Any works that were published before 1978 and are over 95 years old are definitely out of copyright. Fair game. Free and clear. For example, as of January 1, 2019 (the year I’m updating this information), works are out of copyright if published before 1924. On January 1, 2020, it will be works published before 1925. And so on until 2073, when all works published before 1978 will have fallen out of copyright.

  • Middle period. Works copyrighted before 1978 that are not over 95 years old may still be protected—depending on whether the original copyright was renewed after 28 years, as was then required for extension. Actually, for works first copyrighted from 1964 on, that renewal was later made automatic—but for earlier copyrights, the publisher or author would have had to re‑register on their own. And often that didn’t happen, because the publisher or author was no longer around, or because they believed the work had no further commercial value.

For many such works, the only way to check for a renewal is to conduct a copyright search. You can get information on this by downloading the Copyright Office’s Circular 22, “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work.” Nowadays, the records you must examine are posted online, so searching on your own has become much easier. You can start with the copyright records information section of The Online Books Page, at digital.library.upenn.edu/books/cce.

Of course, whatever country you live in, its copyright laws will apply to any works written and first published there. But what if a work comes from another country? If you’re publishing in your home country, then its laws still apply—but under those laws, the protection granted to foreign works may differ from the protection for native ones. In the United States, for example, works from some countries are not protected at all! For most countries, though, you can figure that U.S. law protects any work from the later or middle period but none from the early one.

If you’re publishing outside your home country, then you’re subject to the copyright laws of the country where you’re publishing, not where you live. For example, say you’re American and you retell a story you found in a British book published a century earlier. You could legally publish your retelling in the U.S., and that edition could even be sold to booksellers or readers in the United Kingdom. But if you also published or even just had it printed in the U.K., you might still be infringing copyright law there, depending on how long the author lived.

The Search for Sources

In general, your goal is to find as many sources as possible, and the earliest ones possible. The more sources you have, and the more authentic they are, the better you can see what in the tale is essential, what can or should be modified, and what options are available for manipulating it.

This search for sources will usually include standard folktale bibliographic references. One or more of the following will be on the reference shelf at most larger libraries:

The Storyteller’s Sourcebook, Margaret Read MacDonald.

Index to Fairy Tales, Mary Eastman/Norma Ireland. An index to collections.

Annotated Bibliography and Index to Single Editions, Elsie Ziegler. An index to picture books.

The Types of the Folktale, Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson.

The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, Stith Thompson.

The first two sources will be the most useful to retellers. The two Stith Thompson indexes are best suited to multilingual scholars, but you would do well to study his one‑volume overview, The Folktale.

Often you will find that the retellers of tales of a particular part of the world have mostly based their work on a mere handful of older, authoritative, adult sources, and sometimes on a single book. Such a book may have been compiled, for instance, by a British resident of an African colony at the turn of the twentieth century, or by a north European nationalist scholar searching for his literary heritage in the late 1900s.

You can identify these treasure troves by looking for works often cited in source notes. Many are mentioned in Thompson’s The Folktale and in the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. It also pays to comb the shelves of major public and university libraries.

Much of my own later bibliographic research has been through online searches of major library catalogs. My favorite of these is MELVYL (melvyl.worldcat.org), which catalogs the collective book holdings of the many University of California campuses. When your catalog search uncovers a likely title, you can look online for a copy to buy, or order one from your local public library as an interlibrary loan.

Of course, when you find a prime source, you may find not only an earlier version of the folktale you’re researching but also new folktales you might retell.

The Quest for Context

Old‑time storytellers didn’t need to pause to explain details of custom or tradition found in their tales. They were telling their stories to people who knew those details quite well. Retellers, on the other hand, are writing for people who may have no inkling of them. So, retellers must make sure to understand the cultural context and then relay it to their readers.

A good deal of this background information, of course, can be found through online research. You might even find people in online groups or forums who can answer obscure questions from firsthand knowledge. But don’t forget that many older, invaluable resources will never find their way online. Your library, for instance, might have a travelogue written about your country of inquiry from the days before Third World modernization.

Don’t Forget to Write

You’ve done the research and retold the tale. But don’t leave it there. Follow up by writing a great author note. Impress us with your obscure sources. Enlighten us with interesting cultural details. Maybe even tell us how to say the names. Reviewers and librarians will give you higher marks, and your books will be more useful in the classroom.

Go ahead and show off a little. You’ve earned it.

Book cover: The Business of Writing for Children
Read the book!

The Business of Writing for Children
An Author’s Inside Tips on Writing Children’s Books and Publishing Them
By Aaron Shepard

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