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The Art of Retelling

By Aaron Shepard

Printed in the SCBWI Bulletin, June–July 1995


For more resources, visit Aaron Shepard’s Storytelling Page at
www.aaronshep.com/storytelling

Copyright © 1995 by Aaron Shepard. May be freely copied and shared for any noncommercial purpose as long as no text is altered or omitted.


Folktales are a mainstay of picture book publishing and always will be. Yet converting a folktale to a picture book story is tricky at best. The reteller must capably fill three distinct and often conflicting roles: Storyteller, Folklorist, and Author.

Storyteller

The Storyteller understands and appreciates the world of the folktale. It is a world of external action and concrete symbol. The story is presented in bold strokes, with little descriptive detail, and language must be simple, direct, and lively. Characters seldom have names, but if they do, the names are the most common possible, or the most magical. Though the structure is sometimes complex, it is almost always linear: first this happened, then this, then this.

The Storyteller also knows that a folktale is not a static object, but an evolving and adapting organism. Most folktales can be found in different versions all over the world, because master storytellers have heard them from travelers and customized them for a home audience. Within a culture, too, a folktale has development. Passing from mouth to mouth, it deteriorates as details are forgotten or garbled. Yet sooner or later it is picked up by another master storyteller capable of recreating it.

It is the duty and joy of all Storytellers to improve a tale if they can, to pass it on better than they received it. It might mean the replacement of an obviously missing motif with one from a parallel version. Or the addition of a catchy phrase or verse. Or a magical name for the main character. Or a more satisfying ending. But when an enduring tale is made even stronger, there is cause for rejoicing in the worldwide family of Storytellers—past, present, and future.

Folklorist

To the Storyteller, a folktale is universal and an end in itself. But to the Folklorist—as to the educators and librarians who are the main buyers of these books—a retelling is an opportunity to accurately represent and educate about another culture. So even as the Storyteller strives to lift a tale to a higher level, the Folklorist looks on sternly and says, “Mustn’t stray too far! It’s not your story!”

But the relationship is not entirely adversarial, because the methodical-minded Folklorist happily takes on the drudge work that holds little interest for the Storyteller. The Folklorist loves nothing better than to search library shelves, standard references, and online catalogs for the oldest and most authentic sources of folktales. Nor does the Folklorist mind the hours spent in the study of a culture to get all the details right.

It is one of the greatest joys of the Folklorist to produce a detailed author note on the sources and cultural context of the story—documentation increasingly demanded and scrutinized by educators and librarians. Here too the Folklorist helps the Storyteller. If the critical reader can be dazzled with thorough research and an extensive source listing, the Storyteller’s alterations can more easily slip by.

Author

Even as the Storyteller and the Folklorist bicker between themselves, both must deal also with the Author.

The Author says, “Folktale or not, it still has to meet the requirements of a picture book story! We’ll have to shorten and simplify it. The violence must be toned down, and the sex will have to go. All right, the main character can be older than the reader, but he or she still has to solve the problem and grow as a result. The story must have a theme!”

Ah, yes, a theme. Picture book stories, like most fine modern literature, are driven by theme. Folktales, on the other hand, are driven by motif, and most have no theme whatever. Of course, this doesn’t bother the Storyteller or the Folklorist. But the Author can’t abide it, and neither can any English-major-turned-editor.

It is exactly here that the Author’s most important contribution is made. Ignoring the protests of the Folklorist, the Author must sift the folktale, and from a hint here and a glimmer there, create a theme! And all at once a loosely-related string of events becomes a unified story, a “slight” tale becomes a sellable manuscript.

So it goes: Storyteller, Folklorist, Author, all jockeying for position and protecting their turf. But if somehow they work out their differences and the tale emerges whole, then the Storyteller dances for joy, the Folklorist grins, and the Author sighs in relief.

The folktale is retold!