Seal Image The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

Normally The Big Picture would occupy this space, but without an August issue there is no Big Picture to be had. Instead we thought we'd try to get everyone into the mood for our forthcoming Bulletin Storytelling Review by treating you to some of our editor's thoughts about storytelling today. Of course, if you're still aching for a Big Picture, you can also check out our archive for pieces from previous months.

Thoughts on Traditional Literature and Storytelling in Libraries
by Janice Del Negro

I first came to traditional literature in what might be considered a mundane venue--the public library. The Throgs Neck Branch of the New York Public Library in the Bronx, to be precise. There was a librarian there, a formidable woman. She was tall, black, and imposing--or maybe that was because I was none of those things. She was stern--or maybe that was because I was young. I never knew her name, but she knew mine.

Looking back on it from the perspective of a youth services librarian, I realize that she had an odd but effective way of doing reader advisory. I would come into the library to return my books. We were only allowed to check out six books at a time, and only from the children's section, at least until we were twelve. I would come into the library and she would say, "Good afternoon, Miss Del Negro." I would mumble something completely unintelligible. She would examine the titles I had returned, and, not really looking at me, not really giving it too much visible attention, she would wave her hand toward a table in the children's room saying, "There are some books over there you might like." I always looked. And I always liked them. I had some strange idea about reading through all the fiction in alphabetical order. I made a pretty good dent in it. And then one day she came over to me and said, "I think you should look at these" and she pointed me at the 398s. I read them all. Eleanor Farjeon, Andrew Lang, Joseph Jacobs, Sorche Nic Leodhas, Ashley Bryan. After the 398s came the 292s-Padraic Colum, Edith Hamilton- and I was thoroughly and firmly hooked. When I found out there were actually branch libraries--what a novel idea--and that I could get to them with a bus pass, I checked out the 398s and 292s in every branch library I could get to by bus or train. That's a pretty fair number of libraries. And a pretty fair number of 398s and 292s.

Years later I found myself in graduate library school, planning on specializing in academic libraries. I got an assistantship in the department, and met the second librarian that shaped my life. I do remember her name: Margaret Poarch. She'd been an army librarian before becoming a professor of children's literature. She was from the American South--two of her favorite phrases were "My country tis of thee!" and, "Honey, don't get me started..." My job as Margaret's assistant consisted, among other, less important things, of pulling books for her classes. I pulled truckloads of them. And every time I did, I would say, "Gosh, Margaret, I remember this book--I read it when I was a kid." After about three weeks of this, Margaret finally turned to me and said "Honey, you don't want to be an academic librarian. Academic libraries are borin'. You are a children's librarian, if not born then bred." My fate was sealed in that tiny office in the Genesee Valley. It was Margaret that first introduced me to storytelling, and, when I was nearly crippled by stage fright, it was Margaret that told me it was the story that mattered, not the teller. "Know the story," she said. "If you know the story well enough, the rest will take care of itself. It's the story that matters, not the teller." That phrase has stayed with me all these years. It shaped the librarian, the storyteller, and the reviewer that I became.

There was a time when I thought I'd stop telling stories. In the early eighties, there was a serious, explosive, and deadly debate in the storytelling community regarding the ownership of stories. The discussion continues today. (The storytelling listserv, storytell, out of Texas Women's University, recently had a long and intense exchange about who had the right to tell what story--not only what story, but the retelling of the story, its content and its delivery.) The original discussion had, to put it mildly, a chilling effect on the creativity of many talented storytellers, both in the library and out of it.

A century of storytelling in the library oral tradition is our heritage as youth services librarians. This heritage includes literary tales memorized with love and care, personal tales from our own lives, folktales from oral and written sources, and anything that promotes a love of language and an appreciation of the power of the written and spoken word. Many librarians start collecting, promoting, and telling traditional stories because they hear a storyteller, feel a connection to the tale and the telling, and want to be a part of a remarkably resilient tradition. They know that using stories with children has a number of benefits, from the practical increase of attention spans to the lyrical soaring of the soul that occurs when art is experienced.

Storytelling, like folktales, speaks to the universality of the human condition. This universality enables the listener to relate to the teller and the tale. Youth Services librarians are in the unique and powerful position of providing and telling traditional tales to children. Ideally, we choose those tales that speak to us with emotional honesty, and we promote and tell them as honestly as possible. We tell African tales to Latino children and American Indian tales to Jewish children and Celtic legends, Appalachian tall tales, and Japanese ghost stories to children whose ethnicity we will never know, nor should it concern us. How will children find their way to stories from other cultures if youth services librarians do not share them? The public library has an oral storytelling tradition, and that tradition demands the sharing of the best we have to offer, including the tales from many cultures that are available now in better, more critically examined versions than ever before.

More critically examined versions than ever--now the reviewer speaks. We require more from traditional tales today. The criteria we use to evaluate them is more complex, more demanding than in the past, and well it should be. The librarian and the reviewer speak with the same voice-what is the source of this tale? Traditional literature is classified as non-fiction. Should we not demand the same integrity of sources for this literature that we demand for all non-fiction? We want to know where the tales come from, where the reteller got them, what inspiration the illustrator drew on to create the visual images that accompany them. Does the ethnicity of the reteller and illustrator affect the integrity of the tale? Maybe. Does a tale told from a particular culture by a member of that culture make it more authentic? Possibly. Do the demands of current political ideologies mean that the ethnicity of a reteller or illustrator should be a deciding issue in evaluating traditional material? Never.

We select books and tell stories in libraries for many reasons: to build bridges between childhood and adulthood, between language and reading, between one culture and another. In the tradition of the library professionals who have gone before us, we tell stories to keep the art of library storytelling alive.

As a profession we are sensitive to the diversity of our communities, and we demand a level of authenticity in the cultural materials we offer to the children we serve. The folktales we select for our shelves, the stories we choose to tell, should come from an informed source. If that source is an artist from the tale's originating culture, that may be a plus, but it is not a requirement. There is a political undertow that accompanies the evaluation of traditional literature for children--only individuals from a particular culture should write about that culture, tell the stories from that culture, or create the visual art that accompanies the text. Often the reason given is authentic perspective--how can anyone outside a particular cultural group really know what it is like? The "outsider's" perspective must be skewed, must be a misperception.

Among other things, this point of view suggests that there is no common ground for humanity, that different cultures are incapable of communicating with one another, that mistrust and miscommunication is the best we can hope for with other members of the human race. It suggests that the teller is more important than the tale, an idea clearly rejected by such library visionaries as Ruth Sawyer, Augusta Baker, Gudrun Thorne-Thompson, Charlemae Hill Rollins, and Margaret Poarch. It ignores the reality of the oral tradition, in or out of the public library. Our focus as librarians should be the education of the mind and the uplifting of the spirit, everyone's mind, and everyone's spirit. Traditional tales from many cultures are a staple in the library tradition, oral and otherwise. Telling only Latino tales to only Latino children is as ridiculous as saying that Asian children won't laugh at the Irish tale "Morgan and the Pot o' Brains," or that you should only tell African tales to white children in February. Libraries, particularly public libraries, are defined by inclusivity, not exclusivity, and that inclusivity extends to all areas of the profession, including selection, including collection development, including storytelling.

Is there a strict criteria to use when judging retellings of traditional material? Not always. If you're looking for a simple answer to this sort of evaluation, you won't get it from me. Each individual artistic work is entitled to critical evaluation based on its individual content, style, and delivery. What is acceptable to one political ideology may not be authentic according to the folklorist; what is authentic according to the folklorist may not be acceptable to the politically correct; and what children will like--what they will actually listen to, read, and enjoy--may not be acceptable to either of the preceding groups.

The children, remember them? Sometimes I think they are forgotten in the heat of discussion. There are reasons we collect and tell traditional stories in libraries, and the well-being of the children we serve is first and foremost. But there are other reasons. We do it because we believe in the power and authority of storytelling, because we have seen it work its magic on the most reluctant listeners. The library literature on the promotion and use of traditional literature is based on the underlying certainty that stories will lead children to books, and that books will lead children to richer, fuller lives. Storytelling gives us heroes--not robotic transformers and metamorphising rangers--but heroes and heroines who win with wit against the powerful, with humor against the self-satisfied, and with generosity of heart against evil self-interest. Storytelling creates a community of listeners from a group divided by age, gender, race, and economics. Promoting and telling tales from many cultures raises awareness of those cultures, and promotes pride in the cultural heritage of individual listeners. Telling tales from many cultures provides listeners with a common culture, a unity created from the diversity of many.

We must know as much as possible about the tales we select, the tales we tell and about the cultures from which they come. We must seek out the stories that speak to us, the stories that resonate within us, the stories that show us who we are. We must select, promote, and tell these stories with honesty and integrity, trusting, as did the library storytellers who came before us, in the power and value of the story, all by itself.

Janice M. Del Negro, Editor
(Adapted from a speech given at the Booklist Forum, ALA/NYC, 1996)

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This page was last updated on July 1, 1997.