F O L K L O R E
C H I L D R E N S' B O O K S
P O E T R Y
I can't claim credit for the heart of this story, just for discovering it in an old book of folklore and retelling it for children. This a folktale from Cameroon, Africa, features a bully of an elephant who wins wrestling matching with a crocodile, a leopard, and a rhinoceros, then falls victim to a very small opponent. It deserves to be reread and reheard for the wisdom it contains.
Read by Bob Kaminski.
Do unto ogres . . . . This is a very nasty ogre from Charles Perrault's "Petit Poucet" (Histoires ou contes du temps passé, 1697). Seven brothers arrive at this ogre's door after their parents lose them—on purpose—in the woods. Seven boys? What a coincidence! This ogre has seven daughters. But dinner, not marriage, is in the offing. The ogre feeds the boys and tucks them into a bed next to his daughters' bed. The youngest boy, Petit Poucet ("Little Thumbling") notices that the girls wear golden crowns. When the ogre leaves the room, Petit Poucet puts the boys caps on the girls, the girls' crowns on boys. After dark, when the ogre comes to slit the throats of Petit Poucet and his brothers, he feels the sleeping childrens' heads, and slits his daughters' throats instead. Eager to destroy the children of strangers, the ogre destroys his own family.
A miller dies, and all he leaves his youngest son is a cat—but a very smart cat. Puss has a plan to transfer the property of an odious ogre to his master. He lays the trap carefully, then tricks the ogre into showing off his power to change size and shape. Can the ogre turn into a fierce lion? Yes, and he does. But can the ogre turn himself into something small—a tiny mouse? More vain than cautious, the ogre takes the bait, and down into Puss's stomach he goes.
Perrault's "moralité" at the end of the tale: "There is a great advantage in receiving a large inheritance, but hard work and ingenuity are worth more than wealth acquired from others."
Ogres in folk and fairy tales go by many names: troll, giant, zim, raksasa—on and on. Every culture has stories about big bullying brutes who threaten ordinary people. Through folktales, storytellers have passed along accumulated wisdom about this character type.
Take "Jack and the Beanstalk," for example. The giant lives in the clouds, high above everyone else. He hoards gold. He shouts nonsense ("Fee, fi, fo, fum!). He threatens ("I'll grind your bones to make my bread"). He might seem invincible. But wait! Storytellers encourage listeners (especially children) to think like Jack, to use their skills and their wits. Jack is nimble and quick. The giant is slow and bumbling. Jack's ace-in-the-hole is that the giant's wife (or mother) is on Jack's side, right from the beginning. She sympathizes with her husband's victims—she is one of them.
I love folktales in which a heroine or hero goes on a quest and meets just the right helpers along the way. These popular tales send a clear message—go after your dreams, don't worry that you are too young, too old, too small, or too weak. You will find friends who will help you. You will be stronger together!
Tasty Baby Belly Buttons is about a girl who was born magically from a watermelon, much to the delight of a childless couple. It is a variant of the well-known Japanese tale of Momotaro, blended with another classic, The Melon Princess. I found this unusual version in a volume of academic folklore and spun it out into a picture book.
How to bring down an ogre? The melon princess, Urikohime, takes her dog, and a pheasant, and a monkey on a mission to defeat some baby-stealing ogres. She and her companions are so small that their attacks on the ogres cause the bullies to bash, bop, and stomp themselves into submission.
The recording below is by my friend, Jeffrey Allen. Text is copyright 1999 Judy Sierra.
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.