Monday, May 17, 2010

The Moral of the Story Is . . .

"Do not moralize."
"Do not try to teach a lesson."
For years, writers for children have heard this advice. And yet, some of the popular classics for the youngest audience moralize - THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT, THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY, or THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. Ouch! That moralizing is painfully overt.

For the last year, I've been fascinated by researching and retelling folktales. What about the morals in folktales? They can be in-your-face like that little engine chugging over the mountain, or they can be more complex. Consider two pourquoi stories with very different explanations of why bears hibernate.

The American folktale paints the bear as a mean, loud mouth bully. Sick of the bear, one fall night the animals of the forest wait for it to climb into a hollow tree stump and fall asleep. They stuff the stump's opening with tree branches and rocks to keep it dark inside and rejoice because they're rid of the bossy bear. In spring, the animals wonder if the bear is still alive. When they remove the tree branches and rocks, sunlight wakes the bear. Now it gets complicated because the bear announces his long sleep pleased him; it's the most comfortable winter he's ever had. Are we to believe him, or is he saying that, as a bully might, to save face?

So the bully bear gets months of time out for anti-social behavior, but he says he's happy. What's the underlying moral if we believe the bear? Revenge doesn't pay? And if we don't believe the bear, or leave out the bear's dialogue in the retelling, what then? Bullies get what they deserve?

The other folktale is from Lapland. In this story, a helpful bear performs a kind deed and as a reward Ukko the Thunder God grants the bear the gift of winter sleep. Bears will no longer need to worry about searching the frozen tundra for food during the long winter. This is an uncomplicated story. The kind bear is rewarded for thoughtful behavior. The underlying moral is simple. Straightforward.

I sold the retold tale from Lapland to Highlights.

But I'm still figuring out how to retell the other story. There is something super satisfying about playing a trick on a bully, but how do I deal with that bear?


  1. Hmm. Maybe the bear is making the best of his situation. He's been put in time out . . . but he realizes that since he's stuck there, he'll make the best of it.

    Congrats on selling your story to Highlights!


  2. Yay for another Highlights sale!

    I don't like the sounds of the American folktale, lol. Doesn't seem like there's any moral there. But in your skilled hands, I'm sure you can spin it right!

  3. First of all, congrats on your latest Highlights sale!

    Second, I think the bear wasn't a bully by nature, he was only grouchy because he was so tired. (I know how he feels.) The other animals unknowingly solved the bear's problem by sending him into his first hibernation. I think the moral is, nature has a wonderful, organic way of solving everything.

    So whaddaya think?

  4. Hardygirl, Robin, and J.L.,

    Thanks for the different thoughts about the bully bear story.

    There is always one more possibility and Robin sort of touched on it - maybe that story isn't worth retelling for a young audience and I should move on!

  5. Hmmm. Okay, who is the real bully here? The bear may be a mean, loud mouth, but stuffing him in a tree stump all winter long? I say, give 'em all a time out!

  6. Besides getting a good long sleep. is the bear a nicer, kinder guy, having learned a lesson or just rested ? - which can also be a plus as Janice suggests.

    Part of the moral could be that the rest of the forest animals have teamed together to stand up to a bully (if that is what the bear is). Children do need to learn to calmly protect themselves from bullies so this could be part of a gentle lesson.

    Highlights ! Wonderful news!

  7. I think J.A. has a point - a pox on both their houses.

    Eileen, thanks for your thoughts. More to ponder.