Picture Books: Folk Tale or Modern Story?


This post was originally published as “When Folktales Fail: Modernize Your Picture Book” Children’s Writer. December, 2005.

Picture books: Folk Tale or Modern Story?

Despite several sales of picture book manuscripts, I still receive many rejections. Why? That’s what I recently set out to learn.

My search began with an article by Jill Paton Walsh, the grande dame of British children’s literature. In an article in the Horn Book (January/February 2003, pages 21-27), she contrasted characters in folktales and modern stories. Folktales deal with characters in their family roles—mother, father, child, sibling. The stories themselves are often symbolic and defy rational analysis. The Billy Goats Gruff are just goats in a certain birth order, nothing more and nothing less. Cinderella has a stepmother and two stepsisters, but we know very little else about any of these characters.

In contrast, Walsh says, modern stories present characters in a reasoned narration, and not just as filling familial roles, “but as free autonomous spirits, whose destiny is personal fulfillment, Each characters is “. . . a unique individual with a unique personality, quirks and characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and a lively inner world of his or her own” (pp. 26-27). In a current version of Cinderella, the young woman must be reborn with a strong individual personality, as she is in the movie “Ever After,” for instance. Here, Cinderella loves the land, has a passion for life and learning that surprises and delights the Prince. She doesn’t need a rescuer because she’s strong enough to stand up to the villain herself; in fact, she rescues the Prince from the gypsies with her wit.

Character Arc

Walsh’s ideas have immense implications for picture books. I’ve written stories in which the role of the character is important, not the individual personality of the character: They don’t sell. Modern stories celebrate the individual as unique, with well-rounded characterization. Listen to these comments from my rejection letters:

  • Dutton: “I’m afraid I can’t offer it a place on our list because we aren’t having much luck with folktales in the current market.”
  • Harcourt: “It’s hard to distinguish the voice of each character; they both sound rather generic. . . . I find the narrative voice rather distancing; I don’t respond to the girl as a character.”
  • Scholastic: “I didn’t feel that the narrators developed enough depth and personality to make the ending truly resonate for me.”

When I first wrote a manuscript called Paul Allen, everything in it was in the folktale mode. Characters related to their environment and to each other in terms of roles: A small boy finds imaginative ways to fill his days. Beyond his imaginative skills, I did no character development, wrongly believing it not necessary in a picture book.

19 Girls and MeAfter thinking about the difference in folktale mode and modern mode characters, I rewrote it as Nineteen Girls and Me ( Philomel, 2006). It’s a story about friendship in a kindergarten classroom with nineteen girls and one lone boy. John Hercules Po (new name because he’s now an individual!) is an individual with a unique problem that he solves in unique ways. His big brother teases him that those girls will turn him into a sissy. John Hercules worries about this and the reader understands more of his inner life. In the end, he rejects his brother’s ideas and proclaims that he has “nineteen friends.” He now has a character arc.

Beyond Premise

About plot, Walsh says, folktales must be understood as symbolic, not rational. She cites the story of Oedipus, who kills his father and marries his mother: “If ever a story was symbolic, this is it; but in the moral universe of the modern world it does not make sense.” In Cinderella, Walsh points out all the illogic, the incoherency—sitting in ashes, a father who does nothing to help a beloved daughter, dancing in a glass slipper that is the only piece of finery to remain after midnight, a prince who can’t remember the face of the girl he danced with the night before.

Rational dissection, Walsh says, doesn’t work for a folktale. When I read that, I wanted to cheer! This is exactly how I’ve felt when editors read and comment on my stories:

  • Greenwillow: Parts of the story are hard to believe.”
  • Harcourt: “Many of the reasons behind plot events or characters’ actions are rather unbelievable or seem undeveloped.”
  • Dial: “I’m afraid the plot had substantial logic problems. “
  • Candlewick: “I’m sorry not to have been more convinced by the story.”

If the stories were considered as folktales—if my characters are fulfilling designated family roles and the stories are symbolic—then the logic or lack of it shouldn’t be a problem. But in reality, editors consider stories as rational, believable, developed, convincing. Sadly, none of my folktale approach picture book stories have sold. Walsh’s article helped me to understand why: I need a new paradigm.

In some ways, I’m rephrasing an old problem. A story premise and a plot are two different things. The premise is the idea that sparks a story and the plot is what actually happens. But it goes deeper, to the heart of character. Cinderella has a plot with a strong beginning, middle and end. But she’s never pulled out of that folktale role. Today’s stories demand a character who is an individual, not a stand-in for a certain role. In Nineteen Girls and Me, I changed a “creative kid” role into a boy stuck in kindergarten without any other boys for a friend. His creativity–instead of being the point of the story–became a character quality that propels him toward a resolution of his problem.

Along these lines, it’s fascinating to read Donna Jo Napoli’s novels, which are full length novel retellings of folktales and see how she develops realistic characters and takes care of the necessity for the story logic to be impeccable. In Zel, Rapunzel has the same roles as the folktale and the plot is familiar. But a new paradigm–Rapunzel’s inner life–dominates this version.

What I had been looking for in my picture books was a fairy godmother who could make my stories shine like a glass slipper. But maybe I don’t need her help any longer. With my new paradigm, I just need to sit down with my characters and have a nice long chat about what’s really going on with them.

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  • Ruth McNally Barshaw
    September 9, 2008

    Brilliant, Darcy. I always love your analysis and dissection of writing, craft and process.

  • Dave Morris
    July 1, 2009

    Why do fairy tales work? The original Andrew Lang kind, I mean. Because they are over-determined. Into those archetypal “role” characters – the orphan, the stepsister – we can imprint our own selves.

    Modern Western life is all about the individual, and so readers demand stories about very specific characters. We could say this is a failure of modern readers’ imaginations. You know how, as a child, your parents can tell you a story about “a little boy” or “a little girl” and you know it’s about you. As a young child you can make that leap. But even a few years of character-specific TV and movie drama, and most of us lose that ability.

    Where The Wild Things Are wouldn’t sell today. Editors would say, “We don’t know enough about why Max is so naughty” and “We need to see his relationship with his parents” and “What is Max trying to achieve?” Same thing with Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman. Yet it is the very simplicity of characterization that allows millions of readers to recognize and identify with these characters. I wonder if editors now are too blinkered by literary theory.

  • dirtywhitecandy
    July 1, 2009

    Publishing is a bizarre and inconsistent world. While picture book editors are now demanding central characters with complex motivations, YA novels seem to be going the other way. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight features a narrator who is little more than a proxy for the reader to experience a romantic adventure.

    Love your site, Darcy – your analyses are clear, insightful and inspiring.