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and clunk clunk clunk went the folktale market

aardema_bringing the rain to kapiti plainBetsy Bird at Fuse #8 is rightfully mourning the relative dearth of African folktale publishing and simultaneously celebrating one of its legends from the glory days, Verna Aardema. All I can say is God bless Verna Aardema, who knew just how to write a picture-book text that would bring any library story hour to life. Authentic? Not especially; as Barbara Bader wrote for us back in 2007, “in writing picture books, with their special needs, [Aardema] did more than adapt the stories — she pretty much remade them.” But she did something else, too: “Aardema lit upon juicy stories, in a variety of forms, from a number of tribal cultures. In her hands, they didn’t sound alike, and with a judicious selection of illustrators by Atha Tehon and other art directors, they didn’t look alike. Heterogeneous and vigorously alive, Aardema’s improbable body of work was absorbed into the omni-American experience.”

I don’t know if #weneeddiversebooks would characterize Aardema’s as counting as such, but here’s hoping folktale publishing can get a bump from somewhere. While the meta-hijinks begun years ago  by the Jolly Postman and his bratty little brother Stinky Cheese show no signs of abatement, the publishing of traditional tales has been, as Betsy points out, largely left to smaller houses. Holly Hobbie has just published a very beautiful “Hansel and Gretel” with Little, Brown, and what’s so surprising about it is its utter lack of divergence from Grimm. I kept expecting to see Little Red Riding Hood hove into view or a joke about vegan gingerbread or something. Northrop Frye says irony is supposed to lead us back into myth but HOW LONG MUST WE WAIT?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Verna Aardema was a Michigan author from Muskegon. Untold years ago, I had my first book signing (The Bigger Book of Lydia ) at my local indie bookstore with her. She was fabulous and elderly and so kind to me. I was a total newbie who had never signed a book before and I will never forget her kindness. Her books are irreplaceable. And yes, I am sad, sad, sad about the clunking folktale market. Children need them, everyone needs them.

  2. This makes me sad and angry. Folk tales are not just cute bedtime stories, they represent the history of people and their ancestors—their cultural identity. Right now there are dozens if not hundreds of Native American communities whose stories and languages are being lost to time. All it takes is one generation’s failure to pass the stories on to their children for a story to die. The children are the next generation of storytellers. My husband works with some of these groups who are desperate to keep their culture alive, and their language from going extinct. Their elders are taking their identities to the grave with them. It’s a real problem.

  3. Sounds like a potential National Endowment for the Arts grant program to me (if the NEA has any budget whatsoever these days….)

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