In the world of Story, heroes are strong and true, able to overcome giants, witches, and their own egos. Cleverness, more than brute strength, is often the means to winning. Evil will raze the land, but good will always defeat the shadows with light. In our own fragmented world where nothing seems to make sense, we turn to Story to be comforted by the familiar structure that rewards goodness with happiness, effort with success, and hope with love.
The American Library Association understood the importance of universal storytelling when they awarded the 1925 Newbery Medal to Charles Finger for Tales from Silver Lands and the 1926 Newbery Medal to Arthur Bowie Chrisman for Shen of the Sea. Both of these books stand out as exemplary literature that capture the essence of what makes a story worth telling.
Tales from Silver Lands is a collection of folktales from the Indians of South America. Finger gathered these stories himself by setting out on adventures across South America, and it clear from his writing that he deeply respected, and was fascinated by, the culture of the Indians. His book is a generous mixture of twice-told tales, hero stories, and magical occurrences. Truths are revealed within the narrative of the stories that give readers a glimpse into the values of the Indian’s culture. Nature in all its glory is lauded in rich prose throughout the stories with a sense of appreciation for all creatures and plants. (After all, you never know when the animals of the forest might save your hide from a gruesome witch!) The importance of hard work and industry are trademarks of these stories, showcased in The Tale of the Lazy People, whose sloth is rewarded by an army of wooden manikins who take over their village, and then become monkeys. This tale especially resonates in our modern world of autonomous robots only years away, according to sci-fi literature. As a departure from Western tales, where wishes are awarded with the fulfillment of all the dreamer’s hopes, Finger’s stories show the dangers of wishing. Oscar Wilde expressed the risks beautifully by saying: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what you want. The other is getting it." In The Bad Wishers, a mother wishes for children, only to see her wishes go awry when her children are born. However, through many trials and tribulations, a happy ending is orchestrated for this unfortunate family to fit the fairy tale framework.
Like Finger, Chrisman shares the cultural philosophy of his subject, the Chinese people, within Shen of the Sea. As a young man, Chrisman set out on an adventure, ending up in California. There he befriended a Chinese shopkeeper, who fascinated him by sharing stories about demons, emperors, fools, and dragons. Throughout the stories, Chrisman shares little details with the reader to make the world of ancient China come to life. Respecting your elders is paramount in his stories, as seen in Buy a Father. In Buy a Father, a young orphan joins his new father, only to be given impossible tasks and mistreatment. However, the orphan’s pleasant disposition and respectful attitude pays off when the father turns out to be the Emperor. Even a wicked child like Ah Mee (in Ah Mee’s Invention) listens to the stern warning from his father not to play dragons in his honorable uncle’s cabbage patch, and forbids himself from even thinking of loongs (dragons). Instead, he plays elephant. Ah Mee is also credited to be the accidental inventor of printing. (Check out Chop-sticks to find out why Chopsticks became all the rage or Ah Tcha the Sleeper to discover the origins of tea.) Fate holds great power in these stories, where portents and signs are taken very seriously. In How Wise were the Old Men, the wise men predict that the birth of Meng Hu was a bad omen (mei chi), which seems to be true until Meng Hu uses his fate to his benefit. Similarly, in The Moon Maiden, a terrible threat to the princess’s life leads Prince Ting Tzun to his own love, the Moon Maiden. While one cannot outrun their fate, somehow these characters can find loopholes in their dark futures and cleverly trick their way into happy endings.
Both of these collections are replete with wisdom from worlds of the past, expressed through the language, culture, and history of these cultures. By using the South American and Chinese narrative style and language, both authors retain the tone of oral storytelling that inspired these stories. After reading these collections, we should be motivated to tell our own stories because each of us has a tale to tell.
I can’t wait to hear yours.