How to Write an Adventure Folktale by Molly Bang

How to Write a Hero/ine Adventure Journey Folktale: A Manual for Teachers of Grades 8 and 9

First published in 1988

From the Introduction
I began teaching this course for two reasons...

One, writing and illustrating is a very solitary business, and I wanted to be with other people.

The second reason was peoples' questions about writing and illustrating. Over the years, many parents have told me how much they wanted to write something for their children, something better than what is 'out there', but they didn't know how to begin. Or people would ask, "How do you come up with your ideas?" "How do you draw so well?" The more I thought about it, the more I felt that I simply had access to and familiarity with certain patterns and structures that others weren't aware of, and that if I could just figure out what the patterns were and show them to people, everyone would be able to make stories and pictures that were meaningful. Our best work is not only meaningful to those who read or see it, it is the most meaningful to ourselves: it helps us to solve our troubles, assuage our pain, rejoice in our happiness and come to terms with our lives.

I first taught as a volunteer in the Falmouth Public Schools, in my daughter's third grade class. I gave the children a formula to follow—similar to the one I call the Hero/ine Adventure Journey—in which each child was the hero or heroine of his or her own story. I began to work out some of the structural principles of illustration and had the children use cutout construction paper to illustrate the stories they wrote. Luckily, I was also teaching with another volunteer mother, Shirley Wozena, who brought in Native American folktales and showed the class examples of sand-paintings and rugs and baskets, and talked about the symbolism of the pictures.

The children completed the project. It was clear that they understood the story structure to a large extent and could do what we asked, but somehow they weren't being touched to the core. They were much more interested in the precision of the Indian symbols, in making a key which explained the meaning of each symbol. They didn't like using cutout construction paper; cutting and pasting was an activity of first and second graders, and they were THIRD graders. They wanted to draw REAL things. They wanted to know about Native Americans, and knights and the Greeks; they wanted all the details. They wanted to use pens, pencils and magic markers—anything that made LINES—to draw unicorns, rainbows, princesses, rabbits (the girls), guns, rockets, tanks, knights and trucks (the boys). Maybe because Falmouth is on the sea, children of both sexes drew boats as well.

I still think folktales are appropriate for third graders—for any age. Writing a story based on a folktale pattern—be it a tall tale, a pourquoi tale, a trickster tale or whatever— gives children a recognizable structure within which to work, but it allows them to do anything and everything within that structure. A folktale enables each child to be the hero or heroine of his or her own story, and to go on journeys, face dangers, solve problems and return home safely at the end. It allows them to explore who they are and who they want to be. It is a structure that enables a process to happen.

The pattern I had used with the third grade was too complicated for them, and I didn't give them clear enough guidelines. Now when I work in the third grade, I use folktales as a springboard to talk about other cultures and other people. I work with much simpler story patterns, and we do a modern or historical or national version of a specific folktale, especially those which include rhymes and repetition. Repetition enables a child (all of us) to understand. (Is it 16 times that researchers have decided we need to be subjected to a fact before we are fairly sure to learn it?) Repetition of a pattern gives understanding, assurance and self-confidence. I'm not sure of the pedagogical implications of rhymes, but they're pretty, easy to remember and fun to make up.

After the course, I talked with people and thought a good deal, and I began to wonder whether the pattern I had been trying to teach in the third grade might not be more appropriate in the seventh and eighth grades. More than any other age except perhaps for infants and toddlers, adolescents seem to live right NOW. EVERYTHING is vitally important, RIGHT NOW. Adolescents are volatile. They live in extremes: at the same time that they want to do something important and exceptional with their lives, they are acutely aware of peer reaction. At the same time that they are the most social of creatures, they feel desperately alone. Their friends of both sexes change daily, their bodies are changing out from under them, and their emotions pull them from the heights to the depths like ping pong balls. They are extremely loving and extremely cruel. They are on the verge of adulthood, in the thrall of their hormones.

Folktales give, in symbolic language, clear guidelines for success. The more recent versions of Western and Indian folktales usually end in success for the hero or heroine; the exceptions occur because the protagonist has continued to break "the rules". These stories, even when they involve animals and natural elements such as the wind or the moon and stars, are grounded in human society. The protagonists of Western and East Asian folktales don't seem to pay much attention to Nature except when it helps to solve a human, society-oriented problem.

Other cultures such as Native American, Eskimo, Ainu and Polynesian have many more tales we find cruel or tragic, but their hero/ines are often more involved with the elements of Nature, who is heartless and whose ways we have to understand in order to physically survive. One feels the hero/ine of these tales living between Nature and Society, which are forces of equal power contending for the hero/ine's life.

The more I reviewed traditional Western and Asian folktales, the more I wondered whether the exercise of writing and illustrating a personal folktale of the Hero/ine Adventure Journey sort might not give adolescents a stability and self-confidence that is rare in their daily lives, and might be somehow therapeutic. I also hoped that making pictures with clearly defined emotional content would be a pleasure to them and something they would find they were surprisingly good at, because it would give form to their own strong feelings. I hoped they would be far enough away from cutting and pasting paper to see it as fun, almost as a way of revisiting their childhood.

I taught the course to four seventh and eighth grade classes in Falmouth.

The four classes were of very different abilities, which I could feel, but wasn't experienced enough to respond to. We finished the project in four weeks, because this was the amount of time I was given. We did not review the story pattern intensively because I thought it was so obvious; I had been working at making stories for 10 or 15 years by then and thought the procedure was self-evident. We used a rather loose outline, very similar to the one given in Part I of the manual. The books handed in by the 'top' English class were wonderful: powerful, cohesive, moving—everything a folktale could be. A few of these are included in the Appendix and the slides. Almost all the other stories were incomplete, confusing and/or inchoate, but I chose not to think too much about these.

It was only when I was working with Ann Stern, a Language Arts staff developer for the Cambridge public schools, that I began to gain some understanding of how to present material to children so that they could gradually build a sense of structure day upon day. I find it very difficult to teach this way because I don't work this way. I flounder around and take long walks and write pages which I think are brilliant at the moments I'm writing them and which I think are total inanities when I read them later. I rework and revise; I read other books; I rethink and rewrite. Eventually, after weeks or years, I come up with something that 'works'. But working with the children, I came to realize that I've learned a sense of structure over the 10 or 15 years that helps me understand what does or doesn't 'work'. Most children lack this sense of structure to a greater or lesser degree. Or rather, they have it, but they aren't aware they have it; they don't trust themselves.

As Ann and I taught the course in Cambridge, we found that a project which we had originally considered to be quite simple and straightforward was extremely difficult for many of the children. As we worked with various classes, both together and separately, we became more and more disturbed by the feeling that many of the students didn't seem to have any clear sense of an underlying connection between things. Their characters and dangers seemed to float onto the stage like phantom ships, where they were suddenly blasted to smithereens (by the boys) or wished away (by the girls). We would sometimes leave class feeling really disoriented, as though we'd been working with fog, or with space debris. We concentrated on clarifying, on defining, on formalizing the story structure so the children could get some sense of cohesion. If we left the structure loose, as I had in Falmouth, the results were as disastrous as they were in most cases there.

After Ann had figured out a better format for the pattern and we had used it with several classes, there was great improvement. Almost all the children seemed truly excited about their work, both while they were learning and with their finished books. They had clearly learned the pattern and were seeing it, and telling us about seeing it, in this or that movie or video or even book. Almost all the children made finished books which were based on the pattern and which 'worked'. Best of all, they seemed to have gained a sense of competence and self-confidence, and some 'esprit de corps' that was unusual and heartwarming.

Why? What is so special about this pattern? The pattern requires that students define a clear goal which they must leave home to pursue. It requires that they (in the guise of their protagonists) show courage, kindness, thoughtfulness, intelligence and wit. It requires them not only to give help, but to reach out for it and accept it—to depend on others' help as well as on their own resources. And it requires that they be successful—in terms they themselves define.

The students come from the most diverse backgrounds in terms of wealth, culture, race and school performance. The pattern works regardless of their differences, because it is a pattern basic to us all as humans seeking form and meaning in our lives. And it is especially helpful to adolescents, whose lives are in more turmoil than at most other times.

I first thought that this was best taught to both seventh and eighth grades. Now I would raise the age by a grade. It is perfect for eighth graders but a bit beyond most seventh grade classes. I'd expect that ninth graders would thrive on it as well. The best experiences we had were with eighth grade classes who were writing these stories as they were just finishing junior high school and preparing to graduate. Two schools used the folktales as the theme for their graduation ceremony, and read some of the tales, showed slides of the illustrations. Here is the valedictory address of Aneesh Patel, whose speech defines the pattern and describes what it meant to him:

...Our folktale had six main parts.

In part one of the (Hero/ine Adventure Journey) folktale, the protagonist, or hero, leaves home for some reason. For example, his parents have thrown him out of the house or her sibling is lost and she has to leave in search of him. The reason for leaving becomes the goal that the protagonist is seeking throughout the story. On the metaphysical level, this leaving home is growing up, separating from home to go out into the larger world. This also signifies setting out on the long journey of life. It means taking risks, being independent and mature, and becoming more responsible.

In part two, the protagonist meets some kind strangers. Typically, there are three kind strangers in a hero-adventure folktale. However, in the English folktale which we read, called Molly Whuppie, there are none at all, while in the Hungarian folktale, called The Good-hearted Youngest Brother, there are four kind strangers.

Each stranger has a need. For example, a bird might have a broken wing, or a spider might be drowning in a lake. The protagonist helps the strangers, who in return give him a gift. For example, the protagonist would bandage the bird's wing and would gently take the spider out of the water. In return, the bird might give him a feather, and the spider might give him a web or a filament. This meeting with kind strangers demonstrates the virtue of the protagonist.

Sometimes folktales have one kind stranger from the sky, one from the land, and one from the sea; like a hawk, a horse and a fish. This represents the sky, the land and the sea, which are the three elements of the world. This also implies that if we, the protagonists in our journey of life, are good to the world, the world will be good to us.

Symbolically, this proves the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is a sort of social covenant in cultures throughout the world.

In parts 3, 4 and 5, the protagonist encounters three dangers. Each danger is progressively more dangerous than the previous one. In the illustrations also, the background of each danger is darker than that of the one before it. Customarily, the first two dangers are guarding the final one, and the final one has the object that the protagonist has set out to get. The protagonist uses the gifts given to him by the kind strangers to overcome the dangers. When the protagonist overcomes the last danger, he gets what he set out for.

In the Star Wars trilogy, which follows the hero-adventure folktale pattern, Luke Skywalker sets out to overcome the Evil Empire which threatens to kill the good guys. He meets kind strangers, who help him out. First, Luke must destroy a host of creepy hairy monsters. Then he must get past the Storm Troopers, until at last he defeats the Evil Emperor.

Metaphorically, the overcoming of the dangers implies that the protagonist, having taken risks that have paid off, gets settled in the cycle of life, with the earnings yet to be taken.

In the sixth part, the protagonist returns home or creates a new home, and gets some kind of reward for conquering the dangers. This signifies coming of age and earning the rewards of maturity and responsibility. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow gets a brain, the tin-man gets a heart, the lion gets courage, and Dorothy gets to go home to Kansas.

Our graduation today is both an ending and a beginning of a journey. We are celebrating the end of one journey and at the same time we know that a new journey begins tomorrow. Hopefully we will meet kind strangers and with their help overcome any obstacles.

This was all I was hoping the children would learn from the course, from the process.

The work of the children was far better than I had expected, but the biggest surprise for me was the reaction of adults. When I showed some of the children's work at the local library, I found that adults wanted to take a course like this—not so they could teach it, but for themselves. I've since taught several groups of adults, and found that the exercise is perhaps even more powerful—more emotionally involving—for them than it is for the children. Part of this may be that adults are more committed to the project; they don't take it as a class assignment but because they want to. Partly it may be that they tend to take it when they are asking more questions than usual about themselves and their lives. I seem to be perpetually in this stage of uncertainty myself, and this exercise, like gardening or raising a child or learning anything new, helps to ground me.

However, I think the biggest attraction writing and illustrating a folktale has for adults is that it gives them a clear structure within which to develop as artists—something most have felt closed off from for almost all their lives.

These manuals, then, are for teachers of eighth and ninth, perhaps also seventh grade students. I have two intentions in mind as I write them.

My first intention is to give you a guide enabling you to help students work with each other in writing and illustrating a personal tale based on the Hero/ine Adventure Journey model.

My second intention is more unusual for teachers. I'd like this to be a guide which enables the teachers themselves to come together in a group in order to write and illustrate their own tales. I don't think you'll teach the Course as well if you haven't first done every bit of it yourself. You'll not only have a better sense of how the structures work, what sorts of variations are possible and how the group interaction helps you and supports you along the way; you'll also be able to empathize with your students. You'll have 'walked in their shoes', and you'll understand them from within their struggles.

This is scary work, because we're dealing with personal hopes and fears, and we're putting ourselves on the line. It is much more difficult and scary for adults than for children because we've created a nice safe shell of mature competence around ourselves, and it doesn't include 'creative' writing or illustration. But there is also the convenient rule that these stories have to end in success, and somehow this has the effect that not only the story but the whole project ends up triumphant, and safe, and at the Home of Homes. You'll find that this is a revealing and often a very moving exercise, and a group which works on it together over a period of 6 or 10 weeks does end up loving and appreciating themselves and each other.

My suggestions are these:

  1. Do not teach the course until you have done every bit of it yourself.
  2. Do not do it alone. These exercises are emotional, and the joy of sharing our feelings and insights is fundamental. But more than this, our individual ideas are so very limited and tend to spiral in on themselves. We learn from others, as they learn from us.
  3. When teaching, let the students direct themselves from the start. In current parlance, be a "facilitator". Encourage, resist, root, demand high standards, question, tell them how you feel, but let them teach themselves. Let them learn from each other, as you have done.

You can download the complete guide, How to Write a Hero/ine Adventure Journey Folktale, by clicking here.

copyright 2016 by Molly Bang