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Passing on and preserving our stories: universal experiences in children's literature around the world.


Each of us of us belongs to many groups--family, ethnic, regional, and language. As members of these groups, we share a common body of knowledge, skills, and behaviors, and this universal core of understandings shapes our language, our perceptions, and our ways of doing things. From generation to generation, we share our understandings by word of mouth as well as by our actions. In so doing, we preserve our "stories" and, therefore, our language and the common themes and values that resonate in our communities.

Teachers and students are probably most familiar with such stories and values being passed down through folklore in the form of published fairy tales, folktales, and legends. However, folklore is not always published, and so is often overlooked. Verbal and nonverbal folklore includes various forms of expression, including the finger plays of children's games, social and folk customs and traditions surrounding celebrations, a range of folk art from folk dance to the folk craft of wood carving and needlework, and even architectural structures and their decoration.

Through this type of folklore, groups maintain and pass on a shared way of life. The stories reflected in the folklore are most often learned as part of our communities and usually imparted through informal stories, language, and demonstration from generation to generation. Some published works of children's literature describe and celebrate this kind of sharing and presentation of shared values. In the Grandma Remembers series by Millbrook Press, grandmothers become the "teachers," sharing an oral history of their ethnic or cultural group as they show their grandchildren special recipes, games, and craft forms. Rachel Crandell's book Hands of the Maya: Villagers at Work and Play (2002) also captures this spirit of preservation as she chronicles the daily activities of the Mayan people. "On their backstrap looms the mothers are weaving cloth to make huipils. You can tell which village a family is from because the women weave the same traditional designs their great-grandmothers taught them" (n.p.).

Such stories represent a rich tapestry of history and traditions, work and recreation, daily life, and special celebrations. The strength of such stories and activities lies in their creative expression of a common past, along with a means for that past to remain accessible to all, no matter what age or ability. The Foxfire Projects (Wigginton, 1991 / 1992) demonstrated the power of this type of folklore as students interviewed and collected folkways in the Appalachian Mountain region, helping to preserve local customs and traditions. Here, we explore the diversity of these verbal and nonverbal forms of folklore and we consider their depiction in children's literature, which give us a means of discovering and passing on our own stories and glimpsing worlds beyond our own.

Children's Games

Every culture has a wealth of children's games, such as counting-out rhymes (finger/toe counting, such as "this little piggie"), finger plays ("where is thumbkin?" or "itsy bitsy spider"), handclapping rhymes ("pat-a-cake"), jump rope jingles ("Cinderella dressed in yellow"), hide-and-seek, and such. More than a quarter of a century ago, Lulu Delacre wanted to be able to share with her daughter the Latino nursery rhymes, songs, and finger plays from her own childhood. However, she was not able to find any published children's books that presented the rhymes and songs (Delacre, 2010). This was the impetus for her book Arroz con leche: Canciones y ritmos de America Latina/Popular Songs and Rhymes From Latin America (1992). Delacre followed that compilation with Arrorro mi nino: Latino Lullabies and Gentle Games (2004), which focused on nursery rhymes, songs, and finger plays from the major Latino groups living in the United States. These books offer excellent resources for family members and caregivers to help them involve youngsters in engaging and interactive language, while passing on the stories to the next generation. Similar works with a focus on childhood folklore and games include !Pio Peep! Traditional Spanish Nursery Rhymes (Ada & Campoy, 2003) and Diez Deditos: Ten Little Fingers & Other Play Rhymes and Action Songs From Latin America (Orozco, 1997).

Childhood games and pastimes from other cultures also have been featured in children's literature and thus preserved for future generations. Mingfong Ho's Peek! A Thai Hide and Seek (2004) features a daughter playfully hiding while her father searches for her. As he looks in various locations, he exclaims, "Jut-Ay," similar to "peek-a-boo," as one might say in a game of hide and seek. Another widely popular childhood pastime is making and flying kites. In Grace Lifts Kite Flying (2004), a family shops for supplies to make a dragon kite to fly together. Endpapers offer a snapshot of the items needed to build a kite as well as various traditional kite creatures. Certainly, a family collaboration to build a kite is an opportunity to pass on stories and preserve the techniques of kite building.

Social and Folk Customs

Social and folk customs reflect a group's actions and offer opportunities to use language to share stories or provide direction to activities. One common way of sharing stories is through the act of cooking. For instance, in the Latino culture, a tamalada is a home party for making tamal (tamales). This is a Latino family tradition that offers "a great opportunity to bond as a family or community" (Sanchez, 2004). Stories and favorite variations on the tamale are shared during such an event.

Many books depict family or community experiences while preparing traditional dishes. Grandma's Latkes (Drucker, 1992) is an excellent example, showing the grandmother teaching her granddaughter to make the traditional dish of latkes (potato pancakes) while recalling the story of Hanukkah and the miracle of the oils. El Salvadoran author Jorge Argueta takes readers through the steps of making bean soup in his Spanish/English bilingual recipe poem book, Sopa de frijoles/Bean Soup (2009). In this book, readers meet a boy helping his parent throughout the cooking process, as they prepare a family dinner of bean soup. Another language and cooking experience is spotlighted in What Should I Make? (Nayar, 2009). In this book, originally published in India, a young boy observes his mother making chapati bread. When the mother shares some of the dough, the young boy imaginatively uses it to make various shapes. An author's note at the end offers more information and instructions on making chapati bread. Gathering the ingredients before cooking is the focus of an Inuktitut/English bilingual book, Alego (Teevee, 2009). In this book, grandmother and granddaughter spend the day gathering clams so that they can make clam soup at home. In a final example, The Wakame Gatherers (Thompson, 2007), readers meet a young biracial girl in Japan whose two grandmothers, one Japanese and the other an American visiting from Maine, participate in storytelling while gathering and cooking with seaweed.

Folk beliefs, or superstitions, are yet another example of social and folk customs. Such beliefs are passed on through stories and so become part of a group's customs. For instance, according to Native American legend, dreamcatchers sift out bad dreams and allow only good dreams to come to those resting below them. Grandmother's Dreamcatcher (McCain, 2001) offers a contemporary tale of a young Chippewa girl plagued by bad dreams. Her grandmother shares the legend of the dreamcatcher and together they make one using the materials at hand. An artifact similar to the dreamcatcher is the God's Eye. Originally a religious symbol symbolizing God watching over the people, the God's Eye is created by weaving brightly colored yarn on a simple frame of crossed sticks to make the classic diamond-shaped design with an "eye" in the center. In the series "What Was it Like, Grandma?," Ann Morris highlights one of the major vehicles for preserving stories--oral history--as grandmothers share the history, culture, and folkways of their particular ethnic group. In Grandma Maxine Remembers (Morris, 2002), for instance, a young Shosone girl in Wyoming visits her grandmother, who teaches her how to create a God's Eye.

Social and folk customs abound in everyday life, especially during traditional holidays and family celebrations. Carmen Lomas Garza's books In My Family/En mi familia (1996) and Family Pictures/ Cuadros de familia (1998) feature her artwork with text in both English and Spanish to describe such customs as participating in a cakewalk, making tamales, or breaking a pinata for birthday celebrations. Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith's photo essays, including such works as Celebrating Chinese New Year (1998), Celebrating Ramadan (2001), and Celebrating a Quinceanera: A Latina's 15th Birthday Celebration (2002), to name just a few, showcase typical families following the social and folk customs that are a part of these traditional celebrations.

Finally, simple traditions, such as what happens when a child loses a tooth, also are a part of shared cultural stories. While children in the United States often put lost teeth under their pillows and wait for the tooth fairy, many other customs abound. Selby Beeler spotlights some of the different ones in Throw Your Tooth on the Roof: Tooth Traditions From Around the World (1998). If you live in Botswana, the tradition upon losing a tooth is to throw it onto the roof. Penda Diakite's I Lost My Tooth in Africa (2006) is based on a true story about a young girl who visits relatives in Mali and, while there, loses a tooth. She discovers that in Mali, the tradition is to hide the tooth under a calabash; in return, the child receives a chicken.

Folk Art

Folk art has many formats, and some individuals have moved traditional art beyond the folk culture marker of an anonymous creator into the more formal art realm where the work is clearly associated with an artist. Diana Cohn's Dream Carver (2002) describes how the juguetes, small carved wooden animals that the villagers make for fiestas, serve as the inspiration for the larger works of art by well-known Oaxacan wood carver Manuel Jimenez. Many children's books still highlight the informal world of folk art. Arthur Dorros' Julio's Magic (2005), for example, highlights wood carving, depicting the young Julio as he spends time with the master craftsman Iluminado, learning through observation. This story captures the truth that folk art formats are often passed from generation to generation through a younger person visiting, observing, and listening to the stories of an older craftsperson.

In Elsina's Clouds (2004), Jeanette Winter shares the story of a young Basotho girl, Elsina, who longs for rain to come to her village in southern Africa. According to tradition, Basotho women paint their homes with designs that are prayers to the ancestors for rain. Elsina's mother painted their house long ago, but they have been without rain for so long that the fields are dry. When Elsina's father adds a room to the house, Elsina's mother offers her the opportunity to paint the room for the new baby in the hopes that the ancestors will hear her prayers for rain. Author Catherine Stock shares a similar story in Gugu's House (2001), based on her travels in Zimbabwe.

Needlework is another craft used to pass on and preserve stories. In the book Dia's Story Cloth (1998), Dia Cha uses photographs of a traditional Hmong embroidered story cloth, created by the author's aunt and uncle, to describe her life in Southeast Asia, her escape from Laos, the family's years in a refugee camp in Thailand, and their eventual immigration to the United States. In Life Around the Lake: Embroideries by the Women of Lake Patzcuaro (1996), Maricel Presilla and Gloria Soto share another perspective on needlework. The women of Lake Patzcuaro (in central Mexico) long have used needlepoint to document the traditional life of the Tarascan people. Their work features colorful scenes of fishing, cooking, working in the fields, and celebrating. Unfortunately, these beautiful images of the past are in contrast to their current life. The increasing pollution in Lake Patzcuaro means that residents can no longer sustain their traditional practices of fishing and farming. Instead, the women now sell their needlepoint to help support their families. Through photographs and interpretations of the needlepoint, the reader is able to view a bygone way of life and learn how folk art can serve as an historical record. Presilla and Soto offer another glimpse at telling stories through art in the book Mola: Curia Life Stories and Art (1996), featuring the embroidery and applique of the Cuna Indians, residents of San Bias Island, off the coast of Panama.

Other sewing skills are used to pass on stories and preserve traditions. Just as the tamaladas mentioned earlier offer an opportunity to bond as a community, quilting circles or sewing bees provide opportunities to gather and share stories and quilting skills. These practices are also captured in some excellent children's books. As one example, Patricia McKissack's Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt (2008) spotlights a young girl who joins the intergenerational quilting circle in her community and pieces together her first quilt from fabrics that have personal significance. Many other children's books feature the historical significance of quilts; some describe their role in charting the path for slaves along the Underground Railroad. Jacqueline Woodson's Show Way (2005) shares this aspect of quilts, but the book moves beyond quilt-making to trace the author's own roots through eight generations, connecting her own daughter, Toshi, to her ancestors through the tradition of quilting to tell the family story.

Basket-making has figured prominently in many different cultural groups. In Circle Unbroken (2004), Margot Raven depicts oral tradition and basket-making as vehicles for passing on family history as a grandmother relates the story of her own grandfather, who was captured as a slave and brought to the United States, where he passed on the craft of making sweetgrass baskets. Through the grandmother's storytelling, Raven continues to pass on the skill of basket weaving. This book can be paired with Sandra Belton's Beauty, Her Basket (2004), which tells a similar story.

Basket-making has been an important craft to various groups, including the Poarch Creek Indians of Alabama, as highlighted in Lisa Larrabee's Grandmother Five Baskets (2000). Grandmother, a respected elder, teaches a young girl the process of traditional basket-making. The story follows Anna through her first awkward basket-making attempts as she works toward the goal of making five baskets that, as Grandmother explains, symbolize the stages of life. Twenty years later, Anna shares this process with her own daughter. Contemporary aspects and the continuity of basket-making over time are explored in Linda Yamane's Weaving a California Tradition: A Native American Basket Maker (Yamane, 1996). This photo essay features a young Mono Indian girl learning the craft from her mother and aunts and then working with the family as they prepare baskets to take to the California Indian Basketweaver's Association.

Folk art uses many different media, including paper for origami and papel picado, or paper cutting. In Yoko's Paper Cranes (Wells, 2001), Yoko misses her grandparents, who live in Japan, and she lovingly remembers times spent with them in their garden feeding cranes. Her fascination with the cranes prompts her grandfather to teach her to fold paper cranes. Carmen Lomas Garza once again uses her artwork in Magic Windows/ Ventanas Magicas (1999) to introduce the reader to traditional papel picado. The author uses her own paper cuttings as illustrations, allowing the reader a glimpse into Garza's life.


From generation to generation, we share our stories and our understandings. These informal stories, both verbal and nonverbal, whether they are incorporated in children's games or folk customs or folk art, may appear different from community to community and culture to culture, but the underlying themes and values are similar. The children's literature examples that we have shared here describe these story-sharing activities and help us to experience the stories and experiences of groups well beyond our own world. Table 1 offers various instructional ideas for integrating these stories into the curriculum to actively engage children in their communities and their world.

With today's focus on standardized curriculum and academic testing, informal stories are often given less value, even though they can be easily integrated into the curriculum. However, it is important to preserve these unique traditions and processes. Once forgotten, they cannot be recaptured.


Delacre, L. (2010). Books as mirrors. In N. L. Hadaway & T. A. Young, Matching books and readers: Helping English learners in grades K-6 (pp. 159-160). New York, NY: Guilford.

Sanchez, L. (2004, December). Tamales. Zermeno Crossculturing Column, The Hayward Daily Review. Retrieved at

Wigginton, E. (1991/1992). Culture begins at home. Educational Leadership, 49, 60-64.

Children's Books Cited

Ada, A. F., & Campoy, F. I. (2003). !Pio peep! Traditional Spanish nursery rhymes. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Argueta, J. (2009). Sopa de frijoles/Bean soup. Toronto, CA: Groundwood.

Beeler, S. (1998). Throw your tooth on the roof: Tooth traditions from around the worM. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Belton, S. (2004). Beauty, her basket. New York, NY: Greenwillow.

Cohn, D. (2002). Dream carver. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Cha, D. (1998). Dia's story cloth. New York, NY: Lee & Low.

Crandell, R. (2002). Hands of the Maya: Villagers at work and play. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Delacre, L. (1992). Arroz con leche: Canciones y ritmos de America Latina/Popular songs and rhymes from Latin America. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Delacre, L. (2004). Arrorro mi nino: Latino lullabies and gentle games. New York, NY: Lee & Low.

Diakite, P. (2006). I lost my tooth in Africa. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Dorros, A. (2005). Julio's magic. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Drucker, M. (1992). Grandma's latkes. New York, NY: Trumpet.

Garza, C. L. (1996). In my family/En mi familia. Chicago, IL: Children's Book Press.

Garza, C. L. (1998). Family pictures/Cuadros de familia. Chicago, IL: Children's Book Press.

Garza, C. L. (1999). Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (1998). Celebrating Chinese New Year. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (2001). Celebrating Ramadan. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (2002). Celebrating a quinceanera: A Latina's 15th birthday celebration. New York, NY: Holiday House.

Ho, M. (2004). Peek! A Thai hide and seek. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.

Larrabee, L. (2000). Grandmother Five Baskets. Tucson, AZ: Harbinger House.

Lin, G. (2004). Kite flying. New York: Dragonfly.

McCain, B. R. (2001). Grandmother's dreamcatcher. Eastsound, WA: Turtleback.

McKissack, P. (2008). Stitchin' and pullin': A Gee's Bend quilt. New York, NY: Random House.

Morris, A. (2002). Grandma Maxine remembers. Minneapolis, MN: Millbrook.

Nayar, N. (2009). What should I make? Berkeley, CA: Tricycle Press.

Orozco, J. L. (1997). Diezdeditos: Ten little fingers & other play rhymes and action songs from Latin America. New York, NY: Dutton.

Presilla, M. E., & Soto, G. (1996). Life around the lake: Embroideries by the women of Lake Patzcuaro. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Presilla, M. E., & Soto, G. (1996). Mola: Cuna life stories and art. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

Raven, M.T. (2004). Circle unbroken. New York, NY: Melanie Kropa/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Stock, C. (2001). Gugu's house. New York, NY: Clarion.

Teevee, N. (2009). Alego. Toronto, Canada: Groundwood Books.

Thompson, H. (2007). The Wakame gatherers. Walnut Creek, CA: Shen's.

Wells, R. (2001). Yoko's paper cranes. New York, NY: Hyperion.

Winter, J. (2004). Elsina's clouds. New York, NY: Frances Foster/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Woodson, J. (2005). Show way. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Yamane, L. (1996). Weaving a California tradition: A Native American basket maker. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner.

Nancy L. Hadaway is Professor; Department of Curriculum & Instruction, University of Texas at Arlington.

Terrell A. Young is Professor; Department of Teacher Education, Brigham Young University.

Barbara Ward is Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Teaching & Learning, Washington State University.
Table 1
Integrating Universal Stories Into the Curriculum

     Instructional Activity             Reference or Mentor Texts

Oral history interviews             * Grandma Remembers series by
                                    Millbrook Press
Students can interview community
or family members to collect
personal stories about special
events in their neighborhood or
family history. They can share
these orally with their
classmates, or invite individuals
to class and conduct interviews
as a class activity.

Illustrated class books             * !Pio Peep! Traditional Spanish
                                    Nursery Rhymes (Ada & Campoy,
Students can collect examples of    2003)
children's games, such as
counting-out rhymes, finger         * Diez Deditos: Ten Little
plays, hand-clapping rhymes, jump   Fingers er Other Play Rhymes
rope jingles, and hide-and-seek,    and Action Songs From Latin
describing and illustrating them    America (Orozco, 1997)
in a class book.

Listening center recordings         * Arroz con Leche: Canciones y
                                    ritmos de America Latina/Popular
Students can record examples of     Songs and Rhymes From Latin
counting-out rhymes, hand-          America (Delacre, 1992)
clapping rhymes, and jump rope
jingles for a class listening       * Arrorro Mi Nino: Latino
center.                             Lullabies and Gentle Games
                                    (Delacre, 2004)

Creative dramatics                  * Peek! A Thai Hide and Seek (Ho,
As the teacher reads aloud a
book, students can act out a game   * Diez Deditos: Ten Little
as a whole-class activity. They     Fingers & Other Play Rhymes
also can learn about different      and Action Songs From Latin
games in their community and then   America (Orozco, 1997)
teach them to the class as
children follow along and
participate in the activity.

How-to instructions                 * Kite Flying (Lin, 2004)

Students can create a set of        * Grandmother's Dreamcatcher
written instructions to create an   (McCain, 2001)
object. They can share these with
peers to determine if the
instructions make sense and
result in the desired object.

Recipe collections
                                    * Grandma's Latkes (Drucker,
Students can collect family         1992)
recipes along with the stories
behind those recipes. These can     * What Should I Make? (Nayar,
be compiled into a class book       2009)
that is illustrated and bound for
the class library.                  * Sopa de frijoles/Bean Soup
                                    (Arguera, 2009)

                                    * Alego (Teevee, 2009)

Recipe poetry                       * Sopa de frijoles/Bean Soup
                                    (Arguera, 2009)
Using Arguetas book, children can
create their own recipe poems for
family favorites.

Folk art                            * Grandmother's Dreamcatcher
                                    (McCain, 2001)
Students can research folk art
specific to their culture or        * Julio's Magic (Dorros, 2005)
geographic region and create an
actual example (e.g.,               * Dia's Story Cloth (Cha, 1998)
dreamcatcher), a digital slide
show, or a poster presentation      * Stitchin'and Pullin--A Gee's
with information and                Bend Quilt (McKissack, 2008)
illustrations/photographs. The
class can then have a gallery       * Circle Unbroken (Raven, 2004)
walk as each student describes
his/her folk art focus.             * Grandmother Five Baskets
                                    (Larrabee, 2000)

                                    * Yoko's Paper Cranes (Wells,

                                    * Magic Windows/Ventanas magicas
                                    (Garza, 1999)

Daily life & special celebrations   * In My Family/En mi familia
                                    (Garza, 1996)
Students can research daily life
or special celebrations in their    * Family Pictures/Cuadros de
community and document them         familia (Garza, 1998)
through a video or in a poster
display.                            * Celebrating Chinese New Year
                                    (Hoyt Goldsmith, 1998)

                                    * Celebrating Ramadan (Hoyt-
                                    Goldsmith, 2001)

                                    * Celebrating a Quinceanera: A
                                    Latina's 15th Birthday
                                    Celebration (Hoyt-Goldsmith,
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Author:Hadaway, Nancy L.; Young, Terrell A.; Ward, Barbara
Publication:Childhood Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 15, 2011
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