Folk tales help keep the storytelling tradition alive

Books for kids

May 15, 1991|By Molly Dunham | Molly Dunham,Evening Sun Staff

FOLK TALES are no longer passed from one generation to the next. Instead of gathering 'round to hear a storyteller, the family forms a semicircle around the TV. A grandfather, his son and his grandson can share a heritage of ''I Love Lucy'' reruns.

Quite an oral tradition, isn't it?

Yes, TV defines our culture. But on the fringes, the art of storytelling survives and new books based on folk tales thrive. So today's parents -- many of whom grew up with the TV as a baby sitter -- can turn to books to learn how to share more than reruns with their kids.

* ''A Piece of the Wind, and Other Stories to Tell,'' by Ruthilde Kronberg and Patricia C. McKissack (Harper & Row paperback, $9.95, all ages). This is a fine how-to book on storytelling that starts out with simple folk tales you can commit to memory and then retell in your own words.

The plots come from all over the world, but instead of stressing the differences in cultures, they illustrate the shared human experience. There are tricksters and fools, vain rulers and wise peasants everywhere from Africa to Asia to Alabama. Included are tales that lend themselves to audience participation (choruses kids can repeat) and stories that can be acted out with simple props, such as paper bags, boxes and scraps of fabric.

Kronberg is a professional storyteller and McKissack has written many books, including the winner of the 1990 Coretta Scott King Award, ''A Long Hard Journey, The Story of the Pullman Porter.''

* ''The Mousehole Cat,'' by Antonia Barber, illustrated by Nicola Bayley (Macmillan, $14.95, ages 5-8). The coast of Great Britain also inspired the Cornish legend on which this book is based. It is set in the village of Mousehole, a name that comes from the tiny opening in the stone breakwaters that surround the village's harbor.

The star of the book is a cat named Mowzer, whose pet is an old fisherman named Tom. All the cats in Mousehole live with human pets who make certain the cats get plenty of fresh fish to feast upon. The idyllic life is threatened, however, when the Great Storm-Cat takes up residence in the sea outside Mousehole. When fishermen try to sail through the harbor's tiny opening, Great Storm-Cat bats their boats about as if they were toys.

So the village is on the verge of starvation when old Tom and Mowzer decide they must try to brave the storm and bring back a boat full of fish. Mowzer enchants the Great Storm-Cat, first with a song like a siren, and then by purring. The language is lyrical -- ''the winds waned and the waves weakened -- and Bayley's paintings are exquisitely detailed.

* ''The Ballad of Belle Dorcas,'' by William H. Hooks, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Alfred A. Knopf, $13.95, ages 7-12). This is based on one of the conjure tales Hooks heard while growing up in the tidewater area of the Carolinas. A few ''cunger women'' still live there, casting spells and practicing magic.

The haunting story -- made even spookier by Pinkney's drawings on black scratchboard -- is about Belle, the daughter of a white slave master and his house slave. She falls in love with Joshua, a slave. When the new master wants to sell Joshua on the auction block, Belle begs Granny Lizard, the cunger woman, to cast a spell that will save Joshua and keep them together.

The spell works, but at a cost. Joshua is turned into a cedar tree in the forest. Every night Belle visits the tree, and by rubbing it with the cunger bag from Granny Lizard, she turns the tree back into Joshua. They share the nights like that until the Joshua tree is cut down. But even then, the cunger woman's spell makes sure the lovers are reunited.

* ''The Eye of the Needle,'' retold and illustrated by Teri Sloat (Dutton, $13.95, ages 4-8). Based on an Eskimo legend of the Yupik people as told by Betty Huffman, this is a fun story of imagination and exaggeration. Little Amik lives with his grandmother, and when the winter ends and the ice finally begins to melt, she sends Amik out to gather food from the sea.

Of course, Amik is so hungry he snacks on the first little fish he catches. But he's still hungry, so he eats another fish, and then PTC another and another, until he's so big he can swallow a great whale. So he does. Realizing that he has no food left to bring to his grandmother, Amik waddles home in shame. But the magic of his grandmother's sewing needle saves the day, and Amik's bountiful catch feeds everyone. Even Amik loses his appetite.

* This just in: Isabel Wilner, a former librarian at Towson State's Lida Lee Tall lab school, has collaborated on another alphabet book that's worth checking out. Last winter, Wilner's superb ''B is for Bethlehem,'' was published by Dutton, and now Dutton has come out with ''A Garden Alphabet,'' written by Wilner and illustrated by Ashley Wolff ($12.95, ages 3-7).

It stars a hard-working border collie (instantly recognizable to fans of Wolff's ''A Year of Beasts,'') who tends the garden with help from a dog-sized frog. There's a lush painting for each letter of the alphabet: ''F is for frog, a gardener's friend. For unwelcome insects, his tongue snaps The End.'' Or: ''V is for vines, whether pumpkin or bean. They're twisty and twiney and leafy and green.'' It's lots of fun.

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