Traditional stories never seem to lose their power and appeal. Whether we’re telling them around a campfire, watching them play out on a screen or sharing a bedtime picturebook, there’s something about folk and fairy tales that really hits the spot.
But how and why do these stories survive? And where can we find really thoughtful and accomplished retellings that offer something special in our modern world?
Traditional tales were initially passed on by word of mouth, although many became associated with the collectors who first captured them in print. And as they travelled, they changed. Some disappeared completely or lost sight of their origins. Others were more resilient and are still being told in forms we recognise today – the version of Cinderella published by Tiny Owl can be traced all the way back to Ancient Egypt, for example, and variants from other cultures demonstrate just how robust this rags-to-riches story is.
Established in 2015 with the aim of publishing high quality, diverse and inclusive picture books, Tiny Owl is a small, independent company that matches authors and illustrators from different countries to form unique collaborations. Have fun browsing their 2021 catalogue HERE or check out their website at tinyowl.co.uk HERE for some great extras and resources
Folk and fairy tales connect us to traditions whose origins are lost, show us who we are and where we belong, and help us to consider how we could - and should - behave. We often underestimate their impact: they’re woven so deeply into our cultures that we take them for granted, but they fit us like a second skin and unsurprisingly, they’re everywhere.
A quick online search reveals a vast array of fairytale-inspired media for children, which demonstrates their continuing vitality. But it does mean that finding a picturebook with something special to contribute can be challenging.
So I was excited to discover Quill Soup, a vibrantly illustrated retelling of an African tale by Alan Durant and Dale Blankenaar from small indie publisher Tiny Owl, which tells the story of Noko, a hungry porcupine. Portrayed in shades of grey against a colourful landscape (to emphasise his ‘stranger status’) Noko’s pleas for food fall on deaf ears until he borrows a pot to cook quill soup – a delicacy that becomes much tastier when the other animals contribute. Alan Durant’s text captures the directness and immediacy of oral storytelling, and Dale Blankenaar’s busy, stylised illustrations are nothing short of spectacular.
Happily for readers who don’t enjoy trawling the internet for hidden gems, Quill Soup is part of a series of books from Tiny Owl in which unusual, thoughtful and visually appealing fairy tales are retold from unique global perspectives.
One Story, Many Voices features punchy texts by accomplished storytellers, plus eyecatching artwork with a fresh, contemporary feel. Illustrators with diverse styles are introduced, offering children and their adults new ways of looking and connecting. These picturebooks are challenging the visual culture that dominates our experience of folk and fairytales in the UK and beyond, but they’re doing so in a thoroughly enjoyable way - and that’s a package we both want and need.
In this blog I’ll be exploring six titles from One Story, Many Voices in the company of Tiny Owl’s founder Delaram Ghanimifard, who joins us to share her thoughts about these picturebooks and why their stories matter.
Hi Delaram, and a warm welcome to Cast of Thousands! Thank you so much for joining us. Can I start by asking what makes these stories special, and why you wanted to create these books?
Tiny Owl was established to build bridges between people by introducing cultures through stories, illustrations, art and literature, and One Story, Many Voices was one of the projects we took on for this reason.
We believe that stories travel. And on their journey, they adapt to new environments and cultures and pick up interesting souvenirs from their hosts along the way. When they reach us (wherever we are) we have a story with a road map. That's why we see many versions of a fairy tale or a folk tale in different cultures. Now, these stories connect us together. It's important to know and see as many versions of a story as we can.
Which folktales and traditional stories had most impact on you as a child? How and where did you listen to them?
I grew up in Iran, and of the picture books that I had, Cinderella was the one I liked the most. I think the illustrations had more impact on me than the story, to be honest. There were pictures of dolls in amazing Georgian outfits!
But the stories that I loved didn't come out of picture books. I loved the ones my grandma used to tell me when I slept over at their home. There were funny folktales with many repetitions, like The Gingerbread Man, and there were fairy tales similar to The Beauty and the Beast. These were oral stories that I had to imagine in my mind. They didn't have fancy dresses!
Why do you think folktales matter in our modern world? Where does their power come from, and why are they still relevant?
I think folktales are very important, because they have come out of human experiences. They carry the memories of troubles, difficulties, resistance, and high hopes and wishes. They symbolise all of these in their essence, and we relate to them even if they seem to have come from a different time. We still long for magic to happen. And we still make up stories that have the capacity to become future folktales.
How do you choose the stories for these books? Are there any stories you’d like to feature that you haven’t yet been able to include?
We have slowed down on this series because we want to choose the stories that are less expected or told. This year we have a story inspired by an Ethiopian folktale, retold by the amazing Elizabeth Laird, and are interested in finding more stories that don't immediately resemble a well-known western fairytale. I'd especially like to explore stories from the Far East and Africa, and indigenous stories from Oceania. We'll have to see!
You’ve used the word voices. To what extent is the oral storytelling aspect of these books significant?
It's very important to consider oral stories. In our series, Under the Great Plum Tree is a retelling of a story that author Sufiya Ahmed heard from her grandmother. Gloria's Porridge, the Ethiopian-inspired story to be published this year, is another that was collected by Elizabeth Laird. These stories have evolved through history and lived outside the official history telling. We want to keep this significant part of human history alive.
How do you select your illustrators? What drives your thinking in this respect?
This is always a long process. We consider different styles of illustration and what an illustrator relates to. Usually we ask two or three illustrators to send us a sample for the work and see what works best.
What are the challenges for a small publishing company in creating a series of picturebooks like this? What would make the process easier or more productive?
As a small independent publishing company, we are restricted in terms of our budget, unfortunately. Other than this, it's difficult for us to reach all the audiences that we think would like to know about us, and these books. We have tried our best to create as many resources, like teacher resources, videos and resource boxes for each book. But we need more help to reach the schools and children with all that we have created.
What do children particularly notice and enjoy about these books? Do their expectations and reactions differ from those of older readers? In what ways?
Children are amazing. They quickly notice the details in illustrations and are open to new stories and art styles. Adults are not always like that. Sometimes they expect certain text lengths for a book and are more attracted to the artistic styles that they are familiar with.
The resource pack and Shahnameh Box that accompany The Phoenix of Persia are absolutely wonderful. How and why were these resources created? Do you plan to create more resources like this for other books?
The Phoenix of Persia was a big project. Original music was composed for it as an extra cultural element, and provides another dimension to be explored. We wanted to make this book accessible to as many children as we could, and to make something sustainable. So as part of the project we got together with Tower Hamlets School Library Services and created these boxes to be lent to schools for a term.
The boxes include teacher resources, musical instruments, Persian fabrics, paintings and so on, and we thought they would help teachers to introduce the story and the contextual culture to the children and make the experience more fun. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback and the boxes are still available to be borrowed.
We had a grant from Arts Council England for this project, which helped us develop the resource boxes. We'd definitely make more of these if we can secure funding for it.
If you were given three wishes in respect of this series of books, what would you wish for, and why?
My first wish would be to have 100 titles for this series - stories from around the world that are inclusive and exciting to read.
Second, I'd love to make selected titles with original music, like The Phoenix of Persia. That would be very interesting.
Third, I wish I could publish one of my own grandma's stories. The ones that she used to tell me and I loved.
It would be wonderful to be able to grant your wishes, Delaram – and if this were a story, I would definitely do so! Thank you so much for joining us, and I hope we’ll be hearing about new titles in this series very soon.
All these books are available via the Cast of Thousands bookshop at uk.bookshop.org HERE
Sales help support independent UK bookshops, as well as this website, so thank you!
The trickster Porcupine proves that you don’t have to be big and strong to lead the pack in this vibrantly-illustrated retelling of a traditional African folktale.
Dale Blankenaar’s remarkable illustrations repay close looking and draw on many inspirations, including western African wood sculpture, the art of Tanzania and the costumes & masks of the BWA people of Burkina Faso.
Click HERE to read an interview with Dale on Tiny Owl's website
This traditional story about twelve princesses who wear through a pair of dancing shoes every night is a classic tale of secret adventures and girl-power. This thoughtful and well-told version doesn’t ascribe a location to the story, but the sophisticated and unusual artwork takes us somewhere that feels magically different.
Read about this book on Cast of Thousands and discover activity suggestions HERE
Read an interview with Jackie Morris at tinyowl.co.uk HERE
Read an interview with Ehsan Abdollahi at tinyowl.co.uk HERE
A lost slipper is central to the earliest known version of Cinderella. But in this story, which dates back at least 2,000 years, the slipper is red, the prince is a Pharaoh, and the heroine is a slave who was stolen from her home.
Beverley Naidoo’s absorbing retelling gives us a vivid glimpse of life in the Ancient Mediterranean, and Marjan Vafeian’s intricate illustrations draw on Iranian, Indian and Egyptian traditions to take us somewhere that feels both ancient and contemporary, and bring a decorative vitality to every spread.
Read about this book on Cast of Thousands and discover activity suggestions HERE
Download free teacher resources on Tiny Owl’s website HERE
Listen to a podcast about Cinderella retellings with Beverley Naidoo and Jack Zipes, hosted by Ann Lazim from CLPE HERE
The mythical Simorgh is a phoenix: a bird that consumes itself and is reborn through fire. When Prince Zal is abandoned as a baby, the Simorgh adopts him and brings him up until he, too, can be reborn as King of Persia, protected by her magical feathers. This retelling of a traditional story from the Shahnameh is illustrated by an Iranian artist, and specially-composed Iranian music is available online to accompany it.
Fabulous downloadable resources are freely available at tinyowl.co.uk HERE
Find out about the Shahnameh Box and the accompanying Iranian music HERE
Read an interview with Sally Pomme Clayton HERE
Illustrated with intricate and delicately patterned images inspired by traditional Gujerati designs by an Iranian artist, this engaging fable about truth, kindness and obligation was inspired by the tales Sufiya Ahmed’s mother told her about the Indian jungle – which in turn were based on fables from the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian story-collection dating to 300 B.C.E.
Discover free activities to download at tinyowl.co.uk HERE
Inspired by an Ethiopian story, Gloria’s Porridge shows how one act can cause a chain reaction and affect other people’s lives.
Watch the book trailer here:
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