Saturday, May 9, 2015

Story Saturday: Diversity in traditional tales

I recently taught a workshop on heroes at the Northlands Storytelling Conference, in preparation to this year's Summer Reading Program. Several people asked me to make some of my handouts available online, so here we go!

Here is the list of hero- and diversity-related websites from my handouts:

Things Matter (LGBT superheroes A to Z)
Miss Representation (empowering girls and boys)
The Mary Sue (pop culture and feminism)
Today’s Heroes (Heroes and why we need them)
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (Gender and representation in media)
Bunche Center, UCLA (Hollywood Diversity Report)
The My Hero Project (Everyday heroes)

The Multilingual Folk Tale Database (Searchable Aarne-Thompson catalog)

Many storytellers don't think about diversity in oral storytelling and folktales the same way we talk about popular media. And yet, it is an important topic, and can open up connections to traditional tales for all kinds of audiences. I still remember a Romani girl come up to me after a gig with sparkling eyes, telling me she had never heard a fairy tale before where the princess looked like her!
Folktales and fairy tales are a lot more diverse than people usually account for, and they are also not set in stone. It is a storyteller's responsibility to make them relatable for the new generations, to make sure storytelling lives on.

Here are some questions to muse about:

Do you have a story in your repertoire where...

… Multiple heroes team up for a quest?
Extraordinary Helpers / Wonderful Companions (ATU 513)
Adventures in the Classroom (Cs.Z.) (Pg. 118-122)
The Skillful Brothers (Aarne-Thompson Folktale Type 653)
            “Team” legends: King Arthur, Fianna, Water Margin, Argonauts, Dietrich of BernCharlemagne, etc.

… A hero resolves a conflict between two enemies with peace (instead of defeating one)?
            The Lianja Epic

… A hero saves a life without fighting?

… A hero saves an animal, a plant, or a place instead of a person?

… A hero overcomes fear (instead of being fearless to begin with)?
            The Red Lion (The Strand Magazine, Vol. XII – Google Books)

… The hero makes a mistake and then makes up for it?

… A hero disguises his/her identity?

…. A male and a female hero fight shoulder to shoulder?
            Gulaim and the Warrior Maidens 
            Shootingthe Moon

… An LGBT+ hero is featured?
            The Shift of Sex (Aarne-Thompson Folktale Type 514); LGBT folktale possibilities

… A standalone female hero is featured?
            Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Daughters (Kathleen Ragan)
            Not One Damsel in Distress (Jane Yolen)

… The hero is a person of color? (Bonus: The hero is a person of color in a Western cultural setting?)

… The hero has a disability (physical or mental) that doesn’t go away at the end of the story?

… The hero’s main ability is wisdom and knowledge instead of strength?
            Queen Anait (Armenian folktale)

… Heroes of different religious (or spiritual) backgrounds are featured together?
            Ogier the Dane

… The hero is not a young person?

… Two or more of the above criteria are combined?


  1. Great set of websites, sounds like an awesome workshop. This is exactly the kind of thing I did for my A to Z last year, so I am totally in agreement. (I've written a bunch about disability too)> As oral storytellers we have to the power and responsibility to paint pictures with our words and be inclusive. So glad you posted this.

  2. Wow. I need to try this out! I write children's books...but some of these could work there, too.

    1. Definitely! There is an entire movement for children's literature called We Need Diverse Books. I was doing a storytelling version of the same idea :)

  3. I appreciate your putting these handouts here. I'm so interested in this topic of hero/diversity.

  4. Those are some interesting questions, and thank you for that list! I have a couple from the Thousand Nights that I know, that would fulfill the "saves a life without fighting", which is pretty surprising, given how violent the book is!