Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sunflowers, seeds, storytelling

School's back in session, the semester has begun, and I am doing the grad student thing of papers and exams and whatnot. But even now I need regular storytelling to re-charge my batteries; so I have returned to my designated practice school. I contacted them early in September to ask what they were up to. The unexpected answer:

"Do you happen to have any stories about sunflowers?"

(Catholic school; their theme for the year is "Planting the seeds of virtues")
Have I mentioned that I am a sucker for thematic challenges? I gave my standard answer: Nope, but give me three weeks.
It has been an immensely fun three weeks too. I dug into folklore and mythology, looking for tellable stories involving sunflowers. I soon made some discoveries:

1. When you search for sunflower stories, 80% of what you find will be the Greek myth of Clytie. Which is a mistranslation. It's about the heliotrope. The Greeks didn't have sunflowers, because...
2. Sunflowers are indigenous to the Americas. Which means myths involving their creation are Native American myths, and I do not tell those (for various cultural / ethical reasons). Which led me to... 
3. Finding folktales and other stories that mention sunflowers. Sadly, several of them had the sunflower added in a literary version, or a picture book. Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, for example, added sunflowers where there were originally none. While that is all good and well, I kept digging.

Eventually, I came up with a story from Peru (it was noted as a "legend" in some sources, but I did find an original author for it); a folktale from India; and two tales that mention sunflowers marginally. To this I added ten other tales that feature gardens, flowers, flower seeds, and the occasional fruit. It took me about three weeks to sift through a lot of folklore, and order books through Inter-Library Loan. I narrowed the stories down to fourteen from forty or so. 
But it was worth it.

Today, I went to the school and told in 6 classrooms (half an hour each). It was tons of fun.

In the kindergarten (garden, hah) I told "Why snow is white" from the new Bavarian folktale collection. It is a tiny story, but it works like a charm with the little ones. They loved imagining what show would be like if it was different colors, and they found sunflower-colored "yellow snow" the funniest thing in the world (don't eat yellow snow, kids). After the storytelling, they all wanted to hug me, and I toppled over against the bookshelves.
Another story that worked great with the younglings (K and 1st) was the Jasmine Princess. While some of the boys initially made faces about a "princess story," the giant and the monkeys soon won them over. It is a great story to tell, especially when you get two dozen six-year-olds making monkey noises.
For the older grades (7th and 8th) I told the legend of Stavoren the Sunken City. Not only is it a great environmental tale full of important messages, it is also very timely, since it talks about feeding the poor. Similarly, the Kazakh folktale of the Magic Garden (one of my favorites) worked well with the discussion about urban gardening.
One of my favorite new stories is Watermelon Island, a Vietnamese folktale about the discovery of watermelons. It is a very popular story, and I found many versions of it. It is not a magical tale - all very practical instead, but kids did get a kick out of discussing how great and tasty watermelons are. It did not help that I was very thirsty at the time. I might have drooled a little.
Of course I told the Empty Pot a couple of times, as the shortest story in my flower-and-garden repertoire. It is a very clever little tale. But the big winner of the day (in 6th grade, which is my favorite bunch at the school) was the Pumpkin Girl, a Persian folktale where a baby girl turns into, and lives, as a pumpkin. The class found it absolutely hilarious, and tried to puzzle out the details of how the magic worked. My favorite part: "You can't really shop for clothes for a pumpkin, right?" Boy: "You have to go to the Halloween store and buy a pumpkin costume." Me: "You can't just dress up a pumpkin as a pumpkin!" This story, by the way, showed Cinderella in a new light to me: In this case, there is a ring that has to fit the mysterious bride perfectly. However, the prince (groom) has to send the ring house to house, not because he wouldn't recognize her, but because he can't enter houses to meet girls face to face. So he sends a ring with a female servant. LOGIC.

I am going back for another round on Wednesday.
And now if you'll excuse me I'll go buy a watermelon.


  1. That sounds like fun. Lots of good stories. The Pumpkin Girl sounds really interesting. I like the similarities to Cinderella. Might have to go find that one to read. :)