Category Archives: Folklore

Leave the Kids Alone!

According to today’s Wall street Journal, in many schools, those in charge of the school day realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to do away with recess.

They’ve decided kids need to let off steam. (Who knew?) They concede that “recess can even improve emotional and social development in children.” And indeed it can, if children are allowed to play on their own without direction or interference. But that’s not exactly what these educators have in mind. They’re educators, after all, so they’re determined to educate. The result: “organized recess” complete with coaches. Sounds like gym class to us!

Fortunately there are other experts who value unstructured play. Debbie Rhea , professor of kinesiology at Texas Christian has developed a program based on a Finnish model which is in 16 schools in Oklahoma and Texas. It provides for four 15-minute recess periods per day, ethics and character teaching, less standardized testing, and restructuring of the school day. More power to her!

  • Forty years ago we wrote a book, One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children. We discovered that children’s folklore—the traditional games, jokes, stories, songs, superstitions, and pranks that have been passed down from one generation of children to the next without the benefit or sometimes even the knowledge of adults serves important functions in the lives of children. This folklore flourishes only when children are left alone to practice it as they play.

One Potato, Two Potato is still in print, available from Amazon. However, used copies are also available from alibris.com for around $1.50 plus postage.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why and How We Became Publishers, Part One, Including Mary’s Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Mary being interviewed on The Today Show

Mary being interviewed on The Today Show

Since Mary and I have already published two books with major publishers, some of our friends have wondered why we are doing it differently now. Easy. Done that, been there—twice—and we didn’t like it!

In 1970, we were offered a sabbatical leave year from our teaching jobs in the Panama Canal Zone and were soon en route to Indiana University to enroll in graduate school for the second time. While there, we wrote a paper about children’s folklore. The project required a lot of fieldwork with kids and was a lot of fun.

Back in the Zone, I suggested we turn our paper into a book. “We’d get to talk to a lot more kids.” Mary was dubious, but she went along, and four years later, the book was finished.

Our agent was not enthusiastic, and several publishers turned it down. So we were happy when W.W. Norton agreed to publish it.. Our editor told us the company’s readers didn’t much like it because it fell “between two stools.” (Publishers like books that fit into a definite category. They are easier to market.) However, the president of the company liked it, so they didn’t have much choice. Today, 40 years later, it is still on the backlist and available for purchase on Amazon, which must be some kind of a record.

When the book came out, Mary happened to be on leave (unpaid this time). She was in New York, there to put our youngest daughter in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

As was customary, the publisher sent copies of all their newly published books to the Today Show, hoping that they’d pick one to feature. Much to their surprise and undisguised dismay, the Today Show suggested they might be interested in our book! Norton had their hopes set on a book of photographs of Picasso’s studio by David Douglas Duncan.

The next step was for Mary to audition. She went through a practice interview with the Today’s Show screeners, which she passed with flying colors. On her way back to the hotel, she stopped off at our agent’s office to assure her the interview went well. The agent was too busy to see her and fobbed her off on an assistant. This puzzled us. How many of her clients appeared on The Today Show? And why did the woman handling serial rights always meet her in the lobby? Didn’t she have an office?

The Today Show called. They wanted her. Eight minutes. Suddenly she was besieged with requests for interviews. NPR interviewed her by phone on All Things Considered.  She went to Boston to be on the local segment of Good Morning, America. Since she was going to stop off in Kansas City on her way back home, she tried to get Norton to set up publicity events there. “We don’t have authors from Kansas City so we don’t set up events there.”  “But David Douglas Duncan is from Kansas City; we went to the same high school.” Didn’t matter.

In the green room at NBC, Mary discovered she was the only “guest” not accompanied by a PR person. But the show went very well. The PR representatives present complimented her on her performance. “Where else are they sending you?” Norton’s PR rep called to say she was “so relieved” (a real supporter). Here are four sound bites from that interview with Jane Pauley. Mary wants me to say it is not her real voice. Apparently the tape has been sped up a bit. However, she says that as unlikely as it may seem, it is definitely her real hair.

She had booked a flight back to Panama the next day, but as one last effort to feel good about publishing our book, she went to the famous Scribner’s book store on Fifth Avenue, now home to Sephora Cosmetics. She had hoped to see One Potato displayed along with other new books. But it wasn’t. With the help of a clerk, she finally found it on a shelf with the cookbooks.

—HK

 

 

 

 

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“Trick or Treat, Smell My Feet, Give Me Something Good to Eat”

From One Potato, Two Potato: The Folklore of American Children by Herb and me—here’s our take on Halloween:

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“Early in the last century, Halloweeners were mainly boys who disguised themselves to conceal their identities while they played tricks on adults, removing from a house, for instance, the front-porch steps, a length of guttering, or the screen or storm doors—all in near silence.

“But most contemporary Halloweeners are not interested in tricks of any kind. They want loot. They show up at the houses of strangers dressed in costumes meant not to disguise but to be admired.

“They come to beg—well, actually to collect—since they believe they have a right to what the householder gives them. In pagan times, people offered food to the dead on Halloween. Later, people doled out soul cakes to anyone who came by, but mainly to the poor. Today, we give candy to the well fed, who arrive with shopping bags. These bagmen are often accompanied by their parents, who protect them from marauders who might make off with the loot.

“A begging holiday seems somehow appropriate for big cities. It gives children license to approach strangers and reminds  people that they live in a neighborhood, even if then don’t spend much time there.

“A shadow of the old trickster’s Halloween remains alive today in the ritual demand, ‘Trick or treat.’ But many children don’t even understand what they are threatening. They think the phrase means ‘Trick for treat,’ and that if asked, they must do a jig or something else to pay for their candy. Usually they aren’t asked. They show off their costumes, collect their loot, and march off to the next house, occasionally punctuating the night with a Halloween rhyme:

Trick or treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat.

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Remember Hopscotch? Cooties? Miss Mary Mack? “I’m Rubber; You’re Glue”?

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Click on image to read Amazon reviews

Years ago, before the personal computer had become part of all of our lives, Herb and I wrote a book about the folklore of children: the rhymes, games, customs, superstitions and jokes that children pass on to each other without the mediation or often even the knowledge of adults.

The thesis of that book is that this body of children’s knowledge, while it may seem trivial, is critically important in helping children in a number of developmental tasks. We interviewed hundreds of ten-year olds who eagerly told us—and showed us—their traditional past times. But whenever we talked to their teachers or parents, often we were told, “Oh kids don’t do that sort of thing anymore.” That’s why we originally subtitled the book The Secret Education of American Children.

Now that was a long time ago, and although the book is still in print (and to our amazement has been translated into Chinese) we have moved on to other interests so we don’t really know the state of children’s folklore today. After all, it requires face to face interaction. And today children are spending more and more time in the virtual world playing with their “devices” rather than “going out to play,”.  So maybe children really don’t do this sort of thing much anymore. Still, not long ago we observed two girls on a crosstown bus happily engaged in a rapid rendition of “Miss Mary Mack,” a traditional clapping rhyme with deep roots. Watch to the very end of this 32- second video and you’ll get some idea of why this particular past time has endured.

Seen on the terrace in the park

Seen on the terrace in the park

And then there’s this—observed on the terrace of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park. This doesn’t look exactly like the hopscotch of my childhood or that of the children we interviewed for our book. But that’s not surprising. Like any oral tradition, children’s folklore undergoes a sea change as it’s passed along from one generation to another. And new folklore emerges as children make up formulaic solutions to counteract boredom, solve disputes, conquer fear or cement new friendships.

Do you know any ten-year olds? If so, ask them if they “do this sort of thing anymore.” I’d love to know!

oil by HerbKnapp

Oil by HerbKnapp

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Imagine That!


Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.

Once upon a time, refrigerator-sized radios streamed fairy tales into our ears.

Before the Mickey Mouse Club— before the Flintstones and Batman and Captain Kangaroo, there was the Lone Ranger, Little Orphan Annie, and the Green Hornet. The serial adventures of the 30s and 40s had kids glued to the radio from the time they got home from school  until dinnertime. But best of all was a Saturday morning show called Let’s Pretend, a 30-minute dramatization of a different fairy tale each week.

These programs were not a feeble prelude to children’s televised fare of later years. In one respect at least, I think they may have been even better because they demanded that we cultivate the power of our imaginations. That’s me in the picture at the age of 8 or 9; the book on my lap is a prop introduced by my father,the photographer. He probably thought I should look like I was doing something. But listening to these stories was doing something, something intense. We didn’t need the help of illustrations to create imaginary worlds of enchantment in great detail. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the subterranean kingdom I envisioned as a little girl where the trees had leaves of silver and gold and twelve beautiful princesses (with curly hair, I might add) danced all night in a glittering palace with their handsome partners.

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist, contends  that unlike any other form of story, the fairy tale meets the psychic needs of children. Before the child can rationally understand what troubles him or figure out what he must do to be a good independent person, he unconsciously identifies with the symbolic elements of the fairy tale and is comforted and instructed.  Separation anxiety, feelings of powerlessness in an adult world, sibling rivalry, fear of growing up—this is the sort of thing the repeated telling of a specific tale can ameliorate.

Even though one might not accept the Freudian concepts underlying Bettelheim’s analysis, it’s hard to argue with the idea that fairy tales are unique in their ability to meet some of the conscious and unconscious requirements of the listeners. How else to account for their ubiquitous appearance in all cultures and their phenomenal staying power. The oldest record of a variant of Cinderella dates back to the ninth century—in China!

 

 

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