Why You Should Stop Telling Folklorists To Write Children’s Books

Why You Should Stop Telling Folklorists To Write Children’s Books February 25, 2014
Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist – and especially one who researches fairy tales – I get the following comments a lot:

  • “Oh, you study folklore? Do you also write children’s books?”
  • “How cool that you study fairy tales! Do you write them too?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble on the academic job market. Have you thought about writing books for kids?”

While these statements are often accompanied by good intentions, they begin to get annoying after a while (and I hope that I can say that without totally disregarding the positive intentions of the people saying these kinds of things, especially since a lot of the people saying these kinds of things to me are family members!). So I thought I’d take the time to explain why this kind of linkage is not only erroneous in nature, but ultimately unhelpful.

By now readers of my blog should know that folklore isn’t just fairy tales and other kinds of stories, it also encompasses other verbal genres (riddles, jokes, slang, proverbs, etc.) as well as material culture (traditional foods, clothing/costumes, crafts, vernacular architecture) and customs/beliefs/behavior (holiday customs, festivals, folk dance & music, gestures, games, and so on). Folklore is intertwined with power relations and weaves in and out of every individual’s life, tying us to our various social groups (or “folk groups” we as call them) while also highlighting our unique life circumstances.

So for someone to assume that simply because I have a background in folklore, I should be writing children’s books, is to erroneously whittle the entire purview of folklore studies down to “stuff for kids.” That can come across as insulting even if it’s not meant to be. It further implies that we shouldn’t do what we’re trained to do – that is, research, teach, and write about folklore – but we should come up with a specifically marketable product instead.

Okay, you might be saying, but I actually do study fairy tales and related genres such as fantasy literature, children’s literature, and YA fiction. However, studying something is different than producing it. Very, very different. As I’ve said before, I’m not that good at telling stories, but I’m great at telling stories about stories (by which I mean analysis, criticism, interpretation).

Many scholars do, in fact, learn to do the phenomenon they’re trying to study, whether this is part of participant-observation while doing fieldwork, or whether they’re studying the social phenomena that accompany creative actions. There are a lot of reasons for an ethnomusicologist to learn to play the instruments that the community he studies play, or for a sociologist to learn the dance that the community she studies performs. But you shouldn’t assume that it’s something that every scholar does, nor that a scholar will take that ethnographic knowledge and go on to perform/publish/market it.

Further, writing children’s literature is a very specialized sort of task that, while I have no doubt in my mind that I could do it, comes with ethical questions that I don’t know if I want to face. I’m comfortable teaching at the college level, but do I feel comfortable disseminating a message to much younger minds? Children’s literature has historically been used to shape (and in many cases hobble) the minds and morals of children. Do I really want to throw my hat in? I don’t know the answer yet, but it’s not something I’ll undertake lightly.

Let’s recap. By suggesting that because I study folklore, I should write children’s literature, you are:

  • Demonstrating that you don’t understand the full extent of what folklorists do
  • Devaluing the work that folklorists are trained to do, instead suggesting that we should turn to crafting and selling capitalist products
  • Conflating studying something with being able to and/or desiring to creatively produce it and market it
  • Stating that you think I should take on the moral obligation of sending messages to children

I’d love to hear from some other folklorists on their experiences with this subject, but I think I’ve covered the main points where this kind of thing bothers me.

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  • Linda Sholly

    thank you for sharing this I have a better understanding of what you do. I don’t believe I have equated folklore with fairytales, but if I did I apologize.

    • jeana

      That’s why I write posts like this – so people understand better what I do as a folklorist.