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Research from the Nordic Children are Telling -project

Children (re)tell fictional narratives.
The interplay of convention and creativity

Maj Asplund Carlsson, Department of education, Göteborg University

Paper presented at the 8th European Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction, August 24-28, 1999, Göteborg, Sweden.

The headings of the article:

* The morphology of the child tale
* Five Nordic child tales
* References
* Appendix

The Scandinavian and Finnish "Fairytale journey" is a project supported by the Nordic Council of Ministers with the purpose of supporting and enhancing children's production of their own culture in a Nordic context. Children from five Nordic countries - Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland - narrate stories with teachers and other children as audience. The stories are written down and then sent by post or email to children in the other countries. These stories are created as a joint project by adults and children and provide an excellent example of post-modern collective manufacturing in a developmental context. Although the stories are oral by origin, they are written down and become part of a literate community. In Sweden, the creation of stories has lately been connected to the development of computer usage and ICT and the stories are produced as multi-media productions. The analysis presented here can be used on all kinds of stories produced by children, no matter what media are used and regardless of national or cultural origin.

In analysing the stories produced by the children, I have categorised characters and events or functions according to the phenomenographic method tried out in relation to children's retelling of narratives (Asplund Carlsson, 1998). Mandler (1978) has previously dealt with the structure and characterisation of children's stories, while Pitcher and Prelinger (1963) and Applebee (1978) focussed on themes and motifs. There is also all the reason to acknowledge the conventions of children's literature in particular in this context when children's creativity and their own culture are in focus. At what extent do children discern and follow literary conventions and to what extent does their creativity find an expression?

The morphology of the child tale

Just as Propp wrote the morphology of the Russian folk tale, one of the purposes of the literary part of the project has been to try and establish a morphology of the child tale. The overall structure of the narratives follows mainly two patterns: the focussed chain pattern and the coherent narrative. Often the narrative is completed with a tag narrative.

The fragmented story often told by younger children is almost non-existent in this context. The focussed chain narrative is characterised by the chaining of episodes - often encounters - with and, then and so. The coherent narrative (described. e.g. by Märak, 1994) contains an exposition, a goal formulation, events trying to fulfil the goal, obstacles, the overcoming of the obstacles, and finally the solution, or end.

Certain functions are used in order to construct the chain of events or the narrative. Just like Propp's first function absentations (Propp's term) are much used, and as a conclusion - homecomings. The folk tale's final function, the wedding, is often replaced by going to bed in the child tale. Other functions that are crucial are encounters with either friends or enemies. Some stories, in fact, consist of encounters only. Gifts are exchanged, and objects are gained or lost. Meals are similar in function to the gift exchange, as characters share a meal or somebody is called home for a meal. The function of play is also a prominent feature in the child tale with no correspondence in the folk tale. As in the folk tale, conflicts, fights and even sudden death occur. These events can be used both as obstacles and also as goal-fulfilling functions, while play is an example of goal fulfilment or a temporal delay rather than an obstacle.

Among the dramatis personae in Propp's terms three categories are especially worth mentioning. The animal character, the miniature character and the stranger, the "other". Below I have analysed five Nordic tales in order to exemplify the results of the overall analysis. The structures, the functions and the characters are then being made explicit and discussed in relation to conventions in children's literature.

Five Nordic child tales

The Swedish tale is structured as a main narrative with a tag. The exposition contains a presentation of the protagonist, an extraterrestrial creature, a goal description "was going to eat all the candies" and a direction "into the candy bag". When a human hand comes into the candy bag in order to capture the creature, a problem arises. In this new situation a new implicit goal is formulated, the creature wants to get out, but the old goal of eating candies is not forsaken in favour of the new goal. Some hidden scissors help the creature to get out and he manages to eat the candies as well. The main narrative is concluded with the extraterrestrial lying down on a bed. Then a minor story is tagged on with a doll's house and toy people but these have no real function in the tale. Again they go to bed and thus the chain of events ends, but with no real resolution.

This is a narrative strategy used by other oral storytellers like the Yugoslavians singers whose songs were explored by Parry and Lord in the 1950's (Lord, 1960). Similar in structure to the songs of the Iliad and the Odyssey, these long epic poems consist of narrative rings connected to each other by "tags" which are fetched from the singers' latent storage of narrative conventions. The child narrator constructs his story chain with the aid of words like "then" and "so", which also is typical of oral composition.

The characters are both familiar and alien. The extraterrestrial is a conventional figure in the context of children's culture. They are found in animated films but also in written texts. The toy family reminds us of the rich occurrence of dwarfs, midgets and leprechauns in children's literature, like Mary Norton's borrowers, for instance. According to Hunt (1995) the miniature world offers a dual perspective, that of the child as well as the adult, and the child reader may identify either with the toy people or with the full size child, who is usually the main character in such narratives.

There are more motifs that can be considered literary conventional. The candy bag with the forbidden candy becomes a trap. The alien creature has an ambiguous longing for freedom as well as an urge to enjoy the forbidden candies This is a common motif in the folk tale, which could well be subject to Freudian interpretation. More earthbound is the symbol of the bed as a place of rest and as a conclusion of the adventure. If the marriage is the function, which concludes the folk tale, according to Propp (1965), going to bed is the function, which often closes the child tale.

The narrative structure of the Finnish tale is similar to the Swedish. The protagonist is presented in the first sentences, the exposition, and the character, his loneliness and deserted position is the problem. The goal of the narrative is to change his situation into a more social and less lonely world. The encounter with a snail makes a turn in the narrative. Although the wasp is still looking for his family, the snail invites him home and they live forever together. The tag narrative consists of a description of a rainy day, but on the whole this is a good example of a "well-formed" story. The point of the story is that although you are lonely and without family, you could find a friend to live with. The narrative describes a process that is also one of the conventions of children's literature, that is, the process of growing up. A child is deserted by his parents but finds a substitute (Uncle Snail). The storyteller has picked two animals, also a conventional device, a wasp and a snail which are two opposites or even complementary, but still they can interact and share a home, like Kenneth Grahame's Mole, Water Rat, Badger and Toad. Again the toy world in the snail's house is present. The bookshelf and the invitation to read are a meta-fictional allusion in this context.

The Danish tale opens with a couple of characters, which could be fetched from any folk or fairy tale; a bear, a princess, a prince and a king. The story could entail an allusion to Beauty and the Beast, for instance. Then two balloons, a cucumber, a bear family and a dog enter the scene. The characters are several and varying.

Structurally, the tale is built up by a number of minor episodes tied together by "but" and "then". The narrative changes direction after every section. Episodes and word exchanges are short and sententious. The lines are absurd and have no real influence on the succession of events. The whole narrative is like a dream sequence relying on both the inconsistent flow of characters and the dialogue. The balloons have pumpkins as cousin and there is a cucumber as well, and maybe the pumpkin is a crossbreed of cucumber and balloon? Genres like Dadaism and surrealism but also some post-war children's poetry, for instance the books by Lennart Hellsing, come into our minds. Also more conventional motifs are visible. Two families take part in the narrative and the end with the wedding is purely conventional of the folk tale.

The main characters of the Norwegian "adventure" (tale) are also animals: a horse, a wolf, a lion, a monkey, a gorilla and the Pink Panther. The horse encounters the wolf and then the Pink Panther, who sets off to Majorca, where he is eaten by a lion. The lion encounters the monkey and then the gorilla. Structurally, this tale reminds us of the Danish, with episodes chained together but while the Danish princess is still there at the end, the initially presented horse gets lost quite soon. The schema of episodes is consistent in the series of encounters, while the characters vary. This is an example of a tale from an early developmental stage, in line with Applebee's (1978) reasoning. The narrator's personal experience is expressed in the allusion to Majorca, which has no counterpart in conventional children's literature.

The Icelandic narrative is about a troll, which is a creature from Nordic folk mythology. A troll is simultaneously well known and stranger, and a representative of the "stranger within us" in Kristeva's interpretation. The troll is both like us and unlike us, but in this narrative he is a substitute child. The narrator knows all the procedure around having a cold and a temperature, for instance, that one should drink a lot of water. The episodic chain pattern is the same as in the previous tales. If the goal of the story is the fact that the trolls want to find out if the children have been nice, the obstacles for the investigating troll multiply, through his illness and his having to sleep and eat.

Considering all five tales, one could say that the main structure is the episodic chain narrative, which is not surprising considering the oral mode of narrating and the children's age group (4-6). The Swedish and in particular the Finnish tales are more in line with a coherent narrative, with a minor tag. The conventional characterisation is present in the form of trolls, animals and toy figures. Strange and exotic features are the extraterrestrial and the setting of Majorca, while the familiar features are more prevalent in motifs, themes and some details, like a torn skirt and a temperature going down. The conventional narrative is expressed above all with all the animals, maybe a heritage from Aesop's fables. Features from post modern children's life worlds like a journey to Majorca and the extraterrestrial are fighting for space against a heavy tradition in the form of princes, bears and trolls.

In another study (Asplund Carlsson, Pramling Samuelsson, Soponyai, and Wen, 2001), we looked at children's use of literary conventions in oral storytelling from a cultural point of view. Six different categories of character have been distinguished in this context: 1) family in the extended sense; 2) ordinary humans, like postmen, teachers, shop assistants, physicians; 3) extraordinary humans, like policemen, firemen, pirates; 4) harmless animals, like cats, dogs, horses 5) dangerous animals, like wolves and lions 6) fantastic characters, like skeletons, Batman, vampires, aliens and trolls.

The events and functions are similar in kind to other children's narratives. Encounters, departures and arrivals, play, meals, sleep, but also fights, conflicts and sudden deaths are functions, which are discernible in this material. Gifts in all forms, as well as the gain or the loss of different objects is another function, which is highly dominant. However, cultural differences are discernible; while Chinese children describe play and co-operation, Hungarian children tell heroic epics and Swedish children describe idyllic pastorals and family outings.
The computerised narratives do not differ substantially from the more traditionally told oral narratives, except on one point, that is the characterisation. The computer nerd, the hacker, and well-known figures from computer games come into these stories, although the structures of the stories do not alter in line with the possibilities of the medium. The linear narrative is still prevalent regardless of medium.

Then what is creative in this context, if we want to enhance children's creativity and shaping their own culture? So far, it seems that I have only described adherence to conventions of different forms; those of folk and fairy tales as well as the well-known children's literature. It seems though that there is no conflict between conventionality and creativity in the oral composition of stories. The usage of conventions, in the mixture of the strange and the well known, the absurd and the traditional features, is an expression of creativity. The lack of coherence and logic reveal the oral nature of the story telling. These stories show that children make use of different literary conventions and devices, although they do not adhere to them subserviently and consistently.


Applebee, A. N. (1978). The child's concept of story. University of Chicago Press.
Asplund Carlsson, M. (1998). The doorkeeper and the beast. The experience of literary narratives in educational contexts. Skrifter utgivna vid Litteraturvetenskapliga institutionen vid Göteborgs universitet, nr 33, Göteborg.
Asplund Carlsson, M., Pramling Samuelsson, I., Soponyai, A. & Wen Q. (2001). The dog's tale. Chinese, Hungarian and Swedish children's narrative conventions. Accepted for publication in International Journal of Early Years Education, Oct, 2001.
Hunt, C. G. (1995). "Dwarf, small world, shrinking child. Three versions of miniature." Children's Literature, 23, 115-136.
Lord, A.B. (1960). The singer of tales. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.
Mandler, J.M. (1978). "A code in the node. The use of a story schema in retrieval." Discourse processes, 1, 14-35.
Pitcher, E.G. & Prelinger, E. (1963). Children tell stories. An analysis of fantasy. New York: International UP.
Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the folktale. 2d ed. Austin.: Univ. of Texas Press.


Utomjordingen (The extraterrestrial) - Sweden

Once there was an extraterrestrial who entered a candybag and was going to eat all the candies. Then a hand got into the candy bag and wanted to catch the extraterrestrial so he put the extraterrestrial in a bag and put the little bag into the big bag.

Then the man went home. Then he was home already. Then the extraterrestrial wanted to come out of the little bag. Had some scissors in his pocket, got out of the little bag. He ate the long candy as well. Cut the big bag and went out. Jumped down from the big bag. Then he went to lie down in the big bed.

Then it was morning. He jumped out of the big bed. Went to the doll's house and met some toy people there. Sat down in the toy sofa, because there was a toy daddy there and the extraterrestrial talked to him. Then they lay down in bed.

Sagan om den lilla getingen (The tale about the little wasp) - Finland

Once there was a little flower. And in the flower lived a wasp. The wasp was so small there was plenty of room in the flower. He had lost his mum and dad so he was all alone. He never met a wasp who was his dad or mum.

But one day as he flew over a stream he found a little snail. And the wasp picked up the snail and wondered what was in the shell. Right then a snail came out of the shell and the little wasp asked "Who are you?" "I'm uncle Snail". And the wasp asked: "Where do you live?" And the snail replied "That's obvious! In this shell! - "What does it look like inside?" asked the little wasp. "It's really nice", answered the snail. "Do you want to have a look?" said the snail "I'd love to", answered the little wasp.

In the shell there was a bench and a lamp and lot of tiny flower seeds. And the wasp asked "Why do you have flower seeds there?" "Because I eat them" said the snail. - "Wasps do that as well" said the wasp. Then the snail said "do you like fish?" But the wasp answered no, because once a fish had caught her big brother.
Then the little snail said "Have you seen my book shelves?" The wasp said he had because he really had seen it.

"Do you want to read a book?" said the snail. Then the wasp replied that he couldn't because he had to go on an outing to find his mum and dad. The snail said goodbye to the wasp and the wasp flew back to his flower. But then the snail and the wasp lived forever.

But one day it started to rain and they couldn't be together that day. But then the next day they could be together and live all days. Snipp snapp snoot that's the end of the tale.

Der var engang en stor bjørn... (Once there was a big bear) - Danmark

Once there was a big bear who wanted to eat the princess in the castle. But the girl's father he wouldn't have it. He didn't want the prince she could like, wanted to marry her. Only the one that her father would like.

But then two balloons came and said: Don't be upset about what your father said, because I have two cousins called pumpkin. Then a cucumber came suddenly and said: Hello.

Then the prince said "From here on nobody could be bothered to get married!" Then the cucumber said "it's because you don't get on with the princess's father". But then the prince said: "If only there's a princess, everything's going to be all right".

But then the bear came running back and said: "Now let's eat the princess". And all the cubs and the bear mum and bear dad ¼ But hey couldn't manage the princess because she only sits in the castle.

But the princess was going out, and she saw a dog and it took a bite in her best summer skirt that she'd ever had. And the end of it was that the prince and the princess got married and lived happily ever after.

Eventyr om dyr på tur (A tale about animals on a walk) - Norge

Once there was a horse wanted to take a walk. And once there was a wolf wanted to take a walk. They were going to the Kvam forest, Where they saw an animal wanted to "bob". Which means they just wanted to walk on and on. They bobbed and bobbed and bobbed all the way until they met the Pink Panther. They asked " Can you send us a card when you have gone on vacation? " Yes", he replied. He was going to Majorca. He sent a letter to them. He met a lion there and the lion ate the pink panther!

Then the lion met a monkey and then he ate that one too. A little later he met a giant gorilla. They said. "Hello". They bought themselves a dummy each and they called them the "Majorca-dummies".

Tröllid sem var veikt (The troll who was ill) - Iceland

Once there was a troll who had a temperature. It had become infected by another troll. The troll got so much better when it had a lot of water to drink. The troll could drink a lot of water because there was a well near the mountain. When the troll was well again it went down to Gryla and had something to eat at her place and it also had some whale-oil. Then it went home and went to bed. It woke up at 7.30 am and went to the other trolls and they walked around in the village in order to find out whether the children were kind.

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