Children (re)tell fictional
The interplay of convention and creativity
Maj Asplund Carlsson, Department of education,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
To the beginning of Children are