Folktales with Lessons for Life

Folktales are such a wonderful part of children’s literature. There are so many tales that have been passed down through the generations and we have learned so many valuable lessons from them. One of the things that I find especially fascinating is reading folktales from a wide variety of cultures to see how similar situations are handled differently and how each culture tries to educate its children on how they are supposed to behave. The list could go on and on, but here are ten that we have recently read that are completely non-traditional for mainstream western world and quite wonderful.

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one grain of riceOne Grain of Rice is a marvelous mathematical folktale by Demi that both of my girls really enjoyed. In this tale a raja decrees that everyone in his province must give him nearly all of their yearly rice crops. He promises to store the rice in case of famine. When the famine does come, the raja does not make good on his promises and instead lets his people go hungry. A smart village girl manages to trick the raja into giving her most of the rice so that she can feed her people. She does this by asking him for only one grain of rice, but that for the next 30 days he will have to double the amount. The raja doesn’t mind parting with one grain of rice, but by the end of the story, he has given Rani more than one billion grains of rice. He realizes the error of his ways and Rani makes him promise that from then on, he only takes as much rice as he actually needs.

magic paintbrushThis classic folktale from China tells of a poor boy who wants more than anything to be a painter, but he lacks supplies. He dreams one night and receives a magic paintbrush with which he does good deeds. A greedy emperor hears about the boy and demands selfish things of Ma Ling. Ma Ling tricks the emperor in order to save himself and get back to using the paintbrush to help others. This might be a good book for older children learning about other cultures while also learning about the joy we get from helping others rather than only thinking of ourselves.

tongue cut sparrow There are many folktales that try to teach children that greed can do more harm than good. The Tongue-Cut Sparrow is a Japanese folktale that shows this concept embodied by the kindhearted husband and his mean-spirited, greedy wife. The husband is rewarded for his gentle nature, his manners, and his undemanding ways. When the wife’s greed takes over, she learns a very valuable lesson in how to treat others.

Boy-from-the-Dragon-PalaceAnother Japanese folktale that warns of the problems with greed is The Boy from the Dragon Palace. In the retelling by Margaret Read MacDonald, when a poor flower seller gives his extra flowers to the Dragon King he is given a gift in return – a snot-nosed boy who grants wishes. All the flower seller needs to do is feed the boy shrimp with vinegar and sugar and his wishes will be granted. He keeps making bigger wishes, but is angry at having to care for the boy. When he locks the boy out of his home, his wishes all disappear and he is left with nothing. As the snot-nosed boy says, “You just can’t help some humans…and he never once said ‘thank you.'”

too much of a good thingThe concept of excess is very hard for a child to comprehend, especially when they have a desire to possess everything that they see. That is why the book Too Much of A Good Thing, which explains the special day of Shabbat, is good for any child, regardless of their religious background. The story focuses on two characters, King Antoninus of Rome and Rabbi Judah. King Antoninus wants everything to be BIGGER as a way to show his power. When he shares a quiet Sabbath meal with Rabbi Judah and his family, he is shocked by the simplicity, but amazed by the taste. He tries to recreate Shabbat in his kingdom, but goes to excess and quickly turns the beauty of the day of rest into a horrible situation where people run out of food yet cannot work to get more. Only when he learns the value of taking one day a week completely off, does he understand the true beauty of Shabbat.

wooden swordOn the flip side of being greedy is truly being happy with what you have. That’s the main message in The Wooden Sword: A Jewish Folktale from Afghanistan, retold by Ann Redish Stampler. This wonderful tale shows a shah going into his kingdom dressed in common clothing to see if his people were “sad or happy, rich or poor, foolish or wise.” He goes to the poorest section of the poorest street and finds a Jewish family laughing despite having so little. They offer to have him join them even though they barely have enough for themselves. He then tests the family’s faith over the next few days, but no matter what challenges life (or the shah) throws at them, their faith and positive thinking get them through. Aside from being a marvelous story of perseverance and positivity, I also love seeing Muslims and Jews together in one story and in peace.

tunjurTunjur! Tunjur! Tunjur! is a Palestinian folktale also retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. This is an ingenious story that tries to teach children that tricking people and taking things that are not rightfully yours is wrong, plain and simple. In the story, little pot is a child and takes things that don’t belong to her – honey from a merchant and the Queen’s jewels. Her mother is about to teach her that what she did was wrong, but little pot sneaks out one last time and learns her lesson the hard way. A wonderful book for preschoolers.

hired handWe are all taught the Golden Rule to treat others as you would like to be treated, but it doesn’t always sink in. In The Hired Hand, young readers get the lesson that we receive more when we treat others with kindness and that laziness gets us nowhere. Old Sam is a hard worker, but his son, Young Sam, not so much. When a man comes asking to learn their woodcutting trade, Young Sam treats him poorly and it comes back to bite him in the end. Only when Young Sam apologizes for his actions and promises to amend his ways is he able to move on to a more productive life.


give-up-geckoA common issue with children, and even adults at times, is that they come up with an idea to do something, try, fail, and give up. In Give Up, Gecko! A folktale from Uganda, all of the animals are thirsty and need to find water. They decide whoever finds water will be the new chief. One by one the animals try, and fail, to find water. Finally, the little gecko tries. Everyone tells him that he should give up, but the gecko refuses and is the one who succeeds in discovering water. No matter what difficulties we are faced with, giving up is the only way that we fail.

bat's big gameBeing on the winning team is fun, but being a part of a team is really the most important thing. That’s the lesson that Bat needs to learn in Bat’s Big Game, a retelling of one of Aesop’s fables by Margaret Read MacDonald. This tale is very simplistic, but it gets the point across very well.


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