Monday, February 11, 2013

The Wooden Sword - an interview with Ann Stampler

Today I am pleased to welcome Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword, the winner of a 2013 Sydney Taylor Honor Book Award*  in the Older Readers category.

Ann Stampler

First of all, my congratulations on your book's Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

What did you do when you heard the news?
Thank you so much!  Receiving recognition from the Association of Jewish Libraries is extremely significant to me personally, and in my career as a writer.

I feel a sense of responsibility and stewardship when I retell folktales --  in terms of language and humor and all of the things that make picture books work, but also in terms of presenting tales in a way that is authentic to their cultural context. The version of The Wooden Sword that I retold here is from Afghanistan, far from my Eastern European background, and my editor, the illustrator, and I worked hard to remain true to its roots.  So when Aimee Lurie called to give me the news, I was overjoyed!  An award from people who know and love Jewish children’s books is always enormously gratifying, but with this particular book, receiving the Sydney Taylor Honor was a very special affirmation.

The awards hadn’t been announced publicly yet, so I couldn’t share the news with the world, but I immediately told my editor, Abby Levine, my husband and kids, and of course, my mother, all of whom know how much Sydney Taylor recognition means to me, and who celebrated with me.
You mentioned in the author's note that you grew up knowing a "mean-spirited" European telling of "The Wooden Sword." How did you find this Afghani version?
I didn’t realize that the Afghani version of The Wooden Sword existed until Natalie Blitt, who was then with PJ Library, told me it was her favorite folktale.  Given the version I knew (and didn’t love), I was more than surprised.  But as I probed to find out why on earth she was so fond of this story, it emerged that the version she was thinking of came from Afghanistan.  And as I researched the Afghani story, learning more about the culture of the Jews who lived with their Muslim neighbors in Afghanistan for a thousand years, I loved it. It was hilarious, but at the same time, its message was profound.
Given that many older folktales are "mean-spirited" or have grim (no pun intended) endings, do you think that they impart different lessons than the milder, gentler versions written for modern children?
This is a complex question that has inspired some brilliant writing; I would refer people who find the question as fascinating as I do to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses Of Enchantment and Alison Lurie’s work on folk and fairytales.
Suffice to say, for myself, declawing and misrepresenting folktales is right up there with drawing overalls on Maurice Sendak’s Mickey in In The Night Kitchen so as not to offend library patrons with his nakedness.  (Not sure if this actually happened, but as a folklore person, I love urban legends – especially those that pertain to books!)  I am crazy about fractured fairy tales and stories that riff on well-known folktales, but bowdlerizing folktales – no!  Just no.
As a child, "The Princess and the Pea," was my favorite folktale. Which were your favorite folktales as a child and which did you share with your own children?
The folktales I retell in book form tend to be my favorites, so I can answer this question by pointing to my books.  Also, my father was very fond of Chelm stories*, so I heard a lot of those as a child as well.  With my own children, there was a strong desire to hear tales turned on their heads, and I can’t even tell you how many times I read them Trivizas’ The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig.
Your commitment to popularizing folktales is admirable. I would hazard a guess that among the world's nations, our country does not rank among the highest in the sharing of traditional folktales - even ones that originated in our own country. I am always surprised to see how few American children are familiar with traditional songs and tales. The Sydney Taylor Award seeks to address this problem as it relates to Jewish culture, but it addresses a larger issue as well. What do you think we (modern society as a whole) lose when we forget our traditional stories?
America is an immigrant culture populated with families that arrive here with folktales that reflect their diverse backgrounds.  I love that when I go to a library in Glendale, California and share a Jewish story from Poland, a Syrian Christian woman tells me of a similar folktale she learned growing up in Aleppo.  
The stories I learned from my family growing up were not American in the sense of coming from Native American communities, Pilgrims or pioneers.  They were European stories my grandparents brought with them, but that changed to reflect their American immigrant experience. There is something profoundly American about those Syrian-American children, who arrive at school knowing more about the folklore of Aleppo than Babe the Blue Ox, enjoying a Jewish folktale from Eastern Europe in their family’s new country.
While our children might not share a common body of folklore, we can rejoice in the many different traditions their stories represent, and encourage them to share their tales with one another, to let them know that their parents and librarians can lead them to books and other resources that tell stories from their ancestral homes, as well as their common, very diverse home in America.
Of course, traditional stories deserve a place in our children’s lives, and in all of our lives. They can teach us not only about ourselves and our own families’ roots, but about our friends’ and neighbors’ communities.  The tales that survive beyond academic collections tend to be extremely entertaining, wise, deep, satisfying, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.  Folktales convey our values, our challenges and triumphs, in a way that is accessible and moving, and that affects us on a deep, personal level that is very difficult to reach with didactic instruction.
In many religious and cultural traditions, our most deeply held convictions and beliefs are explored through stories about our ancestors, bringing their beliefs and struggles into our daily lives, illuminating our path.  I would never suggest that folktales elevate us to that level or should be revered, but I do think that before dismissing our time-honored stories, we ought to think about how relatable, profoundly meaningful, and successful in conveying our values, folktales can be. 
Thank you so much for sharing your time and your thoughtful answers.  It's truly been a pleasure.  I hope you have as much success with your newest book, The Cats on Ben-Yehuda Street.

* Note: If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the Chelm stories that Ann mentioned, this article by Matti Friedman from The Times of Israel  (March, 2012) will shed some light on their origin. LT

All of the medal and honor winners will be on blog tour this week.  A complete schedule of  the Sydney Taylor Award blog tour is available below and at the Association of Jewish Libraries.


Ann Redisch Stampler, author of The Wooden Sword
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Shelf-Employed 

Carol Liddiment, illustrator of The Wooden Sword
Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Ann Koffsky’s Blog 

Doreen Rappaport, author of Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Bildungsroman

Linda Glaser, author of Hannah’s Way
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers Category
At This Messy Life 

Adam Gustavson, illustrator of Hannah’s Way
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger ReadersCategory
At Here in HP 

Louise Borden, author of His Name was Raoul Wallenberg
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers Category
At Randomly Reading 

Deborah Heiligman, author of Intentions
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers Category
At The Fourth Musketeer 


Sheri Sinykin, author of Zayde Comes to Live
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Read, Write, Repeat 

Kristina Swarner, illustrator of Zayde Comes to Live
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Writing and Illustrating.


Linda Leopold Strauss, author of The Elijah Door
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Pen and Prose 

Alexi Natchev, illustrator of The Elijah Door
Sydney Taylor Honor Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Madelyn Rosenberg’s Virtual Living Room 


Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

*From the Association of Jewish Libraries website:

The purpose of the Sydney Taylor Book Award is to encourage the publication of outstanding books of Jewish content for children and teens, books that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. It is hoped that official recognition of such books will inspire authors, encourage publishers, inform parents and teachers, and intrigue young readers. The committee also hopes that by educating readers about the Jewish experience, they can engender pride in Jewish readers while building bridges to readers of other backgrounds.

1 comment:

  1. I loved the Wooden Sword. Thank you for sharing this interview!


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