Inspiration: Finding Something New in the Old

I recently found myself in the midst of a lively storytelling session with three of my nieces. Five-year-old Peyton told a tale of an evil witch who kidnapped a girl, holding her captive in a mountaintop castle. The story ended with a heroic rescue by the child’s parents as they steered a hot-air balloon up the dark side of the mountain.

Kadance and Anabelle, three and two-years-old respectively, recounted the same story (although with a few missing plot-points, which they made up for with their unlimited enthusiasm).

But it wasn’t until my seven-year-old nephew Jonah sidled into the middle of our group like a professional tale-slinger that the storytelling really took off. He recited accounts of Rumepstilskin and Snow White, complete with dramatic pauses, hand gestures, and well-timed pacing. After working the room for a while, Jonah explained that he’d learned about fairy tales in his second-grade class and promised to share more with us at a later time. (Hats off to his teacher for eliciting so much interest in storytelling and fairy tales!)

The experience reminded me of the timelessness of old stories (mythology, folk tales, and fairy tales) and it got me thinking about a collection of short stories I had stumbled upon recently–Please to See the King (view the: book trailer).  For this collection, Kathleen S. Allen found inspiration in traditional English and Irish ballads and spun them into something completely fresh and entertaining.

So I’m very pleased to have the following interview with Kathleen in which she discusses inspiration and discovering something new in the old:

What first attracted you to English and Irish ballads?

I was taking a class at Eastern Michigan University as part of the Master’s in Children’s Literature program called, Ballads, Legends and Folk Tales. I got the inspiration from the professor, Dr. G.B. Cross. He inspired me to write the stories based on ballads we had heard in class. I already knew many ballads because I sang and played English, Irish and Welsh ballads on my folk guitar since I was fifteen. I’ve been fascinated with English/Irish history for ages. My great-grandmother was from Ireland.

I originally wanted to include a CD with the book but I didn’t know anyone who could write an original arrangement for the ballads. At my book signing I did have my daughters, both gifted singers, sing some of the ballads.

What were the challenges you faced in using old source material?

I had to use versions that were in the Public Domain and got permission for using The Child Ballads from the publisher, Dover.

Did you sometimes find it difficult to be original when using a well-known tale for inspiration?

No, I took the song lyrics and went further with them. For example, in the ballad Alison Gross,it is about a witch who promises a man anything he wants, if he will just love her. He refuses, no matter what she offers and she turns him into a worm for rejecting her! In my story, I added a tween sister who witnesses her older brother falling for a witch and his subsequent change into a worm. Another example is Reynardine. It is a song about a “rake”—what we would call a player today— not necessarily a vampire but I made him a vampire who preys on young women. I have the brother of a woman become a vampire hunter. That’s why I say “based on” or “inspired by.”

What books/websites do you recommend to writers who want to learn more about ballads?

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Volume Set . Lots of information in those! And Indiana University has a department on folklore.

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