Eileen Colwell, editor,
Folk Tales from Asia
for Children Everywhere

(Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1975)

Always on the lookout for good folklore collections, I was happy to find a set of two volumes from Asia, an area whose folklore I know little of, for sale at a local library book sale. Folk Tales from Asia for Children Everywhere is a pair of slim, hardback books -- part of a much larger series -- each containing eight short folk stories from nations throughout the continent. Each is written by a local storyteller and illustrated by a local artist, so each maintains the flavor of its country of origin.

The books are the product of an idea generated by the Asian Cultural Centre for Unesco, whose members thought there should be more quality books for children that share these rich folk traditions with the rest of the world. By using only local creators in the effort, the collaborators were striving for authenticity in tone and, as they note in the introduction to the first volume, "this authenticity is worth noting, for all too often it is outsiders who tell, with questionable accuracy, the 'quaint' tales of faraway lands. But in this book there is no quaintness, only the real flavor of Asia."

Certainly I came away from reading these books with the sense that I had been exposed to different cultures. These do not read like the European and American stories with which I am more familiar. And that, of course, is what I was hoping for!

Offerings from the first book are "The Crow and the Sparrow" from Bangladesh, in which a bird betrays his friend but pays the price as he tries to follow through on his threat; "The Royal Journey to Heaven," a tale from India in which a clever adviser to the foolish king proves too clever for his own (and the king's) good; Iran's "Mr. Friend and Mr. Foe," in which a kind man steals wisdom from a lion, tiger, wolf and fox but an unkind man gets his just desserts; and "The Young Man and the Tiger" from Korea," in which an odd assortment of travel companions wins a man a bride.

Also, "Tha Kham the Pebble-shooter" from Laos, in which an idle skill won a poor orphan a home at court; Singapore's "Why the Hill is Red," in which a young boy solves a deadly problem for his raja -- and pays a surprising price for his wisdom; "Makato and the Cowrie Shell," a story from Thailand in which a boy's frugal and industrious behavior earns him a kingdom; and "The Story of the Betel and the Areca," a Vietnamese tale that explains a wedding custom through great tragedy for one young family.

Book 2 continues the series with "The Story of Rice," which explains how the gods gifted the Indonesian people with this wonderful food and how they fought to keep it; "The Picture Wife," in which a foolish man and his beautiful wife best a greedy Japanese lord; "The Four Bald Men" of Khmer, in which the four men of the title pay an awful price for helping two men in dire need; "The Adventures of King Suton" of Malaysia, in which a kind ruler takes a second wife and must go through great travails to keep her when the first wife objects; "The Old Woman in the Gourd," a Nepalese tale in which a hungry fox, tiger and monkey are outwitted by their intended feast; "The Farmer's Wife and the Tiger," in which a woman in Pakistan refuses to yield her milking cow or her husband's plowing oxen to a hungry predator; "The Fisherman's Daughter" from the Philippines, who must win her freedom from a love-struck god; and "How the Lizard Fought the Leopard," a Sri Lankan tale in which the spotted cat proves much less clever than he thought.

This series, although designed for children, is a nice, quick introduction for anyone interested in a taste of Asian lore.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 21 February 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.