Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva, Thailand

The Relevance of Myths and Legends in Contemporary Children’s Literature

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Jane Vejjajiva. I’m a writer from Thailand, a country known as “The Land of Smiles.” We have a long history of over 3,000 years, with myths and legends that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Traditionally in Thailand, we passed down our folklore through storytelling. Our society was an oral society. Monks chanted in temples. Students learned by listening to teachers. We kept historical records by telling.

The question in our modern time is, “Has our society changed?” Have we adopted the habit of reading and writing? If so, what kind of books do children’s book authors write today? What do young people read today? Do the stories that are written and read take inspiration from myths and legends that used to be told and not written?

Let's start with the term “children’s book”. This term is quite new in reading society in Thailand. Looking as far back as post-World War II, my mother’s generation, it cannot be denied that Thai kids shared stories and books with adults. Classical literature and folktales were read by kids even though the content and style may not have been suitable for young readers.

Take “The Story of Phra Aphai Mani” for example. I myself used to read it when I was young. It is one of the most widely read classic stories, written by a poet named Sunthorn Pu. He wrote more than 1,200 pages during the years 1821 to 1841. At first glance, it is a fantastic adventure story about Prince Aphai Mani and his brother. The story shows a world in which supernatural powers and magic predominate. However, lofty passions are also major themes. Love stories between Prince Aphai and the Sea Giantess, the Mermaid, the Eastern Princess Suvarnamali, and the Western Princess Laweng are told in detail with lots of erotic elements. The book was never intended for children.

Some folktales can be considered suitable for children. They were told before being published in many forms. Here's a popular folktale in central Thailand, “The Golden Goby Fish.” It's a story of a young lady named Eai whose mother died and was reborn as a goby fish to protect her from the stepmother. Motherly love is at the centre of the story, but there's also the jealousy and cruelty from the step-mother and her daughter that raise questions about whether the story is appropriate for kids.

Translations of foreign books for children opened a new horizon for young readers. Tales from foreign authors like Hans Christian Andersen were translated, followed by books for young readers like Cheaper by the Dozen, Little House on the Prairie, and Daddy Long Legs. All became well-loved books among Thai kids and new editions keep appearing for new generations.

The market for children’s books was then opened to original works by Thai authors. Some of them took inspiration from foreign works. Some are original.

They are stories that cover all walks of life:
From true stories about ethnic groups, such as “Flowers on the Mountain: Life Stories from Karen Children”, to Childhood in Northeast Thailand, for example “Child from Isan”, to Life in the palace, like “When Grandma and Grandpa Were Young” to A girl’s city life, such as “Kaew the Naughty,” by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Other titles published are unique each in their own way.

The student uprising of October 1976 was one historical event that left scars on the nation. Some stories, fiction and non-fiction, revived the event and the aftermath.  One example is ‘A Girl with Red Star Hat’ by Viriya Srimanta. It is a true story of a six-year-old girl who follows her father into the forest for six years.

The author tells her childhood story and writes in the foreword:
‘Once my father asked me whether I had any regrets being in a forest and coming back empty-handed. I told him to be sure that I had no regret, on the contrary, I was glad to have such a vivid childhood that I would not trade it for anything in the world. I am grateful to be born as a daughter to a fighter like him.’

There is my own book: ‘The Happiness of Kati’. The book came out in 2004 when the market was saturated with fantasy books, after the tremendous success of the ‘Harry Potter’ series. A story of a little girl who lives with Grandma and Grandpa in a Thai house by a canal in Ayutthaya appeared like fresh air to readers. Many items mentioned in the book bring back nostalgia for the ‘good times’ of the past. The main theme of losing a member of the family, a mother, and of the grieving process can be seen as presented in a Buddhist way. After winning the Southeast Asian Write (SEAWrite) Award in 2006, the book sells very well and is now in its 54th print-run with six languages licensed overseas: US, Japan, Laos, France, Catalonia, Germany and Australia. A Korean edition will come out soon. It will also become a feature film by the end of the year.

Still, I do not think that we are a reading society.

Statistics from UNESCO show that for every 1,000 Thai people, 13,100 kg of paper are used for printing and writing, compared with 98,000 kg per 1,000 people in Hong Kong and Singapore. Other figures also confirm that the newer generations of Thais read less than children in other developing countries.

It has been a long, hard struggle to promote reading in Thailand. Both the public and private sectors have launched campaigns to encourage children to read more. What is the problem? Is it because the books in the market are not interesting enough? Do kids still prefer listening to reading? Do they love to read stories from the past or the current times?

Let us see what books we have for Thai children.

A survey conducted in 2004 by Nuanjan Chanwiwattanan in a Master's degree thesis: “A Study of Contents and Concepts of Fiction for Children Published in 2004”, shows five issues that appeared as main themes in contemporary children’s works.

They are

  1. rural ways of life – is it interesting?
  2. tradition and culture as opposed to modern ways of living
  3. child problems in behavior – boring?
  4. adventure and fantasy
  5. social conditions that affect children’s lives

In the study, some works were analyzed. I have some examples.

For the theme rural ways of life, the researcher chose “Our Village, Our Home” by Sawang Kongyok. It is a story of a boy named Jom. His family migrates to a big city after a harvest season because the villagers have no work. His father gets a job at a construction site. No one is happy with their lives there and they finally move back to the village. They restore the land around the house and create a vegetable plot. Authorities give them more advice and the villagers manage to have income, and no longer need to go into town for work.

For the theme, “tradition and culture as opposed to modern ways of living,” the researcher chose “Young Boxer” by Chid Chayakorn: Kla is a 15-year-old boy. He has an uncle who was a renowned boxer and teaches boxing in France. He has a passion for Thai boxing, though his friends find it out of fashion, not to be compared with taekwondo, and laugh at him. He proves himself to be a true fighter when he helps one of his friends who gets into trouble with a gangster.

For the theme, “child problems in behavior,” the researcher chose ‘Wang Takien Treasure’ by Choti Srisuwan: Yuttana and Somphob are friends from different social strata. Yuttana feels inferior because his father is a poor farmer whereas his friend’s father is wealthy. Yuttana develops a gambling habit and gets involved in a plan to rob an old village temple of its treasure.

For the theme, “adventure and fantasy,” the researcher chose “The Adventure of Mucha Nu” by Keetakan: Mucha Nu is a mixed creature with the body of a monkey but with a scaley fish tail. He is one of the heroes in the epic tale of Ramayana. He's the son of the great monkey, Hanuman, and a giant's daugther, Suwanna Mucha. In this story, at the age of 5, Mucha Nu was wild and naughty in the underwater land. He was forced to go to find his mother in the legendary Himmapan Forest. He was told to be tolerant, compassionate, and forgiving. The story tells of his adventures and how he finds his mother while attaining these three virtues.

For the theme, “social conditions that affect children’s lives,” the researcher chose “Kamsai” by Virasak Suyala: It is a story of a boy who lives with his mother in a village while his father is forced to work as a taxi driver in a big city because the village has been flooded two years in a row. His father returns with money only to find that his son is addicted to on-line computer games, skips school, and gets into trouble with other students.

These themes are mostly connected to the present day, except for “adventure and fantasy.” The sample book, “The Adventures of Macha Nu”, is a story based on Ramayana, a tale from the past.

If those themes and books do not appeal to young readers, are there other themes that might be more appealing?

How about tales from the past?

As I mentioned earlier, there have been many attempts to promote reading among Thai kids. “100 Best Books for Young Readers,” prepared by the Thai Research Fund, aims to encourage both kids and parents to pick some of the recommended books to start a habit of reading.

In 100 books presented in the list, 18 titles are based on folklore and Buddhist tales. They are tales from folklore, Thai proverbs, classical Thai literature, historical heroes and events, the Holy Tripitaka, and the Jataka Tales.

The Holy Tripitaka is a Buddhist canon of scriptures.

Jataka Tales is a folklore-like literature telling stories of the previous lives of the Buddha before he was born for the last time to become the Buddha. The most popular stories are the final 10 Jatakas.

Is it possible that books with legends and tales from the past can be attractive to kids nowadays?

An interesting question. The answer can be positive if we judge from the fact that books with legends retold keep appearing in the market.

One phenomenon was “The Story of Mahajanaka” by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The story is based on the Mahajanaka Jataka. The Buddha — incarnate protagonist of this tale — was born as King Mahajanaka who had to face challenges and troubles of every kind — from sinking ships to bloody succession conflicts. He survives them all through his remarkable perseverance. The point of Mahajanaka is that perseverance is necessary to gain Buddhahood.

The book first reached the hands of the readers in 1996 in an elaborate edition. His Majesty the King wished to see the book in the hands of a larger group of readers, especially children. A cartoon edition was then published in 1999. It was a tremendous success and was reprinted many times.

Do we have more proof? “The Story of Mahajanaka” might be an exceptional case, given its author, whom the Thai public reveres.

Is there interest among Thai writers to use old tales as sources of inspiration?
A paper presented at the 9th Thai Studies conference by Dr. Ruenruthai Sujjapun on “The Legacy of the Traditional Thai Literature in Contemporary Children’s Thai Literature” confirms the theory that literature as the nation’s cultural heritage is very much alive in contemporary children’s literature.

There are four basic methods used by authors to bring the heritage of the classical literature to modern works.

•    creating new versions based on an old story with some new elements
•    borrowing characters from traditional masterpieces to create new stories
•    satirizing literary convention or certain motifs from traditional literature
•    transforming old tales into picture books and comics

Let us take a look one by one.

First: Creating new versions based on an old story with some new elements. The example is ‘The Adventures of Macha Nu’ by Keetakan: The name “Macha Nu” derives from part of his mother's name , "Suwanna Mucha," which means “fish,” and "HaNuMan", his father's name. The author tells a new version of the adventures of this mythical creature from Ramayana and adds new elements. He reduces the age of the hero to five years old and describes him as a cute pink monkey with silvery scales. He has a green lotus as a weapon. His adventure is to go into the Himmapun Forest to find his mother.

Second: Borrowing characters from traditional masterpieces to create new stories. The example is “Little Garuda” by Koi Nuj: The most important creature of the Himmapan forest is probably the Garuda. Garuda is the king of birds, half-man and half-bird, the vehicle of Vishnu, a Hindu God. In “Little Garuda,” the author puts this mythical creature in a new adventure. She wrote this story after the tremendous success of Harry Potter, with the intention of bringing to kids all the wonders of old tales. The little garuda in the story cannot fly and has small green fins. He is an outcast for his differences. In the end, when he proves himself worthy, he does not wish to be a part of the community.

Third: Satirizing literary convention or certain motifs from traditional literature. The example is “The Non-Magical Prince” by Preeda Akrachantachoti: The prince in this story is not one we would expect to find in fairy tales. He has no magical weapon; he does not meet a princess; he does not fight a giant. Even so, it's still a story of a prince and his adventures as he goes outside the kingdom to gain wisdom and find a princess. The story is written with satirical humour.

Fourth: Transforming old tales into picture books and comics. This is the most common method used in today's market, and I'm afraid it's the most successful method for winning young readers’ hearts. It has both advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s take a look at books on folktales. The new presentations we found are:

  1.  Picture books
  2.  Comic books, Thai style
  3.  Comic books, Japanese style

Let’s start with picture books.

These are stories with beautiful illustrations. High-quality printing. Little text. Stories told in simple words. They can be read by parents and by children ages six and above.

The sample here is “The Horse-Faced Maiden”: a story of an ugly girl who one day meets a prince who promises to marry her if she can help him retrieve a kite. The prince gets his kite but breaks his promise, so she goes to the palace and asks him to marry her.

Next are comic books, Thai style – “The Golden Goby Fish”.  Traditional Thai-style comics are realistic cartoons telling mostly ghost and drama stories from artists’ imaginations. The storyline is simple and so is the drawing line. Some artists use folktales like this one: “The Golden Goby Fish”.

As you can see, the cartoons have a realistic look, with no complex storyboard and no action.

This is the most important one: comic books, Japanese style.  This can be considered a new breed of comics. Artists use Japanese-stylized cartoons to depict classical literature and folktales.

This one is “Phra Aphai Manee.” As you can see, there's no resemblance to the drawing by Chakrapun that I showed you earlier. The idea is to revive classic stories that may not attract newer generations of young readers in their original form by presenting them in a more familiar form, that of the Japanese-style cartoon.

The question is whether it's worthwhile to use an exciting format to lure kids to appreciate Thai heritage, despite the inaccuracies. This is a key concern among educators.

Not only folktales use new presentations. Tales based on the Holy Tripitaka are also presented in new formats which are:

  1. Picture books
  2. Comic books, Thai style
  3. Comic books from animation
  4. Comic books, Japanese style

This is a sample of a picture book: “The Adventures of Buddha: Nalagiri, Devadatta’s Elephant”.

Elephants are animals that kids love. The story of a naughty elephant in the Buddha’s time is told with beautiful illustrations. All details from the Holy Tripitaka are accurate, and I admit I enjoyed reading this book, not to mention that I learned a lot about this elephant.

I chose “Ananda” as a sample of comic Thai style.    Among the disciples of the Buddha, Ananda had the sharpest memory. Ananda joined the Sangha when he was a child. Ananda was Buddha's attendant for 27 years.

A simple Thai style cartoon enhances the peaceful life story of “Ananda.” But there is a more exciting method to tell a story from Buddha's time, which is comic from animation.

This book is quite unusual. “The Buddha” first appeared as animation and was then adapted to comics while keeping the animated style.

The last method is the Japanese-style comic book. A sample here is “Tracing the Life of Buddha.” It is a quite confusing story of a group of boys and girls who can time-travel. I guess the book's aim is to present the life story of Buddha in a fun way, but I don't think there is accurate information to be retained by young readers.

Not only are different forms used to present stories from the past, new elements are added as well.

They are:

  1.  Elements from science fiction
  2.  Elements for educational purposes

You cannot tell this is “Ramayana” with Rama trying to capture a golden deer for Sita.  The story is presented as science fiction. Though the story remains as told from the past, the new ingredient put in is questionable.

This is the story of a Thai hero from the past: “Phraya Pichai Broken Sword”. A soldier fights to save his town until he breaks his sword.

The book came in a series, and you can see it's considered as a “knowledge comic”. There’s no harm in presenting a heroic story in this format, but the book’s aim that it be read for knowledge is doubtful.

In the struggle to promote reading among children, legends and folktales are major resources and very much alive in contemporary children’s literature.
Both new presentations and new elements are made, though form tends to get emphasized over content, which is a point of concern.

Without any doubt, classical myths and legends are still dynamic in Thai contemporary literature and continue to be constantly “reborn” in children’s works with new, interesting elements. They appear alongside other works that take inspiration from other sources and enrich the reading culture of the country.

Jane Vejjajiva, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark.

September 2008