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My picture books are modern-day fables: Here's how I see this enduring form of folk literature

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Fables are found in every culture around the world and goes as far back as the collective human memory serves. Most if not all of us have at least heard of one growing up. Remember the Hare and the Tortoise - 'slow and steady wins the race' ? What I never imagined was that one day, with the publication of my first picture book, Willow the Wonderer, I would become a modern-day 'fabulist'!

So what are fables?

The short definition that comes up from a google search - "a short story, typically with animals as characters, conveying a moral."

The long and very academic definition from Wikipedia - "fable is a literary genre: a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that are anthropomorphized, and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a "moral"), which may at the end be added explicitly as a concise maxim or saying."

And a very practical 'in-between' definition from a masterclass article on the subject - "a fable is a short story that illustrates a moral lesson. The plot of a fable includes a simple conflict and a resolution, followed by a maxim. Fables feature anthropomorphized animals and natural elements as main characters."

The masterclass articles goes on to very helpfully identify four characteristics of fables:

  1. Symbolism. Characters in fables are stand-ins for humans, and their misadventures are meant to symbolize human behaviour.

  2. Anthropomorphisation. In fables, animals and even inanimate objects (like the wind, or the sun) are the main characters of the story and are given human qualities. Some animals have specific traits associated with them. For example, an owl is wise, a fox is cunning, and a lion is brave.

  3. Lessons. Every fable has a moral lesson at the end that arises from the story. For example: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

  4. Humour. Fables often have a humorous tone when showing the foolishness of human nature.

Where did fables originate from?

The word itself has a Latin root (it's the English language after all) but the tradition of telling fables goes back as far as one can remember and can be found across all cultures.

In the western world, Aesop's fables are what most would classically remember.

Admittedly I grew up into an adult without having once heard of Aesop. I nonetheless had heard plenty of the same fables from my grandmother as they were also traditional to the Indian culture.

Fables did in fact begin and survived for centuries as an oral tradition before 'fabulists' across many different traditions put pen to and documented these age old stories. By this time any knowledge of the original authors was long gone.

Why use animal characters to tell the story?

The thing that fascinates me about fables is why choose to tell the story using animal characters? Why not just tell the story with human characters - after all, the story is fundamentally about them.

This is a hard one to answer from a historic perspective as there aren't exactly documented 'meet the author' series we can refer to...

What I can share with you, as an accidental modern day fabulist, is why we ended up making this creative choice when writing our first picture book, Willow the Wonderer.

The characteristic of animals that make them brilliant protagonists

Animals make for brilliant protagonists in any story. Here's three reasons why:

  1. Animals are neutral. Animals aren't aligned to a certain gender, race, religion, nationality, skin colour, social class, etc. A lion is a lion. An ass (or donkey) is just that, an ass. An owl is an owl. A fox is a fox. And so on. You can tell a story using animals without fearing that you will be inadvertently marginalising a group of people.

  2. Animals are relatable. Anthropomorphising involves attributing the base human traits that we all have to animals in our story - wise, dumb, sly, shy, brave, cowardly, fast, slow, loyal, treacherous, etc. All humans are a sum product of these qualities. When we look at animals we see or rather projects these qualities onto them quite naturally. Think about how you relate and talk about your own pet dog or cat? It therefore become quite easy to tell a human story using an animal character.

  3. Animals are down-right adorable. Who does not like animals? Especially the little baby ones. And even if they are not adorable, they are likeable or tolerable in a tale because people don't carry a huge emotional baggage around animals like they unfortunately do around other humans... The human history is marred with violence and memories go back generations. Most people today, let alone back in ancient times, carry with them conscious or unconscious biases based on nationalities, race, religion, gender, etc. When you write a story using animal characters you are able to tell your story without worrying about getting your audience up in arms about some issue that you never intended to stir. There are those that may have phobias associated with certain animals but by and large, people like animals and it becomes easy to write a story with them as central characters.

Because of these qualities - neutrality, relatability and general adorability - stories written with animal characters tend to have broader and more universal appeal. It is more likely to be embraced by more people, and therefore spread broadly around the world.

This may in fact be a key reason why fables are one of the most enduring forms of folk literature across the world.

Critically it gives the storyteller a clear slate to do what they set out to - is to outline a moral lesson or maxim or as I like to think of it, wisdom.

Morals, Maxims and Wisdom

Fables have always been a commentary of sort into the human condition.

The animal characters become the conduit through which fabulists point out the fallacies inherent in their audience and also the capacity to change for the better.

Through animal characters they are able to 'confront' their audience with inconvenient truths - in a way that is relatable but does not feel personal. This approach guarantees that at the very least, the story would be listened to, and at very best, the lessons understood and internalised. Ask any change agent, this approach lies at the heart of persuasion.

Morality versus Wisdom

I personally don't relate well to the word moral ... it is a rather 'loaded' term.

Our human history is marred by abuse of power by the state, the church (across all religions) and other powerful institutions. There are countless historical accounts of people and cultures being ostracised, forcibly converted, tortured and killed for no other crime then conforming to a different 'moral' code than that of the reigning class .

The word morality conjures up images of strict, rigid doctrines imposed by some colonial, fanatic, religious, autocratic or paternalistic order that claims to have absolute authority on:

  • What is good and what is bad.

  • What constitutes a virtue and what a sin.

  • What deserves rewards and what warrants punishment.

  • What will guarantee an entry into the kingdom of god and what will see one banished to the burning pits of hell.

Women in particular have been at the receiving end of the 'morality stick' - and with modern day institutions continuing to be dominated by men, we still are.

I still however believe every society needs to be built upon on a strong foundation of sound of 'moral', or as I prefer to think of it, ethical conduct. However our system of ethics - the way we develop, practice and govern our codes of conduct - needs to be informed by wisdom. Otherwise the unfortunate history noted above, will just repeat itself.

When I read fables, I don't see these beautiful tales being about rigid set of morals. Rather they are stories about wisdom - the universal truths about life and living that we all inherently know to be true.

Why tell stories with wisdom?

The simple answer is that the world needs it and judging by the long history of fables, has always needed it.

It's easy to live out this life trapped in the established patterns and norms, being busy all the time with survival level issues. This leaves very little time for deep thought and reflection on our actions, state of mind or wellbeing that may actually help us to thrive.

We need these endearing and disarming stories to pop up every now and then in our lives - or even better be embedded deep in our psyche - to remind us to think differently, to speak differently and to act differently.

Besides, "knowledge without wisdom is like a load of books on the back of an ass" - Japanese proverb.

When you look at the state of the world today you realise that we have so much knowledge yet act with so little wisdom. The climate change crisis is a case in point.

We have known about the science of climate change and the warnings and dangers for the human race for decades. Yet we continue to live in the same destructive way that caused these issues in the first place. We also have the knowledge on what we need to do about it. Yet once again the wisdom to act is missing. Even love of our children is not enough for many to snap out of complacency and act.

So this is why the world needs fables - it is a disarming way to convey the essential wisdom that may just save the world.

The makings of a modern fable

When my co-creator and I started working on our first picture book, Willow the Wonderer, we had no intent to write a fable per se. Fable was not a fictional genre we had specifically thought about or made a conscious creative choice around.

We set out to simply to write stories that we wish we'd grown up with - quirky ones that came with a side of wisdom.

This was based on our life experience. We wanted our story to convey a piece of wisdom that we had only came across after much seeking through life. We wanted to this to help the next generation by planting a seed of wisdom in their young minds which may helps them navigate the world - at least better than we did!

We wanted this story to reach as many young people as possible and have a very contemporary feel to it. We most certainly didn't want to be preachy. The tone that we landed on was quirky.

And that's where our cute little ass, Willow, came from. In anthropomorphising our ass, we went against tradition and made Willow, a 'wise ass'. Hence our identity - quirky with a side of wisdom - was born.

It was only later that as we decided to start our own publishing company and worked through our strategy and delved deeply into questions around our purpose that we realised how closely we were aligned to this very enduring form of folk literature.

Our hope as we get closer to releasing our first picture book to the world is that we have done justice to this age old tradition.

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