Sometimes it seems that current YA is drowning in a sea of cookie cutter folklore. Vampires and werewolves and zombies, oh my! And when I’ve spoken on panels at conferences about how to come up with ideas for novels, a question I get time and time again boils down to, “How do I make my (vampires/werewolves/zombies) unique?”
And I always answer the same way: “Use something new.”
When I say that, I don’t mean that you should make your vampires shiny or sparkly. I mean that there’s so much more folklore out there to draw upon. Why stay stuck in the rut of western Europe? I love me some Brothers Grimm as much as the next guy, and you have to give props to that Hans Christian Andersen fellow, but there’s so much more folklore to be explored.
One of the problems seems to be that as soon as you say “something other than western European,” people jump ship to other tried and true milieus. Chinese and Japanese. Greek and Roman. Maybe some Egyptian. Pyramids are cool, right?
I was in the same boat. I thought that if it wasn’t something I’d heard about growing up, then it wasn’t “folklore.” Somehow I’d made the assumption that folklore was this big shared pool of common knowledge. Anything anyone had to contribute would be something I would have been exposed to through Disney, right?
My eyes were opened when I met (and subsequently married) a girl from Slovakia. She and her family had all these stories. Stories I’d never heard before. Juraj Jánošík and his band of forest robbers, similar in many ways to Robin Hood. Alžbeta Báthory, the blood countess of Čachtice. And there were creatures I never knew existed: elemental vilas, foolish certs, and of course vodniks: watery tricksters who drown people and then steal their souls and store them in teacups.
It’s one thing to read about these stories and creatures in books, but it’s an entirely different experience to speak to people who believe them the same way Americans believe in werewolves. (They’re probably not real, but there’s that nagging suspicion in the back of your mind . . . ) My wife had a wealth of unknown stories on tap, screaming to be written and discovered by new audiences, and all this from a country of less than 6 million people, roughly the size of two New Hampshires.
“But Bryce,” you say. “Are you claiming that the only way to write about other folklores and legends is to marry into them?”
Of course not. The first step is to recognize them as valid. To realize that they’re not just words on a page. But beyond that, it’s important to understand that we as Americans have a wealth of culture and folklore to draw upon—no weddings required.
It’s a sad truth that the American pop culture machine has a tendency to steamroll over anything in its path. Many people quickly forget they have a heritage outside America—that their grandfather or great grandmother came here from another country. And sure, maybe it felt silly to listen to their stories when you were growing up. Your friends couldn’t relate to them the same way you all could relate to (how old are you? Do I say Pokémon here? Transformers? GI Joe? Captain Kangaroo? Howdy Doody?) and so they were easy to dismiss and ignore.
But America doesn’t have to be like that. Our diversity is a strength to be featured, not a weakness to be overcome. Instead of insisting everyone become “American,” I wish we’d encourage each other to retain our varied heritage. It isn’t easy. I’m raising my children to be bilingual (Slovak and English), and I’ll be the second person to tell you how difficult that can be. (My wife will be the first person to tell you.) But as my children grow older, I think they’re also beginning to appreciate how advantageous it is to speak a language other than English.
So instead of marrying into a culture, I suggest that people look back in their family trees and start exploring the folktales and stories of the culture they come from. You’ll likely be surprised at what you find. And yes, some of you come from English stock, all the way back. But even for you, there are more to the stories than you’ve heard from Hollywood. There are variations. Finding real folklore can take some effort. Some time spent rummaging through dusty pages in actual, physical books. It’s not all just a mouse-click away. But you’ll appreciate the stories all the more as you go through the effort of finding them.
And if you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to have conversations with people who grew up with those stories, and you’ll discover the same thing I did: folktales are real. They stretch back hundreds of years into our cultural consciousness. When you write about them, you tap into something that sits at the core of who we are and what we believe—even if it’s a story of a culture we have no connection to.
Since I wrote Vodnik, I’ve been amazed at how many people could relate to this story of a place so different from anything we have in America. How many connected to the characters and the creatures. And I’ve come to understand that’s because folklore works on a different level than today’s pop culture, where something can be so well-known one year and then non-existent a few years later. (Does anyone really care about Urkel these days? Anyone?)
Diversity doesn’t have to be about people in far off places or times. It doesn’t have to be about other races—although a lot of it certainly should be. But really becoming diverse and appreciating it in America starts with recognizing that we’re all more than what we’ve been led to believe. We’re Americans, yes. But we’ve all got history.
I look forward to when more authors start exploring the nooks and crannies in their history and culture that are still covered in spider webs.
We'll be in for some fantastic books.