Around The World in Children’s Stories

Around The World in Children’s Stories

 By Deepshika Pasupunuri

From Asia to the Americas, storytelling has been an integral part of childhood. 

Children have always had stories. For thousands of years, as William Thackeray tells us, parents — be it “mothers by the banks of Yamuna, Arabs couched under the stars of the Syrian plains, or Northmen Vikings as they lay on their shields” — have all entertained kids through stories. 

And they did this without books.

How Were These Stories Told?

Sure, early civilizations had papyrus scrolls. For instance, the earliest version of Aesop's Fables comes from parchments like this, which date as far back as 400 AD. India’s Panchatantra was also written down sometime around 200 AD. In fact, research even suggests Panchatantra could be the first work ever written down for children,” allowing it to travel the distance and inspire some of the stories in Arabian Nights, Sindbad, as well as Western ballads. 

However, with no printing press, texts like this didn’t exist for the masses. As a result, children’s stories — like many other forms of literature — had to be passed down through oral tradition. 

Over time, these stories became an intimate part of childhood. With no modern science to go by, these tales took on the role of a compass. Whether narrated, acted, or sung, parents from all cultures used such magical narratives to help children make sense of the world around them. 

Or sometimes, the world above them. 

Meet China’s Moon Goddess

In China, one of the most age-old folk tales introduces children to Chang'e, a beautiful moon goddess.

According to the story, her consort, a young archer named Yi, was tasked to shoot nine out of ten suns scorching the earth. As a reward, he was given pills of immortality which he entrusted to Chang'e. But one fateful day, Yi’s apprentice tried to steal these pills from her. Refusing to let this happen, Chang'e would swallow the pills. Because of this, she would float to the heavens and decide to live out her years on the moon with Yutu, her rabbit companion.

These magical protagonists, however, aren’t exclusive to China. Across Asia — Japan, Korea, Vietnam — as well as indigenous America, moon rabbit folklore has been told and retold for centuries. A conversation between Houston and the Apollo 11 crew, interestingly enough, even mentions Chang'e jokingly just before the first Moon landing:

Houston: It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. 

Collins: Okay. We'll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.

Ultimately, all moon rabbit folklore originates from the lunar surface’s signature dark and light markings, a natural formation observed by humans throughout the ages. Many versions disagree over what the moon rabbit seems to be pounding — the elixir of life, mochi, medicine, or mooncakes. But the theme and motifs they use are still remarkably similar. 

Chang’e Might Have Company Too

Of course, the moon was far from the only collective inspiration for children’s stories. Take one of today’s classics, Cinderella, for instance, of which more than 500 versions have been discovered — and that’s in Europe alone! 

Some agree Cinderella’s origins also lie in another 9th-century Chinese story, Yeh-Shen, one of the earliest known versions found scratched onto a cave in southern China. 

But other cultures also have their own Cinderella. The Greeks have Rhodopis, whose shoe is stolen by an eagle, the Finnish have Nastai, the Native Americans have The Rough-Face Girl, and the list goes on. 

“Borders are a very recent invention, historically,” says Dr Lucia Sorbera, the chair of Arabic language and cultures at the University of Sydney. As far back as the 4th century, there has been a particularly rich exchange between the East and West, possibly explaining the overlap in stories.  

Between the 12th and 16th centuries, Asia, North Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, all had thriving cultural exchanges. As Sorbera explains,  “[There was] a big network of scholars, poets and especially intellectuals who were travelling from court to court to make a life. This allowed the circulation of knowledge and language.”

Children’s stories, too, became part of this trade. In comparison, our modern Cinderella is just 300 years old, written by Charles Perrault in 1690s France. By then, the Gutenberg Printing Press was operating at full steam in the West, paving the way for new, never-before-seen experiments in children’s books. The rest, of course, is history.

What Does All This Mean?

For today’s kids, it means that reading can connect them to a much larger network of history, culture, motifs, and experiences. This holds true for new fiction too. For instance, MerlinWand’s collection has a unique story, The Land Beyond the Moon, where your child can fly on an adventure of a lifetime to revive their pet. You can even personalize the storybook by choosing between storylines, avatars, and gender! And who knows, they might even spot a moon rabbit along the way. 

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