When I stumbled upon the fable Why Trees Lose Their Leaves in an old collection of Native American stories, I hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for the pourquoi form. As many of you know, a pourquoi tale is a specific kind of fable, one that explains “why” or “how” something in the natural world came to be.
According to the old storytellers, the reason deciduous trees lose their leaves each winter is that long ago a poor sparrow injured his wing and couldn’t migrate with his family as winter approached. Seeking shelter from the cold, sparrow hobbled from tree to tree begging for help. Only Pine, who has the least to offer, shows compassion. For this reason Pine alone remains green against the snow, evergreen evermore. The bareness of trees, according to this pourquoi fable, reminds us how terribly empty selfishness can be. Thanks to this pourquoi story, I now view the winter landscape in a fresh and thoughtful light.
Seeing with an eye of wonder is what children do best. Why does a chameleon change color? Why is the sky blue? Why do zebras have strips? Ask a child such questions and you will see their bright eyes widen with possibility. Many will whip up hilarious answers. The more fun something is, the more inclined children are to do it. This exercise will show them how fun creative writing can be.
Creative Writing with Pourquoi Stories—Five Easy Steps
1) Define the Genre-Pourquoi stories are traditional stories that explain “how” or “why” something in nature came to be.
2) Read Several Examples—There are many traditional African and Native American pourquoi stories. Ashley Bryan has several, so too does Joseph Bruchac.
3) Review the Three-Act Structure—Pourquoi tales generally share a few common characteristics. Firstly, they begin “a long time ago.” Secondly, someone misbehaves. This someone is often an animal and their bad behavior causes problems for everyone. Thirdly, a higher being or magic force steps in to solve the problem, punishing the naughty animal by changing forever their outer appearance.
4) Animal Selection-Ask the children to chose an animal to write about. They may choose any animal that arouses their curiosity.
5) Pen Your Own Pourquoi--Ask your kids to use all the creative powers they can muster to come up with an imaginative explanation for why their animal looks they way it does. Make sure they follow the 3 Act Structure. Perhaps the will enjoy acting out or illustrating their new fables. If there is time, they might enjoy comparing their explanation with a scientific one.
I hope this exercise gives everyone a good laugh!
Alexis York Lumbard grew up in Northern Virginia where she eventually received a B.A. in Religious Studies from George Washington University. She currently lives in Natick, Massachusetts with her husband, three daughters, two hairless cats and a book-eating bunny rabbit. She has five picture books with Wisdom Tales Press including, The Conference of the Birds, Angels, Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World, Pine and the Winter Sparrow, and the upcoming, When the Animals Saved Earth. For more about her work please see www.alexisyorklumbard.com