Do your kids know about folktales? These are traditional narrative stories from a culture’s oral traditions meant to share values and/or explain something in the natural world or about human nature, often about ordinary people, and can include talking animals like fables. Sometimes folktales contain a wise life lesson at the end, just like a fable does.
When researching folktales, I found that there is quite a bit of overlap with myths, fables, and legends. One website I read said, “Folktales include myths, legends, fables, animal tales and fairy tales.” Which makes it a bit confusing when trying to distinguish the difference between these different stories. Plus, tall tales are considered folktales.
For now, we’ll just say that folktales are stories meant to teach something, and they are orally passed down from generation to generation. (More or less.)
However, the point of this post is not to define folktales so much as to share with you good folktales picture books for kids that recently impressed me. I think you’ll really like these titles.
Folktales for Kids
A Taste of Honey by Rebecca Sheir, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat
Our clever beekeeper hero, Kamala, uses her wits to outsmart thieves in a very funny way!
The Unwelcome Guest by Rebecca Sheir, illustrated by Mert Tugen
Nasruddin works all day in this vineyard and arrives at the governor’s celebration banquet in his work clothes. When people judge him for how he looks, he finds a creative and messy way to teach the villagers a valuable lesson.
The Great Ball Game by Rebecca Sheir, illustrated by Joshua Pawis-Steckley
The teams for the ball game are separated into animals and birds until Bat arrives which eventually helps the players learn to be more accepting of diversity.
The Lion’s Whisker by Rebecca Sheir, illustrated by Nikita Abuya
Brother and sister are always arguing, so Grandmother tells them she can help with a magical potion. But the potion needs a lion’s whisker the siblings must get. So the siblings leave steaks for the lion and bravely ask him for help. When they return to the Grandmother, she explains that there is no potion…and that they already figured out how to get along as they problem-solved with courage and patience.
The Courage of the Little Hummingbird by Lean Henderson, illustrated by Magaly Morales
When a fire comes to the animal’s home, they escape across the river to watch. Except for the hummingbird. She doesn’t want to watch, she wants to help. Despite her friends telling her it’s not going to help, she carries one drop of water at a time to the fire, hoping to put it out. Her actions inspire the others and they all begin to fight the fire. It’s a powerful message about making a difference and working together.
Helga’s Dowry: A Troll Love Story by Tomie dePaola
A hardworking, clever troll named Helga earns her own dowery so that Lars will finally marry her, not Inge. But once she’s amassed a dowery, she realizes that Lars doesn’t love her, he just wants her money. But there is someone who loves Helga and doesn’t need money — the king! Tomie dePaola does it again!
Peng’s Vase A Chinese Folktale by Paolo Proietti
Classic folktales teach a valuable lesson– and this one teaches the value of honesty. When the Chinese emperor needs an heir, he gives children a seed to plant in a pot. He tells them to take care of it and return in one year. Little Peng plants the seed, waters it, and gives it sunlight, but his seed doesn’t grow. He sees that the other children’s plants have grown big plants with colorful flowers and feels like a failure. At the urging of his parents, he shows the emperor his empty pot anyway. The emperor explains that he gave the children seeds that would never grow. But since only Peng was honest and courageous, he makes Peng the new emperor.
Martina: The Beautiful Cockroach / Martina, la hermosa cucaracha by Berta de Llano, illustrated by Jaime Rivera Contreras
Doña Julia wanted to help Martina find a suitable groom. So she devised a tricky test for prospective suitors. Anyone who would drink the disgusting tembleque with added salt would show that they really liked being with Martina. Eventually, she meets Perez, a kind mouse, who passes the test and they get married in a big ceremony. Adorable!
A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale by Karen Rostoker-Gruber, illustrated by Kristina Swarner
A farmer complains to a wise woman about his small house. She tells him to put all his animals inside. After a while, she tells him to put the animals back outside. When he does that, the farmer feels like his house is spacious and perfect for his family.
Carina Felina written by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Henry Cole
In this rollicking, rhyming Cuban cumulative folktale, a parrot falls in love with a cat named Carina Felina and that starts all the trouble. Carina Felina warns the parrot, “I’m Carina Felina! I do what I like and I eat what I wish. Step out of my way, or be my next dish!” The parrot doesn’t comply…so Carina Felina eats him! Back outside in the market, the cat chants the same arrogant warning before eating one creature after another starting with the florista and then the carretero and his ox, the chivo and his boy, and the novios and his boy. Fed up, the crabs decide to teach Carina Felina a lesson. They cut all the creatures out of the cat and Carina Felina learns to be a pickier eater! What a fun read aloud romp!
The Crane Girl adapted by Curtis Manley, illustrated by Lin Wang (JAPAN)
In this adapted Japanese folktale, a young boy saves a crane from a trap. Unknown to him or us the readers, the crane becomes a girl and asks to stay with the boy and his father. To help financially, she weaves beautiful silk cloths, asking that no one open the door to look at her while she’s doing it. When the boy’s father becomes demanding and greedy, he discovers her secret. The girl leaves and the boy follows her. They spend the rest of their lives together as cranes.
The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale by Jon Klassen
If you like a little dark and subversive to go with your illustrated chapter books or picture books, you’ll love this new Jon Klassen story. Our hero Otilla runs away in the dark through a forest. She finds a large house with a talking skull. The skull lets her inside the house if she promises to carry him around. She does, of course, and the two become friends. But the skull is frightened of the headless skeleton. So, Otilla, being a good friend, pushes the skeleton off the tower, bashes his bones, and burns the pieces. Then she and the skull go for a picnic. And that, my friends, is this weirdly dark friendship story taking the kidlit world by storm.
Pacho Nacho by Silvia Lopez, illustrated by Pablo Pino (MEXICO / JAPAN)
This hilarious story begs to be read aloud. It’s about a family that has two sons, the oldest son has a VERY long name that his parents insist everyone use, Pacho-Nacho-Nico-Tico-Melo-Felo-Kiko-Rico. This name appeased the family who suggested all the names but when he falls into the river, it takes so long for his brother Juan to say his name and get help that the parents decided to shorten his name. Based on an old Japanese folktale, you’ll love the retelling set in Mexico interspersed with Spanish words. LOVE this book!!
The Children’s Moon by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Jim LaMarche
Have you ever wondered why there are eclipses? This folktale explains it! The moon wants to see children so she asks the sun to share about the day, and she tells the sun all about night — the moonflowers and fireflies and best of all, the stars. The sun is furious to know the stars are just like him — and wants to see them for himself. They work together to eclipse and the sun saw galaxies and felt a little less alone. Then, the sun shone brightly on the moon so she could appear in the sky and the children would see her, and she would see them, too.
The Incredible Shrinking Lunchroom by Michal Baby, illustrated by Paula Cohen
The principal teaches the students a valuable lesson about perspective, without telling them the lesson. In this humorous modern update of a classic Yiddish folktale, the kids complain that their lunchroom is too crowded. So what do you expect the principal to do? Probably not what she does. She adds more to the lunchroom: science projects, a learning zoo, and sports teams. Now it’s really crowded! Then, she takes out the things she added, and the students love the not-crowded space.
The Ghoul by Taghreed Najjar, illustrated by Hassan Manasra
In the village, everyone is afraid of a ghoul living on a mountain. A curious boy named Hasan travels to find the ghoul –– and the ghoul is afraid of the boy. But, they talk and become best friends. Impressive artwork.
The Cat from Hunger Mountain by Ed Young (ASIA, maybe CHINA)
Gorgeous mixed-media collage illustrates a new fable-like tale with a valuable life lesson. Lord Cat, a rich, greedy, and wasteful landowner until famine strikes his land. At his lowest point, desperate for food and shelter, he meets a kind monk who feeds him from the Lord Cat’s wasted rice from upstream. “And for the first time ever, he knew what it felt like to be truly blessed.”
Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade, illustrated by Yoshisuke Kurosaki (JAPAN)
Reading these 20 folktales, you’ll notice distinctive Japanese elements as well as similarities in folktales from other countries, particularly the life lessons learned in each. This book is whimsically illustrated and the stories are enchanting.
Yokki and the Parno Gry by Richard O’Neill and Katharine Quarmby, illustrated by Marieke Nelissen (ROMANI)
The Romani, or Traveling Folk, carry with them many rich traditions, of which is this traditional story about a boy who told stories about a Parno Gry, a flying white horse, to lift the spirits of his family during a hard time. In the stories, the Parno Gry takes them to bustling markets where they sold their wares again. But these are just stories and the people are losing hope in the face of hunger and lack of jobs. Then one day, the Parno Gry arrives to fly the Romani to a new location with more food and hopeful possibilities.
The Secret of the Kelpie retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Philip Longson (SCOTTISH)
Read about the enticingly dangerous Kelpie who lures you to the water only to drown you. Fortunately, in this folklore story, a quick-thinking sister deciphers the rock pictures and saves her siblings. I found this fascinating. Would your kids?
Elephant in the Dark based on a poem by Rumi, retold by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (INDIA)
In this lovely picture book adaptation of a famous story about perspective, a merchant arrives with a mysterious beast that he puts into a barn. The villagers are anxious to figure out what it is, so they creep into the dark barn and feel parts of the beast. One thinks it’s a like a snake, the other thinks it’s like a fan, another thinks it’s like a tree trunk, and so on. None listens to the other. They argue with each. The next day, the merchant leads the beautiful elephant out of the barn but no one notices or sees the truth because they are too busy fighting.
El Chupacabras by Adam Rubin, illustrated by Chas McCreery (MEXICO)
Wacky and fun, written in sentences that mix English and Spanish and Spanish and English, this modern folktale explores the chupacabra in a way that isn’t scary but more light-hearted. A farmer and daughter discover the goatsucker (chupacabra) has sucked one of their precious goats. So, the father asks the flower seller for help. She gives him magic powder which, when overused, makes a herd of gigantic goats! Now, they need the chupacabra’s help to suck out some of the air! Beautiful, earthy illustrations.
Never Trust a Tiger (Animal Stories) A Story From Korea retold by Lari Don, illustrated by Melanie Williamson (KOREA)
A man saves a tiger from a pit only to have the tiger want to EAT him. But, that’s not right says the man. A good deed should be followed by another good deed. Of course, the tiger doesn’t care about the man’s moralizing. So the man insists they ask someone else to judge. After asking an ox, a tree, and a hare, you’ll love the surprise ending that the hare sets into motion. Superb! While this is set up as an early chapter book, it’s also great for reading aloud, too.
The Gigantic Turnip by Aleksei Tolstoy, Niamh Sharkey, and Imelda Staunton (RUSSIA)
In this delightful folktale, an old man and an old woman plant many vegetables one year. The vegetables grow and get harvested, all except for the turnip because it’s so gigantic. Since the couple can’t pull it out themselves, they ask one farm animal after another to help, making a long chain of animals. Finally, they ask the last, smallest creature to help — a mouse. And what do you think happens? The turnip comes out! And everyone has turnip stew for dinner.
How the Stars Came to Be by Poonam Mistry
This simple folk tale with exquisite illustrations tells the story of how the stars came into the sky from the Sun so the Fisherman could find his way home safely and the Daughter wouldn’t be worried.
Vole and Troll by Iza Trapani
This book is perfect for reading aloud to children with lots of repetitions and songs. A clever Vole uses familiar preschool songs to trick the Troll into singing and getting distracted that the Vole can get across the bridge safely. The Troll gets so angry when he realizes and repeats a familiar refrain. How will this charming story end? With the Vole and Troll singing together in harmony!
The Girl with a Brave Heart by Rita Jahanfouz
A story from Tehran about kindness…A little girl encounters an old lady who asks her to destroy things in her yard but the little girl listens to hear heart and makes the garden beautiful again. To thank her, the old lady makes the girl beautiful. When the girl’s sister hears about this, she visits the old lady also. But, she doesn’t follow her heart and destroys the lady’s things — and gets rewarded in kind, with ugliness.
Five Sisters by Stephanie Campisi, illustrated by Madalina Andronic
An old man and old woman desperately want but never have their own children. One day, a magical tree gives the old man its branches from which he carves five colorful wooden nesting dolls. The dolls bring the couple joy and companionship. Then when the worst happens and a wolf attacks, the tree helps them again. Magically, one of the dolls becomes a real girl. Gorgeous Russian-style artwork.
Told and Retold: Around the World with Aesop’s Fables by Holly Berry
I love the block-print artwork which sets this retelling apart with inviting and beautiful scenes.
Carrimebac: The Town that Walked by David Barclay Moore, illustrated by John Holyfield
Brilliant storytelling with a classic folktale feel…Rootilla Redgums and her peculiar grandson, Julius transform Walkerton, Georgia by teaching the Black townspeople to weave rugs that never wear out, to bake ceramic jugs that never empty of sarsaparilla, and to carve wooden walking sticks that somehow never get you lost in the woods. Outsiders grow fearful and angry– and soon a mob of Fearful Folk arrive in white sheets with blazing torches. Then, Julius and his duck save the town!
Lore of the Wild Folklore & Wisdom from Nature by Claire Cock-Starkey, illustrated by Aitch
Even though I dislike the typeface, I like the format of featuring animals and stories about those animals in this collection of folktales. For example, Horses and Donkeys is one section, and another is Magpies, Ravens, and Crows. Also included are flowers, trees, and weather lore.
Treasury of Magical Tales From Around the World by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Christina Balit
This incredible tome packed with beautifully illustrated, magical folk tales and traditional stories from Italy, Angola, Palestine, Korea, China, Australia, and many other countries from around the world will keep your kids in stories for weeks and months. Setting this treasury of stories apart from the rest are the sidebars of factual information, the global stories representing diverse cultures and countries, and mesmerizing illustrations.
The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor
Baba Yaga House