Be they echoes of tales from long ago, retellings or twisted and fractured mash-ups, folktales and fairytales never lose their appeal. This issue, Deputy Editor Françoise Price talks to author Eva Wong Nava about her new story collection of ancient tales, publishing this week.

Author Eva Wong Nava 
[Picture credit: Rebecca Cresta]

Hello Eva, your latest book East Asian Folktales, Myths and Legends is publishing this month (March 14th 2024). It’s a new edition of retellings of classic folktales, myths and legends from China, Korea, Japan and beyond. How did you decide what to include?


There are myriad archives that you can consult for these stories, like the Aarne-Thompson-Uther, aka ATU, Index, for example. For my book, I picked stories that I remember from childhood and are also favourites in the countries that comprise East Asia: China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia. I also asked my East and Southeast Asian friends what stories they'd like to read in a collection such as this.


How much do your retellings differ from the original tales?


I've tried to keep to the original as much as possible, so they don't differ all that much.  As those of us who love folktales, myths and legends know, the stories are always documented plainly, and are dry to read. They don't have dialogue, for instance. So, I made the characters come alive with dialogue. Of course, some creative license was taken, but this was to fill the gaps in the stories, and also for word count. Each story is about 2,000 words long, and I've also used some original words from the culture and heritage the story had come from.


Tell us a bit more about the book


The book is part of the Scholastic Classics Collection. Scholastic has South Asian and African Caribbean stories in their collection, and they were looking to add one from East Asia. Without this collection, the Scholastic Classics Collection would be incomplete, though no collection is exhaustive.


East Asian Folktales, Myths and Legends, written by Eva 
Wong Nava, illustrated by Jocelyn Kao (Publisher: Scholastic)

To what extent do the illustrations in this book help tell the stories? 


Each story is accompanied by an illustration of the main character of the tale. So, for Mulan, you'll see the artist Jocelyn Kao's impression of this warrior-girl. As it is a middle-grade book, the illustrations are sparse. But, because it is a middle-grade book, the cover has to reflect this. The red background is eye-catching — and red is a colour typically associated with East Asia. 


What were the challenges of retelling these tales for a younger audience?


That's a great question! Topics like death and violence had to be pared back for a readership aged 9-12. Folktales are, mostly, moralistic tales, but children don't want to be preached to, so I had to make sure the voice of the story isn't didactic. Speaking of voice, I tried to emulate the oral tradition of storytelling, and each tale mimics the voice, as best as it could, of an ancient storyteller. So, I used literary devices like "Once upon a time...", "Long, long ago..."


In your biog you say you love fairytales and folktales and that they make you ‘better understand humanity and societies’. How do you think they achieve this?


Folktales and lore, legends and myths are the Ancients' tools to teach the illiterate moral lessons in disguise. In these stories, listeners learn about human nature, the human condition, and what is considered right and wrong in society. They aid adults to help children develop their moral compasses. Fairytales and folktales show children in an imaginative way how cruel or kind people can be. They also give children hope as justice is always served in the end in these stories. 


As a child, your Mum gave you your first book of folktales, myths and legends — tales from Greece. What impact did these tales have on Eva, future writer?


I still love Greco-Roman mythology today. These stories opened doors and windows to better understanding human nature and the human condition. It also gave me a historical glimpse into the worlds of Greeks and Romans.


The Bookseller had an article recently talking about the appeal of retellings in 2023. The article mainly focused on Ancient Greek mythology, for adults. I feel that younger children ought to benefit from retellings too — and not just from an Anglo-European perspective.


Back cover of East Asian Folktales, Myths and Legends
written by Eva  Wong Nava, illustrated by Jocelyn Kao 
(Publisher: Scholastic)

If you could be a character from your new book, which one would it be?


I love Hua Mulan! But don't we all, as her story has been told through the ages? Mulan is so well known in the western world that she needs no introduction. I want to be Mulan because she is strong, kind, and resourceful. She is the epitome of girl power.


What’s in the pipeline? Are you planning to write any more folk tales and/or fairy tales? (We really hope so!)


I would love to write a collection of folktales, myths and legends from Southeast Asia. The region, made up of 11 countries, known also as the Far East (a colonial term that also includes East Asia), has such unique fables, lore and myths that I feel children in the UK (and all over the world) should read about. I grew up with these stories being a person of Nusantara, a person from Southeast Asia, brought up in Singapore.


*Header: Tita Berredo



Eva Wong Nava loves fairytales and folktales. They make her better understand humanity and societies. Her first book of folktales, myths and legends was given to her by her mother, and they were tales from Greece. When she grew older, she discovered the tales from East and Southeast Asia, and since then, she has been obsessively reading and researching them.


Françoise Price is Deputy Editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org


Tita Berredo is Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI British Isles and Art Director of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact illuscoordinator@britishscbwi.org


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