I never thought much about pourquoi tales until I started reading them to my sons and was struck with how interested the kids were in the stories compared to the average picture book story. There is clearly a reason these stories are so timeless. This list of pourquoi tales for kids are some of our favorite picture books!
What is a Pourquoi Tale?
Pourquoi is the French word for why. A pourquoi tale is a narrative that explains the origin of something. How did the tiger get his stripes? Why are the sun and the moon in the sky? Why does an elephant have such big ears? Pourquoi tales are common across most cultures, and if you read a lot of folktales (like we do!) you will become familiar with many different pourquoi stories.
Best of all, pourquoi tales gets kids thinking and talking. I've found that my youngest son, especially, loves to comment on the possibility or implausibility of the how-it-came-to-be explanations.
Most pourquoi tales tend to have certain elements in common. Once your kids have identified these characteristics you can use them as talking points. (Bonus: my friend Jodie has a great post and checklist for how to talk to your kids about books)
The elements of a pourquoi tale include:
- The state of the world before the change that is to come. For example: a tiger with no stripes.
- A problem which needs a solution. The tiger is vain and wants to steal the wisdom of humans for himself.
- A just ending. The prideful tiger's new stripes are a punishment for wanting to be something that he is not. The stories often end with the words, "And that's how [the tiger got his stripes] ...."
After you've read a few of these pourquoi picture books your children will surely want to come up with their own explanations for phenomena in the natural world!
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Native American Pourquoi Tales
How Chipmunk Got His Stripes by Joseph Bruchac and James Bruchac, illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey
Find it: Amazon
Bragging Bear and Teasing Squirrel have a competition. Bear insists he can tell the sun not to rise in the morning, and squirrel insists he cannot. When the sun rises and bear looks foolish in front of the other animals, he takes out his humiliation on squirrel, transforming him into a chipmunk with the flick of his sharp claws. The moral: neither the braggart nor the teaser will win in the end.
Rabbit's Snow Dance by Joseph Bruchac and James Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman
Rabbit performs his snow-dance so many times that the snow falls till it covers the trees. Unfortunately for Rabbit, this leads to a slight mishap which now explains why his tail is no longer lusciously long. You will be able to find even more Native American folktales by Bruchac, such as The First Strawberries, which explains how strawberries came to be (and thank goodness they did!).
How Raven Got His Crooked Nose: An Alaskan Dena'ina Fable retold by Barbara J. Atwater and Ethan J. Atwater, illustrated by Mindy Dwyer
A grandmother retells a traditional cautionary tale about the raven, Chulyen. One morning, the trickster raven Chulyen discovers his nose is missing. An old woman has been using it as a tool, causing it to be bent. Transforming into a human, he attempts to find and reattach his nose but is unable to do so before his magic transformation fades and is stuck with the crooked nose forever. I love the way Dena'ina words are used throughout the text as well as how the authors incorporate facts about the Dena'ina culture. Further information is offered in the glossary.
Pourquoi Tales from Africa
Head, Body, Legs: A Story from Liberia by Won-Ldy Pan and Margaret H. Lippert, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Find it: Amazon
For quite some time, my younger son was absolutely obsessed with this book. This tale of how the human body came to be in its form today is also a story of the importance of cooperation and determination. Author Won-Ldy Paye has several other books based folktales from the Dan people of Liberia.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
This is a book I remember vividly from my childhood. When a mosquito tells a tall tale to a lizard, he sets in action a chain of events that has tragic consequences. A stunningly illustrated story about the consequences of lying. Originally published in 1975, this Caldecott award book will be enjoyed by every child.
Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky by Elphinstone Dayrell
Water wonders why he is never invited to Sun's house. Sun replies that his house is not large enough and sets out building a new one to accommodate his friend. But when water comes to visit, he fills the entire house and there is no longer room enough for Sun and his spouse, Moon. Can you guess where they found a new home? I particularly like the illustrations, with their emphasis on the mask.
Why the Sky Is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson
Long ago, anyone who was hungry could pluck what they needed from the sky but the sky gets tired and angry at the people who are wasting his bounty. The story has a positive message about the importance of not taking things for granted and good stewardship of the planet. This gorgeous book was also a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year.
Pourquoi Tales from East Asia
The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Dawn Casey
Find it: Amazon
Have your kids ever asked why there is no "year of the cat?" This is the story that tells how each animal was chosen and given an order in the Chinese calendar. The Jade Emperor holds a swimming race across a wide river. The rat who is a poor swimmer but quite wily, concocts a plan to travel on the back of an ox but when he sees that the cat may beat him to the finish, he pushes him into the water. The rat does win in the end and is rewarded with the first year of the calendar. He never receives any punishment for his cruelty to the cat, but I suppose that's life.
How the Rooster Got His Crown by Amy Lowry Poole
Find it: Amazon
Long ago there were six suns in the sky. Consequently, the land was too hot and dry. Archers began attempting to shoot down the suns until the very last one left goes into hiding. It is the rooster who is finally able to coax out the final sun. This is a unique tale that kids will likely not have heard before. Poole incorporates Chinese symbols and includes an explanation about this Miao tale in the endnotes.
The Green Frogs: A Korean Tale by Yumi Heo
This is a Korean folk tale that explains why frogs croak loudly near water. Two young frogs never listen to their mother! They love to do exactly the opposite of what she says. When their mother dies they bury her by the stream and croak loudly so she is not washed away.