As you probably know, India was subjugated to the British Empire for decades. Not good.
Ironically, the history of India and the UK means that a surprising amount of stories from India are available in English and in the public domain, written down by both Indians and British.
The history of India is complicated, but finding Indian stories is easy.
Of course, if you are reading stories from a culture, you will want to know something about the culture. It’s surprisingly hard to find good materials on India for kids. The histories that the British left are not usable because they are too pro-British, and I’ll be featuring them at some point as good materials for “reading against the text”.
I did manage to find a few decent resources, which I’ve mentioned below.
All of these story collections are appropriate for kids ages 6 and up, and they are great for English Language Learners as well.
Jataka Tales: Buddhist Parables
Jataka tales are folk tales about the life of Buddha that are meant to be fables or parables that help illustrate a point, just like the ones you find in the Bible. It’s important to remember, when reading these with children, that Buddhism is a religion that is practiced by millions of people around the world, and you should make sure they know that.
Note that Buddhism is found all over the world and particularly in Asia, where the religion coexists with other regional religions, such as Shinto in Japan and Hinduism in India.
Of course, we can learn moral principles from stories about any religion, and that’s why these were first published for British children.
I think it’s important to understand something about different world religions whether you believe in them or not because understanding religions helps us understand cultures that developed in different parts of the world, and is also a key to understanding similarities and differences among world views.
I was unable to find any biographical information about Ellen C. Babbitt, but I did discover that she used the stories as translated by E.B. Cowell, who was the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University.
They are appropriate for children ages 6 and up and of course are great for older English Language Learners.
Links directly to the full texts of the stories are available:
Eastern Stories & Legends
Be sure to read the Preface by David Rhys who succinctly explains the breadth and impact of Buddhism.
Full text, clickable edition: Eastern Stories and Legends
Shedlock was first a teacher and then a professional storyteller. She began working as a storyteller at age 36 and gave up teaching to tell stories, no kidding, full time at age 46. She performed in Europe and did two extended tours in the U.S., and by “extended”, I mean up to five years.
Given her popularity, you might want also give a read to her other book, The Art of the Storyteller.
Stories from the Hindu Tradition
The Tortoise and Geese and Other Fables of Bidpai
The Fables of Budpai are animal fables from the Hindu tradition, which were also originally written in Sanskrit.
Maude Barrows Dutton Lynch
Lynch, née Maude Barrows Dutton, was from Brookline, Massachusetts (USA) and attended Smith College and became and educator. Her father was also an educator and was Head of the high school associated with Columbia University’s Teacher’s College in New York City, one of the top education schools in the US.
This book is appropriate for ages 6 and up.
More titles by Dutton Lynch appropriate for children
Clickable, full text access to The Tortoise and the Geese and Other Tales of Bidpai
Combined Collections of Bidpai and Jakata Tales
Indian Fables by P.V. Ramaswami Raju
I’m not sure what the source tradition is for these tales, but there are more than 100 of them (please comment if you know). The only biographical information I could find about P.V. Ramaswami Raju is pictured below. It is a screen shot of a facsimile of a title page; click for source.
A clickable, online version is available here: Indian Fables
Indian Folk and Fairy Tales
Jacobs was a well known folklorist who published collections of stories sourced from all over the British Empire.
Read more about him from The Lois Level here: FREE Stories from English folklore and history for Kids ages 8 to 11
Tales of the Punjab
The Punjab is a geographical area of India, and Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are all found in the area…so the best I can determine, these stories are from a separate tradition.
Flora Annie Steel
Steel was an author who lived with her husband, a civil servant, in India for more than two decades. In addition to writing numerous books, she worked for the development of Indian arts and crafts and served as an inspector in schools. At times, when her husband was in poor health, she took over some of his work as well.
In addition to Tales of the Punjab, she also wrote The Adventures of Akbar, a retelling of the life of the third Mughal emperor, an area of present day India that included the Punjab.
Akbar is appropriate for readers age 11 and up.
Yet another significant book by Steel relating to India is The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook. Understand that this book was not intended for Indian women; it was intended for British women who had to run a household in India, which meant the women were essentially expected to maintain a British household in India where Indians did the work. The house itself, especially the kitchen, would also be a lot different from those in England, so the wives would need to know what is supposed to be done and an idea of how to make sure that the staff were maintaining the house properly.
Having lived in both Japanese and Middle Eastern housing myself, I can tell you cleaning processes are much different. They are hard to find out about because the locals don’t realize that Westerners have a different way of doing things anymore than Westerners realize that other people do. If you don’t figure out how things are different, you will waste a lot of money (by trying to do things the way you know and being ripped off by staff) and possibly damage your home. And I cannot explain the level of frustration you will encounter!
In Japan, appliances come with features that allow you to reuse gray water because city water is expensive. In the Middle East. the floors have covered drains in them. When you wash the floor, you open the drain and use a large squeegee to get rid of the water…which you use in much larger quantities than you would use in a Western home. And these are just examples…there are many more things that you never think about until things start to go wrong.
Sadly, this book has not been digitized, but it sounds like such fascinating reading that I am tempted to buy the Kindle edition!
I haven’t been able to review this book either, but given Steel’s background, I would hope that it is more balanced than the other British histories. But approach with caution.
More than 20 of Steel’s books have been digitized, however. You can find the list here at Project Gutenberg and most likely, if you prefer, purchase them on Amazon for a couple of dollars or less.
Always preview public domain books purchased on Amazon to make sure that the formatting is readable and that illustrations are included.
A reader recommend Andrew Lang’s Olive Fairy Book as a good choice of Indian fairy tales.
Lang’s series of “color” fairy books are classics, but the problem with them is it’s hard to get the context for the stories. The nice part is the range of stories, especially if you read the entire series.
They are all in the public domain, so you can find free versions online.
Here is the link to Project Gutenberg: The Olive Fairy Book
You will find links to more of Andrew Lang’s books and more free sources for Western and Middle Eastern fairy tales and fables at this The Lois Level post: FREE Fairy Tales and Folk Stories for Kids, Teens, and Adults
FREE Resources on Indian History and Culture for Kids
Finding reliable and free information about India for children has proved to be a shocking challenge. Considering the number of people of Indian descent living in the United States, I can’t believe the few materials that are available through the public library. I use three, and one of them is the Brooklyn Public Library in NYC!
I did source some resources that are available online and appear to be reasonably accurate.
E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation has a unit for grade 2 (ages 7-8). While these materials were accurate when published, they do seem a bit oversimplified, so use with caution.
Remember, when you are teaching cultures, it’s imperative to go beyond the 5 F’s: Food, Fashion, Festivals, Flags, and Famous People.
Core Knowledge Ancient India
I’m not sure that Hirsch’s unit really offers enough, but of course dealing with the culture and history of such a diverse country as India is almost doomed for failure if it’s jammed into one unit: there is just too much information.
Also try Mr. Donn’s Ancient India for Kids. I would be able to recommend these materials more strongly if Mr. Donn had done a better job of citing his sources because we need to make citations visible to the kids (this is the 21st century), but if you dig, you can find minimal citations on his FAQ page.
The Magic Treehouse series has a book set in India, Tigers at Twilight. Magic Treehouse has a new series called Fact Tracker, which are nonfiction books meant as companions for the fictional stories. There isn’t a Fact Tracker on India yet, but keep your eye out.
Magic Treehouse books are great options because the series is popular and therefore easy to source, in the U.S. anyway, and the writing and citation of sources is good quality.
They are great choices for kids ready for their first chapter books, which is a challenging age.
Get a kid into these, and there are more than enough titles to keep him or her going for a while.
More Resources to Explore (if you can find them)
Here are some histories of India that look promising although I wasn’t able to review them.
These books might also be good options for adults who want a manageable, somewhat nutshell version: Indian history is long and complicated, so histories aimed at adults can be overwhelming.
For some modern, single story picture book retellings of Indian Folk Tales, check out the post Folktales for Kids: India at What Do We Do All Day.
You Tell Us
What do you think should be involved in the study of India?
What do you think should be included?
2 thoughts on “Indian Stories and Culture: FREE Reads for ages 6-11+”
Greetings from an Indian who has read books from all over the world, all her life.
I enjoy some of your posts indeed but found your stories about and of India a dreadful, dated, colonial collection.
How on earth did you compile them? They should remain in a corner of the British Museum.
Please look at Indian publishers such as Tulika and you will find folk tales retold and stories about modern India as well. They will give you a better idea about Indian culture.
Hello! I totally agree with your comment, and I am happy to have it on my post to give people updated information. The point of this post is to share resources that are free because they are in the public domain. Many people in the United States know hardly anything about Indian culture, and most teachers, believe it or not, have very limited funds for materials. It’s important for Americans to know something about Indian culture, and I would hope that anyone who uses or reads these resources knows enough to edit them appropriately or would understand the context. When I prepare posts, I research what is actually available in libraries, and I had difficulty finding materials there. Certainly there are better materials for people who can pay for them.