Stories on a String: Literatura de Cordel


The curriculum project, Stories on a String: Literatura de Cordel, will lead students through the act of discovery: the discovery of Brazil and its Literatura de Cordel, ultimately allowing students to work collaboratively to create an artistic response. Through this artistic response students will discover, interpret, perceive, and respond to Brazilian cultures. Much focus is devoted to the intrinsic, historical, and cultural value of the arts.

The Literatura de Cordel are thin chapbooks printed on cheap paper that sell by the thousands among people who scarcely can afford to buy them - or read them. They are also the inspiration for this project.

The aim of this project is to create a series of chapbooks in which students collaborate with students to develop literary and visual narratives in the style of the Brazlian Literatura de Cordel. To fulfill the project requirements, the students in the class become a design team: working with the text written by the literary art students, they illustrate the narrative using the relief printmaking process, print the illustrations, layout the text and the illustrations using Adobe InDesign, and, utilizing book-binding techniques, assemble/produce an edition of chapbooks for gallery exhibition.


This project:

  • supports collaboration across disciplines - it requires full collaboration between the students, as well as creative writing skills, computer skills (scanning images, laying out text and images in InDesign), editing skills (the students will edit the draft of the book), relief printmaking skills, composition and basic design skills, book binding skills, drafting skills, and illustration skills.
  • supports interdisciplinary learning (improving literacy and communication skills) - with focuses on literary arts, visual arts, computer skills and teamwork (see above).
  • provides new motivational approaches to student learning – an introduction to Brazil, the art and history of the Literatura de Cordel, a focus on collaborative production and the goal of producing exhibition-quality work.
  • addresses hard to teach content in the arts and humanities , in that it incorporates so many various skill-sets and disciplines.
  • encourages teacher experimentation in that it requires the teacher to meet the students on so many different levels across so many different disciplines and skill-sets.

As a result of this series of lessons, students will be able to:

· Discover the art of Brazilian Literatura de Cordel and by extension the richness of the Brazilian culture through lecture, readings, film, reflection, writing, bookmaking and printmaking.

· Interpret an understanding of the function in Literatura de Cordel and Brazilian society as a vehicle for finding personal meaning and value in the road towards acceptance and tolerance to unfamiliar cultures.

· Perceive connections between American pop culture and the function of Literatura de Cordel in past and present-day Brazil.

· Respond to the art of Brazilian Literatura de Cordel by planning, developing, writing, crafting chapbooks emulating the Literature de Cordel chapbooks.

· Showcase the original chapbooks and present the writing in a public setting.


Lesson I: Eyes on Brazil & Literatura de Cordel



· Demonstrate an understanding of the historical aspects of Brazilian culture.

· Explain similarities and differences between Brazilian and American cultures.

· Describe the function of Literatura de Cordel in Brazilian society.

Discussion Question(s)

· What function does the Literatura de Cordel play in Brazilian society?

· What similarities and differences do you perceive between cultures in Brazil and the United States?

  • How has your perception of Brazil changed?

Materials Needed

· Internet Website with Literatura de Cordel and Author Biographies, Pamara Brasierlas de Jovens Escritores: (November 28, 2009).

· Student Journals or Composition Books

· “Brazil: An Inconvenient Truth” Documentary Film

· Chart Paper, Overhead Projector, or an Elmo

  • Colorful Markers

· Examples of Literatura de Cordel

Related material also on this website

· Teacher information about Stories on a String, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc

· Teacher information about Brazil’s history, Stories on a String Background about Brazil

· Literatura de Cordel Video from 2009 Brazil Trip,

Set Up and Introduction

Introduce the Literatura de Cordel. If you have access to copies of such books distribute them to the class and allow the students to examine them even before you introduce the project. If you do not have access to the chapbooks, have students read the following article that gives a thorough explanation of the art. The suggested articles can both be found online and are both titled “Literatura de Cordel”. If you do not have access to the actual chapbooks the following Internet site will give students a sampling of such chapbooks. This site offers examples of Literatura de Cordel and biographies on famous Cordel authors.


Session One

1. After the students have had ample time to explore the chapbook form, open the floor for discussion with a question such as, “What do you think”? Do not rush the discussion as exploration takes time.

2. Give a brief overview of the project.

Intense study of Brazilian Literatura de Cordel and the production of original chapbooks developed and created by student input.

3. Discuss prior knowledge of Brazil. Engage the class in a large group discussion, recording the responses on large Post-it notes, an overhead, or an Elmo.

4. Show the documentary “Brazil: An Inconvenient History”. This documentary can be shown in its entirety or using excerpts. Using a guiding questions such as, “What surprises or interests you in this movie?” have students actively watch this film by taking notes and jotting ideas in their journals.

5. Engage in a large group discussion regarding what the students learned from the film. Record the student responses.

6. Consider similarities and differences between Brazil and the United States.

Extending the lesson:

· Continue the research about Brazil in areas of interest sparked by the film. Record areas of discovery in Brazil Journal.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· View Literature de Cordel Video at

· Allow time for students to write a personal response in their journals. The prompt can include any, or all, of the following ideas: What is your initial reaction to this project. What wonderings do you have? Comments? Reflect on the first session. Share a few.

Lesson 2: Researching Literatura de Cordel


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· Obtain reliable and valid research regarding Brazilian Literatura de Cordel.

· Make connections regarding the historical, social, and cultural implications of Literatura de Cordel to own experiences in American culture.

· Present research findings to community in an organized and meaningful manner.

Discussion Question(s)

· What process did you use to find reliable and valuable materials on Literatura de Cordel and how did your group decide upon this process. What did you learn about the process of research?

· What wonderings do you have about Literatura de Cordel? What is fascinating about the form? What do you perceive to be a constraint of the form? What excites you about the idea of creating original chapbooks?

Materials Needed

· Examples of Literatura de Cordel

· Suggested Internet Resources for Literatura de Cordel

Video: Cordel Literature

Video: Cordel Literature showing integration of music.

Teacher Resource Packet

Article on Literatura de Cordel

Article Tales on a String by Kathleen Azevedo

New York Times article on Cordel and woodblocks

Website with great links to resources on Cordel Literature

Article: The bench poetry woodcuts of J. Borges

Website: Cordel and Woodblock examples

Website with woodblock images for chapbook art.

Curran’s Cordel Connection: Website with many years of Cordel research

Website with many translations of Cordel verse and Cordel author bios.

Related material also on this website:

  • Teacher Resource Packet, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc
  • Rubric, Stories on a String Rubric.doc

· Background information about Brazil, Stories on a String-Background about Brazil.doc

Set Up and Introduction

· Share ideas recorded in the Brazil Journal.

· If possible have Brazilian music playing in the background. Artists may include: Gilberto Gil, Antonio Carlos Jobin, Sergio Mendes, Toquinho, Tom Jobim, Ellis Regina, Marissa Monte, Luiz Bonfa’. Discuss informally what the students hear in the music. What tone does the music offer to the listener?

· View and briefly discuss the video on Cordel Literature on You Tube.


1. Allow students to offer comments regarding the video.

2. Break students into small groups and assign each group the task of research Literatura de Cordel with the expectation that each group will report the findings back to the larger group during the next class. Each group should have a visual tool to compliment the presentation. Suggested areas of research are:

  • Historical Background & Oral Traditions
  • Subjects of Chapbooks
  • The Artwork of the Chapbooks
  • The Verse of the Chapbooks
  • Authors and Artists of Chapbooks
  • Examples of Chapbooks

Extending the lesson:

· In the Brazil Journal, instruct students to reflect about their research. What did they discover? Where does it lead? What connections do they see to their own experiences?

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Check for student understanding and Literatura de Cordel Research.


Lesson 3: Diving Deeper into Literatura de Cordel


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· Discuss the aesthetic and function of Literatura de Cordel in Brazilian society and give illustrations of subject matter found in such chapbooks.

Discussion Question(s)

· What is the art form Literatura de Cordel and what place does it play in Brazilian culture?

· Can you envision developing a similar type chapbook? What could the subject matter of the chapbook be? Consider the visual aspects of the chapbook, how will illustrations come into play?

· What is exciting about emulating Literature de Cordel? Intimidating?

Materials Needed

· Podium and Microphone for Student Presentations

· Examples of Literatura de Cordel

· You Tube Video on Cordel Literature and its integration with Music

Related material also on this website

  • Teacher Resource Packet, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc
  • Rubric, Stories on a String Rubric.doc

· Background information about Brazil, Stories on a String-Background about Brazil.doc

Set Up and Introduction

· Share ideas recorded in Brazil Journal about researching Literatura de Cordel. Limit discussion to five minutes.

· View video on Cordel Literature.

· This session will be driven by student presentations on Literatura de Cordel.


1. Each group will present their findings on Literatura de Cordel and present their visual display summarizing the research.

2. Allow questions at the end of each group’s presentation.

3. Engage the community in a large group discussion about the process of research, shared group decision making, Literatura de Cordel, and areas for further research.

Extending the lesson:

· Instruct students to reflect upon the value of Literatura de Cordel and how this form might find value and meaning in our culture. This reflection should be recorded in the Brazil Journal.

· Assign the New York Times article “ARTS ABROAD; From Brazil's Backlands, a Master of a Folk Tradition” as a reading assignment.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· To conclude this session direct student attention back to the examples of Literatura de Cordel and have them examine these chapbooks for several minutes.

· Engage the class to think about how the chapbooks reflect the social, historical, and cultural aspects of Brazilian society.


Lesson 4: Shaping Original Literatura de Cordel


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· Analyze artistic decisions of authors and visual artists of Literatura de Cordel.

· Understand the connections between writing and wood block printing in Literatura de Cordel.

· Read and understand common Cordel verses translated from Portuguese.

· Begin the process of determining and developing a form and theme for original chapbooks.

Discussion Question(s)

· What is striking about the verses in the Literatura de Cordel? Do you see a connection between the text and the images within the chapbook?

· Describe the experience of translating text from Brazilian Portuguese into English or reading a text that was originally in Portuguese. What strategies were employed to find meaning in the text?

Materials Needed

· Examples of Literatura de Cordel

  • Internet
  • Power Point
  • Scanner

· Large Post It Paper, Overhead, or Elmo

Related material also on this website

  • Teacher Resource Packet, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc
  • Rubric, Stories on a String Rubric.doc

· Background information about Brazil, Stories on a String-Background about Brazil.doc

Set Up and Introduction

· Ask the students to share ideas recorded in Brazil Journal about areas of further research or thoughts regarding the project.

· Divide the class into groups of three. Each group will work together on the creation of an original chapbook. Allow students to pick partners or prepare groups ahead of time.


1. Provide each group one chapbook of Literatura de Cordel and instruct each group to begin to translate the chapbook using a translation tool found on the Internet. A suggested site is: Record the translations on paper. Inform the students that the translations will not be perfect but meaning should be strived for from the exercise. If time is limited, direct students to the following site that has translations of Literatura de Cordel.

2. Each group should share their discoveries with the class regarding the chapbook. The discussions should revolve around the themes of the chapbooks, the style of the chapbooks, and the verses and images of the chapbooks.

3. Brainstorm ideas for possible subjects for original chapbooks in the style of Literatura de Cordel. Record ideas on large Post It Note paper, Overheads, or Elmo.

Extending the lesson:

1. Instruct each group to come to the next session with three solid ideas for their own chapbook.

2. Assign each student to reflect upon the chapbooks presented in class and to write down ideas that they would like to incorporate into their own chapbook.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Allow students to investigate examples of Literatura de Cordel that sparked interest during student presentations. Have the chapbooks displayed around the room to allow for movement of the groups. Instruct students to jot down ideas as they explore the chapbooks.

· Play Marissa Monte in the background as groups explore the chapbooks.

· Close this session by opening the floor to questions regarding the project or chapbooks.


Lesson 5: Studio: Writing the Verse of Cordel:


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Research subject matter for chapbook verse.
  • Determine an angle and style for chapbook.

· Draft, revise, workshop, and edit chapbook verse.

Discussion Question(s)

· What progress has been made towards solidifying the research of the chapbook’s subject matter? In what directions will the research move forward?

· How did each group approach the shared decision making when determining the style and angle of presenting the material in the chapbook?

· What is the progress of the draft of the chapbook? What setbacks have been experienced? What is going easy in the first draft?

· What discoveries have been made regarding the draft of the chapbook after the verse workshop? How can the draft of the verse be improved during revision?

Materials Needed

Related material also on this website:

  • Teacher Resource Packet, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc
  • Rubric, Stories on a String Rubric.doc

· Background information about Brazil, Stories on a String-Background about Brazil.doc

Set Up and Introduction

· Share ideas recorded in Brazil Journal about ideas for chapbooks.


1. Small groups will work independently on researching subject matter for chapbook. Allow students ample time to research the subject of the group chapbook. Do not rush this step.

2. Small groups will work independently on writing the verse for chapbook. Literatura de Cordel is usually written in stanzas consisting of 6 or 10 lines with a rhyme scheme of XAXAXA or ABBAACCDDC. Instruct students to choose form or free verse prior to beginning the writing process. Restricting students to form verse may convolute the project—allow students to write in free verse with stanzas of 6 or 10 lines. If the students are an overly ambitious group use form verse with the above mentioned rhyme scheme driving the verse. Writing this original verse will also take more than one class period. Plan accordingly and devise a schedule for students to adhere to during this phase of the project.

3. Assign verse workshop groups and distribute copies of student created verse and workshop questions to all members of workshop. Workshop group members read and respond to student verse in preparation for verse workshops. A writing workshop is an opportunity for peer editing in terms of content. Questions are created by the teacher to drive the writing workshop and students are provided copies of student writing to respond and offer revision suggestions.

4. Conduct verse workshops. The group whose verse is being critiqued should not speak during the workshop—only take notes on the feedback from the larger community. Each individual writing workshop will take from 30-40 minutes and running more than one workshop at a time may be a consideration to accommodate for time constraints.

5. After each group has engaged in a writing workshop of the original chapbook verse the small groups should edit and polish verses for chapbook.

Extending the lesson:

· In small groups and independently students will work to research, draft, workshop, and edit original student verses for chapbooks. Students will be given studio time during class but additional work will be necessary outside of class.

· Instruct students to frequently record ideas and thoughts in the Brazil Journal about the research, the writing, the verse workshop, and editing of original verse.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Throughout the process the assessment will build upon each step. The research will inform the writing, the writing will be improved by the writing workshop, and the final verse will be influenced by the decisions of the group but the larger community as well. Points should be given for completion of each step of the process.

· Close each session by sharing progress of each group through each step of the process—the research, the drafting of the verse, the verse workshop, and the revision and polishing.


Lesson 6: Verse Café: Sharing Drafts of Original Verse with the Class


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· Showcase the original verse for the group chapbooks in a café setting.

· Gain familiarity with the verses of the other groups’ chapbooks.

  • Brainstorm titles of individual chapbooks.

Discussion Question(s)

· What is your impression regarding the range of chapbook verses that were shared? What surprised you? What wonderings do you have?

· What was pleasing about this collaborative writing project? What was challenging? How would you approach this writing task differently the next time? What would you repeat? What did you learn about yourself and about writing in a group?

Materials Needed

· Copies of Chapbook Verses for Class.

· Coffee and Cookies for Café Setting

· Portable Microphone and Speaker

Related material also on this website

  • Teacher Resource Packet, Stories on a String Teacher Info.doc
  • Rubric, Stories on a String Rubric.doc

· Background information about Brazil, Stories on a String-Background about Brazil.doc

Set Up and Introduction

· Prepare the classroom to simulate a café setting. Bring tablecloths and coffee/tea service. Allow students to get refreshments upon entering class.

· Play Brazilian music as background café music.

· Assign a student to serve as the master or mistress of ceremony for the reading.


1. The MC will introduce each group to present the verse for chapbook.

2. After each group, the MC will record possible titles on the chalkboard. Group members will record titles for consideration.

3. Allow each group the opportunity to pose questions any final questions to the class regarding the original verse.

4. Instruct each group that the final verse will be due at the next class session and any changes should be made prior to this date.

Extending the Lesson:

· Instruct each student to reflect about the chapbook verse presentation. What went well? What might have been improved? Did the reaction of the class bring surprise or wonderings? And finally, instruct students to think about the visual design of the chapbook. What is the visual vision for the chapbook?

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Celebrate the accomplishments of the original verse by ending the session with a slide show of photos from Brazil.


Lesson 7: Visual Design of Chapbooks


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· Develop a visual design for the chapbook including color, visuals imagery, and layout choices.

  • Create a dummy of the chapbook.

Discussion Question(s)

· What influenced the visual design decisions for the chapbook? What is the overall aesthetic goal for the chapbook? What materials will you need to accomplish the goals for the chapbook?

· What wonderings do you have about design elements?

Materials Needed

· Literatura de Cordel examples

  • Blank paper

· Desktop Publishing Software

Related material also on this website:

  • None

Set Up and Introduction

· Have Literatura de Cordel chapbooks placed around the room and instruct individual groups to explore the books paying particular attention to design qualities.

· Play Brazilian music in background as groups explore chapbooks.


1. Allow each group the opportunity to look at Literatura de Cordel chapbooks thru the lens of a visual designer. Instruct each group to job down notes as they explore the chapbooks.

2. Discuss the visual considerations involved in producing chapbooks. Discussion topics should include: cover art, inside art, layout and design, color choices, typography.

3. Instruct each group the task of making design choices and to determine the visual elements of the chapbook. Color scheme, typography, images, and layout should be determined and a dummy chapbook is to be made indicating group choices. Instruct students that a dummy book is merely a guide to use when moving into the production of the chapbooks. Making a dummy chapbook consists of folding paper and labeling pages accordingly.

4. Inform students that the next phase of this project will be based on the production elements of our chapbooks.

Extending the Lesson:

· Inform students that the dummy chapbook and visual design decisions are to be completed for next session.

· In Brazil Journal brainstorm ideas for creating a visually pleasing chapbook to compliment the well-crafted verse. How can the visual design of the chapbook compliment the writing?

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Check for understanding regarding the dummy chapbook assignment and ask what challenges that the groups are encountering as they complete this task.



Lesson 8: Chapbook Production


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

· create illustrations utilizing the relief printmaking process to accompany the story

· identify, study and utilize several elements of art and principles of design in their work

· produce an edition of relief prints as art objects, independent from the chapbooks

· utilize Adobe InDesign to layout text and illustrations

· produce an edition of 10 chapbooks

· collaborate on the organization, installation and presentation of a chapbook exhibition in a gallery setting

· analyze and discuss student work in the format of group critiques

Discussion Question(s)

· How do you communicate the theme of your chapbook in a non-verbal way?

· How best would you translate the main theme of your chapbook in a visual illustration?

· How will you integrate this knowledge of Brazil and the Literatura de Cordel into your own artwork?

· What did you learn about Brazil in general?

· What areas do you want to know more about?

Materials Needed

· Easy-cut linoleum

· Lino cutters and various blade sizes

  • Tracing paper
  • Pencils

· Block printing ink

· Cover stock (for the chapbooks)

· Relief printing paper (for the independent prints)

  • Brayers
  • Computer
  • Scanner
  • Printer

· Adobe Photoshop

  • Adobe InDesign

Set Up and Introduction

· Create a display that includes Brazilian chapbooks and features examples of relief prints created for the chapbooks.

· The instructor reviews the initial objectives and historical background information that were given at the start of the lesson.

· The teacher now begins the visual introduction to the project and changes gear from the literary to the artistic.

  • Teacher shows many examples of relief prints

  1. Students will have already searched Brazilian chapbooks.
  2. Instructor will pass out examples of Brazilian chapbooks and lead a discussion on Brazilian chapbook themes, elements, art and history.
  3. Students will edit and refine their written work and prepare it for critique and discuss how their work will be executed in an art form.
  4. Discussions during the critique will focus on generating ideas for illustrations.
  5. Instructor will give a demonstration on relief printmaking techniques and will show examples of relief prints created for Brazilian chapbooks.
  6. The students will produce multiple sketches for their illustrations incorporating the elements and principles of design and will present them to the class in the form of a group critique in order to get feedback.
  7. The students will analyze and discuss the work of their peers during the critique and offer suggestions for improvement.
  8. The students will use the feedback they got from their classmates in the critique and refine their designs, which will be presented again in a formal critique.
  9. Final designs will then be translated onto the easy-cut linoleum and printed.
  10. The class will discuss procedures for creating editions.
  11. Students will complete an edition of prints and present their edition to the class for critique.
  12. Final prints will then be scanned and touched up in Adobe Photoshop.
  13. Students will layout the text of their stories with the scanned prints using Adobe InDesign.
  14. Students will print a draft of their chapbook and, working in pairs, they will edit the draft.
  15. Final edits will be made to the chapbook in InDesign.
  16. After instructor approval, the chapbooks are printed out on coverstock in preparation for the exhibition.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· Students use will use a rubric to reflect on their work (example follows)

· During the exhibition, the students will engage in a talk back with the audience.

· Students mingle with the audience and talk about their work and experiences.

Lesson 9: Chapbook Showcase & Assessment of Project


As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Showcase the chapbooks in a public forum.

· Critically analyze and evaluate the process used in meeting the goals of the project.

· Celebrate the project and the hard work put forth in making the original chapbooks.

Discussion Question(s)

· The act of discovery is crucial to the development of an artist, whether it be an actor, a writer, a dancer, a pianist, or a painter. Discovery is not a skill that is not easily taught on the road to becoming an artist, just as discipline towards one’s art does not develop over night. Developing artists must be provided opportunities of discovery in all art forms throughout their artistic development, which in turn teaches discipline in the pursuit of a focused artistic response in any medium. With these ideas in mind what did you discover as an artist as a result of this project? Think about the historical, cultural, and aesthetic aspects of the project.

· What function does the Literatura de Cordel play in Brazilian society? Consider the rich history of the art when answering this question. What function do the emulated chapbooks play in our society?

· What discoveries did you make in our goal to better understand unfamiliar cultures? What did you learn about Brazil? What areas do you want to know more about? What similarities and differences do you perceive between Brazilian and American culture?

· How will you use this knowledge of Brazil and the Literatura de Cordel?

Materials Needed

· Public forum such as school auditorium or theatre and art gallery

· String for Chapbook Display

· Donated Items for Reception

Set Up and Introduction

· Have the venue prepared in an intimate setting with a table and podium with a microphone in the center.

· Play Brazilian music in the background prior to the showcase.

· Display chapbooks on string in an art gallery or lobby area outside auditorium or theatre for public viewing.


1. Prior to the showcase have students prepare the exhibition of chapbooks in the chosen space.

2. At the designated time begin the showcase with a brief introduction and overview of the project. Assign this task to a student or group of students.

3. Begin the presentation of the chapbooks. Each group should present their chapbook and share original verse with the audience.

4. Talk Back should be held directly after showcase

5. Reception

6. Clean Up

Extending the lesson:

· Assign a Student Discovery Paper. Each student involved in the project should write a 3-5-page paper that is a reflection of the student’s journey throughout the project. Prompt the students with questions such as: What did you learn about yourself through your involvement with this project? Which aspects were most satisfying? Challenging? The discussion questions listed above also can be referenced for starting points on the discovery paper.

Assessment and Wrap Up

· After the showcase of chapbooks have the students engage in a talk back with the audience. Allow the audience to ask questions about the project and process.

· Light reception to follow showcase of chapbooks. Have students mingle and talk about their experiences.








Brought to the New World by the first Portuguese colonists and, with time, increasingly associated with the Northeast's vast, dry interior, the pamphlet stories in verse known as folhetos or as literatura de cordel have continued to change along with Brazil. Long associated with semi-literate poets who composed for the Northeastern masses, these "stories on a string" have become increasingly popular among middle-class writers and consumers.

Brazilians call these chapbooks Literatura de Cordel (literally cord literature) because they hang from ropes strung across public vendors’ spaces. These tiny pamphlets have enjoyed attention from art historians, musicians, writers, sociologists, cultural critics and political scientists interested in the Brazilian northeast. As Brazilian Literary critic, Candice Slater notes, “they reflect the ballads of Brazilian troubadours by embracing a tradition of popular song and print that is not just Brazilian, but also a modern adaptation of Europe’s early modern ballads and chapbooks.”

For more than a century these chapbooks have been widely read by the people of Brazil's Northeast, one of the poorer parts of the country. Because of its poverty, the Northeast remains an archaic society, in more than one sense; and the whole system of writing, publishing, and selling of cordel is a vestigial counterpart of European popular literature: the British "chapbooks," the French littérature de colportage, the Spanish pliegos sueltos, and the Portuguese literatura de cego.

The name cordel (string) arises from the fact that sometimes these small booklets (called folhetos) are displayed, in small-town markets, hanging on horizontal strings - the way some newsstands still do with magazines. The size of the folhetos is around
16 x 10 centimeters; they have, typically, 8, 16, or 32 pages.

The literature is always written in verse and employs basically the sextilha (six lines, with XAXAXA rhymes, with X standing for blank verses) and the décima (ten lines, with several rhyme-patterns, the most common being ABBAACCDDC). Both types of stanza are of Iberian origin, and the sextilha is, by far, the most frequent. Each page of a folheto contains either five sextilhas or three décimas. As to the verses, the most common are those with seven or ten syllables.

The cordel is clearly an oral type of literature; the folhetos being only a means of recording and transmitting the text. The seller or folheteiro is supposed to sing aloud the verses to his customers; often the same individual writes, prints, sings, and sells the folheto.

The cordel is cultivated among poor and illiterate people, most of them living on farms or in small villages; thus, the traditional use is that somebody buys a folheto and, back home, reads it aloud while the others listen.

There are folhetos about almost anything. They can be

  • journalistic, narrating, and making commentaries about current facts;
  • tell the life of a saint or the adventures of the cangaceiros (outlaw gunslingers in rural areas);
  • stories about cowboys and cattle;
  • stories about hard life in the big cities (unemployment, inflation, etc.);
  • serious or satirical, moralistic or pornographic;
  • retellings of traditional tales like "Sleeping Beauty" or "Romeo and Juliet"; or
  • fantasy tales.

Fantasy folhetos

The fantasy in the cordel is very close to the universe of traditional European folktales. There appear, again and again, the youngest of three sons; the quest; the three magical objects or musical instruments; the talking animals; the breaking of a charm; and the final marriage with a princess. The preferred set is a medieval one, with castles, kings and queens, magicians, dragons, and monsters. On the other side, this setting is often full of typically Brazilian elements (clothes, food, plants, animals, place names - aside from the way the characters talk) which give the stories a very peculiar flavor.

Like any other folk literature, the cordel endlessly retells a cluster of basic plots and employs recurrent motifs; we might see it as a kind of "quantitative literature" whose importance can only be properly evaluated if we consider the bulk of its output - not just isolated titles. Brazil is still a country in which a good-selling mainstream novel is one that sells 5,000 to 10,000 copies (in a country of 160 million people).

In the domain of cordel, however, a journalistic folheto like "The Death of Presidente Getúlio Vargas" (1954) reportedly sold over a million copies in less than a year; on the other hand, some "classical" folhetos have been continuously in print for over 80 years. It is certainly impossible to know the real figures of such a widespread and underground business, but those figures, if compared with those of "real literature," would be exceedingly greater.

Unfortunately, most of the studies published so far about cordel are mainly focused in its literary and sociological aspects, and a history of its publishing/selling network remains largely to be written.

Being such a "quantitative" literature, the cordel is, by all means, subject to Sturgeon's Law (which states that 90% of everything is crud). Many folhetos are the mere retelling of some well-known story, with minor changes (proper names, etc.); the concept of "individual" authorship is often ignored.

As to the fantasy-related themes, the wide range of the cordel may become clear through the reading of some typical titles of folhetos (In translation an effort was given to maintaining the folhetos' peculiar style of phrasing):

  • The Boy Who was Born Holding a Sword, or José Seven Devils
  • The Monster of the Black River
  • The Man who Slept with the Beast
  • The Adventures of Zabulon in the Haunted Kingdom
  • The Prince of White Clay and the Princess of No-Return
  • The Daughter who Killed Her Mother and Became a Witch and a Vampire
  • Saint George the Warrior and the Invaders of the Moon
  • The Enchanted Bird from the Cavern of Ubajara
  • Story of the Machine that Makes the World Go Round
  • The Man Who Walked for 100 Years
  • The Invisible Man
  • The Cowboy Who was Turned in a Woman and Bore a Child
  • The Four-Meter Tall Woman Who Goes From Town to Town
  • The Human Bat
  • The Yellow Dwarf and the Fairy from the Desert

There have been a number of attempts to classify the cordel in thematic cycles. Some of those acknowledged cycles involve fantastic elements. There is, for example, the Bull Cycle, stories of a wild and untamed bull who fights and eludes the bravest cowboys. This thematic bull appears under a large variety of names and disguises. Sometimes its deeds are clearly of a fantastic nature.

Another cycle is mixed with what is generally called the "journalistic", or the "news" cycles (more or less what in French is called divers). These folhetos are about crimes, accidents, and other extraordinary events that make the headlines. Mostly, they are the age-old retelling of crimes, or the sensationalist chapbooks of the last centuries.

There are also fantastic events told in the folhetos: stories about supernatural entities (ghosts, apparitions in general), and stories about bizarre creatures that are born (six-legged calves, two-headed goats, and so on).

There is a small, but visible, category of folhetos about space travel. They can be roughly divided in two categories: folhetos about actual space travel (e.g., about the Skylab or about Project Apollo) and folhetos about UFOs and aliens.

One of the most interesting categories of fantastic folhetos are the folhetos about "Marcos" ("Marks") - that is, about inexpugnable fortresses that a poet conceives in the most baroque terms. The name "Marco" means "landmark, boundary mark, or milestone," but in this case it is generally used with the meaning of "fortress," or "something inexpugnable and unassailable, a symbol of his poetical superiority over his peers." (Atila Almeida) The Marks may be seen as part of Utopian literature, in the sense that they share some qualities with conventional utopian texts. They are ideal constructs, self-consciously artificial. They do not purport to be "realistic" or even "plausible": in fact, their strength lies in their effective use of exaggeration, hyperbole and fantasy. Then, they purport to be a "model," an embodiment of desirable or ideal qualities (in the case of the "Marks", military or strategic ones). And, like most Utopian texts, they consist primarily of description, with little space given to action (a Mark folheto is never a story; it is a catalogue of features).

The Marks frequently include aspects of classical, Eden-like Utopias. Often a Mark consists of a ring of fortifications (high walls, deadly traps, warriors, weapons, beasts, etc.) keeping in its center a peaceful site (a garden, a castle, a wood) full of fruit trees, birds, etc., as a dwelling place where people can live happily.

Cordel by Numbers: Basics of Brazilian Chapbooks by Braulio Tavares (September 15, 2000),






Assessment Rubric:

Write the number in pencil that best shows how well you feel that you completed the project.





Needs Improvement

Rate Yourself

Teacher’s Rating

Criteria 1

Did you invest time and effort to successfully produce a story in the style of the Literatura de Cordel?


9 – 8


6 or less


Criteria 2

Did you successfully produce an edition of well-executed prints that illustrate your story? Are your prints neat, clean & complete? Did you skillfully use of art tools and media?


Criteria 3

Did you take time to develop idea and complete project? Did you use class time well?


Criteria 4

Did you successfully produce an edition of 10 chapbooks for the exhibition?


Criteria 5

Did you contribute to the organization and installation of the chapbook exhibition in the gallery?


Total: 50

x 2 = 100



Your Total

Teacher Total