Hearts and Tales

” ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart,” Philip Pullman has asserted. Pullman, author of such acclaimed fantasies as His Dark Materials trilogy (which began with The Golden Compass), has clearly spent much time at the well of folk literature, both drawing from it and enriching it. For his recently published edition of Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, Pullman has selected 50 favorites, showing off the jagged beauty and power of the stories, first published 200 years ago.    Fairy Tales from the Bro Grimm

The Grimm brothers, relying on both written and oral sources, produced a work that “shares its eminence only with The Arabian Nights; the two of them are the most important and influential collection of folktales ever published,” writes Pullman in the introduction. Pullman wisely focuses on how the tales work as stories. His goal is to produce a version “as clear as water” — and he succeeds. In an era of parodies, puns, and all manner of mash-ups, here is refreshing and relevant fare for readers who can cope with the requisite elements of gore and conflict.

Pullman traverses both familiar and strange territory here. The Frog King, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Briar Rose, a personal favorite, all appear, but lesser-known characters inhabit the collection as well. In addition to his rhythmic retellings, Pullman includes, after each story, details on the tale type, the source, titles of similar stories, and finally, some personal comments. The author’s comments, brimming with humor and passion, further enliven this ear-pleasing collection.

Some tales deserve more attention than they’ve received in the past. “The Juniper Tree,” for instance, (the title story of Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell’s fine compilation), tells of a woman giving birth to a son “as red as blood and as white as snow.” Pullman praises this story, attributed to the painter Philipp Otto Runge, in this bold manner: “For beauty, for horror, for perfection of form, this story has no equal.” Accordingly, Pullman retells it faithfully.

Yet, Pullman insists, the fairy tale is “in a perpetual state of becoming,” and storytellers and writers may change the stories to suit a range of needs and interests. He improves the Grimms’ gruesome shocker “The Robber Bridegroom,” for instance, by incorporating a repeated claim from the evil protagonist of the English folktale “Mr. Fox”: “This isn’t so, and it wasn’t so, and God forbid it should be so!”

Another pleasure of Pullman’s notes is that readers gain insight into how some of the tales have changed over the years. In his inclusion of “Snow White,” for instance, Pullman contributes to restoring the strangeness of the story, in which the young woman comes back to life when the dwarfs carrying her coffin trip and stumble, and a chunk of the poisoned apple is dislodged from her throat. After the story, Pullman points out that in the Grimms’ original 1812 edition, the wicked queen was Snow White’s mother. This, of course, was but one of the many ways in which the Grimm brothers tried to make the stories more palatable for a broad audience.

For lovers of fantasies and fairy tales, Philip Pullman’s collection should climb to the top of the wish list. Those youngeOuch! A Tale From Grimmr than 10, however, will find better options in picture-book adaptations by such talented author/illustrators as Paul Zelinsky (Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin) and Ruth Sanderson (The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Rose Red and Snow White, and Cinderella), as well as the award-winning Ouch! retold by Natalie Babbitt and brilliantly illustrated by Fred Marcellino. And consider picking up Taschen’s heirloom-quality compilation, which I reviewed in the post “Again to the Brothers Grimm.”

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Bringing in the Folktales

Turn your story time upside down with Janet Stevens’s bodacious Tops and Bottoms. This perfectly paced version of an African-American folktale begs to be read aloud. Children delight in hearing how the trickster Hare outwits lazy old Bear, who sleeps all day on his front porch and expects others to do the work.

Hungry Hare offers Bear a deal he can’t resist: Hare will work Bear’s land in exchange for half of the crops. In a wink, Bear accepts. Hare even offers to let Bear choose which half he wants — tops or bottoms. Adults, of course, can predict where this arrangement will lead. Hare and his family plant, water, weed, and harvest the carrots, radishes and beets. Since Bear chose the top halves, the hares get to keep what happens to be the better part in this case — the bottoms.

Bear insists on another chance. This time, he chooses the bottoms. Again, Hare does all the work, but the crops are different: lettuce, broccoli, and celery. Of course, Hare manages to get the tasty portion himself.

Even when the angry bear insists on having both tops and bottoms, Hare is able to trick him, as he plants corn and then gives Bear just the tassels and roots. Finally, Bear wises up and realizes if he’s ever to get a good harvest, he’ll need to do his own farming.

Beyond the rollicking plot, this Caldecott Honor book excels with bright watercolor illustrations bursting with energy and personality. Stevens notes “the original artwork was created on paper made by hand from carrots, corn, potatoes, beans, radishes, tomatoes, and even a pair of gardening pants and shirt.” Another surprising technique she employs is the orientation of particular pages from top to bottom instead of side by side. When the storyteller turns that book vertically, children will, for instance, see Bear on the top page as he waits for the top halves of the crops, which we know to be root crops. Then, we see Bear on the bottom as he anticipates getting the bottom halves. What an ingenious way to reflect the sly humor of a crowd-pleasing folktale! Just perfect for ages 7 to 9.

Friendship matters more than gold, as Baba Wague Diakite reveals in his lively retelling  of a West African folktale set in his native Mali. In The Magic Gourd, the rabbit Dogo Zan rescues a chameleon and is rewarded with a magic gourd that fills with whatever its owner wishes. Eventually, the greedy king learns about the gourd’s magic powers and steals it. Using another gift from his friend the chameleon, Dogo Zan is able to recover his treasure. Just as important, the scrawny critter manages to teach the king a lesson in generosity. The bold ceramic paintings provide humor, as well as lovely images of traditional motifs of Mali. Pick this heirloom-quality story if you’re looking for appealing and “heart-healthy” fare for a rousing read-aloud for ages 7 to 9.

Here’s a hilarious tale about a small girl with a big talent. Sweet little Isabelle, the youngest in the family, comes up with a special way to help with the planting and harvesting.

With visions of all the good stuff to come — carrot juice, carrot stew, carrot relish, and carrot pudding — each family member nurtures a carrot seedling. Papa tends the plant, Mama weeds around it, brother Abel waters it, and Isabelle … sings. And that’s what makes the plant grow and grow and grow.

At last, it’s as tall as Papa Joe, but it seems impossible to pull out of the ground. Only when they all work together can they harvest the carrot that will supply a bounty of tasty treats.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a riff on the Russian big turnip folktale, but I prefer this charming version for children ages 5 to 8. The Giant Carrot illustrates the value of cooperation, while it also implies we should respect everyone, no matter how tiny. And that’s not all; it offers opportunities for multiple curricular uses. Science teachers can use this title in a unit on plant life, and reading teachers might employ it to teach the skill of predicting, or cause and effect. No matter the intention, you’ll reap plenty of fun with this good-natured story.

Pitch-perfect Fairy Tales

Once a hedgehog always a hedgehog? Surely such a thought is unfit for a fairy tale. In her new picture book Hans My Hedgehog, Kate Coombs has taken a bloody old tale of a neglected half-boy and tuned it up to enchant more children than the overlooked version tucked away in unabridged collections of Grimms’ folktales.

The illustrator John Nickle presents pitch-perfect acrylic images of a bright-eyed hero with a hedgehog’s prickly head and torso and a human’s spindly legs sporting grass-green tights. From the book’s large cover, our quirky protagonist stands to pique a reader’s interest, with his rumpled sky-blue shirt, pointy-toed red shoes and pink paws holding a tomato-red fiddle with a heart-shaped hole in its middle. Like the author, the illustrator pays respect to fairy-tale conventions, with his use of rich colors, fine details, and intelligent black silhouettes. And in highlighting the characters’ often impish expressions and their energy (soaring roosters! dancing pigs!) he amplifies this adaptation’s humorous, cheerful approach.

Both the new and old story begin with a lonely couple with such an irrational longing for a child that the father foolishly says he’d want a son even if he were half a hedgehog. Of course the preposterous becomes real, and the wife gives birth to a prickly baby who’s a boy only from the waist down. In Ms. Coombs’ tale, the loving parents nurture the little one they name Hans My Hedgehog, in contrast to the dark old tale that describes the cold-hearted couple leaving him alone in a corner.

As the son grows older, he asks his father for a musical instrument. His father brings him a shiny little fiddle (changed from bagpipes in the original), which he plays so well in time he provides the music at the village fairs. As no local girl deigns to pay him any mind, though, the young half-man despairs and decides to leave home.

Into the mysterious forest the protagonist ventures to meet his destiny. Fiddle in paw, Hans My Hedgehog arrives there astraddle a hefty rooster, with his plump pigs trailing them. Three times, people enter the wood, lose their way, and ask Hans to help them leave. Our plucky hero tells the two kings he will assist them on one condition: “If you give me the first thing that meets you when you reach your palace.”

Fairy tale aficionados will foresee the consequences of the king’s rash acceptance of such a demand. In each case, it is the king’s own daughter that first greets her father. The two princesses differ in their response, with the first rejecting such a suitor and assisting her father in trying to cheat Hans from his reward. The second princess agrees to marry the odd creature who has helped her father.

While fairy tales typically provide us with the satisfaction of a clear-cut sense of justice, the stark consequences of people’s deeds sometimes veer into gratuitous violence. In the Grimms’ version, the hedgehog arrives to claim the first princess and leaves with her, punishing her deceit by pricking her so much she bleeds, before he abandons her. Ms. Coombs, however, eschews such gore and simply shows Hans rejecting the undeserving bride.

Ms. Coombs also delivers a welcome upbeat conclusion, as Hans My Hedgehog plays so magically at his own wedding reception that the spell is broken, and his fair bride is rewarded with a handsome young man with red, spiky hair and a loving smile. No doubt the couple will find it much easier to waltz (or twist) the night away.

While some purists might object to the many liberties Ms. Coombs takes in her retelling, most readers will rejoice at this lilting transformation of a too-grim tale. Recommended for ages 6 to 9.

Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books.

Also note …

Here’s another reason to kick up your heels:  Ruth Sanderson‘s splendid Twelve Dancing Princesses has just been republished, with a radiant new cover. Of the many versions released over the last couple of decades, this one stands out, with Sanderson’s polished storytelling and her glorious Old World paintings. Every girl deserves to have and hold books this beautiful.

And don’t miss my previous post on Taschen’s fabulous new collection The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

I’m wondering which retellings of Grimm’s fairy tales you think children most need to hear.

Shades of St. Patrick

Already the near-spring is bringing us shades of St. Patrick and the greening of fields and forests. With a hey and a ho, (Can you tell I’ve joined a group of madrigal singers?) I’m ready to open crisp, new books and take fresh peeks at old ones.

Congratulations to Bob Brooks for his new ebook, Tales from the Glades of Ballymore, a sweet fantasy that features an assortment of animals who create their own nurturing community. The gentle novel, set in 1891 in the Irish countryside, follows four seasons of their lives near a pond. From the kite-flying contest in March to the sustained project of building a boat to the hilarious tunnel-digging project for Mrs. Porcupine’s garden, the residents turn to each other for help — or at least for a humorous diversion.

Led by wise old Bartholomew Owl, the animals display a range of personalities and talents, ranging from weather forecasting to delivering messages. In between mishaps and a mystery involving a letter from the past, they learn the value of empathy and of working together for the common good. (You can join them by clicking on the title above to buy a copy for your Kindle or laptop.)

Tales from Old Ireland, one of Barefoot’s lovely compilations, offers a stirring selection of seven folktales for ages 8 to 12. Belfast-born storyteller Malachy Doyle employs a lilting, sprightly style that does justice to these strange and wondrous tales. The collection, available with CDs, includes the sad “Children of Lir,” the colorful Irish version of Cinderella (“Fair, Brown, and Trembling”) and the wise “Lusmore and the Fairies,” which illustrates the value of kindness and respect . The final story, featuring the legendary hero Finn Mac Cool, even includes the appearance of St. Patrick himself. Thanks to the Irish monks of the seventh and eighth centuries, we can still savor such wild, old Celtic tales.

For younger readers (ages 6 to 8), pick up Cynthia DeFelice’s
One Potato, Two P
otato. DeFelice, an acclaimed writer and storyteller, has taken a likable Chinese folktale and transported it to Ireland. This charming tale about a poor couple finding a magic wishing pot but not letting it rule (or ruin) their lives is a timely and witty way to teach young ones the importance of simplicity and gratitude. One Potato, Two Potato is a treat to read aloud to young children and will generate interesting discussions of values.

And here’s Celtic Thunder in concert. Enjoy!

Again to the Brothers Grimm

For 200 years people around the world have explored an enchanted forest of folktales, thanks to the work of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, a lovely new compilation from Taschen, highlights the dazzling artwork that does justice to the potent tales that still hold us spellbound.

The book is a gorgeous affair, from its royal purple cloth cover to its end papers sprouting dreamily winding white vines, followed by radiant stories and images. Then there’s the fanciful Old World font, the lissome, newly commissioned silhouettes; and the astounding banquet of artwork, crisply reproduced in all their glory. If this doesn’t lure you into the Grimm brothers’ tales, nothing will.

Focusing on illustrations created from the 1820s to the 1950s, the collection offers an array of visual and literary riches.  The expected stars shine here: the British illustrators L. Leslie Brooke, Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, and the quirky George Cruikshank, who illustrated the first English translation of the Grimms’ fairy tales. Acclaimed American artists include Wanda Gág (“The Fisherman and His Wife”) and Jessie Willcox Smith, with her radiant heroine for “The Goose Girl.” The fantastical illustrations of Nielsen grace three stories.

The editor has selected 27 appealing stories from the 1857 edition, which incorporated the brothers’ revisions designed to make the stories more engaging and suitable for both young and old audiences. The new translations by Mr. Price hew closely to the Grimm brothers’ versions, resulting in tales that bristle with energy and magic.

Kay Nielsen illustration for “Sleeping Beauty”

Arranged in the order in which the Grimm brothers published them, the tales seem both fresh and familiar. Such favorites as “The Frog Prince,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Rumpelstiltskin” are here, but the versions veer from many of the sanitized plots widely published. “Cinderella,” for instance, is no passive Barbie; instead, she’s a tenacious young woman who works to create her new destiny. She has no fairy godmother; instead, she prays at the hazel tree planted at her mother’s grave, and birds come to her aid. “Dear little tree,/Shake your branches and flutter your leaves/And let gold and silver fall down over me!” That’s how she gets her shimmering evening gown and slippers embroidered in silk and silver. She doesn’t need a pumpkin; she dashes off to the ball on her own, thank you. After Cinderella and the prince dance for hours, she needs no clock to tell her it’s time to go. When the smitten young man insists he will accompany her home, she gives him the slip.

Twice more this happens, until the prince wises up and orders the staircase covered in pitch. This time when Cinderella runs off, her golden slipper gets stuck. The gory measures the stepsisters take in order to force their feet into the shoe belonging to the prince’s true love will cause some adults to pause. The poetic justice meted out to them and their cruel mother at the end is also uncompromisingly stark. Adults may choose either to discuss the symbolic nature of the literature or simply to omit the violence when reading aloud to children.

Other folktales, however, do not give us reason to pause, even when reading to children as young as 5. The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm  contains gentle stories, such as “The Brave Little Tailor,” “The Golden Goose,” and the beloved “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” And you will encounter little-known treasures such as “The Star Coins,” which beautifully demonstrates the power and wisdom of generosity.

Viktor Paul Mohn lithograph for “The Star Coins”

Delights abound. Most readers will enjoy poring over the magical Old World artwork of the German illustrators Gustav Süs (“The Hare and the Hedgehog”) and Otto Speckter (“Rapunzel”). Wildly different from those are the witty, cartoonish color lithographs for “Puss ’n Boots,” done in 1946 by the Swiss illustrator Herbert Leupin. It’s nearly impossible not to marvel at the stunning variety of images contained in these many-colored pages.

And when the kinder have gone to bed, adults can ponder the editor’s insightful introductory essay and her concise, interesting biographies of the artists.

These strange and wonderful tales deserve to be part of our children’s heritage. Let this heirloom-quality collection cast its spell in your home.

Late one winter night …

Late one winter night, a weary traveler trudges through a fierce snowstorm.

Just as he feels he can go no farther, he spies the blazing lights of a house in the distance. He might yet survive—if only he can cross the frosty meadow and find a warm, dry place to spend the night.

Outside the house, the bundled-up walker finds an old man chopping wood and approaches him to ask: “Good evening, Father. I’m so glad I found you. Would you, by any chance, have a room where I could spend the night?” Such a simple question would normally lead to a simple answer, right?

Storyteller Ashley Ramsden, however, has staked out a wilder territory in his first picture book. He bases Seven Fathers on a lesser-known Norwegian folktale collected by the famous folklorists Asbjornsen and Moe (Norwegian Folk Tales. Reprinted by Pantheon, 1982.) Founder of the International School of Storytelling in Sussex, England, and co-author of a book on storytelling, Ramsden’s narrative powers are in full force here. His finely honed prose is studded with the repeated question that propels the tale into an increasingly strange landscape. Along the way, Mr. Ramsden traverses multiple levels of meaning, crafting a tale especially appealing to older children of a philosophical bent.

The traveler’s respectfully worded question meets with the same odd response each time: “I’m not the father of the house. You’ll have to ask my father.” Six more times, he must seek another man, each one somehow older than the other.

The bizarre nature of the man’s quest flares to life with Ed Young’s unique collages, laid on clay-colored paper throughout the book. The illustrator ushers us into the story with snow-spattered scenes, the protagonist roughly outlined in thick black ink lines.

Mr. Young, a Caldecott medalist, intersperses splotches of paint and simple drawings with an intriguing range of cut paper. As the protagonist warms up a bit, we get to see his face, drawn with a few black lines, peering out of his thick white hood, all the while keeping on his fur mittens. Mr. Young’s approach is minimalistic yet expressive, as in his depiction of the second father, his hair white-scrawled and his cheeks pinked by a fire the illustrator has built out of flame-looking scraps of paper.

On and on the traveler goes, penetrating further into a world where time has become elastic. As each father gets older, it becomes difficult to hear and, eventually, even to see him. The sixth father has shrunken so small he fits in a cradle. Yet even he tells the man he must go and ask that question to his father. The story traces the symbolic nature of the journey until it reaches its satisfying conclusion.

While younger children might not grasp the implications of a spiritual quest, they will understand the folktale’s message of respect for elders and the importance of perseverance. For those seven and older, Seven Fathers offers a folktale brimming with subtle humor and mystery fresh as new-fallen snow.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books

And for more frosty folk or fairy tales:

Bearskin

Simms Taback and His Bright Creations

Without Simms Taback’s books, the land of children’s literature would look less colorful, less lively, less creative. One of my favorite stories to tell young ones is the old Yiddish tale of “Something from Nothing,” in which a tailor takes his worn-out coat and makes a smaller garment out of it, and on and on until there’s nothing left (in my version) but a story, which can last forever!

After telling that story, I’d read the group Taback’s cheerful Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, holding up each page with its fun die-cut hole so the children could guess what Joseph would make next. This lively picture book, illustrated with watercolors, gouache, pencil, ink and collage, provides a banquet of buttons, bright scraps of fabric, petite photos of flowers, all popping out from the pages’ dark background. Listeners get to peep through smaller and smaller holes, as the items — a vest, a tie, etc. — diminish in size.

Based on the Yiddish song “Hob Ich Mir a Mantl,” or “I Had a Little Overcoat,” which Taback loved as a boy, this book belongs in EVERY child’s school or home library. Not only does it make for a rousing read-aloud, its evocation of Eastern European shtetls provides a link to a rich culture. And the message of making the most of whatever you have is a timely and important one for us all. Educators or parents can tap this little treasure for lessons in recycling, music, social studies, art, and reading, especially in teaching the skill of prediction. Taback includes the lyrics to the song that inspired the story.

Sadly, Simms Taback died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He has bequeathed us his bright, unforgettable books to share with children:

                

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