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:

                

Streets Filled With Latkes?

No matter what your religious affiliation (if any), Hanukkah tales full of light or magic offer a special glow this time of year.  I’ve known such joy reading stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as those by children’s book authors Eric A. Kimmel, Barbara Diamond Goldin, and Howard Schwartz. Kimmel’s most recent picture book, The Golem’s Latkes, is worth celebrating. Blending elements of Jewish folktales and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Kimmel concocts a humorous, well-paced plot, enhanced with bright, lively illustrations and a concise author’s note on significant Hebrew words that appear in the story.

Rabbi Judah makes a giant man of clay who doesn’t know when to quit. Just before the first night of Hanukkah, the rabbi must go speak to the emperor. He tells his new maid Basha to  clean the house and cook lots of latkes while he’s gone, for he’s expecting many guests. Although the rabbi has never allowed anyone else to supervise the golem, he decides to make an exception this time, considering all the tasks she must manage. He warns Basha, however, not to leave the golem alone. The giant will work incessantly unless someone tells him “Enough!”

Of course, the young woman does not heed his warning — and chaos ensues. The golem makes so many latkes they literally take over the street! Kimmel’s happy ending has everyone in the village sharing the feast.

For more wondrous Hanukkah stories, consider …

“The Magic Menorah” in Howard Schwartz’s fine collection The Day the Rabbi Disappeared: Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic. Recommended for ages 8-12.

Hanukkah Moon by Deborah da Costa. A girl visits her aunt Luisa, whose Latina-Jewish customs include a dreidel pinata. There’s also a mysterious late-night visit to welcome the luna nueva, the new moon that appears on Hanukkah. Ages 6 to 8.

Just Enough Is Plenty by Barbara Diamond Goldin. A magical story of kindness rewarded. A poor family welcomes a stranger into their home, and the peddlar turns out to be Elijah, who leaves them a pack of fine gifts. Ages 7 to 10.

And see my post featuring Eric Kimmel’s When Mindy Saved Hanukkah and other great Hanukkah picture books for ages 6-10.

A Snowy Quest for a Friend

Once upon a time two friends were inseparable. Fifth-grade cast-offs Hazel and Jack offer each other the trust and security their families do not. Hazel, adopted from India, once thought she knew her real home and family. Her confidence diminishes, though, after her parents divorce, and she’s forced to change schools.

Gone are her old friends, her comforting routines, and even her father, so caught up in his new life he pays little attention to Hazel. Her next-door neighbor Jack is the one person she knows who uses his imagination. Jack, neglected by a mother transformed by depression, relies on Hazel and his creativity to brighten his life. The two make up fantasies about dragons and dinosaurs and superhero baseball, bringing their own kind of magic to their Minnesota town.

The scaffolding for Breadcrumbs’ plot comes from “The Snow Queen,” Hans Christian Andersen’s intense story of a girl and a boy who become estranged when a shard of an enchanted mirror enters Kai’s eye. The looking glass warps his perception of people and the world, leading him both to cruelty and to admiration of perfection, as reflected in snowflakes or arithmetic. Soon he succumbs to the power of a cold, calculating witch and becomes detached from his past and even from the painful cold that envelops him in her kingdom.

Ms. Ursu is not the first to find inspiration here; C. S. Lewis’s White Witch bears a strong resemblance to Andersen’s wintry villain. This author’s lofty challenge, however, seems to be to hold up her own contemporary characters in the reflection of Andersen’s line of outcasts, thereby illuminating the interior world of a lonely child. Who has portrayed young misfits so powerfully as Andersen? The dying child in “The Little Match Girl,” the vain, self-absorbed girl condemned to dance in “The Red Shoes,” and the disowned daughter in “The Wild Swans” all drift into this magical book.

Enhanced with Erin McGuire’s frosty, atmospheric illustrations, Breadcrumbs taps fairy tales and fantasies to capture the conflicts of the two friends. One of the author’s surprising twists heightens the novel’s tension and provides a stunning context for the age-old question: Am I my brother’s keeper?

While Andersen has the pernicious shard somehow entering the boy’s eye as the clock strikes 12, the novelist hones in on her protagonist. It starts with Hazel feeling angry and left out as her best friend ignores her in favor of some boys who have taunted her. She hurls a snowball at Jack, not knowing it contains a piece of mirror that will pierce his eye and heart.

Jack becomes insensitive, uncaring, and reckless, and Hazel feels lost without her friend. Then something worse happens: He vanishes. Hazel bravely asks Jack’s parents where he is, but they provide such a flimsy explanation she refuses to accept it. She does believe Jack’s friend Tyler, though, when he describes how Jack went off with a thin white woman in her sleigh.

Showing herself to be a true friend, Hazel decides to save Jack, whether he wants to be saved or not. As Hazel enters the frozen forest, the novel’s atmosphere grows dark and surreal. Earlier in the novel, she thought of the woods as magical, “the sort of place she and Jack were supposed to go into together. They would bring breadcrumbs, and they would cross through the line of trees to see what awaited them.”

In stark contrast to that wondrous scene, Hazel must set off alone on a bleak, solitary journey for which she seems ill-equipped. She forgets her boots; she packs just a few snacks food; she doesn’t know where to go; and she lies to her mom in an effort to obscure her risky plan. The journey into the woods is thrilling and, at times, bewildering. A flurry of fairy tale characters appears, and Hazel wonders which ones are trustworthy.

The reader, also, might wonder how some of these people fit into the story. While the forest’s motley inhabitants will delight fairy-tale lovers, their roles might seem insignificant, especially as most of them simply disappear from the story after their moment in the spotlight. It’s true that Breadcrumbs drops minor characters and plot lines, but this device actually mirrors the fragmented nature of reality and how each person must somehow come to terms with contradictions, ironies, uncertainties, and the deceptive nature of appearances. Real magic, like real life, is neither simple nor pure.

Because of the cursed sliver of mirror, Jack perceives the witch as flawless. When Hazel encounters her, though, the witch so feared by him and the fairy folk seems freakishly insubstantial: “. . . [T]he snow was not snow anymore, but a woman—tall and lithe like a sketch, in a white fur cape and a white shimmering gown that looked so thin it would melt if you touched it. Hair like spun crystal framed cream-colored skin.” When the dark-eyed, dark-skinned heroine again connects with Jack, she demonstrates a warmth and singleness of heart the witch does not possess.

Of the many joys of reading this rich, symbolic novel, perhaps none surpasses the revelation of inner growth Hazel undergoes. She enters the woods full of doubts but discovers a strength she didn’t know she possessed. At turns either distracted by or urged to action by her experiences with fairy tales, Hazel learns much about the relationships between perceptions and reality. People who appear to be helpers might actually be enemies, and vice versa. Sometimes what seems safe—like falling asleep in the snow—can be deadly. Led by the only reliable compass, a love for others, she will sacrifice all she has for Jack.

Yet for all that, readers who desire a neat, happy-ever-after ending will not find it here. Although the brave girl manages to bring her friend home, she cannot transform his family into a nurturing one. That conclusion would be too perfect to be true.

The Hazel who emerges from the forest has found the courage to cope with change. This confidence will enable her to find a place in her new world—unlike so many of Andersen’s sad characters. Breadcrumbs offers middle-schoolers traces of bright hope in the face of an often treacherous world.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books 

Treats for all Tastes

The skeletons, ghouls and ghosts can get old for some of us this time of year. Somewhere in the piles of Halloween books available, a few enchanting books are actually worth reading aloud, however. The children at my former school library adored Julia Donaldson’s snappy Room on the Broom, which opens with these fun lines: “The witch had a cat / and a hat that was black, / And long ginger hair / in a braid down her back. / How the cat purred / and how the witch grinned, / As they sat on their broomstick / and flew through the wind.”
Then off with her hat, and misadventures ensue as three friendly animals — a spotted dog, a green parrot, and a frog — hitch a ride. At last, the broom breaks, and the witch encounters a frightful dragon that wants “witch and chips for my tea.” That’s when the animals come to the rescue and scare off the dragon. And that’s not all; they even work together to build a new and improved broom that will accommodate them all! More amusing than scary, this book is a treat.

More Not-Too-Scary Halloween Titles for the Young

For Older Children …

Rex, Adam. Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich. Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Children, especially boys, howl when reading or hearing these hilarious poems about various monsters. The illustrations are as riotous as the poems.

Yolen, Jane. Tam Lin. Voyager, 1990. Beautiful, lyrical retelling of the Scottish folktale of the brave young woman who rescues a man kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies. Even young adults would enjoy this powerful love story set on All Hallows Eve.

And Creepier Fare:

An Earful of Wisdom

Photo from Story Museum

Storytellers have always enriched our world by firing the imagination, by sharing wisdom, by building a sense of community, and by opening our hearts so we can empathize with others and see their perspective. The British storyteller Hugh Lupton has devoted his life to this powerful but often-neglected teaching tool.  I’ve used many of Lupton’s stories over the years, especially with upper-elementary students. His recommended audience, however, actually ranges from ages 5 to adult. Thanks to Barefoot Books, you can hear his supple, expressive voice on CDs. Of course, you might prefer to read aloud his wonderful stories yourself. Here’s a sampling of Hugh Lupton’s enchanting work.

Tales of Wisdom & Wonder. Illus. by Niamh Sharkey. Barefoot. Ages 8-12.  In what ways might a blind man possess uncommon wisdom? Why is it wise to listen to your dreams? Such intriguing themes run through this collection of folktales from many cultures, accompanied by a CD with Lupton’s impeccable recordings. Included: “Monkey and Papa God,” from Haiti; “The Curing Fox,” from the Cree Nation; “The Peddler of Swaffham,” from England; “The White Rat” from France, “The Blind Man and the Hunter” from West Africa, “Fish in the Forest” from Russia, and “The Shepherd’s Dream” from Ireland.

The Story Tree: Tales to Read Aloud. Ages 4 to 8. Another great paperback/CD combo, these seven tales from seven cultures should be part of every child’s literary heritage. Lupton includes his versions of  “The Magic Porridge Pot” from Germany, “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do” from India, “The Sweetest Song,” African-American, “Little Lord Feather-Frock” from Russia, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” from Norway, “The Little Red Hen” from England, and “The Blue Coat,” a Jewish tale.  You can hear his version of “The Magic Porridge Pot,” one of my favorites when I was quite young, at the Barefoot Books podcast page.

The Adventures of Odysseus. For upper-elementary and middle-school listeners, this crackling version of Homer’s travails is unsurpassed. Boys especially love the perilous adventures filled with bizarre and frightening challenges and with wild creatures that haunt the imagination. You can hear Lupton on the CD or DVD — or gather the family (or class) for an unforgettable read-aloud adventure.

Tales of Mystery and Magic. Illustrated by Agnese Baruzz. Barefoot Books. Ages 8-12. Strange elves and living bones inhabit this fascinating collection of folktales from Chilean, Scottish, South Asian, Inuit, Russian, Seneca, and West African sources. Their power is enhanced by Baruzzi’s gorgeous artwork, which evokes the culture from which each story springs.

An aside: Hugh Lupton’s great-uncle was Arthur Ransome, renowned illustrator and author of such classics as Swallows and Amazons. The first in a series, his beloved novel follows the adventures of four children who are allowed to sail in their boat, Swallow, to a deserted island to camp out for the summer.

 

Related Links
Hugh Lupton, Storyteller.
Story Museum.

Following Patient Butterflies

As I sit on my back porch reading, I often look up to watch the world flutter by at a languid pace. I’m surrounded by a border of overgrown abelia bushes that arch and bloom, luring silent hummingbirds and graceful Eastern Tiger Swallowtails. I stretch in the blessed shade and marvel at the strong wings that come this way each summer.

Aston, Dianna Hutts. A Butterfly Is Patient. Illus. by Sylvia Long. Chronicle, 2011.

Poetic text and bright, detailed watercolors lift this informative nonfiction book to lofty heights. Employing the same accessible format of their two previous winners, An Egg Is Quiet and A Seed Is Sleepy, this talented duo trace the insects’ development from egg to flight. Along the way, readers will learn how butterflies and moths differ, as well as facts about metamorphosis, pollination, camouflage, and migration. Young and old will succumb to the temptation to pore over Long’s lifelike close-ups of dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, clearly labeled without detracting from the beauty of each winged creature. “A butterfly is creative,” the author notes. So is this lovely book, fine as wing scales “stacked like shingles on a roof.” Recommended for ages 7-10.

Engle, Margarita. Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian. illus. by Julie Paschkis. Holt, 2010.

“Each year, the sky fills with summer birds. Many people call them butterflies. Everyone believes that these insects come from mud, as if by magic. I disagree.” In the Middle Ages, people believed insects were evil. Maria Merian, a brave German girl born in 1647, defied her culture’s conception of nature and its expectations for women. Intrigued by butterflies, she observed their life cycle and carefully painted the insects and their habitats. The illustrator’s vivid jewel tones and profusion of vines and imaginary creatures evoke the passionate nature of this remarkable woman, copies of whose prints now live in the world’s art museums. Engle’s concluding note provides additional details on Maria Merian, who went on to become a scientist, artist and world explorer. Educators can use this fine picture-book biography for a bevy of cross-curricular activities and discussions. For ages 7-10.

Kroll, Virginia L. Butterfly Boy. illus. by Gerardo Suzan. Boyds Mills, 2003. This tender story features young Emilio and his invalid grandfather, who find delight in a flock of red admiral butterflies. The boy senses his abuelo is “smiling inside, even though his mouth could no longer show it.” Emilio is able to get near the bright insects, inspiring his neighbor to call him “Butterfly Boy.” During the winter, he reads in a book that the butterflies are attracted to white surfaces, such as their garage wall. Emilio’s excitement upon their return in the spring turns to dismay as he sees his father is painting the garage blue. What can he do? Emilio snatches his white shirt from the clothesline and puts it on — and the red butterflies flock to him. Like Abuelo and his family, readers will find reason to smile when reading this sensitive story enlivened by Suzan’s bright, playful watercolors. Ages 5-8.


Sierra, Judy. The Beautiful Butterfly: A Folktale from Spain. illus. by Victoria Chess. Clarion, 2000. Make room for laughter with Sierra’s lilting variant of a Spanish folktale that features a lady butterfly courted by a motley procession of suitors. A cricket arrives first, wanting to marry her. The butterfly poses this crucial question: “And if I do marry you, how will you sing to our babies?”  The cricket’s annoying click fails the test. Next, the frog comes to woo. His ugly “Croo-AH!” just won’t do. Finally, a mouse, with a soothing “ee-ee-ee-ee-ee,” is the perfect choice. Unexpectedly, though, Mouse falls into a pond and is eaten by a fish. Sierra comes to the rescue here; realizing this conclusion saddened children, she researched the story’s variants and discovered some endings that involved underwear. Butterfly and everyone who hears the news mourns, some in outlandish ways. The turning point comes when the king runs around in his royal underwear. Even the fish laughs — and out pops the mouse. Don’t miss this one! Ages 6-8.

What’s With the Eggs?

As I peruse the Easter displays at local bookstores, I’m reminded once again of the scarcity of excellent picture books relating to this holy day for Christians. In many ways, the egg, with its promise of life — or at least protein for sustaining the living — is a fitting symbol of Easter. Here’s a trio of terrific egg books that educators and families can use to celebrate the day.

San Souci, Robert D. The Talking Eggs. illus. by Jerry Pinkney. Dial, 1989. Ages 6-9. 
This folktale was such a favorite with second-graders, I made it a tradition to read it aloud each year just before Easter. A Louisiana Creole version of the Cinderella story, it’s a rich brew of magic and poetic justice.  Way long ago, there lived in a shack a haughty woman and her daughter, Rose, and stepdaughter, Blanche. Rose took after her lazy, mean-spirited mother, but Blanche was “sweet and kind and sharp as forty crickets.”  One day Blanche set off to fetch water for the others, and she met a strange old woman who asked her for water. Blanche politely offers her a drink and is invited to visit the old woman’s house. Before she gets there, though, the old woman tells her she must promise not to laugh at anything she sees. When she reaches the woman’s house, Blanche sees strange, multicolored animals and a chicken house full of talking eggs. Because Blanche treats the woman respectfully and does exactly as she asks, she is rewarded with eggs that contain gold! silver! rubies! silk and satin and even a carriage to take her home in style.

Of course, when she arrives, Rose and her mother lust after those riches. The mother tells Rose she must seek out the old woman. Rose, however, acts rude and lazy when she encounters her, and her reward turns out to be very different. Pinkney’s vivid, detailed full-page illustrations won the Caldecott Honor, and add much humor to this folktale. Kindness triumphs — and makes for a read-aloud that every child should hear.

Polacco, Patricia. Rechenka’s Eggs. Putnam, 1996. Ages 6-9. In the Ukrainian tradition, Easter is the time for showing off brightly painted eggs.  Babushka lives alone in her cottage in the country, outside of Moscow. Everyone admires her beautiful Easter eggs that she paints every winter and brings to the big Easter festival in Moscow. One day she rescues a wounded goose she names Rechenka, and nurses her back to health. Rechenka accidentally breaks Babushka’s eggs, and the elderly woman is dismayed. Rechenka, though, surprises her by laying 12 magnificent, decorated eggs in their place. Babushka takes the eggs to Moscow and wins another prize. When she returns, she finds the goose has flown but has left one her one last egg, which, when hatched, will become her companion. Polacco’s vibrant, detailed paintings, showing off the intricate patterns of  Ukrainian-style Easter eggs, as well as colorful dresses, rugs, and the city’s onion-shaped domes, bring this tale to life. Winner of the International Reading Association Children’s Book Award. For another beloved Easter classic, consider Polacco’s Chicken Sunday.

Aston, Dianna Hutts. An Egg is Quiet. illus. by Sylvia Long. Chronicle, 2006.  Ages 4-6.

“It sits there, under its mother’s feathers… on top of its father’s feet… buried beneath the sand. Warm. Cozy.” Aston captures the astounding variety of eggs with a simple format of offering brief, poetic statements, followed by details and gorgeous illustrations. Sylvia Long, whose Mother Goose book is one of the very best available, lends her remarkable talents to this nonfiction book. Her lovely watercolor paintings of 60 eggs range from tiny hummingbird eggs, to tubular dogfish eggs, and gloppy frog eggs. This book is a wonder to behold and lends itself well to science lessons for the young. Another use? Plop this treat into a child’s Easter basket.

Ukrainian Easter eggs

Image via Wikipedia

Chasing a Matzo Ball or a Golden Lamb

Shulman, Lisa. The Matzo Ball Boy. illus. by Rosanne Litzinger. Dutton, 2005.  Ages 6-8.

It’s almost Passover, and a grandmother regrets that no one will be around to share her seder, to retell the Passover story, or to enjoy her matzo ball soup. What’s a lonely bubbe to do? Why, make herself a matzo ball boy, that’s what.

The morning of Passover she plopped the little ball of dough into her pot of chicken soup. When she lifted the lid, though, he jumped out. Oy! Where did he think he was going? That sassy boy cried: “Run, run, as fast as you can./ You can’t catch me./ I’m the matzo ball man!”

Children will enjoy chanting the refrain in this delicious little Yiddish-flavored version of The Gingerbread Man. The little imp encounters a tailor, a yenta (the local gossip), a rabbi, and a fox. In a creative twist, the Matzo Ball Man escapes the fox by jumping into the river. Litzinger depicts the boy’s broad smile as he speedily swims away. Throughout the book, her stylized watercolor-and-colored-pencil artwork, featuring full, round forms and a bright backdrop, add a bounce to this fractured tale.

The Matzo Ball Boy meets his end, though, after he accepts a man’s invitation to enter his cottage and share Passover with him and his wife. Inside, the wife stirs a pot of soup, the smell of which is somehow familiar to the boy. Can you guess what else will land in that pot? This tasty little story, a bit wordier than most traditional versions of The Gingerbread Man, still makes for a fun read-aloud. And what better time to try a little Yiddish on your tongue?

Greene, Ellin. The Little Golden Lamb. illus. by Rosanne Litzinger.  Clarion, 2000. Ages 5-8.

This sprightly Hungarian version of “The Golden Goose” is a feast for the eyes and the ears. A young man works as a shepherd for a year and in return, asks for a golden-fleeced lamb. The lamb is not just any lamb, though; it dances whenever he plays his flute. An innkeeper’s daughter tries to steal it, but upon touching it, she gets  stuck. When the lad leaves the inn, he plays his flute and the lamb dances. The would-be thief must follow. As the lad makes his way, a ridiculous procession of characters accumulates: “”Down the road they went,/The shepherd lad playing his flute,/The little golden lamb kicking up its heels,/On the lamb’s tail the girl,/On the girl’s back the baker’s peel,/And the little golden lamb carried them all,/dancing down the road.”  They reach a castle, where a king has promised the first one to make his sad daughter laugh will win her hand. The happy ending is highlighted with the illustrator’s exaggerated profile of the chortling king. Litzinger’s lively, whimsical watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations are as infectious as the good-natured tale.

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