The simple fables attributed to Aesop have been told and retold for centuries, yet they still touch us. The brevity and relevance of the stories bring out the best in some illustrators. One of the most stunningly beautiful editions published in the last decade is Helen Ward’s The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.
Who could resist such a gorgeous feast of colors and textures, of vivid words and painted details? The lovely cover image is only the beginning; readers enter a sensuous and fully realized world. We see through the eyes of the country mouse, who knew “the insect-filled fields of summer and the rich, ripe orchards of autumn.” We experience the seasons, from spring’s fluffy pink apple blossoms to fall’s tawny red apples to winter’s crusted snow and then, back to the bluebells and sprigs of spring.
One bright morning, the city-slicker cousin arrives and points out differences between the two homes. No mud and no wild animals in the city, the mouse says. And “we dine on rich, exotic foods in sumptuous surroundings.” Ward’s paintings of the country, showing the beech trees’ golden and bright green leaves, berries glowing like amethysts and rubies, and a pond’s silvery reflections subtly explore another kind of wealth and foreshadow the story’s message.
The city mouse’s descriptions soon lead to the country mouse’s discontentment and longing for a new and different way of life. In the winter, he “hitched a ride toward the bustle and hum of the city.” Here, he finds a world of lights! elevators! fine, shiny Christmas ornaments! And the magnificent spread of cakes and cookies, tarts and eclairs seems heavenly until … the big-eyed, hungry pug arrives to spoil the day.
We last see the country mouse back home in the country, curled up in his simple, cozy nest. What a telling contrast with the last, wordless page showing the bloated city mouse sleeping in the cut-open wedge of blue cheese. It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully rendered version of this fable; it’s a work of art perfectly aimed at ages 5 to 7.
In Heather Forest’s The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind: An Aesop’s Fable, readers will find themselves pondering the question: “Can gentleness, instead of force, be an effective way to achieve a goal?”
The simple but meaningful story involves a man who’s wearing a coat as he walks down the road. The Wind blustered that he was stronger than the Sun, and the sun agreed to see which of the two could get the man to take off his coat. As was his custom, the Wind blew with all its might, but the harder he blew, the more tightly the man held the coat next to his body. The huffy Wind gave up, and then it was the Sun’s turn. And when the Sun shone brightly, so brightly, the man grew warm and decided to remove his coat.
The storyteller has collaborated with the fabulous illustrator Susan Gaber on four other books. As expected, this one shines with the artist’s impressive range of perspectives, a pleasing palette, and a luscious sense of energy and movement. For more of their fine work, see their charming version of The Little Red Hen: An Old Fable, which focuses on the value of cooperation and community.
And no child should miss Jerry Pinkney’s magnificent The Lion and the Mouse, for which he earned the 2010 Caldecott Medal. One of Aesop’s most beloved fables, Pinkney’s wordless version tells the story with his amazingly detailed artwork, making it a great choice for educators who want to engage children in making predictions.
The fable’s plot, in which the seemingly insignificant mouse is brave and generous enough to save the lordly lion, offers wonderful opportunities to discuss the importance of kindness and respect for all.