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.

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