A Crocodile’s Gift

How lively can Cinderella get? Discover Judy Sierra’s superb picture book The Gift of the Crocodile: A Cinderella Story, and you’ll find a tale that will engage even the most restless young listeners.  Gift of the Crocodile retold by Judy Sierra and illus by Reynold Ruffins

Damura lives in the Spice Islands of Indonesia with her stepmother, stepsister and father. She must do all the chores and sleep on the floor midst the ashes of the fireplace. One day, while washing clothes in the river, she encounters a crocodile and refers to her respectfully as grandmother. When Damura loses her sarong in the river, the crocodile fetches it. In return, Damura tends the crocodile’s stinky little baby and sings it a sweet lullaby. When Grandmother Crocodile reaches the shore, she rewards Damura with a fine silver sarong rather than the worn-out one swept away by the river.

Upon returning home, the stepsister notices Damura’s exquisite sarong and seethes with jealousy. She sets out to find the old crocodile so that she, too, can get a fancy new sarong. The selfish stepsister, unlike Damura, treats the crocodile and her baby with disdain and disrespect. When she sings to the crocodile, she says it smells like garbage! (You can bet children will cackle when you sing this line to the tune of “Brahm’s Lullaby.”) In a humorous touch of poetic justice, the lovely-looking sarong the crocodile brings the stepsister turns to garbage the moment the girl touches it — and it sticks to her for a year.

In time, the prince announces he will give a grand party, and Damura envisions wearing her silver sarong to it. Instead, her stepsister grabs it, leaving Damura in her rags. Grandmother Crocodile, however, delivers Damura a splendid gown of gold, with matching slippers. She tells the girl she must leave the party when the first rooster crows and return the garb to the crocodile. Inevitably, the prince falls in love with Damura and wants to marry her. But when the cock crows, she escapes, losing one slipper.

She returns the remaining items to the crocodile, apologizing for the lost shoe. Don’t worry, the crocodile assures her, the slipper will help her to become a princess. And then, we see that the slipper will fit only the kind and lovely Damura.

Headed for the palace, Damura sets off down the river in the company of her stepmother and stepsister, but they push her overboard, and a crocodile gulps her down. The calculating stepsister hopes she will become his bride instead, but the prince refuses this heartless trade. Instead, he goes to the river and calls upon Grandmother Crocodile, telling her the story of Damura’s cruel treatment. In an instant, the grandmother gathers the other crocs and forces the chubby culprit to spit up Damura. Then she lovingly licks the girl’s face and brings her back to life. She commands the other crocodiles to leave Damura alone but to eat the stepsister and her mother if they ever encounter them.

Overhearing the crocodile, the two flee, never to return. Then Damura and her prince go on to live in harmony, raising their children in the shade of the clove and nutmeg trees.

Illustrated by Reynold Ruffins with vivid hues, humorous touches, and plenty of movement, Gift of the Crocodile is a crowd-pleasing Cinderella tale that should enchant any young audience.

See also …

Glass Slipper Gold Sandal A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul FleischmanRough-Face Girl by Rafe MartinElla Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine


Make Way for Other Cinderellas

Cinderella’s back in the spotlight, and that’s just fine with me. I haven’t seen the current Disney film, but I think its popularity provides a rich opportunity to expose children to some of the fascinating variants of the CiHow Cinderella Was Able To Go to the Ball illustrated by Jessie M King 1924nderella fairy tale (which, by the way, I would argue is not a story that focuses on the girl getting the guy as much as it offers an instructive contrast between helpful and harmful relationships among women).

Of the hundreds of Cinderella stories from around the world, one of the strangest comes from Russia. In Russian Fairy Tales, Aleksandr Afanas’ev includes several bizarre, sometimes meandering stories featuring the brave young Vasilisa and her encounters with the grotesque witch Baba Yaga. Like the French and German Cinderella, this stepdaughter’s kind nature contrasts with the cruelty of a stepmother and her nasty, spoiled stepsisters. In the Grimm brothers’ retelling, the maiden receives help after praying and pouring out her sorrows to her deceased mother. Similarly, Vasilisa’s mother helps her daughter even beyond the grave, only this time it comes in the form of a doll she bequeaths her before she dies. But don’t let the presence of a doll mislead you; this dark tale is neither for the faint of heart nor for the very young.

Somehow, it seems to me no version of this fairy tale is quite perfect, so when I shared this tale with third graders, I would use an illustrated version such as Marianna Mayer’s Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, with fine, dramatic paintings by Kinuko Y. Craft, and add or substitute a few details from other retellings, such as the one by Jane Yolen in her Favorite Folktales from around the World. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer illus by Kinuko Y Craft

Vasilisa feeds her doll and keeps her a secret, just as her mother has recommended. From Mayer’s version: “At night when Vasilisa was left to the darkness of her shabby quarters, she would pour out all her hopes and dreams to this small creature. The doll would listen, her eyes glowing like embers; and quietly, so that no one else could hear, she would whisper loving words of comfort and advice.” Isn’t that lovely? There’s a perfect symmetry here, with Vasilisa learning from and enacting the power and reciprocity of love and respect; she takes care of the doll, and the doll does likewise — just as it should be in healthy, loving relationships.

The drama intensifies when the stepmother, who happens to be a witch, demands that Vasilisa go to the other end of the dark forest to borrow a light from none other than Baba Yaga, who is known to eat humans. At the end of arduous journey, the girl confronts a fearsome sight: “a high fence made of bleached bones, and on each fencepost a hollow-eyed skull sat glaring. The gate was also made of bones, the latch was a sharp-toothed mouth, and the bolt was a skeleton’s hand. On the other side of the fence stood Baba Yaga’s hut on its rickety stilts of bones.”

When Baba Yaga sweeps down in her mortar, Vasilisa bows respectfully and states her purpose. The crafty witch reveals that she knows her stepmother and stepsisters and says, “You shall have your light and you may even live to use it. … But first you must live here and work for me.”

Then, in fine fairy-tale tradition, our hero is presented with impossible tasks, which, of course, will require the services of the magic doll. The nurturing doll tells Vasilisa to go to sleep and not to fret. Here’s where I use the refrain in Jane Yolen’s retelling: “Morning is wiser than the evening.”

After Vasilisa accomplishes the irrational, impossible feats dictated by Baba Yaga (separating wheat from chaff and then dust from poppy seeds?!), the witch asks the girl, “Just how did you succeed in doing all the many tasks I set for you?”

Without revealing the presence of her doll, Vasilisa tells the truth: “By my mother’s love.” Now, you might prefer Yolen’s phrasing: “I am helped by the blessing of my mother.” I think it makes more sense for Baba Yaga to be horrified at having a blessed one in her house, but can decide for yourself, based on your audience and on how much time you have to discuss this.

At this point, Baba Yaga pushes Vasilisa out of her house and yard and then offers her much more than she requested. She takes a skull with burning eyes from the fence, puts it on a stick, and gives it to the girl.

Vasilisa arrives home to find her stepmother and stepsisters sitting in darkness. The women rise to take the glowing skull, whose fiery gaze follows first the stepmother … then the stepsisters, burning them to cinders.

In the morning, Vasilisa buries the skull, abandons the house, and manages to find shelter with a kind old woman in town. Again, Vasilisa’s kindness and resourcefulness, aided by her attentive doll, will work to transform the young woman’s life. She weaves the finest linen, which the old woman takes to the tsar. Wishing to reward the needlewoman who has made such remarkable shirts, the tsar arrives at the home of the old woman and Vasilisa and, yes, falls madly in love with our protagonist. Yet, tellingly, to the end of her days, Vasilisa keeps the doll that has helped her so much.

This courageous Cinderella has shown herself to be no passive young lady waiting for someone to rescue her. As Elizabeth Winthrop points out in the end note of her Vasilissa the Beautiful, this “is a tale peopled by women. From Vasilissa’s mother and her deathbed blessing, to the wicked stepmother, to the wily old witch, Baba Yaga, to Vasilissa’s adopted mother, even to the little doll–it is women who challenge Vasilissa to grow, who sustain her in her troubles, and who rejoice with her in her final triumph.”

Works Cited and Recommendations for Further Reading

Forrester, Sibelan E. S, Helena Goscilo, Martin Skoro, and Jack Zipes. Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East in Russian Fairy Tales. , 2013. Internet resource.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Jack Zipes, translator. New York: Bantam, 1987.
Lewis, Naomi, and Jo Worth. Classic Fairy Tales to Read Aloud. Boston: Kingfisher/Houghton Mifflin Co, 1998.
Mayer, Marianna, and Kinuko Craft. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1994.
Riordan, James, and Andrew Breakspeare. Russian Folk-Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Sierra, Judy. Cinderella. Illustrated by Joanne Caroselli. The Oryx Multicultural Folktale Series. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1992.
Winthrop, Elizabeth. Vasilissa the Beautiful. Illustrated by Alexander Koshkin. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
Yolen, Jane. Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

And look for these related stories:
Question of Magic by E D Baker Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll Talking Eggs by Robert San Souci  




(Note: Cinderella image at top of page comes from “Artists and Images,” http://d.lib.rochester.edu/cinderella/artists )

Stirring the Pot for Halloween Treats

Do bookstores have to be so predictable in their Halloween displays, as yet again they promote ho-hum Clifford and Curious George and Scooby-Doo products? Families can save their money and their sanity by heading to the library instead, where an array of craft books, poetry, folktales, and novels await anyone with a library card.

One way to combat the oppressive commercialism that has crept into the holiday is to make it yoEd Emberley's Drawing Book of Halloweenurself — whether it’s costumes, decorations, puppets, or cupcakes. Look for craft books by Kathy Ross, such as All New Crafts for Halloween. And remember feeling proud of those monsters you drew with the help of the wonderful old Ed Emberley’s Halloween Drawing Book? Don’t let your children grow up without Emberley’s engrossing little books. An alternative for slightly older children is Ralph Masiello’s Halloween Drawing Book.

Ghosts, ghouls and humor show up in plenty of kid-pleasing poetry. Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich and his follow-up, Frankenstein Takes the Cake will have children (and parents?) howling with laughter. The illustrations are as much fun as the punchy poems featuring various monsters.

Other titles to look for are compilations such as Jack Prelutsky’s It’s HalloweenLee Bennett Hopkins’ Halloween Howls: Holiday Poetry or Marc Brown’s Scared Silly: A Halloween Book for the Brave: Poems, Riddles, Jokes, Stories and More.

For some of the best seasonal stories, head over to 398.2 for folk literature from around the world. One of Short and Shivery Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Soucithe most dog-eared, beloved collections in my school library was Short & Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales retold by Robert D. San Souci. Ranging from diverse cultures, the stories are not uniformly scary, but they are all well-written and accessible to children ages 8 to 12. The volume includes such memorable tales as the Appalachian “Tailypo,” the Grimm Brothers’ “Robber Bridegroom,” and “Skeleton’s Dance,” from Japan. Audio- and e-book editions are also available. Another winner is any of the perpetually popular Alvin Schwartz collections, such as Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, illustrated ghoulishly by Stephen Gammell.Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As for novels, many older children (ages 10+) will be drawn to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, winner of the 2009 Newbery Medal, which unspools the bizarre adventures of a boy called Bod as he grows up being raised by ghosts in a cemetery. Gaiman reads his gripping novel aloud on his well-crafted web site.

For slightly younger ones (ages 8 to 12), it’s hard to top James Howe’s Bunnicula series, featuring an evil-looking bunny (found at a Dracula movie) that comes to live with the Monroes, Harold the dog and Chester the cat. When various vegetables show up with teeth marks and drained of all juice and color, the clever cat ascertains the toothy truth. Who knew a vampire story could be so much fun? Another witty one (for ages 6 to 8) is Kate DiCamillo’s Princess in Disguise, in which the pig Mercy Watson is persuaded to dress up in a pink gown and tiara. 

And for younger ones:

See my prior post on Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom, as well as any of the tales featured in the 2011 Scholastic DVD Teeny-Tiny Witch Woman and More Spooky Halloween Stories.

A Sister Accomplishes the Impossible

With its bracing plot featuring a valiant, strong-willed girl who breaks the spell that transformed her brothers into swans, the Brothers Grimm shaped a fairy tale strange and potent enough to lure aSix Swans illustrated by Gerda Raidt contemporary audience.
In fairy-tale fashion, The Six Swans plays out in the landscape of a widowed father and children cursed or left to their own devices. The narrative opens in a great forest, where the king, chasing a deer, strays from his companions and cannot find his way out. An old woman who approaches him turns out to be a witch. She will show him the way only if he will agree to marry her beautiful daughter.
Fear compels the king to agree to this condition, but troubles loom. When he meets the young woman, he does not fall in love with her, despite her beauty; in fact, he “could not look at her without a secret sense of horror.”
Readers, too, will distrust the new queen, depicted by illustrator Gerda Raidt as having a haughty posture, a callous expression, and ice-blue gowns. Some will likely agree with the king’s peculiar decision to shield his six sons and one daughter from the stepmother by taking them to live in a lonely castle hidden so deeply in a forest that the king must use a magic ball of string to find the path leading to it.
A cheerful double-page spread depicts a leafy, bucolic scene there, with the kinder scampering, fishing, or swinging on a tree. In the background, we see their secret home, a pale three-story abode with a slate-gray roof, resembling a grand chateau of the Loire Valley rather than a German schloss.
The illustrator’s other somewhat puzzling choices include her image of the children’s badminton rackets, which have been traced to British military officers serving in British India in the mid-1800s. And one cannot help but wonder why the daughter, in her high-waisted dress, and the sons in their sailor whites look so Edwardian.
Often, too, the colored-pencil drawings seem tame (in contrast to Anne Yvonne Gilbert’s glorious artwork for The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen), missing the intense drama of unfolding events. The moment when the wicked stepmother, who has discovered the hidden castle, turns the boys into swans should teem with a sense of disaster. Instead, we see an image of the sister, the lone child indoors on that unfortunate day, looking merely surprised as her brothers sprout feathers and rise in the sky.
Despite these incongruities, the illustrator offers a rich, symbolic rendering of the daughter’s heroic decision to reject her father’s decision to take her to his home in favor of setting out alone to search for her brothers. Here, we see the girl boldly abandoning the idyllic estate and entering a foreboding forest, drawn with gloomy gray strokes and dark shadows.
When at last the sister finds her siblings in a robbers’ den, they tell her they may shed their feathers for only a quarter of an hour every night, and then they become swans again. The curse can only be broken if she agrees to speak not a word for six years and to sew them six shirts made of starflowers.
Some might wonder what starflowers are (in his famous Grimms’ folktale anthology, Jack Zipes chose the word asters), but the translator has offered a pleasingly literal translation of the German word Sternenblumen, which the Brothers Grimm used, and so feels authentic. One of only a relatively few picture-book versions of “The Six Swans” published, this edition is smoothly translated by Anthea Bell, whose acclaimed work includes the French comic-book series Asterix, as well as the middle-school fantasies of Cornelia Funke (Inkworld trilogy).
Although she faithfully follows the fairy tale’s spirit and pacing, Ms. Bell has lightened up the story by omitting some of the gory details that unfurl. A handsome young king happens upon the girl in the forest, falls in love, and the two marry, even though she never speaks to him. This so displeases his mother that she steals the baby the queen bears—and the next two— until finally, the king agrees to let his wife be tried for murdering the children. She refuses to defend herself and is condemned to be burned at the stake.
While the Grimms’ version offers stark poetic justice for the wicked mother-in-law when the brothers’ spell is broken and the sister finally tells her husband she has been wrongly accused by the woman, this version relates that the wicked one is “taken away and locked up forever.”
The Six Swans will inspire many young readers and caring adults who crave tales highlighting heroines who do not resort to violence to save the day.

If you’re looking for a more engrossing reading experience, don’t miss the fabulous Naomi Lewis retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, a slightly altered version of the Grimm brothers’ tale.

The brave sister sleeps in the woods in this scene from THE WILD SWANS, illustrated by Anne Yvonne GilbertAlso see my posts on Pullman’s anthology of Grimm folktales and on the dazzling Taschen anthology.

A Haunting Tale of a Tail

Tailypo A Ghost Story by Joanna C. GaldoneEven if Halloween didn’t occur in October, there’s something about the longer nights, the bright moons, the musty smell and crackle of decayed leaves that makes a scary story ever so appealing — at least to some children. Some of the choicest hail from the world of well-honed folktales.

One of the most memorable ghost stories from folklore might well be the odd little story Tailypo, as retold by Joanna Galdone. We hear of an old man living in a hut deep in the woods. The hungry man goes hunting with his three dogs but captures just one scrawny rabbit. Still hungry, he’s thrilled when he spies some animal scurrying around his shack. Surely, the reader thinks, he’ll be able to catch it. Yet, we discover, somewhat uncomfortably, he comes up with only its tail. Without further ado, the woodsman cleans it, cooks it and gobbles it up.

Then things get really strange. In bed, the old hunter hears an eerie voice: “Tailypo, Tailypo, where is my Tailypo?”

Twice, we hear that haunting refrain, and twice the hounds chase off the ghostly creature, but the third time, the creature bursts in before the dogs return from their futile chase. Galdone’s simple yet energetic paintings show the stubborn spirit in a whirlwind of vengeance. Warning: This story sounds simple, but if read with the drama it deserves, it has the power to scare many a child, so don’t share this with younger, impressionable ones. For those, consider Creepy Carrots or Room on the Broom or The Gruffalo.

For more scary folktales:

Dark-Thirty Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia McKissackEchoes of the Elders by Chief LelooskaScary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Do You Believe in Magic?

Known for her sprightly novels inspired by fairy tales (The Frog Princess series), E. D. Baker dips her pen into the strange Russian fairy tales of the bony old murderous Baba Yaga and brings forth a fresh, engaging tale brightened by humor and by an inquisitive, resourceful young protagonist.    Question of Magic

Twelve-year-old Serafina receives a letter from a mysterious great-aunt informing her she intends to give the girl a life-changing legacy. The unknown relative neglects to specify what she’s bequeathing or why she’s chosen Serafina instead of her two older sisters. As any spunky heroine would do, ’Fina soon sets off to claim her inheritance.

Upon arriving at the proposed site for receiving her inheritance, she encounters a bizarre environment: a cottage that can fly, a book that writes its own words, and a trunk full of squabbling skulls. Worst of all, there appears to be no way out.

Serafina quickly begins to question the value of this gift and longs to return home to her family and her dear Alek, whom she envisions marrying someday. Alas, reality has morphed: “Either she was losing her mind or all those people who had told her that things like magic and fairies weren’t real were actually wrong.”

Magic abounds in this well-paced novel. Yet Ms. Baker eschews the darkest elements of the old Baba Yaga tales: the capricious hag who kidnaps children; the hut’s ominous fence made of human bones, topped by human skulls; the woman’s ravenous appetite for tender human flesh. Nor does this author delineate a protagonist rejected by a hateful stepmother and her two heinous daughters. Instead A Question of Magic, with its vaguely Eastern European medieval setting, celebrates an unorthodox (for the era) heroine with plenty of curiosity, intelligence, and literacy, who dons the mantle of Baba Yaga and manages to help others rather than kill them.

As Baba Yaga, Serafina finds herself compelled to answer one, and only one, question from anyone who poses it. In precise detail, she is able to reveal the future, to solve crimes, or locate lost items—all in a voice that is not her own, but that of the wise Baba Yaga. Each time she responds, though, she grows a little older. Serafina cannot simply return home, as she does not know how to rid herself of this “gift” and must find a way to stop the aging before it’s too late.

The dramatic tension builds as Serafina inevitably grows lonelier, older, and with her increasing notoriety more vulnerable. She wonders if she’ll ever see her family and her beau again. If that sounds gloomy, fear not.

One of the novel’s major themes highlights the importance of helping others and helping oneself. The skulls, rather than threatening her become friendly and frequently comedic after Serafina cleans and polishes them. Her kindness to a talking cat results in her gaining crucial information; and after she befriends a giant, he returns to vanquish the enemies of her family and friends. Her ability and willingness to teach a friend to read, in turn plays a surprising part in enabling her to pass the Baba Yaga role on to another.

A Question of Magic, with its likable heroine, its swiftly moving plot, and a romantic resolution will no doubt get passed along from one preteen girl to many another.

Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Fairy Tale Comics: “Baba Yaga” (tor.com)
and my review of The Cabinet of Earths and of Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems.

Following Happily Ever After

It’s back to the reverso for Marilyn Singer, the creator of a surprising poetic form that employs lines that can be read forward and backward. Follow Follow, her playful sequel to Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse (2011), stands alone but continues to employ Singer’s original technique, which offers the writer fresh opportunities to explore fairy tales from varying angles and to shine a light on some of the darker implications of the old tales. Follow Follow A Book of Reverso Poems by Marilyn Singer

The fourteen pairs of poems explore mostly well-known fairy tales and fables, with many pleasing and thought-provoking results.  If you’ve ever read Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Mermaid, ” you have most likely been troubled by the protagonist’s tragic sacrifice for the sake of a man. In Singer’s poem “The Little Mermaid’s Choice,” the opening lines echo the traditional plot: “For love, / give up your voice. / Don’t / think twice.” Yet, when those same words are reversed, behold the sage warning: “Think twice! / Don’t / give up your voice / for love.”

A more lighthearted pair of poems appear beneath the title “Panache.” Puss in Boots, with his savoir faire, gets to strut in his red boots and cape, all the while transforming the youngest son of a miller into a grand marquis. The quick-witted rascal asserts, “I am/ self-possessed and so well-dressed–/ a cat/ who dares to believe!”

And don’t miss “No Bigger Than Your Thumb,” Singer’s poems based on Andersen’s “Thumbelina.” While the first poem has the miniature female describing her “lofty and daring” aspirations of “… laughing in the sunlight,” the second one presents the opposite preference for the mole, who would “never be at ease/sleeping under the ever-changing sky,/ dancing among the flowers,/ laughing in the sunlight./ I can imagine a wonderful future,/ constant and safe,/ not lofty and daring.”

Illuminating each pair of poems is the bright, sprightly artwork of Josée Masse, who also illustrated Mirror Mirror. The full-page reproductions of her dramatic acrylic paintings add a magical touch to this refreshing collection of witty and wise poetry.

Enhancing the usefulness of Follow Follow is the author’s afterward, where she explains the form of the reverso and provides a brief summary of each fairy tale from which the poems derive. Educators will find this book a lively, enlightening source for a unit on poetry, perspective, or even on punctuation. Recommended for ages 8 and older.

And see my prior post on Singer’s Mirror Mirror.

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