Kimmel Turns up the Heat

I’ll admit, “Little Red Riding Hood” has never been a favorite of mine. But leave it to the fabulous storyteller Eric Kimmel to inject some spicy fun into the creepy old tale. Little Red Hot by Eric A. Kimmel

Set in Texas, Little Red Hot features a sassy girl dressed all over in fiery red, who just loves anything and everything made with chili peppers: “She ate peppers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She ate pepper ice cream for dessert. She had hot pepper cake for her birthday … .”

When Little Red Hot hears her grandma’s not feeling well, she decides to bake a hot pepper pie, just the thing to “knock those cold germs right out of her.” Readers can’t help but laugh when they hear how she goes about preparing that pie, with four kinds of ferocious peppers, along with Louisiana Hot Sauce. Why, “that pie was so hot, it baked itself.” And if the description of that concoction doesn’t kick up laughs, Laura Huliska-Beith’s lively illustrations (this one displays the word “WARNING” in capital red letters) surely will.

Little Red Hot sets off on her pony and meets Pecos Bill, who warns her Senor Lobo, otherwise known as the Big Bad Wolf, is on the prowl.

All too soon, she sees a toothy gray creature running toward her. Aiming to calm her worries, the wolf claims he’s merely harmless old Senor Coyote. Foolishly, she tells him where she’s going.

Just as you would expect, he reaches Grandma’s house before she does. When Little Red Hot arrives, she cuts Grandma a big piece of pepper pie and remarks on Grandma’s big eyes and big ears and big teeth. Then, she shoves that slice of pie in his mouth, and … let’s just say he never bothered Little Red Hot again.

Kimmel’s energetic retelling — complemented by red-hot paintings rendered in gouache, acrylic, and colored pencils — provides fine fare for a rowdy read-aloud for ages 5 to 7.

See also …

Lon Po Po by Ed YoungPretty Salma A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly

Prepping for Fairy Tale Feasts

Stories often serve up scenes rich with food, and the relationship is reciprocal. Who better than Jane Yolen to serve up a spicy stew of both stories and recipes? Yolen and her daughter, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, have concocted an appealing collection of 18 recipes, including latkes, kugel and blintzes, complemented by an equal number of folktales. Jewish Fairy Tales Feasts by Jane Yolen

A long-awaited follow-up to their charming Fairy Tale Feasts (2006), this collection puts the spotlight on some of the many enchanting and thought-provoking Jewish folktales that have been passed down over the centuries. It gives young and old families an extra incentive to spend time together, creating meals, as well as telling stories. That’s not just nourishing, it’s entertaining!

One of my favorite tales in this collection is “And the Matzo Was Still Warm,” which Yolen adapted from a version by Asher Barash. Long ago in Mainz, a father leaves his son Jacob with a strange dying wish: “Never cross the River Danube.” Years after his father’s death, Jacob has married and has a family, but he yearns to go study the Torah with the revered Rabbi Judah. But, to do that, he must …. . Well, you guessed it.

He crosses the river and winds up spending three years studying with the pious rabbi. But on Passover Eve, Jacob’s heart is heavy as he longs to return home to his wife and son. Rabbi Judah reads his mind. Alas, it’s impossible for Jacob to reach Mainz in time to be with his family for the seder.

Unexpectedly, the rabbi proposes that Jacob help bake the matzo. “After that, we will see what I can arrange to get you home.”

And what a short, strange trip back home, thanks to the rabbi’s miraculous gift.

Paired with the story is Heidi’s recipe for matzo brei. As with all the book’s recipes, she offers simple instructions, preceded by a list of ingredients and of necessary equipment.

Folks of all ages and faiths can find something to savor in this playful collection. As the authors note, “Recipes and stories are made more beautiful, more filling, more memorable by what you put into them.”

See also …

Fairy Tale FeastsNot One Damsel in Distress World Folktales for Strong GirlsSerpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana

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A Storyteller Who Woke the World

Diane Wolkstein, children’s author and storyteller extraordinaire, lived by the power of stories to touch the heart. The author of two dozen books, she reached audiences large and small with her deft timing, honed words, and her far-reaching taste for multicultural folktales. An obituary by Paul Vitello in today’s New York Times announced she died at age 70 while in Taiwan researching a book of Chinese folk literature.

I discovered Wolkstein’s work when I took a storytelling course at Syracuse in the late ’90s with the remarkable storyteller/librarian/teacher Kaye Lindauer. Throughout my decade as a school librarian I shared Wolkstein’s retellings of folktales, which never failed to elicit both laughter and lively discussions. Banza by Diane Wolkstein

A favorite for ages 5 to 7 was undoubtedly The Banza: A Haitian Story, brightly illustrated by Marc Brown, of Arthur fame. Part of the fun of the tale is the premise that Teegra, a tiger, and a goat named Cabree become dear friends after the night they both happen to take shelter in the same cave during a storm. In time, Teegra finds his family and gives his friend the special gift of a banza — a banjo, as most would say. The banza, according to Teegra’s aunt, “belongs to the heart, and there is no stronger protection than the heart.”

Then, by the river, Cabree confronts not one but TEN fat tigers. How can a kid with just a banza survive? Well, Cabree begins to make up a fierce little song to those “ten fat tigers ten fat tigers. Cabree eats tigers raw.” Listeners reap their share of fun by singing along with the simple lyrics. What child doesn’t love a story where the small one triumphs over big, ferocious enemies?

It’s a terrific tribute to the power of music, the power of words, the strength residing inside each of us.

Also see these folktales retold by Wolkstein:

Day Ocean Came to VisitSun Mother Wakes the WorldMagic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales

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!

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