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 )

Women Weaving Their own Stories

Perhaps, like me, you recall the days of sitting in a history class bored beyond reach by all the facts figures and battles presented as “history.” Today, as more and more stories emerge from different perspectives, socio-economic backgrounds, ages, genders, races and ethnicities, I find myself at times entranced by the past and what it can teach us.

For the fifth year, librarians and bloggers Margo Tanenbaum, of The Fourth Musketeer, and Lisa Taylor, of Shelf-employed, have compiled a fascinating web resource celebrating women’s history. This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” A different writer each day contributes a post featuring a woman who’s made history. The Kidlit site features articles on acclaimed women such as Louisa May Alcott and Mahalia Jackson, as well as interesting, less-heralded women, including the American Revolutionary heroes Betsy Zane and Prudence Wright.

And don’t miss previous posts on opera singer Leontyne Price,  human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. SeedsofChange

Making Music a Little Easier

Yes, the hills might be alive with the sound of music, but how do you teach the elements of music to small children? Teacher/author Leah Wells chooses to use the power of story to do that job in a whimsical, sure-footed manner. Song for the Birds by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi Rosenblatt

In A Song for the Birds, the first of her new picture-book series, she begins with the most basic question: What is melody? To illustrate the idea that a melody is an arrangement of notes, she has created a simple, memorable story featuring birds and a bird-watcher. Each bird sings a particular note on the treble clef: the albatross sings A, the bluebird sings B, the canary sings her C, etc. An attentive bird-watcher listens to the birds but longs for a song instead of individual notes.

When he requests they sing a song, however, the “birds look at each other with confusion.” The bright watercolor images of Naomi Rosenblatt, the author’s sister, add humor and interest to the simple plot, as she skillfully evokes the birds’ various emotions and personalities. They comprehend what the bird-watcher wants after they listen to the mockingbird’s pleasing arrangement of notes.

They provide a brief concert outside the bird-watcher’s window on a starry night. With musical notation included, this final page presents the perfect moment for families and preschool groups to burst into “Twinkle, Twinkle …” And if there’s a piano nearby, why not accompany young singers?

Rainbow Remembers the Music by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi RosenblattIn the just-released second book, The Rainbow Remembers the Music, the author and illustrator show how we can remember music by using notes on a staff. Ms. Wells introduces the treble clef as well as the bass clef and accidentals. Here, the story employs the bird-watcher again, but this time with his two grandchildren as they witness birds singing as a rainbow appears. When the rainbow disappears, how can the birds recall which notes to sing? As the granddaughter begins to draw the lines of a rainbow in the mud, she places pebbles on her rainbow to show the notes of their song. A snail makes its way over and curls into the shape of a treble clef.

Grandpa, however, can only sing lower notes, so his grandson draws another “rainbow” and places two pebbles on it. After Grandpa kicks over the bucket of worms, one crawls over the that second rainbow and settles itself beside the two pebbles. At home the children decide to put the notes on paper, and so can readers, as The Rainbow Remembers the Music provides specially sized paper at the end of the story.

Music teachers and music-loving parents will want to seek out this fresh new child-friendly paperback series, available on Amazon. Please write back if you’d like to share your experiences using these pleasant little books.

Then Came the School

Nine-year-old Booker T. Washington was no longer a slave, but he didn’t feel free. Instead of learning the tools of freedom, Booker spent his hours toiling in a salt mine so he and his family could survive.

With Books and Bricks: How Booker T. Washington Built a School by Suzanne Slade With Books and Bricks How Booker T Washington Built a School by Suzanne Sladetells the inspiring story of how Washington managed to found what is now known as Tuskegee University.  We learn that Booker not only taught himself to read, but went on to walk and hitch rides 500 miles away to Virginia, where, at the age of 16, he could finally attend school. After graduating, he found a job teaching in the small town of Tuskegee, Alabama.

He encountered lots of eager students ready to learn — but no school. He procured an old shed, but the roof was so leaky that when it rained, “students took turns holding an umbrella over Booker so he could keep teaching.”

As more students came, the shack became more and more crowded. Booker knew they needed a real school, and it seemed obvious that the only way to get it was to build it themselves.

After borrowing money to buy an abandoned farm, Booker went to work clearing land. But where could he get the bricks necessary for the walls? Again, Booker relied on his own strength and knowledge. He studied how to mold and bake bricks and learned how to lay them. He and his students then took on the back-breaking work of digging for the clay they needed to make bricks. Nicole Tadgell’s lively pencil and watercolor illustrations help readers realize how grueling the task would have been. She shows the young people chopping down huge trees, digging muddy pits, holding red clay in blistered hands, and then lining up their many bricks.

They made 25,000 of them — only to have the kiln Booker had built explode and ruin them. Booker built another, and the same thing happened.

But Booker would not stop. He took his only precious possession, a gold watch, and sold it to pay for a kiln. This one did the job, and they built the walls and installed the front door and nailed on a waterproof roof.

More students kept coming, though, so they continued building– a dining hall, a chapel, a dorm where students could live. Those students went on to become the next generation’s teachers and leaders. I think most of us would agree with Washington’s observation, which closes the story: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”

The author complements her well-paced narrative with an afterword containing more information on Washington, as well as a bibliography and source notes for the quotes she used.

While others have written picture books on Washington, I recommend using this one for ages 6 to 9, as Slade’s focus on the challenge of building a school creates enough drama to keep children interested and engaged.

See also …

my previous posts on Black History Month, featuring Martin & Mahalia Made Their Mark and the award-winning Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell


Voice of a Century

Thanks to the latest picture book by acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, you can bring in the sublime opera singer Leontyne Price to celebrate Black History Month. With poetic prose and vibrant illustrations, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century delivers a lyrical, uplifting story Leontyne Price Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherfordchildren should hear, whatever the time of year.

With elegantly crafted poetic prose, Weatherford places the singer’s story in the context of the oppressive world in which she was born, in 1927. “All a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work–as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.”

Despite the miseries of rural Mississippi, Leontyne thrived, growing up with a loving family that encouraged her interest in music. One of the highlights of Raul Colon’s illustrations for me is the full-page portrait done in Prismacolor pencils of a dreamy young Leontyne, eyes closed as she revels in the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Leontyne’s parents sold their treasured phonograph to pay for a piano and lessons for their daughter.

The girl’s world expanded even more when, as a church choir member, she got to see the famous Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Soon, Leontyne was off, too, heading for college in Ohio, where she could become qualified to teach music, “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”

Here, another of my favorite illustrations shows Leontyne with her white gloves and her be-ribboned hat, waiting to catch the bus to take her far from home. The double-spread, done in Colon’s characteristic swirls, evokes the energy and hope it must have taken to propel Leontyne toward a richer life.

Then Leontyne learned she, too, could hope to sing on stage; the college president heard her sing a solo and convinced her to focus on developing her voice. And so she made her way to Juilliard and found her true calling.

This daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife became the first black opera singer to garner leading roles at the Met and at Italy’s famous opera house La Scala. She was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the U.S., as Weatherford relates in her concluding author’s note. Can you imagine how inspiring it must have been for so many to sit in their living rooms and watch the regal singer perform?

Pair this engaging story with one of Price’s recordings — or, better yet, use a YouTube video showing her astounding 1963 televised performance of “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Then teach children this simple Italian word: Bravissima!

See also …

my previous post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu.

2015 Children’s Book Awards Announced

Lovers of children’s literature, the wait is over. Yesterday the American Library Association announced the 2015 prize winners for the top books, audiobooks, and videos for children and young adults. They include the following:

John Newbery Medal
for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is the 2015 Newbery Medal winner, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Crossover by Kwame Alexander

Two Newbery Honor Books:

El Deafo by Cece Bell, published by Amulet Books.

Brown Girl Dreaming written by Jacqueline Woodson and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Randolph Caldecott Medal

for the most distinguished illustrations in an American picture book for children:Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, illustrated by Dan Santat and written by Dan Santat, is the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner. The book was  published by Little, Brown.

Six Caldecott Honor Books named:

1. Nana in the City, illustrated and written by Lauren Castillo, published by Clarion Books.

2. The Noisy Paint Box: The  Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, illustrated by Mary GrandPre, written by Barb Rosenstock and published by Alfred A. Knopf.

3. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by Jon Klassen, written by Mac Barnett and published by Candlewick Press.

4. Viva Frida, illustrated and written by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

5. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant, published by Eerdmans Books. (As you know, I second that emotion!)

6. This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, written by Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second.

Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award

recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults:

Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming, has won the King Author Award. The book is published by Nancy Paulsen Books.  Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Honor Awards to go …

1. Kwame Alexander for The Crossover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

2. Marilyn Nelson for How I Discovered Poetry, illustrated by Hadley Hooper and published by Dial Books.

3. Kekla Magoon for How It Went Down, published by Henry Holt.

Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award:

Firebird, illustrated by Christopher Myers, is the King Illustrator Book winner. The book was written by Misty Copeland and published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Two King Illustrator Honor Books were selected:

Christian Robinson for Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, published by Chronicle Books.

Frank Morrison for Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown, published by Lee and Low Books.

Pura Belpre Award

honoring a Latino writer and illustrator whose children’s books best portray the Latino cultural experience:
The Pura Belpre Illustrator Award goes to Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

Viva Frida, by Yuyi Morales, published by Roaring Brook Press.

The Pura Belpre Author Award goes to

I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosin, illustrated by Lee White and published by Atheneum Books.

Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award
for most distinguished informational book for children:

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, written by Jen Bryant, is the Sibert Award winner. The book is published by Eerdmans Books.

Five Sibert Honor Books were named:

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, & the Fall of Imperial Russia, by Candace Fleming, and published by Schwartz & Wade Books.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson and published by Chronicle Books.

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands, written and illustrated by Katherine Roy, and published by David Macaulay Studio.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh and published by Abrams Books.

Perhaps you, too, will add some of these beauties to your pile(s) of must-read books. You can read the ALA’s press release at http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/american-library-association-announces-2015-youth-media-award-winners-300028995.html

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