"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Thursday, March 24, 2011

How many animals does it take...Mitten Tales

The Mitten The Mitten by Alvin Tresselt. Illus. by Yaroslava. 1964.

The base plot of this Ukrainian/ Russian folktale involves a shelter, numerous animals who hope to squeeze into it, and the inevitable breakdown of their temporary home. Sometimes this is a jar or a shack, but in Tresselt’s version, as you may guess, the shelter is a mitten. A little boy out gathering firewood on a snowy day drops his fur cuffed mitten, which is found by a delighted mouse. Soon, she is joined by larger and larger animals until a cricket proves to be more than the mitten can hold and its stitches pop open. The animals run away and the boy returns to find his mitten destroyed, but luckily his grandmother has made him a new pair.

In spite of the beauty of Jan Brett’s version, Tresselt’s The Mitten still has pleasant things to offer the reader, and so it’s nice to look at both versions. The story turns out to be the childhood memory of the narrator’s grandfather and the animals share the mitten out of concern for each other, which are pleasing details.

When judging the book’s art, you need to keep in mind that the book was produced in the mid 1960s, when full color pictures were used more modestly. Only a few ink colors are employed, but the results are attractive. Pages alternate between being entirely teal with black line drawings and white snowflakes or on white backgrounds with cheerful splashes of red, gold or green. The child and the animals are dressed in old fashioned Ukrainian costume. The pages preceding the story show the little mouse turning the book’s page and standing on the “M” in mitten.

The Mitten 20th Anniversary Edition The Mitten 20th Anniversary Edition by Jan Brett, 2009.

In Brett’s story, the little boy, Nicki, wants his grandmother Baba to knit him snow white mittens. One is soon lost due to his outside play and before long it is filled with animals, beginning with a lucky mole. A little mouse on a bear’s nose brings about a sneeze that launches the now empty mitten into the air. Running by, Nicki catches the mitten and takes it home with its mate. One difference from Tresselt’s version is that the animals only let each other in because they are wary of talons, prickles and teeth!

I am certainly not the only one who thinks that Jan Brett’s book art is fantastic, and The Mitten is no exception. In the preface, Brett says that she visited the Ukrainian section of New York City and the Ukrainian Museum to learn more about their culture before she started drawing. All of the artwork is done in double page spreads, and the main picture is framed by birch bark with cutouts of the left and right mittens to either side. This allows the reader to see the current action, but also see what else is going on simultaneously. For example, as the hedgehog squeezes in with the rabbit and the mole, we can look at the left mitten and see Nicki looking into a knothole in a tree while an owl looks down at him, then look at the right mitten to see the owl leaving the tree as Nicki walks away. Where could the owl be headed? Every spread has changing embroidery motifs for added decoration. Brett gives us the folk flavor with her human characters’ costume, and details of their home inside and out. Her animals are realistic but expressive. Visual humor rounds out the book, when Nicki returns his newly unmatched mittens to his Baba.

Jan Brett has a wonderful website with coloring pages and other children's activities. Visit her at Jan Brett .

Knock, Knock Teremok! A Traditional Russian Tale. By Katya Arnold, 1994.

Here we have a cumulative, rhyming story about a little hut (Teremok in Russian) and the many animals who want to live in it. It is a natural choice for storytime, because when we say “Knock, knock, knock. Who lives in the teremok?” each animal in turn announces itself. This leads to fun animal voices and noises. The party ends when a bear, unable to fit into the teremok, sits on the roof and squashes it flat.

Arnold notes that while this is a treasured animal story, she also sees it as “an allegory of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist ideal of disparate peoples living peacefully together.” Arnold’s distinctive watercolor and black line art add to the pleasure of the book, from the appearance of the kerchief-wearing fly to the toppling of the mushroom-swagged teremok.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

Fool & The Flying Ship [VHS]Fool & The Flying Ship [VHS] Narrated by Robin Williams, Art by Henrik Drescher, Music by The Klezmer Conservatory Band.

I have owned this video since it was first released. If you have never seen or heard a Rabbit Ears production, allow me to highly recommend them. Each animated half hour tale is matched with an appropriate actor/ narrator, artist, and soundtrack. These are suitable for ages 5 and up and are variously available as picture books, VHS tapes, DVDs and on Playaways. Links to some of my favorites follow.

In the Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, Robin Williams tells the story of a generous man, short on brains, but blessed with luck and good friends who help him succeed. Hearing that the Czar will give his daughter in marriage to the man who can build a flying ship, our hero sets off to make his fortune. He meets and shares his dinner with a magical little old man who provides him with the ship, then picks up several travelers with special talents, such as a man so fast that he must tie his leg to his head to keep him from running around the planet, a big eater who can polish off a thousand loaves of bread at one sitting, and a hairy weakling who puffs up with strength at sunset. With the Fool’s innocent confidence and his company’s extraordinary abilities he soon has a somewhat reluctant new father in law and bride.

William’s provides merry narration and sounds like he is having a ball. He gives the characters and the narrator unique voices. The music of The Klezmer Conservatory Band is an appropriately rollicking backdrop to the story. Henrik Drescher has also illustrated The Boy Who Ate Around, Pat the Beastie: A Pull-and-Poke Book and Hubert the Pudge: A Vegetarian Tale. His seemingly simple artistic style may be an acquired taste, but I have grown to like the way it fits with this story. The art is odd, but this really is a weird story, and some of the characters would become even more grotesque if drawn in a traditional realistic style. I like that his flying ship has little animal legs (Baba Yaga esque?)and I really enjoy the shaggy haired weakling turned bald strongman.

Other favorites by Rabbit Ears:  Anansi told by Denzel Washington,  Elephant's Child told by Jack Nicholson, Boy Who Drew Cats [VHS] told by William Hurt and Finn Mccoul: Ireland [VHS] told by Catherine O'Hara.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship: A Russian TaleThe Fool of the World and the Flying Ship: A Russian Tale. Retold by Arthur Ransome. Illus. by Uri Shulevitz.

It is noted on the copyright page that “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship” was published in 1916 by Arthur Ransome in Old Peter’s Russian Tales. The story is basically the same as above, with a few additional crew members. It stresses that “God loves simple folk, and turns things to their advantage in the end.” The Fool’s story certainly has a happy ending.  Although he’s forced to produce soldiers to frighten the Czar and bring about his wedding to the princess, he ends up with a wife who loves him and becomes so clever that all listen to what he says.
My favorite pictures are of the ship with its sails billowing, sailing over the patchwork of land below and the singing party arriving at the czar’s elegant palace.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Peter and the Blue Witch Baby by Robert San Souci

Peter and the Blue Witch Baby by Robert San Souci. Illus by Alexi Natchev, 2000.

This folktale retelling appears to be unique (among picture books) and I love it because it is so odd. It is the story of Tsar Peter, who is looking for a bride, but unfortunately rejects the wrong woman. In return, she swears to undo him when his wife is chosen. Shortly after, Peter falls in love with the Little Sister of the Sun and sets out to win her. But, his plans are complicated by the arrival at his palace of an unknown, black-toothed baby girl. Softhearted, Peter keeps the orphan child only to find on return from his courtship that she has turned into a blue-skinned, iron-toothed monster baby larger than his palace and that she’s bent on revenge. Luckily, Peter has some magical friends and a very powerful brother-in-law-to-be.

This book thrilled me with illustrations of what has to be the scariest baby in any picture book! Her orange eyes, gaping red mouth and furious expression seal the deal. I also enjoy the pictures of the thwarted woman’s transformation from beautiful bridal candidate to fork-tongued witch in a swirl of grey smoke and a fall of snakes, frogs and lizards. Another pleasure is a helpful mouse playing a lullaby on a dulcimer to keep the Witch Baby asleep. I think this folktale looks just like it should.

The book’s jacket suggests it is appropriate for ages 4-8, but I would be careful with younger or more sensitive children. I think that it is a fun, over the top tale that would be great to share with the older readers in that range.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Russian Gypsy Tales

Russian Gypsy Tales (International Folk Tales Series) collected by Yefim Druts and Alexei Gessler, translated by James Riordan, Harry Horse, Illus. 1992. 36 tales.

I had a good time reading these very short stories. Gypsy tales are new to me, and I learned as I read. In his introduction, Riordan explains that the people self identified as Rom or Romaly, called Tsygan by the Russians, originated in Northern India and came to Russia in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He describes the importance of family, tribe and clan in their folklore. This is clear in the tales. Usually, in our American stories, we root for young people in love and forgive when they defy their families and culture to be together. Different values are emphasized in these stories. In “Broken Beads,” when a girl’s father forbids her to marry the man that she loves, the couple runs away together, only to realize that they are now penniless and friendless. Things become nightmarish when the husband is shot and killed while stealing a horse and returns to his wife as an evil spirit. “The Outcast” is about a man in love with a gypsy girl from another tribe. When he breaks the gypsy law and roundly curses all, including the woman he once loved, he meets an ill fate. Obeying your parents and gypsy law is foremost.

Another interesting feature of these stories is that they often contain tricksters with amoral viewpoints. This is explained in “Saint George and the Gypsies” when God tells the Saint that gypsies may live by their own laws and that what they take without leave is their own affair. Accordingly, these gypsies take pride in robbing and tricking others. Riordan also says that Satan often appears in the gypsy stories,” …as the evil genius or hero, it may be that Russian Roms saw themselves more as the persecuted devil than the god of their oppressors.” (Page XV). “The Gypsy Who Almost Swapped Places with a Devil” meets the demon in the village bath-house, and becomes enslaved when the devil pulls the old gypsy’s tooth in a fight. It takes some trickery to regain his freedom. In several tales, beating the devil requires mental agility as well as physical strength.

Riordan says that these stories present a “male ordered society.” This is absolutely true, and I had to keep in mind time period and situation as I read. Gypsy girls in the tales are married off to whomever they are “fated”, and even if their husbands are non-human, they are to obey. The only way around this, apparently, is to take drastic but self defeating measures. In “Sarina” a young wife turns to stone rather than be touched by her husband. Wives and daughter are also freely whipped, and mothers are not necessarily respected. In “Adventures of the Gypsy Fool” the gypsy leaves his wife and children and marries another woman. When she ceases to please him, he returns to his first wife, calls her a good for nothing hussy and “Despite the blows, she was glad to see him back…” p. 86. In “Three Nincompoops” an old mother is cheated out of food and clothing by a soldier, purportedly for her son’s sake. When her boy finds out, he is not happy that she provided for him, and instead becomes angry and leaves the house, announcing that he will only return when he finds someone stupider than she.

My favorite tale is “The Enchanted Hinny,” maybe because it has familiar elements to it. A son with an unkind stepmother is protected by his talking hinny (the offspring of a stallion and a donkey). The two escape to a distant realm, and the boy, now known as Know Not How becomes a kitchen boy for the czar. Of course, he is called upon to defeat three hideous sea monsters and has an opportunity to win the czar’s youngest daughter for his wife. And the pair and the hinny live… happily ever after!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Peter and the Wolf by Segei Prokofiev

You may remember, as I do, listening to the musical story of Peter and the Wolf when you were a child. I had a record of it, and it was true to the characters of Peter and his friends the bird and the duck, his cautious grandfather, hunting cat, and the menacing wolf and well-armed hunters, each represented by a particular instrument. It also told the basic story of Peter and the bird catching the wolf after it has swallowed the duck whole.

Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf: With a Fully-Orchestrated and Narrated CDSergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf: With a Fully-Orchestrated and Narrated CD Retold by Janet Schulman, Illus. by Peter Malone, 2004. CD narrated by Peter A. Thomas, Music by the Cincinnati Pops, Directed by Erich Kunzel.

I really feel that this story is best served as a musical experience. For this reason, this book and CD set stands above the other purely picture book versions. The story is a little dry without the enchanting music. However it has some additions that I enjoyed but did not find in the other versions, such as Grandfather dreaming of a angel and a bear and a runaway bull at the story's beginning. Other differences are that the duck is watching out for the bird, and this is why she is caught by the wolf, that the hunters are described as cowardly, that the wolf is allowed to go back to the woods, and that the duck is coughed up and marches in the procession escorting the wolf home.

 To explain the concept of characters as instruments, this book has an introductory page showing each character playing the instrument that symbolizes them. Some of the pictures contain humor and whimsy, like the feathered friends imagining each other flying with the aid of a propeller or swimming with an inner tube and flippers, or the runaway bull floating through the sky and eventually coming down to earth to be found again. The wolf is shown as a frightening foe. taking up almost the entire frame and flashing sharp claws and pointy teeth.

Peter and the Wolf Peter and the Wolf Translated by Maria Carlson. Illus. by Charles Mikolaycak, 1982.

This is told as a straightforward story with no mention of Prokofiev’s music.  The tale concludes with the wolf in his cage in the zoo, with the quacking duck in his stomach.  Mikolaycak’s illustrations are colorful and delightful.

Peter and the Wolf Peter and the Wolf retold and Illus. by Chris Raschka, 2008.

Raschka has set out the characters on a little stage, and accordingly, he first lists the cast of characters, then introduces them one by one. The plot is faithful with one little addition: a veterinarian. I'll let you guess why. This version has a more modern feel than the others, partly because of Raschka's lively art and bright backgrounds, but also because each character has a way of talking that's uniquely their own. For example, the duck says:"Waieo, What kind of baierd Are yoooouuuuuuuuuu if yaieo Can't swiiiiiiiiiiiiiim?" to which the bird replies" D-ducky d-dacky d-docky d deeky."

Peter and the WolfPeter and the Wolf, Illustrated by Erna Voigt. 1980.

This title also begins by introducing the characters and the instruments that they play. Voight gives us a picture of them all together, making their own little orchestra. The story is basically the same as the others. Music is involved here when  Voight gives a picture of each instrument and a line of the written music at the place in the story when each would come in.. Each character is introduced in 2 x 2 black and white illustration, then a full color page. This book has art that I really enjoy, with pastoral scenes showing a lovely day with green grass, dandelions, and a skipping Peter. The artist uses muted colors, with skies of blue, pink and gold.  I like the grey tiger cat, fur on end because of the angular wolf below.  The final procession shows everyone looking happy, including the hapless duck visible inside the wolf’s tummy.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan, 2003. CD audio read by Julie Dretzin.

 I listened to the five CDs of this audio book on my commute to work and found it very enjoyable. Dretzin expressively reads the story of Katya, whose mother becomes a lady in waiting to Czarina Alexandra in 1913. Fatherless Katya has been raised with an older male “cousin”, Misha, who believes in revolution and shows her some of the terrible working conditions that children face in their country. This complicates things for Katya, who is a companion to the Grand Duchesses, and especially Anastasia. She comes to love the imperial family like they are her own kin, and watches in agony as things worsen in Russia, war is declared, and criticism of the Czar and Czarina grows from a murmur to a roar.

The story follows Katya from a pampered 11 year old to a resourceful young woman of 18, and over time circumstances test her beliefs and loyalty. I found her to be an earnest, likable character, if occasionally a bit too mature and controlled. Anastasia is high-spirited, spunky and fiercely loyal to her father. Whelan’s story of a difficult and tragic piece of history always kept my attention, and ends on a hopeful note. I will definitely suggest this to young women looking for a rewarding read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

They grow them big in Russia: Enormous Vegetables

My next official foray into children’s picture books about Russian folktales involves one tale with many different artistic interpretations: “The Turnip.” This story involves an enormous vegetable and a group of family and friends joining together to uproot it for a meal. It usually begins with the strongest individual unable to pull it up, then getting help from another one and another, until the addition of the smallest creature makes the difference.

Gigantic Turnip, The (Tell Me a Story) (Hardcover with CD) (Book & CD)Gigantic Turnip, The (Tell Me a Story) (Hardcover with CD) (Book & CD)

 My favorite version of the tale is The Gigantic Turnip by Aleksei Tolstoy and Niamh Sharkey, 1999. I think both the text and the illustrations are outstanding. Here the old man and the old woman have six yellow canaries, five white geese, four speckled hens, three black cats, two potbellied pigs and one big brown cow, and they all “heaved and tugged and yanked, but the turnip would not move” until a little mouse joins in. The numerous animals and repetition make a fun storytime book.

The playful art enhances the tale. This is a giant turnip indeed, and the cover shows the round old couple sitting comfortably on top of it, with plenty of room to spare. This is a jolly world of rounded hills studded with waving grass and flowers, clotheslines hung with stripey nightclothes and acrobatic animals forming chains and pyramids. A winner.

Some others are:

The TurnipThe Turnip illustrated by Pierr Morgan, 1990. Story from Once On a Time, 1938.

The Enormous Turnip The Enormous Turnip by Kathy Parkinson, 1986.

Team turnip in this retelling is composed of Grandfather Ivan, Grandmother Luba, Mother Natasha, Daughter Olga, Alyosha the puppy, Anya the orange tiger kitten and Manya the mouse. But it is the last minute addition of Petya the beetle that wrests the stubborn vegetable from the ground. The proceedings are watched by an increasing number of curious brown rabbits. Illustrations of the turnip feast, with pets at the table, a large Petya getting his share of the mash and of everyone settling in to bed afterward add to the charm of this version .

A Little Story About a Big TurnipA Little Story About a Big Turnip Retold by Tatiana Zunshine, Illus by Evgeny Antonekov. 2003.
 It is described on the flap as a “traditional Russian folktale presented in a non-traditional way.”

A variation:

The Enormous Carrot McGraw-Hill Reading Kindergarten Level big bookThe Enormous Carrot McGraw-Hill Reading Kindergarten Level big book by  Vladimir Vagin, 1998.
Rabbits grow the freakishly large veggie in question, with a mousie providing the final muscle. Watercolor and pencil illustrations.

Other versions that I haven't seen:

Grandma Lena's Big Ol' Turnip (Albert Whitman Prairie Books)Grandma Lena's Big Ol' Turnip (Albert Whitman Prairie Books)

The Great Big Enormous Turnip (Picture Mammoth)The Great Big Enormous Turnip (Picture Mammoth)

The Enormous TurnipThe Enormous Turnip