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

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

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pesky Mosquitos!

Zzzng! Zzzng! Zzzng! a Yoruba Tale retold by Phyllis Gershator. Illus. by Theresa Smith, 1998.

This is one of my favorite African folktales so far. It is an expansion of a traditional tale, “The Mosquito and the Ear.” In the early days when things came together and made the world, mosquito was looking for someone to marry. She was scorned by several of her love interests, and set about revenging herself on them. Her children carried on the tradition, with undesirable results for people. But if we’re going to get bit, then it may as well be for a good reason. :) Mosquito’s little songs of courtship and rage make for a fun read aloud.

Smith’s mosquito is cute and likeable. Even with her stinger, she looks somewhat like a bird with a long bill, striped legs, and wings not unlike a dragonfly. When she is rejected, she cries pitiful streams of tears.Smith’s illustrations are lively and filled with movement.

Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears by Verna Aardema. Illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon, 1975.

This is one of the first illustrated African folktales that I heard of. I’ve known of it for years, but I’d never read it until now. In this tale with cumulative elements, chatty mosquito annoys an iguana with a silly statement about yams. The iguana puts sticks in his ears rather than listen to her nonsense. This leads a python to believe he is being snubbed when iguana ignores the snake’s good morning greeting. Unfortunately, this brings about a disastrous chain reaction involving the other animals, and leads to mosquito’s permanent unpopularity.

The Dillion’s won the Caldecott award for this title and also Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (Picture Puffin Books) by Margaret Musgrove. I am a big fan of their art and I think that they just get more and more spectacular with time. If you are unfamiliar with them take a look at Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch or The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Nancy Willard, or The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. The pictures for this book use watercolors applied with airbrush, pastels and india ink. Kids will laugh at the ridiculous iguana with the plugged ears, grieve with the brokenhearted mother owl and enjoy looking at the increasingly angry and toothy animals as they get to the heart of the problem.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Honey Hunters

Honey Hunters by Francesca Martin, 1992.

Martin retells this traditional African tale that explains why various animals came to be enemies. All the beasts love honey. So does the boy. Luckily, they have the little honey guide to lead them to the proper tree. “Che, che! Cheka, cheka, che!” he says. “If you want honey, follow me.” The group finds a lovely honeycomb. But can they share it?

The book’s handsome, gentle pictures enhance the story. The first illustration is a Peaceable Kingdom of animals. Lion and leopard cubs converse with antelope and zebra foal under the spreading branches of the honey tree. The air is filled with butterflies and bees and the grass is dotted with flowers. The other illustrations follow suit, each teeming with life. Pale golden borders accented with blues, greens, pink and orange frame the pictures. This is a lovely book to share.

The Hatseller and the Monkeys

The Hatseller and the Monkeys by Baba Wague Diakite, 1999.

Diakite learned this tale in his home country of Mali, but he notes that it has appeared in folklore from Egypt, Sudan, Mali, India and England. BaMusa loves making and selling wide brimmed dibiri hats and close-fitting fugulan caps from town to town. One day, he is napping under a tree when many curious monkeys inspect his wares and decide to try them on. When BaMusa awakens, every monkey is also napping, each face covered by a shady hat. How will he reclaim his caps? Could the mischievous little monkeys have something to teach him? Readers familiar with Caps for Sale- A Tale of a Peddler, a Monkey and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina will enjoy this twist on an old favorite.

In Diakite’s ceramic tile paintings, monkeys abound. Each page is bordered with a continuous black and white lineup of the playful creatures. There is an illustration of a town gathering where a clown, Koroduga, wears a monkey mask. And naughty monkeys crouch, play and snooze in the main pictures. BaMusa’s hats are charming, with bold patterns and decorated peaks. Even the smiling, golden sun wears a cap.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Head, Body, Legs: a Story from Liberia

Head, Body, Legs: a Story from Liberia Retold by Won-Ldy Paye & Margaret H. Lippert. Illus. by Julie Paschkis, 2002.

This is a traditional creation story from the Dan people of northeastern Liberia. All alone, Head is only able to roll around and eat what he finds on the ground. This changes when he meets Arms, then Body and finally, Legs. The authors say that elders tell this tale to children to show the importance of cooperation. Paschkis’ illustrations were inspired by the Asafo flags of the Fante people from coastal Ghana. The simple dark shapes of the body parts contrast with the colorful backgrounds of orange, blue, lavender, etc. Head’s cheerful expression keeps the story light, and something that could be gruesome (disembodied parts) with a different treatment stays fun. Kids will laugh at the pieces’ mistaken attempts to join together before they find the perfect fit.

Monday, May 23, 2011

They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

They Called Themselves the KKK: the Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

Bartoletti has created an extremely well written book about a terrible subject. She is the author of many excellent nonfiction titles for young adults such as Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow and Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 . Most of the information presented here about the KKK is historical, from its creation by six confederate officers in Tennessee in 1866 to the Ku Klux Klan trials in 1871 and up to Rutherford B. Hayes’ election and the Reconstruction’s end in 1877. The final chapter discusses more recent KKK activity and gives the terrifying statistic that in 2008 the Southern Poverty Law center counted 926 active hate groups in the U.S.

This is a difficult and infuriating book to read, but Bartoletti professionally addresses the Klan’s violence toward and abuse and murder of African American freed people after the Civil War. She begins by explaining the environment and attitudes in the South at the time and talks about the struggle that ensued after Lincoln was killed. Southerner Andrew Johnson became president and began Reconstruction when Congress was not in session, which caused hard feelings and further stress in the wounded country. The Klan began as an alleged social club for one group of men, and it developed into an organization with estimated tens of thousands of men who used any means to prevent freed people from voting, receiving schooling, worshipping in their own churches, farming or just living peacefully. The Klan also threatened, punished and murdered any white person who stood against the KKK or even aided freed people in any way.

Bartoletti’s text is accompanied by documents, photographs and archival drawings, such as photos of four of the KKK's creators, political cartoons by Thomas Nast and a ticket to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. Chapters frequently conclude with quotes and photos from the Slave Narratives of men and women recalling the terror of the Klan. Readers can reflect on 99 year old Gabe Hines’ first impression of the Klansmen in their costumes, 87 year old Susan Merritt’s memories of praying in secret so white people didn’t know, and more. A timeline from 1863 to Obama’s election in 2008 is included.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Zomo the Rabbit

Zomo the Rabbit: a Trickster Tale From West Africa by Gerald McDermott. 1992.

Before his story begins, McDermott gives some background information about Zomo. He is a trickster who originated in Hausaland, Nigeria and is the original character who is also known as Brer Rabbit in the USA. Trickster tales are told to entertain, but also to teach. In this story, Zomo is a very clever rabbit, but he wants to be wise as well. When he asks Sky God for this gift, he learns that he must earn his wisdom by doing three impossible tasks. He shall bring Sky God Big Fish’s scales, Wild Cow’s milk, and Leopard’s tooth. Fortunately, Zomo has his wits. He has his drum. But, he has no caution. Will his efforts be worthwhile?

McDermott’s pictures were done in gouache on watercolor paper. They are very bright, eye-catching and filled with movement, which suits the cheerful story. Zomo is a cute black rabbit with a stylishly patterned hat and shirt. Sky God wears a changeable robe with pictures on it that aid the story’s narration. The expressions the animals make when Zomo tricks them are fun to see, especially Leopard’s.

I really enjoyed this picture book, both the story and the artwork!

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Lonely Lioness & the Ostrich Chicks

The Lonely Lioness and the Ostrich Chicks: a Masai Tale retold by Verna Aardema. Illus. by Yumi Heo, 1996.

The original source for Aardema’s tale is “The Story of the Ostrich Chicks” from The Masai: Their Language and Folklore by Claude Hollis, 1905. When a new mother ostrich takes her four chicks for a walk one day, she does not suspect that a lioness longing for children will steal hers. Lioness is nice to the babies and they soon forget that she is not their original mother. Now Mother Ostrich has no choice but to follow the lioness and beg for aid from every creature that they pass. Gazelle and Hyena are too cowardly to help, and Jackal tries and fails, but Mongoose is fearless. Can his bravado and brains return the chicks to Mother Ostrich?

Aardema uses sound effects in the story that would make this a good read aloud. Her Lioness purrs irtil-irtil-irtil, Gazelle bounds yir-id-de, yir-id-de, yir-id-de, and Mongoose skedaddles dik-dak-dilak. She begins her story with the Masai proverb “Even the ostrich, with its long neck and sharp eyes, cannot see what will happen in the future.”

Heo’s illustrations are delightful. The stylized animals are so satisfying. The ostrich and her family are dark brown and black with skinny long legs and necks and tiny heads. The lioness sleeps in a fan shaped tree, her body long and golden, her eyes dark and pupil less, with springy white whiskers. She is in comical contrast to her foster children, who follow her in a neat lineup. When we meet Mongoose he is in the foreground, but there are flying birds and insects in the sky and ants, caterpillars and lizards crawling over the mound beneath him. These background plants and animals make sense in the picture, but also make up patterns that resemble cave paintings. This interesting technique is consistent throughout the book.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Zombies vs. Unicorns

Zombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier.

This title is on the 10th-12th grade list for Camp Read-A-Lot, but I couldn't resist it.

Black and Larbalestier have put together a young adult collection with outstanding authors such as Garth Nix, Libba Bray and Scott Westerfield, contributing short stories about either, you guessed it, zombies or unicorns. But don’t be fooled into believing that the unicorn tales are all sparkle and innocence and that these zombies are nothing but shuffle, drool and teeth. Many of the stories are unsettling in various ways, some will make you laugh and there is occasionally unexpected romance.

Although I’ve been a solid unicorn fan since my teen years and was traumatized by a college viewing of George A. Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead, I have to admire several of the zombie stories here. Maureen Johnson’s “Children of the Revolution” combines college freshmen working on an organic berry farm in England for a summer and a famous actress with an unusual religion and even odder children. These ingredients cook up a tale that is both funny and creepy. In “Bougainvillea,” Carrie Ryan gives us a new heroine who is gutsier and even more interesting than her protagonist in The Forest of Hands and Teeth. My favorite of the collection, Libba Bray’s “Prom Night” takes us to the eve of that most important teen event but the photo snapping parents are gone and teens from the high school’s student government police against the walking dead.

After the zombie flirtation, I return to my fascination with unicorns. I prefer my unicorns wild and mysterious, like any magical creature. Margo Lanagan delivers this in spades in “A Thousand Flowers,” a story regarding the complete (ahem) union of a maiden princess and a unicorn, and the consequences that follow. Garth Nix, while including a zombie queen in the plot of “The Highest Justice”, provides a solemn, unflinching Unicorn that meets out just rewards to a king and his witchy mistress. And because everyone likes to think that they can tame the unmanageable, readers can live vicariously through Diana Peterfreund’s “The Care and Feeding of Your Killer Baby Unicorn.”

All together, this is a pretty cool collection.

Crocodile and Hen

Crocodile and Hen: a Bakongo Folktale by Joan M. Lexau. Illus.by Doug Cushman, 2001.

This illustrated early reader is adapted from the story “Why the Crocodile Does Not Eat the Hen” from Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort by R.E. Dennet. It comes from the Bakongo people of the Republic of the Congo. For days when Hen goes down by the river to look for food, she is spotted by Crocodile, who wants to eat her up. But, everyday, Hen shows no fear and calls Crocodile “Brother.” He is surprised, puzzled and unable to eat Hen. How long will her luck hold out? Cushman’s cute pictures give us the brave gray and white Hen, the fierce looking wide mouth Crocodile and several animal onlookers, such as a bush baby, giraffe and monkey.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Pretty Salma by Niki Daly

Pretty Salma: a Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly. 2006.

In this Ghanaian version of "Little Red Riding Hood", Salma goes to market for her granny, but takes a shortcut home through the wild side of town. Pretty soon she runs into a stranger, Mr. Dog, who offers to carry her basket. Naturally he is up to no good, and soon talks her out of her hot sandals, ntama overskirt, and other accessories, and heads off to bother granny. Salma is resourceful, though, and finds her grandfather telling Anansi stories to a group of people. They decide to dress in his costumes and scare Mr. Dog away. Look out, you bad dog!

Daly’s humorous pictures add much enjoyment to a reading of his story. The lanky dog in drag, striking a girly pose will make readers laugh, as will the pictures of the devious canine with granny when she realizes that perhaps he is not her little girl after all. The illustrations are done in watercolors and digital media.

African Folktales coming up!

Since much of my longer reading is going to to be taken up with my Camp Read-A-Lot list, I'm putting my Russian project on hold for now. However, since I loved reading the illustrated tales so much, I've decided to keep going with that, and since I've read through most of the Russian tales available to me, I'm going to move on to African folktales. So, get ready for a fun shift.

Oom Razoom

Oom Razoom: Or Go I Know Not Where, Bring Back I Know Not What : A Russian Tale retold by Diane Wolstein, Illus. by Dennis McDermott, 1991.

This tale has the same basic structure as I-Know-Not-What, I-Know-Not-Where: A Russian Tale adapted by Eric Kimmel and described here. In this version, our hero is the king’s archer, Alexis, who spares a blue pigeon while hunting one morning for his ruler’s breakfast. He discovers that she is really a beautiful woman, Olga, whom he immediately weds. Unfortunately, she soon turns the king’s head, and to steal her for his own, he consults with Baba Yaga and sends Alexis to I Know Not Where to bring back I Know Not What. However, Olga gives Alexis a magic ball to follow and a special handkerchief. Then, with the assistance of a mystical frog and the invisible servant Oom Razoom Alexis returns to gain wealth, reclaim Olga and become king himself.

McDermott brings us a magical spread of illustrations. Olga is certainly a fair flower of a wife, with her ropes of black braids and cloak of blue and white feathers. Baba Yaga is a heavy lidded, bushy eyebrowed crone with warts galore. Oom Razoom recalls a genie with his turban, pointy ears and curling beard, visible only to who he wishes. The pictures appear in triptychs and, some have shaped edges, providing their own frames.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tzar's Bird by Ann Tompert

The Tzar’s Bird by Ann Tompert. Illus. by Robert Rayevsky, 1990.

Uninvited to Tzar Yaroslav’s coronation banquet, Baba Yaga shows up like a bad fairy at a princess’ christening. She brings him the gift of a Firebird, but he must make sure that it is happy and cared for at all times or Yaroslav will be sent to the Outmost Edge of the World. At first he thinks of every little detail to please it, feeding it honey cakes, playing it music and even moving in with it in its park, but eventually he begins to neglect it. Baba Yaga comes to carry the bird away, but Yaroslav will go to any length to avoid the Outmost Edge of the World. Thus, his struggle to find the Firebird begins. Can he do what he must to escape his great fear?

Rayevsky’s paintings provide fine support for Tompert’s original tale. This Baba Yaga has tusks and a huge nose, giving her a resemblance to a wild boar dressed in stately clothes. Yaroslav’s imagining of the Outmost Edge of the World is filled with red eyed, gargoyle-like creatures, in contrast to what he actually finds, which is a fruit and flower filled place. His attempts to avoid it bring him face to face with fierce looking wild creatures and through punishing deserts and mountains. Rayevsky puts the reader right there.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Russian/Ukrainian Tales from Patricia Polacco

Babushka Baba Yaga Babushka Baba Yaga 1993.

We have now read about Baba Yaga, who is usually depicted as a fearsome hag who lives in a traveling house balanced on chicken feet. However, in Patricia Polacco’s 1993 story, we get to see a softer side of the infamous witch. The last of her kind, this Baba Yaga longs for a child to love. Inspired by the sight of a gathering of babushkas (grannies) and some untended clothes on a line, our Baba Yaga decides to disguise herself as a loving but lonely crone. She hopes to find a family to help and a surrogate grandchild. She is successful, but is troubled by town gossip of the dangerous Baba Yaga. Finally, the moment comes when she can prove her good heart to all. This is a tender tale with a message to judge others for what they are and not how they seem.

Even in her natural state, this Baba Yaga looks wild but cute rather than frightening. Polacco draws her with very pointed, tufted ears, lots of wild grey hair and talon-like nails, with a fairy swinging playfully from her finger. Baba is aided in her disguise by cheerful looking forest animals, such as a fox, a rabbit, a frog, and a bear. All the babushkas and villagers wear layers of bright colored, patterned clothing, and Polacco’s details of the families’ homes and gatherings give a feeling of warmth and community that fits perfectly with the story’s message.

Luba and the Wren (Picture Puffins) Luba and the Wren (Picture Puffins) 1999.

In Luba and the Wren (Picture Puffins) from 1999, Polacco tells a story that I’d first heard as The Fisherman and His Wife. I don’t know if she has recorded a Ukrainian variant, or if she decided to convert the tale to give it a new setting and flavor. Luba is the happy child of poor farmers. One day, when she is searching for mushrooms in the woods, she finds and releases a wren trapped in a net. When the little bird offers her a wish in return, Luba can think of nothing that she lacks. But, when she shares the story with her parents, they encourage her to go back to the wren and ask for a better home and property. This pleases them, but only for a while. Poor Luba is soon the unwillingly go between for her parents’ increasingly greedy and outrageous demands.

The story is bookended by papers with cheerful orange, teal and pink floral motifs that also provide lovely frames for some of the text. Luba looks appropriately innocent and rosy in her multipatterned headscarves and dresses. The small brown wren goes from friendly and freckled in the palm of Luba’s hand to red eyed and frightening with wings and tail feathers raised in outrage, on a branch far above her head. Originally, the family’s little dacha looks somewhat ramshackle, but also bright and welcoming. Luba is surrounded by affectionate farm animals. As her surroundings grow grander, her parents become more remote and the animals are generally pictured farther away and more impersonal. When all is set to right, Luba is shown snuggling with her parents while the once again friendly wren looks on.

Visit the author at http://www.patriciapolacco.com/

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

More Baba Yaga

You can find more books about Baba Yaga in my first post: Tales of Baba Yaga.

Baba Yaga Baba Yaga retold by Katya Arnold, 1993.

Baba Yaga & the Little Girl retold by Katya Arnold, 1994.

Arnold’s Baba Yaga is a different story about the Russian witch than I have read to date. She based her tale on a story called “Tereshichka” collected by Aleksandr Afanas’ev in the mid 1800s. The child hero is Tishka, a little boy miraculously created from a piece of wood. He is warned by his mother to watch out for Baba Yaga, but the hag tricks him and takes him home to her hut to be eaten. He in turn tricks the witch’s daughter, with gruesome results, and with the assistance of an ugly gosling, returns to his parents safely. I enjoy the rhyming dialogue, such as: “Tishka, Tishka, bread and meat. Come ashore, it’s time to eat!” I would like to own this picture book.

Baba Yaga & the Little Girl follows the more familiar story of the cruel stepmother, her sister Baba Yaga, and the innocent girl whose kindness to the witch’s servants helps her escape.

Both books are brightly illustrated in the style of a type of 17th century Russian folk art. This is lubok pictures, hand-colored wood cuts. Arnold says, “The crude, simple shapes and bold coloring of lubok pictures perfectly match the mood and period of the Baba Yaga stories.” Therefore, Arnold created appropriate illustrations using black line drawings and gouache paintings. She’s made some fantastic pictures, like the hut on clawed chicken feet in the bending forest, surrounded by huge red mushrooms, Tishka resisting being pushed into the flames of the witch’s oven and Baba Yaga herself flying through the woods in her mortar, her green skin and hair making her seem a part of it. I agree with Arnold, these illustrations are perfect for the stories.

Matreshka by Becky Hickox Ayres, Illus. by Alexi Natchev, 1992.

This original tale is another story of a child, her protective doll and Baba Yaga, but Ayres has made the poppet a Russian Nesting Doll. The girl, Kata is given the doll, Matreshka, because she shares her food with a hungry old woman in the woods. Then, lost in the snow, she finds the witch’s hut. Baba Yaga is, as usual, up to no good, and she locks Kata in a room, hoping to turn her into a goose to eat for Sunday dinner. Kata can’t budge the door, but fortunately, Matreshka is small enough to climb out the window and open the lock. Each step of escape requires a smaller and smaller doll to help, but luckily, Matreshka is six dolls in one, and they know the perfect spell to turn a terrible witch into a frog.

It is notable that Ayres has added a benevolent crone to balance the evil Baba Yaga, and reduced the shock of her eating a child by turning the girl into an animal first. The witch is threatening enough, even so.

Natchev has used watercolor paintings to vividly illustrate the story. The cover of Matreshka shows little blond Kata peering around the solid looking chicken leg supports of the house and up at the wart-nosed Baba Yaga, who is looking out of her window with a dismayed expression. Natchev has made the most of animals in every scene, and children will find rabbits, deer, bats, crows and more appearing throughout. The cannibalism is further toned down here, as the skulls that surround the witch’s place are obviously from sheep, not people.

Vasilissa the Beautiful: A Russian Folktale adapted by Elizabeth Winthrop, Illus. by Alexander Koshkin, 1991.

This is a somewhat lengthier telling of the Baba Yaga tale, in the same vein as Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave and Baba Yaga and the Wise Doll . Here we have a beautiful maiden of marriageable age, endangered by her step family and rescued by a wise little doll. The lovely and blessed Vasilissa not only is kicked out by the witch, but due to her talent with spinning and sewing, goes on to marry the Tsar himself.

Koshkin’s art is especially outstanding. He has set the story in the seventeenth century and the art just glows. His Baba Yaga is a black haired mighty woman with pointed ears, a hooked nose and alarmingly long canine teeth. He also has dressed her in a cap with horns called a kitchka, which adds to her demonic appearance. The pictures that show Baba Yaga’s servants Day, Sun and Night are especially wondrous, with glorious riders bringing about their daily changes. My favorite is Night, galloping across the pages, trailing deep blue skies behind him, with gleaming eyed skulls and Queen Anne’s Lace in the foreground.

Vasalisa and Her Magic Doll adapted and Illus. by Rita Grauer, 1994.

This tale focuses on the love between family members. Two sisters, Svetlana and Vasalisa, live with their widowed mother on the edge of the Russian forest. When their mama dies, she leaves their home to Svetlana and a Magic Doll to Vasalisa. All goes well at first, but, Vasalisa is beloved by the villagers, and her elder sister is jealous. Angrily, Svetlana sends her to Baba Yaga’s home for light. Vasalisa’s doll helps her to find her way there and return safely home to her remorseful sister, the bonds of their love now renewed.

Illustrated in color-pencil.