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

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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rhinos for Lunch and Elephants for Supper!

Rhinos for Lunch and Elephants for Supper! A Maasai Tale by Tololwa M. Mollel. Illus. by Barbara Spurll, 1991.

When little hare returns to her den for a nap, she is driven away by the booming voice of a monster. Before she even enters, she needs to turn tail and flee. A number of her animal friends try to help her, but each time they are menaced by the voice of the one who craves rhinos and elephants for its meals. Finally, a grumpy frog who has been trying to sleep through the noise takes on the monster. Larger creatures have failed, but this froggy is calm and confident. She is sure to get results!

Spurll’s pictures are bordered by geometric patterns in black, red, blue and green. Her animals are fanciful and rubber faced. An elder leopard in reading glasses shares a book with three wide-eyed cubs. Our heroine, the frog, boldly chews on a pipe and brandishes a walking cane. And the red cheeked, many legged monster cracks a one sided grin as he moves on. Little creatures such as snakes, birds and lizards watch the proceedings at the cave’s mouth.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Name of the Tree

The Name of the Tree: A Bantu Folktale retold by Celia Barker Lottridge. Illus. by Ian Wallace, 1989.

The animals are in the midst of a great famine, so they decide to band together and search for a source of food. They find a wonderful tree with colorful fruit that smells like all the fruits of the world. The problem is they are unable to eat any until they know the tree’s name. King lion knows, but he doesn’t like to repeat himself. They must send an animal to him that is willing to make the journey and is able to remember the precious name.

Wallace’s illustrations are very softly tinted, and play with shadow and light. The barren land is filled with cracks and rocks, and a pale sun hangs in the sky, illustrating the animal’s dire circumstances. The beasts are drawn realistically, with chimpanzees, gazelles, zebras, elephants and hero tortoises sharing the pages.

Imani in the Belly

Imani In The Belly by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate. Illus. by Alex Boies, 1994.

In this retelling of a Swahili folktale, Imani’s children are swallowed up by Simba, the King of Beasts, and she must have faith enough to reclaim them. Every day wild animals race through her village and one afternoon when she returns from the marketplace, she finds that her children are gone. Grieving, she falls asleep, but her mother comes to her in a dream and tells her to have faith and go after the beast. She outfits herself with supplies and goes out to save her family and her village. With support from the villagers and belief in herself, she does just that.

The vivid colors and simple shapes of Boies’ cut-paper illustrations make striking artwork. The layouts are obviously carefully planned for best effect. Palm trees of purple, hot pink and bright green seem to pop off the pages. The cutouts add drama to the story, such as the black silhouette of Imani’s face and her wagging finger as she warns her children, a lavender outline of her floating mother providing comfort as Imani cries streams of soft green tears and incomplete shapes representing the villagers caught inside Simba. Seemingly disembodied eyes follow Imani as she heads through the jungle toward the large black lion. An especially vibrant picture shows Imani climbing out of Simba’s stomach as the villagers cheer her on in lettering that reads, “Faith be to Imani”.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Strange Happenings by Avi

Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation by Avi, 2005.

I have read many of Avi’s books and really liked most of them. Reading Strange Happenings with the child audience in mind, I enjoyed it too. Avi gives us five short stories that feature transformation. Frequently, things don’t go well for the characters, even if they get what they want. Tom is twelve years old and bored with life. When he meets a friendly talking cat, his life turns upside down and is very exciting…for a while. Simon is a selfish guy who wants what he wants and doesn’t care who pays the price for him to get it. Soon, he is the one suffering. Jeff thinks that his town baseball mascot is great and becomes obsessed with finding out who’s behind the costume. This could be a mistake. A shoemaker strikes and breaks a bargain with a cat with lemon colored eyes, only to be confronted by the devil himself. And everyone agrees that Princess Babette is simply ravishingly beautiful, but have they ever really seen her? Avi’s collection is creepy fun and would make fine, mild Halloween reading.

Other outstanding books by Avi:

Fairy Tales set in Africa by Rachel Isadora

 Hansel and Gretel Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm. Retold and Illus. by Rachel Isadora, 2009.

The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. Retold and Illus. by Rachel Isadora, 2007.

The Ugly Duckling The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. Retold and Illus. by Rachel Isadora, 2009.

Isadora stays true to the plots of these familiar German and Danish fairy tales, but smoothly moves the settings to the forests, farms, and palaces of Africa. Accordingly, the human characters are people of color, often dressed in handsome regional clothing. In this version of The Princess and the Pea, the prince searches for his bride all over Africa and the reader learns to say hello in Amharic (Ethiopia), Somali and Swahili (Kenya). Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in a wood full of giraffes, snakes, zebras, etc. The awkward gray duckling grows up to be a beautiful black swan, but first he is rejected by other animals of the farmyard, including a baboon, a warthog and a meerkat.

The books are vividly illustrated with collages of oil paints, printed paper and palette paper. The resulting pictures have much pleasing texture and many colorful shades. The princess’ twenty mattresses come in as many patterns, from animal skins, to stripes to florals. The green skinned witch in the candy house is dressed in a raggedy cloak that gives her the appearance of a frightening wild creature. Hansel’s cage is hung with spiders, and alive with crawling and hopping reptiles. And a sun in fiery tones peers through a flowering tree to shine down on six yellow ducklings, their mother and one newly hatched misfit. These glorious illustrations are everything you hope for in a fairy tale.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tales of Anansi the Spider: Picture Books

Anansi and the Magic Stick Anansi and the Magic Stick by Eric A. Kimmel. Illus. by Janet Stevens, 2001.

All of the animals have fine gardens, but Anansi’s yard is a wreck. He is just too lazy to pretty it up. Fortunately for him, he discovers Hyena’s magic stick, which will do anything you request, if you remember the magic words. All goes well, until Anansi asks the stick to water his vegetable seeds…then falls asleep. Kimmel has loosely based this story on the Liberian tale The Magic Hoe.

Anansi and the Talking Melon Anansi and the Talking Melon retold by Eric A. Kimmel. Illus. by Janet Stevens, 1994.

Anansi the Spider can’t resist Elephant’s melon patch. But, having eaten his fill of the biggest, ripest melon, he finds that he’s too fat to get out of the rind again. When Elephant returns, Anansi has to use his wits quickly. What if the melon should speak to Elephant? And what if the resulting fuss went all the way to the king?

Anansi’s Party Time by Eric A. Kimmel. Illus. by Janet Stevens, 2008.

Anansi invites Turtle to a party! But, he won’t let Turtle in until he follows all of Anansi’s rules. Turtle has to keep going home for more things to bring. When he realizes that he has been tricked, he invites the naughty spider to a party at his underwater home. Everyone has a swell time, but by the end of the soiree, Anansi is almost over the moon!

Stevens’ art for the Anansi series is bright, cheerful and lots of fun. Anansi is a chubby black spider with black beady eyes, but even so is very expressive. Whether he is lying on his back stuffed full of melon, carrying off his stolen stick or wearing his kitty party costume, Anansi will make readers laugh. The other animals are wonderful, from an incensed gorilla king to a zebra accidentally painted bright pink to Turtle in his bubblegum colored bunny suit. The author and illustrator themselves have a cameo in Anansi and the Magic Stick as they are swept away by the flood, Kimmel in a polka dotted animal inner tube.

Anansi Finds a Fool by Verna Aardema. Illustrated by Bryna Waldman, 1992.

This is an Ashanti tale, retold from a story by Robert S. Rattray in Akan-Ashanti Folktales, 1930. Anansi decides to go into the fishing business, and find someone to trick into doing all the work so that he, Anansi can get all the fish. He is surprised when his clever friend Bonsu, seemingly unaware of Anansi’s plan, offers to help him. But Anansi should beware, because Bonsu knows just how to manipulate Anansi, and soon the tables are turned.

Watercolor art. In this story, Anansi, his wife Aso and their friends remain in their human forms.

Royal Drum: An Ashanti Tale Royal Drum: An Ashanti Tale retold by Mary Dixon Lake. Illus. by Carol O’Malia, 1996.

According to an introductory note, this Anansi story is from the Ashanti Tribe of Ghana. The spider is also called Kwaku Anansi, Nansii or Father Spider. In this tale, Anansi is a helper rather than a trickster.

The animals wish to come together more often, but how can they send an immediate message? Anansi comes up with the idea of a royal drum. All the animals love the idea and everyone works hard to make it so. Everyone, that is, except for Monkey. Can Anansi make sure that lazy Monkey gets his comeuppance?

This tale is told in rebus done on scratchboard. O’Malia’s oil paintings pack every inch of the pages with color. Anansi is a bright jewel of a spider in pink, purple and turquoise. This jungle is populated with a king lion, a hippo, an antelope, a jackal and more, who aren’t afraid to come together for a meeting. They are realistically drawn creatures, shown working and celebrating from daylight till starlight.

Ananse's Feast: An Ashanti Tale Ananse's Feast: An Ashanti Tale retold by Tololwa M. Mollel, Illus. by Andrew Glass, 1997.

During a barren time when others are without food, Ananse the Spider has cleverly stored away supplies from his farm. He is just about to feast when his friend Akye the Turtle appears at his door. Ananse is willing to share with his pal, if Akye will wash his hands. This kind invitation doesn’t work out as well as Akye hopes, but a few days later he has a chance to repay Ananse by inviting him for a meal at his home under the river. Tricksters will be tricked!

In an Author’s Note following the story, Mollel tells that Ananse has his own body of traditional tales. In Ghana, they are called Anansesem or “Spider Stories.”

The Ananse of Glass’ art is a brown and purple fat bodied spider with an anthropomorphized face, a long nose and short spiky hair on his head. Patient turtle wears a red cap. Both creatures have comical moments, such as when Ananse puts on his ceremonial robe and dives headfirst into the river or when turtle holds up his still-dirty hands for his friend’s inspection.

Much more to come!

The Good, The Bad, and The Barbie

The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone.

Tanya Lee Stone is known for her Siebert Medal winner Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream. Here she treats Barbie’s fans and foes to a fun and interesting portrait of America’s Dream Doll. She outlines the doll’s history and gives a short biography of her creator, Ruth Handler. Ruth and her husband, Elliot Handler originated the company Mattel, which was a diverse workplace from its beginning. Although Barbie’s image drives some people crazy, Handler intended her to be a doll that girls could relate to, filling the gap between baby dolls that needed mothering and stylish fashion paper dolls. She wanted girls to be able to use Barbie to act out their dreams, and felt that the first Barbie dolls were intentionally not too pretty. Mattel introduced her as a real girl, a “Teen Age Fashion Model.”

As styles changed throughout the decades, Barbie’s looks altered too. Her makeup and hair was modified; her body moved in different, more lifelike ways, such as “Twist ‘N Turn Barbie” and “Living Barbie.” Her clothes varied from chic suits and pearls to go-go boots and miniskirts, to world costumes and designer wear. She changed careers just as frequently, from 1960s approved “female” jobs like stewardess and student teacher to a wider variety such as NASCAR driver, Boot Camp inductee and United States Presidential Candidate.

Stone explains that reactions to the Barbie doll are passionate, and lead to diehard fans and Barbie haters. She provides quotes and anecdotes from kids and adults with various opinions about the 50+ year old doll. Much of the book tackles topics about Barbie’s effect on and reflection of our culture. Barbie and body image is one such volatile subject. Apparently Barbie was the first American doll with a figure, and people have tons to say about that. Is Barbie pushing unattainable standards on our children, or is she just an innocent piece of plastic? Does she promote sexism, in spite of Ruth Handler’s original dreams for her?

Stone also devotes a chapter to Barbie and the different cultures and races that she has represented, both successfully and dismally, including Mattel’s creation of Barbie’s friends and cousins of color ( one given the cringe worthy name of “Colored Francie”) to making the first African American Barbie in 1980. That same year, Mattel began to release International Dolls of the World Barbies, with varying degrees of successful representation.

A particularly fascinating chapter is about Barbie and the way that she figures in kid’s play related to their curiosity about nudity and sex and how kids commonly torture and mistreat Barbie and her friends. The stories shared here are hilarious, from playing nudist colony, and getting a black eye from an enraged neighbor defending Barbie’s honor, to acting out Marie Antoinette’s tragic end with a Barbie, a scaffold made of encyclopedias and some ketchup.

Finally, Stone talks about Barbie as art and the talented people who are inspired by her. Whether it is to present her in all her glory, such as Andy Warhol did in a portrait, or turn the typical Barbie stereotype on its head as Deborah Colotti does in her series “The Barbs,” (where our doll meets the real world and gets fat, gets acne and gets old) plenty of people like to use Barbie as a creative jumping off place. Artists have written stories about her, painted and sculpted her, and even fashioned her body parts into jewelry.

Boldly moving into older adulthood, Barbie continues to attract the attention due any American icon.

Eight color plates are included.

Somali Folktales from the Minnesota Humanities Center

Somali Folktales from the Minnesota Humanities Center:

 Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale (Somali Bilingual Book Project) retold by Kathleen Moriarty. Illus. by Amin Amir. Somali translation by Jamal Adam, 2007.

Wiil Waal is the nickname for a mid-19th century sultan named Garad Farah Garad Hirsi who ruled Somalia. He was a real man and apparently a great leader. This is a story told of him, which may or may not be true. He liked to test his subjects to find his match in wits. One day, he asked them to bring him the part of the sheep that symbolizes what can divide or unite people. Almost no one had any idea what this might be. One poor man prepared to take a sheep’s rib to the sultan, when his eldest daughter suggested that he take the gullet. The man was fearful that this would be seen as an insult, but when the sultan saw the offering, he was very pleased. Borrow this story from your local library to find out why.

Amir has illustrated the story with gouache paintings that show the land, homes and livestock of the ruler and his villagers.

The Lion's Share Qayb Libaax retold by Said Salah Ahmed. Illus. by Kelly Dupre, 2007.

The predators of the forests of Somalia hunt together and take down a camel. Then they work to drag it under a tree. All of the animals are hungry, but must wait for lion to give his approval before they eat. But, there’s trouble when the lion wants the others to determine how the meat should be divided. The lion’s share is not fair!

Dupre’s illustrations are linoleum block prints painted with acrylic gouache. They show stylized grass, trees and animals, and happily soften some of the more gruesome details of the story. For example, the division of a slain animal’s body isn’t any more disturbing to look at than red edged puzzle pieces.

Dhegdheer, A Scary Somali Folktale retold by Marian A. Hassan. Illus.by Betsy Bowen. 2006.

Dhegdheer is strong, swift, and unfortunately, a nasty cannibal. She sets a trap to catch some human food, and before long a young mother and her son come along. Dhegdheer’s daughter tries to help them, but no one can outrun Dhegdheer. It is up to the Hargega Valley to make way for them and let them escape. But, the valley knows who is sinful, and eats evil ones up. Who will be able to cross this valley?

The book’s pictures are painted in gouache on black gesso. Dhegdheer is a satisfactorily nasty looking woman with huge pointy ears.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Girl, Stolen by April Henry

Girl, Stolen (Christy Ottaviano Books) by April Henry.

Griffin just wanted the Escalade he’d stolen as a little present for himself, something to impress his criminal father, Roy. What he didn’t expect or choose was the 16 year old girl sleeping in the back seat. Ill with pneumonia, she was waiting for her stepmom outside a pharmacy when Griffin unwittingly kidnapped her. Cheyenne is smart and has lots of fire, so she may be a match for one teenage guy. But, she is also blind, the daughter of Nike’s president and on her way home with Griffin where Roy and his two unscrupulous employees await. The adults will be happy to exploit her for as much money as possible, with little thought to her wellbeing.

The story of Cheyenne’s captivity and Griffin’s guilty involvement unfolds in alternating chapters by both teens. Readers witness Cheyenne’s tricky and brave attempts at escape, Griffin’s fear of his father and his henchmen, and his growing empathy for Cheyenne. When likelihood that the criminals will never free her and may consider murder becomes clear, the teens reach an uneasy alliance. They will need all of Cheyenne’s resourcefulness and Griffin’s inside knowledge to save themselves.

Cheyenne is a super gutsy heroine, and Griffin is a young man in horrible circumstances who just may be able to redeem himself. Interesting details of Cheyenne’s relatively new blindness and the way that she copes enrich the story. Teens will love the book’s fast pace and will cheer Cheyenne’s quick thinking and daring plans.