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Showing posts with label Dutton Children's Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dutton Children's Books. Show all posts


Saint Francis and the Christmas Donkey (2000)

Retold and Illustrated by Robert Byrd

Dutton Children's Books

"...Francis was not simply a charming, eccentric lover of nature," writes Robert Byrd. "To see him only in that dimension trivializes his outlook on life."

I think Robert Byrd is an interesting illustrator. He really prefers to illustrate characters either head-on or in full profile, which gives the pages a simplistic tone, but at the same time he fills his backgrounds with so much wonderful detail it is almost overwhelming.

The opening page is of a verdant landscape, in which several types of trees are captured, receding into the distance, rocks and hills and distant birds, a thousand and one blades of grass, and there stands the saint, looking out at us with equanimity, a wolf to one side, a bunny to the other.

It reads to me as though Saint Francis is a stand-in for Adam, the first Man. We learn in Sunday School that Adam gave all of the animals their names, of course, but it is Saint Francis, we learn in this story, who called them his "little brothers" and reminded them of how precious they are, "from the tiniest mouse to the powerful great gray wolf."

It is while Francis ponders in his 'eden,' that he hears the loud, sad braying of the donkey, and asks why he should be so unhappy.

"You would cry out yourself, if your work was as hard as mine. Ever since the beginning of time, we donkeys have carried heavy loads on our small backs, and people and animals have made fun of the way we sound."

And so Saint Francis begins his tale, which begins at the dawn of creation...

It has the form of one of Kipling's Just-So stories, as we discover that the Donkey was at first an extremely proud animal, with short ears and a small tail, who spent these early days of Creation waltzing about and mocking the elephant, ridiculing the giraffe, for their extreme and comical features. Then a band of monkeys get together and decide to teach that Donkey a lesson, by pulling out his ears and tugging on his tail, and them finally - if that weren't bad enough - his is cursed by God Himself:

"...you shall always laugh, but your laugh will be an ugly sound. And when my creatures hear your loud, ridiculous 'Hee-haw! Hee-haw!' they all will laugh at you. You will always do the hardest work, carrying heavy loads for the rest of your days, wherever you go."

This does not cheer the Donkey up, to know of this long ago curse on he and his kin. But Saint Francis assures him, that is only the beginning of the story. There is redemption to be had, of a kind, and it is wrapped up in the Christmas story, as the donkey is called upon to carry a very important traveler through the desert.

Several times the donkey stumbled,
but he did not fall.
I love desert wildernesses, and Byrd does an exquisite job of rendering it is as much detail as he paid to those verdant pastures at the offset. The sands and the rocks of the desert are done with so many shapes and shades, it feels like a living place.

The quest is an epic one, pushing the beast of burden to the absolute limits of his abilities, but finally bringing Mary safely to Bethlehem, and is witness to the birth, to angelic encounters, to shepherds and wise men bearing gifts.

And in his own heart, in his very own way,
the donkey knew what he had done,
and he was happy.
"But the little donkey in the stable had no gift to give," said the Donkey sadly.

"Well," said Francis, "surely you can see that by carrying Mary and the baby Jesus, the Christmas donkey had truly given the most wonderful gift of all."


When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale (2003)

Retold by Erica Silverman

Adapted from a story by Sholom Aleichem

Illustrated by Matthew Trueman

"...composed of many layers, starting with ink and pencil, then colored pencil and gouache, followed by acrylic paints, and finally glazed in oil."

Dutton Children's Books

This is a ridiculous story.

And I can easily see why Silverman thought it would make a great children's book. For myself, I can't help but read into it an indictment not just of Kapores, but of irrational religious traditions the world over.

The author of the original story was Sholom Aleichman, which was the pen name of Sholem Rabinowitz (1859-1916), who is best known for writing the stories upon which Fiddler on the Roof is based. In Yiddish, "Shalom Aleichman" means "Peace Be With You."

So, Kapores. For the goyim in our midst, this is the act of grabbing a live, clucking chicken above one's head, waving it around by its feet, saying a prayer to God and then, viola! One's bad deeds are then removed from the eyes of God.

The main character and narrator of the book is a young boy who is in desperate need of having some bad deeds removed. First we see him misbehaving in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah service, then sent outside by his Papa. There, hiding in the fields, he spies a scene out of Animal Farm.

"Fellow foul! You know why we are here!"
"Freedom for fowl!"
"Rights for roosters!"
"Strike! Strike!"

It is a group of very perturbed chickens.

"Every year at this time, the villagers use us for a strange custom," the leader asserts. "They grab us and twirl us over their heads. They mumble strange words. They think this will take away bad deeds!"

"An end to Kapores!" they all shriek.

I would think, then, being a young, clever child, he would instantly realize the rightness of the chicken's position and side with them. Unfortunately, he is so far gone in his own cultural identity that all he can think about is: "No more Kapores? How else would I get rid of my bad deeds?"

A true quandary. When the news spreads, the town goes into a near panic, coming out en masse to get the chickens to return. They try force, but are attacked and pecked - men and women alike.

Finally, the village elders attempt to reason with the children.

"We need you for Kapores."

"Where is it written?" asks a hen.

"What does it matter to you? It is a custom of ours from years and years ago."

"An end to your customs!"

And so they run off, even as the wailing, bemoaning townsfolk mournfully speak of certain plagues and impending doom.

But our young, puckish narrator is not so troubled. With one final exchange, he tells the hen, "Without Kapores, I will never be able to make my papa proud."

"Boychick, for this, do you really need a chicken?"

I plan on using this line the next time I am invited to partake in some religious ceremony.
Traditions come and traditions go. I learned this from the chickens.
Click here to read my conversation with Erica Silverman!
Click here for more Jewish folktales!


Creation (2003)

By Gerald McDermott

Dutton Children's Books

My telling is based on Genesis 1:1 through 2:3 of the Hebrew Bible, with an eye toward its antecedents in the ancient Near East, such as the Babylonian epic Enuma Elish, and sources as diverse as the illuminated Bibles Moralisees of 13th Century France and the Sarajevo Haggadah of 14th Century Spain.

A tall order, Mr. McDermott.  Though, to be fair, this is the same guy who wrote and illustrated the classic Anansi the Spider and many other cultural trickster tales from the world over.  McDermott has earned his credentials.  When he speaks, I listen.  When he writes, "The voice of the story is an inner one that begins with a breath and a whisper, a spark ignited within us all that grows to illuminate the universe," I take him at his word.

The size of the book is what initially impressed me.  However, its first image makes ironic use of that size.  It is just a large, black page with a tiny gray dot in the center.  There is no text.  There appears to be movement within.

This is a story told in the first person.  "I was before time.  I was everywhere.  There was nothing.  I was there."  God appears as a large, gray, textured breeze floating in the blackness of space.  Then the gray turns sheet white, which becomes the foam on the rolling waters, above which hover dark and stormy rain clouds, between them a strand of blackness, all the meanwhile God is still narrating:

I gathered together the waters below and made the sea.  Out of the sea I brought the earth.

Things are beginning to make spatial sense at this point.  The earth rises like a giant tortoise shell from the murky depths.  Soon it is covered with grass and tress, growing larger and larger, taking over the whole of the planet.  At this point, McDermott unleashes his whole palette of colors.  Reds and oranges and yellows are what he uses to fill the sky with stars and suns, which become the wings of colorful birds and underwater creatures, animals of every kind rising out of the sea and moving inland - a reference to God's hand being instrumental in Darwinian evolution?

Regardless, McDermott loves animals.  His creatures always have a two-dimensional look about them, but taken together with so many and so brightly colored, they fill the pages with beauty and life and movement.  The charging of the rhinoceros and elephant and lion and boar seem as though they are charging toward life, rushing toward the earth with zealousness.

Lastly come the humans - curiously blue-skinned and faceless with wild multi-colored hair, reaching toward the atmosphere.

With the final few pages, the Big Bang seems to have begat the Big Crunch, as all the animals, the birds, the fish, the plants, the sea, all of it swirls about the people in a receding cyclone, until all that is left is that small dot, in parallel with the first page, but housing now a fetus in embryo.

I am all this.  All this I AM.
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