Showing posts with label Illustrated Mythology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Illustrated Mythology. Show all posts

8.16.2013

The Dragons of Pan Gu (2013)

Written by Kevin White

Illustrated by Rex White

Chimeric Press

I thought this one was just great, it has a real cinematic quality to it. I've reviewed a few books now that have attempted to begin their stories before the dawn of time, though I think they've all thus far been of the Judeo-Christian ilk. But the beginning of time is the beginning of time, I suppose, and inky blackness is inky blackness.

Long ago, Pan Gu walked in the void of the heavens. He was all there was and he was alone, so Pan Gu never smiled.

Pan Gu is drawn as a quick little illustration in the lower right-hand corner. He looks like an unfinished sketch, with all of the extra pencil strokes retained. He has a worried, pensive expression, not what one would expect from the Creator of All Things.

For the next several pages, Pan Gu moves about the pages, creating a world that is only a dull brown seed.
Nothing very visually exciting, though flipping through it again, I realized that Pan Gu is almost made to resemble a flip book creation. Those quick sketch lines pack a lot of movement in them.

The show doesn't really start until page 7, a double-page spread of the black dragon. In contrast to the previous sketches, this character appears to be rendered with cut-paper. He is large and foreboding, containing as he does, all of Pan Gu's knowledge and logic. I like that they took their time before showcasing this and the true artistry of the book.

It builds to a crescendo as the white dragon is introduced, containing all of Pan Gu's ideas and dreams, but both are equally ferocious. "Darkness chased the light which then chased the darkness in return. They fought tooth and claw, and caused chaos in the void as each tried to put an end to the other." The artist is able to do some cool things with the imagery, bright flashes of light shining from their claws.

Finally, their battle descends upon the Earth, a tiny, stationary planet in the midst of the cosmos. And as the two equally-empowered dragons continue their never-ending fight, the Earth slowly begins to rotate.

But then comes a real narrative twist, as we're suddenly on the planet Earth, where a boy and his grandfather are fishing as the sun rises.

"There is wisdom in the balance between light and dark, ocean and land, even dreams and logic.
 Each controls for a time, but must give way to the other for its own sake."

"What about young and old, Grandfather?"

"Yes. I suppose especially then."


2.18.2013

Arrow to the Sun (1974)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Gouache and ink

16 point Clarendon Semibold

Viking Press

This is the complete tonal opposite of The Magic Tree, I can't help but wonder how intentional the contrast was. The Magic Tree was all blues and blacks - which perfectly fit the downbeat story - but Arrow to the Sun is full-on blinding yellows and golds and shades of orange.

The first image is - fittingly - the sun itself. Within its center stands a god, holding his bow, sending a fiery shaft to the earth, "the spark of life." But this isn't an origin story. It's divine conception.

He's called only 'the Boy,' and its not clear if he or his mother understand what has happened.

...the other boys would not let him join their games. "Where is your father?" they asked. "You have no father!" They mocked him and chased him away.

And so begins his quest. It's a classic game of threes. The Corn Planter, the Pot Maker, the Arrow Maker... Ah. It is Arrow Maker who has some answers, and the ability to shoot the boy back to the sun in order to become reacquainted his his father.

But all is not so easily resolved:

"Perhaps you are my son, perhaps you are not. You must prove yourself. You must pass through the four chambers of ceremony - the Kiva of Lions, the Kiva of Serpents, the Kiva of Bees, and the Kiva of Lightning."

I'm glad I'm not the only reviewer who noticed that the illustrations - especially here during the Kiva Trek - really do resemble the graphics from an old Atari game. I can imagine moving the Boy from brightly colored Kiva to brightly colored Kiva. However... this book was published in 1974, and the Atari console didn't come out until 1977! Strange... unless McDermott had some hidden connection with the Atari corporation!

Upon the completion of his tasks, the Boy is given his father's blessing, and he returns to the earth a second time - the Second Coming? - to bring his father's spirit "to the world of men."

"Father, it is I, your son!"

1.16.2013

Anansi the Spider (1972)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Henry Holy and Company

Gerald McDermott died on December 26th of last year, just a couple of weeks ago, as I write this. He was 71 years old.

I think back on it, and I think that his books - and especially this particular book, Anansi the Spider - were the most influential in getting me interested in storytelling through picture books.

I always loved picture books since I had been a kid, but it was when I was put in charge of the children's section at the Penn Bookstore that I really came into contact with picture books in a meaningful way, and Anansi the Spider was a book I found right away.

I am drawn to the Trickster tales more than any other, and Anansi is the Trickster of all Trickster. I read this book often to groups of children who would come in for storytime. The story is about Anansi and his six sons: See Trouble, Road Builder, River Drinker, Game Skinner, Stone Thrower and Cushion, and how they each use their unique skills to rescue their father from a series of unfortunate events. It's a very fun read for children, and uses elements of puzzle-solving in addition to storytelling.

Re-reading through it tonight, however, I realize that there isn't very much tricking going on in this particular Anansi story, which makes it stand in contrast to many of the Anansi picturebooks which have followed. Anansi seems strangely passive. Events happen to him, and the story ends with him being unable to make up his mind. I think McDermott became a much more engaging writer as his career unfolded, but there's still a wonderful elegance in this story - its both simple and complex - and the colorful, geometric illustrations are such a standout it feels as though you've read something elemental.

"Mythology transforms, making the ordinary into the magical," he writes in the prologue. "It brings beauty to the ways of man, giving him dignity and expressing his joy in life. Folklore prepares man for adult life. It places him within his culture. With oral traditions, retold through generations, the social group maintains its continuity, handing down it culture."

I like that word, 'continuity,' in this context. It shouldn't come as a great surprise to learn that Gerald McDermott was good friends with Joseph Campbell, and was the first fellow of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The subject of storytelling is one he took quite seriously, and permeates his entire career, as we shall see.

The God of All Things,
He took
the beautiful white light
up into the sky.

He keeps it there
for all to see.
It is still there.
It will always be there.

It is there tonight.

5.01.2012

Go to Sleep, Gecko! (2006)

Retold by Margaret Read MacDonald

Illustrated by Geraldo Valerio

Acrylic


The interconnectedness of all things! Buffalo poop! High brow and low brow, all at once!

This Balinese folktale concerns a gecko who cannot for the life of him get to sleep because the infernal fireflies which are "blinking their lights on and off... on and off..." He goes to find the ruler of the jungle, Elephant, and demand that action be taken!

A simple request, perhaps, but little does either animal suspect, in the tapestry of life, one thing is connected to another. The fireflies absolutely cannot cease their blinking ways, for if they did, someone might accidentally step in the buffalo poop left in piles all over the road.

Fine then. Elephant finds Buffalo.

Some things you just have to put up with.
"Is it true you have been dropping poop all over the road?"

"Oh, yes. Rain washes holes in the road every afternoon. I just fill them up the best way I know how. If I didn't do that, someone could stumble in the holes and get hurt."

Well then. If Gecko is to be satiated, then it is to the Rain that Elephant must appeal.

Eventually, events wind full-cycle, as both Gecko and Elephant come to understand that if one doesn't allow the fireflies to blink at night, then after a series of cause-and-effect, there might not be any mosquitoes for Gecko to eat at night. Or, as Elephant puts it, "This world is all connected. Some things you just have to put up with. Now go home and go to sleep."

4.20.2012

Odysseus and the Cyclops (1995)

Retold and Illustrated by Warwick Hutton

Watercolor and pen on paper

Text set in Palatino

Margaret K. McElderry Books


I’ve said before that Warwick Hutton enjoys showing how small humans are in comparison to larger forces. This book is no different.

In other stories in which a protagonist faces a giant, the protagonist is often drawn normally, while the giant is enormous and fills the page. Or perhaps we only see the foot of the beast, or the eye.

In Hutton’s illustrative world, the giant is the normal-sized one, and it is the rest of the humans which are puny. In fact, we can often barely make out their expressions.

"I don't care a fig about Zeus, and I don't
care for travelers. You might be good
enough to eat, though."
This cyclops is not nearly so monstrous. Were it not for his size and his single eye, he might not even be considered a monster. He is rather sensibly dressed and well-kempt, and appears to make his livelihood as a shepherd. We see him with his shepherding staff and flock of sheep, being led in and out of his cave. In fact, he seems so sensible, that Odysseus at first attempts to reason with him.

“Good sir, we are travelers on our way home. The great god Zeus respects all those who help travelers, and we wonder if you will sell us some of your cheese and let us go on our way?”

Polyphemus the Cyclops does not take Odysseus up on this good natured offer, however, adding as an afterthought, “You might be good enough to eat, though.”

I counted six men consumed over the course of the next two days of entrapment, two at a time, so that the bones decorating the cave floor gradually increase. The dwindling men must make their escape, and they must do so using their cunning. I got a real sense of the claustrophobia the men felt, their powerlessness. The only thing they have going for them is the fact that after two men, the cyclops seems too full to eat any more.

So. You have a jar of wine, a burning fire, a flock of sheep, and only one entrance with a cyclops guarding it. How would you escape?

Hint: Go for the eye.

4.14.2012

The Uglified Ducky: A Maynard Moose Tale (2008)

As told to Willy Claflin

Illustrated by James Stimson

August House

Maynard Moose again, telling his Mother Moose tales about  the campfire, surrounded by all of his wildlife buddies, leaning in close for another good story. In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs, I noted one of the big jokes at the end was that Maynard was not certain what the moral of the story was. In this one, not only does he know the moral, but he even leads off with it:

Do you ever feel like maybe you have been borned into the wrong fambly? Like maybe you feel like you are a little porcupine being raised by a fambly of kangaroos... Or maybe you feel like you are a little bunny rabbit being raised by a fambly of rhinoceroses... Well, this is the story of a poor moose who was raised by duckies.

The uglified duckling is not a duckling at all, but a young moose who inadvertently wanders into a nest of duck eggs just as they are about to hatch, to the incredulity of the returning mother. "Boy, that's the most uglified ducky I never see!" she exclaims.

The uglified duckling attempts to quack.
It might be nice if she loved the young moose regardless, but that is not the case. She has a job to do, and that's to teach these baby ducklings to survive in the world. She doesn't have time to spend on this grotesque duckling covered in brown fur who can't even master a little waddling. "This is waddle practice! This is not practice for trip and stumble!" she tells him.

Most of the story is comprised of these lessons, and the moose's inability to keep up. He can't waddle, he can't quack, he can't swim, and - most depressingly of all - he can't fly. He can only stare all forlorn as his adopted brothers and sisters fly off, leaving him "all d'abandoned and left alone."

It is only at the end, after he has wandered alone through the wilderness, that he comes upon a family of actual moose, and realizes his true nature. "And he is bounding joyfully through the forest ever still, happy to be the moose that he would be!"

The book is beautifully illustrated by James Stimson, and includes a glossary of "Moose words and their English equivalents." My favorite is "Quadrapedagogy: the state or condition of having four feet."

3.24.2012

Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs (2011)

By Willie Claflin

Illustrated by James Stimson

August House

Not just a fairy-tale mashup, but also a story-within-a-story. We begin in the Northern Piney Woods, and are told that every full moon, all of the animals come out to hear the 'old Mother Moose Tales,' as related by Maynard Moose. James Stimson depicts the scene with much lushness, the flames of the small campfire glowing against Maynard's antlers, the full moon shining down from above, I could have spent the whole story out in these environs. Yet soon enough, we venture into the world of the tale.

Her hair was so long that it drag out from behind of her along the ground. It get dragged through mud puddles, and kids run over it on their bicycles, and it becomes distremely filthified - all full of sticks and twigs and little nastified wudgies of glop.


Poor Punzel
The whole story is told in this strange vernacular, what we are told it was translated from the original Moose. Certain words are listed in the glossary, should the context prove unclear. Filthified means, "repulsively and disgustingly unclean." Glop is, "mysterious, disgusting, foul-smelling sticky stuff."

In this story, she is locked away in a tower by a wicked witch, and when the handsome prince attempts to mount Punzel's golden hair - being a bit chubbified - he instead yanks her from the tower and sends her flying into the forest, where she meets the eight or nine seven drawfs: Clumsy, Snoozy, Cheerful, Fearful, Hyper, Hungry, Grizelda, Ambidextrous and sometimes Bewildered.

Once in the care of the eight or nine Dwarfs, her head is shaved clean as a bowling ball in order than she may best untangle herself form the clutches of the wooded branglebush, which also doubles as a keen way to disguise her identity (in my opinion), but more plot-pertinent, allows for some cranial nueromancy on the part of the dwarfs, who crowd around the shorn noggin and inquire,

Mirror, mirror on Punzel’s head
Is the witch alive or dead?

Clumsy, Snoozy, Cheerful, Fearful, Hyper, Hungry, Grizelda, Ambidextrous and sometimes Bewildered.
From here, the story fairly gives way to Snow White, albeit with Rhinocerous costumes and poisoned watermelons and the creation of the Sleeping Punzel Museum and amusement park to house her camotose self. Only 75 cents to see her! And is it the handsome yet chubbified prince who will thus awaken her with a single kiss and prance on off into the sunset? Is it?!

Nope. It is a moose, of course.

And the moral of that story is, if you have long, long goldie hairs that drag out from behind of you along the ground, then you should always... um… The moral of the story is… there ain’t no moral to some stories at all!

Thus sayeth Maynard.

3.09.2012

Crossing Bok Chitto (2006)

Written by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

Cinco Puntos Press

There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws, a nation of Indian people. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free. The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.

This opening paragraph sets up the time period, the environment and the tone of this tale. This is a downbeat, yet elegant story and quite a contrast to Tingle's previous book which I had just discussed, When Turtle Grew Feathers. There's no jaunty talking animals this time, though there is a fantasy-device running through the narrative, the ability for African Americans to render themselves invisible.

"Son, son, it's about time you learned. There is a way to move amongst them where they won't even notice you. You move not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!"

That's the father of Little Mo, giving his son advice on sneaking past the white plantation owners in order to help a young Choctaw girl named Martha Tom back across the river. This is a story about their friendship, and takes place over several years, as the two grow and age within their respective cultures, separated by the Bok Chitto.

Maybe the white people tell it best. They talk about the night their
forefathers witnessed seven black spirits, walking on the water
- to their freedom!
It struck me how I am used to reading stories of Native American befriending the whites, and stories of black slaves befriending the whites, and on and on with so-called "unlikely" friendships between a minority and a white. In this story, however, the whites are always the other, and are never humanized. They represent a common adversary for the Choctaw and the black slaves.

Jeanne Bridges' art is wonderful. We begin very naturally, very downbeat, figures cast very plainly, but with just a subtle variation in tone, and the artwork takes on mystical tones. The Choctaw women, dressed in long white robes, holding candles out before them under the full moon, seemingly gliding across the surface of the river. "When they reached the Choctaw side of the river, they blew the candles out and disappeared into the fog, never to be seen on the slave side again." I felt it, I felt all the mystery and the beauty and the elegant mysticism of it.

Really beautiful book trailer made by a fan


3.02.2012

When Turtle Grew Feathers (2007)

Retold by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Stacey Schuett

Acrylic

August House

I remember way back when, when I had first become interested in storytelling, a Texan girlfriend gave me a set of "audio cassettes" - a bygone device upon which sound is captured on thin strips of tape - of stories by Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle. He's been around for a long time, and so it was great to find this beautifully illustrated, vibrant edition of one of his tales, "When Turtle Grew Feathers."

Of course, it's not really his tale. The last page of the book includes a list of his sources in rendering this here telling. David Bushnells's Myths of the Louisiana Choctaws from 1909, very nice, followed by this entry: "Jones, Charley. Oral interview. August 1992." Following that, "McAlvin, Jay. Tape-recorded interview. November 1992." Wow. Lest no man audit Tingle's cultural memory!

"How about you, Turtle? How about a little race?"
I looked up this Charley Jones, curious to find out who he was. The best I could find was an interview with Tingle, in which he refers to Jones as being both a Choctaw tribal storyteller and his mentor. "Charley Jones says, 'Tell the stories,'" says Tingle. "But make sure the origin is acknowledged."

And so it is.

"Most everybody knows about the race between Turtle and Rabbit," the story begins. "But the Choctaw people tell the story differently..." which immediately got me wondering, was this an actual response to the old fable, and if so, when exactly did Aesop make its way over to those Choctaw? Or, was this yet another example of synchronous stories evolving independent of each other? Even good ol' Uncle Remus tells a story about a tricky turtle outwitting Brer Rabbit.

There is a fast, boastful rabbit, a slow turtle and a proposed race. After that initial set-up, however, it careens in wildly divergent ways, thanks to the interference of a oblivious turkey stepping on Turtle's shell, accusing him of "sleeping too low in the grass," and finally gathering together all of the ants to sew together Turtle's shell using the silk from the cornfield, yes indeed. What does that have to do with the race? Only that then Turkey decides to take up residence in the cozy, newly-sewn shell, and is thus mistaken for Turtle when he becomes the object of Rabbit's boasting:

Rabbit never challenged Turtle again.
"I feel real fast! I'm ready to race. Who wants a little mud in his face?"

Rabbit is in for a surprise, and Stacey Schuett does a great job illustrating that magnificent transformation, along with the various expressions of shock, bewilderment and shame on poor Rabbit.

Doesn't really have the same lesson as Aesop's Tortoise and the Hare, though, does it? Slow and steady definitely did not when the race this time around. Fortunately, Tingle enunciates the moral quite clearly:

Turtle learned you don't have to be the biggest, or the fastest, or the best. But it sure is nice to be friends with those that are!

In this video, Tim Tingle talks to a group of children.
I like that he addresses the difference between telling a story
and writing a story. Adjectives.

2.27.2012

It Could Always be Worse (1976)


Retold and Illustrated by Margot Zemach

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

This is a funny one, reads just like a well-told, well-timed joke, building and building until the release of the perfect punchline.

I suppose the subtitle, "A Yiddish Folktale," should have clued me in, but nonetheless, I did not at first realize that this was meant to be a humorous tale. I really thought I was going to be reading an overwrought tale of the suffering of a large Jewish family. The pages are filled with wonderful - yet garish - details, fighting, arguing, bare-bottomed babies toppling bowls. The patriarch of the chaotic family is only ever referred to as a "poor, unfortunate man." He does the only thing he knows to do - go to the rabbi and plead for some holy advice. So far, so desolate.

However, the rabbi's advice is rather peculiar. His solution to the overcrowding seems to be inviting the chickens to live in the house as well!

This does not at first appear to be the best idea in the world. In fact, as one would predict it only adds to the mayhem, and Zemach's chaotic illustrations add to this.

Three times the poor, unfortunate man comes to the rabbi, and three times the rabbi's advice is the same, adding more and more farm animals to the melee.

~


"Now with the crying and quarreling, with the honking, clucking,
and crowing, there are feathers in the soup! Rabbi, it couldn't be worse!"
"Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?"

~

And now with goats.

~


And now with cows.

Finally, exasperated, on the verge of a mental breakdown, the man once again journeys to the rabbi, imploring with him for some solution, any solution, the barest tidbit of halfway decent advice, anything! "The end of the world has come!" he in fact shrieks.

As you may perhaps have been able to predict, the Rabbi, in his esteemed wisdom, now commands his devoted follower to release the animals back outside. To this, the poor unfortunate man is only too eager to comply.


"Holy Rabbi, you have made life sweet for me.
It's so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful... What a pleasure!"

 Cue drumroll and cymbal clash. The subtitle of the book is, "A Yiddish folk tale," but I didn't find any more information on the history or age of this particular tale, or how it came to become a part of Margot Zemach's storytelling arsenal, but it seems a real natural story to be adapted visually. Every page is filled with movement and a hundred details, with the final image of the snoozing, slumbering household one of satisfying tranquility.

2.10.2012

The Way Meat Loves Salt (1998)

Retold by Nina Jaffe

Illustrated by Louise August

Linocuts painted in full-color oils on rice paper

Henry Holt and Company

"A Cinderella Tale from the Jewish tradition," reads the subtitle of this one. Having already featured Raisel's Riddle and interviewed its author, I figured I was an old hat when it came to Jewish Cinderellas. Well, shows what I know. In fact, I would say that this was more of a Jewish inversion of the Cinderella story.

Some aspects run parallel. The Fairy Godmother is here the bearded Prophet Elijah. The fancy dress ball is a wedding feast in Cracow, and the prince is the handsome son of Rabbi Yitskhok ben Levi of Lublin, with whom our Cinderella is living at the time. Her name is Mireleh, by the way. And how did she come to be destitute, living a life in the margins of society, a poor beggar girl given shelter in the attic of a kindly Rabbi? Well, it is a family tragedy. I can hardly bear to write it down.

You see, not long ago, Mireleh had been the youngest, carefree daughter of a rabbi herself. Even though she had no special gifts, her father held a special place in his heart for her. But then, one dark day, Rabbi Reyzeleh was besieged by a quandary for which not even the Talmud held an answer.

"I know that I love my children," he said to himself, little realizing the horror his line of thinking would soon inflict. "But how much do they love me?"

He decides, in a moment of insight, to actually ask his daughters! A cunning plan, which seems at first to work perfectly:

"As much as diamonds!" answers the first daughter.

"As much as gold and silver!" is the second reply.

But finally, young Mireleh goes and screws things up royally with this enigmatic response:

"Father, I love you the way meat loves salt."

"What?!!" he shrieks. "You love me no more than salt??"

And for this, Mireleh is banished from the house, in shame and in disgrace.

Fortunately, Old Prophet Elijah is on hand with a Magic Stick that will grant her wishes, as a consolation.

So, that's the beginning of the story. Now, into the Cinderella-ness of it. Armed with the magic stick, Mireleh produces for herself, "a dress of satin, embroidered with pearls! A garland of roses for my hair and a pair of satin slippers for my feet!" Then: ZAP! She appears at the wedding feast, and everyone is shocked to see this beautiful stranger, especially the bride and groom who are just trying to get married.

Well, it pays off. The rabbi's son is stricken with love, little realizing that Mireleh is the very same beggar girl he was looking down on just two pages ago! That's what I meant by an inversion. In this story, the handsome prince and the wicked stepsisters are one in the same.

And here's another inversion: The rabbi's son then goes out and decides it would be a good idea to cover the front steps of the house with tar. Why? So that he can hide and wait for the beautiful stranger to leave. When one of her shoes gets stuck in the tar, she runs off without it. All a part of his plan, you see.

Now he goes around, trying the shoes of the lovely Jewish maidens in the village, promising his parents that he will marry whomever the errant shoe belongs to. But when he realizes it belongs to the beggar girl under his own roof, what is he to do? Follow his heart?

"You came to us a poor beggar, covered with mud and dust. We let you stay here for tsedokeh!"
Eh, sort of.

That night, the disembodied spirit of Prophet Elijah appears to the rabbi: "Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"

Yikes! I don't recall Cinderella's godmother making such a threat!

"Your son must keep his vow and promise, or misfortune will follow!"

So, it should come as no surprise then that indeed, he does marry Mireleh. A large wedding feast is planned! But, before it starts, Mireleh runs to the cooks and instructs, "Don't put any salt in the food!"

Later, during the ceremony, who is that old man, retching at disgust at the food which is offered? "This food tastes terrible! It has no salt!"

"But, Father, don't you remember? I told you I love you the way meat loves salt and you drove me from your house!"

"You spoke only words of truth to me!" he exclaims, and they are united.

So the next time someone asks you how much you love them, don't use any of your cute metaphors, oy vey!

2.07.2012

Tatterhood and the Hobgoblins (1993)

Retold and Illustrated by Lauren Mills

Pen-and-ink and watercolor

Text set in Horley Old Style

Little, Brown and Company

It's a nice bit of meta-storytelling, I thought, for Lauren Mills to begin her book with the dedication: "For twins." This is a story about twins, and what an awful lot of twists and turns the tale takes before arriving at is final destination.

It begins in Norway, in which a barren Queen - at the behest of a young beggar child - has ventured into the midst of a fairy-ridden forest, and there to find two flowers.

"One will be very beautiful, and the other will be an ugly weed. You must eat the beautiful flower and leave the weed there," instructs the beggar child. "Go alone and do not tarry. If you reach the flowers before the sun has set, no harm will befall you."

The Queen journeys into the woods.
I like this presentation of magic: matter-of-fact yet inexplicable. There are no rules to this magic, or if there are, they are well beyond our understanding. The narrative doesn't attempt to bring us up to speed. It just is what it is. The Queen, of course, does not reach the fateful flowers until after the sun has set. As if that weren't enough, she then proceeds to consume both the beautiful flower and the weed. Clearly, she is not good at following directions.

Faries disperse. Enter hobgoblins.

Twelve of them - a good number - small and cunning and wicked. Later in the text they are referred to as "demons."

"You will have two daughters," declares the leader of the hobgoblins, pointing a gnarled finger at the terrified Queen. "One will be very tame and beautiful, and the other will be wild and strange. Bring the wild and strange one here to us on her twelfth birthday. Now be gone!"

It is this wild and strange child who is the hero of the tale. "Tatterhood," she is called. She wears only ragged clothes, has wild, unkempt hair, and spends her days waving a wooden spoon about and riding upon her pet goat. And it is this Tatterhood who does battle, journeys across stormy seas and arrives at the Island of the Hobgoblins for the grand climax.

And if that wasn't empowering enough, at the end she is crowned Queen!

The twins.

1.17.2012

Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story (2007)

Written and Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylic Paint on 140-lb. cotton paper

Abrams Books for Young Readers

Oh, this is a fun one. It's an original story, and does a great job of bringing Trickster Coyote of many an age-old tale into a contemporary Lakota reservation. Despite the fact that it is appears to be a heart-warming Christmas story, the mere presence of such a trickster figure means it will have an unpredictable way about it.

Nelson describes it very well with a note at the end of the book:

When it comes to good and evil, Coyote is not the same as the Devil found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, Coyote reveals the paradoxical nature of life, capable of both good and evil. He reminds us that all of life is in a state of constant creation and destruction.

"On a more fundamental level, Coyote's antics offer insights into an underlying dynamic of life itself - order and chaos," he writes. "Coyote, of course, is the one who delivers chaos."

So then, in this particular incarnation, it is a snowy Christmas Eve, and Coyote is - as usual - cold and hungry. However - also as usual - he has a plan, a plan which involves passing himself off as Santa Claus and inveigling his way into the warm home of the two-legged creatures with the good food. In so doing, Coyote seems to unwittingly tap into a deeper magic than he bargained for.

The sack full of straw which he had brought is transformed into a sack of wrapped packages, containing the very presents the children had wanted.

"Oh Santa, thank you!"

And there is even more magic to come. Curiously, instead of embracing this turn of events, Coyote is rightfully freaked, and dashes off, back into the coldness. At least he got his fill of meatballs.

12.18.2011

The King's Fountain (1971)

Written by Lloyd Alexander

Illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats

Acrylics on canvas


E.P. Dutton and Co

What a great find this one was, buried amongst the stack of picture books at my local library. Two enormous talents: Lloyd Alexander of the Prydain Chronicles, and Ezra Jack Keats, who is most well-known for his series of books about Peter the young child. Who knew they ever collaborated on a children's picture book together? Not I.

I found it in the folklore section - where I find most of my books - but I'm not certain if this is a retelling of an old story, or something original which sprung from the minds of these two men. The only clue I got was in the afterword, in which Alexander is quoted as saying, "I wanted to explore ideas of personal responsibility and of people discovering in themselves resources they never suspected. The best way seemed to be though the form and flavor of the Hebrew parables or ancient Sufi teaching-stories."

It definitely has the flavor of an ancient parable. The story concerns a magnificent fountain which the king will be installing in his garden. However, should the fountain become operational, all water to the city will be stopped. The hero is a poor man with a long hasidic beard, sitting in a wonderful Keats' barren room (he really does paint the most gorgeous barren rooms), full of ugly splotches and dark shadows. "Soon our children will cry for water, our animals will sicken, and all of us will die of thirst," he moans.

"A man of highest learning must go to the King, speak to him out of wisdom, and show him the folly of his plan," says his wife. Though of course we know that it is he, the old man, who will go to the King.

First, however, he goes to a scholar and a merchant and pleads with them to speak to the King. They both refuse for their own reasons. My favorite scene in the book was when he then decides he must find a man of strength and courage to confront the king. He finds a ripped, bulking metalsmith, whom Keats paints as a real beast of a man.
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The metalsmith, eager to stand against the King, swore that once inside the palace he would smash every window, crack every wall, and break the King's throne into firewood.

"Alas," bemoans the poor man. "The strongest hand is useless without a wise head to guide it."

And so it becomes up to him to meet with the King and plead his case.

For Ezra Jack Keats, the theme of the book is summed up in the words of Hillel:
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If I am not for myself,
    who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
    what am I?
And if not now,
    when?

11.28.2011

The Trojan Horse (2006)

Written and illustrated by Albert Lorenz and Joy Schleh

Abrams Books for Young Readers

I have to think that for a writer, it must be difficult to translate Greek mytholgy into children's books. Even though they involve tremendous acts of heroism and bravery, they are all nonetheless predicated on jealousy, lust and anger. Also, Greek myths don't really begin and resolve as other stories. Rather, one story seamlessly leads to another, which leads to something else, which ends on a note far removed from whatever initially set things rolling.

Case in point, the marvelous tale Trojan Horse first begins with a wedding atop Mount Olympus and an incredibly bitchy contingent of immortal beings.

Interesting that it is a piece of fruit which sets things off, as I seem to recall a piece of fruit also being the catalyst of another religious mythology of my acquaintance. There are no smooth-talking serpents present in Mount Olympus, however, but rather the goddess Eris, who has cast an apple at the divine wedding with the words, "For the Fairest," written upon it. That seems innocent enough, but by the time we turn the page, thousands of blood-thirsty Greek warriors are sailing in Triremes across the ocean to make war with the horse-loving city of Troy.

The authors do a fine job in capturing this story as a single narrative experience. It doesn't seem nearly as disjointed as it could have been. There is a sharp distinction between the comical immaturity of the gods and the very real and bloody conflict on the ground below. They play off each other surprisingly well.

"That devious Odysseus!" says Zeus. "Why, he reminds me of me." This is contrasted on the next page with the Spartan soldiers yelling, "WAR!" as they slide down from out of the Trojan Horse's belly into the sleeping city. What to us seems to be a life and death struggle, to the gods is only merely an entertainment. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

8.08.2011

On Purim (2000)

By Cathy Goldberg Fishman

Illustrated by Melanie W. Hall

Collagraph and mixed media

Text set in Novarese Medium

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

"Oh, today we'll merry, merry be," I sing as I work on my mask.

In On Purim, Goldberg gives us a story within a story, showing how the Biblical story of Esther translates into a modern-day celebration.

We begin as a contemporary Jewish family is preparing for Purim. The young narrator of the story is making masks, and wonders, "Why do we wear masks on Purim?"

Soon, the whole family is wearing masks, taking on the guise of specific characters. There is wise Mordecai, handlebar-mustache-weilding King Ahasuerus, and of course, Esther.

"Line up!" demands this incarnation of the King. "I will choose a new queen!"

It's all a giggle. So funny, how these violent Old Testament stories can become something so pleasantly diverting.

"Who knows the story of Purim?" asks the grandfather, and soon the family has gathered around for the telling. When the young narrator reads, "The king's chief advisor was an evil man named Haman..." the grandfather yells, "Boo! Boo!"

"Haman wanted everyone to bow down to him," she attempts to continue, but is again interrupted by the booing of her grandfather. Every time Haman's name is spoken aloud, he feels compelled to shout out his displeasure.

It's a simple retelling, but Hall's illustrations are quite lovely and emphasize the fairy-tale aspect of the story. It is plain to see how this is a story which would be especially appealing to children, and particular to girls who daydream of becoming princesses.

Following the story, the family continues their celebrating, noshing on some hamantashen. Hamantashen are triangle shaped cookies which are supposed to look like the hat Haman wore. "Gobbling them up is another way of blotting out his name," says the grandfather, who really does seem to have a personal vendetta.

Then comes the Purim carnival itself, with games and prizes, a costume parade and a Punch and Judy-esque puppet show, in which all the children - not just elderly grandfathers - chant, "Boo! Boo!" and shake their groggers when puppet Haman makes its appearance.

All in all, this is a light story, very deftly providing the origin behind the traditions, how a story becomes another story, becomes another story. At the end, the narrator asks a question that I too had been wondering for some time, as I've worked on this series on Purim and Esther.

"Where is God in the Purim story?"

I have now gone through several versions of the story, and it has not escaped my attention that - though Biblical - there is no obvious supernatural element. There are wicked people, yes, and there are good people, but never did I get the sense that there is any Devil-work at hand, or divine intervention.

"He is hidden in the faith of Mordecai and Esther and in their courage to do the right thing," says her father.

We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't hear His name, God is a hidden part of the Purim story. We wear masks to remind us that, even though we don't see Him, God is a hidden part of our lives, too, and when Purim is over, He will still be there.
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Click here for more versions of the story of Queen Esther!
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Click here for more Biblical Stories from the Old Testament!
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Click here for Jewish folktales!

6.30.2011

Crazy Horse's Vision (2000)

Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylics on Wooden Panels
Text set in Amerigo


Crazy Horse is one of the most famous of all Native Americans. He is attributed with leading the Sioux in the Battle of Little Bighorn - also known as Custer's Last Stand - an event which had massive ramifications throughout the country. He was reviled, considered an enemy of the United States. The author of this book, Joseph Bruchac, makes no bones about how he feels about it:

"The irony of Custer's final defeat by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn in June, 1876, was that the battle began when Custer make a surprise attack on yet another village that wanted to be left alone."

The story begins with Crazy Horse's infancy, being carried around the village on his mother's back, studying the world "with serious eyes." From there, we follow him through adolescence, leading his friends on adventures. Nelson has a really stunning eye. In one spectacular scene, he is leading his friends up the side of a mountain where an eagle has made its nest.

The characters are designed in what Nelson calls, "The traditional ledger book style of my ancestors." This means they have a rather flat, two-dimensional yet highly stylized look about them. Yet what is so striking is that he paints the background swirling about them with much depth and texture.

We see this effect again later on, when the Lakota come upon an army fort. The foreground characters stand two-dimensionally with their blue horses, eyes and faces rendered with sharp angles, while all around them, the fort and its settlers are spread out with realistic perspective and design and coloration. Not only have two peoples met, but two distinct artistic styles as well.

The first battle, however, is drawn entirely in the ledger style, with both white and Native Americans flat and stylized, which gives an eeriness to the sight of the soldiers falling over with arrows in their chests, the Lakota lying lifeless.

It in not until after their terrible battle that we get to the true heart of the book. As Crazy Horse stands looking at the dead and dying, he is suddenly seized with the need to have a vision. He does not go the traditional sweat lodge route - instead he rides off into the mountains.

"Wakan Tanka! Great Mystery, even though I am small and pitiful, I want to help my people."

For three days and three nights, without food or water, he remains there. He sees, "no spirit, no bird, no animal, not even an insect. All he saw was the sky above and the earth of the pit."

His blue skin really blends in well with the rich blueness of the night surrounding him. Nelson writes, "I painted Crazy Horse blue because blue represents the sky and a connection with the spirit world."

At last, late on the third day, [Crazy Horse] climbed out of the pit. He was barely able to stand. He staggered downhill to where his pinto grazed near a cottonwood. Reaching the tree, he could stand no longer.

"Then," the text continues, "the vision came."

Click here for other Native American tales!

6.28.2011

Raisel's Riddle (1999)

By Erica Silverman

Illustrated by Susan Gaber

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

This is a Jewish version of the Cinderella story. It does not appear to be based on an actual Jewish folktale, but is an invention of the author, Erica Silverman. However, it does incorporate aspects of the story of Esther and of the Purim celebration.

Indeed, it is the celebration of Purim which serves as the stand-in for the fancy-dress ball. The "prince" in this tale is the son of the village rabbi and the Fairy godmother is a Polish beggar woman.

That is not to suggest that Silverman merely filled in the blanks of the Cinderella tale with Jewish icons to arrive at this telling. There is plenty to distinguish this story on its own terms. First and foremost, the eponymous "riddle" from the title. During the Purim meal (beet soup, roast duck, potato pancakes, noodle pudding) a bevy of young Jewish maidens flirt with the rabbi's son by telling him riddles.

"What has a face but no mouth?"

"Now what is that over my head but under my hat?"

Surely, this is the way to a young man's heart, and Raisel - working in the rabbi's kitchen whilst dressed in rags - also knows a riddle, though she doesn't get the chance to tell it until later that night, after she has helped an old beggar woman who turns out to magic, wishes for a Purim costume and a horse-drawn wagon, and finds herself at the celebration where the young son of the rabbi states with bold impertinence bordering on the scandalous, "In that costume, you are the loveliest Queen Esther here."

She asks:

What's more precious than rubies, more lasting then gold?
What can never be traded, stolen or sold?
What comes with great effort and takes time, but then -
Once yours, will serve you again and again.


Then, the striking of the chimes, midnight apparent. The young Raisel disappears and the Rabbi's son is left with the task - not of trying to fit a solitary slipper upon the foot of some lucky woman - but of discovering the woman who knows the riddle.
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Click here to read my conversation with Erica Silverman!
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Click here to read about the story of Queen Esther and the Festival of Purim!
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Click here for other Jewish Folktales!
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Click here for other Cinderella stories!

6.24.2011

The Rough-Face Girl (1992)

Retold by Rafe Martin

Illustrated by David Shannon

Text set in Veljovic

G.P. Putnams' Sons

When Arlo first learned that this was a David Shannon book, he was surprised - as was I. The paintings are just so... earnest. Beginning with the cover, which I could look at for a year and a day, waiting for her to move the hands from her face, just a centimeter, as I know she is about to, and then continuing into the early morning mist revealing a small encampment by the shores of Lake Ontario, followed by the two sisters standing over the eponymous rough-face girl, their eyes lost in shadow as they gloat above a roaring fire. They look hollow. They look like evil statues. These are paintings which carry weight.

This is a Cinderella story, and it is also a retelling of the Sootface story which I reviewed last week. Sootface was Ojibwan, this story is Algonquin.

The former heroin had a face of soot, this girl has sisters who "made their youngest sit by the fire and feed the flames." Over time, as the sparks do their worst to her flesh, her skin begins to take on a rough appearance.

Beyond that, the two stories were very much the same. I noted that neither one begins with the appearance of the Invisible Warrior. We are introduced to him and his sister and their large wigwam before we meet the Rough-Faced girl and her wicked sisters.

All of the women of the village go to the wigwam of the Invisible Being and are then challenged by the sister.

"If you want to marry my brother, you have to have seen him. Tell me, have you seen the Invisible Being?"

"Of course!"

"What's his bow made of?"

"The great oak tree."

"No! What's the runner of his sled made of?"

"The green willow branch."

"No! You have not seen my brother. Now go home."

So then, it is the rough-face girl who makes the journey to the wigwam, and as she walks, she must put up with the taunts and jeers of the other women. "Go home, you ugly girl! You'll never marry the Invisible Being!"

Here the tale diverges quite a bit from Sootface. I noted that in Sootface, when the young heroine is asked about the Invisible Warrior, she responds that his bow is made of the rainbow. We see a normal-sized warrior approaching holding a bow which indeed appears to be a rainbow - or perhaps a rainbow colored piece of wood.

In The Rough-Face Girl, Shannon paints a gorgeous, 2 page spread of an unfolding landscape. "As she walked on, she saw the great beauty of the earth and skies spreading before her. And truly she alone, of all in that village, saw in this thing the sweet yet awesome face of the Invisible Being."

A very large, and very real rainbow arcs down from the skies.



Later, as night has fallen, and she is asked by the sister to tell of the Invisible Being's sled runner, she looks up into the starry skies and answers, "Why, it is the Spirit Road, the Milky Way of stars that spreads across the sky!"

There is the sense, then, that the Invisible Being is not a person at all, but a spirit which surrounds the whole of the earth. Perhaps the problem with the other sisters was that they took the questions too literally, trying to discern an invisible apparition, with the Invisible Being was with them and apparent the entire time. From this point of view, then, it seems The Rough-Face Girl - though beginning as a Cinderella story certainly, ends up being about a young woman's spiritual awakening, seeing for the first time the supernatural properties of the natural world.

Click here for more Native American tales!

Click here for more Cinderella stories!

6.21.2011

Lon Po Po (1989)

Translated and Illustrated by Ed Young
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Watercolors and pastels
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Philomel Books


I loved this book for two reasons before I even read it. First, the wonderful cover - so dark and mysterious, those white glowing eyes which betray no anger, no fear, no emotion of any kind. And then, there is the dedication:
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To all the wolves of the world for lending their good name as a tangible symbol of our darkness.
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The rest of the book could have been filled with blank pages, and I'd be a happy man.
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This is a Red Riding Hood story, we are told, one that has been passed down orally in China for over a thousand years. There is a a wolf (lon) disguised as a grandmother (Po Po), for the purpose of devouring small grandchildren.
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"Be good while I am away, my heart-loving children. Remember to close the door tight at sunset and latch it well."
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In this version, the elements of the story are reversed from how we generally know it. It is the mother who travels to see the grandmother, and the children who are left at home. And it is the wolf who comes to their home, disguised as old Po Po, knocking on the door twice (which I thought was a curious detail to add, so used am I to things happening in threes).
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Young uses a technique he calls panel art to move the story along - which on the surface appears to be an ancient form of comic strip art. Each illustration is divided up into several panels which form a single image, and also suggest the passage of time and movement within that image. I can take it all in in an eyeful, yet I also feel the moments ticking by as the children determine whether or not to give the presumed Po Po entrance.
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"How is it that you come so late?"
"The journey is long, my children, and the day short."
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"Why is your voice so low?"
"Your grandmother has caught a cold, grandchildren, and it is dark and windy out here."
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Clearly, it is this rhythm of question and answer which is a hallmark of a Red Riding Hood story, much more-so than the presence of and Red Hoods.
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"Your foot has a bush on it."
"Po Po had brought hemp string to weave you a basket."
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"Your hand has thorns on it."
"Po Po has brought an awl to make shoes for you."
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Such a comforting rhythm. It is therefore a chilling effect when the children ask,"Po Po, why did you blow out the candle?" and there is no answer given.
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Click here for more Chinese Folktales!
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