2020 Winners

Aesop Prize

The Fabled Life of Aesop. By Ian Lendler. Illustrated by Pamela Zagaresnki. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

The Fabled Life of Aesop retells many of Aesop’s most famous stories, but it is much more than just a collection of well-known fables. This collection frames Aesop’s fables with the story of Aesop’s life as a slave who finds power and ultimately freedom through his stories. Connecting the fables that are familiar to nearly everyone with the context of Aesop’s life as a slave who finds stories can help him navigate the precarious life of a slave while still dispensing wisdom to those in power deepens our understanding of not just the stories but their rhetorical purposes. 

This book teaches about Aesop, about the ancient world, about power and the power of rhetoric, and does it all with simple stories. Beautifully illustrated in acrylics on wood and watercolor and mixed media, the art echoes the many layers of meaning and art going on in Aesop’s life, his fables, and this wonderful book. The Fabled Life of Aesop is indeed well deserving of the Aesop Prize.

2020 Aesop Accolades

Under the Cottonwood Tree: El Susto de la Curandera. By Paul and Carlos Meyer. Art by Margaret Hardy. North Fourth Publications, 2019.

Under the Cottonwood Tree is an award-winning, debut graphic novel written by brothers, Paul and Carlos Meyer, and illustrated by Margaret Hardy. The story is set in a small, New Mexican village in 1949 and is infused with Spanish dialogue, borderland folklore, and Latino, mestizo, and Native cultures. When a young, mischievous boy named Carlos teases the village’s elderly curandera, or healer, and steals her bizcochito, or cookie, she punishes him by turning him into a calf. Hoping to reverse the spell, Carlos’s brother, sister, and a friend visit the old woman to apologize, but they are captured and turned into animals. As the curandera develops a plan to transform the whole village into animals, the children uncover the truth about her past and convince her to abandon her plans for revenge.

Under the Cottonwood Tree is a magical story, much deserving of this accolade, both humorous and suspenseful, full of memorable characters, including a hilarious, mustached mouse, whimsical art, and a moving message about the power of family and forgiveness. Children and adults of all ages will be drawn, like we were, to the intentional clash of cultures as the children of 1949 New Mexico come face-to-face with the supernatural boogey man of the borderlands. 

Lola: A Ghost Story. By J. Torres. Illustrated by Elbert Or.  Oni Press Publication, 2020.

Inspired by the author’s grandmother, J. Torres’ graphic novel Lola: A Ghost Story (new edition) is a haunting tale in which all narrative elements coalesce around Filipino folklore to build a realistic, compelling world. As they page through the 100-page story, readers meet Lola (Tagalog for grandmother) through family stories and flashbacks of the young protagonist. The story, told in three acts, follows Jesse, a second-generation immigrant, as he reluctantly returns with his parents to the Philippines for his grandmother’s funeral. While there, Jesse awakens to the realization that he has inherited Lola’s gift of vision and ability to commune with spirits of the dead. Through this lens the author uses folklore to reflect the community’s worldview.  Readers are treated with family foodways and storytelling, as well as encounters with a legendary tree-dwelling monster (kapre) and the spirits of deceased family members. Fortunately, Jesse finds a way to channel his newfound abilities towards helping his grieving family. 

While the dramatic origin tale of Lola’s first vision, told by Jesse’s father, captures the essence of the first act, one suspects that Jesse’s awakening will become the subject of future family storytelling. As a horror story, Lola builds slowly and then shocks with a final twist, the impact of which is augmented by Elbert Or’s gripping, haunting, black-and-white illustrations.  As children’s literature, this book will have strong appeal to readers, particularly those in the middle school range. As a representation of folklore, the book will help readers understand the lived experienced of this community as they gain sympathy for a young character whose beautifully drawn facial expressions capture his anxiety and fear from start to finish.  While the book could and should do a more thorough job of acknowledging sources, which is limited to a dedication page and a glossary of monsters in Filipino legend and mythology, it still serves as an informative and engaging view of Filipino folklore.

The Moose of Ewenki. By Gerelchimeg Blackcrane. Illustrated by Jiu Er. Translated by Helen Mixter. Greystone Kids, 2020.

In the Inner Mongolia mountains, an elderly reindeer herder, Gree Shek, adopts a moose calf whose mother has been recently killed. The orphan joins Gree Shek’s reindeer camp, learns to live among humans and reindeer alike, and embarks on plenty of moose mischief.  The calf, named Xiao Han, or “Little Moose,” forms a close friendship with Gree Shek, and, notwithstanding his name, soon becomes a big moose. Despite their devotion to one another, Gree Shek eventually realizes a moose cannot live among men forever. 

The genius of The Moose of Ewenki is its ability to retell an entertaining traditional tale while simultaneously offering a peek into the folkways of a traditional peoples. Gerelchimeg Blackcrane’s story brings to life an Ewenki legend, while Jiu Er’s illustrations paint an evocative portrait of folklife in the forests and mountains of Inner Mongolia. This endearing picture book succeeds by striking the perfect balance of traditional life, traditional tale, and touching entertainment.

A World of Spooky Stories: 50 Tales to Make your Spine Tingle. By Angela McAllister. Illustrated by Madalina Andronic. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. 2019.

This delightful, if eclectic, collection of stories from around the world includes some well-known stories, like “Hansel and Gretel,” but many, many more that will be new to most readers. While the stories are indeed “spooky,” they are not necessarily scary and so are fun and exciting for children of all ages. The stories are told simply but still bring the many characters and lands to life. The fun and lively illustrations tend towards an eastern European folk-art aesthetic, which complements the stories and themes very nicely. A wonderful book for some classic tales and a great place to be introduced to a wide variety of tales from around the world.