“One time, in olden times, not in my time, there was a man and a woman, and they got married and they never had any children. They were a long while and never had no children, and, well, her husband, he was real nasty to her.” So goes the poignant beginning of Peg Bearskin: a Traditional Newfoundland Folktale, as told by Mrs. Elizabeth Brewer, adapted by Philip Dinn and Andy Jones. After the weeping woman tells her story to a kind stranger, he tells her that a certain tree will grow three berries, and warns her to eat only the two sweet ones, not the third berry which is “bitter as gall.” Disregarding his advice, she eats all three berries, and nine months later gives birth to three daughters, two who were “pretty as ever the sun shined on” and “one that was big, ugly, and hairy, and they called that one ‘Peg Bearskin.’” Reviled by her two prettier sisters, Peg nevertheless follows them when they leave home, using her wits to save their lives, outsmart a witch, and negotiate with a powerful king, bringing the tale to a most satisfying conclusion.
Peg Bearskin is told in language that is rich, colorful, and filled with humor. It begs to be read out loud. In a nod to the historical link between the French colonial settlers of Newfoundland and the Creole and Cajun cultures of Louisiana, the book is illustrated by Louisiana artist Denise Gallagher in a folk art style that nicely complements the story. The notes on the sources of the story are extensive and illuminating. “Like all stories, Peg Bearskin shapes and is shaped by its community … That community includes listeners and readers as well, and so now it includes you, too.” We need more characters like Peg Bearskin in the world! This is a thoroughly delightful book.
Raisins and Almonds tells the story of one young girl’s journey from fear, through questions, and into hope. The story begins with a young girl hearing something under her bed, being told that it’s a little white goat tending his store down there, and choosing to find out what he sells. On the way, she meets a mouse, a rabbit, and a fox who all have their own thoughts and hopes about what they will find when they find the goat and his store. As hope pushes them on, while none of them find quite what they’re after, they, and we, get a lovely story in this retelling of a Yiddish lullaby. The illustrations are not only done in a classically children’s medium–crayons, colored pencils, and pastels–but is wonderfully evocative of the nighttime journey from the fearful and the mundane, to the hopeful and fantastical. To find out what other treasures this Yiddish lullaby provides, “you’ll have to come and see.”
In this Hawaiian retelling of Aesop’s classic, The Tortoise and the Hare, we have a calm and wise sea turtle, Honu, competing against a brash and belligerent Rooster, Moa, for the ownership of a freshwater spring. While the story plays out just as you’d expect, the antics of Rooster and the Hawaiian folklore that infuses the story adds much to the retelling. Likewise, the illustrations are vibrant and fun, and sure to delight readers of all ages as they learn, along with Moa, that no one family of beings own the earth, but they should be shared and enjoyed by all.
Written by an elder and storyteller from Igloolik, Nunavut, the most northern territory of Canada, this picture book represents “voices from within” literature. A variant of a traditional Inuit myth, the text is presented both in the Inuit Language and in English. The story explains the creation of sea life through the lens of its beleaguered protagonist, Takaanaaluk or Uinigumasuittuq (“the woman who does not want to marry a husband”). Despite her parents’ eagerness to marry her off, Uinigumasuittuq resists marriage at every turn, until she finally submits to her father’s pressure and leaves by canoe with her shapeshifting husband. When her father suddenly appears to reclaim her, Uinigumasuittuq is forced into her father’s boat and her husband chases them, transforming into a sea bird and flying around the boat (causing dangerous winds) while demanding to see Uinigumasuittuq’s “precious hands.” Enraged, her father pushes Uinigumasuittuq overboard to save himself. While she clings to the slide of the boat, her father cuts off her fingers. As each finger falls into the sea, it transforms into seals and other sea life. Today, Uinigumasuittuq is credited with feeding the people, since all the sea creatures derive from her severed fingers. Despite the tragedy, the book proves both entertaining and instructive in the way of other myths and legends (before collectors edit out their more salacious details). Takaanaaluk draws upon the oral tradition of its author Herve Paniaq in depicting a spirit world closely entwined with the environment. The natural tones used in Germaine Arnaktauyok’s graphic illustrations recall this starkly beautiful northern landscape, and later the stormy sea, whilst key dramatic moments are presented dynamically as if storyboard frames for a film. Recommended for classroom and library story hours, so that cultural context can be provided.
The town’s wisest man and biggest fool, Mulla Nasruddin, the Islamic trickster character, comes to colorful life in this lavishly illustrated picture book featuring twenty-one traditional tales. The tales are alternatively hysterical and philosophical, and many are both, sparking introspection just as the laughter subsides. Equally impressive is the lavish collage art, which incorporates an impressive range of materials and textures, including fiber, foil, paper, and beads, interspersed with conventional drawing and painting. Intricate and detailed, the collage scenes deftly illustrate the tales for younger readers while also begging for careful and prolonged study.
An enjoyable read in its own right, Riding a Donkey Backwards also offers an opportunity for cross-cultural appreciation and education. A collaboration between Sean Taylor and the Khayaal Theatre, the team’s stated goal was to introduce Muslim culture to a western audience, particularly those Muslim genres less familiar to western audiences, such as humor, stories, and wisdom. In addition to demonstrating the Muslim penchant for humor, the book introduces young readers to Arab words (glossary included), culture, and even Arabesque art, which adorns the borders and inside covers. Mulla Nasruddin, the wise fool, has educated and entertained for centuries, and in Riding a Donkey Backwards, he rides yet again, albeit backwards.