Review: A World Full of Animal Stories

Usually I like to review a series at the beginning of each month, but this time I want to share a collection of stories all in one bright volume. Since Christmas my children and I have enjoyed delving into A World Full of Animal Stories: 50 Folktales and Legends written by Angela McAllister and illustrated by Aitch.

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I love folk stories; they show us how to respect what is different and celebrate what is the same about other peoples and places. This book is like a treasure chest. The tales are organized according to their continent of origin (Africa, Asia, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Oceania) and then each is identified more specifically by the modern country or tribe from which it came (Ghana, Brazil, Lakota, et cetera). The range of donor nations could always be broader, and I would like to have seen a fuller representation from South America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East; but there is a good mix of cultures included that will certainly encourage young readers to stretch their minds around the globe.

The stories are told in the traditional spirit; most are witty moral fables or cautionary tales that encourage cleverness and punish pride. In most of the tales the animals can talk; in some they interact with humans and in others they deal only with each other. There is an emotive blend of humor and tragedy, wit and foolishness, lessons learned and opportunities lost. The result is a story for every mood and a universal reflection of this life we all live.

Each story is tightly packed on one to three pages, and can generally be read within ten minutes. They are well-written and expressive, paced to build the climax without giving the story away. Along with “The Ugly Duckling” and one or two other tales that are well known in the United States, children meet the fabled West African trickster Ananse, a Bear Prince and a horse named Dapplegrim. With titles like “Why the Warthog is Ugly” and “The Owl of Cowlyd Coomb” it is undeniably hard to stop at just one.

If I have a complaint about this book, it concerns the ratio of pictures to text. The illustrations vary pleasingly in size and scale, and portray the stories with brilliance; I would only like to see more of them, and I suspect that little folks would also enjoy more images to enliven the words they’re hearing. But this does not detract from the stories or imply that they are boring; it’s simply that I could never get enough of these gorgeous pictures.

This treasury would make a thoughtful gift, as it can easily provide hours of quality reading for everyone: from toddlers first learning their animals to middle schoolers beginning to appreciate just how big the world is. I am also looking forward to finding a copy of McAllister’s other book: A Year Full of Stories: 52 Folk Tales and Legends from Around the World. This volume is illustrated by Christopher Corr, and appears to be just as tantalizingly vibrant as the animal stories.

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Happy reading!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: National Geographic Kids Stories: HeartwarmingTrue Tales from the Animal Kingdom, written by Jane Yolen and her children, and illustrated by Jui Ishida

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Series Review: Brambly Hedge

Spring is finally beginning to chase away the last chill days of winter, and little imaginations are ripe for exploring stories that satisfy their curiosity about the natural world. To a child the outdoors ought to be a second home; and no place could feel more like home than the world of Brambly Hedge, created by Jill Barklem.

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This classic collection of stories introduces readers to the mice who inhabit cozy Brambly Hedge. The community they have built among the trees and bushes is comfortable and friendly, with warmly detailed illustrations elaborating Barklem’s delightful tales. Through different seasons of the year and celebrations of life, the mice come together with a cheerful hospitality that spans the generations.

The stories follow no single character, but we become acquainted with Miss Poppy Eyebright, Lady Daisy, kindly Mr. Apple, incorrigible young Wilfred, and others as they go about their daily business in the hedge alongside a quiet stream. We are invited into homes with names like Crabapple Cottage and Old Oak Palace, and then into the tunnels and mills where the mice busily and cleverly attend to all their needs. Barklem’s illustrations portray snug dwellings and various means of gathering and storing food, which is of course the primary occupation of everyone in Brambly Hedge. And such food! If mice do enjoy such delicacies as honey creams and sugared violets, I should surely wish to be one.

The pleasant bustle of everyday life is punctuated by the most splendid gatherings as the mice celebrate birthdays, weddings, christenings, balls, and picnics. They have no dread of the passing of time, but mark it with traditions rooted in natural reverence and generosity. Although they address no deity in particular, the mice give thanks, pronounce blessings, and promise to love their spouses for ever and ever with verses that will sound very familiar to the Christian ear; while the affection shared between neighbors and across generations reminds us of the strength of tribal cultures which respect the wisdom of age and show a common concern for raising the young. Even from the first glance these parties are charming spectacles, evoking all that is best about family and society.

Barklem’s attention to detail is striking in every story. She correctly represents every flower, every leaf, every color and plant in its proper season. (When Poppy marries Dusty on Midsummer’s Day, she notes that the primroses are over.) Her additional whimsies: lace pinafores and meadowsweet tea, the workings of the butter mill and the salt pans, are a pure delight. The tales are well-composed and sweet, perfect for reading with someone little on your lap.

The stories are available in several different formats; they can be purchased as individual volumes, assorted boxed sets, and as a single treasury. As the plots do not necessarily build on one another, they can be collected in any order. The separate volumes are small, like the classic Beatrix Potter books, and would be pleasant to give to a little one over a period of time. The boxed sets are available in several different arrangements, containing all of the books or just a few organized by season or theme. The single-volume treasury is the best value; it contains the complete collection, but the book is not too heavy or unwieldy to open over and over again. Its larger storybook style is easy to read and is a particular favorite with my under-seven crowd, who inevitably beg for just one more.

I hope your family finds a home together in Brambly Hedge; I know you will always be welcome there.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: The Foxwood Treasury by Cynthia and Brian Paterson

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Series Review: The Mysterious Benedict Society

The longer nights of autumn provide a cozy opportunity to begin a page-turning book series, and I have eagerly devoured this one: The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

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Following orphan Reynard Muldoon, the series brings together four children of exceptional abilities who share one other feature: they are all alone. They all answer an advertisement that promises adventure to children with certain unique qualities; and upon passing a very peculiar examination they meet Mr. Benedict and learn of his efforts to uncover and resist an unknown evil. The children accept their mission, without knowing fully what will be expected of them, or whether they can even trust this strange benefactor. They soon discover that the threat to their world is indeed very real, and they will have to work together quickly to find a way to stop it.

As Reynie hesitatingly forms relationships with Kate, Constance, and Sticky, he realizes that each of them will have to face their fears and, to some extent, overcome their own independent instincts in order to face a common foe. They must rely not only on their skills, but on each other. Trust does not come easily to the foursome, but it grows alongside a mutual respect as they work to solve a mystery that bears enormous consequences for the world in which, previously, they had no real home.

What makes these stories so fascinating is that it does not take place in a magical world; the children’s abilities are not supernatural, but powers of critical thinking and longing for truth. The protagonists are a bit like juvenile Sherlocks, reasoning their way through a tangle of problems. The author builds on an impressive range of facts to help his subjects along, and in so doing creates a place where both knowledge and deduction are celebrated. The writing itself is intelligent, with a thrilling vocabulary and appreciation for the most minute detail.

These stories certainly make it cool to be the smart kid, but they don’t deny a young person’s corresponding emotional or personal development. Reynie is a deeply thoughtful child who is keenly considerate of what others might be thinking or feeling. When he faces the temptation to do what seems most expedient for his own security, his innate loyalty ultimately puts the welfare of others first. As the children learn to get along, they all learn that it takes patience, kindness, and some sacrifice to care for another person. The author traces these developments with a deft sensitivity that is not the least bit cloying.

The exceptional plot is full of risk, riddles, and suspense; and I dare not give it away. Suffice it to say that you will be guessing until the last page. The antagonist proves to be quite diabolical, and at times the play between the themes of abandonment and trust is truly nerve-wracking. Yet the discomfort is warranted as the reader subconsciously begins to address these questions of human longing and achievement in her own mind. The end is wholly satisfying as each of the children, having played their own unique part, finds a place of genuine belonging.

Also striking in this series is the way the young operatives are treated by the mysterious Mr. Benedict and his bizarre staff; the children are seen very much as fully formed individuals, and accorded the respect of equals. Such a partnership is unusual in books for this age group, which tend to develop tension between youth and adults.

The friendships established in the first book endure adventures that will interest children from the age of eight or nine on up through the teen years, but I would particularly commend the whole series to children of a mature and sensitive nature. They will find encouragement to press through their fears and realize their potential as vital members of society. The series would make an excellent gift for a child who struggles to find their place, or needs reassurance that they have one.

Happy reading, Families.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

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