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.


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.


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


Review: Uncle Jed’s Barbershop

Sometimes a well-done children’s story is the best way to introduce complex and difficult issues, even reminding adults what is really at the heart of the matter. The loving tale of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, is one of these.


The story is told by Sarah Jean – great-niece of sweet Uncle Jed – in a readable storytelling style. Growing up in the American South just before the Great Depression, her Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county – and by extension, the only barber who would cut a black man’s hair. He traveled to his patrons on horseback, accepting what payment his neighbors could offer. Little Sarah Jean loved his visits. Uncle Jed would tell her all about the beautiful barbershop he was saving up to open one day. Nobody ever thought he would, because times were hard and a black man was at a disadvantage to say the least. But Sarah Jean dreamed right along with him.

Then little Sarah Jean fell desperately sick, and doctors would only perform the necessary operation to save her if the family paid cash up front. Only one person in the family had that kind of money, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. Jed lost his life savings a second time when the Great Depression hit, but no matter what obstacles rose between him and his goals he kept on dreaming, and he taught a wide-eyed little girl to do the same.

Uncle Jed’s kind smile comes to life in both the text and the gorgeous paintings of this winsome book. The difficulties of segregation and racial injustice are not minimized or sugarcoated, but are treated gently and respectfully. Some details should be discussed with children upon reading it, such as the separate waiting rooms at the hospital and why the doctors treated white patients first. But the story is not dominated by these very real hardships; like Uncle Jed, it rises above them. The most remarkable feature of this book is the character of Uncle Jed; a man who faced oppression and injustice with hard work, dignity, kindness, hope, and a generous love of his family and community.

I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Uncle Jed ever opens that fancy barber shop, but I will tell you the ending warms the heart. The challenging themes of inequality represented in the book will be more easily explained to children age five and up, but the overwhelming message of goodness is perfect for all ages.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco


Review: Princess and the Peas

Long, relaxed summer evenings offer an ideal opportunity to spend quality time with children in the kitchen. If you need some inspiration for sharing your culinary skills with the kids, start with Princess and the Peas, written and illustrated by new author Rachel Himes.


As the familiar title suggests, this a retelling of the classic story The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. I love fairy tales with all their frightful rawness, and I don’t always appreciate modern versions that purposefully miss the point. This, however, just might be an improvement on the original tale. Ms. Himes has created something really quite wonderful.

Set among a close-knit African-American community in 1950s South Carolina, the prince figure (named John) is surely a catch: kind, active, involved. When he decides to settle down and get married, his Ma is worried; she’s the best cook in Charleston County. How can any of these other young ladies take proper care of her John? So she gets word out about a contest. Only the girl who can make the best black-eyed peas is fit to marry her son.

Well all the local girls turn out to have a crack at those peas, but they’re just not up to the job. When the new girl shows up – “fresh out of college and sharp as a tack” – they don’t think she has a chance. But Princess soon proves that she can do much more than cook in this charming celebration of resourceful industry, family traditions, and blossoming romance.

Written in a fun storytelling style, this book is just the right length and can hold the interest of toddlers and school-age children alike. The illustrations are bright and expressive with lots of homey details. At the end is an Author’s Note describing the rich values she set out to portray, and also the recipe for Princess’s Black-Eyed Peas. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have not tried the recipe; being from Ohio, I’m no good judge of black-eyed peas. But the instructions are simple and clear, and would be a reasonable project to undertake with a child helping.)

What I love most about this fresh version of an old tale is its grasp of what truly makes someone worthy. It’s not about feeling a pea through a pile of mattresses, nor even about cooking. It has much more to do with caring about the people around you, and learning from them; about being willing to work hard, and confident enough to seize opportunities. It’s about being wise enough to take care of yourself, but knowing that you can rely on others (John, as it turns out, is no slouch!). It’s about family, community, and the simple things like food that bring us together.

Bon appétit!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Pizza for the Queen by Nancy F. Castaldo and illustrated by Melisande Potter


Please note: this dramatized historical account of the invention of Pizza Margherita is unfortunately out of print, but it is well worth looking for at the library. The recipe is fun to make and absolutely delicious!