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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Book List: Farm Life

As the earth awakens in the spring, children show a natural interest in the growth around them. Even for my own children – growing up on a working farm – that first sprout in the garden boxes still brings delight, and the fascination with new calves and chicks and lambs never grows dim. It’s no surprise that we love stories that reflect who we are, and so here I have assembled some of our favorite picture books depicting farm life.

Farming is always a popular theme with children, and a list of associated picture books could be almost endless. I have chosen these for their portrayal of relationships between people and the land and animals they work. Somewhat nostalgic but unerringly true, these selections capture what many families yearn for: a sense of belonging, and the tender balance of labor and love that is so universally recognizable on a farm.

One Horse Farm, written and illustrated by Dahlov Ipcar

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This sweet old-fashioned story follows the life of Big Betty the workhorse, who was born on the same day as the farmer’s son. When he is a little boy she is a big strong animal, working hard through all the seasons. But when Johnny is grown into a big strong man, Betty is too old to do the all the chores on the farm and Johnny replaces her with a tractor. Poor Betty doesn’t want to be sold with her old equipment; but she needn’t fear, for Johnny knows her true value. Theirs is a reassuring tale of friendship and respect, with vibrant mid-century illustrations of life around the year on a pre-industrial farm. Preschoolers particularly enjoy finding all the details in these illustrations.

All the Places to Love, written by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer

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This thoughtful story is a tribute to generations working together on an American farm. A little boy takes his place on the family farm on the day he is born, when his grandfather carves his name on a barn rafter. In his early years he tags along with his parents and grandparents, learning from each their favorite haunts on the farm. Constantly aware that he is loved, he makes his own memories and finds his own special spot on the family’s land. When his sister is born and her name carved on the rafter, he knows just what he will need to show her as she grows. Wimmer’s gorgeous paintings create a lush backdrop for MacLachlan’s lilting text as this simple family knits its members together. Just right for a cozy bedtime story with toddlers through the early grades.

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm, written and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

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This rollicking read is about the animals on a farm. Cats, dogs, horses, chickens, cows, sheep, goats, horses, and a pig named Pearl are introduced… along with all their foibles. Even the local wildlife and creepy-crawlies are included, for the farm wouldn’t be complete without them. It’s a playful, realistic look at the everyday shenanigans in a classic farmyard, where the circle of life keeps turning and each creature has its place. Some of the humor might escape younger listeners and the length might prompt you to read it in shorter segments, but for a little one who loves farm animals this is a must.

A Farm of Her Own, written by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock and illustrated by Kathleen Kolb

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Unfortunately this title is out of print, but if you can find it at your library it is well worth checking out. A girl from a small town is sent to spend the summer with her cousins on a little farm belonging to their aged uncle and aunt. She is shy and knows nothing of farm life, but the gentle hospitality of Uncle Will and Aunt Ada soon brings her out of her shell. The children learn to help the old couple with the chores, and savor both homemade treats and family stories. Sorry to go back home at the end of the summer, the girl never forgets her time on the farm. Years later, long after her aunt and uncle have passed away, she goes back to the farm, and gives to her children what Uncle Will and Aunt Ada gave to her. This precious story of simplicity and kindness will captivate readers up into the middle grades.

The Shepherd Boy, written and illustrated by Kim Lewis

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Growing up on a sheep farm in northern England, a little boy watches his father working on the farm and longs for the day when he is old enough to help. Finally, after a year of carefully tending his own stuffed lamb just as his parents look after the real ones, he receives a very special gift and he knows that his time has come. The quiet text of this story supports illustrations that are soft but striking. Lewis deftly captures the grand sweep of the countryside, the tiny bleat of a new lamb, the hot stickiness of the sheep shed at shearing time, and the adoration of a lad for his father. A short and simple story with sweetly detailed pictures, this is an endearing choice for toddlers and preschoolers.

Wherever you live, I hope that your family enjoys these glimpses into a way of life that may be very different from your own, but familiar in all the ways that matter.

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Review: Ox-Cart Man

“In October he backed his ox into his cart and he and his family filled it up with everything they made or grew all year long that was left over.”

With these words begins the classic Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This Caldecott Medal winner is a treasure of spare American storytelling, and a tribute to the canny resourcefulness of settlers who eked out a living in the wilderness prior to the Industrial Revolution.

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The story is short and simple: an early nineteenth-century farmer loads up his cart with the harvest and makes his annual trek to the market in a New England port town. The contents of his cart represent months of work for his family: broomsticks carved the previous winter, mittens knit from wool that had been shorn from the sheep in spring, produce that had grown through the summer and finally ripened for winter eating. He walks for ten days, sells all his goods, and then as the autumn wanes he walks back home to his waiting family with a few strikingly simple treats from town. Immediately the family settles back in to producing all that they need – and more – in another year on their isolated farm.

With geese flapping and maple syrup boiling, this picturesque representation of pioneering sustainability is enough to please any small reader, but it also reaches much deeper. Cooney’s colorful early-American paintings depict a family working in cooperation with the turning seasons, harvesting what they need as it becomes available from the earth and the animals. Each person contributes in this diversified rural setting, and their requirements from town are remarkably few (“an embroidery needle that came from a boat in the harbor that had sailed all the way from England.”).

Although the Man and his family are given no names, we begin to share a certain intimacy with them as they gather in the bounty of the year and settle in for winter. Working with placid expressions, they exude a contentment that is perhaps a trifle nostalgic, but also very desirable. The Man – who splits his own shingles and stitches his own harness – has a kindly temperament; when he finally sells his ox he first kisses him on the nose.

This rhythmic story makes a valuable imprint on a young child’s mind. It grants not only an insight into how people lived for generations, but also an appreciation for the skills they learned to survive. The necessity of their hard labors is softened by their triumph in meeting all their own needs, and ultimately living a good and quiet life.

From toddlers interested in farm animals to middle-grade students with a budding love of history, this book is a peaceful read-aloud with children. With sweet stylized pictures and lyrical text, it is a finely-textured praise of traditional skills, self-reliance, and an unbreakable family bond.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Yonder by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Sadly, this book is long out of print, but well worth finding used or in a library.)

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