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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Review: Chanticleer and the Fox

“When April with its showers sweet/The drought of March has pierced to the root…” …well when it is that time of year, it is also time to re-read these words from the prologue and a few select favorites from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. While many of the tales are not suitable for children in their original form, Barbara Cooney proves that it’s never too early to love the classics with her brilliant adaptation of Chanticleer and the Fox.

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Abridged from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, this clever rendition tells the cautionary story of Chanticleer, an imperious rooster. He belongs to a poor widow, who cheerfully scrapes a meager living from her small farmstead. The beautiful Chanticleer is her pride and joy, and he rules the farmyard with dignity. One night he has a dream, warning him of danger in his little kingdom, but his favorite hen persuades him to disregard the premonition. He struts about as usual that morning, then meets a flattering – and strangely familiar – visitor. When proud Chanticleer is snatched by the cunning stranger he is pursued by a riotous entourage, but it will take his own wits to save his colorful feathers.

Cooney’s sanitized version of this beloved tale is tremendous fun to read with children. She has retained the sound of the Middle English language, as if a bard was reciting it for a crowd. Her vibrant illustrations won the Caldecott Medal in 1959, and the vivid colors with homey black detailing still feel fresh today. In short order she gives readers an inviting glimpse of the widow’s simple life with an array of favorite animals, and little listeners will delight in recognizing the Fox before Chanticleer does.

A lively springtime choice that is a little out of the ordinary, Chanticleer is grand to read aloud with preschoolers and children in the primary grades. You’ll need your best read-aloud voice; for adults unaccustomed to the style the language might feel stilted, but it is not difficult for young ears to comprehend and lends a decided air of adventure to this merry barnyard tale (do expect to define a few new words, like “debonair”). Barbara Cooney has beautifully preserved the historic yet familiar appeal of this charming fable that has kept readers returning for centuries. But whether you’ll be rooting for Chanticleer or the Fox, I cannot say.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Petook: An Easter Story written by Caryll Houselander and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

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Review: In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae

As the world prepares to mark the centennial of the Armistice which drew to a close “the war to end all wars”, it is necessary that we find a way to discuss these events with our children. Expanding on the immortal poem, In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson addresses both the realities and the shocking imprint of this difficult chapter in human history.

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The Great War is remembered for violence on an unprecedented scale, and Americans never quite seem to know what to do with its memory. In a hundred years we still haven’t processed it as well as nations which endured it more directly. They have memorials and poppies and literature; we throw a vague Veteran’s Day sale and try not to think about it. It’s no wonder that we struggle to explain these events to our children, when as a whole we have not dealt with them ourselves.

Such ambivalence is reflected in the dearth of children’s books on the First World War. Aside from histories, picture books like Midnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I or The Poppy Lady: Moina Belle Michael and Her Tribute to Veterans tend to focus on a specific story from the period; one which underscores the compassionate response of an individual to a brutal and complicated conflict. While there is certainly a need for this perspective, these versions are overly sentimental and lacking in scope; they fail to do the subjects justice, let alone convey the enormity of the hostilities. What is needed is a skillful, comprehensive representation of the First World War; not just the facts, but its legacy.

Granfield’s work accomplishes this. The basis of the book are the cherished words of a Canadian doctor who served and died in the War, in the form of his famous poem “In Flanders Fields”. The first page bears a copy of the verse in the poet’s own handwriting, followed by a careful repetition of the poem a line at a time. Each line is graced with one of Wilson’s full-page color paintings. Sprinkled among these pages is Granfield’s thoughtful account of the war, including images and the background of both McCrae and his poem within the full context of the war in Europe. It ends with acknowledgement of the challenging heritage of such an awful struggle, but with a willingness to honor bravery and sacrifice in the midst of combat.

This is ideally a book for children and adults to read together. Other reviewers have noted that the format can be confusing, with the historical elements scattered throughout the lines of the poem and illustrations. If a reader is unfamiliar with the flow of the poem, this is a reasonable point. It would be worthwhile to read the poem in full several times as it appears handwritten on the first page. Once done, Granfield’s text coincides very sensibly with the illustrated lines of the poem.

The illustrations themselves are deeply evocative; depicting home front and battlefield, they are sweeping and capture a sense of being caught up in something much larger than oneself. Like Granfield’s text, they offer a treatment of these issues that is respectful and wholly appropriate for young readers with an adult guide. I would think that a child as young as seven or eight could understand what is presented in this book.

No child should have to make sense of these things alone, but with the right book and a caring adult we can address the past with an eye to the future; that history may not be repeated, and that those who served might not be forgotten.