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.

Review: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals

Today I have a new book to share, bearing a memorably unusual name. Allow me to present Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals by Matthew Mehan and illustrated by John Folley.

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This ambitious book of poems features an imaginary creature assigned to each letter of the alphabet. The names of the animals are often a pun (as in the Evol, the Oominoos, and the Zealion) and their natures are explored in a poem for each with accompanying illustrations. Two of these beasts – the Blug and the Dally – venture along and meet the other animals, looking for friendship and discovering a colorful world of adventure.

The tone of the book is clever silliness, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll or A.A. Milne. It encourages development of a child’s magnificent ability to comprehend fact and fantasy equally, as the details of the fictitious beasts are presented in a variety of legitimate poetic forms along with genuinely clever wordplay and a staggering vocabulary. Fun rhymes and wild onomatopoeia are sprinkled with words like “dolorous”, “periegetic”, and “fiefdom”. The poetry is varied and smart, and the illustrations match the mood of each one.

Though each poem is artful and could stand alone, more serious is the arc of the poems when taken all together. As the Dally and the Blug progress they encounter animals with all sorts of habits and personalities. When they finally come to the joyful Zealion, they reflect that each animal is deserving of charity despite its faults, and that studied goodness is the only way to overcome the wrongs in the world. In short, brotherly love is the message here. This progression is sometimes confused within the sheer volume of detail throughout this fantastic journey, but the purpose ultimately emerges and we realize that even the more detached characters have played a part in helping us to understand the deeper meaning. Once this is clear, it’s impossible not to want to go back over each poem, combing for details.

The main text of the book is followed by lengthy appendices including a list of alliterations based on the animals’ names, a list of hidden things to look for in the illustrations, and an impressive glossary – half helpful, half humorous – of both the fanciful words and the antiquated or difficult words used throughout (and a fair smattering of literary wit and faith-based wisdom, too). An inquisitive older child might enjoy poring over these on her own, but the lavish details of this book were meant to be enjoyed by adults and children together.

The book is very nicely bound and of a lovely size; it has a huge array of activities and is clearly designed to encourage family reading time. It is intelligently put together, though perhaps so much so that not every reader will have an interest in or appreciation for every aspect (we are prompted to scour the illustrations in search of “an Oxford punting pole from the Magdalen Bridge Boat House” and “three Loeb editions, sort of”). Some of the poems could be a bit earthy for the modern reader – I am thinking of the Rare and the Tanglis particularly – but if you can handle Kipling you can handle these.

M5 (as it’s called) is a jolly, quirky book; perhaps a bit overwhelming at first glance, it materializes into something much more thoughtful, which takes time to explore. The theme so thoroughly permeates this volume – otherwise so frivolous in appearance – that it may take several readings to catch the meanings at various levels. For this reason it could be either a boon or a bore; for families who appreciate classical education, virtuous elevation, and a bit of bombastic erudition, this book is a worthy investment.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Big Words for Little Geniuses by Susan and James Patterson and illustrated by Hsinping Pan

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