Check out Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora, a fresh rendition of the classic nursery song set in majestic Africa. The illustrations radiate in vibrant collages through the use of pencil shading, newspaper clippings, textile designs and watercolor. With all new animal sounds, you can find out along with your child what noises warthogs, springboks and dassies make. Perfect for preschool through second grade, this bright picture book’s melody and theme are familiar enough to have children singing along while introducing lesser known animals to help broaden both their vocabulary and global cultural awareness. The glossary of animals in the back is a fun and informative feature, too.
Off to Market, written by Elizabeth Dale and illustrated by Erika Pal, tells the story of a drive to market on Joe’s bus. While driving through a Ugandan town, Joe picks up a variety of community members such as women with baskets of fruit, a woman with two goats and an elderly nun. However, trouble begins when Joe’s generosity causes him to overload the bus with passengers. It’s up to the little boy Keb to save the day with heart, smarts and kindness.
In The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, Gabrielle Wang introduces the 12 animals who raced across a river in order to have a year named for them by the Jade Emperor. From the courageous tiger to the wise snake, each animal is exquisitely illustrated by Sally Rippin, who used Chinese painting techniques. This fanciful retelling shows the character traits each beast embodies as they brave the waters to claim a cherished spot. The descriptions of each zodiac animal, their years and their attributes make this an easy yet delightful way to introduce children to the Chinese zodiac.
Classic fairy tales are enjoying a resurgence in popularity thanks to a number of imaginative retellings, both in print and on screen. Adults and children alike will want to read the original stories in Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, first published in 1823, and reissued in a brand new collection. This volume includes detailed etchings of the period by noted English caricaturist George Cruikshank, supplemented by a half dozen color illustrations by popular artists like Quentin Blake and Helen Oxenbury. The German tales, handed down through oral tradition, were published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who called them “House Stories.” They were meant to be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone in the house, not just children. This collection contains 55 stories, from the familiar “Ashputtel” (German for Cinderella) to the lesser known “Faithful John,” many of which contain creepy or unsettling elements—these are not the happily ever after Disney versions.
Author Adam Gidwitz begins The Grimm Conclusion, the third book in his popular series of retellings, by noting “once upon a time, fairy tales were grim.” He further states that the versions of the stories that most people know are “incredibly, mind-numbingly, want-to-hit-yourself-in-the-head-with-a-sledgehammer-ingly boring.” The narrator of this novel follows Grimm characters Jorinda and Joringel as they become participants in other Grimm stories. Infused with a dark sense of humor, Gidwitz’s popular novels embrace the blood, gore and general horror of the original tales. As a former school teacher (and Baltimore native), Gidwitz knows how to enthrall his audience.
Fairy Tale Comics: Classic Tales Told by Extraordinary Cartoonists edited by Chris Duffy presents a plethora of stories from various sources Grimm and beyond. Cartoonists represented include a veritable who’s who, some new to children’s storytelling. Each story is rendered in full color comic panels. Perennial favorite Raina Telgemeier (known for the graphic memoir Smile) takes on Rapunzel, while Gilbert Hernandez (of Love and Rockets fame) shows us his version of Snow White. Fairy Tale Comics is a visual smorgasbord for the imagination of readers of all ages.
The underworld stinks! Ten year-old Hades is on a quest through the smelly underworld with his companions, Zeus and Poseidon; fighting Titans, dodging monsters and avoiding licks from a three-headed dragon dog. Hades seems to like it there, though. It smells great to him and the groan-inducing jokes of the ferryman, Captain Charon, crack him up. Hades and the Helm of Darkness, by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams, is a lighthearted, fun read and a great introduction to the Greek myths. The third in the Heroes in Training series, Hades and the Helm of Darkness continues the saga of the Olympians' rise to power which began with Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Lightning and continued with Poseidon and the Sea of Fury. Following the fuzzy prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi, who, unfortunately, has foggy eyeglasses, the heroes in training must find and use their powers in order to save the world from the Titans. Next up in the series will be Hyperion and the Great Balls of Fire.
Holub and Williams also co-author the Goddess Girls series. These books send the Greek goddesses to an ancient middle school with Zeus as the principal. The classic myths are retold in a middle school setting complete with teenage drama and angst. Start with Athena the Brain. Twelve-year-old Athena finds out she is the daughter of Zeus and is summoned to Mount Olympus Academy, where she comes up against mean girl Medusa (and manipulates some mortals as a class assignment). The eleventh book in the series, Persephone the Daring, is due out in August. Fans of the Monster High and Dork Diaries series are likely to enjoy Goddess Girls.
From the imagination of Liesl Shurtliff comes a fractured fairytale without equal. Many are the authors who have drawn upon the fairy and folk tales of their youth to inspire new and unusual retellings. Perhaps because of our shared experience of the originals, these "fractured" fairytales have a way of resonating with readers, filling in gaps and answering the myriad questions left in the wake of so many beloved ̶ yet characteristically brief ̶ stories. In Rump: the True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, Shurtliff casts her discerning eye and powers of imagination over a most unlikely hero.
On The Mountain where he is born, your name is your destiny; as influential as the stars. When Rump is born early ̶ too early ̶ his mother has only enough strength left to whisper his name to him before dying. Though she strains to hear, his Gran can only make out "Rump" and so he is known. Though he has just marked his twelfth birthday, Rump hasn't grown an inch since he was eight years old. Life is not easy on The Mountain, especially for a diminutive boy whose name makes him the butt of more than a few jokes. Food rations are perennially scarce, and The Mountain's natural resource (gold!) seems scarcer still as time goes on. Yet when Rump chances on his mother’s old spinning wheel he discovers an unexpected talent. Soon, Rump is spinning the finest strands of pure gold. However, magic comes at a price, and Rump’s new talent has not gone unnoticed by the village’s greediest inhabitant, the miller.
A series of increasingly tangled predicaments will lead Rump from his home on The Mountain all the way to The Kingdom, Yonder and Beyond. Alongside the trouble though, he’ll discover friends, family and the truth behind his name and his destiny.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
The porcine heroes of The Three Ninja Pigs by Corey Rosen Schwartz have finally had enough of the wolf bully terrorizing their Japanese mountain village, so off to the dojo they go. Told in snappy limerick verse, this modern retelling follows the sibling pigs as each trains in a different martial art. But one brother is quickly bored with aikido, while the second defies his sensei by cockily refusing to study past his yellow belt in jujitsu. Their sister, however, is a testament to the power of dedication and determination. She studies karate for months (perfecting a perfect pork-chop!) in preparation for her showdown with the big bad wolf.
The Three Ninja Pigs is an action-packed story that begs to be read aloud, preferably not at bedtime. Half the fun of reading this thrilling picture book is taking in its cinematic illustrations, courtesy of the talented Dan Santat, a dad himself to two spirited boys. To add an authentic Japanese feel, he rendered the background art (plenty of cherry blossoms, bamboo and pagodas in the shadow of Mount Fuji) using traditional Sumi ink brushwork on rice paper. The characters themselves show off their moves in Santat’s signature comically expressive Photoshop illustrations. Panels mimic the best action scenes from Bruce Lee martial arts movies; a Japanese glossary at the end rounds out the experience. Be prepared to watch your young readers reenact the pigs’ moves all around the living room.
One of Aesop’s simplest and most well-known fables is The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. This retelling by award-winning English illustrator Helen Ward begins with the Country Mouse and follows his serene, pastoral life as each season passes. His cousin, the worldly Town Mouse, comes to visit Country Mouse, and the city-dweller encounters life at a slower pace. Town Mouse voices his concerns about various differences from the life he knows, including mud and “dangerous” wild animals (in the form of a sleeping fawn). In a double-paged spread that evokes both pining and doubt, Country Mouse rethinks the pleasures of his home, and decides to visit the big city to see what Town Mouse’s grand life is like. As expected, while there are sumptuous treats to enjoy and amazing sights to behold, Country Mouse longs for the simple life he left behind.
The real treat is Helen Ward’s pen-and-watercolor illustrations. Flowers, fruits, trees, and animals are depicted in a stunning, naturalistic manner. The city portion of the tale takes place in 1930s New York at Christmas, with all the decorations and trimmings. The mice’s quick escape from a pug on a dessert table adds a touch of suspense. Each mouse’s personality is smartly represented in his actions and tiny changes in facial expression. Many pages have supplemental columns of artwork that add to the already splendid visuals. This is a wonder-filled version of the long-told tale.
Young readers who fondly remember fairy tales will fall in love with two new titles that add a modern spin on classic childhood favorites.
In Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski, ten year old Abby and her younger brother Jonah discover an antique mirror in their new house. The magical mirror sends them back into the Snow White fairy tale and the duo is responsible for tangling this tale so that there might not be a happily ever after. Mlynowski’s version is funny and contemporary with enough changes to spice things up. Three of the seven dwarfs are women and one has pink hair! Comical hijinks result as the two kids try to fix what they botched, resulting in a hysterical read. The swift pace combined with Abby's quick wit and a real sibling relationship will grab readers from page one. This is a wonderful start to the Whatever After series which promises future magical adventures behind the looking glass.
Wendy Mass also fractures a favored tale with Beauty and the Beast: the Only One Who Didn’t Run Away, the third entry in her popular Twice Upon a Time series. Beauty is a twelve year old dealing with self-esteem issues and a name which she thinks doesn’t reflect reality. Prince Riley is a gangly bagpipe player who ends up on the wrong end of a witch’s spell and suddenly starts growing fur and sharp nails. Both have superstar older siblings who outshine them in everything. Mass set her version of the story in a medieval kingdom, but her two protagonists are pleasantly modern and relatable. Told in alternating chapters by Beauty and the Prince/Beast, the pace of this quest story is quick and filled with adventure and romance.
From the imagination of Dutch author and poet Toon Tellegen, comes Far Away Across the Sea, a collection of short stories tailor made for companionable adult/child reading. A comfortable collection of undemanding tales on its surface, the lulling prose is well suited for bedtime reading. Yet the themes related in Tellegen’s episodic vignettes are deceptively simple. Notably lacking in any overt plot or ongoing storyline, Tellegen’s almost Zen-like stories quietly highlight the subtleties of social exchange among friends, acquaintances and the inner self.
Through the tales of anthropomorphic characters Squirrel, Ant, Mosquito, Glowworm, Thrush and others, the author suggests gentle lessons. These cover many concepts, including friendship, persistence, the dangers of absolutes, the absurdities of fighting, personal reflection, and the everyday melancholy and pleasure encountered from moment to moment in daily life. The gracefulness of the stories themselves is matched by the delicacy of illustration present on nearly every page of the book. Illustrator Jessica Ahlberg’s interpretation of the characters and environment sketched in Tellegen’s fables is as deft and skillful as if she had imagined them herself. Her juxtaposition of illustration to text resoundingly echoes the traditions of A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter.
Tellegen’s stories are ideal for young readers and listeners receptive to commonplace curiosities, like a tree picking up its roots and walking away for a time, or a squirrel who writes letters to himself and gets courteous and thoughtful responses. Widely open to interpretation, the fables recalled in Far Away Across the Sea invite children and parents to make up their own stories and background for Squirrel, Mosquito and other occupants of the Woods. These tales are recommended for bedtime readers and young philosophers; for fans of Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Rabbit. The collection may also serve as a helpful stepping stone for parents introducing their children to poetry.