Posted in Kid Lit, Picture Books

Fairy Tales: Where to Begin?

Fairy tales have been making quite an impressive comeback in recent years. With the success of the television show Once (featuring an enchanted Maine town filled with fairy tale characters), Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (which incorporates many fairy tale characters), and the new version of Cinderella currently showing in theaters, fairy tales are all around us. Since many grown ups have fond memories attached to the iconic fairy tales, we naturally look forward to sharing these stories with our children. But where to begin? Which stories work well for toddlers and preschoolers and what versions of the stories should you choose from the dozens available? A brief walk through the 398s, as we librarians refer to the fairy tale section of the Dewey Decimal organized non-fiction shelves, reveals a wealth of gorgeously illustrated editions by dozens of beloved authors from Tomie DePaola to James Marshall to Steven Kellogg.

Many children’s authors and illustrators produce an interpretation of a fairy tale at some point.  Trust me when I tell you that some are better than others. Authors interpret these tales in a variety of ways, picking and choosing how terrifying or how silly to make a particular villain. In the Three Little Pigs, for instance, you will read versions where the first two pigs merely run to their brother pig’s home and are never actually eaten by the wolf. In various versions of Cinderella, the stepsisters either shove their foot unsuccessfully into the glass slipper and make a fool of themselves or they actually cut off their toe or their heel to fit inside, as the original story tells.  Some parents/patrons I have encountered at the library are very quick to nix any version of a story with scariness or violence: if the pigs get eaten, forget about it ! Everyone knows what’s best for their own children, but I think kids are pretty strong and hardy souls when it comes to storytelling. Fairy tales were written to help children navigate a frightening and difficult world. I often hear parents comment on the general level of scariness and violence in young people’s literature and my response is always that it is much better for kids, and adults too(!), to experience something frightening or upsetting in a book before they have to face it in real life. Call it a cathartic kind of practice. Children read fairy tales and other stories of survival and danger and they imagine how they would react in the same situation. It’s a wonderful exercise in empathy, problem solving and common sense. (Ask them: Is it safe to walk in the woods by yourself? Do you think a house made of straw is a good idea when there’s a hungry wolf around?)

This isn’t to say that your children or anyone should exist on a steady literary diet of disturbing things. Rather, let fairy tales become part of your regular rotation of stories, and create a well-rounded and well-read kid.  Wherever you stand on the issue, we can all agree that fairy tales are fascinating, often cautionary, tales steeped in various histories and cultures and figuring out where to dive in can be a challenge.  While I can’t offer you a comprehensive list of the best fairy tales available,  I can offer you my favorite fairy tale interpretations for your reading pleasure. Some will be chosen mostly for their art, while others are chosen for their storytelling or sense of humor. All have been heartily read and enjoyed by my personal team of preschool testers.

Lucy Cousins’s Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales

yummy-lucy-cousinBest known for her Maisy series, author Lucy Cousins illustrates eight favorite tales in this collection including The Three Little Pigs, The Little Red Hen, Henny Penny, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Musicians of Bremen, The Enormous Turnip and Little Red Riding Hood. This collection is the perfect introduction to fairy tales for your youngest readers. But be forewarned: these versions do not shy away from violence! Foxy Woxy gobbles up all of Henny Penny’s friends and the hunter chops off the wolf’s head with gusto in Little Red Riding Hood. Lucy Cousins’ big bold illustrations draw the attention of toddlers as well as preschoolers and her simple, clear, no frills telling of the familiar tales make them easy to understand and relate to. My two year old responded very strongly to the stories in this collection and we read them over and over and over again. I watched her study the illustrations on her own, flipping through the pages three bearsone by one. To a grown up’s eyes, Lucy Cousins’ art seems simplified, like it could have been drawn by a child. This is the key to her success with little ones, I think. Big bold lines and bright primary colors invite them right into a world they can understand.

James Marshall’s Three Little Pigs and others stories

GS33460_ThreeLittlePigs-JamesMarshall12James Marshall is a classic children’s author and creator of the distinct and hilarious George and Martha books. Marshall’s greatest strengths as an author and illustrator are his sense of humor and his irreverent approach to storytelling. He inserts little winks and asides into all of his texts, including his version of classic fairy tales such as  The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In his versions of these tales, you will find a sly humor and substantial, engaging prose.threelittlepigsmarhsall I love the slightly cross-eyed gaze of his big bad wolf who swaggers around like a shady street thug in his stories. These texts work well for preschool through 1st grade.

Sarah Gibb’s  Rapunzel

Rapunzel coverDon’t be fooled by the abundance of pink, illustrator Sarah Gibb’s version of Rapunzel is stunning and unique with intricate silhouettes and graceful interpretations of the action in this well-known story.Rapunzel sample 1 It is cleaned up a bit from the original, making it a wonderful, non-Disney companion or alternative to Disney’s Tangled. Perfect for the princess-obsessed preschoolers in your life.

Trina Schart Hyman’s Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White

HYmanLittleRedHyman’s illustrations of classic fairy tales are the truest most perfect evocations of these stories. Dark, eerie, forlorn and gorgeous, Hyman’s characters often stare right out of the page, inviting you into the story.  Her Snow White is so stunning, you can spend hours simply gazing at the details and the beautiful faces of her characters. SnowWhiteHymanHer heroines always have perfectly disheveled hair and gorgeous period clothing. I  mean, really, her tableau could have inspired Anthropologie’s whole aesthetic. Hyman illustrated over 150 books and won the Caldecott medal for St. George and the Dragon. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of exploring all of these books, but her Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White stick out as my favorite versions of those stories.Snow White Due to the length and depth of these tellings, her books work best with older kids, kindergarten through third grade, ideally. And yes, there is no holding back in these versions. Expect the bloodiest.

The Flying Witch by Jane Yolen. Illustrated by Vladimir Vagan.

flyingwitchyolenThe titular flying witch in this Baba Yaga story is truly terrifying! She flies around the countryside in her mortar and pestle, looking for plump children to eat. But when she captures a young girl who has fallen off her father’s turnip truck, she is outwitted !  The girl convinces the witch to keep her alive for a while and fatten her up with turnips. By the time the girl’s father catches on and comes to her rescue, she has appeased the witch by cooking such a

delicious soup made of turnips, the witch no longer wants to eat her. Intricate illustrations filled with details of life in the Russian countryside bring this story to life. While The Flying Witch has a deliciously frightening character in the witch, it has a happy ending, making it a great choice for parents who wish to avoid going all the way into the dark, twisted world of fairy tales and prefer to merely hint at the big bad instead. Author Yolen drew inspiration from hundreds of Baba Yaga stories to craft her tale.

Jan Brett

threesnowbearsIt’s hard to choose one title by Jan Brett, since she has authored so many memorable tales, many of which are retellings of fairy and folk tales. Brett has a distinct illustration style in which each page is framed with panels showing what other characters in the story are up to and hint at what might be coming next. Her wonderfully expressive animal faces delight young children, making them a hit with the preschool crowd.TheMitten2 Googling her name reveals dozens of photos with Brett holding or interacting with live examples of many of the animals she illustrates so well. She seems to live an amazing dream life that involves travelling the world to research first hand the places, the people and the animals she then returns home and writes great books about!  Brett’s narratives of well known stories such as the The Mitten and The Hat are simple and uncomplicated, while her reimaginings of other stories like The Three Snow Bears and Cinders : A Chicken Cinderella add a fun and imaginative twist on the familiar stories that young children will have no problem recognizing.

**Stay tuned for part two of this post, in which I will recommend fairy tales for  big kids and grown ups.

Posted in Uncategorized

Picture Books: Not just for Kids

Before I started working as a children’s librarian, I had no great interest in browsing picture books for children. I didn’t have any feelings against them, I just had no real reason to seek them out. Now that both my professional and personal lives involve so many picture books, I have grown mega-attached to this perpetually underappreciated art form. Many people don’t realize just how stunning and original a picture book can be. Picture books frequently make me cry and laugh out loud, but my most frequent reaction is surprise at the artistry involved: at the complexity conveyed in the smallest detail of an illustration, of the multiple tiny worlds and hidden delights you can find by studying an illustration—charming details like the pattern of a mouse’s skirt, or titles on a tiny book shelf. Picture Books contain multitudes and can play a big role in expanding the imagination and world view of anyone lucky enough to spend time with them.

As a children’s librarian, one of the most painfully inaccurate comments I overhear about picture books is that they are “for babies.” Well-meaning parents chastise their kids for wanting to read a picture book, telling them it is below their “level,” “too easy,” etc. Actually, I am always pleased to say, many picture books were meant to be read and enjoyed by children with adults. Much has already been written about this idea of picture books losing ground in the children’s publishing world, so I won’t get on my soapbox. I will say that reading picture books with a child is one of the most relaxing, bond-forming activities you can do. The benefits for the child are numerous: reading builds vocabulary and communication skills, encourages empathy and exposes children to different worlds and perspectives. For the grown up, reading picture books will force you to slow down and consider the world from a different place. It will make you nostalgic for the life you used to have or wish you did, and, in many cases, it will allow you the pleasure of gazing at beautiful, original art. Here are six gorgeous picture books that will appeal to both children and their grownups.

All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illustrated by Marla Frazeeallthe world cover

Awarded a Caldecott honor, this large-format picture book features warm, beautiful illustrations by the inimitable Marla Frazee, whose people and landscapes are my absolute favorite among all other children’s illustrators—and that’s saying a lot! All the World 1The text is rhythmic and brief, taking us through one sweet day of family and community life. We see a brother and a sister collecting shells at a beach, climbing a tree, playing in a fountain. When a sudden storm sends everyone indoors, we see the day wind down as food is made and shared, music is played and quiet moments are had. This book evokes a strong sense of well – being, acceptance and familiarity. The images are so sweeping and lovely, it is easy to get a little bit lost and a little bit teary while reading this book. My two littles know how much I love it and will often hand it to me saying, “This is your favorite, right mama?”

wildgirl coverThe Wild Girl by Chris Wormell

A ragged little girl lives in a vast wilderness with her small dog. They live together, sleeping outside in the summer and inside a cave in the winter. They share berries and nuts, even insects for food. One day, during winter, they return home to see large footprints leading up to their cave.WildGirl1 Later on, a big brown bear approaches. The wild girl and her dog rustle up their courage and scare the bear off. Not long after, a tiny brown bear emerges from the back of their cave.  Understanding and remorseful they chase after the mama bear, trying to get its attention. I won’t tell you what happens next, but be prepared for your heart to burst into a million tiny pieces. I don’t know why this book affects me so deeply. Something about the illustration of the ragged girl and her sweet little pup against the unforgiving terrain – haven’t we all felt that way from time to time?

Blackout coverBlackout by John Rocco

A New York City family is scattered around their apartment, cooking, working on the computer, talking on the phone and watching TV in this Caldecott honor book.  It is a hot summer night, and suddenly the whole world goes black. It’s a blackout! Blackout1The family finds their way together in the darkened house and make their way to the rooftop where they see other families, all over the city, enjoying their time together. They see more stars in the sky then they ever thought possible.  It’s a simple and beautiful book, full of bright, warm, comic book-style illustrations that go from black and white to color and back to black and white again. Blackout is also the kind of picture book that manages to speak to both children and their grownups without being heavy-handed.

house in the woodsCaptain Cat and/or A House in the Woods by Inga Moore Captain Cat

I had a really hard time choosing between Captain Cat and A House in the Woods, so I choose both! Like All the World, Inga Moore’s books come in a large, beautiful format, inviting the reader to spend copious amounts of time reveling in the lovely, muted illustrations. Her delicate cross hatching and careful shading evoke her characters and settings, particularly the forest.  In Captain Cat, we meet a sea captain who is so in love with his pet cats, that he trades all of his valuables for more cats. Laughed out of the main sea port, he finds himself in strange waters, with his cats for company and stumbles upon an island with a little girl-queen whose home is overrun with rats.captain cat Wonderfully expressive cat faces highlight the quirky artwork and characters that populate this fairy-tale like story, which does include a few surprises, such as a picture featuring a row of rat corpses, lined up by the proud cats. While this part may jar a few unsuspecting readers or their parents, it falls neatly within the realm of a fairy tale world, which I think Inga Moore is going for with this whimsical book. Somewhat more traditional, and with a more succinct story, A House in the Woods introduces us to two pigs, a bear and a moose who decide to build a house in which they can all live happily together. A House in the woods 1They hire the most logical, hardworking animals to do the job: beavers. After working out the payment (the beavers wish to be paid in peanut butter sandwiches), the house goes up fast and we are regaled with hilarious and beautiful illustrations of a moose, pig and bear sitting around the fire like old friends. Inga Moore manages to draw realistic, animal characters with charmingly human characteristics—the moose stands upright with his hands on his hips, the beavers carry clipboards and drive a work truck. Inga Moore’s books make perfect gifts for birthday parties or holidays for the 2-5 year old set.

homer coverHomer by Elisha Cooper

Enjoy this book, but know that you will weep. Homer is an old dog. Old, but happy. The wonderful Elisha Cooper illustrates a day as experienced by Homer, an aging yellow lab who lives in a house by the sea. Homer is approached by everyone in the family, Homer_spread_for_Mollygrownups, kids, other dogs. He is too tired to join them in their activities, but he is content to sit on the porch, feeling the cool breeze in his fur, watching his family come and go. A lovely, understated perspective on getting old, this book treats us to the comforting rhythms of everyday life. It will delight young and grown dog lovers alike, but holds extra weight, I think, with those of us old enough to grasp the bittersweet reality of time passing. Makes me tear up every time.