Fairy tales and retold fables
I haven’t been totally inspired to write a post about children’s books in quite some time. Sure, I’ve gotten my hands on new Linda Ashman books, but you guys already know how crazy I am about her books. Since I’m already talking about the dear woman, have any of you read Samantha on a Roll yet? Or No Dogs Allowed? We’ve read them so many times that I probably have them memorized. What was surprising is how much I loved No Dogs Allowed, considering that it’s a nearly wordless picture book and Ashman is a master of verse. How could I love a book without all her witty rhymes? But I do. We also found an older book of hers at the library one day, Maxwell’s Magic Mix-Up and it was a hoot. Really, all her books are good. I haven’t yet read them all, but when a dozen or so of them are excellent, I start to feel safe to assume they all are.
This week’s trip to the library was pleasantly surprising. The library system here isn’t as good as our one back in Colorado, but it is far better than some other libraries I’ve been to. I would give it a rating of above average, but not excellent. They don’t have children’s librarians, so when my kids are on the hunt for new titles, the librarians vary between slightly helpful and downright snotty to my kids. While my bigger kids are on the prowl for more books, I take my littler ones to the picture book section and try to find a stack to enjoy. I miss our old library’s highlighted sections, like books for Mo Willems lovers, that sort of thing. There is nothing like that here and we end up with quite a few duds. Sometimes we don’t check out anything at all since we have a decent collection of books at home to enjoy. A few weeks ago I discovered a new books display in the children’s section and we picked it clean. I read all of them to my kids before we checked them out and only liked one. This week we did the same, cleaning out the new books display and found three that were excellent. Jackpot! This is our highest success rate so far!
I love retellings of fables and fairy tales. The reason why those stories are classic and retold over and over again is because they ring true to each generation and become part of our cultural DNA. My family had these hardback books that were compilations of fairy tales with illustrations. I devoured them and read them so many times that between my reading and my siblings’, we wore the cover off and lost pages. I especially loved stories of clever people getting out of trouble or finding their ways up the social ladders using their wits, like The Brave Little Tailor or Clever Gretel. We have a copy of Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book that I’m picking through to find my favorites to read to my kids. I own all of Lang’s fairy books on Kindle, but that’s years worth of reading, so I’m pacing myself. So yes, my point is that I love fairy tales, tall tales and fables and I love when people do their own twists on them. It’s fun.
The first book we found isn’t a retelling of a classic fairy tale, but it was so perfectly told in that same style, that I’m lumping it in with the other books. The King Who Wouldn’t Sleep by Debbie Singleton is about a king who refuses to sleep until he finds the perfect prince for his daughter to marry. Princes come and go, but none are satisfactory to the king and all their efforts to get the king to sleep so they can talk to the princess fail. While all this goes on, there is a clever farmer who comes up with a way to get the king to sleep so he can woo the princess. It was just super cute and clever and unexpected. Those are pretty much the top three reasons why I like my favorite picture books.
The second book is a version of Jack and the Beanstalk that became more of a tall tale than a fairy tale. Jack’s mother hasn’t made barbecue since his father died in Jack and the Giant Barbecue by Eric A. Kimmel. His father’s barbecue was legendary, the best in West Texas, but when a giant stole his recipe book, his heart failed him. Jack seeks out to find the giant and retrieve the cookbook, or else he vows to never eat barbecue again. His trip up the mountain into the clouds leads him to the giant’s greasy barbecue shack where he meets a heartbroken jukebox. When the giant shows up and does the Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum routine, Kimmel’s version had me snorting with laughter. I was hooked. I did my very best Texas accent as I read it to my kids, which only made it more awesome for them, I’m sure. When I looked in the back cover and saw that Kimmel had written other southwestern takes on classic stories, I knew we had to try them out. Oh, and I super duper loved John Manders’ illustrations. Just such fun.
The last book was pretty much a straight-up telling of Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, but it was done in such a tender, compassionate way that I had to add it. Luli Gray’s Ant and Grasshopper depicts a more complicated relationship between the two insects than just a hardworking ant and a careless and foolish grasshopper. Ant is miserly, taking careful stock of his food and constantly counting what he has, ignoring Grasshopper’s pleas to enjoy the summer. He angrily shuts Grasshopper out into the cold when winter comes and Grasshopper isn’t prepared. But Ant has a terrible dream that leads him back out into the snow and saves Grasshopper’s life. He comes to appreciate Grasshopper for his talents and the books ends on such a lovely note. Sounds preachy doesn’t it? It doesn’t feel that way when I read it to my kids. What is funny is that my daughter kept railing against the lazy Grasshopper during the book, up until Ant has his change of heart. Then I could see her softening too.
On a hopefully not-too-tangential note, I was going to see the new Spiderman movie with my husband a month or so ago and laughing over seeing yet another reboot of a not-very-old movie franchise. I told my daughter to give it a decade and they’ll start to redo all her favorite movies too. “Even Harry Potter?” she cried, incredulously. “Why would anyone ever redo the Harry Potter movies?!” “To make it their own, of course,” I told her. I explained how some stories are so lasting and important to people that they can’t help but retell those stories over and over again, in whatever medium strikes their fancy. These book selections remind me of that conversation and I’m glad that people are still retelling Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. I like it that people are making those stories their own. It makes me want to do the same.