Category Archives: fairytale

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon – Elizabeth Hillman

Elizabeth Hillman has written a magical story and John Wallner’s illustrations are gorgeous. Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is charming and mesmerizing. When the moon slips closer and closer to the earth, the emperor’s realm is threatened with disaster. In China, in the time before there were stars, when only the moon, the earth and the sun spun and circled in the dark sky, no one could think of a way to reverse the falling moon. The call went out all over the land but no wise men had the answer. One day a sage from the wild mountain came into the city to buy a hen and he heard the buzz in the marketplace. In his mountains there was a cobwebby, ancient staircase to the moon, sagging and in disrepair. But it once was a busy bridge for people to visit the dragon who lives on the moon and the sage thought the dragon might have an idea.

Only a featherweight with great courage could attempt to climb the tattered ladder of moon webs–and there were few takers for the offer of great heroism and rewards.  One very small girl, weaving a fine silk rope for her family’s faltering business, seemed like the perfect candidate and as she was game and gutsy, she was prepared for the journey. She practiced climbing her silk rope to approximate scrambling up the fragile moonbeams. What happened to Min Yo and what she found in the dragon’s cave on the moon is a tale sprinkled with fairy dust. She’s a very cool kid and her conversations with the dragon are funny and smart. The two of them cook up an experiment, after she shares her veggie snack with him and tastes some of his boiled moonflowers–mouthful of cotton.

I wouldn’t want to spoil the lovely magic with too much revelation. Suffice to say it is never a good idea to allow a dragon to go unvisited for over 100 years. And, if you should plan a drop-by, it would be very thoughtful to bring some fresh vegetables, the brighter the better.  Also, if you thought you knew something mathematical and stuffy about the formation of the universe, think again. Where do you suppose stars came from? Min Yo could tell you–she helped to put them there.

Min Yo and the Moon Dragon is richly imaginative and full of eye-catching art and a gentle but unmistakable story of female empowerment. This tiny girl knows what has to be done and just does it. And she is phenomenally successful. Plus, she now personally knows a fan-boy dragon. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Min-Yo and the Moon Dragon   Elizabeth Hillman | Harcourt Brace Jovanovich   1992

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Twenty Stories

Arthur Rackham’s marvelous illustrations are both black and white line drawings and full color plates in this collection. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Twenty Stories is packed with great vignettes, most of them lesser known gems from the 215 or so tales in existence. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” is charming but riven with deception, betrayal and beheadings. “The Goose Girl” features magic, perfidy, talking heads, wicked waiting-women (well, just one), a rather passive princess and a truly horrible retribution. Happily Ever After. “Jorinda and Joringel” presents a wicked witch with a twist. She traps maidens and transforms them into birds which she keeps in cages in her castle. As witches are not expected to explain themselves, we never find out why. “The Queen Bee” is a story with a moral: Be kind to animals–insects and birds actually. The classic arrogant elder brothers and youngest blockhead brother set out on an adventure and end up in a quest to break a spell and win a princess and a kingdom. Guess who wins?

I love fairy tales–they are so dark. When I finish this mad reading marathon, I’m going to re-read my entire collection of Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books. And Game of Thrones. I can’t get through George R. R. Martin’s doorstops in one day but I’m dying to spend a whole weekend with one of them.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Twenty Stories   | Viking   1973

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland – Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not your Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Catherynne M. Valente has concocted a mash-up of pun, wit, traditional fairytale conceits, cautionary fable and pure, unadulterated insanity. This is a very Earnest Story about a Deadly Serious twelve-year-old who seems a little reflective for an American pre-teen and a lot naive for a kid that age. It’s somewhat Dorothy Does Oz After Abandoning Kansas and as full of epic challenges and unusual traveling companions as anything Judy Garland sang her way through.

September is disaffected with her life in World War II Nebraska as mom goes off to play Rosie the Riveter each day and dad has vanished into the European front somewhere. When she is whisked away to Fairyland she goes without a backward glance. Children that age have yet to grow a heart, we are informed, and September is mercifully unencumbered by one. Things begin to go haywire immediately. September receives any number of warnings about the laws in Fairyland and promptly forgets a few and misinterprets the rest. She does try to have an Adventure with No Strings Attached but she isn’t as cool and calculating as she imagines herself to be.

Fairyland seems to be under a deeply wicked spell and the magical creatures that cross paths with September all need something important from her–she gives it without much hesitation. The girl isn’t aware that she is beginning to grow a heart. Hearts are dangerous things and September’s will cost her dear. But she acquires a good soaking in courage and a jeweled sceptre that provides convenient rubies when she needs a bit of change and a faithful flying key and a warm green jacket, although she has lost a shoe. The shoe thing isn’t Cinderella all over again as there are no princes in this tale but there are dragonish creatures and pirates who trade in shadows and covet pookas and a wicked girl with sausage curls who has designs on the powers of September’s new-found heart.

It’s a really unique and fascinating book, although I found it tiring to read–there is so much cleverness crammed into every sentence that it takes effort to stay focused, line by line, so you don’t miss anything. After I finished it I discovered that the book started out as a chapter-by-chapter online serial story, which may account for my sense that I had just read a whole collection of fairytales and not one book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is pretty good but a kid will have to be a VERY accomplished and dedicated reader to stick with it.  Terrific vocabulary and word plays. Not for the faint of heart. And not for cramming into a one-day read like a crazed marathon. But, oh well, all my reading is like that now. One month to go. Battling evil forces in Fairyland seems like child’s play compared to reading a book a day on pure adrenalin and not much sleep. But then, I’m living several hours a day inside books and  nothing about an imaginary world is exactly easy.  Dragons? Wicked spells? Dashed hopes and broken promises? Deadly storms and impenetrable gaols? Bring ‘em on.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making   Catherynne M. Valente | Macmillan  2011

Into the Woods – Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott

Last night I saw Into the Woods in the park–Central Park, to be precise. At the Delacorte–muy terrific show. So tonight I read the illustrated adaptation by Hudson Talbott from the show by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. This is so not a children’s book. First, the fairytale is a nightmare–funny but horrible. Second, the mash-up of all those Brothers Grimm stories is perverse. The wolf is a lascivious, lecherous, mangy carnivore–although Red is easily his match. Cinderella is plagued by Commitment Phobia, well-placed as it turns out. There are a couple of sassy gay princes, both ADD when it comes to monogamy. Rapunzel is a bit of a slut and gives birth to twins–magic beans or fertility drugs? Beanstalk Jack is trapped in pre-adolescence and has a somewhat weird fixation on his pet cow. The Baker and His Wife are just bourgeoise. And the Witch–ahh, the Witch is a bitch. She’s very satisfying, until she loses her powers in a Glamour makeover. Poof.

The illustrations in the book are rich and divine. The Giantess in the performance is a lot more fun, though. The bookish one shouts in ALL CAPS and wears a purple peasant dress with white cap sleeves. Not scary. All the lyrics are treated like verse story, which works, even if I did hear the tunes in my head as I was reading them. The good lines are intact. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” the Prince tells Cinderella when confronted with his infidelity. You can find just about anything you want in these woods.  

I would not necessarily toss this in the kiddy pile as I did, never having vetted it first. Fortunately, it failed to capture anyone’s imagination until the 4-year-old was a bit more mature. And the book is missing the leering and sexual innuendo of the acting, so it is at worst PG.   In the end, no happy ending, everything is wrecked, most of the players are dead, homicides have been ruthlessly committed, children are orphaned, the witch is banished (a real loss, she is deliciously wicked), magic seems to have fled. A few survivors straggle out of the woods and begin to tell a story…”Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom…” Maybe not such a far-off kingdom. Life is uncannily similar to those woods.

INTO THE WOODS. Adapted and Illustrated by Hudson Talbott   Sondheim, Lapine, Talbott | Scribner 2002

The Seven Chinese Sisters – Kathy Tucker, Grace Lin

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Girl power times seven can defeat even a curmudgeonly old dragon in Kathy Tucker’s retelling of a folk tale with Grace Lin’s wonderful illustrations. The Seven Chinese Sisters are a talented bunch of apparently orphaned girls who wear beautiful blue embroidered Chinese dresses and kick some butt when the occasion calls for it. These girls have numbers, not names, and each has perfected a skill or talent that will come in very handy when the chips are down. A hungry dragon probably qualifies as time to haul out the big guns.

First sister rides a mean scooter, second sister is a karate expert, third sister is a math wizard, fourth sister speaks to animals–dogs fluently, everything else just a little, fifth sister is an outfielder, sixth sister is a master chef and seventh sister, the baby, is an excellent baby. So, starving giant lizard catches a whiff of dinner from the house of the exalted seven and decides to chow down. But, when he arrives at the cottage with the tantalizing noodle soup aromas he finds an even more tantalizing tidbit called seventh sister and grabs her instead.

The baby is no fool. She decides to learn to speak all at once so she hollers HELP! and the chase is on. Each sister must use her particular skill to rescue the little chatterbox who sends out just the right words to keep the dragon at bay and her rescue operation on track. The girls are unruffled and pragmatic. They are extremely competent and focused on their goal. The kid makes it home in time to have her diaper changed and there’s more to this story but why spoil it?  The illustrations are simple and appealing. And it is an empowering multicultural story about young girls with lots of affection, self-confidence and even a bit of compassion for a greedy dragon.  

The Seven Chinese Sisters   Kathy Tucker, Grace Lin | Albert Whitman & Company   2003

Fairy Houses – Tracy Kane

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There is a small island off the coast of Maine, or so the story goes, where the inhabitants protect a secret host of creatures who live in the woods. Fairy Houses, Tracy Kane’s lovely picture book about the magic that comes from believing, tells the tale of what happens when a summer visitor discovers the secret in the woods.

Kristen’s parents promise a surprise for their summer vacation but she can’t guess at what it is until she finds the sign in the woods beyond their cottage: You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials. Kristen is charmed by the tiny houses she finds nestled in crevices in the rocks or in dark openings in the trunks of old trees. The woods are full of fairy houses made from sticks, pebbles, acorns, bird feathers, mushroom caps and fallen leaves. She begins right away to build her own.

Daily Kristen checks on her tiny house, hoping to spot a fairy. One chirpy day a cricket pops out of the door. Kristen adds some red berries for the fairies to eat and the next day she finds a pair of finches feasting on her berries. She makes a small pool from stones and water from a nearby stream–and a frog splashes in for a quick bath. Acorns and pine cones lure a hungry squirrel. A collection of salty seashells to decorate the house tempts a solitary deer.  And then, on the last day of her vacation, something shows up at the fairy house that Kristen can hardly believe.

I love the idea of fairy houses. As a kid I was sure a hive of fairies lived in the clefts of an old tree at the edge of our property. Sometimes I could hear their angry buzzing when people threatened their peace and quiet. I would have been enchanted to make a house for them–maybe less bitching from the fairies, too. A shame I didn’t have Tracy Kane’s delightful book as inspiration–although I do live near a park with a lot of old trees. Maybe it’s not too late.

Fairy Houses (The Fairy Houses Series)   Tracy Kane | Great White Dog Picture Company  2001

Once Upon a More Enlightened Time – James Finn Garner

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I had the brilliant idea to rummage through a few boxes of books, yet to be sorted for restocking the shelves or the library donation, to dig out Nora Ephron’s Scribble Scribble. Back in the day, when New York City was 1300 miles north and I spent my time chasing after dictators and dining with network producers on the expense account, Ephron’s witty, funny columns about the media seemed very insider and sort of glamorous to me.

Alas, I recalled in the midst of a dusty mish-mash of philosophy, history and misc. that a few of my Nora Ephron and early Woody Allen books vanished into the carry-on of a disconsolate and highly-paid national correspondent who thought his career was on the rocks because he was chasing jefes in the banana republics instead of presidents in the White House. Never saw those books again. Sayonara, Nora. I doubt media-specific humor from the dark ages would have held up too well anyway. And I did find this lovely collection of politically correct bedtime stories while I was hunting so I read it instead.

Remember politically correct? A nostalgic construct. James Finn Garner hit the bestseller list with his first volume of PC fairytales and the second,  Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, followed in the same vein. It’s mildly funny in 2012, although it dates from 1995. But you have to have been there. For instance, Hansel and Gretel is translated into an environmentally-sensitive and gender-free version that requires real concentration, a good memory for the original and knowledge of treehuggers, rampant capitalism and Julia Butterfly Hill. Here’s a sample from the opening page:

“The family tried to maintain a healthy and conscientious lifestyle, but the demands of the capitalist system, especially its irresponsible energy policies, worked ceaselessly to smother them. Soon they were at a complete economic disadvantage and found themselves unable to live in the style to which they had become accustomed, paltry though it might have been.” 

The father is a”tree butcher by trade”, Hansel leaves a trail of granola into the forest and the witch is actually a friendly Wiccan who is ultimately co-opted by a lumber conglomerate that offers her a Vice Presidency with full medical and dental benefits. “The Princess and the Pea” introduces a channeler who rotates among multiple personalities, one of whom is a princess–but the prince is pretty knocked over by the Viking warrior persona and somewhat charmed by the renunciant St. Giles so he marries her anyway, when she is in princess mode, of course.  

Guess what fairytale “Sleeping Persun of Better-Than-Average Attractiveness” is? Right. And happily ever after–even after 100 years–is not possible when Charming believes the awakened one has attained perfect peace and enlightenment and begs her to be his guru. She, being an old-fashioned, 116-year-old female persun, just wants to get married and get it on. Cursed match.  

It was entertaining. I tend to like fairytales that have been twisted and, wholesome intentions or not, these definitely are. I would read the first book if I could find it in the library. That’s where this one will end up when I finish cleaning out the rest of the books, so you can snag a bargain copy in pristine condition at the next book sale in the St. Agnes library basement. Or just download it for your Kindle.

Once Upon A More Enlightened Time (The Politically Correct Storybook)   James Finn Garner | Macmillan  1995

Stone Soup – Jon J. Muth

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Stone Soup is an old folk tale that appears in many cultures and often features a trickster wanderer. I think of the purveyors of stone soup as bards, bringing the magic of imagination into the real world and changing what we perceive. In Jon J. Muth’s beautifully-illustrated version, the chefs are three Zen (Cha’an) monks in ancient China, searching for happiness in a poor village. The rich, traditional watercolors bely the impoverished hearts of the villagers and draw you through the pages. Muth has included a lot of symbolism in his art–from the color yellow which is typically reserved for the emperor to a stack of rounded stones that looks like a sitting Buddha.

The mendicant monks are traveling in the countryside when a young one asks the eldest to explain the meaning of happiness. Instead of a talk, the old monk shows him. They approach a picturesque village that has been through hard times. No one will speak to them, answer the door or offer them hospitality. So they collect a pile of twigs, set a tin pot on top and fill the pot with water. Then they light the fire and begin to scour the ground for stones. A small girl in a yellow dress runs out to ask what they are doing and helps them to find the perfect stones. Then she brings a much larger pot from her home to hold all the delicious soup. Soon people are slipping out of their shuttered houses to check out the disturbance.

The monks lament that they have no salt and pepper for the soup so a villager runs to get some. Then another villager brings a basketful of carrots. Soon everyone is getting in on the act–mushrooms, onions, spices, and dumplings all go in the enormous pot. Each household tries to outdo the others in what it contributes. And the monks do make a fragrant, hearty pot of stone soup–enough to feed the whole village. Naturally, the villagers set up a festive banquet and bring all the trimmings to enjoy with their stone soup and then vie to see who will host the distinguished monks in their homes.

Stone Soup is a charming story that shouldn’t be limited to very young bibliophiles. It’s a potent reminder that the power of imagination is limitless when it meets an open heart.  The big life lessons can be gentle ones, delivered as easily as the old monk planned his simple soup. Muth’s work is captivating and thoughtful and Stone Soup is a book worth collecting and keeping–a cookbook for the soul.

Stone Soup   Jon J. Muth | Scholastic Press   2003

The Tale of Hilda Louise – Olivier Dunrea

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I am reading a suspense that is a well-written pleasure and very dense. So I’m double-dipping—reading shorter books while I finish this one. Absolutely disastrous for productivity—the windows are not washed, the for-pay work is behind—but I just turn my back on it all and slip into a book. Or two. The back-up book is a children’s tale that is magical and probably useful as well.

The Tale of Hilda Louise is a beautiful picture book with painted pages, mellifluous language and wonderful art. Hilda Louise is an orphan in Paris. She lives in a kind orphanage where the little girls wear frocks with aprons and hats like Madeline. Madame Zanzibar, the orphanage matron, is attentive and nurturing and given to exclaiming things like “Mon Dieu!” when Hilda Louise begins gently floating just off the ground one day.

This new skill, which improves by leaps and bounds, is the envy of all the other orphans and extremely useful for rescuing escaped balloons, balls from trees and baby birds fallen from their nests. No one discourages her so Hilda Louise works it to get better at flying. One day, a puff of wind carries her over the orphanage wall and all of Paris.

Hilda Louise does a pretty fair bird’s-eye tour of the main landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, the Bois de Boulogne, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe. But things get interesting when she floats through a window into the garret studio of an artist with the same red hair as her own. Olivier Dunrea’s story is charming. It’s a fairytale but one that is grounded in details that make it perfectly believable.

Fin de siècle Paris is picturesque and serves to remove the events from contemporary reality enough to make the book a safe read. I think the story would be particularly terrific for a kid who has been adopted. Hilda Louise is touched by magic but she is the agent of her own rescue. She parlays her ability and her adaptability to circumstance into a new story for herself. Happily ever after is still an excellent ending.

The Tale of Hilda Louise   Olivier Dunrea | Farrar Straus Giroux   1996

La Historia de los Colores – Subcomandante Marcos

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I bought the t-shirt in Palenque. The market there had all the typicos that catch tourists’ eyes but I spied a souvenir shirt with a black and white photograph of a masked guerrilla fighter on it and the caption Subcomandante Marcos. I knew who he was—at least I knew what could be known about him. Marcos was a legendary insurgent leader who might have been a college professor or a university grad student or some other lettered and middle class Mexican. But he had gone underground, taken to the wilderness in the mountains of Chiapas and become the spokesman for the Zapatista guerrilla forces against the Mexican government in the cause of rights for the indigenous people.

Very romantic story but the issues were real and the lives of the people in Chiapas could have used some economic and social justice. I hiked through the jungle for hours with a Lacandon boy as guide to visit the remarkable murals in the ruins of Bonampak. I wandered over the beautiful feminine ruins at Palenque and shared some local rice and beans and brew with fellow travelers. I got shin splints, mosquito bites, astonishing views and great photographs—all research for a novel and soul food for my adventurer’s heart. And when I got home to Manhattan, I wore the t-shirt.

I wore it for a few years; it complemented my pinko hippie credentials nicely. I stopped wearing it after 9-11 when I got funny looks and realized that the masked photograph looked a little bit like Bin Laden. But by then I had unearthed La Historia de los Colores at the Strand bookstore and I read it to my very young kid in Spanish. The book, by Subcomandante Marcos, is a bilingual retelling of a Mayan legend about how colors came to be in a black and white and gray world. The Story of Colors has lush art by Domitila Dominguez on thick coated stock—it’s a pleasure to handle. Today, I re-read it in English.

Probably just as well I read the Spanish to the four-year-old as the legend is very Mayan—the gods are constantly picking fights and bitching about things when they aren’t discovering red in the color of blood and making love so they could become tired and fall asleep. Once they’ve found enough colors, they have a sort of paintball fight at the top of a ceiba tree and get colors all over everything. Boys. In the end, after an interesting evolution of the handful of colors the gods turn up, they grab a macaw and stretch its skimpy gray feathers long enough to hold all the hues and entrust the colors to the bird for safekeeping.

So that’s how the macaw turned into a crayon box and how the world came alive in reds, greens, blues and yellows. For fun, my copy has an errata sheet tucked into it that explains that the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew committed funding for the book. Was the funding failure due to the bad-boy author or the copulation of the colors to give us all those rainbow shades? Congressional pressure, no doubt. Uptight idiots—who elects these people? Not me. I just keep subversive literature around my house where even children can find it. <G> Good book.

The Story of Colors / La Historia de los Colores: A Bilingual Folktale from the Jungles of Chiapas (English and Spanish Edition)    Subcomandante Marcos | Cinco Puntos Press   1996