Tag Archives: fairytale

The Story of the Root Children – Sibylle von Olfers

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Under the ground, deep in the earth, among the roots of the trees, the little root-children were fast asleep all winter long. So begins the lyrical, magical story of nature that delights us as a read-aloud every spring and fall. The Story of the Root Children is a celebration of the seasons through a fairytale about Mother Earth and the enchanted flower creatures she dresses in beautiful colors for their half-year above ground. It is a more innocent Persephone and Demeter, Gaia adorned in her most festive clothes. There are snow-drops, forget-me-nots, buttercups and poppies—each meadow flower choosing a bit of cloth for a summer dress.

Beetles, ladybirds, butterflies and snails appear right on time as the trees green and the air softens. The story is gentle, poetic, many-layered and spiced with grumbling insects, industrious ants and a chill autumn wind. I discovered this tiny treasure when I was collecting a library for a very small child and we have enjoyed it ever since. The story appeals to our pagan, pantheistic sensibilities but it is a charming secular tale that doesn’t refute science or deify anything—and it can help to demystify death and loss as well as explain the life cycles of a year.

Another seasonal marker in our New York City neighborhood is the tulip festival in our community garden. Every April the wonderful garden on West 90th Street erupts in a kaleidoscope of vivid blooms that are breathtaking for an instant and then gone for another year. The garden is in its glory right now and too seductive to ignore.

Tulips are showier blooms than the field flowers of The Root Children but they provide equivalent spellbinding magic. The book and the garden are balm for the spirit after the rigors of an unforgiving winter. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of the inexorable rhythm of the days and months, measured in the fragile petals of fairies and flowers.

Story of the Root Children   Sibylle von Olfers | Floris Books 1997

(originally published in Germany 1906)

Secrets at Sea – Richard Peck

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Secrets at Sea is a tale of tails—and whiskers and scampering and crumbs of Bel Paese and thimbles of tea. The Cranstons are mice from an old, really old, New York family. Currently they live in a rambling mansion inhabited by human Cranstons, rather a nouveau bunch by mouse accounting. The remaining mice Cranstons, Helena, Louise, Beatrice and boy-in-trouble Lamont, live in the walls and keep things going nicely. Mama and two older siblings drowned in the rain barrel. Papa was done in by the barn cat as he nibbled a dropped ear of corn. Helena is the eldest and in charge and she is busy from morning to night.

A snake gets Lamont by the tail and Helena must rescue the tail and sew it back on—a risky job for a cosmetically-flawed effect but a mouse does what she can. Louise sits on the bed of the youngest Cranston, Camilla, every night and listens to Camilla’s day. Louise understands several languages, of course, but the poor teenage human has no idea how to interpret mouse so Louise holds her tongue, cocks her head sympathetically and gets all the latest dirt.

Beatrice swoons over boys, any and all boys, as long as they are mice. She has to be watched. And the Cranstons have a shocking secret that threatens to upend generations of New York Cranston mice and expose them to deadly peril. Olive, the klutzy, sallow, unpopular elder Cranston girl, cannot interest a beau for love nor money. So the whole family plans a European tour in time for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, just “to give Olive her chance.”

This is very bad news indeed because if there is one thing mice do not encounter well it is water. And the trip to Europe involves many days on a large ship entirely surrounded by water. Nevertheless, the house will be closed up for who knows how long. The food will disappear and no cozy fires will warm the grates. The foolish Cranstons need some oversight by more socially adept creatures. So the mice stow away and the adventure begins.

Do not think a sea voyage on a crowded ship with cats, constant pitching and rolling, slippery decks, a violently seasick Olive Cranston, mandatory lifeboat drills, assorted human and vermin nobility, and plots that unspool and then thicken is a piece of cake—although there is a fair amount of cake to be had. In fact, at one point Helena is inadvertently and completely iced in sticky pink. But no mind. Beatrice falls in mad love. Lamont apprentices himself to the shipboard mouse steward and develops a Cockney accent and a swagger. Louise plots to keep Camilla happy and Helena discovers she has as many lives as a cat—and needs every one.

Richard Peck sustains a charming voice and a classic fairytale adventure. There is plenty of wry humor and delicious description. Funny plot twists abound and a palace in merry oulde England is no more challenge for these self-assured mice than their upstate estate in New York was. Secrets at Sea is a middle grade book that will keep a young reader absorbed in something more amusing than the usual school tropes of failed tests, bullies and dumb tricks. But do yourself a favor. Volunteer to read it aloud so you get to enjoy it, too. And, if you have no handy kid, just savor the good writing and the clever tail/tale—whatever. Pure whimsy with a soupçon of Austen. Perfect.   

 Secrets at Sea    Richard Peck | The Penguin Group  2011

The Flint Heart — Katherine Paterson & John Paterson

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The Flint Heart is a fairy tale adapted from the work of Eden Phillpotts, a prolific writer who lived from 1862 to 1960 and told stories set in his beloved Devon county moors. Katherine Paterson, Newbery and National Book Award-winning writer, and her husband John, base this book-length tale on Phillpotts’ style as well as his imaginary worlds. It is a large, heavy, beautiful book with an amazing amount of white space, thick coated pages, and gorgeous illustrations by John Rocco who worked at Dreamworks on Shrek and at Walt Disney Imagineering and drew the art for the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.

At first, the language seems very simple and the story very broadly drawn, as if it is carefully rendered for unsophisticated readers. But first impressions can be misleading and this one is. The Patersons have filled the pages with charming characters, captivating names—like Jacky Toads, a Zagabog and a Snick, a pixie who reads dictionaries and a philosopher fairy king who dispenses judgment based on Point of View. Small children will love the illustrations and the story. Older children—no limits on age–will love the clever wordplay and humor.

In The Flint Heart, the region of Dartmoor is plagued from prehistory by a dark magic encapsulated in a rock chip strung on a leather cord. Place it around your neck, or even in your pocket, and all the light and warmth and kindness goes right out of you, to be replaced by homicidal, self-centered, authoritarian, barbaric behavior that makes a shambles of your community and cannot be resisted. Shades of Tolkien and that cursed ring, although Tolkien’s ring was written after Phillpott’s work.

How a couple of brave and imaginative children, a badly injured German hot-water bottle named Bismark and the helpful fairies, pixies and forest creatures defeat the flint heart is the central quest of the book but the digressions are as entertaining as the story. Read it and learn why the tortoise really won the race and what actually frightened Little Miss Muffet. Multiply naughts to discover why you can’t be marked off for them on an exam. Enjoy the interesting vocabulary and a tale told in nineteenth-century language smoothed out to make perfect sense to a twenty-first-century child.

The Flint Heart is fun and it doesn’t dumb anything down for children. That alone is worth the book—no least-common-denominator, one-syllable-from-an-approved-list-of-age-appropriate-vocabulary words, as suitable for a chimp as a child, in this adventure. (Deep apologies to primates.) There is a moral to this story but it doesn’t get in the way. And the human, beast, hot-water bottle and fairy/pixie worlds live more or less happily-ever-after once the heart meets its ultimate fate—with a surprise twist. No spoilers. Grab a willing kid and The Flint Heart and settle in to find out for yourself.    

The Flint Heart   Katherine Paterson & John Paterson | Candlewick Press  2011