By Patricia C. McKissack
Illustrated by Leon and Diane Dillon
Schwartz & Wade
Ages 4 and up
On shelves October 11, 2011
The more I read children’s literature the more I come to realize that my favorite books for kids are the ones that can take disparate facts, elements, and stories and then weave them together into a perfect whole. That someone like Brian Selznick can link automatons and the films of Georges Melies in The Invention of Hugo Cabret or Kate Milford can spin a story from the history of bicycles and the Jake Leg Scandal in The Boneshaker thrills me. Usually such authors reserve their talents for chapter books. There they’ve room to expound at length. And Patricia McKissack is no stranger to such works of fiction. Indeed some of her chapter books are the best in a given library collection (I’ve a personal love of her Porch Lies). But for Never Forgotten Ms. McKissack took tales of Mende blacksmiths and Caribbean legends of hurricanes and combined them into a picture book. Not just any picture book, mind you, but one that seeks to answer a question that I’ve never heard adequately answered in any books for kids: When Africans were kidnapped by the slave trade and sent across the sea, how did the people left behind react? The answer comes in this original folktale. Accompanied by the drop dead gorgeous art of Leo & Diane Dillon, the book serves to remind and heal all at once. The fact that it’s beautiful to both eye and ear doesn’t hurt matters much either.
When the great Mende blacksmith Dinga found himself with a baby boy after his wife died he bucked tradition and insisted on raising the boy himself. For Musafa, his son, Dinga called upon the Mother Elements of Earth, Fire, Water and Wind and had them bless the child. Musafa grew in time but spent his blacksmithing on creating small creatures from metal. Then, one day, Dinga discovers that Musafa has been kidnapped by slave traders in the area. Incensed, each of the four elements attempts to help Dinga get Musafa back, but in vain. Finally, Wind manages to travel across the sea. There she finds Musafa has found a way to make use of his talent with metal, creating gates in a forge like no one else’s. And Dinga, back at home, is comforted by her tale that his son is alive and, for all intents and purposes, well.
McKissack’s desire to give voice to the millions of parents and families that mourned the kidnapping of their children ends her book on a bittersweet note. After reading about Musafa’s disappearance and eventual life, the book finishes with this: “Remember the wisdom of Mother Dongi: / ‘Kings may come and go, / But the fam
The Greedy Sparrow: An Armenian Tale
By Lucine Kasbarian
Illustrated by Maria Zaikina
Marshall Cavendish Children
On shelves now.
As a children’s librarian in New York City I am expected to have a full knowledge of existing children’s literature as it pertains, not just to the American publishing industry, but to the world at large. If a group of unusually tall Norwegian women come in asking for children’s books by their countrymen, I am supposed to know how to locate the nearest Jo Nesbo/P.C. Abjorsen title. I have gaps, though. Whole swaths of continents where my knowledge is lacking or useless. For example, let’s say you walked up to my desk and asked me to produce as many Armenian children’s folktales as possible. I could do it, I suppose, if I did a catalog search. We might have some. But I wouldn’t be able to name them off the top of my head. The Greedy Sparrow fills in that gap nicely. An original composition based on a classic Armenian oral tale, author Lucine Kasbarian and Russian illustrator Maria Zaikina bring to life a story unfamiliar but to a few Americans. Want to bulk up your Armenian folklore for a spell? Seek ye no further than this.
A little Author’s Note appears on the publication page of this book, which I appreciated. It states right from the start, “Armenian fables begin with ‘Once there was and was not’.” After we read these words we begin our tale. A sparrow with a thorn in its foot asks a baker to remove it. The woman does so gladly, burning it up afterwards, but when the sparrow returns and asks for his thorn back she has nothing to give him. Pleased, he takes some bread instead. Next, he visits a shepherd with a flock and asks the man to look after his bread. The fellow does for a time, but eats the bread when hunger overtakes him. As payment, the sparrow takes a sheep. Through these sneaky methods the sparrow exchanges a sheep for a human bride, a human bride for a lute, and finally he loses the lute, his ultimate prize, when he falls from a thorn tree. Lute gone. New thorn in his foot.
I have a tendency to lament the death of the picture book folktale on a nice and regular bi-annual schedule. Compared to the last few decades, folktales and fables are publishing at the lowest ebb seen in years. Each season I scramble to find as many as I can, often disappointed by the results. Maybe that’s why I glommed onto The Greedy Sparrow as quickly as I did. Here we have an honest-to-goodness folktale, retold for contemporary audiences, and unknown to a whole chunk of them. Kasbarian says in her bookflap that she learned to recite this story from her father who learned it from his grandmother, an Armenian storyteller. Clearly such talents are genetic since Kasbarian’s writing flows easily. You leap effortlessly from situation to situation until the end. Happily, the author sees no need to put some kind of moral capper on the tale. All she needs to write is the final sentence: “But as the sparrow rocked in glee, he lost his footing, and the lute fell, too, leaving the sparrow as he began … with nothing but a thorn in his foot!” Batta bing, batta boom. Nothing more need be said.
By Anne Isaacs
Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade (an imprint of Random House)
On shelves September 14, 2010
If Pippi Longstocking is a redhead known for her casual legwear, Angelica Longrider (or just “Angel” for short) would have to be considered her blatantly barefoot ginger-headed equivalent. When the Anne Isaacs Caldecott Honor winning picture book Swamp Angel took the stage back in 1994 it was cause for celebration. Here you had an honest-to-goodness new tall tale with a vernacular smart enough to match the pictures, and vice versa. The pairing of Anne Isaacs with Caldecott winner Paul O. Zelinsky was inspired. I was a big fan, yet for some reason I never considered that the book might garner a sequel. Clearly it was ripe for it, but Isaacs and Zelinsky pursued other projects and the thought was all but forgotten. Until now. After 16 years the dynamic duo is back. She’s a wordsmith. He likes to kill himself by painting on wood. Clearly, Dust Devil was meant to be.
Having found Tennessee a bit too cramped to suit her, giantess and all around decent gal Angelica Longrider (“Swamp Angel” to some) has headed further into the country to set up shop in Montana. It takes a little settling in, but she’s happy enough and even manages to tame a wild dust storm into a steed worthy of her skills. Good thing too, since that nasty Backward Bart and his band of no goodniks are terrorizing the countryside, robbing good people of their pennies. If she could wrestle a bear into submission, Angel certainly can handle a couple of toughs. But it’ll take smarts as well as skills to put these nasty bandits away. Good thing she’s got her horse.
The first thing you need to know about Anne Isaacs is the fact that her books, all her books, ache to be read aloud. It doesn’t matter if you’re perusing Pancakes for Supper or The Ghosts of Luckless Gulch. Now sometimes they’re a bit too long for storytimes (much to my chagrin) but for one-on-one reading they’re the tops. I mean, there are certain sentences that just beg you to try them on your tongue. Sentences like, “The barn began to shake, the ground to quake, the windows to break, the animals to wake, and everyone’s ears to ache!” Fear not, this isn’t a rhyming text. There are just certain sections where it’s the right thing to do.
While you’re rolling her sentences around in your mouth, there are also Zelinsky’s images to contend with. Painting on cedar and aspen veneer, Zelinsky is meticulous about his process. The result is a book that is rather achingly beautiful. Even if you don’t take to his style, you have to respect the process. The size of the images combined with the tiniest of brush