Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Focus On Folklore

A study of folklore reveals stories to be the lifeblood of a particular culture.   While recurring motifs and archetypes found in these tales may bind peoples around the globe together, the specifics are a direct reflection of their origin.  The belief system of the people is woven into their stories.

This is why I have been a diligent advocate of the use of folk and fairy tales in an educational setting.  They are a bridge to understanding people; with understanding compassion replaces fear.  In support of the We Need Diverse Books campaign my final 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge (hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy) post will feature three titles.

Noted Native American, Debbie Reese, tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico, blogs at American Indians in Children's Literature.  One of the titles she reviewed and selected for her AICL's  Best Books of 2014 is Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale (Cinco Puntos Press, June 24, 2014) told by Greg Rodgers with illustrations by Leslie Stall Widener.  Rabbit's healthy appetite for good food makes him regret several choices.

Down here in Choctaw Country most folks'll tell you that Chukfi Rabbit is lay-zee. And then they'll say, "And watch your food when Chukfi Rabbit is around.  Blink once and it'll all be gone."

An everybody-work-together day has recently been announced.  Ms. Shukata Possum needs a new house.  Chula Fox, Nita Bear, Luksi Turtle and Kinta Beaver are all going to help.  When Ms. Shukata Possum asks Chukfi Rabbit if he can come, he first replies he will be busy on that day (even though the day has not been mentioned yet).  When she happens to comment on all the food she is making, especially the homemade butter, he suddenly remembers the day is open.

All day long the members of the helpful crew work together.  Each time Chukfi Rabbit is asked to join them, he calls out from behind a pile of rocks saying he is sick.  What he is really doing is discovering the pot of homemade butter left in the stream to cool.  Lick by lick, paw scoop by paw scoop, he consumes every last creamy bit of it.

When Chukfi Rabbit finally announces his wellness, the sun is nearly setting and the house is done.  Imagine that!  Settling down to the meal all are surprised to find the butter pot empty.  Everyone denies being the one to eat it.

In another act of trickery Chukfi Rabbit manages to draw attention to Nita Bear as being the butter-consuming thief.  In the end bodily functions reveal the truth.  You might say a roll and the river play a final part in this everybody-work-together day.  Did Chukfi Rabbit learn his lesson?  Another tale at another time will tell.

Greg Rodgers definitely brings his gift as a storyteller to this narrative.  He welcomes us to the story with the introduction, blending together cultures by using both the Choctaw and English names for his characters.  A mix of narration and dialogue expand our knowledge of individual personalities; especially of the trickster Chukfi Rabbit.

Using repetition of verbs he adds to the cadence he has already created.  A sense of humor is noticeable in the questions asked of Chukfi Rabbit and his replies.  Chula Fox is asking about his health; Chukfi Rabbit is replying in reference to the condition of the butter pot.  Here is another passage from the book.

When the working started, Kinta did the saw-saw-sawing.  Chula did the dig-dig-digging for the corner posts.  Ms. Shukata did the sweep-sweep-sweeping while Nita Bear and Luksi Turtle did the ham-ham-hammering. Since they didn't really have hammers back in those days, Luksi kindly agreed to be the hammer.  And Rabbit?  Well, as usual, Chukfi had disappeared.

Spread across the matching dust jacket and book case is an illustration taken from the interior of the book.  Rabbit is reaching for the butter pot as Fox, on the other side of the rocks, is calling out his name.  All of the double-page full color illustrations throughout done by Leslie Stall Widener wrap around the text.

These pictures look to be rendered in a medium she is said to use, ink, watercolor and pastels.  There is gentleness, softness, in the settings, facial features, and details.  Native cultural designs are mirrored in the animals' clothing.

One of my favorite pictures is when all the animals are gathered around the food table, after discovering the missing butter.  They have decided to eat all the food regardless of its absence.  Rabbit is looking less than eager to eat, his stomach full of butter.

A note at the beginning of this book further informs readers about the story.  Links are embedded in both the author's and illustrator's names allowing you to gather more information about each of them.  Sadly Greg Rodgers passed away this month at a young age.

My second selection, recommended in The Guardian The best children's books for Christmas, is based upon an old Chinese folktale.  The Dinner That Cooked Itself (Flying Eye Books, December 16, 2014) is written by debut picture book author, J. (Jennifer) C. Hsyu with illustrations by Kenard Pak.  Rewards for a life well-lived can come to one by mysterious means.

Long ago in China there lived an honest, respectful and hard-working man named Tuan.  As a child he had lost his parents and his kind neighbors Old Lin and Madame Lin had raised him instead.

In time Tuan left the couple to make a life for himself, living in another home, working in another field.  He found living alone to be lonely and longed for a wife.  Old Lin and Madame Lin sought the services of a matchmaker.

Three times the matchmaker tried to find him the right wife but either their birth animals, the characters contained in their names or their economic status were not compatible.  Tuan continued to work hard as a clerk in the magistrate's court during the day and in his field until dusk.  One evening as the moon was rising a large stone attracted his attention.

On closer inspection he discovered the stone was the biggest snail he had ever seen.  Believing this to be a sign of good fortune, he took it home placing it inside a large jar, feeding it cabbage leaves from his garden.  When he returned from work the next evening, Tuan is surprised by what he saw in his home.

A hot prepared meal was sitting on his table.  He thought Madame Linn must have done it.  She did not.  On two more nights increasingly delicious meals were prepared for him but no one claimed to have made them.  Tuan was determined to discover this kind person.  An altered schedule revealed an astonishing truth bestowed upon a man who had caught the attention of the Lord of Heaven.

The writing of author J. C. Hsyu makes us feel as though we have gone back in time to the source of the story, weaving customs and values into the telling. We learn of the importance of the Chinese zodiac, the basic elements such as earth, fire or wood, social hierarchy and beliefs in heavenly signs and beings.  In describing the meals set on his table for several of the evenings we are given insight into foods eaten in China.  Here is another sample passage.

First the matchmaker suggested the farmer's beautiful daughter.  But she had been born in the Year of the Tiger, and Tuan had been born in the Year of the Dog.  With a cat and a dog fighting for room under such a small roof there would never be peace.

A linen-like textured book case provides the background for Kenard Pak's signature artwork.  The front featuring one of the meals looks good enough to grace the cover of a cookbook.  On the back is a soft mountainous landscape with a tree, a tiger, a dog and a rabbit in the foreground.  The animals, all in a row, are looking to the right.  A lush landscape in greens, browns and black graces the opening and closing endpapers with Tuan's tiny home in the lower right hand corner. It appears to be done in watercolor.

Muted colors, in earth tones, enhance the narrative of J. C. Hsyu, as if we are reading some ancient scroll.  Shifts in perspective elevate the emotions felt by Tuan connecting readers further with his story.  Throughout the images, ranging in size from double to single page pictures, Pak has placed Chinese characters as if brushed by a calligrapher.

One of my favorite pictures is of the scholar's daughter kneeling on her home's porch practicing her calligraphy as Tuan walks to work in the distance.  Three characters have been added to the rabbit in a flame and the nearby dog, each a symbol of the compatibility of the two.  Wealth is the only barrier.  In this illustration, as in many others, readers will feel a sense of peace.

Two pages of explanatory information about Chinese characters are included at the end of the title.  For more information about Kenard Pak please follow the link embedded in his name.  It will take you to his website, offering links to his blog, Tumblr and Facebook pages.  This link is to the publisher's website.  There you can see many pages from this title.  Here is an informative interview of Kenard Pak at Fishink.

On December 3, 2014 Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book magazine announced the 2014 Fanfare selections.  Included on the list is Little Roja Riding Hood (G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group, April 10, 2014) written by Susan Middleton Elya with illustrations by Susan Guevara.  This may be one of the snazziest versions of this fairy tale yet.

There once was a nina who lived near the woods.  She liked to wear colorful capas with hoods.  

Her mother, watching soap operas in the kitchen, calls to her.  She asks Roja to take some very hot soup to her Grandmother who has a bad cough.  She warns her of dangers in the woods.

Hopping on her ATV Roja travels through the forest hearing a voice calling to her.  A wolf, hidden in the hollow of a tree, reveals himself.  He craftily recommends she stop to pick flowers for her grandmother.

Putting down her basket with the pot of soup and taking off her cape, Roja begins to gather a bouquet.  In a blink the wolf dons Roja's cape and sets off through the woods to Grandmother's house.  Of course Grandmother realizes Roja is simply not herself.

Through a series of oh-so-familiar questions and answers Grandmother quickly assesses her situation looking for a way to protect herself.  At the same time Roja arrives peeking in the window and noticing the trouble.  Grandmother and granddaughter act together to foil the wolf's dinner plans.  The value of a good pot of soup is priceless.

Readers are going to relish the way the words in English and Spanish written by Susan Middleton Elya roll off their tongues.  Reading this aloud is a total joy.  At the end of every two lines Elya has placed a rhyming word bringing a musical beat to the narrative.

The addition of more modern elements, soap operas, ATV and a security system, bring this traditional tale into the here and now.  All three of the women, Roja, her mother and grandmother, are strong characters, ready to support and care for one another.  Here is another sample passage.

Then Roja walked up with her lovely bouquet.
Somewhere she'd misplaced her capa that day.

She peeked in the window and saw her red hood,
and inside it, Lobo.  !Caramba! Not good!

There is no doubt about the meaning of roja in the title of this book as Susan Guevara portrays illustrations on her matching dust jacket and book case framed in red scroll work.  Roja's wolf enemy is skulking through the woods on his way to see Grandmother on the front.  On the back in an oval the fearless Roja is riding her ATV to Grandmother's house.  The same bright color decorates the opening and closing endpapers.

Except for the title and final pages all of the illustrations cover two pages.  Rendered in watercolor, ink and gouache they vividly heighten the spirited story. Marvelous details will have readers lingering over every single page.  In Roja's bedroom books of fairy tales are stacked or placed in a basket.  The three blind mice follow her everywhere as does her cat.  Careful viewers will see symbols of love in the steam coming from the soup.

The forest discloses even more elements.  Magpies speak words of warning on ribbons coming from their beaks.  All of the flowers set among flora of the southwest have watchful eyes.  Who are those two little devilish beings who fly along with the wolf?  No page is without the touch of Susan Guevara's artwork.

One of my favorite illustrations is when we first see the wolf lurking in the tree hollow, skull hanging around his neck, kerchief tied on his head.  Roja is traveling on her ATV with her cat in front, the basket and the three blind mice passengers on the back.  Her head is turned listening.  The magpies are calling out care !Cuidado! in Spanish.

Prior to the beginning of the narrative a two-page glossary defines the Spanish words used in the story.  Please follow the links embedded in Susan Middleton Elya's and Susan Guevara's names to access their websites. At TeachingBooks.net you will find wonderful resources about both the author, illustrator and a guide for using folklore in the classroom including this title and others developed by Penguin Young Readers Group.

Each of these books, Chukfi Rabbit's Big, Bad Bellyache: A Trickster Tale, The Dinner That Cooked Itself and Little Roja Riding Hood are excellent titles which should find a home on all professional bookshelves in classrooms and libraries.  For parents I highly recommend them for use in the home to further expand children's understanding of other cultures.  I extend my gratitude to the authors, illustrators, and publishers for bringing them into the children's literature world.

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