There are words given to us by parents, mentors and friends which serve as touchstones. They are like mantras in our minds springing forth to reinforce or direct a decision. Those in existence the longest do not impact us alone but have spread beyond the borders of our daily lives encompassing the world at large.
Many of these wise phrases are linked to a single man, a man believed to have lived 2,500 years ago. The Fabled Life of Aesop (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 10, 2020) written by Ian Lendler with illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski presents in the best and most beautiful style the life of Aesop and his fables. For those who have believed these short tales are jewels, this book is the treasure chest holding them for us to savor freely.
One day, a slave was born.
His parents named him Aesop. Aesop was not allowed to live with his parents. He was forced to work in a vineyard on an island. Aesop, as did the other slaves, quickly learned to speak in a special language; one not offensive to their masters. They did so to remain alive.
Aesop had a mind capable of conjuring the ideal solution to a problem. One day solving the dilemma of low well water levels had his fellow slaves cheering. When asked a question by the observant master, a frightened but resolute Aesop told the story of The Lion and The Mouse. His master, Xanthus, so loved the story, he moved Aesop to his home to manage his business.
Soon Aesop was sold to another master after he ended a dispute between Xanthus and that man. During his tenure with Jadon, Aesop's stories settled and smoothed difficulty after difficulty. His tales, fables, used animals nearly exclusively and contained other lessons for listeners, slaves like himself. This increased their longevity and value.
The stories contained in this volume, The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The North Wind and the Sun, The Fox and the Grapes, The Donkey and the Lapdog, The Goose and the Golden Egg, The Fox and the Crow, The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, The Ant and the Grasshopper, and The Lion and the Statue, are a marvelous bridge between two parts of Aesop's life. After the last story, Jadon, so pleased with the work of Aesop, offered him an unusual compensation. As was his practice Aesop, being careful what he said, told a story. This story, a lifetime of stories, made Aesop's deepest desire a reality. And this reality was like the proverbial pebble dropped in a pond. The rings are still spreading today.
As each page is turned and words written by Ian Lendler are read, you feel something, a spark glowing and growing to a flame. Each sentence is measured, building on the struggle of Aesop's life and how he chose to respond to that struggle. Each description of incidents and the resulting fables indicate the gift Aesop was to himself, his masters and to the other slaves. His final reward is a reward, passed first by word of mouth and second in the written word, for all of us. Here is a passage from the narrative of his life.
The two masters agreed that Aesop's advice was very wise.
They settled their argument peacefully.
Jadon was so impressed that he asked to buy Aesop. You
see, no matter how clever or kind Aesop was, he was still just
a slave and slaves were something to be bought and sold.
Xanthus agreed, and once again Aesop was taken away.
When opening the rich, golden tapestry of elements in the image fashioned by Pamela Zagarenski on the dust jacket, readers will find themselves gasping aloud at the eloquent artistry spread before them. The elegant scrollwork, the exquisite lines, the endearing animals, the Greek architecture and design all blend to form true splendor. Placing Aesop with a fox and bird in the large lighter circle draws our attention to him but also to each item near him as well. By placing animals from the fables within this initial look at the book, Pamela Zagarenski issues a warm welcome for us to learn about Aesop and to read his fables.
On the book case a much simpler and lighter (in color) scene is shown. It reflects the buildings, sea, weather and flora of the area in which Aesop lived. Several animals along with Aesop are showcased. One of his quotes is written along the bottom on the right side.
A deep golden color covers the opening and closing endpapers. On the initial title page, a clothed fox stands on a Grecian urn to reach a cluster of grapes set among delicate flora and fauna. On the formal title page, on the left, Aesop sits on our planet with a lion, a fox, and a mouse. The sun and moon lift as balloons on nearly invisible strings. A crow is placed in the corner on the right of this left side. On the right a rabbit leaps from some of the text.
Each turn of a page reveals images which will leave you stunned at their brilliance. A circle holds Aesop as an infant with his parents' bodies wound around him. A weeping lion hangs from a net as the tiny mouse chews the fibers. The depictions of the fables will have you pausing to relish every single item. Pamela Zagarenski's illustrative interpretations are fantastic.
The fine features on the people, their clothing and the settings in which they are placed are indicative of the time period in which Aesop lived. All the illustrations in a variety of shapes and sizes are breathtaking but the double-page pictures near the end are heart-stopping. You simply can't help but look at them over and over.
One of my many, many favorite pictures is when Aesop's heart's desire is fulfilled. On the matte-finished cream paper a bird is flying from left to right. The bird fills most of the right side with the tips of tail feathers crossing the gutter. The feathers on its right wing are spread as it is raised. Aesop and a fox are seated on the bird's head. Aesop is holding one of the pebbles. The bird is holding an olive branch in its beak. A pebble is held in the curve of one foot. A portion of a large deep golden ball is shown in the lower, left-hand corner on the left side. Several other circular elements are meticulously placed. Phrases and letters in diverse sizes flow from the body of the bird, swirling and looping across the left side of the image. Letters curve from the bird's beak as if an extension of the olive branch.
This book, The Fabled Life of Aesop written by Ian Lendler with art by Pamela Zagarenski, is a magnificent ode to a man and his words. A two-page Afterword provides further information. There is a Bibliography also. This book comes with my highest recommendation for your personal and professional collections.
To learn more about Ian Lendler and Pamela Zagarenski and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites. Ian Lendler has an account on Twitter. Pamela Zagarenski has accounts on Instagram and Twitter. A wonderful interview, Ancient Wisdom for Trying Times. An Interview with the Duo Behind The Fabled Life of Aesop, of both Ian Lendler and Pamela Zagarenski is highlighted at Elizabeth Bird's A Fuse #8 Production. I consider this a must read.
To enjoy the titles selected this week by other participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.