September 2000

Storybook collections are spinning yarns and teaching truths

By Ted Hughes
By Doris Orgel & Kitchen
By Alice McGill
By Mary Hoffman
By Clare Beaton
By Helen Craig
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Stories, stories, stories — that's what life's all about. September brings a whole new crop of storytelling books on everything from Jack Sprat to Jesus, for a range of ages.

Topping the list is a book making its U.S. debut after having been reprinted in England more than 40 times. How the Whale Became and Other Stories comes from the pen of the renowned, late poet Ted Hughes. He wrote these when he and his wife, poet Sylvia Plath, were living in Spain, but they weren't published until several years later, in 1963, after the births of the couple's two children. These are longer stories for older readers–11 lyrical tales about how such creatures as bees, tortoises, elephants, and hyenas came to be. In a prefatory note Hughes explains his premise for writing the collection: that in the beginning of the world, all living things were much alike and "had no idea what they were going to become." He goes on to explain how his selected menagerie arose. Jackie Morris's watercolors are a superb accompaniment, muted yet full of mystery and energy.

No storyteller is more famous than Aesop, the slave who lived in ancient Greece about 2,600 years ago. The Lion & the Mouse and Other Aesop Fablesprovides an excellent introduction for older preschoolers and young elementary students. Doris Orgel's short, two-page retellings are sprinkled with interesting facts about Aesop and his world. Orgel begins with a FAQ-like question-and-answer page that explains who Aesop was and why his fables have remained so popular all these years. Bert Kitchen's watercolor and gouache illustrations are stately, so real that one can practically feel the bristles of a wolf's fur or the hard shell of the slow-moving tortoise.

For a completely different change of pace, storyteller Alice McGill has been collecting slave lullabies since she was a child, hearing them passed down through generations of her family and friends. A CD is included with In the Hollow of Your Hand: Slave Lullabies, so you can read and hear McGill's resonant singing voice accompanied by gentle, simple instrumentals. Since slaves were often not allowed to learn to read or write and were punished for singing "unapproved" songs, these lullabies tended to be messages of trials, tribulation, and hope, often sung in secret. Along with each lullaby, McGill includes a brief, intriguing description of its origins and use. Michael Cummings has created a quilt collage illustration for each lullaby, adding rich, textured folk images that convey both story and history. This wonderful book and CD combination is truly a treasure for all ages.

More history and spiritualism can be found in Mary Hoffman's Parables: Stories Jesus Told(illustrated by Jackie Morris). Hoffman discusses Jesus's storytelling talents in a lovely introductory note: "[Jesus] was good at making up stories which were full of things that people of his time could understand. Sheep, grapevines, sowing seeds these were all familiar to the first people who heard these stories. I am quite sure that if Jesus were preaching today, he would have told stories about cars and mobile phones and computer games." Regardless of youngsters' religious beliefs, they will enjoy and learn from the short retellings of such familiar parables as "The Good Samaritan" and "The Prodigal Son." With each, Hoffman includes a short introduction and conclusion to help children better understand the parable's underlying meaning. At the end of the book is a list of the actual biblical books and chapters where each story originates.

The very youngest readers will enjoy the familiar verses found in Mother Goose Remembers. What's delightful about this book are Clare Beaton's wonderful, old-fashioned fabric art illustrations, which include one of Mother Goose's "feathers" stitched onto every page. This book is practically like having a grandmother or fairy godmother stitch a special volume of nursery rhymes for little readers.

In the same vein, check out The Random House Book of Nursery Stories, retold and illustrated by Helen Craig. Somehow, with the many children's books available today, modern youngsters often miss out on learning some of the classic fairy tales. Here's a collection of hits, including "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Three Little Pigs," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," and "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." The retellings are short and straightforward, following the well-known plot lines. As with the Clare Beaton book, what makes this book fun are the whimsical illustrations. The troll, for example, that bedevils the three billy goats is a huge red lump of fur, a sort of Cousin It with protruding arms and legs. Don't miss the elves in "The Elves and the Shoemaker," which are cute little naked fellows streaking across the page. So whether you're in the mood for mirth, morals, or mammals, there's a new storytelling book awaiting your every mood!

Alice Cary spins her yarns in Groton, Massachusetts.

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