By Lauren A. Mills

I love folktales. Love. I’m tempted to say it’s the biggest section on my site. This is for a good reason: they’re archetypal, they can bridge cultures, and they’re reflective of our own culture, or even ourselves. I think we’re drawn to find fairytales that reflect ourselves, and this might explain why I love Tatterhood. The explanation being that I love ugly ducking stories (I still hope that I’ll turn into one), and I adore strong, feisty heroines who stand up for themselves and their loved ones.

Tatterhood has become a born-again favorite. I initially stumbled on it decades ago, and rediscovered it when I was looking up children’s books for my Children’s Services and Resources class (better known as the reason for this blog’s existence). I love it. I love the artwork, which are beautifully done by the author, I love the relationship between the main characters, I love the lesson, and I love the ending.

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back. Tatterhood is based on a Norwegian tale. The King and Queen long to have children, but the Queen has been unable to conceive. Taking the advice of an old woman, the Queen gives birth to two girls: the eldest, Tatterhood, and Isabella. Tatterhood carries a wooden spoon, rides a goat, dresses in rags and is generally repugnant. Isabella, by contrast, is beautiful, gentle, graceful and obedient. It is therefore double the tragedy when Isabella’s head is switched with that of a goat as retribution for the Queen’s mistake.

Rather then abandon her sister, Tatterhood demands a ship and sails off to discover a cure for her sister’s malady. They have a grand adventure and Tatterhood is successful in restoring her sister’s head. Ultimately, they land on a foreign land, and she demands to meet the King. He finally comes, sees Isabella and asks her to marry him on the spot. As part of the agreement, his brother has to marry Tatterhood.

I won’t give away the very ending, because it is to me one of the best parts of the story. Go find this book, then come back and read my review; don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The artwork of this story is phenomenal, and I think Mills deserves a lot of credit for her work. The fey design of the characters, the amber saturation, and the attention to detail are incredible. The details are what make it work. The hobgoblin villains, the wildness of Tatterhood, the gentleness of Isabella – it all comes through in the artwork with a life of it’s own.

As it is a retelling, there are of course differences from the original as Mills puts her own spin on the story. The basic elements are all still there, however, for which I am grateful. At the heart it’s still a story of light and dark, but here dark is not bad. It’s different, and ultimately even more lovely. Tatterhood is a lovable character, maligned by her mother despite being the oldest but still loved by her twin. She’s misunderstood, and doesn’t really care what you think. This attitude is amazingly refreshing; Tatterhood is a great role model for those who are different.

This story is sadly obscure, and I’m eternally grateful that my library system owns a copy. If you’re looking for a story with oddities, hobgoblins, strong heroines, donkeys, spoons, and high adventure on the seas, this book has it all, tied up with a pair of fairy tale endings. I highly recommend you check it out.

Suggested Ages: 6-9


Giant Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat

By Robert Munsch

I was raised in a secular household, went to a Catholic high school, and studied religious studies in school. For all of that, I feel I fall on a balance; I don’t consider myself religious, but I have a lot of academic knowledge. But for all of that, sometimes obvious things go completely over my head.

Take Giant: Or Waiting for the Thursday Boat. I loved this book as a child. I have literally read it to pieces, but we still have it. It’s an oversized picture book, set in Ireland, where the giant McKeon is upset that St. Patrick is driving out all the elves, snakes, and giant and replacing them with church bells. In retaliation, McKeon throws every church bell he can find into the ocean. The fighting escalates, with St. Patrick telling McKeon to complain to God. God, of course, comes on the Thursday boat, so McKeon sits down to wait. The first boat that arrives is a small craft, manned by a little girl. McKeon decides she can’t be God, and she sits with him as he waits. Other ships come in, bearing much grander occupants, but none of them turn out to be God.

Sick of waiting, McKeon takes the little girl, leaping up into Heaven. The fighting between McKeon and St. Patrick continues, and they try to find God to set their issues to rest. It turns out the little girl is God, and inside her house there is more then enough room for giants, elves, snakes, saints, and church bells.

I did not know that this book was at all challenged until very recently. Heck, for years I don’t believe I ever caught on that the little girl was God. In no way does this take away from the message, though; in the end, Munsch creates a beautiful story of acceptance and forgiveness.

(As an aside, I do think McKeon got the lesser end of the deal, since, as the last giant in Ireland, his departure means that there are no more giants, elves, or snakes. Well played, God)

My silly thoughts aside, I love books like this, that encourage children to think, and play with their perceptions on the world. The downside comes, of course, when parents overreact and try to have a book yanked from the shelves. I’ve commented on this before, and won’t again; read the post instead. I’m afraid I’ve almost become jaded on how overprotective parents are at books that offer very little threat. So, while this controversy surprised me, I thought I understood. Of course parents might be offended about the depictions of religious figures in Munsch’s book.

But I was wrong.

The controversy was not, as I thought, about how God was portrayed. If you had asked me, parents would have complained that God was a child, or a girl, or black. But no, the controversy was because McKeon threatened to “pound God into applesauce”.

I can sympathize with parents, I really can. The world is scary, and you worry that anything can influence your children. Seeing what was written in the days before political correctness (like the use of blackface minstrels in Little House on the Prairie), I can’t say I blame them for sometimes overreacting. But sometimes the controversies make me laugh, or at the very least shake my head. On my part, I like to focus on the good things about Giant. For one thing, the artwork does a great job of making McKeon larger-then-life, while making the girl small. The artwork works well with the text, each balanced by the other. On a deeper level, I love how Munsch plays with how God appears, and her role as the last person you would expect to be God. We need more books like this, ones that challenge the parents as much as the still-malleable perceptions of children.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Aliens Love Panta Claus

By Claire Freedman

You know what we need more of? Underwear-obsessed aliens who team up with Santa to ensure that every being on Earth gets a pair of pants. “Pants” being what British folk call their underwear.

Pure. Awesomeness.

Now, normally these aliens steal underwear. But not today! Because, as you see, today is Christmas day. So instead of stealing them, they’re giving them away! Yes, that’s right. They’ve decided to reform, and are giving away their hoarded underpants. But only for today! So enjoy it while you can; tomorrow they might be gone!

Aliens Love Panta Claus is one of those books I wish I’d had when I was growing up. It’s a short Christmas tale done in rhyming stanzas. The text is witty but limited, with only four lines per every two pages. The drawers are brightly coloured, and every page contains at least one pair of underwear, so you know your kid wants you to read this ad nauseum. Even without the giggle-enducing amount of undergarments, the pictures are large and simple, usually a two-page spread. Big, bold colours and simplistic drawings means it’s good for a range of ages; this could easily become a Christmas classic. Even if for no other reason then to see Rudolph wearing colourful pants. That sells it right there.

If you love this book (and you should), try the prequel/non-holiday-themed version, Aliens Love Underpants. Guaranteed not to disappoint, because we all know that there is no humour better then British humour.

Suggested Ages: 3-6+

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Mr. Bach Comes to Call

By Susan Hammond

The basic premise is this: A young girl is practicing Bach on the piano, despite any desire to do so. Mr. Bach then appears and teaches her the value of the piano, while simultaneously telling her of his life and music.

Mr. Bach Comes to Call is a great mix of back-from-the-dead autobiography and concert CD. Many of Bach’s most famous musical works are played within the story, both in the background and featured on their own without any interruption. I don’t really remember what I enjoyed most – the story or the music. But I don’t even have to choose, because Mr. Bach Comes to Call gives us both in one.

Suggested Ages: 4+

Hammond, S. (1990). Mr. Bach Comes to Call. The Children’s Group.


East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 4)

By Edith Pattou

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

The book is written from five alternating points of view: Rose, Father (Rose’s father), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear, and the Troll Queen. Each chapter gives a different point of view, and each takes the tale a little farther forward. At first I found this gimmick off-putting, but as the book progressed I found it helped the pace, keeping me engaged and racing for the end.

East gives us plausible characters, realistic scenarios and reactions, as well as a real and solid world setting. Even differing religions and folktales are given a place in East, which makes the religious studies student in me pleased. It is what I wished Ice had been. Some may find the shifting points of view and size off-putting, since East comes in at roughly 400 pages. The chapters are short, however, and can be picked off slowly. A good book for those that love fleshed-out folktales.

Suggested Ages: 9-12+

Pattou, E. (2005). East. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


The Last Dragonslayer

By Jasper Fforde

The Last Dragonslayer is set in an alternative-reality where most of the familiar things – companies, telephones, roads, cars and all the other things we take for granted – intermingle with dying magic. Jennifer Strange is a foundling (orphan), who is currently in charge of a magical employment agency that works to find a new field of work for obsolete magicians: home improvement. Everything is turned upside down, however, with the announcement of the impending death of the last dragon.

Fforde handles The Last Dragonslayer with his trademark British wit. It does lack some subtly in its break-neck pace. There are themes of environmentalism, evil corporations, don’t-trust-strangers, capitalism, and necessary evil. Given that this is a book for children, I can forgive the heavy-handedness, and really it can be easily overlooked.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Fforde, J. (2011). The Last Dragonslayer. HarperCollins.


East of the Sun & West of the Moon

By Laszlo Gal

Written and illustrated by Canadian Laszlo Gal, East of the Sun & East of the Moon was one of my favorite stories as a child. Originally hailing from Norway, it is the story of a young woman being chosen as the bride of a polar bear, who will give her family wealth in exchange for her hand.

The heroine is one of my favorites. Loyal to her family, courageous enough to do what is necessary, and wise enough to listen to others. In the end, she rescues her husband and destroys the trolls.

This version of East of the Sun & West of the Moon has what I feel are all the symbolic motifs a true retelling of East of the Sun West of the Moon requires. A polar bear prince, the north wind, trolls, three helpers and three gifts to the heroine, and, of course, a strong and true heroine.

Suggested Ages: 4-9

Gal, L. (1993). East of the Sun & West of the Moon.McClelland & Stewart.


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