The Paper Bag Princess

By Robert Munsch

Girls, don’t ever let a boy use you! That always feels like the message behind this great Munsch tale.

We start out in a beautiful castle with a beautiful princess who’s head-over-heels in love with her aloof (but handsome) fiancee. Then a dragon comes along, burning everything up and kidnapping Prince Ronald. Well, Elizabeth isn’t about to stand for this, and sets out to defeat the dragon. Not with swords and armour, of course – the only thing not burned up by the dragon was a paper bag. But Elizabeth has her wits and determination, and she wants her husband-to-be back!

I’ve always enjoyed this story. It’s like the children’s version of an adult show: the titular character is about to get married to her emotionally distant boyfriend, a massive crises ensues and she comes into her own. After defeating the world-ending evil, she realizes what a dirtbag her intended is and breaks free to become her own women! (Cue: dramatic guitar riffs)

This is a great story for kids, even if they don’t realize all the great messages going on in it. Just the image of a princess with a burnt crown and a paper bag is going to be enough to hook their attention. There’s also the repetitive factor that Munsch delivers very well, hooking kids in.

The illustrations are funny and detailed, done by frequent Munsch collaborator Michael Martchenko. (Can you imagine being in a conference with these two and only addressing them by their last names?) The Paper Bag Princess is a solid book, one of his earliest ones (number 3), and while he’s done better, this still reigns as one of the best.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

Breaking the Spell: Tales of Enchantment

Selected by Sally Grindley

Breaking the Spell: Tales of Enchantment is an anthology of tales, each written by a different author. From what I can tell, only one of these tales is a retelling, but each has a traditional folktale flavour.

The stories included are:

  • The Paper Garden – Tony Ramsay
A King Midas-esque tale, where an Emperor, annoyed at the elements ruining his enjoyment of his garden, orders his workers to enclose the garden, piece by piece. Eventually, his actions have devastating consequences for the garden he prides so much.
  • Dancing in the Air – Joan Aiken
A Spanish tale of a poor young boy named Carlos who is banned from a church where beautiful music is played. The Bishop declares that he will be allowed to return until people dance one foot above the ground. After an encounter with a gypsy, Carlos is given a kettle that seems to play a magic tune just for him.
  • The Prince with the Three Fates – retold by Ann Turnbull
From Egypt, now, a Prince is born, destined to be killed by a snake, a crocodile, or a dog. Desperate to save their son, his parents lock him away, but he is determined to live his life, and goes out into the world to defeat his fates.
  • The Queen of the Bees – Vivian French
What do you do when you have three daughters? You send them on a quest to find men, of course! Two bratty sisters and their lovable, naive, pure younger sister set out to find their destinies. Only the youngest, helpful to a fault, has a bit of help from the animal kingdom.
  • The Witch’s Ride – Jane Yolen
When dealing with witches, not everything is as it seems. When Ewan falls for beautiful Emily early, he’s really marrying a witch. When she uses him for her witchy deeds, it’s up to his mother to save him from his bride.
  • The Snake Princess – Jamila Gavin
Set in India, a King falls in love with the Snake Princess. Soon after their marriage, he finds himself changing; becoming scaly and cold-blooded. With the help of a venerable yogi, he discovers the source of his change, but must make a decision between his life and his love.
  • Chantelle, the Princess Who Could Not Sing – Joyce Dunbar
After being cursed by a jealous aunt, Chantelle’s beautiful voice flies away. After her betrothal to a prince leaves her humiliated, she tries her best to learn to sing again. When she runs away and once again discovers her voice, she realizes it comes with a price to pay… can the prince save her?

These are all unique as well as familiar, as a folktale should be. Familiar tropes told over again. While I love the stories (and I really do), what impresses me the most is the artwork. All done by Susan Field, she manages to make them all look the same while incorporating flavours from the different countries. The Japanese, Spanish, Indian and Egyptian stories can be placed just by looking at the artwork, which I love.

This is a good book for those who are looking for bedtime stories for their children. It offers up a nice variety, and will appeal to a family with different appetites in their stories. Alternatively, it makes a great book for someone working on their own reading skills, trying to make their way into slightly longer books. I’ve personally found that short stories are great for this, as they can read as much as the whole book or as little as one story at a time. This lets them set their own pace without overwhelming them.

Suggested Ages: 7-12

The Balloon Tree

By Phoebe Gilman

Have you ever told your child a bedtime story? I haven’t, but I’ve read reports of people who have. You start out with something fairly mundane – like a car ride. And then all of a sudden you take off to the moon and the car ride story turns into an epic adventure against the furry bat-men of Mars. Or something like that.

That how this book feels to me. It’s like Gilman’s children asked for a story about Princesses AND balloons, and this story is what resulted. I love it.

The Balloon Tree has it all. A princess in a castle, an evil Archduke, peril, secret passageways, a desperate quest, magic, salvation, and balloons. Pair that incredible artwork that features a ton of interesting, minute details, stories within the art and you have an amazing book.

Princess Leora’s father has to leave for a tournament. Scared of her uncle the Archduke, the King tells her that if anything goes wrong she should just release a bunch of her beloved balloons from the top of the tower and he will come rushing home to her. A great plan until the Archduke attempts a coup, destroying all the balloons so Leora can’t alert her father. With some advice from her friendly court wizard, Leora must now find one whole balloon so that she can summon her father.

Epic.

I think this book is a must-have for any little girls library (and little boys too). I’ve said it before (see Something From Nothing), but I love Gilman’s artwork. Not only does she create fantastic (and touching) stories, but she creates incredible artwork. The main pictures are well done, colourful, interesting, and lively, yes, but there’s more. Sometimes she shows the knights traveling, or creating movement by having someone break the barrier. It’s sheer magic.

Just look at the colours, the attention to detail! And these are two of the less Easter Eggy pages.

To me, this book is a lost classic. I think we read it to pieces, and I have no idea where my copy has gone (thus, “lost”). If you notice in the cover picture, this book has been around for 20 years, which tells me a lot of good children’s books came out in the 80’s. But more then that, it’s a testament to how good Gilman’s books are. I think children still know the name Jillian Jiggs, who has wonderful pigs that I made my mother make for me. And if you don’t know Jillian Jiggs, you are a heartless person who either suffered cruelly as a child, or is making your child suffer. Go, go, discover Phoebe Gilman. I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Suggested Ages: 3-6+ (or all ages)

 

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon

By Nancy Willard

If you were to ask me to give one adjective to describe this book, it would be “quirky”.

Why quirky? Well, what other book have you ever read where the main character was a sullen, childish moon who wanted a nightgown? Who then goes down to Earth, tries on lots of nightgowns, buys one, and disappears? Never! Unless you’ve read this book before. After the moon goes missing devastation and darkness abound, naturally.

The Nightgown of the Sullen Moon is a wonderful little walk through the wonderfully bizarre, with the moon acting just like a child. She’s sullen, she’s determined, she’s happy when she gets what she wants, she’s defiant, uncooperative, and longing for a little comfort. We won’t ask questions about how she wears the nightgowns, or how she doesn’t crush the world when she comes to sleep in some little girl’s bed; that would ruin the quirky, free-flowing nature of this story.

The artwork is a bit up and down for me. The watercolours are amazingly done, and I love the imagination the illustrator uses on the storefronts. There are some elements of the art that I adore. The pages where the Moon and Sun have their first conversation is my favorite of the whole book. Landscapes seem to be David McPhail’s specialty, as sometimes his people land flat. There’s no doubt that the illustrations work well with the text, and reflect Willard’s strange world.

This book is almost 30 years old, and still available for purchase online. That speaks volumes to me about how good this book is for children. My copy of the book is wrinkled, water-warped and loved to death. It’s nonsense; enjoyable, wonderful nonsense that we all need more of in our lives. Hit up your bookstore or library and give this book a try for your younglings.

Suggested Ages: 3-6

Tatterhood

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

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

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters

By Rick Riordan

To see Percy Jackson & The Olympians: the Lightning Thief here.

Percy Jackson returns in his second book, The Lightning Thief. Another quest, a new family member, and the return of old favorites.

Trouble is brewing in Camp Half-Blood again. The tree that keeps the Camp safe, Thalia’s tree, has been poisoned, and the camp activities direction, Chiron, has been accused of this travesty and been fired. Amongst all this, Percy is having dreams of his friend Grover, dreams that include conversations. Realizing they’re real, Annabeth and Percy realize that Grover has found the Golden Fleece, which can be used to heal Thalia’s tree. Requesting that someone be sent to find the Golden Fleece (and Grover), the new activities direction elects to send Ares’ daughter, Clarice, rather than Percy and co. Not about to be left behind, Percy, his half-brother Tyson and friend Annabeth to help their fallen friend.

If you enjoyed The Lightning Thief, you’ll love The Sea of Monsters. It has all the same trademarks of humour, wit, mythology, and action. Sea of Monsters is a fast-paced adventure, with a deadline (the demise of a tree), a recurring villain (Luke and Kronos), traps, interfering Gods, and tribute to various Greek gods, demigods, titans and monsters.

For children roughly 9-12, this is a great book for boys. If you’ve read this site at all, you’ll understand that it can be hard to find books for boys; when you find one, hold onto it and make sure they read it all. The Percy Jackson is great because it targets all the things boys enjoy which still being accessible and enjoyable for girls. If you’ve enjoyed these books, I’m going to throw in a quick recommendation to look up Rick Riordan’s The Kane Chronicles (starting with The Red Pyramid). They are similar to the Percy Jackson books, only they focus on Egyptian mythology and feature a brother-sister team.

Pokemon: The Video Games

The premise of the Pokemon games is simple. You play as the main character, with a starter Pokemon. From there, you leave home and travel the region, capturing other Pokemon, growing them, and using them to prove yourself the very best of Pokemon trainers.

Pokemon is a great game. It’s addictive in its simplicity, and there’s something for everyone. To be sterotypical, the girls will love the pet-raising aspect, the boys will love the fighting. The ease of play means younger children can play, but it’s still enjoyable to older players.

Pokemon has proven its worth as a children’s series. It has been around for 13 years on T.V., in books, movies, and video games. It has seen numerous incarnations, and has refused to let itself become stuck in its original design. Against all odds, Pokemon is still hugely popular with children today.

Suggested Ages: 7+

Masuda, J. (2010). Pokemon White Version. Japan: Nintendo. More

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

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Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

By Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is the first of the Percy Jackson series, a set of novels about Percy, a young boy who comes do discover that he is the son of a Greek God and a mortal woman.

The Lightning Thief is a great book for teens. It is simply-written and fast-paced, full of action, gods and myths of yore. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is a light, fun read that will appeal to readers of all ages. I would highly suggest this book to kids who enjoy a good action story.

For better or for worse, it reminds me of Harry Potter – a great read that lots of people enjoy, and that appeals to the young, mythologically-saavy crowd.

While it is not the deepest of series, it’s not meant to. It’s meant to be picked up and enjoyed as an action-packed coming-of-age tale.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Riordan, R. (2006). Percy Jackson and the Olymptians: The Lightning Thief. Disney Book Group.

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