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

Something From Nothing

By Phoebe Gilman

Now that Christmas has come and gone, I thought long and hard about what book I should do next. Something about rebirth, maybe, or one that encompasses the spirit of giving without relating to Christmas. And absolutely nothing bad – I want a good, uplifting book. Then at the store I stumbled across the answer, lost in the press of similarly sized children’s books crammed on a too-small shelf. How fortuitous!

Something From Nothing is an old book that I read as a child, but have forgotten as the years have passed. Nevertheless, it remains one of my favorite stories, and one that might make you hard-pressed not to tear up. It begins with a blanket Joseph is given at birth by his grandfather. As he grows older, the blanket grows rattier, until the mother declares that he should throw it out. Distraught, he takes it to his grandfather, where it’s remade into a coat. Joseph loves the coat, until it’s too small and worn out, and the mother once again declares it should be thrown out. So back to the grandfather, who remakes it as a vest, a tie, a handkerchief, and a button before the boy accidentally loses the button. Distraught, he goes to his grandfather, but is told there is nothing to be done: “you can’t make something from nothing”. At school the next day, Joseph discovers that he has just enough to make a wonderful story.

Based on a Yiddish tale, Something From Nothing is a gorgeous story. The story is simple and rhythmic, somewhat repetitive so children more easily grasp the nature of the story. The artwork is beautiful, full of little Easter eggs in in the panels (just watch and see how much fun your child has examining the minute life of the mice that live under the house and use scraps from his blanket).

If you’re looking for a good story about grandfather-grandchild relations, this is a great one to recommend. In its undertones it’s about family love, values, and how memories are kept long after the physical object has disappeared.

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

Dear As Salt

By Rafe Martin

When my sister found out I was doing this blog, she demanded that I do this book. She wasn’t even aware of the title I had chosen at that point (I wish I had seen her expression when she first saw it. Alas, she lives in Alberta, so I am out of luck). So today, I shall tackle the inspiration for my blog and review Dear As Salt.

One day, a melancholy King decides to find out how much his daughters’ love him. He calls each of his three daughters before him, and pretends to be very angry, accusing each of not loving him enough. The first two daughters answer that they love him “as much as bread” and “as much as wine”, and the King is please. But when his youngest (Zizola) comes before him, she answers that he is “as dear as salt” to her. Viewing this as an insult, the king flies into a rage and orders her killed. Rolling her eyes, Zizola’s mother hides her daughter in a giant chicken-shaped candlestick and orders one of her servants to take it to the market and sell it to a decent man. A prince comes along, makes some nice (if unrealistic) remarks about how he would use the candle to give people comfort, and ends up with a giant, black, chicken-shaped candlestick with a hidden princess inside.

Dear As Salt is a great book for young girls in the 5-9 age range. It has humour, though the humour is visual, and never once touched on in the text; it’s very subtle, and more for the parents or sharp-eyed child. There are repetitive stanzas within the text to help children memorize the story and keep them engaged. The moral at the end, when the King finally realizes the meaning behind his daughter’s statement that she loved him “as dear as salt”, that she loved him most of all his daughters and he had her executed is quite effective. If it was done in movie form, it would be quite the climactic final scene.

The artwork is gorgeous; the colours are lush and vibrant and a real treat for the eye. It gives the feel of a Renaissance-type painting, with Italian-inspired backgrounds. There is very little white space, and the images beautifully reflect the text. There is a little disconnect between the serious tone of the text and the subtle jokes of the images (see again: giant black chicken-shaped candlestick). This book is a lot of fun for both parents and children to share together.

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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The Three Pigs

By David Wiesner

Almost everything happens in the “white space” of the book, while the story progresses without them. The words are the same, but the illustrations change to reflect the confusion of the wolf. Ignoring their own story, the pigs go exploring other stories, rescuing or being followed by other characters. They decide to go back to their story and re-write the ending as they want it.

The story targets an older audience; one with the ability to understand what’s happening without a lot of text. The gorgeous art easily tells the story, and I recommend it especially as a tool for helping youngsters think outside the box.

Suggested Ages: 6-9

Wiesner, D. (2001). The Three Pigs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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East of the Sun & West of the Moon (Part 3)

By Sarah Beth Durst

Welcome to part 3! Parts 1 and 2 are here and here, respectively.

The main protagonist is Cassie, who has been basically raised in the research station, where her father tags and researches polar bears. On her birthday, Cassie is paid a visit by a polar bear, and told that she was promised to him as a bride. Spirited away, she tries to make a new life as the bride of a bear.

This book contains a lot of new elements, as one must to flesh a children’s book to a full-sized novel. Bear is not a cursed prince but a magical being in his own right. The trolls have been changed; they are now a race of gelatinous, ever-changing, ethereal beings who want to live but do not know how.

The book started off strong, but ended with a whimper, leaving me disappointed. Read for the good ideas, but be warned it will likely leave you scratching your head.

Suggested Ages: 9-12

Durst, S. B. (2009). Ice. Margaret K. McElderry Books

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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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