Coyote Tales by Thomas King, ill. Byron Eggenschwiler
The older I get the more I like tricksters. I can’t think why that might be. By rights tricksters fall into the strict purview of children. Think of Bugs Bunny and Pippi Longstocking and R2-D2. I could make a case for each and every one of those being tricksters. Children’s books, as you might imagine, are packed full with them from cultures all over the world. Oddly, we haven’t seen as many from First Nations cultures lately. There was the graphic collection Trickster, edited by Matt Dembicki a couple years ago and Coyote Road: Trickster Tales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terrie Windling, but the only other truly fabulous title that comes to mind would have to be Thomas King’s A Coyote Columbus Story from 1992. That book remains, to this day, the gold standard Coyote story for me. Somehow author Thomas King, a Canadian of Cherokee and Greek descent, was able to perfectly tap into that combination of heroism and bone-deep foolishness Coyote brings to every tale. King’s been busy since that book came out, winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for his adult novel The Back of the Turtle in his spare time. He never really abandoned children’s books, though, and over the years has published stories like “Coyote Sings to the Moon” and “Coyote’s New Suit”. Now those two tales have been repackaged in a single book with the highly amusing art of Byron Eggenschwiler to match. The end result is exactly what I was hoping for. Coyote, silly and stupid and weirdly sympathetic, all rolled up together.
Consisting of two stories, the first tale “Coyote Sings to the Moon” recounts a time when the moon lay close to the earth and all the animals would sing her praise. All the animals, that is, but Coyote. When told by the other animals to abstain from singing due to his horrendous voice, Coyote offends the moon by questioning her necessity. Miffed, the moon disappears and it is Old Woman who has the wherewithal to realize that Coyote holds the key to getting the heavenly body back. In the second story, “Coyote’s New Suit” it is Coyote’s hubris that starts the trouble. Coyote loves his fur suit, but it doesn’t take much prodding from a mischievous Crow to convince him to try Bear’s suit on for size. Then Porcupine’s. Then Skunks. Then more. When humans and their human clothes get involved in the muddle, things only get rectified after some serious mix-ups.
One of the remarkable things about this book is that even though Coyote is consistently thickheaded, you feel for the guy. In some Coyote tales the character is out-and-out malignant. Here you feel some sympathy for him. In “Coyote Sings the Moon” he’s immediately hurt when the other animals tell him that he doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world (an understatement). “Coyote’s New Suit”, in contrast, shifts Coyote from schlemiel to schlimazel with Raven (another great trickster character) taking on the former role. The other interesting thing is the stories themselves. Not having an intimate knowledge of Coyote tales, these felt original but with elements of more traditional tales referenced throughout. When the Old Woman funnels Coyote’s talent for repulsion to its best use, that felt familiar. These tales have all the trappings of the real Coyote stories in terms of tone, repetition, and lack of moral. Plus you can’t help but love how “Coyote’s New Suit” reinforces the trickster’s pig-headedness, as he refuses to learn from past mistakes and walks right back into the trap that Raven has laid out for him. As for “Coyote Sings the Moon” am I the only one who kept thinking about the Italo Calvino story “The Distance of the Moon” as she read it? Yes? Thought so.
The book itself is a peculiar little package. Normally, if an author has some short stories to their name with a common theme, these books are packaged together. But for that to happen the book will usually consist of three such tales. Just two is odd. Abbreviated. Short. You reach the end and hanker for more, which I suppose could be construed to be a good thing. But I couldn’t help but wish that King had taken the time to conjure up just one more Coyote tale to accompany the two here. As it stands the book is a serviceable little early chapter book tale. Perfect for those kids lingering in that netherworld between easy books and 500-page Harry Potter-esque tomes. More of that, please.
Eggenschwiler, aside from having what may be the greatest last name in children’s literature at the moment (though Robert Quackenbush and Edwin Fotheringham might wish to arm wrestle him for the honor) provides the art for this particular outing. There’s no indication of what medium Eggenschwiler is working in necessarily, but from the deep blacks I’m going to have to assume pen and inks. Funny art? He can do that too, which is a relief. After all, an illustrator that can’t squeeze maximum fun out of the image of a moose sporting a frilly dress (seemingly against his will) would have little place on our library and bookstore shelves.
Trickster tales are not particularly abundant in a given publishing year. Early chapter books fare a little better, but they aren’t exactly burning up the market. Put the two together and what do you get? A rarity. A good rarity (just because something is hard to find, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily any good) that deserves a wide audience that will love and cherish it the way that it deserves. Thomas King channels Coyote’s spirit beautifully, and the end result are two stories that feel old but that 21st century kids are going to find incredibly funny. No small feat for one small book.
On shelves now
Source: Title borrowed from library.
Like This? Then Try:
- Trickster: Native American Tales, A Graphic Collection edited by Matt Dembicki
- Trick of the Tale: A Collection of Trickster Tales by John and Caitlin Matthews, ill. Tomislav Tomic
- A Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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