31 Days, 31 Lists: 2020 Fairy, Folk, and Religious Tales
Once they ruled children’s libraries. Now we’re lucky if we can find ten in a given year. Yet with the big publishers buying one another out every year, the little ones often squeak through the crevices and find ways to put out all kinds of fun tales for kids to enjoy. This year I was impressed by the sheer variety of the stories on display. Hope you like your tales done in all kinds of styles from all kinds of places! This year was a good one for this category.
2020 Fairy, Folk, and Religious Tales
The Blunders: A Counting Catastrophe! by Christina Soontornvat, ill. Colin Jack
Before they leave the house, the ten Blunder kids are told by their mom to not leave anyone behind. So what happens when they only count nine? This book combines two of my favorite things: classic folktales updated and math. It’s a good old-fashioned fool tale, and illustrating it with the art of Colin Jack (who is never not good) was a clever way to go about things. Not only do the kids count forwards in a foolish, albeit normal, way, but they also count backwards, by twos and by threes. That will make math lovers happy. Beautifully laid out, funny, and kids get to feel smarter than the characters, which is always a nice plus.
Chia and the Fox Man: An Alaskan Dena’ina Fable adapted by Barbara J. Atwater and Ethan J. Atwater, ill. Mindy Dwyer
A modern retelling of a traditional fable tells the story of a boy who has to determine what the right thing to do is, when faced with a choice. I particularly appreciate the strength and simplicity of the writing. We’ve seen plenty of adapted fables and too often the retellings come across as stilted. Not so here. The careful integration of Dena’ina words and phrases works well and I liked the art. It’s so strong in this category that my library made to sure to add it to our 101 Great Books for Kids list this year.
The Fabled Life of Aesop by Ian Lendler, ill. Pamela Zagarenski
Wraps Aesop’s fables into a possible story of his life. I think it’s fine to put this in the folktale category since it really does contain twelve of his tales, retold alongside Zagarenski’s dreamlike imagery. I would have liked a tiny bit of backmatter about the real Aesop and what we both do and do not know about him, but I think showing how storytelling can be used to manipulate oppression is timely. Please note that it also pairs very well with Mother Goose of Pudding Lane by Chris Raschka from last year.
The Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns: A Mesoamerican Creation Myth by Duncan Tonatiuh
When the gods of Mesoamerica fail to create human creatures, they give up and hand over the sacred bones of creation to the lord of the underworld. Only Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, is brave enough to take back the bones and try again. 2020 is a good year for Mesoamerican myths! Have any of you ever read Lowriders to the Center of the Earth? I kept having flashbacks to that book as I read this one (they share a villain in Mictlantecuhtli). As with his previous book The Princess and the Warrior, Tonatiuh delves deep into Aztec myth. I was rather amused that the word “Tonatiuh” (def: sun or sun god) appears multiple times in the text. Strong writing and a stirring retelling. (Note: Tonatiuh confesses at the end that he had to rearrange things a bit)
Federico and the Wolf by Rebecca J. Gomez, ill. Elisa Chavarri
Big year for Chavarri! One minute she’s illustrating Sharuko El Arqueólogo Peruano / Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello by Monica Brown. The next she’s illustrating a modernized adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood. It all makes me think how much picture books that incorporate Spanish words into their texts have changed over the last few years. Gone are the days when each one was highlighted to make it seem different from the rest. Gomez’s text rhymes, but it’s not intrusive. Our Red Riding Hood is named Federico and he’s wearing a red hoodie while riding his bike. Alas, the book loses its nerve and goes the old the-wolf-trapped-the-grandparent (a grandpa in this case) route. Does no one old get eaten anymore? Eh, it’s okay. Funny, strange, and with a nice pico de gallo recipe at the end.
The Generous Fish by Jacqueline Jules, ill. Frances Tyrrell
Young Reuven shares his bread with a tiny golden fish, creating an instant bond. But when the villagers realize the fish’s scales are made of real gold, Reuven has to weigh their needs against the fish’s. Just your average everyday boy and his fish story. This book is a combination of two different Jewish tales (“Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters” from Ellen Frankel’s The Classic Tales and Bin Gorion’s Mimekor Yisrael, and the Hasidic “Revelation; Or, The Story of the Billy Goat” by I.L. Peretz). By combining them, Jules is not just making a comment about human greed, but also on how our actions affect the natural world around us. I found it significant that the fish never tells the humans that they’re taking too much. With its colored borders and realistic art, it has a storytime feel that we don’t always find in our children’s books anymore. Extra points for making it look fun to hug a fishy.
Go and Do Likewise! The Parables and Wisdom of Jesus by John Hendrix
John Hendrix is a rare beast in the world of children’s book publishing. As a general rule there is a great big line in the sand drawn between religious publishers and trade publisher. To create a book that focuses solely on the parables of Jesus is something you might expect from Zondervan, not Abrams. But Hendrix is also the premiere Christian artist working in the children’s field today. Of course, there are applications above and beyond the Christian market. In my own case, I’ve found that having a handy reference tool to Jesus’s parables is incredibly useful. To understand our contemporary culture, it can be a good idea to know references like “The Prodigal Son” or “The Good Samaritan”. This book provides that. Plus it’s purdy. Gorgeously rendered and beautifully told. There’s even a nice section at the end about “Retelling Vs. Translating” and sources citing the Biblical passages.
Pacho Nacho by Silvia López, ill. Pablo Pino
Unable to agree on a single name, a family calls their first kid Pacho-Nacho-Nico-Tico-Melo-Felo-Kiko-Rico. So what happens when he’s in trouble and his brother Juan has to call for help? This kind of story originated as a Japanese folktale. If Tikki Tikki Tembo makes you feel guilty because you love the rhymes and hate the racism, good news! This has a lot of the same beats and some pretty amusing rhymes to boot. Probably it would take some extensive practice before you could do it in a storytime, but don’t give up on that dream. It’s interesting because unlike Tikki Tikki Tembo, this book cut out a beat in the story. Originally the sibling with the short name falls in first and THEN the kid with the long one. An interesting change in an interesting book.
The Phoenix of Persia by Sally Pomme Clayton, ill. Amin Hassanzadeh Sharif
A foundling prince is adopted by a kind phoenix (or Simorgh) in this ancient Iranian tale. Jewel-toned scratchboard art also brings this story to life. Oh, this is just great! Loved the scratchboard art and I liked the story too. It has that otherworldly feel you sometimes get with true classic folktales. This book also has such strong ties to classical storytelling with its clever incorporation of music. And you know how some folktales sort of fall flat without an ending? Not this one! A beaut. Do not miss it.
Quill Soup: A Stone Soup Story by Alan Durant, ill. Dale Blankenaar
The old stone soup story gets a kick in the rear with this gorgeously rendered import from South African illustrator Dale Blankenaar and UK author Alan Durant. Blues, yellows and reds are the name of the game, accompanied by a text that stresses the lessons of the original but frames the story in an entirely different way. Here, a porcupine comes to a small village of other animals. Being a stranger they won’t even give him the time of day, let alone any food. To start the soup, he uses his own quills as a base, and the tale takes off from there. Durant’s storytelling is good but you’re going to stay for Blankenaar’s art if nothing else. I sort of went down the rabbit hole of looking into his past work and now all I want to do is find his book Rhinocephants on the Roof. Anyone want to help a gal out? One of the most vibrant books of the year.
Reynard the Fox by Renate Raecke, ill. Jonas Lauströer
Years ago I attended the Bologna Book Festival. It was a wonderful experience, and I was entranced by the crazy wild variety of illustrations on display. If ever you despair at the state of picture book illustration today, get thee to the fair. While there, the announcements of the Bologna Ragazzi Awards were made and to my delight one winner was this marvelous noir-influenced alphabet book where all the animals wore suits and ties. Alas, it would never be translated and brought to America, but I retained its memory in my mind. This year, I was flipping through a book that promised to do something with the medieval trickster character Reynard the Fox, when I saw that all the animals in this book were wearing suits and ties and fancy dresses. It wasn’t the same artist, but by gum it had the same feel! In this book, Raecke cleverly weaves together a number of different Renard stories to create a single overarching tale of a fox on trial for his many misdeeds. Lauströer’s art often outdoes itself and the book has all the wonder and fear you’d want out of these tales. This is a collection of folktales at their absolute best. Because if you can’t be charmed by a fox in shirtsleeves, you don’t deserve to be charmed at all.
Sacred Song of the Hermit Thrush: A Mohawk Story by Tehanetorens, ill. David Kanietakeron Fadden
It’s a story that some of us may have heard before, if not this exact version. When the earth was created the people could sing, but the birds could not. The Good Spirit decided that each bird should have a song, and to determine the sweetest, they would see who could fly the highest. And hermit thrush, clever creature, got a ride to the top via the bald eagle’s back. Unfortunately this was cheating, so while it may have the loveliest song today, it also hides from everyone out of shame. The backstory to the author of the book is almost as interesting as the book itself. Tehanetorens is described in the About the Author section as a teacher who was adopted into the Mohawk Wolf Clan and given the name Tehanetorens. In the 1930s he was a schoolteacher at the St. Regis Mohawn School in Hogansburg, NY and spent much of his time publicizing the technological innovations and democratic traditions America owes to the Mohawk Nation. He established the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, NY. This story was first published as a pamplet by the Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, a fact that is prominently stated at the book’s start. Illustrator David Kanietakeron Fadden is the author’s grandson, an Akwesasne Mohawk artist raised in a traditional Mohawk household. I was very taken with the thick paints used to illustrate this story. There’s this moment when the hermit thrush lifts off the back of the bald eagle and the eagle shoots the bird this seriously pissed off face that felt enormously true. Bald eagles already look permanently peeved as it is. This just put the truth to the glare. A great book.
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris, ill. Ehsan Abdollahi
A weary soldier encounters a castle with a mystery. The king needs to know why his daughters’ shoes are tattered and torn every night. But is the answer worth dying for? To be perfectly honest, when I was a kid I had a copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses illustrated by Errol le Cain that I still consider to be the best ever done. No other version has ever really captured the surreal beauty of the gold, silver, and diamond trees that the princesses pass on the way to their illicit rendezvous . . . until now. Ehsan Abdollahi is an Iranian artist who makes these fascinating choices throughout the story (luminescent mother-of-pearl petals are stand-ins for diamonds, for example). But Jackie Morris really won my heart because she taps into the question in the story that no one else ever seems to want to talk about: Why would you marry a princess who was perfectly willing to kill you without a second thought? The ending changes the original, and the story’s better for it by far. Plus, the writing itself is brilliant.
Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math by Rajani LaRocca, ill. Archana Sreenivasan
Faced with a conundrum of how to pay his way at an inn, a clever boy uses binary numbers in an eclectic manner to win the day. You guys know that I serve on the Mathical Award every year (I’m chairing it this year) and that I usually try not to let that influence the books propose for my 31 Days, 31 Lists. That said, I’m just charmed by this book. It’s a folktale that teaches binary in an exceedingly clear cut way. It could well be that the book is almost too smart for its own good, but honestly it reminded me a lot of that classic One Grain of Rice by Demi. Good writing, fun art, and a slick incorporation of math into fiction.
Sootypaws: A Cinderella Story by Maggie Rudy
I’m a sucker for models. They’re ridiculously hard to pull off, to say nothing of all the lighting techniques and photography that goes into making them look halfway decent. Still, there is this steadfast cadre of author/illustrators out there that have mastered the form. Maggie Rudy is one of these and I found it oddly gratifying to see that a big publisher had picked up her latest. I know we’ve had more Cinderella stories than we can shake a fist at, but there’s something so charming about Rudy’s latest. The writing actually manages to be both romantic and 21st century (Cinderella and her prince decide to literally kick off their shoes and see the world together rather than wed right away). As for the art, the rose petal gown that Sootypaws wears to the ball truly looks like it fell from a flower. A treat for both eye and ear.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Gerda Miller
According to this book, the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote the original poem of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in 1791, “inspired by a story told to him by his maid.” One ponders how this came up in the first place. I, for one, want to know more about that maid. In lieu of that, I’ll have to be content with this meticulously rendered edition of the old tale. If you’ve watched your Fantasia then you may have seen Mickey Mouse try to get out of his chores by enchanting a broom. That’s fairly faithful to the original tale, but rather than set the tale in a castle, Miller puts the boy and the low-key sorcerer named Alfred in a homely little house in a village. When the water really gets going there’s a kind of Strega Nona vibe to the calamity. All ends well, and the sorcerer forgives the apprentice. I just love the last sentence in the book: “After many years of listening and learning, Oliver became the village sorcerer. And he was almost as wise as Alfred.” Certainly the best version of this tale I’ve seen to date. Accessible and enjoyable.
Tales of the Feathered Serpent: Rise of the Halfling King by David Bowles, ill. Charlene Bowles
Sayam’s just your average half-human boy in this Mayan tale. When he popped out of an egg and was raised by a kind witch, he had no idea he’d be challenging a tyrant for his throne. Author David Bowles is hugely invested in the foundation of #DignidadLiteraria, a movement that campaigns for a bigger inclusion of Latinx people throughout the publishing/literary industry. He loves Mesoamerican myths and this is the first in a series of them. Honestly, besides Duncan Tonatiuh’s books, we do not see a great many Mesoamerican myths in a given year. This book is peppy, has fun art, and there’s a nice Afterword that gives some background information on the Maya. And did I mention that it’s a comic?
Three Billy Goats Buenos by Susan Middleton Elya, ill. Miguel Ordóñez
A beautiful blend of Spanish and English retells the classic story of three plump little cabritos and the hungry gigante who wants to munch them up. I’m naturally suspicious of any retelling where the troll doesn’t get bashed into the river at the end (see: Jerry Pinkney’s retelling of the tale). Worse still, this version takes out the delightful “trip-trap” along the bridge. So why do I like it so much? Because Elya more than makes up for this alliterative lack with rhymes that actually work and work well. Her troll is female (which is awesome) and the Spanish words are so effortlessly worked in that while you may turn to the Glossary at the front once in a while, but context is key for most of them. There is a happy ending, but it’s not treacly, so I’ll let it slide.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff: The Full Story by Richard Jackson and Katherine Tillotson
It’s been a good year for gruff! One is inclined to consider whether the story of a bully and a bridge reflects at all our current political situation. Probably not in this case. Here, the troll is not redeemed. Indeed, it’s walloped clean into space in a strangely satisfying sequence. Tillotson’s art, a sumptuous combination of fiery oranges and deep, cool greens, enthralls. Dick Jackson may have left us but as posthumous tributes go, this may actually be one of his best. Best of all, I like that the focus of the book is on how the smallest billy goat is the one that is capable of telling not just his own story but the stories of his siblings as well. The true point of the book is to celebrate those folks that tell better stories by seeing and telling the whole, rather than just a part. So cool.
Waa’aka’: The Bird Who Fell in Love with the Sun by Cindi M. Alvitre, ill. Carly Lake
“Fell in love” is a bit of a misnomer here, but it makes for such a good title I wouldn’t change it. Probably a more accurate title would have said something along the lines of “The Bird Who Fell in Love with Concept of What the Sun Could Do For Her”, but that’s a tad on the wordy side. Alvitre, aside from teaching American Indian Studies at California State University, Long Beach, is a descendant of the Tongva and in 1985 cofounded Mother Earth Clan, a collective of Indian women who created a model for cultural and environmental education. This is a Tongva creation story, exquisitely rendered by artist Carly Lake. In this tale, Wiyot, the creator, forms the earth and the animals, including the beautiful white bird, Waa’aka’. When he creates the sun, it falls in love with the bird. She, on the other hand, only likes him for his light because without it she couldn’t see her own reflection. You see where this is going. Alvitre tells the tale splendidly while the art soars from page to page. I dearly hope more folks get to see this one, as it’s one of the best tales of the year. No exaggeration there.
The Weather’s Bet by Stephen Cowan, ill. Ed Young
I wonder if Ed Young ever gets tired of being cool. Aesop gets a reinterpretation under the guise of Young’s expert art. Torn paper collage and Chinese pictograms retell the story of a contest between the sun, the wind, and the rain to convince a shepherd girl to remove her hat and cloak. All the art you’ll find in this book was apparently made from a combination of “torn handmade and magazine paper”. And there’s a portion at the beginning that explains not just why Young has chosen to include certain pictograms in the art, but also the origins of those pictograms and how they apply to this tale. The idea of subtly tying in a love of conservation to this age old story about earth, water, and wind is smart as a whip and the end result is beautiful. I mean, his art. Example: I love how the shepherd on the cover looks as those she’s dripping with water. That’s friggin’ paper!
Want to see other lists? Check out what happened this month!
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Bilingual Books
December 11 – Books with a Message
December 12 – Fabulous Photography
December 13 – Translated Picture Books
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Wordless Picture Books
December 16 – Poetry Books
December 17 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 20 – Older Funny Books
December 21 – Science Fiction Books
December 22 – Fantasy Books
December 23 – Informational Fiction
December 24 – American History
December 25 – Science & Nature Books
December 26 – Unique Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 28 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Middle Grade Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
Filed under: 31 Days 31 Lists, Best Books, Best Books of 2020
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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