Princess Florecita & the Iron Shoes

by John W. Stewig, Wendy Popp,
40 pages,
ISBN: 0679847758

In a Circle Long Ago:
A Treasury of Native Lore from North America

by Nancy Van Laan, Lisa Desimini,
128 pages,
ISBN: 0679858075

The Monster from the Swamp:
Native Legends about Demons, Monsters & Other Creatures

by C. J. Taylor, C. J. Taylor,
32 pages,
ISBN: 0887763618

Princess Prunella & the Purple Peanut

32 pages,
ISBN: 1550137328

Aleta & the Queen

159 pages,
ISBN: 1550374621

The Faster Runner in the World

75 pages,
ISBN: 155037463X

Her Kind

192 pages,
ISBN: 1551110423

Truly Grim Tales

144 pages,
ISBN: 1895555671

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Children & Myths
by Allison Sutherland

Childhood is commonly reckoned to be wasted on the young, and perhaps myths and folk-tales are too. When I was a child they bored me silly. Once I was trapped at someone's cottage one rainy weekend when I was ten, with nothing to read except for Arthur Lang's The Blue Fairy Book, I quickly learned to play solitaire. Classical myths were acceptable, especially Hawthorne's version of the Pegasus story in The Wonder Book. But the rest left me cold at best. Yet paradoxically, the most glorious reading experiences of my life-C. S. Lewis, George Macdonald, Edith Nesbit, Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, Rosemary Sutcliffe's Sword at Sunset, the Green Knowe books-were all saturated with the presuppositions and imagery of folk-tales, legends, and mythology.
After I started in library school, I took a course in story-telling and discovered Barbara Leonie Picard's anthologies, filled with variety, nuance, and arresting detail. When I began doing story hours for children, I gradually started to appreciate the power-and kick-of retelling the age-old tales with rows of wide-eyed young faces and half-opened mouths before me. When I began doing puppet-shows based on fairy-stories, using the Toronto Public Library system's excellent collection of scripts, I discovered the joy of imagining dialogue, and the fun of satirizing the convention. Working with parents and choosing picture books for my library's collection, I grew aware of the glory of a single short tale, sumptuously illustrated, retold with authority and conviction, text and graphics informing and enhancing each other. And I began to find novels that took myths or fairy-tales and reworked them into legitimate entities in their own right and on their own terms, like Mary Renault's The King Must Die, or Robin McKinley's Beauty. I started noticing how the conventions could be turned inside out: Robert Munsch's The Paperbag Princess, Jan Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and, of course, the wildly successful Politically Correct Fairytales.
When I acquired a child of my own, I naturally read manuals on how to rear the young of our species, but they all omitted what could have been the most useful advice of all: Brush up on your folk-tales.
If you have a child on your hands when waiting for a doctor, queuing to pay for groceries, on long car rides, canoe trips, or waiting for food in a restaurant, there is nothing more useful than being able to burble on about Perseus, the little goose girl, or the three pigs, bears, goats, brothers, or princesses. You can be telegraphic: "I'll tell you `Cinderella', `Snow White', and `Jack and the Beanstalk' before bed." You can be expansive: King Midas once lasted for me almost from Pictou to Halifax, a two-hour drive. You can be satirical: "Then Goldilocks saw three TV sets. One showed nothing but sports, the second nothing but soap operas, but the third one had Barney, Sesame Street, the Power Rangers...." You can do in-depth character studies in response to questions like "But why did he tell the king his daughter could spin straw into gold?" You can edit as you see fit if instructed: "Tell me `Rapunzel', but make the witch a nice lady." And you can construct full-length novels using basic materials if asked, "Tell me another chapter about The Adventures of Pegasus and Me."

Greek myths originally belonged to adults. Then, like furniture that has become unstylish, they were moved up to the nursery and became "for children". In Her Kind, Jane Cahill, a classicist and professional story-teller, has dragged them downstairs again. She doesn't wear her encyclopedic knowledge of the material lightly; at times one has to fight through thickets of names like some Ancient Greek telephone directory. But Cahill is skilful enough to avoid being unintentionally hilarious as she reworks the stories of the vilest anti-heroines in Greek myth and turns them into sympathetic characters. Medusa the Gorgon, Clytemnestra as good people. Jocasta, mother and wife of Oedipus. Myrrha, seducer of her own father. Ino, perhaps the original wicked stepmother. Procne, my own favourite, who served her husband a meal of their son simmered in a well-seasoned stew. And others, not evil but merely unimportant in the usual handling of Greek myth-like Thetis the mother of Achilles, or Danae the mother of Perseus. What are the stories like when told by them?
I am surprised that more people haven't picked up on the legend of Atalanta, the virgin huntress and swift runner of ancient Greece. She would have been an obvious choice in the days when it was still possible to be unselfconsciously politically correct, and have female protagonists who were strong and active and interesting, without the nasty feeling that one was undertaking an exercise in gender equity. Born in an age when patriarchy was a less complicated matter, Atalanta was exposed as an infant because she was female. The goddess of the moon, Artemis, rescued her and gave her to hunters to raise, and Atalanta vowed herself to perpetual maidenhood and the pleasures of running and hunting on the mountains of Attica. This caused problems when her father reclaimed her and insisted that she take a husband. Being the fastest runner in the land, she stipulated that only a man who could outrace her be eligible to marry her, hoping that this would end the matter-especially as she would sacrifice any unsuccessful contenders by cutting their throats upon the altar of her patron, Artemis. At this point Aphrodite, goddess of love, became involved: she gave three golden apples to one of the suitors, with instructions to toss them out at intervals during the race. Atalanta swerved to pick each one up and was defeated, married, and eventually turned into a lioness for indulging in the marital act within the sacred premises of the temple of Zeus. Some authorities placed her among the Argonauts during the Quest for the Golden Fleece, some assigned an illegitimate child to her, which she in her turn exposed as an infant, and all accounts of the Calydonian Boar Hunt (whose participants included Theseus, Jason, and a roll-call of all the most eminent heroes of the day) give the honour of first blood to her.
Priscilla Galloway in Atalanta: The Fastest Runner in the World gives us a woman who in the midst of a freedom and achievement almost unimaginable in the culture of that day, feels the pull of male love, of hearth and home, and a more conventional femininity. It is a satisfactory slant to choose, except occasionally in the parts of the story that really need the sense of a woman totally possessed by the ruthless purity of vowed virginity- remember the cut throats of the defeated suitors. Or, as Robert Graves says, "Hylaeus and Rhaecus decided to ravish her, each in turn assisting the other, but she shot them down and went to hunt at Meleager's side." Without much of a second thought, apparently. The ancient world knew, even if we have forgotten, that the Goddess, the eternal feminine, could be cruel and full of terror as well as compassionate and nurturing. Galloway at times evades the piercing clarity of this truth by editing out some elements of the myth or muting other elements by giving Atalanta a kindlier motivation. She has opted for a tone of psychological realism and ambiguity, and ends the tale before Atalanta's marriage and subsequent metamorphosis, leaving the reader with a quite suitable sense of irresolution.
Visually this book is attractive, even if the illustrations by Normand Cousineau occasionally overwhelm the text. I felt more comfortable with the smaller and more decorative elements of his contribution; a lovely curving bow and quiver of arrows, for instance, or a rock with a stylized curl of water gushing out of it used as a page-break. Even these might indicate a slight failure of judgement, though, for they remind one of little woodcuts, not an art form associated with classical Greece. Elsewhere he has used the shapes and patterns of archaic Greek pottery, except that he uses diffused rather than pure colour. He might have been more effective had he followed the Greek idiom more closely.
Penelope is another strong female figure from Homeric Greece. As Ulysses' queen, she had the unenviable job of keeping his kingdom intact while he joined the siege of Troy for ten years and then took another ten to find his way home. The palace rapidly filled with neighbouring noblemen who assured her he was dead, feasted at her expense, seduced her maidservants, and clamoured for her to chose a new husband from their number. She kept them at bay with one ruse after another, and the tale ended with Ulysses' return and a glorious mass slaughter of suitors and guilty handmaids (after making the latter clean up the joint). Penelope became a symbol of wifely faithfulness and constancy against extraordinary odds.
Aleta and the Queen, Galloway's novelization of Penelope's story, seems to have been issued as a companion volume to Atalanta, being identical in design and illustrated by the same artist. As narrative, however, it is frustratingly inept. Why would Ulysses' son Telemachus and the ten-year-old servant girl Aleta celebrate their birthdays together? Another character, watching the roistering suitors, is pleased that there are fewer of them, then "remembered that some were on a ship waiting to kill Telemachus." (Not the sort of thing that slips one's mind, surely?) Argus, Ulysses' beloved, faithful dog, after being neglected by Penelope for twenty years, dies after recognizing Ulysses and welcoming him-without a pang on the part of Our Returning Hero. (Well, maybe he never really liked that dog.) The whole book reads like a first draft and manages at times to make Penelope's story boring. It is hard to believe that the same writer did both books.
As a result, I approached Galloway's Truly Grim Tales with a certain amount of dread, but to my relief found it delightfully competent. She has left the world of classical Greece and turned to Northern Europe, exhibiting a pleasantly ghoulish humour as she turns familiar fairy-tales inside-out, ingeniously changing the settings ("Red Riding Hood" as science fiction, for example) or exploring a tale from the viewpoint of the witch, or Rumpelstiltskin, or the giant's wife in "Jack and the Beanstalk." And the writing is good. Rapunzel's pregnant mother craves for lettuce, devouring"three feet of ice-green succulence" yet "after a week, my craving resounded more loudly than ever, a restless obbligato in my mouth and stomach....Over and over I saw myself jumping from my window, sinking into the soft black earth, crunching the crisp green."
If Greek myths and European fairy-tales are your sources, you usually don't have to worry about charges of cultural appropriation, but it is a different matter dealing with indigenous traditions. Two excellent anthologies-one by a native person, one not-show folk materials and legends collected, translated, illustrated, and presented at their best. C. J. Taylor from the Kahnawake Reserve near Montreal is an experienced producer of sumptuously illustrated First Peoples folklore, and The Monster from the Swamp shares the strengths and the weaknesses of her previous work. Perhaps because Taylor is trying so hard to be true to her sources, her prose has a meat-and-potatoes feel to it, almost too stark and straightforward. "He grew large and antlers pushed through his head" is the fullest description of any monsters in the book. If you are going to write about these creatures, you can allow yourself a little more flamboyance, a little more lushness, and have a little more fun with verbalizing what the things are actually like. Still, Taylor's energetic illustrations do make up for the sparseness of the prose.
Nancy Van Laan is not of native ancestry, nor is her illustrator, Lisa Desimini. I hope that they will be forgiven. In A Circle Long Ago: A Treasury of Native Lore from North America is very fine. The introduction and appendix are by way of being apologia for presuming to use the material. The appendix, especially, as it lists and describes the peoples from whom the stories sprang, and briefly and unsentimentally chronicles what happened to them after contact with Europeans, at the very least indicates a lack of complacency about using another culture's material. Van Laan's writing is rhythmic and ably tracks patterns of speech. A wonderful heartlessness about some of them is quite hilarious. My favourite tells why frogs swim. It seems they never used to go near water at all, but Snake observed, "Hsss! Puh! You smell terrible!" So Mother Frog washed them and left them in the water. Now, "since they no longer smell so bad, snakes eat them whenever they can." Van Laan finishes off many of the tales with the refrain:
"Is it true?"
"Yes, it is true!"
You can almost hear the voices and smell the smoke from the campfire. As an concluding formula it's much better than the European "They Lived Happily Ever After," or even "Snip-snap-snout, Our tale's told out."
About twenty years ago, a great deal was made about having Strong Female Protagonists in books for children, even to the extent of writing your own folk-tales if necessary. For a Canadian, Robert Munsch's The Paperbag Princess is possibly the most obvious example. John Warren Stewig's Princess Florecita and the Iron Shoes is evidence that authentic folklore has always been aware that women are just as heroic as men: the princess awakens the bespelled prince rather than the other way around. This lovely book is a splendid example of the hundreds of fairy-tales that are now available in this format: a single story, top-quality illustration by K. Wendy Popp, masterly text and translation, blended to make an indissoluble entity.
The stuff of legend, myth, and folk-tale is constantly being collected, re-told, issued as single tales, parodied, and satirized, re-interpreted, and used as a basis for full-length novels. Besides this, you occasionally get an Oscar Wilde, a James Thurber, or a Hans Christian Andersen-writers using the forms and conventions to work their own wholly new creations. Their stories can seem so right and archetypal that it is hard to remember that they haven't always existed in the consciousness of a culture. Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut uses the conventions of the fairy-tale, and is by Margaret Atwood, who ought to be profoundly ashamed of herself for foisting such an abomination upon her unsuspecting public. Atwood has done at least one satisfactory book for children, Anna's Pet, with her aunt, Joyce Barkhouse, but she has escaped from Aunty here, resulting in a throw-away plot (spoiled princess offends a witch and has to do three good deeds to have the resulting spell lifted) with an attempt at humour based on the reiterated letter "P": Princess Prunella, breakfasts of "porridge, pineapple, and passionfruit punch," and "a pinheaded prince in plum-coloured polka-dotted pants", passim. Now, letterplay as a plot device is not the problem. Nor is the idea of light-hearted parody. The problem is that Atwood seems to be as bored with the enterprise of writing a folk-tale as I used to be reading them; a normally conscientious, hard-working, reasonably gifted wordsmith seems to think that when writing something for children she does not need to give it her best-twenty years ago the same cavalier attitude was evident in the unforgivably trivial Up in a Tree. No matter what you are writing, but especially when working for children, only the very best that you are capable of will do. This is such a cliché that it is startling to have to re-state it. Yet Atwood has sense neither of her characters' reality nor of the significance of stock figures and situations, cannot muster a responsible choice of detail, and does not respect the broader themes that run through myth and folklore. Even Galloway's Aleta, bad though it is, is a better book than this careless effort. A pity, because Maryann Kovalski's illustrations are charming; reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak, they create a Versailles-like ambience. But not even Atalanta could rescue this one.
In this batch of books you can see examples of folk materials presented in their most simple and basic form, as in the native tales, then varying examples of elaboration and sophistication, and moving past the exquisite decadence suggested by some of Galloway's Grim(m) stories, to the disintegrating degeneration of Prunella. A microcosm of mankind's spiritual and imaginative journey down the ages? Perhaps. All I know is that I wish all this had been available when I was ten.


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