Saturday, June 29, 2013

Three Fox Fables by Aesop and Paul Galdone (1971)

I have a fondness for Aesop; I still own Jack Kent's More Fables of Aesop, which I read and re-read with delight. I also love foxes and fox tales.  Although occasionally foxes come out on top (The Gingerbread Man is one example), they most often are flummoxed by trickier foes.  Three Fox Fables combines both of these loves, plus excellent pictures from Paul Galdone. The fables are easy enough to read aloud to a child, in one short sitting, and there is plenty of discussion to be had.  The fables are also really well know  -- "The Fox and The Grapes" (it's easy to scorn what you can't get) and  "The Fox and the Stork" ("tricksters cannot complain when they in turn are tricked," although "just desserts" and "schadenfreude" are other morals).  The third has the fox on top - "The Fox and the Crow" ("never trust a flatterer"), the fox being the flatterer who gets a piece of cheese from the crow.

Three Aesop Fox FablesThree Aesop Fox Fables by Paul Galdone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short, easy to read versions of three famous fox fables from Aesop.  Galdone's illustrations are masterful - bright,colorful, distinct.    The fables are short enough to read aloud and interesting enough to spark discussion.

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Jack-O'-Lantern by Edna Barth ; illustrated by Paul Galdone (1974)

Mean Jack is like the proverbial "git outta my yard" old man, shaking his fist at the sun and the moon.  The story is unusual for the fact that he gets the better of St. Peter, and ends up giving him three wishes that don't backfire on him.  He gets the better of the Devil too - and the devil's sons Norman and Everett (I wonder why Barth chose those names?).  Although not much of a Halloween story, it still has enough of a taste of New England and cider and cold autumn winds to pair nicely with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and some hot popcorn on an October night.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mean Jack gets the better of both St. Peter and the Devil (and the Devil's two bumpkinish looking demonic sons, Norman and Everett - I wonder why Barth chose those particular names?) in a humorous tale.  While not a terrifying Halloween tale, this has enough old New England flavor to pair nicely with Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle , some apple cider and hot popcorn on a cold October night under a yellow pumpkin moon.

The Complete Story of Three Blind Mice by John W. Ivimey; illustrated by Paul Galdone (1987)

A cute (almost cutesy) look at what happened before and after the famous three blind mice's encounter with the farmer's wife and her infamous carving knife. Paul Galdone's last book; he died three weeks after finishing it.

Here is a copy of the original version, with illustrations by Walton Corbould, around the turn of the last century:

These Edwardian mice could be straight out of Forster, or Mary Poppins.  They are certainly dapper.

Galdone's mice are much less dapper and much more real, although Galdone's mice are all wearing scarves.

This would not make a very good read aloud, or even a bedtime story book.  When all is said and done, isn't this really a song?

The Complete Story of the Three Blind MiceThe Complete Story of the Three Blind Mice by John W. Ivimey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ivimey took the old song and gave it a overhauled it back in the turn of the last century.   Galdone's illustrations are always a delight, but if you go find the original illustrations by Walton Corbould (Edwardian mice who look like they stepped out of Beatrix Potter or E.M. Forster) you may wonder why publishers thought the book needed refurbished.  I'm also not sure this works as a picture book at all; when all is said and done, it's a song not a story.  But it's still cute, and worth a look.

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Selected Works by Cicero; translated by Michael Grant (1971)

I picked this up as some pre-reading for my upcoming trip to Italy.  Cicero is one of the earliest Italian writers, and he's also a major character in many of the series I love (Thomas Harris, John Maddox Roberts, Steven Saylor, and HBO's Rome).  I'm going to try to read the whole book - I'm emphasizing "try" because some of this may be slow going.

Michael Grant's translation is really good so far.  I've read other books about Ancient Rome by Michael Grant.  I just checked - he died in 2004.

The first of the selected works is "Against Verres" which is Cicero's first case, against the corrupt Verres.  In Grant's translation, Cicero speaks like a very good politician - or maybe even a preacher.  Here is my favorite line:

When I turn to his adulteries and similar outrages,  considerations of decency deter me from giving details of these loathsome manifestations of his lusts. Besides, I do not want, by describing them, to worsen the calamities of the people who have not been permitted to save their children and their wives from Verres' sexual  passions. it is, however, incontestable that he himself did not Lake the slightest precaution to prevent these abominations from becoming universally known. On the contrary, I believe that every man alive who has heard the name of Verres would be able to recount the atrocities which he has committed. I am more likely therefore, to be criticized for omitting many of his evil deeds than to be suspected of inventing non-existent ones. 

This is scathing, high political rhetoric that many of our politicians today would be comfortable with, over 2,000 years later; Cicero would sit comfortably at Fox News.

Or this one:  "The defendant has only two characteristics:  his appalling record and his exceptional wealth."

Later.  Much, much later.  Cicero is taking me a long, long time to finish.  There is much to digest, and I want to savor it.  He's really, really good.  I understand why the Renaissance thinkers adored him.

Oh my lord.  The "Second Philipic Against Antony" is scathing.  Full of the most elegant and witty trash talking I think I've ever read.  I can hardly keep all of the sarcastic, bombastic, biting, salt in the wounds catch phrases in my head.  Here's a delightful one, about Antony's mother:  "Poor woman!  Her capacity for child-bearing has indeed been catastrophic."  Oh SCHNAP!

I'm not going to be able to finish this before I go on my trip, so I'm going to have to come back to it later.  But now I understand the two thousand year old reputation of Cicero.  He'd make a great politician today - although I think he'd probably be a Republican.

Selected WorksSelected Works by Marcus Tullius Cicero
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cicero is magnificent, and Grant's translation is fantastic.  His "Second Philippic Against Antony" is so deliciously scathing; it's definitely NOT a speech a modern politician could make.   Full of the most elegant and witty trash talking I think I've ever read.  I can hardly keep all of the sarcastic, bombastic, biting, salt in the wounds catch phrases in my head.  Here's a delightful one, about Antony's mother:  "Poor woman!  Her capacity for child-bearing has indeed been catastrophic." Modern politicians would have to use  more coded language today (I guess, come to think about it, some pretty scathing things have been said about both Bush II and Obama).  The letters feel very modern as well (the translation has something to do with this, I'm sure) - sort of like reading someone's email over their shoulder.  His 2100 year old reputation makes much more sense to me now.  A terrificly interesting book.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander (1964)

I've written elsewhere about The Black Cauldron.  Growing up, I owned a paperback copy of this book, and The Castle of Llyr.  I loved both of these books almost to death.  I still have them, so beat up you can barely open them without pages falling out.  I came to the other three books (four, if count the book of short stories that fill in the gaps about Coll, Hen Wen, Dallben, and Fflewddur Fflam) later, but came to love them equally.  I've probably read each book 30 times at the minimum; likely books 2 & 3 far more times.  Like I said in my earlier writing about The Black Cauldron, the characters don't seem fictional to me anymore. Maybe even more than the characters in The Lord of the Rings, the Prydain characters seem real.  Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf and company all have motives that seemed exotic; Taran and his friends lived in an exotic land (somewhat derivative of Middle Earth), but their motivations all seemed very real and believable and understandable.  In The Book of Three, Taran wants to know who he is and where he belongs in the world. He longs to be somewhere else, some place exciting, something more than he is.  His world seems constricted and overly structured; he longs for adventure.  All five books really are about Taran's search for himself (Taran Wanderer particularly) and the process of becoming an adult.  In The Book of Three, he is still a child who speaks before he thinks, rushes in, blunders about, makes stupid mistakes.  By the end of the book, he still sees some things in the black and white of adolescence, but he's beginning to see the light of the gray areas and not taking everything at face value.  "Witches can be right, giants can be good."  People have depth, and that's a lesson life teaches you.

Eilonwy still gets so many good, good lines.  Her constant comparisons are amazing pieces of prose poetry, and very much like taking the heroic metaphoric speech of Beowulf and putting it in the mouth of a sharp but winsome Princess.  A list of them can be found here:  "That's worse than trying to make yourself taller by standing on your head."  " That's worse than somebody coming up and eating your dinner before you have a chance to sit down."  "You should be ashamed of yourself... it's like looking the other way when someone's about to walk into a hole."  "It's like having your head put in a sack."

My favorite:

"I know it isn't nice to vex people on purpose -- it's like handing them a toad - but this is much too good to miss and I may never have another chance at it."  So she foils Achren to vex her on purpose, and a chain reaction occurs that leads to the defeat of the Horned King at the end.  

Prydain is like Pern or Narnia, one of those worlds in which I would actually love to live.  I'd trade places with Taran anyday, although at my age, I'd probably have to trade places with Dallben, or at the very least, Coll.

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain, #1)The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've probably read the Prydain books at least 30 times each, once a year since I was ten or so.  Taran and company aren't merely characters in a book any more; they have become almost like real people.  Prydian is a magical, exotic setting, but the motivations of Taran are completely human.  The entire series is essentially about his maturation and discovery of himself and how he fits in the the world - a truly human exploration printed on an exotic backdrop.  The Book of Three in particular is about giving people a second chance and not jumping to conclusions based on appearance.  It's certainly about friendship; the developing "band of brothers" that constitutes Taran, Eilonwy (sister!), Fflewddur FFlam, Gurgi and Doli is one of the wonders of children's literature.  Each is so clearly, sharply, perfectly drawn.  Taran's adolescent rashness and brashness; Fflewddur's exaggerations and bravado; Gurgi's Cowardly Lion courage and crunchings and munchings; Doli's Fred Mertz grumbling exterior hiding a heart of gold; Eilonwy's crazy comparisons and winsome sharpness.  Re-reading Prydain is one of life's pleasures.

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East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire(1938)

East of the Sun and West of the Moon contains one of the most beloved and well known fairy tales of all time, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, known in the d'Aulaire's version as "The Three Bushy Billy Goats."  My version growing up was a Junior Deluxe that looked like this:

I don't remember much about it.  The only story I vaguely remember was called "The Princess on the Glass Hill."  The d'Aulaire's call their version "The Maid of the Glass Mountain" (demoting the girl and promoting the natural elevation).

These stories are weird.  They are bloody, violent, exceedingly gross, and strange.  I guess those arctic nights made for creative, violent imaginations.  Scandinavian noir has its roots in this weird shit.

"Herding the King's Hares" and "The Ship That Went asWell by Land as By Sea" are sort of a cross beween one of my favorite read alouds, "Three Perfect Peaches" which is a French folktale.  These folktales are all related in some way, because Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, Puss in Boots and others make disguised appearances throughout East of the Sun and West of the Moon.

"The Quern That Stands and Grinds on the Bottom of the Sea" is "Strega Nona" and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," Norwegian style.  It's also a good tale about how the sea became salty.

"Soria Moria Castle" contains the quintessential Midwestern parents.  After Halvor is away making his fortune, a set back send him back home.  His parents don't recognize him at first, and when he asks them if he could possibly their long lost son.  "Our Halvor was so lazy and idle," the mother replies.  "And he was so ragged that one tatter took hold of the next tatter on him.  No, there never was the making of such a fine fellow in him as you are, sir."  A typical response from a the wry, old fashioned Midwestern mother.  It made me chuckle.  I really liked this story, as weird as it was (like all the others); it was really funny too.

I don't even know what the hell the story "The Big Bird Dam" was about it, it was so strange.  But the troll kidnaps twelve princesses because he has twelve heads, and needs on princess to scratch each head.  Hilarious and weird!

So weird.  So very, very weird.

East Of The Sun And West Of The MoonEast Of The Sun And West Of The Moon by Ingri d'Aulaire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These stories are remarkably strange. Folklore is incredibly similar from country to county, and many of these stories are versions of other more familiar tales - Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Jack in the Beanstalk.  Almost all of them are bloody, often violent, with a hint of sex (I imagine there are unexpunged original tales that are far, far more sexy than these, what with all the kidnapped princesses and tricky lads).  It's the utter weirdness of the stories that makes many of them so delightful.  My favorite gruesome oddity:  a troll with twelve heads, who has kidnapped twelve princesses so they can scratch his heads all day long, one per head. There are many trolls in these tales, some with one head, some with three.  There are giant horses, talking cats, lots of stories about three brothers (the youngest who is always laziest and trickiest and usually named Cinderlad).  Plenty of princesses forced to marry these tricky lads by their royal fathers (I wonder what THEY had to say about that).  The d'Aulaire's illustrations are almost too warm and fuzzy for these very un-fuzzy stories.  But you really can't fault the d'Aulaires for very long - these are draw in quintessential Depression era colors and style.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1953)

The last time I read The Borrowers was similar to the last time I had read many of the children's books I've written about here - when I was a child.  I can remember as a child being both repulsed and fascinated by The Borrowers.  Coming into the book, I had the vaguest of vague memories of the plot and characters.  I knew that their names were almost like the names of big people, but borrowed - Arrietty (Harriet?), Homily (Emily, I suppose, although I don't think I knew that as a child), and Pod (who knows - Todd?  But that's not a Victorian name).  I remember that Homily, the mother, was, let's just honest here, a bitch (I wouldn't have called her that as a child - even though I read the word in Judy Blume's Blubber and knew what it was - "a female dog!").   I knew even then that Homily was sort of the villainess of the piece.  It's interesting because what I remembered about Homily was that she stopped Arrietty from borrowing and knowing about the real world - when in fact, it was Pod, the father, who didn't want Arrietty to leave the comforts home.  But I knew as a child, and was reinforced now, that Homily put on airs, her wanting for new and better things wasn't necessarily a good trait, and that it was her greed in particular that was the downfall of the Borrowers (her greed and Arrietty's curiosity).

I knew also, when I was a child, that it was a strange book.  I remember picking it up and struggling to get through it, but wanting to finish it.  I know why now - there are some hard words to understand in the book.  You have to have a background in Edwardian and Victorian class and history to understand everything that is going on.  Let's start with the drunkenness of the old lady - on Madeira, and I'm sure I had no idea what Madeira was as a 10 year old kid.  I highly doubt I asked my parents what Madeira was either, or looked it up in a dictionary - I'm not sure we even owned one (my mother sitting on my shoulder just indignantly said of course we owned one). In the first pages alone:  sealing wax, drawing pins, the North-west Frontier (that's part of Pakistan today), rheumatic fever (which I'm sure I thought was similar to the scarlet fever of Little House world).  There isn't a lick of explanation for any of these many terms of Victoriana and Edwardiana - you just have to figure out what they are from context.  Which, I suppose, is one of the great joys of a really hard book to read.

There isn't really any likable characters in the book.  I think you are supposed to feel some pity for Arrietty - but it was she who got them into this mess in the first place.  Pod seems sort of befuddling and absent.  Homily - see above.  The Boy gets them all in trouble.  And Mrs. Driver and Crumpfurl are despicable.  Crumpfurl is illustrated to look like an ape, and both look very scary, which may be another reason the book creeped me out as a child.

The book has to be compared to The Littles, because the "subcreation" of both is remarkable similar.  Like the Clocks, the Littles live in the walls, don't like to be seen, and are basically parasites off humans, stealing stuff noone would miss.  The Littles are the American version of the Borrowers.  Both have adventures; the Little's adventures are in big print and take far less time to read.  The Borrowers' adventures are a little more in depth and psychological than the Littles.  The Littles  never had an adventure a little pluck and ingenuity couldn't get them out of.  The Borrowers are all angsty all the time though, worried.  The Borrowers world is far darker than the Little's world.  But I think the Littles would take the Borrowers in a fight in the end - for one thing, there are more of them.

I don't think I've ever read a Borrowers sequel before. I'm not sure I'm going to either.

One other thing that bugged me, what I'm going to call The Land of the Lost dilemma:  who is Arrietty going to marry?  Unlike Land of the Lost (which, to my knowledge, never acknowledged this), that seems to be an underlying current in The Borrowers.  More than once, Arrietty complains about being alone.

The Borrowers (The Borrowers, #1)The Borrowers by Mary Norton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Are the Borrowers the young adult classic the Littles teenagers read, The Outsiders or The Catcher in the Rye of the Littles world?  Like all beloved teen books, it is about Arrietty's angst about growing up.    She's lonely, she has helicopter parents, she wants to fledge but can't.  She has a curiosity and desire to see the world; she's growing up and changing. She's fourteen, and her mother and father keep treating her like a baby.  So, in the Borrower equivalent of trying marijuana or dating a senior, she talks to a strange boy, and gets in trouble.  And unfortunately, gets her whole family in trouble as well.  

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Golem by David Wisniewski (1996)

Golem is David Wisniewski's lovingly told and brilliantly illustrated re-telling of the Jewish legend of the making of the Golem of Prague.  I recently finished - and enjoyed - a book by Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni, which as the title suggests is about a golem.  This particular golem lives in turn of the last century New York City.  Back in high school, I was a rabid fan of Pier Anthony's Xanth series, and the first one I ever read (there were 20 or so of them at the time) was The Golem in the Gears, about which I remember nothing at all save the title and the fact that I immediately went back to Waldenbooks and I spent an entire paycheck on Piers Anthony Xanth books because of it.  That particular exposure to the Xanth golem didn't broaden my knowledge of golems in any particularly way, other than to give some recognition of their existence in fantasy.  The Golem and Jinni broadened it more, and piqued my interest enough to pick up Wisniewski's Caldecott award winning book.

The papercut illustrations are definitely award-worthy; the sharpness of the papercuts combined with the contrast of different greys, blacks, browns, golds and whites are striking and brash - sort of like the idea of creating a golem would be in the first place.  The story is heartbreaking, really from beginning to end - the rabbi creates the golem to protect the Jews of Prague from slander and pogrom based on the infamous lies of the blood libel.  The golem does his job so well, without apparently killing anyone, that the emperor asks the rabbi to (in my words) "call off his dog."  The rabbi then destroys the golem, even though the golem pleads with the rabbi to keep him alive.  It's really quite sad and awful.

I actually thought the Golem ended up going crazy, and like the moral of Strega Nona or The Sorcerer's Apprentice, ended up being far more destructive than helpful; but I guess in this version that isn't what happens.

I only thought there was one real hole in the book - the golem is never actually shown doing any of the work he's been created to do.  It's mentioned, but never shown - I would have like to have seen that.

GolemGolem by David Wisniewski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The paper cut illustrations, in various shades of grey, brown, black, white and gold, are sharp and brash - as brash and sharp as a the idea of a rabbi creating life to protect the Jewish ghetto of Prague.  The story itself is dark and sad; the anguish of the golem is particularly heartbreaking.  A beautiful tale, beautifully rendered.  My only quibble - the golem was created to protect the Jews of Prague from slander and progrom, essentially through police power - but he's never actually shown doing any of this work.  It's mentioned, but we never get to see him in action.  What did he do exactly?  That was a small annoyance.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer Sun by Robert Louis Stevenson (1913)

Clyde Aspevig

Summer Sun

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy's inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West (1945)

I am mostly ambivalent about The Friendly Persuasion.  The front cover of the copy I checked out from the library has a picture of Gary Cooper, Dorothy McGuire, and Anthony Perkins from the movie, and then says at the bottom "The classic novel about life for  Quaker family in Indiana, and the basis for the William Wyler film starring Gary Cooper."  Most of this blurb is true:  it is about a Quaker family in Indiana, and it is the basis for the film.  But this is no novel.   That's one thing I disliked about the book, particularly towards the end.  This is essentially a book of stories written for various publications that Jessamyn West clumped together in loose chronological order to create a "novel."  But it bugged the shit out of me that earlier stories included children of the main characters, Jess and Eliza, and vanish off the face of the earth by the end.  What the fuck happened to Little Jess - did he die?  Who the hell are Jane and Stephen?  None of this makes sense in a novel - and that's because these were stories written at different times, over a period of several years, and Jessamyn West didn't have the savvy - or modern fan boys riding her ass - to create a fictional world in which these Indian Quakers live and then stick to it.  This isn't a novel.  It's a book of short stories - some them quite good.  

This reminds me of 80s sitcoms, like The Golden Girls, where early in the run, a character is introduced as a plot device that never appears again.  Like Rose's blind sister, who she NEVER MENTIONS AGAIN.

The language is a bit flowery and descriptive, and heavy at times.  There is a lot of words.  I know that sounds awful to say, but there are words upon words, in a very heavy handed way.  

What's awful about most of what I've written is that it makes it sound like I didn't enjoy the book, and actually I did. Maybe that's what made me so mad, is that I liked it despite the flaws, and those flaws would have been really easy to fix.  

At some point, I think I must have read the sequel Except for Me and Thee, about which I remember absolutely nothing.  I don't think I had ever read The Friendly Persuasion before; nothing was familiar at all.

Monday, June 17, 2013

King Midas by John Warren Stewig; paintings by Omar Rayyan (1999)

I remember reading this one a long time ago, as a baby librarian.  I remember loving it back then, but I'm not as enamored of it now.  The illustrations are still lovely and amusing, but I think the story lacked some depth - the horror of turning his beloved daughter into gold wasn't as, well, horrifying as I think it could have been.

King Midas: A Golden TaleKing Midas: A Golden Tale by John Warren Stewig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Definitely a good starting point for Greek and Roman mythology; Rayyan's paintings are lovely and amusing. Fantasy lovers will love this one.  The story lacked some depth for me; I think the horrifying moment when Midas realizes his beloved daughter has been turned into gold should be, well, a bit more horrifying.  Seemed like a wasted moment.  But overall, a solid picture book.

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Three Samurai Cats: A Story From Japan by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein (2003)

I loved this book.  Eric Kimmel's adaptation from several sources is purrrrr-fect (get it?  ha ha ha).  But it's truly the combination of Kimmel's storytelling and Mordecai Gerstein's pictures that make the tale.  The three samurai cats are drawn to perfection; the rat is the big, evil oaf that he should be, an outsized Garth Williams Templeton Godzilla-ized for a Japanese tale.  I loved that some characters are dogs - the blood hound docho, the bull dog daimyo.  A nod to Richard Scarry, perhaps (no pigs or Goldbug though).  Kids who like graphic novels will like the slightly comic format - although I'd still call this one a picture book.  I'm going to attempt to read it aloud!  Shogun for the small set.

Three Samurai Cats: A Story from JapanThree Samurai Cats: A Story from Japan by Eric A. Kimmel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Purrr-fectly written and illustrated.  Kimmel's adaptation from two sources is fantastically read-aloudable and fun; the combination of Kimmel and Gerstein's illustrations make the book a blast.  Gerstein's cats and dogs are like Richard Scarry's Busytown moved to feudal Japan (no pigs or Goldbug though), but rendered in a crazy, unique but accessible style.  The rat is Templeton all grown up, conniving, evil, a big fat lazy loaf of oaf.  There is a not so subtle, valuable lesson here, about the patience verses force, with some anti-bullying thrown in for good measure.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni by Helen Wecker (2013)

A quite wonderful and exciting book.  I think the idea of combining folklore and myth from two different traditions is brilliant, and Wecker does an excellent job of making the jinni and the golem seem believable and real.  The plight of their hidden and outsider status is also believable, and as a gay man who at one time had to hide my true being from others, I empathized.  The various narrative threads are engaging, Wecker does a good job of tying them together, and I certainly always wanted to know what was happening.  I think taking the ancient traditions of other parts of the world, and setting them down in the almost modern fairy tale notion of immigrant New York City at the turn of the last century was genius as well.  I did have a few quibbles, although nothing that marred the book permanently.  I thought towards the middle of the book, New York City started to flatten out a bit, and the flavor of Wecker's prose started to lose steam; this coincided with the "romance" between the jinni and the golem starting to pick up (I use romance in the most loose of terms; their relationship was clearly more than friendship but less than love), and much of the energy of the story went away from historical fiction into more of a historical thriller, paranormal direction that wasn't quite as pleasing to me - but still enjoyable, not enough for me to put the book down.  The latter half too felt a bit like a movie script too, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but doesn't leave a lot of room for interpretation.  Those are minor quibbles in the end, and don't detract from a thoroughly enjoyable book.

The jinni I pictured in my head is very hot.  The golem, not so much.

This is similar to my thoughts about Rip Van Winkle - taking European (or Middle Eastern) tradition and Americanizing them.

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exciting and enjoyable novel.  I like the premise of taking two characters from different folklore tradition, and combining them together in the modern fairy tale world of turn of the century immigrant New York.  Wecker has many narrative threads, and I wasn't quite sure where they were all headed, but by the end they started to weave together in a fiery, thrilling way.  I have a few minor quibbles - some of the end feels a bit like a movie script; and towards the last half of the book,  the "romance" between the jinni and the golem starts to overpower the wonderful world of New York City that Wecker created. At about that same point, I had this feeling that Wecker created this world, stuck these wonderfully and vividly real characters in it, and then wasn't quite sure where they were headed.   Those quibbles  do nothing to mar the pure entertainment and exhilaration of the book though.  I liked it immensely.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Rumpelstiltskin by Paul Galdone (1885) and Rumpelstiltskin by Paul O. Zelinksy (1986)

Both of these stories, written and illustrated just one year apart, are almost exactly the same.  Even some of the dialogue is the same.  Other than the illustrations, the only difference I can see if the ending.  Although both sing the same song (ending in "Rumpelstiltskin is my name"), Galdone's Rumpelstiltskin is found jumping around a fire in his cottage; Galdone's is riding a cooking spoon (sort of like a witch riding her broom around a medieval fire).

Rumpelstiltskin is a really bothersome story, more so I think than many of the old fairy tales and folklore.  The poor girl has no say in anything that happens to her.  Her father gives her up to the asshole of a king, who says she's going to die unless she spins straw into gold. That's an autocrat who proves power corrupts absolutely.  Then she marries the son of a bitch, and instead of plotting his death, worries more about her kid.  If I were here, I'd be teaming up with Rumpelstiltskin to poison the king and rule the kingdom as dual regents for her child.  She doesn't even have a name (although no one does in the story except Rumpelstiltskin).

Galdone's pictures, once again, look like Gargamel and Papa Smurf are just waiting in the wings.  Zelinksy's look more like Renaissance portraiture.

I read another version (Wikipedia mentioned it) by the Grimm's called The Three Spinners, which is this completely different take on the story.  The girl in this case is lazy and doesn't like to spin, and three old ladies help outwit the queen so she doesn't ever have to spin again.  There isn't any magic in this tale at all, only trickery - and trickery done in the name of laziness.  And what could be wrong wit that?

RumpelstiltskinRumpelstiltskin by Jacob Grimm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Galdone version and the Zelinksy version are almost the same story, down to the dialogue, with a slight variation here and there (Rumpelstiltskin's demise at the end, for example).  The two versions were written and illustrated about a year apart; Galdone's feels like Papa Smurf should be hiding around the corner (or Gargamel is his name, rather than Rumpelstiltskin); Zelinsky's feels more like Renaissance portraiture.  The story itself is as folklore disturbing at its very best.  The girl at the center of the story has no name (actually, no one but Rumpelstiltskin is very named).  She has no choice in any of this.  The king is a despot who proves that absolute power does corrupt absolutely - the Roman emperors did similar things to their subjects, as did Stalin.  If I had been the girl, I would have hatched a plot with Rumpelstiltskin to poison the king and rule as regents through the baby royal; she obviously hasn't read Tacitus or Machiavelli.  It's certainly a story that could produce some interesting conversation with third grader or fourth graders if you ask the right leading questions.

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The Great Smelly, Slobbery Small-Tooth Dog retold by Margaret Read MacDonald; illustrated by Julie Paschkis (2007)

This story obviously shares some similarities with Beauty and the Beast, which in turn shares similarities with the myth of Cupid and Psyche.  At first I wasn't sure I even liked this story.  The pictures, which are done as English tapestries,were sort of small and distracting from the story.  But as I got into the tale, I liked it more and more.  I think the main challenge with the story for me doesn't end up being the illustrations (I grew to really, really like them) or the writing (another great re-retelling from MacDonald) but the differences between this story and what I remember of Beauty and the Beast.

I went back and read both Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast.  I found out much about each.  Cupid and Psyche, which I thought was a mythological tale passed down through time, first appeared in print in a novel called The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius in the second century AD, and translated into English around 1566.

Beauty and the Beast, meanwhile, was a fairy tale written by a French woman named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve; a shorter version, the one I read (translated from French by A. E. Johnson in 1921) was by Mme. Le Prince de Beaumont.

The three stories are sort of like very distant cousins, who share some similarities but are more different than alike.  About the only thing the three have in common is the mysterious husband and the beauty.  Beauty and the Beast and Echo and Psyche share far more in common.

Thought:  is Beauty and the Beast a literary re-telling of the Helsinki syndrome?

The Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog: A Folktale from Great BritainThe Great Smelly, Slobbery, Small-Tooth Dog: A Folktale from Great Britain by Margaret Read MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wasn't instantly enamored of this English folk version of Beauty and the Beast, but after a while, it grew on me.  The brightly colored illustrations are reminiscent of medieval tapestries and heraldry, and are well done, although in the first few pages they are more distracting than not.  The classic story is re-told with Margaret Read MacDonald's usual flair.  The repetitive phrases could make  this one fun to read, but the story is so strange that I'm not sure it would resonate. The take-away from this version of Beauty and the Beast, I think, is to be polite and kind. Particularly, girls and wives?  But the dog essentially kidnaps her and holds her hostage, and I don't think he deserves her kindness or love one bit.  That particular plot point bothered me - although Beauty and Beast has exactly the same plot point.  There are just enough jarring differences between the stories to make this version slightly off putting.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Does everyone in Boston own a copy of Make Way for Ducklings?  I would assume so.  What a beautiful book.  The ducks seem so real and alive.  This book is all about the illustrations; I thought the story was just sort of so-so; cute but not life changing.  This is another one of those books that I had never actually read before, even though I've been aware of it for years.

Make Way for DucklingsMake Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Does everyone in Boston own a copy of this book?  They should.  The illustrations are magnificent; everything about the ducks seem completely real.  The human people all stepped right out of 1941; the ducks are the same ducks you would see swimming in the pond at the park today, tomorrow, and fifty years from now.  It's a cute story - not life-changing by any means - but this one is all about the pictures.

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Monday, June 10, 2013

"Stand Back," Said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze!" by Patricia Tripp; pictures by Wallace Tripp (1971)

For some reason, I remembered this book fondly, and I'm not exactly sure why.  The title is one that's stuck in my head for years, but to be perfectly honest, I didn't remember a thing about it other than the title.  I'm not a huge fan anymore of Seussian rhyme, and this book is Seussian rhyme at its worst.  The pictures are funny though.

It's a gag that goes on far too long.

Yow - of over 400 reviews on Goodreads, I'm one of only 4 people that gave this one 2 stars. WTF is wrong with me?

"Stand Back," Said the Elephant, "I'm Going to Sneeze!" by Patricia Thomas
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A gag that goes on far too long, in the very worst kind of Seussian rhyme.  The pictures are the saving grace.

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Apple Pie that Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson; illustrated by Jonathan Bean (2007)

Oh wow,  Jonathan Bean's wonderful illustrations that remind me quite a bit of my favorite, Virginia Lee Burton.  I wish I knew more about how write about art, but I don't, so I don't have the terminology or knowledge to use to write about intelligently about this book.  There is very much an American folk art quality.  His style reminds me a bit of Grant Wood, and whole lot of Charles Burchfield; we saw an exhibit of his work in 2009 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.  The painting below, The Wind At Night is what Bean's illustrations hinted at.  It may just be color that does it.

I thought of this later - his illustrations are very 1930s/1940s which is probably why they are reminiscnet of Virginia Lee Burton.  Harry the Dirty Dog has the same feel, actually - it's the color that does it.  Everything is flat and I count only four colors.  Like midcentury modern wall paper.  The Poky Little Puppy and The Shy Little Kitten both have this feel; Walt Disney's Snow White and Bambi do as well; Stone Soup by Marcia Brown is probably the closest to this though.

Grant Wood

Virginia Lee Burton

Charles Burchfield

Jonathan Bean
Stone Soup

Lauren Thompson's simple, cumulative text is also delightful. It's perfect enough to be an age old nursery rhyme, passed down lovingly in the laps of posterity.

Another later thought - this also has the familiar folklore-fairy tale trope of a motherless daughter being raised by a father, although without any wicked stepmother or stepsisters (they may be on the horizon).  Perhaps there is a mother, and she's just not pictured.

Later note:  thanks to a review on Goodreads, I was able to read information from Bean on how he created the illustrations for the book on the copyright page.  Quite interesting, and mix of old a new (translucent paper vellum and computer scans).

The Apple Pie That Papa BakedThe Apple Pie That Papa Baked by Lauren Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

  Thompson's poetry has the feel of an old nursery rhyme that's been handed down for generations.  Paired with Jonathan Bean's illustrations, which have a 1940s flavor, cozily and comfortably reminiscent of Marcia Brown or Virginia Lee Burto, this is a delightful book.  Sort of keeper, you may borrow it from the library or a friend, but is'a piece of art and deserves to be owned and cherished.  And framed!

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Slop! A Welsh Folktale by Margaret Read MacDonald; illustrated by Yvonne LeBrun Davis (1997)

A not so very interesting Welsh folktale, not so very interestingly illustrated.  I read some reviews on Goodreads that said it was adorable, but I just didn't find it adorable at all.  I found it flat, particularly the illustrations.

Puss in Boots by Paul Galdone (1976)

I don't think I'd ever actually read Puss in Boots before, even though I was very familiar with the title.  Puss in this case is a trickster character; usually tricksters are in for themselves, and I guess in a roundabout way Puss is helping himself by helping his master.  Although surely at some point the King and the Princess will see through all of this silliness and realize it's all one big deception!  Then what will happen?!

Paul Galdone is master at distilling a story down for modern audiences.  Once again, the tale is simply but richly told, engaging, with almost perfect illustrations.  Although the three sons of the miller all have hair cuts that would be right at home at Carrie's prom, circa 1976.

I'm not sure I could actually read this aloud, because the Beavis and Butthead in me would chortle everytime I said the word "Puss."  Just sayin'.

Goodreads nonsense:

"This book could be used for grand discussion of story elements."

A "grand" discussion!  How elegant! Perhaps there was a ball afterwards.

Puss in BootsPuss in Boots by Paul Galdone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Puss in Boots is a great story, and Galdone is really a master at distilling folklore down into rich, engaging yet still simple tales to tell.  If you disregard the fact that the miller's sons all have hair cuts that look like they are lesser Monkees, the illustrations are excellent.  For some reason, Galdone's pictures always remind me of the the Smurfs, minus the Smurf's themselves!

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Fat Cat: A Danish Folktale by Margaret Read MacDonald; illustrated by Julie Paschkis (2001)

I read another version of this aloud all the time, Gobble Gobble Slip Slop: A Tale of a Very Greedy Cat by Meilo So.  It's almost exactly the same; some of the supporting characters are different (a mouse instead of a parrot, for instance). There is a king instead of a sultan, but strangely the King of Denmark, like the sultan, rides an elephant.  Not too many elephants in Copenhagen, although I could be wrong.  

Margaret Read MacDonald writes in her afterward that Denmark, Norway and Sweden all have versions of this story, including a famous one from Asbjørnsen and Moe.  The story I read aloud (which I like slightly better) is of Indian origin (MacDonald mentions the Indian version); she also mentions a Russian version, an American version, and a Czech version as well.  

It's intriguing that stories and folktales can pop up here, there and everywhere, in different languages, yet remain remarkably the same. Cinderella stories from different parts of the world always have some local flavor.  But "the greedy cat," perhaps because of its simplicity, is very similar, at least from Danish to Indian, hence the elephant!  I wonder if the story originated in one place and spread - maybe from India at the same time Aryan languages spread; or like domesticated animals and farming, developed simultaneously in several places.  I would guess the former.  

I wonder, why a cat?  Cats aren't known for their greed.  Dogs and pigs are far more greedy.  Maybe because of their insolence and disregard for human kind - "I'm so hungry, and you are so insignificant, that I'm going to eat you too."

Fat CatFat Cat by Margaret Read MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop: A Tale of a Very Greedy Cat is another version of this story that I like slightly better, but in a pinch this one would do.  This is one of those intriguing folktales that seem to almost identical versions from many different parts of the world; this one happens to be Danish.

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The Old Woman who Lived In A Vinegar Bottle by Margaret Read MacDonald; illustrations by Nancy Dunaway Fowlkes (1995)

The last Margaret Read MacDonald I read was quite a disappointment - but The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle was delightful.  The old woman reminds me of another old woman in my life right now, who shall remain nameless, but who complains nonstop about what from the outside looks like a fairly perfect life.  I can't wait to read this one aloud; it has all the things I like in story.  A good tale to tell, reasonably good pictures (but not perfect, a little too muted for my taste), repetition, a bit of humor, some sass, a moral that doesn't beat you over the head.

The Old Woman Who Lived In a Vinegar BottleThe Old Woman Who Lived In a Vinegar Bottle by Margaret Read MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The essence of read aloudability - some humor mixed with sass, repetition, a tale to tell with some sort of moral.  The moral isn't heavy handed though:  "Happiness comes from the heart, not from the house."  A lesson everyone in our consumerist society needs to have driven home, I think.  Another way of saying this:  Thou shall not covet.  Some of the old tales never grow stale.  This is one of them.  Thank you again, Margaret Read MacDonald.

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

How Many Donkeys? An Arabic Counting Tale retold by Margaret Read MacDonald and Nadia Jameetl Taibah; illustrated by Carol Liddiment (2009)

I wasn't overly impressed with this picture book folktale.  Margaret Read MacDonald is in my top 10 favorite authors of picture books and folklore re-tellings, but this one just didn't click with me.

How Many Donkeys?: An Arabic Counting TaleHow Many Donkeys?: An Arabic Counting Tale by Margaret Read MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Margaret Read MacDonald is one of my favorite authors of folklore re-tellings, but this one fell flat for me.

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Baba Yaga; A Russian Folktale by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrated by Megan Lloyd (1991)

I only knew vague things about Baba Yaga, from the Catheryne Valente's haunting, beautiful Deathless and Mussgorsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.   I know she's an old witch, I know she's Russian, and I know her house has chicken's feet.  I had never actually read a folk tale about her until now.  This particular folktale felt like Cinderella, and had some of the same tropes - wicked stepmother and stepsister, missing father, dead mother, girl dressed in rags, sleeping on the floor, treated like a slave.  This girl in this particular tale had a horn in the middle of her head.  The story veers off from Cinderella at this point though, into the territory where most folk tales eventually land - if you do good deeds and are kind to others, particularly strangers, you will be saved for get some sort of reward.

Baba Yaga isn't nearly as scary as I thought she'd be - I assume she's been buffed considerably for modern children's consumption!  I may have to read some more Baba Yaga stories to find the really gruesome ones!

Baba Yaga: A Russian FolktaleBaba Yaga: A Russian Folktale by Eric A. Kimmel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Readable (especially read-aloudable) re-telling of a Baba Yaga tale, with shades of Cinderella.  The moral of the story - which is the moral of most folktales - is be kind to others, particularly strangers, because you never know when that kindness is going to come back to help you (or an ill word is going to come back to haunt you). My only complaint with the story is that I always imagined Baba Yaga to be far more cunning and frightening; perhaps this version has a sanitized version of Baba Yaga suitable for kiddos.

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Edward & Alexandra: Their Private & Public Lives by Richard Hough (1992)

They were an interesting pair.  She is sort of tragically beautiful, with her deafness and adulterous husband. She seemed very lonely.  Although using her lack of punctuality as one of the few weapons against her philandering husband is quite humorous.  Regardless of how many women he slept with, she was still queen.  Interesting to think that the current Prince of Wales, although hardly the philanderer his Great Great Grandfather Edward VII was, did not have a wife so easily satisfied with rank and royalty as a bone for his cheating ways.  Times have indeed changed from a century ago, even - maybe especially - for kings.

I've read mixed opinions about Edward's influence over world affairs over Belle Époque Europe.  Most of what I've read at this point indicates that he didn't have as much influence or power over world affairs as he would have liked to believe.  That said, the man was related to most of the crowned heads of Europe, including being the uncle of the Kaiser.  So he had to have had at least some influence.

Hough does what he can with what essentially were glitteringly vapid lives - almost a lifetime of nothing but parties and going to the opera and rich food and spirits, dancing and gaiety - interspersed with scandals. That's not necessarily Bertie or Alix's fault - Queen Victoria held on to the reins of power almost until her death.  But it is surprisingly dull reading.    By the time Bertie and Alix become King and Queen, they were in their sixties, and boiled down to their essential selves, followers of rut and routine.  They were still beautiful people though, even in old age - stylish bon vivants, the both of them.  Queen Victoria would have trouble fitting in today, I think; Bertie and Alix would have far less trouble adapting to modern life.

At least one mention of Princess Diana in the present tense; in 1992, no one had any idea she wouldn't be alive in the foreseeable future.

Edward & AlexandraEdward & Alexandra by Richard Hough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hough does what he can with what are essentially two glittering but vapid people who spent almost a lifetime waiting to be King and Queen.  That lifetime was filled with countless evenings out at the opera, innumerable bottles of champagne and quail stuffed with foie gras, horse racing and hunting - interspersed with the occasional scandal, and mostly overshadowed by a sensitive and constantly offended mother (and mother-in-law) who they alternately feared, manipulated, and ignored.  When at last Bertie and Alix ascend to the throne, their are in their sixties, and settled into comfortable routine, but still stylish bon vivants to the end.

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola (1975)

Fresh from reading Paul Galdone's The Magic Porridge Pot, I read Strega Nona which is essentially the same story only more charming and with more memorable characters.  The illustrations are equally good though.  It's interesting that both authors/illustrators chose approximately the same time period, Galdone setting his in what appears to be Holland while dePaola setting his in Italy.  

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Strega Nona is almost 40 years old, which is difficult to believe.  It is such a charming tale, DePaola at his very best.  Perfectly told, with amazing illustrations.  One of my favorites.

The Magic Porridge Pot by Paul Galdone (1976)

The Magic Porridge Pot is in the same family of folk tales as Strega Nona and  The Sorcerer's Apprentice.  Galdone's version would make a perfect little read aloud; it's short but not too short, and repetitive.  My only complaint is the book itself is quite small; luckily, the story is interesting enough to make up for that.

Certainly the moral of this story is "old people are forgetful" and "the younger generation is going to save the day" because it's the foolish mother who forgets the magic words.

More Goodreads reviewer nonsense:  "a story of acceptance and reliance."   Perhaps acceptance of the fact that when we get older, we become forgetful, and the younger generation is there to take over and make us feel even more foolish and old?  Maybe the magic porridge pot represents the welfare state, and the people of the village will become overly reliant on the pot to provide?  

The Magic Porridge PotThe Magic Porridge Pot by Paul Galdone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short, but not too short, so the perfect little read aloud.  Paul Galdone's great illustrations; the only thing missing from the 16th century Dutch village in which he sets the story are Smurfs (or maybe Gnomes).

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Tiny Tortilla by Arlene Williams; illustrated by G. Brian Karas (2005)

I'm reading aloud for a sort of family storytime in a few weeks - Sundown Stories - and I needed some food related stories.  Eric Kimmel had written a book called The Runaway Tortilla which I was looking for (but never found; we don't own it), but came across this book Tiny Tortilla instead.  I like it!  I love the sing song quality, I like that it feels like folklore, what with the old woman, and the magic masa.  I like the pictures,  I like the southwest setting.  The only thing that scares me is the Spanish words, a fear I really need to get over.  This may be the book that helps me get over this fear of mispronouncing Spanish!  It will pair nicely with The Gingerbread Man or a similar type of magical food type of story.  

The Tiny TortillaThe Tiny Tortilla by Arlene L Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This story has a folkloric feel to it, with an old witchy woman and her magic, in this case magic masa, and a sing-song quality that will make a fun read aloud.  I'm going to pair this with some other "magic food" types of stories, such as The Magic Porridge Pot and The Gingerbread Man.  

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The Moving Adventures of Old Dame Trot and Her Comical Cat by Paul Galdone (1972)

According to the author information, Paul Galdone found this poem in "an old chap book, published by W.T. Darton in 1807, in England." Old Dame Trot and Old Mother Hubbard are kinswomen; their pets are similar  too.  

Project Gutenberg (bless them) has a book called National Rhymes of the Nursery, and Dame Trot makes an appearance in one ( of the nursery rhymes, without cat but with another famous character from Mother Goose Land:

TOM, Tom, the piper's son,
He learned to play when he was young,
But all the tunes that he could play,
Was "Over the hills and far away."

Over the hills, and a great way off,
And the wind will blow my top-knot off.

Now Tom with his pipe made such a noise,
That he pleased both the girls and boys,
And they stopped to hear him play,
"Over the hills and far away."

Tom with his pipe did play with such skill,
That those who heard him could never keep still;
Whenever they heard they began for to dance,
Even pigs on their hind legs would after him prance.

Dolly was milking the cow one day,
Tom took out his pipe and began for to play;
So Doll and the cow danced "the Cheshire round,"
Till the pail was broke, and the milk ran on the ground.

He met old Dame Trot with a basket of eggs,
He used his pipe, and she used her legs;
She danced about till the eggs were all broke,
She began for to fret, but he laughed at the joke.

He saw a cross fellow was beating an ass,
Heavy laden with pots, pans, dishes, and glass;
]He took out his pipe and played them a tune,
And the jackass's load was lightened full soon.

I had never heard this story about Tom the piper's son before; in the version I remember from childhood, Tom, Tom the Piper's son, stole a pig and away he run!

She makes another appearance, this time with the cat, in a book written and published in 1820, scanned at The rhyme is quite different from Galdone's version, but the idea is still the same.

Old Dame Trot's cat is pretty damn sassy.  Among many other things, he pretends to be dead, eats all the food, makes a pie, plays the fiddle for a bunch of dancing mice, rides the poor dog bareback, smokes a pipe (with the same dog), swordfights (with that poor dog again), and dresses in drag (in Trot's clothes, of course).

Galdone's illustrations are marvelous.  He's definitely one of my favorite author/illustrators.  I just wikipedia'd him, and he's been dead since 1986!  Who knew.

The Moving Adventures of Old Dame Trot and Her Comical CatThe Moving Adventures of Old Dame Trot and Her Comical Cat by Paul Galdone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old Dame Trot and Old Mother Hubbard are sisters in Mother Gooseland; they each have sassy pets that cause humor and havoc.  Paul Galdone's illustrations are superb as always.

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