This year, no books in the folktale/myth category ran away with a major award (except a Coretta Scott King Honor for Never Forgotten) but five got the ALA notable nod. I’ll start with the three done by old timers and heavyweights in the children’s literature world:
Mouse and Lion by Rand Burkert and illustrated by Nancy Eckholm Burkert is yet another take on the Lion and the Mouse fable. In this version, which is Nancy Eckholm Burkert’s first picture book since Orson and Valentine with text by her son Rand, the mouse gets to take center stage. The story is lovingly told and the illustrations exquisite and very detailed. To my mind they’re almost too elegant for this fable. I always imagine this story taking place in a hot, colorful world and this one is so cool and restrained that I was not drawn into its world in the same way I was by Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse. It is as though the research and the skillful artistry draw attention to itself and away from the story. But that’s just my opinion. I think it would be great to read this book side by side with Pinkney’s version just to show children how many ways a good story can be told.
A Treasury of Greek Mythology by Donna Jo Napoli was on my own best of the year list. In fact, I’m jealous of it. It is so vividly written that you just feel pulled into the world of those slightly crazy Greek gods. The illustrations are equally captivating, if not more so with all these little details to linger over. Also, there are interesting sidebars that help readers connect the stories to science and real life events. At the back is a useful cast of characters, for who among us can keep all these gods straight? This volume is intended for upper grades so even though the vibrant illustrations may tempt younger children be aware that it contains some language that is quite suggestive, sensual and violent. Also, the images and metaphors are so sophisticated that I think a younger child would have a hard time following the action. Give the younger ones D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths but be sure to share this one with upper elementary and older. This is clearly a book intended to dazzle and it does the job magnificently.
Never Forgotten by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon was also on my list of the year’s best. It received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book of 2012, and rightly so. This truly remarkable and moving story sent shivers down my spine while I read. It is the tale of a blacksmith whose wife dies in childbirth and then raises his son, Musafa, with the help of the mother elements: earth, fire, water and wind. The blacksmith teaches Musafa all his skills and all is well until, one day, the boy is taken by slave traders and brought to America. The four mothers try to get the child back, but to no avail. All are devastated. However, one day wind spirit finally manages to fly across the ocean to discover that Musafa, now called Moses, works for a blacksmith and his work is in high demand. He is a slave, but there is a whisper of freedom. The story is not strictly speaking folklore but an original tale using African history and folklore to inform it. Told in verse, it is far more accessible than I expected and asks the heart-breaking question posed by those who were taken: Am I remembered? Combined with the stunning artwork, which simply leaps off the page, this book is truly remarkable.