Open Sesame: 4 Summer Bedtime Stories

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Summer Bedtime Stories: Four New Picture Books Teeming with Animals

Summer nights come alive with the sounds of nocturnal creatures, with shadows moving through the dark, with the scent of night-blooming flowers and the pungent perfume of skunks.  It is the season to spy fireflies in the dewy meadow and Luna moths under the porch light, to be surprised by rabbits and frogs and deer that leap across the road in front of car headlights, and to search for the glint of eyes in the beam of flashlights. In these four new picture books, readers will find pages teeming with animals at night. Some are trying to fall asleep at the end of the day, while others are waking up to explore the nighttime world. Some are humorously portrayed, while others appear in their natural habitat. If you’re looking for a new story to read to your child at bedtime, especially a child who loves animals, try tucking in with one of these.  Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: Celebrating Black History with Children’s Picture Books

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

10 New Books Celebrating Black History

In celebration of Black History, here are 10 new books for children of all ages and the grown-ups who love them. Full of inspiration, incredible acts of heroism and bravery, and striking illustration, these are needed books not just in February, but in every month of the year.

Love Will See You Through: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Six Guiding Beliefs (as told by his niece) presents the principles of nonviolence that “Uncle M.L.” practiced and lived by. Each principle, presented in oversized font and bold, mixed-media illustration – have courage; love your enemies; fight the problem, not the person who caused it; when innocent people are hurt, others are inspired to help; resist violence of any kind; and the universe honors love – is further explained with specific actions and events of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s life, from peaceful protests to rousing sermons.

Read the rest of this entry »

Open Sesame: 7 Picture Books That Celebrate Winter’s Whimsy

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Snowmen Stories: Picture Books That Celebrate Winter’s Whimsy

“Do you want to build a snowman?” is a question kids have been asking for far longer than the song made popular by the movie, “Frozen.” And kids will continue to ask whenever the snow falls, because building a snowman is a quintessential act of winter whimsy. One that is working in layers, whether the creator realizes it or not. At its most basic, building a person out of snow is just good, plain fun. When you add a friend or two or three into the mix, building a snowman becomes a cooperative effort, an exercise in teamwork. It requires a playful attitude and an artistic eye. And it never hurts to believe in a bit of magic. For if the stories are true, snowmen do come to life! It also calls for a certain acceptance of impermanence. As even the youngest builders discover, snowmen do not last forever. And as such, the snowman becomes the perfect symbol for the cycles of love, loss, and renewal. With snow in the forecast, isn’t it time to build a snowman? Read the rest of this entry »

Latino Folk Tales at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Arts

Latino Folk Tales:
Cuentos Populares
Art by Latino Artists
March 26 through June 9, 2013
Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Arts in Amherst

Folk tale literature throughout the world encompasses both magic and symbolism, comprised in stories of saints, gods, myths, and legends. The motifs, characters and plots are often ancient in origin and initially passed by word of mouth. These repeated and recorded stories transcend various national and cultural boundaries. Multiple influences that reach back through the centuries can be discovered in the stories and art in this exhibition, which will open March 26 and run through June 9, 2013.

Even though the world is filled with hundreds of cultures, each sharing unique traditions and language, folk tales remain a constant around the globe. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA is showing an exhibit filled with illustrations from Latino folktales published for children. Latino Folk Tales: Cuentos Populares Art by Latino Artists by Latino Artists contains over 60 works of art from twelve different Latino artists and illustrators, showcasing a variety of artistic styles and folktales whose roots can be traced from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Spanish-speaking parts of the world to ancient day Persia, India, and China (the oldest version of Cinderella, for example, has been traced back to as long ago as 850 AD!).

The exhibit, which opens on March 26th, 2013, presents an opportunity for families to view and learn about the showcased artwork and to find the story thread that weaves not only in these images but also in folk stories found in other cultures too. When visiting the exhibit, discuss how each piece conveys an important part of the story it illustrates. Students can learn about the art of illustration by pairing the images to familiar stories – think about the clues given in each piece that help you to link it to a common folktale!

Cuentos Populares will be shown through June 9th, 2013. The Carle is open Tuesday-Friday from 10am-4pm, Saturday from 10am-5pm, and Sunday from 12noon-5pm. For more information, call the museum at 413-658-1105. www.carlemuseum.org

Related Upcoming Programing at The Carle:

CactusHead Puppets presents: The Tale of Juan Bobo
Wednesday, April 17 – Saturday, April 20 (11am & 2pm)
Meet Juan Bobo! He always tries to do the right thing, but often makes mistakes. For Juan even the smallest task can lead to the silliest of results. But can Juan Bobo’s seemingly foolish actions end up saving the day? Join CactusHead Puppets as they bring this classic Puerto Rican folktale to life and decide for yourself. (>$)

Five-College Musicians at The Carle
Saturday, April 20 (1pm)
Celebrate the Museum’s exhibition, Latino Folk Tales: Cuentos Populares, with a reading with musical accompaniment of Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand followed by a musical medley of Latin American songs. ($)

George Washington Carver: A Life in Poems

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

In honor of Black History Month I want to share an extraordinary book about an extraordinary human being:

Carver, a life in poems (Front Street, 2001) is an intimate portrait of the botanist, inventor, scientist, artist, musician, and teacher, known as George Washington Carver. Written by acclaimed poet, Marilyn Nelson, the book takes us through Carver’s life in a series of narrative poems told from the voices of the people who knew him, and from Carver himself. Wrought with emotion and meaning, Nelson gives us a biographical experience of a man whose imprint on the world is still felt today.

Born a slave in Missouri in 1864, and raised by the white family that owned his mother, Carver seemed to always have a special spark, a reverence and joy for life, a thirst for knowledge, and an independent spirit, which led him to leave home in 1877, to attend school and begin a life-long quest for learning.

Carver’s curiosity, his hunger for answers, his drive to find out why, what if, propelled him into his destiny, and Nelson captures that in the poem, “Drifter“: “Something says find out / why rain falls, what makes corn proud / and squash so humble, the questions / call like a train whistle so at fourteen, / fifteen, eighteen, nineteen still on half-fare, / over the receding landscapes the perceiving self / stares back from the darkening window.”

Carver put himself through high school and college, studying art and science, washing people’s laundry to support himself. His success was continuous. He became known for his green thumb and his artistic talent. His paintings were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair, he earned his B.A and M.A. degrees, and joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute, where he stayed for the rest of his life working on ideas and inventions, from crop rotation and cotton seed to peanut recipes and paint colors. His generous nature dictated that he never profit from his discoveries, instead he gave them away for the benefit of all humankind.

In spare, lyrical language, Nelson takes us through moments in Carver’s life, some public, some private, and reveals a man of uncommon talent and faith. She shows his gifts of observation, his thirst for knowledge, his simmering, creative energy, his insights, and his deep spirituality.

And though Carver’s life was full of the complexities of science and nature, and he never lacked for work to do, the poems also show how he valued simplicity and contemplation. Poems like “Dawn Walk” and “Dimensions of the Milky Way” depict him in quiet conversation with the universe. And light-hearted poems like “The Lace-Maker,” “The Joy of Sewing,” and ”The Wild Garden” express the simple pleasures he took in doing handwork and gathering wild greens. Recurring details like the flowers Carver would wear in the lapels of his second-hand suits not only help us imagine what he looked like but are also tender expressions of his character.

Nelson’s poems do not shy from the harsh racial climate of the era. She portrays Carver’s dedication to the Negro people, and his reactions to lynchings and injustices, with powerful poems like “Goliath.” When his Bible study students ask after another lynching, “Where is God now?” Carver responds, “God is right here. / Don’t lose contact with Him. Don’t yield to fear. / Fear is the root of hate, and hate destroys / the hater … When we lose contact, we see only hate, / only injustice, a giant so great / its shadow blocks our sun. But David slew / Goliath with the only things he knew: / the slingshot of intelligence, and one / pebble of truth.”

Each poem in the book is complete and can stand alone as an exquisite piece of poetry. The poems beckon to be read aloud, and to be read over and over again, peeling back layers of meaning and nuance. Read together in a sequence that spans Carver’s life, with seamless transitions from one poem to the next, and thematic strands that connect the poems to each other, the whole collection creates a stunning portrait of Carver and illuminates the man who he was.

As the book draws to a close, Nelson is able to capture Carver’s divine message of conservation in the poem, “Last Talk with Jim Hardwick”: “When I die I will live again. / By nature I am a conserver. / I have found Nature / to be a conserver, too. / Nothing is wasted / or permanently lost / in Nature. Things / change their form, / but they do not cease / to exist … God would be a bigger fool / than even a man / if He did not conserve / the human soul, / which seems to be / the most important thing / He has yet done in the universe.”

The very last poem, “Moton Field,” connects the past and the present, and Carver to the poet herself. The year is 1943, and we see Carver at the end of his life, penning answers to the letters piled at his bedside. While outside his window the poet’s father, Melvin Moton Nelson, one of the first Tuskegee airmen, is piloting a p-40 airplane ”high as a Negro has ever been.” The book ends with the final image of airman Nelson doing a “sky-roaring victory roll.”

Carver earned over a dozen accolades and awards including the 2001 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a 2002 Newberry Medal Honor Award, and a 2002 Coretta Scott King Honor Award. Though this was Nelson’s first book for young adults, she was already an accomplished poet with several full-length poetry collections, chap books, and translations. Since the publication of Carver she has written many more books for young people. You can read about her work at www.marilyn-nelson.com/.

Carver: A Life in Poems written by Marilyn Nelson. Published by Front Street, Asheville, NC, 2001. ISBN: 1-886910-53-7


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

3 Folktales for National Folktale Month

Open Sesame: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Three Favorite Folktales

It’s National Folktale Month! And I’m digging into the vaults to share three of my favorites, all starring leading ladies. For me, folktales are food for the soul. And when packaged into a picture book, also provide a feast for the eyes. They are an important part of your child’s literary diet, so next time you go to the library don’t forget the folktales!

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun is a bi-lingual story about Lucia Zenteno, a beautiful and seemingly magical woman who, accompanied by an entourage of butterflies, arrives in a small Mexican village. Her beauty is so sublime, the river, fishes, otters, and birds fall in love with her. But the people are frightened by her special powers and eventually drive her from the village. The river leaves with Lucia, and the village is plagued with drought. Awakening to their mistake the people search for Lucia, walking for days to an iguana cave where she has taken refuge. At first no one says a word, but then two children make the first move and offer an apology. Lucia sees the people are truly sorry and, feeling compassion, agrees to return to the village and comb the river from her hair. Her parting words to the village people are about kindness and tolerance, even for those who seem different. The last image shows Lucia as a spiritual entity, embracing the village in a gesture of protection, her long black hair full of stars.

This little-known picture book is a real gem. The story is told in crisp, straightforward language, and the illustrations are striking in their play of color and line. Bits of whimsy, such as a girl riding a hummingbird and feet poking out of treetops, hover around the central images and add to the folkloric feel of the story. This particular version of the tale is inspired by a poem written by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, a young Zapotec Indian who collected the oral traditions of his people, including this one about Lucia Zenteno. He was killed in 1987 while organizing the Zapotecs to regain their lost water rights. The book delivers a valuable environmental message, and given the state of our current climate crisis, it seems imperative that folktales like this one are kept alive.

The Woman Who Outshone The Sun from a poem by Alejandro Cruz Martinez, written by Rosalma Zubizarreta, Harriet Rohmer, and David Schecter, illustrated by Fernando Olivera. Published by Children’s Book Press, Sam Francisco, 1991. ISBN: 0-89239-101-4

One Grain of Rice

One Grain of Rice written and illustrated by Demi is a mathematical folktale from India. It opens with a self-described fair and decent Raja, who decides to collect most of the rice from each farmer’s harvest for safe keeping in the royal storehouse. The Raja promises the rice will be used in times of famine so no one will go hungry. For several years the rice harvest is bountiful, and the people give most of their rice to the Raja, with barely enough left for themselves. Then one year the harvest fails and the people have no rice to eat and no rice to give the Raja. Famine and hunger spread throughout the land. But the Raja refuses to honor his promise, and instead covets all of the people’s rice for himself. One day a girl named Rani does a good deed for the Raja and he offers her a reward. She asks for just one grain of rice, doubled each day for 30 days. The Raja, thinking it is a modest request, agrees. But as the story unfolds the Raja, and likely the reader too, is surprised by how fast Rani’s rice is accumulating. When 256 elephants bearing bundles of rice march across a four-page foldout, readers will cheer Rani’s resourcefulness. For by the end of the 30 days, Rani has turned one grain of rice into one billion grains of rice, enough to feed all the hungry people in her land.

Demi has published more than 100 books, and is well known for her multi-cultural folktales, legends, and picture book biographies. The delicate illustrations in this work were inspired by traditional Indian miniature paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries, and were created with Chinese brushes, paint, ink, and Demi’s distinctive use of gold leaf, which adds a shimmering quality to the drawings. A table in the back gives a visual interpretation of how Rani, with her understanding of multiples, outsmarted the greedy Raja. The story has a great moral, a courageous heroine, and an entertaining math lesson all bundled into a 40-page picture book: One Grain of Rice packs a lot of nutritive punch.

One Grain of Rice: A Mathematical Folktale written and illustrated by Demi. Published by Scholastic Press, New York, 1997. ISBN: 0-590-93998-X

How The Amazon Queen Fought The Prince of Egypt

How The Amazon Queen Fought The Prince of Egypt is an ancient Egyptian folktale peeled from a longer work called “Egyptians and Amazons.” Found on a badly tattered papyrus scroll, which is now housed in a museum in Austria, the story was only partly preserved. Author/illustrator Tamara Bower attests that she has stayed true to the original, and there is no denying her extensively researched picture book presents a captivating slice of ancient Egyptian art and culture. The folktale opens long ago in Khor, an area encompassing Syria and Assyria, where the Amazons lived, free of men, in a Land of Women. One day scouts alert the Amazon Queen, Serpot, that an Egyptian army and their Assyrian allies are approaching. Serpot asks her sister Ashteshyt to disguise herself as a man and spy on their camp. Because no one knows she is a woman Ashteshyt is able to infiltrate much of the camp’s inner workings. Readers will enjoy pouring over the illustrated scroll, which shows her spying on the Egyptian army in various scenes.

Queen Serpot decides to fight the Egyptians and gathers an army of women. With the goddess Isis and god Osiris leading them, the Amazon women fight fiercely, each woman fighting like “ten men.” The army drop their weapons and retreat. The Egyptian Prince Pedikhons is enraged, and challenges the queen to single combat. They rush “at each other like vultures” and attack “like panthers,” matching each other in skill and artistry. They fight through the day and as the sun sets, Prince Pedikhons, who “never believed woman could conquer man,” puts down his sword and admits that Queen Serpot is his equal.

This rare piece of folkloric history is intriguing on its own, but when placed in the context of Bower’s detailed illustrations, the full effect is mesmerizing. The Egyptian and Assyrian style paintings, rendered in watercolor and gouache on paper, fill the pages. Hieroglyphic translations of key phrases complement most of the storyline, and symbolic imagery is embedded throughout, all of which the artist explains in her endnotes. The book as a whole is a remarkable journey into the past, and offers a powerful commentary on equality of the sexes we can bring with us into the present.

How the Amazon Queen Fought The Prince Of Egypt written and illustrated by Tamara Bower. Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2005. ISBN: 0-689-84434-4


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

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