Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hansel and Gretel

Retold by Cynthia Rylant

Pictures by Jen Corace

“It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves. Such is the story of Hansel and Gretel.”

Just as in her retelling of Cinderella, Cynthia Rylant again forgoes beginning the traditional tale of Hansel and Gretel
with the words, “Once upon a time…” and instead, pulls us into the story using beautifully-crafted and poetic language that leaves us anxious to turn the page and read her version of the tale we already know.

When the story begins, Hansel and Gretel are free, happy, and unaware of their unforeseeable future. Although the text tells us that their stepmother blames them for the family’s unfortunate circumstances, the illustration shows the children running excitedly towards their home—past their stepmother—looking like they are going to give some flowers that they found to their ill father. It is apparent that although the stepmother is evil, she may not have treated Hansel and Gretel in an obvious evil manner as of yet.

As I turn to the next page, I am immediately distanced from the action as Corace frames the illustration of the evil stepmother convincing the father that the children must go. I feel protected because of the distance, but at the same time—I want to jump in and do something!

Upon hearing the plan, Hansel vowed to protect his sister. “He possessed the courage his father lacked, and would do what was necessary to protect his sister.” As in Rylant’s version of Cinderella, the mention of important character traits is again emphasized in her version of Hansel and Gretel. We learned in Cinderella that the prince had loyalty, integrity, courage, and honor. In this story, we are learning the importance of courage as an important trait to possess.

As the story continues, we learn that courage is not just a trait possessed by males. Gretel shows her courage as she thinks of what her brother has always told her, “Take courage, Gretel,” and was able to show how smart she was as she tricked the witch into climbing into the oven.

Upon their return home, Hansel and Gretel realize their stepmother has died from eating a poisonous mushroom and that their father is happy for their return as he, “…picked them up in his arms and held them and cried a thousand tears for their safe return…and finally, released from her spell, their father, too, had nearly died from the shame of having abandoned his children.”

Rylant ends the book with, “Love would take care of the rest,” instead of the traditional, “They lived happily ever after.” This makes me feel like the story has been brought back to something more realistic. Meaning, challenging things may happen to the family again in the future, but love will help them get through it. I think this is a good message for all.

As I was reading another review of this book, it was pointed out that the illustrations of the people lack pupils. I thought something was different about the illustrations of the characters, but I could not place my finger on what it was until I read this other review. Why did Corace decide to leave out the pupils of the character’s eyes? Expressions of sadness, worry, and evil are clear nevertheless even with the lack of pupils.

Through Cynthia Rylant’s retelling of both Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, she withstands the integrity of the essential elements of the original tale, but adds a new dimension by emphasizing important values that children, regardless of culture, can relate to and strive to possess.

Walt Disney's Cinderella

Retold by Cynthia Rylant
Illustrated by Mary Blair

“This is a story about darkness and light, about sorrow and joy, about something lost and something found. This is a story about Love.”

A unique start to a traditional fairy tale—Rylant forgoes the typical, “Once upon a time” introduction and sets the stage for a love story—initially lessening the element of magic and the distance of time.

Throughout the story, Rylant continues to emphasize the concept of love early on expressing that Cinderella, “…wished for one thing only: Love. Every day Cinderella wished for Love.” This was unlike her stepsisters, who only wished for riches. “Love meant nothing, and if Love ever did come to them, it is unlikely they would even have known what it was.”

I wonder why Rylant always capitalized the “L” in “Love?”

From what I can remember of Disney’s version of Cinderella, it is never really explained why one may fall in love with the prince other than for the reason that he is a good looking prince. Being given the name “Charming,” only means that the prince has a talent for getting whatever ladies he would like to have. Rylant helps me to see the prince as someone other than just that by describing him as “…a son with integrity and courage and loyalty and honor. The young prince had every quality anyone could ask of a man who would someday be king.” By describing the prince in this way, Rylant again lessens the element of fairy tale for me and gives me more of a feeling of reality. Prince or no prince, these are important qualities for a man to possess and are a sign that a man will treat a woman the way she should be treated.

The prince, who was never named Charming, was not married because he had not yet fallen in love. He was yearning for something more—just as Cinderella was yearning for something more.

Rylant, retelling the Walt Disney version of Cinderella, did keep the essential elements of the fairy tale—including the Fairy Godmother and her magic. In spite of the unrealistic magic, however, Rylant continued to emphasize the type of magic that is realistic—falling in love. “Who can say by what mystery two people find each other in this great wide world? How does a young man find his maiden? His heart leads him. He finds her in a room. He asks her to dance. And when he touches her, he knows…In silence, Love found them [Cinderella and the prince]”

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the prince bumped into Cinderella when she was wearing rags. Through the text, it would seem as though he would have found her regardless of her attendance at the ball.

I find it interesting that Rylant chose to end the fairy tale with, “They lived happily ever after,” when she began it in such a non-traditional way. I would have expected her to end the story as she had started it—emphasizing the story of love.

The Fleur de Lis covering the front page and found throughout the illustrations confirm that Walt Disney’s version of Cinderella is based on the story told in France—where the introduction of the glass slippers, mice, and pumpkin became important symbols of this traditional tale that we recognize today.

Many of the illustrations throughout the story reminded me of the images captured in the Disney movie—particularly the scene of the stepmother and sisters practicing their music, the horse-drawn carriage, the castle, and the characters themselves.

Although there were similarities (also noted in copyright specific images that were used from Disney), the illustrations lacked emotional appeal for me. The illustrations, although full-bled, did not enable me to connect with the characters because they were distant and not very detailed. The lines did not seem “clean,” which I believe gave the images more of a cartoon feel. The only face that was drawn with true detail was that of the evil-step-mother, which in my mind did make her stand out. Most illustrations were dark and only used a few colors within the limited color palette.

I find the mesh between the illustrations and the text very interesting because in my opinion, the text seems to take on a more serious tone—emphasizing love—a very real emotion—versus the illustrations that have a more distant and loose feel. On the other hand, perhaps since love is such a subjective and personal thing—maybe Blair chose to illustrate with neutral and blurry images to emphasize that love—is not always something that can be defined in words or pictures and is different for all.

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

A Worldwide Cinderella

Written by Paul Fleischman

Illustrated by Julie Paschkis

C’era una volta…(Italian)

Érase una vez…(Spanish)

Il était une fois…(French)

Es war einmal…(German)

Once upon a time…

Regardless of origin, children around the world recognize these simple words as the beginning of a traditional fairy tale. Language, however, is only one aspect of the diverse cultures and traditions reflected in the innumerable versions of various tales such as Cinderella (or Ashpet, Vasalisa, Sootface, Catskin, or Cendrillon—depending).

The author’s note begins with, “A chameleon changes color to match its surroundings. Stories do the same.” Following this concept, Fleischman and Paschkis incorporate various versions of Cinderella from places like Mexico, Ireland, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Laos, and China in their tale, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal. A labeled map of the world, specifically chosen to show these different countries, covers the inside front and back covers of the book and prepares us to embark on our journey around the world where we can listen in to the tale being told.

The book begins with an illustration framed in white of a young girl sitting on the lap of her mother listening to her read the tale of Cinderella. There is a globe on the end table, again giving us the feeling that we are going somewhere—but we are not sure where yet. When we turn the page, we are immediately met with a frame of bright orange and yellow with images meant to reflect the Mexican culture. The text reflects the Mexican version of Cinderella with phrases like, “The woman gave the girl treats when she passed—pan dulce to eat, sugarcane to chew.”

As I continued to read, I noticed that each country was represented with a different color frame. Lime green for Korea, turquoise for Iraq, muted orange for Russia, pink for India, and so on. These colored frames, although also labeled with the name of the country they were representing, helped separate the story so it was recognized when a different culture was introduced. However, the style of the illustrations helped to bring all of the cultures together. For example, there were similar patterns of different shapes that helped the pictures to flow freely together. Interestingly, Paschkis also kept the image of Cinderella generally the same. There was some variation on skin tone and of course, she was dressed to reflect the culture being represented—but her facial features and hair color were very similar in each picture. This made me feel like Cinderella was travelling from place to place throughout the story and becoming part of each tale.

As a reader, I feel it is important to be exposed to many different versions of Cinderella prior to reading this one. In fact, I think it would be interesting to read the full versions of each tale. Although Fleischman did a wonderful job integrating the different tales into one, I think a child might get confused with the changes unless they are already familiar with the story. For example, in the part of the story where Cinderella is transformed from rags into a beautiful garment and shoes, there are several different outfits that Cinderella transforms to. “Then a crocodile swam up to the surface—and in its mouth was a sarong made of gold…a cloak sewn of kingfisher feathers…a kimono red as sunset.” Shortly after, Cinderella shows up at the ball representing Poland. Although the concept is the same around the world—Cinderella dresses to the nines and attends the ball—it could be confusing to make the connections of what is happening if you are not already familiar with the story.

As the story ends, Cinderella is celebrating her marriage to the Prince in several of the cultures represented in the book. They feast on “…mangoes and melons…” from Zimbabwe, “..rice seasoned with almonds…” from India, “…beef stew and lamb stew…” from Ireland, and “…anise cookies and custards…” from Mexico. I wonder if these are traditional celebratory foods for these different countries.

Fleischman concludes the story returning to the white-framed illustration of the little girl and her mother finishing up the story of Cinderella. The globe on the end table looks as though it has spun, showing us that people are still telling the story of Cinderella all around the world.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


By Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon


Is a powerful word.

What is faith?

All religions have faith.

In something, or someone, or some place.

The story faith, by Maya Ajmera, Magda Nakassis, and Cynthia Pon, enlightens us to the innocence of children and the diverse religious cultures in today’s society. The photograph on the cover zooms in on the face and hands of a young boy praying. The text begins with, “In our world, there are many faiths. We celebrate our faiths in many different ways.” Through the remainder of the book the authors use the word, “We,” while making powerful statements about faith. By using the repetitive language of the word, “We,” the authors help to bring me in as part of the text. They successfully were able to convey that it does not matter if there are differences in what religion we are or in what we believe—we all still have similarities—which are mentioned using statements like these:

“We read our holy books.”

Does it matter which one?

“We chant and we sing our songs.”

Does it matter to whom?

“We mark the important events in our lives.”

Does it matter how, or which events?

Accompanying each powerful statement are pictures of children practicing religious customs from around the world with captions briefly explaining the picture and the location. At the end of the book, there is a map of the world with labels of all the places the children who were photographed came from. It is very easy to see that all continents, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, were represented throughout the book.

While looking into the eyes of some of the children, I almost felt as though I was watching a Save the Children commercial. I see innocence and hope. I see love and compassion. The pictures truly are breathtaking. Many pictures zoom in close and allow us as readers to feel as though we are a part of the moment. Others zoom in so that we can stare into the eyes of the child. In all pictures, regardless of size or distance, we can sense the love for each other and family.

This book can be very informative for both adults and children. In the back of the book, there is a section titled, “Elements of Faith.” This section provides further information on each brief statement from the text. For example, one statement was, “We respect others, making friends, and building peace,” and in the Elements section there was a section titled, “Caring for and Helping Others.” In addition, the book has a glossary of important terms to further explain the pictures in the book. By putting these sections in the back of the book, the authors were able to send a powerful message in a way that all people, young and old alike, could understand. A picture is sometime worth a thousand words—and the authors chose to write a few words and let the pictures do much of the talking. In the back, they explained further for those who may be interested. It was a wise decision not to include this information throughout the book because I believe it would have taken away from the power of the message as it is currently written. Also, it allows the reader to determine their comfort level with the religious information provided in the book.

Just like how Julius Lester explains that our bones all look the same in the story, Let's Talk About Race, Ajmera, Nakassis, and Pon all explain that although our religions our different, there are common threads that bring us all together. With understanding and acceptance, we can learn so much from each other and live in a world filled with peace.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of this book is donated to The Global Fund for Children. Visit their website at in order to learn more about the foundation and one of the authors, Maya Ajmera.

Let's Talk About Race

Written by: Julius Lester
Illustrated by: Karen Barbour

Bold colors. Unique illustrations. Simple language. Powerful message. Let’s Talk About Race is a story that strips the human race down to the bones. Literally.

We are all a story—and our stories all begin the same way. I was born on August 22, 1984 in Smithtown, New York. Author Julius Lester was born on January 27, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. How does your story begin?

And with that, Lester begins to point out how similar we all are. We all have stories.

Let’s Talk About Race is not an autobiography about Julius Lester; however, I finish the story having learned something about the author. By including his voice in the text and himself in the illustrations, I sense that I am sitting in a room listening to Lester give a speech regarding race. As I read, I feel as though I can trust the message he is trying to convey because I begin to think of him as a person that I know—instead of as someone trying to change the world from behind his computer screen.

He lets us in by sharing his story with us—but not the story about how his great grandparents may have been slaves and were part of the Underground Railroad. Or, how he may not have been given an opportunity because of prejudices. No—in this culturally generic story I find out information about the author’s favorite food, hobbies, favorite color, religion, nationality, and time of day.

Throughout the text, Lester uses both short powerful statements like, “I’m black,” or, “Some stories are true. Some are not.” And longer statements that read like the time your friend told you a story where you could hardly keep the people straight: “… Beneath our skin I look like you and you look like me and she looks like her and him and he looks like him and her and we look like them and they look like us.” In addition, he asks powerful questions that he sometimes answers, and always gives the reader an opportunity to ponder: “Do I look at you and think I know your story when I don’t even know your name? Or, do I look at you and wonder…”

Karen Barbour supports Lester’s message through her bold and thought-provoking illustrations. In almost all of the illustrations, Barbour includes a butterfly. On one double-paged spread, Lester explains how we all at times think we are better than others because of where we live, where we go to school, how much money we make, etc. Framing the text, are partial faces that focus our attention to the different eyes—some of which have money symbols as the pupil. One partial face stands out from all the others; however, because the pupil is a butterfly. I believe that the image of the man is Julius Lester and to confirm this, I located an image of the author to see what he looked like ( What is the significance of the butterfly? There must be a purpose for this butterfly to appear so frequently in these illustrations—especially in the eye of the author. I read into it a little bit and found that butterflies are symbolic of different things depending upon your culture ( However, I believe that the butterfly being a symbol of change and transformation is very fitting for the meaning of this book. Looking at the eye again with an understanding of the meaning of the butterfly—makes the image all the more powerful. The author is envisioning change and looking at us as readers, in hopes that we try to do it.

In many of Barbour’s illustrations, there is a lot going on. There are lots of faces, many eyes, and many bright and bold colors. Faces are not always realistic colors and can be seen in green or blue in order to blend in with the fully colored, unframed background. To me, many of the faces look very similar—especially if the color of their skin, the unique dress, and their hair were taken away. I wonder if that was her purpose? I wonder why she didn’t provide the faces in the book with distinguishable features. I wondered if Barbour was of European descent, but I was unable to locate very much information on her. I wonder if her own culture has anything to do with the style of her drawings and lack of certain cultural details in her illustrations.

As the story comes to an end, Lester explains again that, “Beneath the skin we all look alike. You and Me. I’ll take off my skin. Will you take off yours?” The message is clear. We are all the same when it comes down to our bones. We must be willing to take off our skin. In the words of Ghandi, you must, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Lester lets us know that he is the change he wishes to see.

Are you?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mr. Griggs' Work

By Cynthia Rylant

Illustrated by Julie Downing

If you ask a Penn State Alumni of the past 30 years a few of the people or things they remember most about their time at Penn State, they are very likely to mention Mike the Mailman. Mike the Mailman continues to love his job as a mail clerk and because of this, he always made a trip to the post office an enjoyable and entertaining experience. As I read through this Cynthia Rylant picture book, I kept thinking of Mike the Mailman. Also, the words, “Speedy Delivery,” from Mr. McFeely echoed in my mind.

Of course then, having fond memories of United States postal workers who’ve entered my life, I initially read this book with a set of gleeful eyes. Rylant writes about a postal man, Mr. Griggs, who loves everything about his job. In fact she writes, “Mr. Griggs loved his job. He thought about it almost all the time.” These words are accompanied by Downing’s beautiful pastel illustrations of Mr. Griggs weighing his container of juice, organizing his bathroom supplies in mail slots, and washing postal themed dishes while wearing a US Mail apron and a blue checked shirt with red buttons. Mr. Griggs could not even get a good night’s sleep without worrying about the mail and would sometimes find himself wandering to the post office in the middle of the night to find out, “how much it would cost to mail a one-pound package to New Zealand or a three-ounce letter to Taiwan.”

Even a peaceful walk through nature reminded Mr. Griggs of the mail. A blue jay reminded him of express mail, a squirrel carrying an acorn up a tree to another squirrel reminded him of special deliveries, holes in a rotten tree would remind him of mailboxes, and a chipmunk would remind him of a stamp from 1978.

When Mr. Griggs got sick, I was worried about Mr. Griggs. In fact, I was wondering if he was going to die since this was about a man who was pretty old. Mr. Griggs was not worried about himself though—he was worried about the mail! When he was finally well again and able to return to work, you’d think that it was the happiest day in all of his life.

Hmm—the happiest day in all of your life being one where you return to work at a post office seems awfully suspicious. Hmm. And just like that, it hit me. This book is more similar to Rylant’s The Old Woman Who Named Things, and An Angel for Solomon Singer, than I initially had realized. I turned back and reread the book again—this time, with different eyes. The eyes that have seen some of Rylant’s other books and have noted similarities between them. Mr. Griggs is an old man who is all alone. Sure, he has customers that come to see him everyday, but they aren’t his family. Why is he worrying about the whereabouts of a package that was mailed by someone else fifteen Christmases ago? As I looked through the illustrations again, I looked beyond all of the postal-themed paraphernalia that initially stood out from each full-bled illustration and I noticed the details of Mr. Griggs’ home—particularly when he was sick. Where were the pictures of his wife and kids? Did he ever marry? There isn’t anybody at home to take care of him.

In the eyes of a child, Mr. Griggs is simply an old man who loves his job. I wonder if kids see Mr. Griggs as a grandfatherly figure. I do not think I personally would because Mr. Griggs seems too absorbed in his work to truly develop relationships with other people. In the eyes of an adult, Mr. Griggs is lonely. Although he is portrayed as being relatively happy through colorful illustrations and poetic text, what does he have without the mail? It does not seem like much of anything. Is he lonely because of his job? Or, does he choose to love his job because he is lonely?

Babymouse: Queen of the World!

Written By: Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Growing up, I would read the Sunday Funnies in the paper each week. My favorites were Charlie Brown and Garfield. The problem with the Sunday Funnies was that the comics that I enjoyed reading only took about 5 minutes and left me yearning for more. Enter Babymouse: Queen of the World. Finally, a comic that sparked my interest was longer than just a strip in the Sunday paper. A comic that was not full of superheroes. A comic with a plot fully illustrated in pink and black—boy, are kids lucky these days.

As I read through Babymouse, I laughed, I empathized, and I felt as though I was reading a mile a minute in order to keep up with Babymouse’s clever and witty innermost thoughts. Holm and Holm immediately introduce the reader to the sparkly personality of Babymouse by including her in the very first few pages. I couldn’t help but laugh as I read the comment, “What is all this stuff?” on the copyright page and imagined this being a pretty “typical” thought for many.

Babymouse is much like any girl growing up and dealing with the trials and tribulations of SCHOOL and LIFE! She deals on a daily basis with having curly whiskers, an annoying little brother, boring homework, and a locker that sticks when all she really wants is GLAMOUR, EXCITEMENT, and ADVENTURE! She has a best friend that she has known since Kindergarten, but still feels like she wants something more—she wants to be popular—she wants to be friends with Felicia Furrypaws.

By choosing to use the format of a graphic novel, Holm and Holm allow themselves to have several different things going on at one time. It is up to the reader to draw conclusions about what is narration, what is conversation, what is daydreaming, and what is a complete departure from reality. Some clues are given throughout the graphic novel in order to advise the reader, although, in many instances, the reader needs to decide. For instance, a box indicates the text that is considered narration and this is the case throughout the entire book. However, speech bubbles are used to indicate both conversation and thoughts of Babymouse when she is daydreaming.

Holm and Holm also use the use of color in order to uniquely indicate the change from reality to a complete departure from reality. I noticed that throughout the book, the everyday conversations and daydreams were indicated by mostly black and white illustrations with a hint of pink. As Babymouse departs reality, the windows begin to saturate with pink and black—making it very obvious that we as readers are entering a different world.

Regardless of the simplicity of the cartoon illustrations, text, and use of only two colors, I was captivated. Did I want to cry at the thought of Babymouse almost losing her best friend? No, I didn’t. In reality, would the thought of this be something to cry about? Probably. Because of the simplicity of the illustrations and the lack of color, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the character to the point where I found the book anything but humorous. I certainly related to the book and I believe the plot is something most anyone could relate to—even boys—that is, if they are willing to pick it up in spite of the pink and black.

Sidewalk Circus

Presented By: Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes

Do you see an old man posting signs, or a Ringmaster? A young man picking up fruit, or a juggling clown? Is that a young lady walking her dog, or a lion tamer? Garibaldi Circus: Coming soon, or has it already arrived? I suppose the answer to these questions depends on who you are.

The wordless picture book, Sidewalk Circus, presented by Paul Fleischman and Kevin Hawkes depicts the vivid imagination of a young girl, which is contrasted with the adult-imagination—or lack-there-of. It is just an ordinary day in the city for most. Adults in suits are busy with drinking their coffee and reading the morning paper. For the most part, they are completely out of touch with the immediate world around them. A young girl stands out in the crowd and takes her seat at the bus stop—or perhaps, a front row seat for the show.

Fleischman and Hawkes use the power of color and shadowing in order to tell the story of this young girl’s imagination. On the left side of the street, I immediately notice the young girl approaching the bus stop because she is the only one in color. I can’t help but notice the other people approaching the bus stop and those already waiting because of the lack of color. They are all dressed in black, white, and gray and seem to blend in with the dark building behind them.

As the young girl sits down, she becomes a spectator as the shadow of the big top emerges on the buildings across the street. Nothing seems out of the ordinary—yet. With the help of the young girl and the use of shadows, we as readers also become spectators as we begin to see the comedy with events that occur in everyday life. Through the use of double-paged, full-bled illustrations, the illustrator allows us to feel immersed in the action that we are witnessing from the young girl’s perspective. What the young girl is seeing parallels the signs being hung by an old man, who in her eyes, is the Ringmaster. For example, the first sign we see displayed is advertising the Great Tebaldi—Prince of Tight Rope Walkers. Above it, we see a construction worker balancing on a steel beam with two buckets of items.

We continue to see other circus characters throughout the story—Goliath the Strongman as he carries a side of beef on his back into the butcher shop, The Famous Colombo Clowns as two young boys skateboard into a fruit and vegetable stand, and Fantastic Feats of Juggling as a chef flips pancakes in a diner. We continue to be invited to see the rest of the show as we witness the circus through the continuing shadows of the girl’s imagination.

As the bus arrives and the girl gets on the bus, I started to think that the circus might be over. However, a shadow of a clown can be seen as a businessman gets on the bus. Then, off in the distance, a young boy approaches the bus stop. I wonder if he too will catch the early show of the circus. As he notices the first sign advertising the Great Tebaldi, the reader can see a squirrel balancing on a rope. Now I know for sure that the circus has already arrived for this young boy.

This story in particular helps us to understand how important illustrations are to a picture book. Without text, this story allows us to imagine what the words may be and to take a close look at the actions and reactions of the characters in the book. Hawkes gives us the opportunity to see close-up “acts” through his full-bled illustrations. Off to the left side, however, we are also kept in touch with the young girl’s reactions through the use of a sidebar with an oval frame depicting the young girl and those around her. I laugh as we share in the moments of the circus acts together. In one of the earlier illustrations, the girl has her hands out and with a surprised face as she watches the “tightrope walker” and I imagine her saying “Isn’t anyone else seeing this?” All I want to say is, “Yes, I am too!” because the circus has already arrived for me as well.

As I finished the book I did start to wonder: Why do you need an author for a wordless book? Fleischman mentioned that the book did start out with words. Did Hawkes illustrate the book when it had words? I wonder about the collaboration between author and illustrator for this wordless picture book that sparks creativity and imagination in young and old alike.