Clar Angkasa skilfully breathes new life into three traditional folktales from her native Indonesia, offering a fresh look from the perspective of her female characters. In these retellings, her female protagonists are the ones with power and agency as they defend and defeat attacks against them physically and psychologically.
The first story, “Keong Mas,” revolves around two competing princesses as they combat selfishness by employing magic and, over time, selflessness. When the proud one is turned into a snail and regretfully thrown away by her younger sister, she is rescued by a fisher woman who teaches the princess the meaning of compassion, friendship, and, ultimately, affection. This is done through flashbacks of the backstory and there is an element of mystery concerning the identity of the person transformed into the snail. The flashbacks are established with muted colours while the palate of most of this tale is primarily shades of purple and gold.
The second story follows two sisters as well, but in this case, they are younger, the best of friends, and stepsisters. Bawang Merah and Bawang Putih develop a deep attachment to each other as well as their individual stepparents, but when the mother dies, the beloved father becomes despondent and angry, so much so that he is dangerous to both of the girls. When they meet a helpful stranger in the forest, they are offered a pumpkin containing a fortune. This fortune does not ease their situation, but it does release them from the inertia and hopelessness of their father’s heartbreak. Along with the purples used in the first tale, this story is augmented with shades of green and brilliant reds.
“Timun Mas,” the final story, is about a young woman who is a healer and horticulturalist living by herself and selling her seeds and natural medicines in the market. One day, to her horror, she is confronted by a giant who commands her to plant a magic seed that will produce a “fruit” he will claim when he returns in 17 years. Reluctantly, she plants the seed in her garden and grows . . . a young baby from a cucumber plant. She names the child The Golden Cucumber, or Timun Mas. The years pass by much too quickly. But before her daughter’s seventeenth birthday, mother and daughter concoct a plan to defeat the giant and his plans. This story’s palate shines with shades of greens and browns.
All three tales celebrate the rural lush landscapes of Indonesia, local customs and traditions, and magical forces and strong female characters through the colourful, cartoon-like illustrations. The panels are bursting with flowing patterns, fonts, and dialogue, adding an additional dimension to the visual telling of the three tales. There is a feeling of joy interspersed with the danger of the situations the protagonists find themselves caught up in through, for the most part, no fault of their own. The swirling panels, the colours, and the expressive features of the characters all add to an enjoyable adventure for the reader.
In the author’s note following the three stories, Angkasa explains her rationale for reworking these particular tales, focusing on feminine matters and issues ahead of the masculine focus of the traditional tales. She briefly explains why these three stories were chosen for the book before providing the texts for the original folktales. As a storyteller I would have also appreciated definite source notes for these tales, but understand that she is providing the texts that she is familiar with herself.
Highly recommended for the intended readership of 8- to 12-year-olds as well as adult readers who enjoy a well adapted tale that, while including some familiar tropes and motifs, will possibly be new to them too. Perfect for school and public library folklore collections.
Stories of the Islands By Clar Angkasa Holiday House, 2023 ISBN: 9780823449781
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Picture Books (3-8) Creator Representation: Indonesian Character Representation: Indonesian, Asexual
Silent meditation retreats are havens for deep, spiritual enlightenment, and it’s the last place Binh wants to be—especially after fighting off a bully in school for having taunted his Vietnamese heritage. From award-winning author and graphic novelist Minh Lê (Drawn Together, Green Lantern: Legacy) and New York Times bestselling illustrator Chan Chau (Baby-Sitter’s Club) comes Enlighten Me, a coming-of-age story steeped in Buddhist traditions, history, and folklore.
The story begins with Binh and his family headed to the peaceful Three Jewels Mountain Retreat, a silent meditation camp where he surrenders his treasured Game Boy upon arriving. This is the last place he expected to find himself after defending himself from a school bully who directed anti-Asian slurs at his Vietnamese culture. Why was he punished for being the victim? The vice principal figured a weekend family trip here would address his violent behavior. He joins the others kids to practice the art of meditation, but before long, sore legs, a stiff back, and disruptive thoughts invade his mind and distract his focus. Not until Sister Peace, one of the Buddhist monks, begins recounting wondrous tales about the Buddha does Binh embark on a path toward self-enlightenment and deep understanding.
The plot shifts into gear as Binh learns about Prince Siddhartha—a young boy sheltered from the evils of the world—who would one day venture beyond the walls of the royal palace, destined to become the Buddha. Another story drawn from the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha’s past lives, reveals how as a young prince, he wielded five deadly weapons to combat a ferocious monster lurking deep inside a dark forest. In another tale about devotion to family, Buddha in the form of a golden deer gets caught in a trap, so its siblings come to its aid, refusing to leave its side even when a hunter comes along. Lê and Chau have created a delightfully heartwarming story that blends snatches of humor with moments that capture Binh’s hyperactive fascination with videogames. From serene images of nature to the digital world of Donkey Kong, he envisions himself floating through nebulous space in dynamically arranged panels. Events in the present unfold as Binh imagines taking part in adventures from the traditional tales, each one bearing a nugget of wisdom.
Structured in a semi-episodic style similar to the Arabian Nights, Enlighten Me paves an intriguing path into Buddhist philosophies, yet also weaves in themes of bullying, fitting in, self-control, community building, and finding oneself in the moment. This entertaining and thoughtful semiautobiographical graphic novel highlights a unique perspective on how one middle-schooler learns to navigate the challenges of life to find inner peace through self-disciplined mindfulness, thereby adding a culturally enriching experience to middle grade collections.
Enlighten Me Vol. By Minh Lê Art by Chan Chau Little, Brown, 2023 ISBN: 9780759555488
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Vietnamese American, Character Representation: Vietnamese American,
This review refers to the hardbound trade which comprises the first five issues of Animal Castle. It’s marked volume 1 and it is a handsome volume, indeed! I read the first five issues as the individual comics, through my subscription at my favorite comics pusher, so I was curious to see what the compiled edition looked like. This glossy library bound edition shows the richly painted art from the first comic cover and includes a preamble by the author, all the variant covers, and lots of bonus material displaying the original pencils and thumbnails. The cover art wraps around to the back side. It should hold up to many circulations.
This storyline is essentially Orwell’s Animal Farm, yes, but updated and retold in a new chilling way, putting a wider variety of animals in the different roles, and exploring more intimately what each character has to give up to change their brutal conditions. The dictator and general for life, Silvio, is a corpulent shaggy bull with googly stern eyes, Texas Longhorn-type horns, a protruding lip, and large jowls that somehow seem familiar. His hench-dogs are slobbery, idiotic, and brutal, and are rendered in Felix Delep’s lanky whispy pencils. All the animals have amazingly human expressions, and it’s easy to empathize with each. Indeed, many of the scenes are heartbreaking.
The story revolves around a starving young mama cat named Miss Bengalore and her attempts to organize the Castle against the brutality of Silvio’s reign. The Hindi-sounding name is not a coincidence, as she’s shown early in the book what happens to those who speak up and riot. She has all she can handle with her three kittens and her forced work hauling stones all day to Silvio’s commanded building of a wall fortress, but, one night, she sees an old gray rat, a traveling storyteller named Azelar, do a performance about, “a little man, a fakir who fights against a king and an empire….” Is Azelar’s appearance a coincidence? Or does he have more to teach the Castle animals? When the old rat is injured trying to escape the guard hounds, Miss B. rescues him. Can he convince Miss B. and the other animals to work towards a better life away from Silvio’s grasp?
The story pacing kept my interest and the colors are muted and appropriate for a difficult story like this. The lettering is very small, so I needed my cheaters to read it. Even though this story is based on Animal Farm, this is not a story for middle graders. There is considerable violence as well as adult situations, even though those are animal-portrayed adult situations. In a country where some try to ban mouse-nakedness, librarians should be aware that this comic discusses very hard political issues, and the brutality is explicitly portrayed. I suggest putting this title either in the adult area or young adult.
Animal Castle, vol. 1 Vol. 1 By Xavier Dorison Art by Felix Delep Ablaze, 2022 ISBN: 9781684970032
Publisher Age Rating: 16+ NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
In virtually all stories—novels, epic myths, fairy tales, movies, and even biographies—characters must undergo a trial of sorts. Mythologist Joseph Campbell coined this paradigm as the archetypal hero’s journey, wherein an individual must fulfill a series of tasks to achieve a goal and return from this quest with a boon to benefit society. A critical stage of this journey entails venturing into a katabasis, a sojourn into the underworld or land of the dead. In a dynamically fascinating exploration of this descent into darkness, Brian McDonald (Old Souls) and Toby Cypress (The Gravediggers Union) delineate how this universal voyage into the underworld permeates time and space in Land of the Dead: Lessons from the Underworld on Storytelling and Living. What unfolds is a most intriguing graphic essay spanning across countless cultures and stories that encompasses the multitudinous nuances of storytelling.
In folkloric fashion mirroring some indigenous cultures, a crow serves as the narrative guide who breaks the cinematic fourth wall, steering readers into the magical realms of imaginative storytelling. As an agent of the land of the dead, the crow recounts the earliest written story from antiquity—The Epic of Gilgamesh. This mythic tale embodies humanity’s eternal quest for immortality since the dawn of time, plunging readers into the depths of the underworld, for therein lies wisdom to be attained. Like a multifaceted puzzle box in the episodic tradition of the Arabian Nights, McDonald traverses the landscapes of literature, film, and oral storytelling, highlighting common threads across cultures similar to how Joseph Campbell illuminated familiar motifs, themes, and tropes in The Power of Myth.
This extensive graphic essay traces a literary history of stories from antiquity to the present for the young and old alike. From angelic characters in Cinderella and Steven Spielberg’s E.T. to Scrooge’s grim, sordid outlook on life in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Uncle Charlie’s sinister intentions in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, McDonald brilliantly connects varied themes of survival, necography, isolation, and memory. Cypress’s striking artwork shines through thoughtfully composed panels tinged with shaded hues. Meticulously rendered sketches of characters accentuated by sparing use of ambient coloring amplifies certain scenes and moods, adding a tonal richness to each story.
A treasure trove and visual feast for the literati, writers, cinephiles, and storytellers of classic and contemporary works, Land of the Dead exemplifies a monumental achievement that bears repeated readings for renewed insight. Although not necessarily a handbook on the craft of storytelling, one will discover the intricate underlying frameworks, motifs, and themes that infuse the mechanics and wizardry behind compelling stories throughout time. A fine addition to public and academic library collections, this literary masterpiece cuts across multi-interdisciplinary subjects and aims to attract a wide readership, demonstrating the alluring power of stories and the lessons they bestow upon humanity.
Land of the Dead: Lessons from the Underworld on Storytelling and Living By Brian McDonald Art by Toby Cypress Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781626727311
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18) Creator Representation: Black
The Woman in the Woods and other North American Stories marks the fifth volume in the series of cautionary fables and fairy tales. The eight tales in this volume are from Indigenous nations, told and illustrated by Indigenous artists, and highlighting tales from Odawa, Chickasaw, Métis/Cree, Métis, Ojibwe, Tania, Navajo, and S’Kallam societies. The editors asked each of the authors to ask for permission from the Elders and/or nations to retell and rework the stories for inclusion in this anthology as they recognized and respected the protocol inherent in the gathering of the stories from the people. Unfortunately, there are no source notes included in the collection, making it of less value to educators, librarians, and storytellers than I had hoped. True, the intended audience is middle school readers, not scholars, but the authenticity of each of the tales should be paramount for them as well. I do appreciate the fact that each of the tribal affiliations has been identified for the tales.
While the tales are rendered in black and white with various hues of grey, the cover itself jumps with colour. Ironically, the story alluded to on the cover is not included in the collection. Editor and cover artist Alina Pete remarked that she had hoped to include the creation story of Sky Woman and Turtle Island, but she could not find anyone that had permission to tell this story. Sky Woman fell to the water-covered world and fell on the back of Turtle. One by one, the animals dive into the water to try and find land until Muskrat is successful in bringing back soil. Sky woman spreads the soil on Turtle’s back to create the world as we know it. She shows Sky Woman dancing for joy and two constellations on the back cover featuring two of the characters from the tales within the covers.
Most of the illustrations in the book itself have simple backgrounds, focusing on the characters of each tale. The different styles of illustrations make each of the stories individual in a collection continuous from tale to tale without any commentary. Most of the illustrations are rendered realistically, although one or two stories have manga-like characteristics and vary between historical and contemporary settings. They also vary in length.
The anthology begins with the Odawa creation story, “As it was told to Me,” retold and illustrated by Elijah Forbes, which demonstrates that the world needs the balance of good and bad to exist. It is followed by a trickster rabbit story about the cost of vanity from the Chickasaw people. “Chokfi” is written by Jordaan Arledge and illustrated by Mekala Nava. The next two stories are located closer to this reviewer. “White Horse Plains,” from the Métis settlement St. Francois Xavier, relates the tale of the dangers of greed and conflict. It is written and illustrated by Rhael McGregor. The second Métis tale is possibly the most familiar character in the collection for me. Written by Maija Ambrose Plamondon and illustrated by Milo Applejohn, “The Rougarou” tells the story of a werewolf like monster and a young boy who befriends the Rougarou. I must admit that while I am familiar with many Rougarou tales, this is the first time I have encountered this one. Alice RL’s Ojibwe tale of “Agonjin in the Water” relates a tale of another story of friendship between a human and a mythical creature: the mythical, Mishipeshu the Great Water Guardian of the lakes and rivers.
The Taino story that follows gave its title to the anthology. It is written and illustrated by Mercedes Acosta and also focuses on the relationship between a woman and a spirit of a young girl who sees the mysterious “Woman in the Woods.” The penultimate tale, “Into the Darkness,” is a Navaho shapeshifter tale about a character so frightful that no one dares to speak its name. It is written by Izzy Roberts and illustrated by Aubrie Warner. The final tale, written by Jeffrey Veregge and illustrated by Alina Pete, is a romantic tale from the S’Kallam people. The Moon in “By the Light of the Moon” falls in love with Octopus Woman, the Queen of the Salish Sea in Puget Sound. The bright light of the Moon makes it possible for the Moon to watch her dance and to send her kisses. The power of the kisses has a surprising repercussion.
The stories are followed by two pages of concise biographies of the creators including their tribal affiliations and, in most cases, their sexual orientations.
Recommended for middle school and public library collections. Because the book is part of the cautionary fables and fairy tales series, most of the stories have strong lessons imparted in the story line, but they are not dogmatic and do allow the power of the storytelling to shine through. I just wish there were adequate source notes—did I say that already?
Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories Edited by Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, Alina Pete Iron Circus, 2022 ISBN: 9781945820977
Publisher Age Rating: 10-12 Series ISBNs and Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Cree, Metis, Navajo, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans, Two Spirit Character Representation: Cree, First Nations or Indigenous, Metis, Navajo
Tedd Arnold, best-known for his long-running and extremely popular easy reader series Fly Guy, branched out into a higher-level, comic easy reader series a few years ago, featuring Noodleheads Mac and Mac.
Mac and Mac are literally noodleheads—they’re macaroni noodles with completely empty noggins! These stories are based on folktales of the “fool” type, and Mac and Mac have had many silly adventures over the last few books. In three short chapters they go through a variety of dangers and complications, always realizing at the end of each how lucky they are. From a falling apple to a trick played by their friend Meatball (literally, it’s a meatball) everything always ends well for these two goofy guys.
These are more than just silly stories though; they’re based on very specific folktale types. For example, in one episode Mac and Mac are tricked by Meatball into begging for trouble and they get a bag full… of bees! Fortunately, however, it turns out that bees were just what their mother needed to get her hives going and the pair are lucky indeed. There are author’s notes in the back talking about the tale types and sources for the stories, as well as specific tales inspiring each chapter. The authors draw from fool tales all around the world, from the Jack stories of England to Nasreddin Hodja of Turkey and Juan Bobo of Puerto Rico.
The artwork will be instantly recognizable to Arnold fans, as it features his signature bulging eyes and wide smiles, but he adds a traditional feel to these folktale-inspired stories with a scribbled background that mimics a crackle finish. Although Mac and Mac wear contemporary clothes, boldly-colored t-shirts and shorts, the cracked background gives the stories a feeling of age and one could almost imagine them as traditional paintings from a book of old tales. Simple, bright colors and lines fill the rest of the panels, with a small group of goofy characters, from Meatball, in baseball cap and turquoise shirt, to their mother in a green dress and purple skirt.
Although the joke is usually on Mac and Mac, there’s no flavor of nastiness in these silly stories. The two have the occasional argument, but especially in this book they take everything in stride, reiterating how lucky they are as each adventure turns out right. Even Meatball’s tricks turn out well in the end, although readers will realize that he is certainly not intending to be nice! Intermediate readers will find these hit the spot, with a minimal of characters and not too much detail in the art, allowing them to focus on the mechanics of reading the more complex sentences and following the visual story through the panels. Kids will enjoy the wordplay and being “in the know” as they see the mistakes Mac and Mac make, but by the end of each story they’ll also recognize that the characters who feel superior to the Noodleheads never triumph, despite their supposed smarts.
These stories are not only a fun way to keep kids reading through the intermediate level, as they shift from early readers to chapters, but also would be great resources for a classroom focusing on folktale studies or social-emotional intelligence, discussing what it means to be “intelligent” and the intricacies of the English language.
Noodleheads Lucky Day By Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, Mitch Weiss Art by Tedd Arnold ISBN: 9780823440023 Holiday House, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9)
Fairy tales have enabled children to confront some of the darkest parts of humanity through stories with a clear moral or lesson to learn. Retellings of fairy tales often gloss over the violence and gore present in the original versions of the tales, and we forget that some of these tales sprang from dark parts of history. Bluebeard, recaptured by Metaphrog, balances the darkness of the story with the light of a new moral.
The basic premise of Bluebeard begins with a rich, mysterious man who marries a poor, beautiful young woman. Early in the marriage, he tells her he has business to attend to. He leaves her with keys to every room in his castle, but points out one key she must never use, lest she bring about his wrath. Of course the wife uses the key. She opens the door and finds bodies of previous wives, and her husband returns that night. He is about to add her to the body count when she is saved by her brothers, who kill him.
The commonly agreed origin for Bluebeard is in Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose from 1697 (source: Encyclopaedia Britannica). Other cultures have similar versions of the story, and many point to tales of historical serial killers as inspiration for the tale. The stated moral in Perrault’s tale is that sating curiosity comes at a high cost and is not worth the price (perhaps in comparison to Eve and the apple). Others have since said that using the key brings about knowledge, allowing the wife to leave her naivete behind. Metaphrog’s version perhaps takes this moral further by saying if you make a decision that endangers you, while friends and family bring hope to save you, you must also be prepared to fight for yourself.
Metaphrog’s Bluebeard, a self-proclaimed feminist retelling of the tale, provides a backstory for the young woman, Eve. We see her growing up, living with her family in poverty, and developing a close friendship with Tom, a local goat herder. When Bluebeard asks her father for a daughter to marry, Eve understands her marriage will provide for her family. As in the original tale, she too falls prey to curiosity and opens the forbidden room. She is about to be killed by Bluebeard, but in this retelling, she has more agency in saving herself.
While the building of a backstory gives this version a more dynamic depiction of the wife, the way it is incorporated into the story is a bit clumsy. Characters are given more depth through details, but these details don’t seem to serve much purpose other than to lengthen the tale. For example, Eve nurses a a bird back to health that later delivers a message from Tom, but it seemed unnecessary and took several pages. Another several pages depict a terrible season for the village, emphasizing their poverty and providing a reason for Eve to feel justified in marrying a man to help her family. However, it could’ve been presented in far fewer panels, and perhaps without the panel of screaming goats that called to mind the work of Lane Smith, artist for The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.
Screaming goat panel aside (which stands out in pretty stark contrast to the other artwork), the stylized art makes this retelling of Bluebeard vibrant. Pink and blue washes depict village life versus Bluebeard’s castle, saturating the pages with rich color. Many panels use silhouettes to pace the story, focusing on a quiet moment between Eve and Tom or showing the distance of the castle from the village in silhouettes climbing Bluebeard’s mountain. Bluebeard is set apart from the villagers by his opulent clothing—a giant cloak, fur collar, hat, and cane—and Eve stands out with her shining pink hair with pearlescent highlights. Despite being a gory story, gore is not depicted. The closet of dead women is a panel of shirts and feet washed in red.
Metaphrog wrote this story as a children’s book, aimed at ages 7 and up. The age range is appropriate, especially for parents reading the book to their children. Some parents may feel uncomfortable with the morbid closet of dead wives, but parents who share non-Disney fairy tale stories with their kids are unlikely to mind. The story is labeled as a “feminist retelling,” but I wouldn’t add it to a display of books of such a theme, because it’s not overtly so. I would add this tale to a digital collection, but I don’t know if it merits a spot on shelves where real estate is a high commodity. This version of Bluebeard didn’t really resonate strongly with me, but I am completely on board for more graphic novels and comics retelling fairy tales that give more agency and depth to characters while retaining some of the darkness of the original stories.
Bluebeard By Metaphrog ISBN: 9781626720794 Papercutz, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: 7+
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Related to…: Retelling
Capstone has been doing sets of four fractured fairy tales; so far they’ve done Far Out Fairy Tales with titles like Goldilocks and the Three Vampires, Far Out Fables with The Lion and the Mouse and the Invaders from Zurg, and now they’re tackling folktales. One small quibble—technically, this latest set is tall tales, but clearly they had to stick with the alliteration!
I looked at two titles from this set; Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Whale takes the story of Paul Bunyan under the sea. Along with his best friend Babe, Paul Bunyan performs feats of strength, creates natural landmarks under the sea, like mountains and trenches, and defends the merpeople from mean sharks. He’s got his own fans, worried but loving parents (the king and queen of Atlantis), and eventually decides to move up onto land.
In the second title, Johnny Slimeseed and the Freaky Forest, Johnny Appleseed gets a monstrous makeover. Johnny lives in the town of Nightmare, where all the monsters love to get out and scare people. After all, there’s nothing else to do. But Johnny doesn’t think it’s nice to scare people—if only he could find something that was more fun, everyone would do that instead. As he searches in the human world, he meets Sleeka, a worm from Bugsville, who tells him of a wonderful, slimy tree on an island. After a lengthy search, Johnny discovers one last slimy seed and with plenty of green snot, he’s ready to change his world and cover it in slime!
Both books begin with a cast of characters and end with the original tall tale, a visual comparison of the “twists” in the tale (apple seeds swapped for slime seeds for example), and visual questions, showing panels from the book and asking readers to take a closer look. There are also notes on the authors and a glossary.
The art is done by two different creators; Otis Frampton in Paul Bunyan uses a more classic cartoonish style, using lots of blues and earth colors, and showing characters with big cartoon eyes, curly hair, and exaggerated expressions. These are cartoon mermaids, not the beautiful or dangerous mermaids of older stories, and Paul Bunyan combines a stocking cap, plaid shirt, suspenders and belt with his fishy tail. Berenice Munz in Johnny Slimeseed looks more manga-inspired, showing characters with spiky hair, manga-style eyes, and lots of slick, digitized color. The slime is sparkly and goopy and the colors are wild purples and greens. Everything has an extra shimmer, from Johnny’s metal pot hat to his green snot explosions.
The additional resources will make these useful in a classroom setting, especially if teachers are studying tall tales. Kids who have enjoyed the previous titles in these collections will be eager to take a look at these, although they include more exaggerated humor and gross stuff. These would make good additional purchases for a school or library wanting to add to their graphic novel collection or fill out resources for studying tales of different kinds.
Far Out Folktales series (Capstone) Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Whale By Penelope Gruber Art by Otis Frampton ISBN: 9781496578426
Johnny Slimeseed and the Freaky Forest By Stephanie True Peters Art by Berenice Muniz ISBN: 9781496578433 Capstone, 2019 NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11) Series Reading Order
Neil Gaiman, known primarily for his comics work and novels, is a master of creating short stories. Long-time Gaiman readers should recognize the stories that inspired these four shorts, two adapted from prose and two from poems, while those new to his writing outside of the world of comics are introduced to these four pieces that celebrate the power of story and storytelling.
The first entry, “The Problem of Susan,” was originally published as text in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy Volume II, edited by Al Sarrantonio (2004) and has been republished several times since then in various collections of horror and fantasy tales. Here, the story is brought to life by illustrator P. Craig Russell with colors by Lovern Kindzierski. An elderly woman, Professor Hastings, is being interviewed about her academic work with children’s literature when she reveals that she is still in mourning for her entire family, who died in a train crash when she was much younger. Although her first name is never mentioned, there are numerous hints in her conversation that imply that she is Susan Pevensie from the Narnia books. While Susan and Narnia are highlighted in the story, there is also a strong focus on the reading of children’s literature through time. This storyteller appreciates the inclusion of conversation fragments such as “…the Grimms’ stories were collected for adults and, when the Grimms realized the books were being read in the nursery, were bowdlerized to make them more appropriate” (16). The fantasy and dream sequences are in bright and vivacious colors, while the scenes with the older woman are in earthier tones. Facial expressions in both realms are exquisite.
“Locks,” an adaptation of a poem, continues the pattern of children’s literature and storytelling. In this reworking of the familiar nursery rhyme, Gaiman offers insight on the storytelling ritual between a father and his young daughter and how the two have quite diverse perceptions of the plot line. Russell was responsible for the illustrations and Kindzierski for the coloring in this adaptation of a story first written for Gaiman’s two-year old daughter (1999).
The third tale, and my favorite, is dedicated to Ray Bradbury. There is a strong echo of the folktale of “The Twelve Months” at the beginning of “October in the Chair,” illustrated by Scott Hampton. The months, in human form, have regular meetings to tell stories. October has the chair and relates the sobering adventures of a young boy, Runt, who runs away from home and is befriended by a young male ghost. The tale of a story within a story, first published in 2002, was written to explore Gaiman’s idea of writing about two young boys, one living and the other a ghost, and preceded his successful novel, The Graveyard Book. The story won the Locus Award for Best Short Story (2003). The illustrations here are much darker and not just because much of the action takes place around the campfire at night. Hampton provides a frightening vision, which adds to the authenticity and effectiveness of the tale and the storytelling session. “And they touched hands as they walked away from the fire’s orange embers, taking their stories with them back into the dark” (68).
The final entry, “The Day the Saucers Came,” with artwork by Paul Chadwick, is a poem comprised of seven splash pages with blocks of text nestled among the fanciful and exotic illustrations. Alien invasions, zombies, Ragnarok, and other calamitous events all go by unobserved by the young woman awaiting a phone call from the individual reciting the poem. Each of the full page illustrations have a great deal to unpack, offering a visual feast and diverse interpretations. Highly recommended for Gaiman fans and those who appreciate the power of story and storytelling regardless of the format!
The Problem of Susan and Other Stories By Neil Gaiman Art by P. Craig Russell Scott Hampton Paul Chadwick ISBN: 9781506705118 Dark Horse, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: 14+
Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales is the umbrella title for a series of three compilations themed after a specific region of which this one is the third. The first two cover Europe and Africa while the fourth one, on Oceania tales, is in publication. All have been funded through Kickstarter efforts.
I had high hopes for this collection of Asian folktales, but was dismayed to discover that few of them have source notes or any markers for context. The geographic location is mentioned, but no background is provided for readers who may not be familiar with yokai, kitsune, demons, and other supernatural beings from Japan, China, India, Georgia, Laos, Myanmar, Turkey, Iraq and Tibet. I was very pleased, however, with the reworking of “The Ballad of Mulan” which followed the ancient tales rather than the Disney film. Aside from this tale and a few others such as the title story and “Urashima Taro,” most of the stories may not be familiar with young audiences. This is not a criticism, but it is also where source notes could have made this an outstanding addition to the ongoing reworkings of folklore in the comic book format.
The length of the stories varies as does the black and white art work in this anthology. Several of the tales have been modernized to including texting and other nods to contemporary life, but the vast majority have retained the ancient settings; particularly those by a diverse range of illustrators including Gene Luen Yang, Nina Matsumoto, and Carla Speed McNeil. Most of the other creators in this collection are known better through their webcomics and indie titles. The illustrations range from manga-like cartoon-y artwork to detailed and realistic penciling and the application of black and shadows. The mood of the stories is also as diverse as the tales themselves, with a mixture of light and dark themes. Some of the tales are excerpts from longer legends and books such as Yang’s “From the Journey of the Monkey King” from American Born Chinese. All the tales offer warnings or advice for the protagonists and the readers. Unfortunately for many of the protagonists, there is a great deal of pain in learning these lessons. They do, as the overall theme indicates, offer a cautionary edification for the reader.
I wish I could recommend this for library collections but the lack of source notes for this storyteller is truly a stumbling block. There is no need in today’s publishing world not to respect the tales and culture from where the stories originated. Very few of the entries even acknowledge that the individual tale has been adapted.
Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories By C. Spike Trotman, ed. Kate Ashwin, ed. Kel McDonald Art by Carla Speed McNeil, Gene Leun Yang, Nina Matsumoto, et al ISBN: 9781945820342 Iron Circus, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: all ages NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
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