Myth as such is absent in the history of Western children’s literature. Unlike literature, myth is based on the belief of the myth bearers; when this belief disappears, the myth ceases to be a myth. Since children’s literature emerges long after Western civilization had lost its traditional mythical belief, this stage is not represented in children’s fiction.
– Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
THIS IS THE STAR BY JOYCE DUNBAR
This is a Bible story, so might instead be reclassified as a religious story. Anyway, it is the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, told in a poem to the rhythm and structure of ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.’ If that sounds unlikely, it begins:
This is the star in the sky.
These are the shepherds watching by night
That saw the star in the sky.
This structure is quite popular and is often used in children’s books e.g. The Beanbag That Mum Made (published 1985, written by a year one class and Andrea Butler).
THE GREAT BIG ENORMOUS TURNIP BY ALEXEI TOLSTOY
An old man planted a turnip but it grows so large he can’t pull it out of the ground. He summons a variety of people/creatures to help him pull, and finally it’s the mouse’s effort which brings it up.
I’m pretty sure this is based on one of Aesop’s fables but I can’t think exactly which one. Anyway, the idea is embedded in the idiomatic English phrase, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ and others like it.
My version was published by Piccolo in 1968. The artwork by Helen Oxenbury is a wonderful snapshot of trends of that time, and would be a good reference if you were hoping to create a retro feel in your own artwork.
THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS BY CLAIRE HUCHET BISHOP
If you were looking to illustrate a classic tale you might go to China for inspiration, as these guys have done. There are many folk tales in Asia which haven’t yet achieved wide exposure in the West.
THE FROG WHO WOULDN’T LAUGH BY CECILIA EGAN
Pan Macmillan Australia have put out a whole series of Aboriginal myths, retold and illustrated. This is one. It’s about a giant frog who swallowed the world. It reminds me of the Maori myths and legends I grew up with in New Zealand, in which Maui ‘fished up’ the country out of the sea. It’s impossible to depict such a thing in a children’s book. Likewise, the enormous frog in this book just doesn’t feel big enough. Part of me thinks the traditional myths (creation and suchlike) should be left alone as oral tales, because the imagination deals with scale far better than any 2D image in a book.
ALL AFLOAT ON NOAH’S BOAT BY TONY MILTON
I’ve always thought that being trapped on an ark with a whole heap of smelly animals would’ve been no fun at all, and perhaps the author of this book did too, because after a while the animals start to get on each other’s nerves, reminiscent of a long car trip with small children. In the end the animals learn to amuse themselves and each other by putting on a show. The illustrations, by Guy Parker-Rees, are done with a very attractive palette, making use of vibrant purples for shadows. This lends a distinctive look to the artwork.
THE COCKY WHO CRIED DINGO BY YVONNE MORRISON
In this retelling of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the cockatoo ends up getting his sulphur crest snipped short by a dingo. I was wondering how the story would end, since in real life a cockatoo would be unlikely to come off so lightly if confronted by a hungry dingo.
(Such is the deception of picture books featuring Australian wildlife.)
Hurry Up And Slow Down by Layn Marlow
This is an original story making use of well-known characters from one of Aesop’s most famous fables. The fable teaches that slow and steady wins the race, whereas this story has a slightly different message: Some people do things quickly, others do things slowly, and we must be patient with one another. In this respect it teaches children to respect individuality.
THE TICKETY TALE TALLER BY MAUREEN HASELHURST
This story isn’t actually a myth or a fable, but is instead written in the style of one. We learn where books came from. They were invented as a way of spreading stories to a large number of children at once, by a fairy who used to fly around the village telling stories to individuals. The fairy ends up going around gifting books to children.
In this respect, we end up with a story about the magical power of literature – a fairly common theme. (Books which say books are good. Preaching to the choir, I’d say.)
The illustrations are wonderfully colourful, with interesting perspectives down into a mythological town.
THE FIRST STORY EVER TOLD BY ERIK JENDRESEN
Vilcabamba is not a city. It is not a place that you can walk to. It is the place that we find when we close our eyes and see the light of creation and hear the first story every told. It is where you are now.
In isolation, this picture book feels a little more New Age than I prefer, but in conjunction with a bit of non-fiction reading about the Incas and Vilcabamba, this story may well spring to life.
NEVER CRY WOOF! BY JANE WATTENBERG
This is a retelling of an Aesop’s Fable: The boy who cried wolf. Except in this story it’s dogs themselves who are up against the wolf. They have been recruited through an agency to protect sheep, bringing this story firmly into the present.
The illustrations in this book remind me of a kitsch calendar my mother-in-law brought back from a cruise around Australia – each month featured an oversaturated photo of some sort of landscape, with a kangaroo thrown in somewhere: kangaroos surfing, kangaroos sunbathing on the beach, that sort of thing. No attempt at all had been made to fit the kangaroos into the landscape and that was the entire point. Anyone with Photoshop Elements and a free afternoon could have knocked one up.
The illustrations in this book were a bit like that: deliberately collaged and bright and wacky. This might be a book for dog lovers. I felt the story thread was compromised in some parts by the need to insert (terrible!) puns, ha ha, and make the most of some funny pictures of dogs of the sort you see on LOL Kitteh websites (or the dog equivalent, I should say!) I would say this book would appeal to dog loving children.
One idea I did like was a page full of dogs’ faces. In the story these dogs had all applied for the job of ferocious keeper of sheep, and the young reader is asked to pick the best dog for the job. This encourages the child to look very carefully at the page and to engage with it actively.
THE BEAR WITH THE SWORD BY DAVIDE CALI
From what I can work out this is an original story which reads like an old fable, although for all I know, it could be the retelling of a story from a different culture.
This book is unusual in that the font is in sans serif font, when most are in a serif font. I’ve heard serif fonts are easier to read on paper and that sans serif fonts are easier to read on screen. I have no idea if this is really the case.
The illustrations make nice use of white space, and are a mixture of coloured pictures and line drawings.
I wasn’t particularly engaged by this story and I couldn’t get the three year old to listen to it, but the publisher has seen that it has educational value, and has uploaded some teacher resources online.
THE BOAT BY HELEN WARD
This story is similar to the biblical Noah’s Ark tale, though no mention is made of biblical times. You know the story… It rains a lot, and an eccentric hermit of a man builds a huge boat to put all his animals on. In this story a boy helps out (presumably because this is a tale meant to appeal to children, and is therefore more effective with a child character).
When the man cries and the rainbow comes out at the end, I don’t feel the slightest bit like crying with him. (I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the Noah’s Ark mythology, and maybe that’s why.)
The illustrations are done in sketchy pencil style, with various items rendered in coloured pencil throughout to make them stand out. This is quite effective. Though I remember as a child being far more drawn to brightly coloured pictures, this style suits the voice of the story, which is sombre and designed to carry weight.
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN BY MAURICE SENDAK
In this classic picture book from 1970, a little boy (perhaps two years old) wakes up from a dream to find himself in an imaginary, surrealist kitchen peopled by fat male chefs who all look exactly the same, and who bake him into a pie. This scene reminds me of Shakespeare’s ‘double double toil and trouble’ witches scene, with the chefs standing around a bubbling cauldron.
But the boy sits up in the pie and tells them that he’s not pie ingredients; his name is Mickey. He moulds the pie dough into a plane and flies away. He ends up in a huge bottle of milk at some stage, then slides down into a bath, gets himself all clean and finally we see him sleeping in his bed. As you can see, this story is as wacky and imaginative as a dream, and may well have been inspired by one.
The story ends with ‘And that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning’ (do we?), which turns it into a sort of modern fable, or ‘explanation for the existence of cake’.
There are some parts which have dated a little. The page in which naked Mickey (wearing nothing but a pot on his head) flaps his wings like a chicken and cries ‘Cock a doodle doo!’ I can’t think of any modern picture books in which we see a depiction of a young boy’s penis, and indeed I wonder if it would be edited out. The picture and words combined are a little unfortunate to the modern adult reader at least, now that ‘cock’ has entered mainstream lingo from porn culture. There’s something regrettably kinky about that particular sequence, but of course I’m reading this book through a modern, adult lens. Young children would not see any such thing.
I particularly like the colour scheme in the artwork, reminiscent of old posters, in a style even older than 1970 I think. (Vaudeville inspired?)
This story is one to read again later, to remind myself that when it comes to plots in children’s books, there really are no rules regarding ridiculousness.
For more recommended trade books similar to these see the Legends, Tales and Myths Matrix, a downloadable Word document.
See also: more on myths, Greek mythology and related books from this post at Teach With Picture Books.
Genes mix across borders more easily than folktales from New Scientist