A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Aesop in the Arctic

One of the things I love about folktales, legends, and fables is how adaptable they are. In Arctic Aesop’s Fables: Twelve Retold Tales, Juneau writer Susi Gregg Fowler and her husband, artist Jim Fowler, have transformed a dozen traditional Aesop’s tales into a beautifully rendered picture book of fables set in Arctic and sub-Arctic landscapes.

A few, such as “The Arctic Fox and the Raven,” require only minor substitutions to replace their classic counterparts. “The Fox and the Crow” -- a story I’ve told at least a hundred times to children using puppets and an intriguing piece of mystery cheese -- in Susi Fowler’s retelling fittingly exchanges Arctic cousins for the traditional critters and a bit of fish (grayling, to be precise) for the cheese.

Similarly, “The Wolf and the Reflection” doesn’t wander far from Aesop’s “The Dog and the Shadow” -- except for the setting, which describes “grassy tussocks” on the tundra and mentions a bear. Jim Fowler’s illustration of the wolf looking at itself in the river sets this story apart. This canine is wilder and more powerful than any dog I’ve seen depicted in the classic tale.

Other stories are more surprising. Guess who stars in the Arctic version of “The Tortoise and the Hare”? A snowshoe hare and a porcupine! Anyone who has ever watched a porcupine waddle across a trail will smile reading this version of the familiar fable.

Some stories, such as “The Bear, the Wolves, and the Musk Oxen,” are adapted from lesser-known Aesop’s fables -– here, “The Lion and the Three Bulls” -– to good effect. Musk oxen protecting their young are a perfect, and unusual, choice to illustrate the moral “United we stand.” Again, Fowler’s illustrations complement the story and visually strengthen understanding of the moral.

Another creative adaptation I particularly enjoy is “The Mosquito and the White-Fronted Goose.” The moral is straight out of “The Lion and the Mouse” but the story that takes you there is original, and uniquely Arctic.

With so much to talk about and explore visually, this book is made for sharing, either one-on-one or with groups of children in a story time or teaching setting. Northern children will recognize familiar animals and landscapes. Children from other environments will be intrigued and interested to learn more about Arctic wildlife. The succinct morals provide an opportunity to discuss values and the consequences of various behaviors. A table of contents links the stories to their source fables, which is not only good scholarship but a perfect invitation for inquiring minds to look up the Aesop versions for comparison. From there it’s a simple segue into telling or writing their own animal fables.

Fables are an ancient and amazingly durable form of teaching story. It’s a pleasure to see them reworked so imaginatively and yet set accurately within the natural world. Nicely done, Fowlers!

Published by Sasquatch Books, 2013. Ages 4-8.

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