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.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Why It All Matters

Allow me to stray slightly off-topic -- though of course, it's all connected -- to why writing and reading matter.

Though the reasons seem obvious, articulating them off the top of one's head can lead to mental stuttering. Why else does the question arise perennially? Think of all those writers trying to justify spending so many hours of their lives playing with words that may -- or may never -- be read, never mind generate any income. Or for that matter, readers explaining to their partner, parent, or maybe even boss, why they wasted an entire afternoon reading a novel when they could have been doing something productive. On an institutional level, librarians are routinely asked to clarify why taxpayers should support and even encourage consumption of all that writing. Information is okay, but that made-up stuff -- who needs it?

Turns out, we all do.

Those of us who love to read and write already know this instinctively. But two recent articles provide scientific evidence that reading is measurably good for us. And not just informational reading, but fiction.

An article in the Science section of The Guardian reports that a study at Emory University found "reading a good book may cause heightened connectivity in the brain and neurological changes that persist in a similar way to muscle memory." These neurological changes persisted, as measured by brain scans taken for five days after students finished reading a page-turner novel. Not only does reading an engaging piece of fiction transport us imaginatively, but it improves our brain functioning!

I can't tell you how much I love this.

In October Science published an article titled "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," which they define as "understanding others' mental states" and identify as "a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies." In other words, reading literary fiction develops empathy. Anyone think the world could use more of that?

Then I came across the poem "Hospital Writing Workshop" by Rafael Campo (thanks to Poem-A-Day on Because both my daughters work directly in the trenches of the medical system, and because of the incursion of cancer into my household this past year, this poem hit home more than many. Campo, a practicing physician, writes in his note about the poem, "I have witnessed first hand the power of writing poetry in abetting healing -- poetry is able to name when the diagnosis eludes us, it calls us into community when symptoms makes (sic) us feel isolated or alone or even silenced, it engenders empathy when the doctor would distance himself -- it even allows us to transcend our mortality by creating something that endures on the page long after we're gone."

Healing, empathy (again), community, transcendence -- all resulting from words put together in writing and reading.

So the next time someone brings up the subject of why reading and writing matter, consider forgoing the usual arguments about literacy as an essential foundation for successful democracy and economic prosperity; or success in school; or even improved reading scores. Explain that reading and writing are necessary for brain development, empathy, healing, community, and transcendence. In short, for living -- and dying -- well.