One-Minute Book Reviews

January 24, 2012

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s ‘Mouse & Lion’ Re-Imagines Aesop

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:55 am
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The mouse is the star of a fresh version of “The Lion and the Mouse” 

Mouse & Lion. By Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael Di Capua/Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Ekholm Burkert established herself as one of America’s great illustrators of children’s books with her art for the original 1961 edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She has held that distinction for 50 years – along with Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and a handful of others – and is perhaps the country’s best living female picture-book artist.

Ekholm Burkert works in the fine-art tradition of nuanced and often symbolic paintings, an approach pioneered by illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. She excels at re-interpretations of classics, which have included Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, a retelling of a Brothers Grimm version translated by Randall Jarrell.

In Snow-White and elsewhere, Ekholm Burkert shows a deep understanding of how far you can go with ageless tales without betraying their spirit. Unlike artists who simply graft modern clothes or speech onto classics, she works from the inside out. She brings to each book a unity and originality of vision that extends to the most arcane detail. The dwarfs in her Snow-White aren’t elves or gnomes. They are real people, based on research suggesting that the tale may have roots in a medieval incident involving dwarfs. This approach gives Snow-White a warm humanity and depth that most versions lack.

Anyone who doesn’t know Ekholm Burkert’s work will find an excellent introduction to it in the elegant Mouse & Lion, her first picture book since Valentine & Orson in 1989. Capably written by her son, Rand, this retelling of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” sets the fable in the Aha Hills on the border of Botswana and Namibia. Ekholm Burkert gives the tale a baobab tree and a tawny African grass mouse with black and white stripes. That is where another artist would have stopped.

Ekholm Burkert goes further. Her book shows, perhaps better than any other, that this story is about the mouse, who is the protagonist to the lion’s antagonist. Most versions have both animals on the cover or just the lion. This one has only the mouse on the front. The lion is on the back.

Mouse & Lion is original in other ways. Many artists treat Aesop’s fable as a stern tale that instructs: Be kind, and others will repay you for it. Ekholm Burkert sees the humor in the story: The king of beasts needs help from a tiny creature in freeing itself from a hunter’s snare. This and other aspects would be comical in real life, and her pictures show it. In a witty series of images, the regal Lion treats Mouse like a court jester: He demands that his captive show he’s brave enough to repay the favor of a release. Lion laughs when Mouse tries to perform acrobatics on a blade of tall grass that breaks, an act that lands him on his head. The king-and-vassal relationship changes after Mouse gnaws a hole in the snare that has trapped Lion, and the book gains a second theme — the joy of small things — in closing pages that show Mouse’s mate and their babies and Lion admiring ethereal African flora and fauna. If the fable traditionally casts kindness as a duty or means of self-preservation, this one shows that it is also pleasure.

Ekholm Burkert admires Asian art, and more than her earlier books, Mouse & Lion shows its influence on her work through its agile lines and expansive use of white space. At the same time it retains the virtues of her earlier books: the subtle color sense, the superior draftsmanship and the rich textures — on the grain of a boulder, the fur on a mouse, the wings of a butterfly. Rand Burkert notes in an afterword that the lion was Aesop’s favorite “character,”  and Mouse & Lion is the rare retelling that makes you see why.

Best line/picture: No. 1: Mouse returning to his mate and their six melt-your-heart babies. No. 2: Burkert has found an subtle way around a challenge : the difficulty of showing in a single image actions occurring at different times. She uses an airy blue to show things that have occurred or will – for example, the pendulum route Mouse has swung above Lion’s jaws.

Worst line/picture: None, but Rand Burkert has a heavy hand with exclamation points. Do you really need them after “A net dropped and twisted around him!” and “ ‘Ah yes!’ he thought”?

Recommended? This beautiful children’s book may also appeal to adults who admire fine-art illustration. I liked Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless 2010 Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. But Mouse & Lion offers more insights into the fable, and the two retellings are so different that many people will want to read both.

Furthermore: Publishers Weekly named Mouse & Lion one of the best picture books of 2011. Nancy Ekholm Burkert won a 1973 Caldecott Honor for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other honors include a show of her work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A New York Times review of Mouse & Lion discusses varied interpretations of Aesop.

About the author: A short biography of Nancy Elkhom Burkert appears on the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda

February 13, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner, Jerry Pinkney’s ‘The Lion and the Mouse’

A vibrant interpretation of an Aesop’s fable roars its way to the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration

THE LION AND THE MOUSE. By Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Whoever decided that Jerry Pinkney should do a wordless book was a genius. For decades Pinkney has been creating beautiful art that has earned him a place in the first rank of American picture-book illustrators. But some of his books have had words so much weaker than their pictures that they were hard to recommend as highly as their art seemed to demand.

The cover of 'The Lion and the Mouse.'

That’s been true whether Pinkney wrote the books or illustrated someone else’s. And until this year unexciting writing may have deprived him of a Caldecott Medal, which he won last month for The Lion and the Mouse. Caldecott judges aren’t supposed to consider the text of a book unless it interferes with the pictures, but whether or not it “interferes” is a judgment call. And by my lights, the writing in Pinkney’s books sometimes did get in the way. You just don’t want to recommend bad free verse, however attractively packaged, to preschoolers.

Pinkney needed to get words of out of the way of his pictures, and he did it in his near-wordless version of an Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Set in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, his adaptation teems with creatures lushly rendered in sunny watercolors: monkeys, giraffes, elephants, butterflies, gazelles and what appear to be wildebeest. Pinkney adds a few elements to the original tale of a mouse who repays a lion for saving its life by returning the favor: Most notably, he gives the mouse babies, which adds a dimension to the sparing of its life. But his art stays close to the original story and faithful to its theme: No act of kindness is ever in vain. And “the meek can trump the mighty,” as Pinkney says in an afterword.

Children over the age of 4 or so should grasp easily the plot of all this, though the only words are animal sounds such as the squeaks of mice. Whether children will grasp the moral that is indispensable to any Aesop’s fable is less clear. So some might also want to read a more traditional version or watch a lively one-minute video of “The Lion and the Mouse” based on Tom Lynch’s Fables From Aesop (Viking, 2007). Either way, the revival of this fable shows again why stories become classics: They never shed their truth but allow each generation to interpret them in its own way.

Best line/picture: The cover. Not putting type on the cover was great for two reasons. One is that it suggests that The Lion and the Mouse is wordless. The other is that cover image is so strong, type might have detracted from it. The detail is clear and rich that you can count the lion’s whiskers. Not sure why the lion is looking toward the spine instead of the pages, though, which seems to take your eyes in the wrong direction.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder if lions and zebras ever stayed so peacefully side-by-side as on the beautiful front endpaper.

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture on Twitter at FakeBookNews (@FakeBookNews), which you can preview at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. Some of her satirical tweets involve the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 9, 2010

A Lion Shares in Matthew McElligott’s Fable ‘The Lion’s Share’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:15 am
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A lion and an ant act courteously when other animals make pigs of themselves

The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating it. By Matthew McElligott. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A children’s librarian suggested I read this book when I couldn’t find Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse, and I’m not sorry she did. The almost-too-cute homophone in the subtitle — halving your cake — is the sort of device that can bode ominously. And the wordplay doesn’t end there. The Lion’s Share is a literary triple-layer cake — a fable, an etiquette lesson, and an introduction to fractions — about a lion who shares the lion’s share of his triple-layer cake with an ant and other animals.

But Matthew McElligott integrates the wordplay well into in a story amusingly illustrated with digitally enhanced ink and watercolor. And he offers lively lessons in fractions, and practice in counting to 256, as all of his creatures except the lion and the ant make pigs of themselves at dinner. In a tale with an Aesopian flavor, an ant who politely waits her turn for cake seems at first to lose but wins in the end.

Best line/picture: McElliggott devotes one page to nothing but pictures of 256 peanut-butter cakes and makes it interesting.

Worst line/picture: Still not sure about that “halving cake” in the subtitle …

Ages: In schools this book is most likely to be used in grades 1–3. But it would suit any child who hasn’t outgrown picture books and is starting to learn multiplication and division.

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: McElligott teaches at Sage College in Albany, NY.  Besides a lion and an ant, The Lion’s Share involves a beetle, frog,  macaw, warthog, tortoise, gorilla, hippo, and an elephant.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

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