by Julius Lester, illustrated by David Shannon. Scholastic, 1989.
I am reading this collection of folktales to my first graders this month. They are on the edge of their seats. They can hardly contain themselves till I get to the end of the story with all their questions and comments. I am one of those readers who doesn't like to be interrupted. I think it breaks up the magic of the story to have questions interjected, even for important vocabulary. I would rather have the listeners hold their questions and try to figure out the meaning from the context, so I ask them to listen and then open the floor for comments at the end. These stories are so exciting and fascinating the children are bursting with things to say.
Lester has a unique style that blends poetic language with complex description that beguiles children and excites them. He starts the story "Why Dogs Chase Cats" with "Long before time wound its watch and started ticking and chasing after tomorrow, which it can never catch up to, well, that was the time when Dog and Cat were friends." He describes dog as having "the best hearing of almost any animal in the world. Dog could hear a raindrop fall on cotton." When dog tries to scare away Gorilla, Gorilla picks him up and throws him over his shoulder. "It was three days and five nights before Dog came down to earth." Lester says. The children puzzle over that. They know that doesn't make sense, what could it mean? Several children speculated that Dog was thrown up to the moon and by the time he came down the earth had rotated into next week.
Many of these stories read like a child's dream, with a logic that is magical and resolutions that answer our deepest fears. Lester has fabulous monsters so scary that "even the moon wishes she had someplace to hide." In the story The Bird That Made Milk a group of children run away from home to try to bring back the bird they let escape. When the Monster Who Eats Children comes knocking on the door where the children are hiding, the oldest boy has magic to make a new door in the back of the house. The children escape and run until they are tired. They climb trees and sing to the tree "Be Strong! Be Strong!" so the Monster cannot chop down the tree. When the children are tired and out of breath from singing a flock of birds comes out of the sky and carries them home to safety. My students are breathless with anticipation over what will happen to these mischievous children and visibly relieved when they find their way home to their welcoming parents.
Julius Lester is African American and Jewish. He has been on the faculty at University of Massachusetts since 1971 as a professor in the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department, and adjunct professor of History. He has published 35 books for children and adults. He has recorded two two albums of original songs. He is an accomplished photographer with photographs in the Smithsonian, permanent collections at Howard University and several high profile shows. He blogs at A Commonplace Book, where his photographs, essays and favorite quotes inspire me every day.
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