June 30, 2016

(++++) DEM BONES

Bone Soup. By Cambria Evans. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.

Folk Tale Classics: The Teeny-Tiny Woman.  By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

     Here are a couple of reprints of stories that would be especially enjoyable to read and look at around Halloween, but are well-done enough to be fun anytime a child wants a slightly (but not very) scary book. Cambria Evans’ Bone Soup, originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, takes the old tale of “Stone Soup” and changes it from a tale of starving soldiers returning from war and tricking townspeople into making them a hearty meal to a story about a strange (but cute) skeleton creature named Finnigin who wanders about with “his eating stool, his eating spoon, and his gigantic eating mouth.” Finnigin’s appetite is so well known to the denizens of the land that the local witch, beast, zombies and mummy all hide their delectables – in a particularly amusing two-page illustration showing cross-sections of their houses – when they find out that Finnigin is on the way to their town. Again and again he knocks on doors and asks for food, and again and again he is turned away. So Finnigin finds the town’s biggest cauldron (marked “Property of Town Square”), picks up wood from the nearby forest, fills the pot with water, starts a fire, and opens his cloak – removing one of his own bones, one “so old that the edges were dry and splintered.” And he pops it into the pot and sings a little ditty about making bone soup from nothing but a magic bone. Intrigued, the townsfolk – maybe they should be called townsthings – come to the square to see what Finnigin is doing. And so the story progresses. Finnigin comments that as good as the magic-bone soup will be, it would be even better with an extra ingredient or two – such as the jars of eyeballs the witch has, and the beast’s bat wings, and the zombies’ frog legs, and assorted other ghoulish ingredients (very amusingly pictured in a close-up view of the bubbling mixture). “With a final dusting of slime and sludge, the soup was declared ready,” writes Evans, and everyone feasts on it and marvels that all it took to make it was a magic bone. The amusing tweaking of the old story is handled very well, the illustrations are just yucky enough to be seasonal (or anytime) treats, and Bone Soup turns out to be quite delicious.

     Not all bones intended for soup make it there, though. The old folk tale of The Teeny-Tiny Woman is about one that doesn’t. As retold and very nicely illustrated by Paul Galdone for the Folk Tale Classics series, this story – originally published in this version in 1984 – has a pleasantly repetitive narrative cadence that makes it fun to read, especially for younger children. Everything here is teeny-tiny: the woman of the title, the gate she walks through, the cemetery behind the gate, and the “teeny-tiny bone on a teeny-tiny grave” that she finds. The woman thinks this bone will be just right to make “some teeny-tiny soup for my teeny-tiny supper,” so she takes it home in her teeny-tiny pocket to her teeny-tiny house. But she is too tired to cook, so she puts the bone in her teeny-tiny cupboard and goes to sleep. The front of the cupboard, kids will immediately see, looks like a face, with the knobs as eyes and the drawer pull as mouth – and indeed, Galdone has inserted faces of all sorts throughout his illustrations, along the side of the home’s staircase and in the clouds outdoors and elsewhere; finding those faces is one of the pleasures kids will get from this book. In the narrative, as the teeny-tiny woman tries to sleep, she hears a voice from the cupboard saying, “Give me my bone.” Being a teeny-tiny bit scared, she burrows under the covers, but the voice returns, a bit louder, then louder still, until the teeny-tiny woman finally says “take it!” and all goes quiet. Who or what wanted the bone is never revealed, and whether the teeny-tiny woman ever got soup or anything else to eat that night is never mentioned – kids can have fun thinking about those and other outside-the-story possibilities. A mild ghost story that Galdone expertly illustrates with a palette focusing on dark grey and green, purple, deep blue and other suitable tones, The Teeny-Tiny Woman is enjoyably enough written to be read and re-read, and the pictures manage to convey an age-appropriate sense of mystery without ever becoming overtly frightening – a fine job all around.

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