For Kids

March 01, 2001 9 min read
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THE SERPENT SLAYER AND OTHER STORIES OF STRONG WOMEN, by Katrin Tchana, with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman. (Little, Brown, $19.95; grades 1-4.) Drawing on folklore from a wide range of cultures around the world, Tchana and Hyman have crafted an excellent anthology of riveting stories about smart, scrappy, strong-willed women who, in each case, prevail against great odds.

While this volume flies a feminist banner, the gritty tales Tchana has compiled, and the stunning watercolors her Caldecott Medal-winning mother has painted to accompany them, will appeal to both girls and boys. The protagonists all may be women, but this is not the most significant unifying aspect of the collection. What’s more important is the overarching message that there are many ways to be strong. Brawn is certainly one form of strength, but so are wit, intelligence, perseverance, and love.

The stories are all over the map—literally and figuratively. Some are gripping, full of derring-do, and others are just plain funny. In one, a resolute young woman endures great hardship to pluck three hairs from a lion’s chin for a magic potion she’s concocting to heal her husband, who’s been ravaged by war. In another, a woman disguised as a man wins the release of her imprisoned husband by defeating a grand duke at wrestling, archery, and chess. The duke’s own wife tries to convince her husband that his opponent is a woman, but the dunderhead refuses to believe. “You haven’t a brain in your head,” he tells his wife. “My court has never seen a hero with such strength.”

And then there is the title story about a 14-year-old girl who for years has watched the parents of her village sacrifice their daughters to a fierce serpent living in a nearby cave. Realizing that someone must end the slaughter, she volunteers herself as the next sacrificial victim. She prepares a hot, fragrant stew at the entrance of the serpent’s lair and then waits for the beast to emerge and devour it. When it does, she hacks off its head with a sword. Afterward, Tchana writes, “her face and body were covered with the disgusting blood of the serpent, and she was trembling with exhaustion and fear.”

Clearly, these stories have not been sanitized. In a preface, Tchana acknowledges that she has taken some liberties with the original tales, “just as an oral storyteller will change a story to make it more vivid and vital to her audience.” But to her credit, she has not pruned out the darker, more gruesome elements that tend to give folktales their edgy allure and authenticity. There is violence and murder in these pages, duplicity and cunning. Mostly, though, this is a life-affirming book of spellbinding stories—18 altogether—about humble heroines who accomplish remarkable feats by drawing on inner strengths. Some of the stories will make young readers squirm, but others most surely will inspire them.

—Blake Hume Rodman

FORGOTTEN FIRE, by Adam Bagdasarian. (DK Ink, $17.95; grades 6 and up.) For much of the second half of the 20th century, the term “genocide” was associated with the Holocaust. But in the 1990s, the concept was revisited because of slaughter in Rwanda and “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans. With Forgotten Fire, Bagdasarian focuses on a tragedy perhaps few know about: the Armenian genocide of 1915.

In the late 19th century, about 2.5 million Armenians were living within the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey and the Middle East). Most Armenians—a people whose heyday, politically and culturally, was the 14th century—were living in their homelands in northwest Turkey and in the Caucasus region, along the Russian border. During World War I, Russia began recruiting Armenians from behind Turkish lines to help fight its war with the Turks.

Although Turkish officials dispute accusations of a planned genocide, by most accounts the government responded to the perceived Armenian threat by ordering the deportation of nearly 2 million Armenians. In the chaos that ensued, 600,000 Armenians allegedly died of starvation or were killed, while hundreds of thousands more were exiled to Syria and Mesopotamia. Bagdasarian’s great- uncle was one of the exiles, and after hearing a recording of his relative recounting his experiences, the author wrote the story of Vahan Kenderian.

When the book begins, it’s the spring of 1915, and Vahan, at the age of 12, is the youngest son of Sarkis, a rich and respected lawyer. One day, two soldiers arrive and take Sarkis to the local government building on “official business.” At first, Vahan’s mother tries to shelter her children from the truth: that their father, like many Armenian men, is suspected—unjustifiably—of collaborating with Russia.

But with each passing day, Vahan begins to realize that he may never see his father again. After weeks of fear and uncertainty, compounded by screams and gunfire echoing from the prison and rumors of ransacked churches and houses, soldiers surround the Kenderian home, force their way in, and demand to know if the family is hiding anyone.

Despite truthful denials, the soldiers take Vahan’s two eldest brothers into the garden and execute them. A week later, the soldiers return, and the six surviving members of the family are taken to a makeshift concentration camp, from which Vahan manages to escape.

Once free, however, the boy doesn’t know where to go. No longer recognizing his homeland, he walks through its streets like a ghost, and eventually, he learns that all the members of his family have disappeared. Presuming them dead, Vahan makes his way to Constantinople, where he’s taken in by an orphanage for Armenian refugees.

As gruesome as some of this material is, Bagdasarian handles the violent incidents in the book in a nonexploitative way and focuses most of the story on Vahan, who, despite his experiences, doesn’t become bitter. In fact, he continues to be a loving soul.

—Stephen Del Vecchio

TACKY AND THE EMPEROR, by Helen Lester, with illustrations by Lynn Munsinger. (Houghton Mifflin, $15; grades K-1.) As his many fans already know, Tacky is an odd bird; at least that’s what his fellow penguins think. Disheveled and preoccupied, he marches to the beat of his own drummer, exasperating friends but delighting young readers. This new entry in the expanding Tacky series opens with the penguin and his pals preparing for a royal visit. Tacky, as expected, gets sidetracked from his duties and stumbles across the emperor’s clothes while his majesty is out swimming. Donning the “snazzy costume,” Tacky heads home for the festivities. When he shows up in the regal ensemble, his friends mistakenly shower him with food and gifts—which means nothing is left when the real emperor arrives, naked and in a huff. As his friends fly into a tizzy, the unperturbed Tacky treats the emperor like one of the guys, showing his highness the time of his life. Lester’s lively narrative and Munsinger’s hilarious watercolors will have kids in stitches.

A STOWAWAY ON NOAH’S ARK, by Charles Santore. (Random House, $16.95; grades K-1.) Like most good literature, outstanding picture books often work on a number of levels. Such is the case with this gem. At first glance, it appears to be little more than an exquisitely illustrated version of Noah’s story, told from the perspective of a tiny mouse. On this level alone, the book works wonderfully for young children. Santore’s narrative covers the basic story of the infamous flood, and his sumptuous, lifelike watercolors of the animals on board are worth the jacket price. But there’s more: Discerning readers soon realize that this isn’t as much Noah’s story as it is the mouse’s. Like most creatures on earth, he has not been selected for the voyage. As he watches the chosen few board the magnificent ark, dark clouds begin to gather, and he realizes that he will surely perish unless he does something to save himself. So, when no one is looking, the mouse jumps into the feathers of an ostrich, slips on board, and then spends the journey as a stowaway hiding in the fur of larger beasts to avoid discovery. It’s a bold and thought-provoking twist to one of our oldest stories.

MEMORIES OF SUMMER, by Ruth White. (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $16; grades 6 and up.) More than 40 years ago, thousands of families left the coal-mining towns in the southern Appalachian Mountains to migrate north, where safer jobs promised better wages and the cities offered decent educations. White’s book focuses on the fictional Compton family as they settle in Flint, Michigan, in 1955. Lyric Compton was only 3 years old when her mother died, so she remembers only her older sister, Summer, caring for her. Now 13, Lyric is adjusting quickly to city life and the 8th grade at Zimmerman Junior High, and her father has just landed a job at General Motors. But soon, the little quirks in Summer’s behavior that never seemed to matter before—she’s afraid of dogs and electricity, and she talks to imaginary people—become more and more pronounced. Eventually, Lyric and her father must confront the fact that their beautiful and vivacious Summer suffers from schizophrenia. Torn between their love for her and their inability to cope with Summer’s increasingly dangerous behavior, Lyric and her father are forced to make a heartbreaking decision.

INTO A NEW COUNTRY: Eight Remarkable Women of the West, by Liza Ketchum. (Little, Brown, $18.95; grades 4-8.) These brief biographies reveal the challenges, hardships, disappointments, and triumphs of some tenacious women who helped shape the American West in the 19th century. While the people portrayed here are not widely known, they deserve to be, and their accomplishments provide a sense of the fundamental role that women of all backgrounds managed to play in a male-dominated society. Among Ketchum’s subjects are doctors, business owners, philanthropists, an entertainer, and a police officer. One of them, Bridget “Biddy” Mason, arrived in California as the property of a slave owner from Mississippi. But after successfully suing the man to win her freedom (slavery was illegal in California), she went on to become the state’s first female real estate entrepreneur and one of its most generous philanthropists.

HOMELESS BIRD, by Gloria Whelan. (HarperCollins, $15.95; grades 4 and up.) Winner of last year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Whelan’s novel offers an appreciative view of contemporary India while pointing out some of its problems. At the age of 13, Koly marries a sickly young man who barely survives their wedding. Even though Koly is very young, her parents have agreed to the arrangement because they are poor and hope she and her husband will make a good match. Koly tries hard to get along with her in-laws, but after her husband dies, his mother turns against her. She abandons Koly in Vrindivan, a city where unwanted widows survive by chanting in the city’s temples, for which they are given food by monks. Through Koly’s story, Whelan brings to life the conflict between tradition and progress central to modern India.

BRAVO, MAURICE!by Rebecca Bond. (Little, Brown, $14.95; grades K-2.) Ever since Maurice was a baby, various family members have been convinced that he will grow up to be like them, to do what they do. “Look at his toes,” his Uncle Eddie says. “They tap and twiddle like mine. He’ll be a taxi driver, just like me.” Mama sees Maurice’s observant eyes and thinks he will be a writer. And so on. As he grows up, Maurice gets a taste of all his relatives’ jobs and discovers that, in each case, what he likes most is not the work itself but the sounds that accompany it. Then one night, all the members of his extended family hear Maurice singing to himself in the bathtub, and they realize that he has his own calling. With graceful prose and bright, warm acrylics, Bond has crafted a telling picture book about the importance of nurturing and celebrating each child’s unique gifts.

—Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman


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