We learn many things from folk stories and fairy tales. Once passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and then in written form, they are becoming less of a staple in the stories that are read to children. An important message that flows through many old tales is that good things come in small packages and that riches are often found in items not worth a lot of money.
Take the traditional story of Beauty and the Beast. In it, Beauty’s father sets off for a trade ship to see if there is anything that he can sell and asks his children what gift they would like him to bring back for them. Of his three daughters, the first two ask for clothing, jewels, and the finest dresses possible while his youngest asks for a rose. The father unfortunately picks a rose in the Beast’s garden after being graciously hosted the previous night and seals Beauty’s fate, but we know how the story resolves in the end.
In Priceless Gifts, by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss, we are swept into the time of the old spice trade, where merchants traveled to distant islands to get precious spices in exchange for other goods. They would trade fine items for things that we take for granted, such as cinnamon or nutmeg.
On one of Antonio’s journeys to the spice islands, he is invited to the King’s Palace for dinner. Antonio is confused when he see servants holding sticks ready to strike and discovered that they were there because the palace was infested with rats who come out of hiding the moment that food is served. In order for people to eat in peace, there needed to be guards ready to beat off the rats. Antonio gives the king two cats from his ship to deal with the problem. He wants nothing in return, but the King is so grateful that he gives him a chest of jewels.
Another Italian merchant hears of Antonio’s experience and gathers up fine items of his own in hopes of getting his own supply of jewels from the King. The King of the island is stunned by the treasures that Luigi brings. Luigi is certain that he will be given a chest of jewels at least 20 times as large as Antonio’s. After a long discussion with his advisors over what they should give Luigi in return, the King gifts him with something truly priceless – a kitten from a litter born from Antonio’s cats. Luigi returns to Italy with the kitten. He didn’t return a rich man, but “he was certainly a wiser one.”
This is a wonderful example of how every person values things differently and that simple items that make your life a little easier and better can bring more joy than riches.
There are times when books move us, but we can’t put our finger on exactly what it is that sets it apart. The Orphan Singer, by Emily Arnold McCully, is one such book. Even more interesting is that the story is based on real Venetian institutions that cared for orphaned girls while giving them amazing musical educations.
The Orphan Singer tells of a family in 18th century Venice with a musically gifted son, Antonio Dolci. He loves to sing and has the voice of an angel but his family cannot afford vocal training due to their extreme poverty. When their newborn daughter, Nina, shows signs of musical prodigy as well, they lament keeping her from her destiny. A brilliant, but tragic idea comes in the form of “abandoning” her to the “ospedalo,” an orphanage that also boasted a superb music conservatory.
The young girl, renamed Caterina by the ospedalo, grows and is an outstanding singer. While her voice is angelic, her behavior is problematic, causing friction with the instructors. The pain of the Dolcis’ sacrifice eases somewhat as they eventually attend concerts performed by the ospedalo’s chorus and befriend their growing daughter, never informing her of their bond. When the family doesn’t appear one day because Antonio is deathly ill, she realizes how important they are to her and sneaks out to him. When Caterina’s voice proves the elixir that heals Antonio, she knows that their bond can only be one of family.
Caterina knows that she should be kicked out of the chorus for sneaking out, but fortunately, the teacher who opens the door upon her return is kind and understands why she went. That kindness is paid back tenfold as it teaches Caterina to lead with kindness and teach all of the younger girls.
Both J and I really enjoyed this book. The illustrations pull you back to Venice in the 1800s. The rich colors in the clothes of those with money versus the drab clothing of those without is an example of the simple, but important details. This is a true to life story of a society that treasured music and artistic talent. Filled with beautiful artwork and fascinating details, this book is a masterpiece.