Folktales are such a wonderful part of children’s literature. There are so many tales that have been passed down through the generations and we have learned so many valuable lessons from them. One of the things that I find especially fascinating is reading folktales from a wide variety of cultures to see how similar situations are handled differently and how each culture tries to educate its children on how they are supposed to behave. The list could go on and on, but here are ten that we have recently read that are completely non-traditional for mainstream western world and quite wonderful.
In the world of children’s literature, there are a few names that you often hear repeated over and over again. For the younger girls ages 3-7, Fancy Nancy is one of those names. My younger daughter, who is now 5, absolutely loves Fancy Nancy. Jane O’Connor created a truly fun character and then gave her a surprising amount of depth. Some might not consider Nancy a super strong character, but they would be wrong. These days, not only do we love reading Nancy books, we even have a collection of stories that we bought on audible that my daughter could listen to over and over again. I laugh when my daughter uses big words and then tells me “that’s fancy for….” just like they say throughout the Nancy books.
In the first book simply called “Fancy Nancy,” Nancy explains how she perceives the world around her and that “more is always better when it comes to being fancy.” In her world, being fancy makes her simply feel better. A personal favorite from this book is when she explains to her mother that “lace-trimmed socks do help me play soccer better.” She wants to teach her family how to be more like her, but when she trips over her own fancy shoes, she realizes that love is love no matter what.
Throughout that long-running series, Nancy learns a variety of lessons. In “Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet,” Nancy has to learn about not always getting what you want and then also dealing with the evil green jealousy monster when someone close to you does. Both Nancy and her best friend, Bree, assume that they will get to be mermaids in the upcoming ballet because they are glamorous and like to play mermaid from time to time. When neither gets the role, they are shocked and Nancy is bummed to be playing a dreary, dull tree. When Bree gets to step into the role of mermaid at the last minute, Nancy is incredibly jealous. She “lies” to Bree and tells her that she is happy for her, but knows that deep down she is not. Nancy finds a way to still shine in her tree costume, which she decides is fabulous and not dull and dreary and the show is a smashing success.
Nancy learns a lesson about being kind to her sister in “Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique.” In this story, when Nancy goes shopping for her sister’s birthday present, she also wants to buy a fancy fan for herself, but doesn’t have enough money after buying her sister a gift. She decides to sell off some of her fabulous fashions to raise the money. She’s doing great until her sister decides that she wants a fancy necklace that Nancy has already promised to someone else. She doesn’t want her sister to be disappointed on her birthday so she goes over to the twins who purchased the necklace and asks if there is any way that she can “persuade” them to part with it so she can give it to her sister for her birthday. They do, but it means that she can’t afford her fan. Her father sees how kind she has been to her sister and surprises her with the fan as well.
In “Fancy Nancy and the Mean Girl,” which is a part of the “I Can Read” collection, Nancy has to deal with a girl who hurts her feelings. Much to Nancy’s dismay, Nancy has been chosen for the relay team in this year’s Field Day at school. Despite her many natural talents, Nancy isn’t much of a runner. She’s afraid of letting her team down—especially after finding out that an unkind (that’s another word for mean) girl in her class is on the team too. With a little help from her dad, Nancy tries her best, stands up for herself, and makes a new friend.
Nancy wants everything to be fancy, but in “Fancy Nancy: My Family History,”she learns that making things up just so that they are fancy can hurt other people and that when you are supposed to be writing a report based on truth, exaggerating can turn into outright lying. Nancy and her classmates are learning about ancestors, “people who lived long ago.” Bree’s great-grandfather was a war hero. Robert’s great-grandmother is 101 and came to America on a ship that almost sank! When Nancy talks to her grandfather about her great-grandparents, she finds that “they were nice ordinary people.” “Ordinary?” Nancy thinks, “that’s like plain. I wish I had fancy ancestors.” She writes her report for school about her great-grandfather, but makes things up so he seems less ordinary. However, when she learns that Grandpa will be there to hear her read the report aloud she realizes she was dishonest. By the time her grandpa comes, she has written a new report that sticks to the truth.
One that we only recently learned about by listening to our audio version is “Fancy Nancy: Aspiring Artist.” After listening to it a few times, I felt the need to purchase it because it nicely taught about various artists and styles in a simple manner. Nancy is sad because Bree has gone on vacation for spring break, so her mother cheers her up with new glitter markers. Inspiration strikes and she decides to turn her clubhouse into an art studio filled with her creations. Inspiration strikes again when she goes to her dance class and realizes that the studio is full of posters of art by Edgar Degas. When she tells her neighbor about her art studio idea, she teaches Nancy about Claude Monet. Nancy also experiments with the styles of Henri Matisse and Jackson Pollack. She learns about various ways of allowing yourself to be inspired and visits the art museum. It is a marvelous way to show children the world of art.
A similar book that brings the world of poetry alive for young readers and encourages them to create their own anthologies of poems that they enjoy is “Fancy Nancy: Poet Extraordinare.” In this book, Nancy’s class is doing a survey of people’s favorite poems, which of course Nancy shares with the reader and then each child is supposed to write their own poem. From nursery rhymes to song lyrics, silly limericks to acrostics and odes. This book is a fun way to encourage children to start considering poetry and maybe even writing some themselves!
I could go on and on with these books, especially since the audio version has 31 different stories that we listen to over and over and over again, but instead I will simply say to give Nancy a chance, especially if you have a budding fashionista with a love of accessorizing like I do.
Every once in awhile you find an author that just clicks with your child. For E, one of our current favorites is Leo Lionni. His books appeal to both of us with wonderful artwork and lessons. Without being pedantic, his books talk about issues of community and creativity, encouraging children to make the most of their world while also making the world a better place.
A few weeks ago, we randomly pulled “A color of his own” off of our shelf. This sweet book is about a little chameleon who struggles with the fact that all of the other animals have a color of their own while he changes colors wherever he goes. He even tries to stay in one place so that he can stay one color, but picks a leave the changes colors with the season and then falls to the ground. When he meets another chameleon, he learns that true identity comes from who you are rather than what you look like. The world may change around you, but being true to yourself and embracing who you are makes you a happier person in the long run. What a beautiful sentiment.
Since I loved the message in his story and because E loved the artwork and the simplicity, we hunted down more books. The only other book that we own is the Alphabet Tree, which is above E’s level, but worth mentioning. This book teaches how letters come together to make words and how words come together to make sentences and how powerful our words and thoughts can be. The letters need to band together to form words so that they can stay on their tree when the wind blows, but they learn that a strong message will take them even further. The final message is one of peace. Truly beautiful and great to repeat to young children to place the crumb of the power of words in their heads.
We then hit the library and found some other gems…
Fish is Fish is a very cute story about a tadpole and a minnow who are inseparable. As the tadpole starts to change into a frog, the fish doesn’t understand because “how could you be a frog if only last night you were a little fish?” Then the frog goes away and experiences the world outside of the water. When he returns, he tells the fish all of the extraordinary things he has seen. The fish’s imagination runs wild and the illustrations that go with this are some of the best in the book. The fish can’t stop thinking of all the things above land and feels that he must go see them for himself, not thinking about the fact that he can’t breathe or move on land. Luckily the frog saves him when fish jumps out of the pond. Back in his home, fish realizes that he is surrounded by spectacular beauty of his own. Sometimes it is hard for children and adults to hear our friends’ experiences and not wish that we could do what they do, but Fish is Fish reminds us that finding happiness and making joy in our own worlds is the way to experience life.
Frederick is a fabulous take on the classic Ant and the Grasshopper fable. Frederick is a mouse who lets all of the other members of his family do the work during the fall to keep them alive during the cold winter months. When they ask him why he isn’t helping, he always has some artistic response – “I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days,” or “I gather words for when we run out of things to say.” Winter comes and when the mouse family does start to run out of food and grows tired of their boring surroundings they turn to Frederick and ask about his supplies. He paints images with words to bring warmth, color and beautiful poetry to their lives. One of many books by Leo Lionni that highlights how important the arts are.
In the same vein, Matthew’s Dream is a story that explores art and the artist’s role in shaping our visions and our dreams. Young Matthew’s parents want him to get a good job and provide for them. One day he visits the art museum with his class for the first time and Matthew is blown away by what he sees. That night, he dreams that he is walking in an abstract painting. When he wakes up, he realizes that he wants to be an artist himself. Given the fact that we keep taking the arts out of our children’s education, this is a wonderful reminder of just how important art is.
If you are looking for some wonderful books that quietly teach lovely lessons to kids, definitely check out Leo Lionni.