Folk Tales with a Twist

Staff PicksNortheast Library

Folk Tales with a Twist

Folklore gives context to cultural traditions and explains the natural world.  Across time and generations, oral stories built and strengthened ethnic, tribal and national ties. The Brothers Grimm popularized traditional Western (German) folktales in the 19th century when they published oral tales such as Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince. In the U.S., folklore is especially rich because of our immigrant historycommon American stories often contain elements from many cultures, including African, Eskimo, Irish, Celtic, and Chinese and countries where oral tradition is deeply valued. This list of beautifully illustrated books is a small sampling of cleverly retold fairy tales and timeless folklore.

Grumbles from the Forest:  Fairy-Tale Voices with a Twist by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Jane Yolen has teamed up with Dotlich to reimagine classic fairy tales using short, punchy, but sometimes dark poems and haikus from characters not often given a voice. In this creative collection, we hear from the lonely pea, squished beneath a tall stack of royal mattresses, who desperately misses her pod, and a wistful Cinderella who admits that moccasins might’ve been a better choice for all-night dancing. Full-page painted pictures of fanciful creatures explode with color and detail.  An introduction urges readers to use the book as a starting point for writing or adapting their own stories and poems.   

The Twelve Dancing Princesses retold and illustrated by Rachel Isadora
The Twelve Dancing Princesses tells the story of a clever soldier who discovers how the king's 12 fun-loving daughters manage to escape their locked room to dance all night. Rachel Isadora lived in Africa for more than 10 years, inspiring her to adapt a series of Brothers Grimm tales into an African setting. Each story is boldly drawn with colorful, patterned paper-strip illustrations reminiscent of Eric Carle, and words come to life when partnered with Isadora's expressively drawn characters in traditional dress.  The series, which includes Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, The Fisherman and His Wife and The Princess and the Frog are well worth the read.  

Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith
This is a charming, visually vibrant retelling of Little Red Riding Hood set in contemporary Africa. Little Red, a smart, precocious girl, meanders the colorful African Savanna, meeting sleeping crocodiles and leaping gazelles on her way to deliver medicine to her Auntie Rosie, who is suffering from a case of pink spots. Pursued by a not-so-wise hungry lion with a “very-clever-plan," Little Red easily distracts the lion, outsmarting him by fussing over his mane and dress. The tale ends with a shared meal and a moral lesson about behaving nicely. A delightfully jaunty tale sure to please those looking for a happy ending.

The Hidden Folk: Stories of Fairies, Dwarves, Selkies, and Other Secret Beings by Lise Lunge-Larsen
Was that quick flash of color in the garden a fleck of sunlight or a flower fairy? Could that be fiddle music coming from behind the waterfall played by a tiny river sprite? If magical creatures from land, sea and sky captivate your imagination, Lunge-Larsen’s nine tales, mostly Scandinavian in origin, introduce readers to the invisible little folk who inhabit secretive spots in every corner of the world.

The Gingerbread Cowboy by Janet Squires
Another traditional tale, with its catchy song, gets new life when the rancher’s wife tires of baking biscuits and brings a gingerbread cowboy to life in the Wild West. The elusive Gingerbread Cowboy escapes capture from amusingly drawn Western critters, such as a great-horned lizard, a band of javelinas (wild boars) and a herd of Texas long-horned cattle, but meets his match in a sly coyote. This is a refreshing retelling of the tasty tale. 

Laura Murray has also created a series of books where our cookie friend is "loose" in places children love to hear about during story time. The Gingerbread Man: Loose on the Fire Truck visits a fire station, when he barely escapes being eaten by Spot the Dalmatian by leaping onto the big pumper to “put out that fire as fast as I can.” Cheeky and cheerful, preschoolers will quickly agree with Fire Chief Anne that the Gingerbread Man is “one smart cookie.” Look for the spunky cookie man’s adventures in Murray’s other books Loose in the School, Loose in the Zoo and Loose at Christmas

What’s the Hurry, Fox?: And Other Animal Stories adapted by Joyce Carol Thomas
These nine tales have been compiled by Thomas from Zora Neale Hurston's Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, a collection of folklore from the rural South in the 1930s. Hurston's herculean task to put homespun, original tales from the American South on paper, in heavy dialect, preserved these anecdotes forever. However, some folks felt the colloquialisms made some readings inaccessible to children. Fortunately, Thomas has stayed true to the original colloquial stye in these pourquoi tales. Known as an origin story or an etiological tale, a pourquoi tale is a fictional narrative that explains why something is the way it is.