Review of the Day: The Talking Vegetables
The Talking Vegetables by Won-Ldy Paye and Margaret H. Lippert. Illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Henry Holt & Company. $16.95
Professors that teach children’s literature have a sure-fire way of tackling the fairy tale/folktale part of the course. Just tell your students to locate a classic story told in another culture. Cinderella from Spain, for example, or Little Red Riding Hood from China. As a children’s librarian, part of my job is handing these students such alternate tellings of familiar stories. One tale I’ve never been asked for, however, is an alternate version of The Little Red Hen. You know. It’s the story where none of the animals around a farm will help and then the Little Red Hen does all the work herself. I’ve seen version after version of that tale told and they’re all essentially the same, give or take (with two beautiful ones published in 2006 alone). And on the outset, there is nothing about “The Talking Vegetables” to suggest that it has any similarities to The Little Red Hen. Yet similar it most certainly is, and more than a little refreshing to boot. A traditional story from the Dan people of northeastern Liberia, it incorporates classic storytelling techniques alongside a semi-familiar plot with a vocal vegetation twist. If your collection of Liberian fables looks a bit paltry (‘fess up, libraries) then I’ve found the solution to your woes. Extra Bonus: It’s a great storytime read.
Spider is not going to help. Nope. Not one little bit. When all the animals in the village come ah-pounding at his door to implore him to help them clear the land for their village farm, the lazy arachnid won’t even consider it. He has plenty of rice in his pantry and clearing land is NOT on his agenda for the day. The next day the animals ask him to help them plant the seeds, and again they are turned away. A month later they ask Spider to help them weed, but you can guess his answer. Really, it isn’t until he realizes that eating rice all the time is a bit samey that he tries creeping to the garden to snitch a tomato. To his horror, the tomato yells at him for wanting to reap what he hasn’t sewn. So to speak. The same thing happens with some cucumbers and finally with a pumpkin. In a panic to escape the clutching vines, Spider returns home and, “That night he ate rice for dinner. Plain rice!”
Quite frankly, I think The Little Red Hen could take a page out of “The Talking Vegetables”’ book. Imagine the story with its tried and true, Not-I-said-the-pup, mentality. Now imagine that the characters that refused to help the Little Red Hen see that she’s gone out after baking the bread and they decide to sneak a bite. They creep into the kitchen, they wield a knife, and suddenly the bread starts yelling at them at the top of its lungs. Now THAT would be unexpected. This story kind of gives away the surprise with the title, but by the time to you get to that part of the plot, you definitely won't expect it. I was pleased to note that the tale obeys the rule of three twice in this book. The first time comes when the animals are asking Spider for help, and the second time comes when Spider keeps trying to filch a snackeroo or two. I liked the form of the tale and the “BAM! BAM! BAM!” that would come every time the animals asked the arachnid for help. You can just mime with your fist the action that would accompany this part. So the book is told nicely, though I would have preferred the language to have flowed a little more seamlessly throughout the story. As it is right now, the words in this book tell the tale nicely but don’t lend themselves to many rereadings. The text is very straightforward without ever becoming particularly poetic. For example, the last two lines of the book don’t conclude the story with a repeating image or rhyme. Maybe that’s an example of where The Little Red Hen got it right.
The gleesome threesome responsible for this book include two storytellers and an artist. I first ran across Paye, Lippert & Paschikis when they published the striking “Mrs. Chicken and the Hungry Crocodile” a couple years ago. “Mrs. Chicken” quickly became my storytelling staple after I fell for its illustrations and unique trickster tale-like storyline. Won-Ldy Paye is a Liberian artist and performer and alongside Margaret Lippert was able to weave together the book’s elements. Let no one think that Julie Paschkis isn't essential to the process, however. The animals in her books are remarkable. Painted in Winsor & Newton gouaches (thank God for publication pages) the characters are incredibly distinctive. Do yourself a favor and search inside the book when you get a chance. The cover image chosen for the story is accurate but doesn’t really give a fair sense of the work Paschkis has put into the story. The crocodile, for example, is a patchwork of big and little squares of varying shades of green. The large cat (by far my favorite character in the book) almost reminds me of a work of modern art, maybe Picasso, with its sideways head and front-facing chompers. Everything moves, everything flows, and even the cartoonish nature of the talking vegetables works within the context of the story. I enjoyed how the village animals, even if they’re not mentioned in the second half of the book, hide in the garden to watch Spider as he goes head-to-head with the local greenery.
For a good spider-related storytime I think pairing “The Talking Vegetables” alongside Eric Kimmel’s, “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock” (or, even more appropriately, “Anansi and the Talking Melon”) would be inspired. Call this book fun. It’s a version of a tale I daresay few of you have heard of before, and it makes for an engaging readaloud. Great stuff.