In Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns, Tonatiuh retells a Mesoamerican creation story of trials and error as the gods try four times to create humans, and each time fail because the creations either don’t fit together or are lazy and irreverent. They create mountains, fish, monkeys, and birds, but no proper humans. Most of the gods are ready to give up, but Quetzalcóatl, the Feathered Serpent, perseveres and journeys through nine realms, overcoming crashing mountains, raining arrows, jaguars, and finally, Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld, himself to retrieve the sacred bones to try once more to create humans. Having escaped with the bones, when Quetzalcóatl mixes his own blood with a powder made from the bones, it is obvious that these next humans will have the inner qualities it takes to not only hold together, but to live, work, and persevere.
Tonatiuh is an award-winning author and illustrator whose books have won the Pura Belpre Award for excellence in portraying Latino culture and the Robert F. Sibert Medal awarded for distinguished informational books. In 2016 Duncan’s The Princess and the Warrior won an Aesop Accolade. With Feathered Serpent and the Five Suns, he has won the prize. The story and illustrations evoke both the oral tradition this story comes from and the relief carvings that were once the record of this story. We begin and end with a simple, “It is said,” and are carried along by spare language and beautiful illustrations that move the reader through the various places, dangers, and emotions of Quetzalcóatl’s journey. Tonatiuh has created a tale that resonates with modern readers because while it may no longer explain how the world came to be, it still has an enduring and valuable message about what kind of humans we can and should be.
2021 Aesop Accolades:
The Shaman’s Apprentice. By Zacharias Kunuk. Illustrated by Megan Kyak-Monteith. Inhabit Media Inc. ISBN 978-1-77227-268-0.
Award-winning filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, 2001) brings traditional medicine to life in The Shaman’s Apprentice (2021). Based on Kunuk’s stop-motion short film Angakusajaujuq: The Shaman’s Apprentice (2021), itself adapted from a traditional Inuit story, the picture book follows young Supijaq [pronounced su-PI-jaq] as she apprentices to her grandmother Qunguliq [qu-NGU-liq], a shaman in the Inuktitut-speaking area of the Canadian Arctic. The drama unfolds as the shaman and apprentice make a house call to a man who has fallen ill. When the man’s symptoms prove resistant to Qunguliq’s traditional methods, further diagnosis and treatment require the pair to journey underground to the realm of Kannaaluk [kan-NAA-look] (the One Below), a spirit guide who helps them understand the nature of the patient’s ailment and the path to healing. The book succeeds in showcasing Inuit culture – incorporating numerous Inuktitut terms, along with a glossary and pronunciation guide – in a way that offers non-Inuit readers an entry-point to Inuit culture. Inuit illustrator Megan Kyak-Monteith crafts evocative full-page images that draw closely from the cinematic scenes – starting with the warm, homey early pages when Supijaq works alongside her grandmother to the dark, haunting middle pages when the two enter the spirit world. Kyak-Monteith’s use of detail – including traditional tattoos and nuanced facial expressions – provide rich insight into the apprentice’s way of life. Even when the story takes a spooky turn, it focuses on key life lessons, including the passing of traditional knowledge, pushing past one’s fears, caring for one’s community, and how behaviors can influence physical health. While fully rooted in an Inuit worldview, The Shaman’s Apprentice invites readers to reflect on these lessons along with Supijaq who, having returned to the safety of home, considers what she learned that day from her grandmother. In turn, the book calls upon readers to reflect as well with the closing line, “What have you learned?”
The Book of Secrets. Written and Illustrated by Mat Tonti, Color work by Dan Siber. Kar-Ben Publishing.
Rose and Ben must journey to find their missing grandparents in this unique, thrilling, and vivid graphic novel adventure. After Bubbe appears in a flour cloud and directs her grandchildren to locate a package containing a mysterious book, the kids embark on a quest to track down their grandparents with nothing to guide them but the curious book and a lantern. The escapade weaves together traditional Jewish folklore, with Ben and Rose unraveling the mystery by alternatively reading stories from Jewish heritage and entering the stories themselves. Reunited with their grandparents, Rose and Ben learn about their responsibility to the mysterious Book of Secrets and to their Jewish heritage, both of which they must treasure and protect.
The joy of The Book of Secrets is in its ability to join multiple traditional Jewish stories while also sustaining a coherent and compelling storyline. Rabbi Mat Tonti’s narrative brings to life the Jewish tales, while his expressive illustrations and bright color palette provide visual intrigue. This exciting graphic novel succeeds by striking the perfect balance of traditional stories, brisk pace, and classic adventure. A culturally authentic mixture of genres, this unconventionally structured, strikingly illustrated graphic novel succeeds both as entertainment and as a celebration of Jewish culture.
El Cucuy is Scared, Too! By Donna Barba Higuera. Illustrated by Juliana Perdomo. Abrams Books, 2021.
In the “Author’s Note” and “Illustrator’s Note” at the end of the book, both Donna Barba Higuera and Juliana Perdomo admit growing up in families that relied on El Cucuy, the supernatural boogeyman of Latin folklore, to terrorize them into “proper” behavior. So it may come as a surprise to readers that Higuera and Perdomo have reimagined the frightening, anthropomorphic El Cucuy into an anxious, insecure, huggable, little monster who is overwhelmed by a new environment—just like Ramón, the boy El Cucuy has tried to terrorize over the years.
El Cucuy is Scared, Too! tells the story of Ramón and his family who have recently moved into a new home and new school. Ramón struggles to adapt. This new environment is scary. He hears unfamiliar and, therefore, “scary” sounds at night. He worries about making friends at his new school. He worries he will be bullied for his clothes or his accent. He finds solace in his unlikely friendship with El Cucuy, who, like Ramón, is struggling to adapt to this new environment. As the two share their fears, Ramón and El Cucuy reflect on the past and remind each other of times when each was strong and brave. They draw confidence from their reminiscing and at the end affirm they are, in fact, strong and brave.
El Cucuy is Scared, Too! is appropriate for young readers. The illustrations are bright and vibrant. And El Cucuy, despite the horns and fangs, is depicted as a lovable creature. Simple Spanish phrases are scattered throughout the pages which should be accessible to all readers. This book is an excellent reminder that change is difficult, scary even for the scariest among us.
The Aesop Prize and Accolades, awarded by the Children’s Folklore Section, recognizes exceptional books for children or young adults that are based on folklore.
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