March 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Seamus Heaney and a Tale of Five Fables | Touch and Go

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If you’re wondering why the Irish poet and playwright Seamus Heaney chose to translate Robert Henryson’s 15th-century versions of Aesop’s fables, you’ll find out in this iPad app.  Begin with Heaney’s introduction to the collection, where he observes that the stories include “some of the fiercest allegories of human existence” and the “gentlest presentations of decency in civic and domestic life” along with “satire and social realism—even if the society involved is that of wild animals.” But perhaps even more importantly Heaney notes, “that unless this poetry is brought out ‘a great prince in prison lies.’” If your students aren’t familiar with Heaney and Henryson, it’s time to introduce them.

Partial screen shot from "Seamus Heaney: Five Fables" (Touch Press)

Partial screen shot from “Seamus Heaney: Five Fables” (Touch Press)

Seamus Heaney: Five Fables (Touch Press/Flickerpix/Faber and Faber $11.99; Gr 4 Up). For selection purposes, the most important words in this title are “Seamus Heaney.”  Yes, that Seamus Heaney—winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, acclaimed translator of Beowulf. The plots of the five featured fables (“The Two Mice,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” “The Preaching of the Swallow,” “The Fox, the Wolf and the Carter,” and “The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer”) will be familiar to any reader of Aesop, but Heaney’s brilliant and accessible translations of these fables, originally written in verse by Scottish author Robert Henryson in the 1400s, is vastly more complex than the picture book versions readers may be imagining.

Screen shot from "Seamus Heaney: Five Fables" (Touch Press) xx

Screen shot from “Seamus Heaney: Five Fables” (Touch Press)

There are three access points to the fables. There’s Heaney’s translation, which can be read with or without the actor Billy Connolly’s rich narration. Ian Johnson guides listeners as he reads and smooths out the puzzling vocabulary of Middle Scots, while the sly and charming animated versions emphasize the setting, characterization, and humor of each story (with musical accompaniment), and offer a choice of either narration.

All the elegant elements that characterize Touch Press apps are present. An illuminating introduction opens the production and more complex information is presented as users go deeper into the app. The stories are annotated; a tap to the “commentary” icon brings up notes which are displayed side-by-side with the corresponding text. Fables also includes a number of valuable video clips featuring commentary by Connolly, and Heaney and other scholars, providing background and opinion on the vocabulary, context, translation, morals, and Henryson. Navigating between these features is easy.

Those looking for connections to state standards will find them straightforward; for example, ample opportunities to apply the Common Core English Language Arts Reading Literature standard (4) which focuses on the analysis of a writer’s craft and word choice, or the Reading Literature standard (10) that asks students to analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material are both present. Upper elementary and middle school students can contrast the animated versions to simpler retellings. High school students will marvel at Heaney’s thoughtful translation as they compare it to the original text and will benefit from the different readings, the commentary on the translation, and the scholarly insights. A stellar production offering plenty to delight and amaze.—Chris Gustafson, Whitman Middle School Teacher Librarian, Seattle Public Schools

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Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.