Folk and Fairy Tale Round-Up

Traditional tales remain popular with young readers and provide a plethora of possibilities for classroom explorations.

Traditional tales remain ever popular with young readers and provide a plethora of possibilities for classroom explorations from comparative literary studies to creative writing. Published within the last three years, the picture books presented here have been selected for their outstanding quality and child appeal. Included are European classics, traditional tales from across the globe, re-imaginings of familiar tales, fractured fairy tales, and original stories told with once-upon-a-time flair. Scroll down to discover some inviting options for your fairy tale fans.

European Classics

Blending a delectable text with lush pencil-and-watercolor illustrations, Jerry Pinkney’s The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Little, Brown, 2017; PreS-Gr 2) is both satisfyingly familiar and thought-provokingly fresh. This version of the Norwegian classic stars a trio of realistically portrayed goats and a terrible troll festooned with fearsome fangs and “a heart of stone.” The tension builds until the biggest billy goat crashes onto the scene (on a spectacular gatefold spread) and uses his formidable horns to butt the bully into the river. Pinkney serves the villain a lesson in empathy along with his comeuppance—a very large and toothy fish threatens, “I’m going to gobble you up!” (but the troll proves to be “a bit too sour and green to make a tasty meal”). The concluding illustrations offer hope that the troll can change his ways and invite discussion of the importance of forgiveness, redemption, and learning to live together in peace.

Several retellings of tales from the Brother Grimm are noteworthy for their handsome illustrations and well-written narratives. In Kim Jacobs’s Princess Sophie and the Six Swans (Wisdom Tales, 2017; K-Gr 4), a headstrong and loyal young princess must weave six shirts from thorny thistle, never uttering a word, in order to break the spell that has transformed her beloved brothers into birds. Pastel-hued illustrations reveal detailed interior scenes and wildflower-laden landscapes, while the evocative language introduces a nuanced heroine who sacrifices much and discovers the power of love.

Filled with elegant gowns, gracefully posed figures, and glistening touches of magic, Alison Jay’s exquisite crackle-glazed paintings offer a spellbinding window into the mysterious excursions of The Twelve Dancing Princesses (little bee, 2016; K-Gr 4) and the wise soldier who dons a cloak of invisibility and follows them to a fantastical realm where they wear out their slippers waltzing the night away. A straightforward narrative and Maja Dusíková’s soft-edged paintings provide an inviting rendition of Rapunzel (Floris, 2017; K-Gr 4) replete with an atmospheric medieval village, well-staged dramatic moments, and a braid that glistens like gold. With a similar love-conquers-all theme, The Enchanted Nightingale (Floris, 2017; K-Gr 4) describes how two young lovers are torn apart by an evil witch who transforms Jorinda into a bird and imprisons her in a cage at her castle. Blending flowing lines and sunset hues, Bernadette Watts’s enthralling illustrations show how steadfast Joringel rescues his true love (and frees 700 more captive maidens).

A World of Story

The Dragon Slayer (Toon, Apr. 2018; K-Gr 5) retells three folktales from Latin America in eye-catching graphic novel format. In the title offering, a smart and stout-hearted girl cast out by her envious sisters proves her mettle by charting her own course and saving the prince she loves. Next, Martina Martínez, a foolish bride, cries histrionically instead of getting help when her mouse husband falls into a soup pot, and a local wise woman must save the day. “Tup and the Ants” tells how a family’s youngest son, considered lazy by everyone, finds a clever way to make his fortune. Filled with touches of whimsy, humor, and heart, Jaime Hernandez’s expressive storytelling and captivating, contemporary-looking illustrations make these tales irresistible. Back matter treating the origins and influences of the stories provide a starting point for those who would like to dig deeper. (Also available in a Spanish edition).

The Princess and the Warrior (Abrams, 2016; K-Gr 5) retells a traditional Aztec legend about the origins of two majestic volcanoes that are located near present-day Mexico City. Courted by many wealthy suitors, the princess Izta gives her heart to Popoca, a poor but honest soldier who promises to always love her and stay by her side “no matter what, as long as tonatiuh [sun] rises, as long as the cenzontle [mockingbird] bird sings.” Izta’s father agrees to let them marry if Popoca can defeat a rival ruler, but deceit and intrigue interfere. Though there is no happy ending for these two lovers in life, Popoca finds a way to remain true to Izta. Duncan Tonatiuh’s poetic telling and bold illustrations, inspired by pre-Columbian art, tell a transcendent tale of true love, tragedy, and eternal devotion. An author’s note provides background and a glossary of Nahuatl words.

A traditional flood story told by the Irula people of southern India describes a farmer and his wife who live on the banks of a mighty river, existing in harmony with the local flora and fauna. After finding an ailing yellow-flowered vine, the man plants it near his hut and nurtures it, watching in awe as the resultant gourd grows bigger and bigger. When storm clouds burst into rain and floods threaten, it will be Pattan’s Pumpkin (Candlewick, 2017; PreS-Gr 4) that saves the day for his family and the creatures they care for. Chitra Soundar and Frané Lessac’s inviting text and beguiling, bright-hued folk-style artwork brings the action to life.

An offering in Li Jian’s “Stories of the Chinese Zodiac” series introduces two impoverished brothers who discover an unusual statue while digging a vegetable garden. As they dream of the riches it will bring, The Bronze Dog (Better Link/Shanghai Pr., 2017; K-Gr 4) grows larger and swallows the older sibling. When the younger child ties the dog up and threatens to smash him, the dog promises him great rewards in exchange for not being destroyed, but the boy only wants the return of his sibling. Impressed by the brothers’ shared affection and loyalty, the dog realizes that he has finally found his true masters. Written in English and Chinese, this tale has illustrations evocative of stone relief carvings.

In The Crane Girl (Lee & Low, 2017; Gr 1-4), adapted from a traditional Japanese folktale, a compassionate boy gently frees a crane from a trap, and the grateful animal later appears at his house in human form to reward his good deed. Hiroko will help the penniless family by weaving valuable silk as long as no one looks at her while she works, a promise that Yasuhiro’s greedy father refuses to keep, and the man’s rash actions result in surprising—and life-transforming—consequences. Curtis Manley’s lyrical storytelling, sprinkled with snippets of haiku, and Lin Wang’s jewel-toned watercolors soar with satisfying drama and emotional resonance. Appended notes add a wealth of background information.

Helena Ku Rhee’s engaging original tale, loosely based on 16th-century Korean history, introduces a boy who lives in a small coastal village but dreams of seeing the world. His wish just might come true when the king initiates an engineering challenge for the best battleship design, and Sun-sin, inspired by his pet turtle Gobugi, comes up with the idea for The Turtle Ship (Lee & Low, 2018; PreS-Gr 3)—if only he can convince the royal court. Colleen Kong-Savage’s dynamic collage illustrations provide a strong sense of time and place, and an author’s note fills readers in on actual events.

Re-imagining Hans Christian Andersen and Other Favorites


Sprinkled with tongue-tingling rhymes, Spanish words, and loads of humor, Susan Middleton Elya’s La Princesa and the Pea (Putnam, 2017; PreS-Gr 4) depicts a Peruvian príncipe determined to get the niña of his dreams past the scrutiny of his extremely picky mamá. Juana Martinez-Neal’s playful, soft-edged illustrations, inspired by the textile designs of indigenous people of Peru, are the perfect match to this entertaining read aloud. In Princess and the Peas (Charlesbridge, 2017; PreS-Gr 4), Ma Sally, well-known throughout Charleston County, South Carolina, for her delicious collard greens, sweet potatoes, and hot rolls, hosts a cooking contest to ensure her son John settles down with a woman who will feed him right. It’s looking bleak until Princess, a new girl in town, arrives to cook up a mouthwatering batch of black-eyed peas. There might be wedding bells in the future, but first John has to impress Princess, and he starts by doing the dishes. Rachel Himes’s vibrant, mixed-media artwork portrays a close-knit African American community in the mid-1950s, adding extra flavor and warmth to a winsome tale of love, family, and food (recipe appended).

The titular character in Ying Chang Compestine’s The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes (Abrams, 2017; K-Gr 4) is not a vain and gullible adult, but kind and conscientious Ming Da, nine-year-old ruler of China. Pushed around by three greedy ministers who are robbing the royal treasury and leaving his people to starve, the boy comes up with a clever plan to save his kingdom—one that involves two loyal tailors who fit out the ministers in “magical new clothes.” The action builds to a clever climax that plays out during the New Year’s Day parade. Drawn with clean lines and precise details, David Roberts’s watercolor illustrations sparkle with personality and humor. An interesting note sets the story’s origins against the author’s experiences growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Jan Brett’s mesmerizing version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” takes place in the ocean off the coast of Japan, where an octopus family dwells in an abode made of coral, sea shells, and sand. Heading out for a pre-breakfast swim, Otōsan and Okāsan (Japanese for father and mother) urge the unhappy Baby to wear her floppy new hat (the hat, a ray, is not happy either). When The Mermaid (Putnam, 2017; PreS-Gr 3) swims by, she can’t resist investigating this unusual home and its contents, and, ultimately, leaving Baby with a special gift (an undersea tiara). Brett’s marine-hued paintings reveal the wonders of an intricately imagined aquatic world, while snapshots nestled within clamshell-shaped frames depict the offstage action.

Bethan Woollvin has a knack for retelling classic tales with irreverent humor, delightfully dark twists, and a fresh perspective. In her fun-to-share-aloud offerings, an obnoxious Hansel & Gretel (Oct., 2018) get their just desserts from a kindhearted (at least, until she meets the self-centered siblings) witch named Willow; a resourceful Rapunzel (2017) studies up and concocts a plan to get free of her tower (no prince required); and a fearless Little Red (2016; all Peachtree; K-Gr 4) refuses to be cowed and ends her adventure wearing a wolfskin cloak. Utilizing a limited primary palette and bold geometric outlines, the dynamic illustrations add to the storytelling punch.

Ted Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss have taken classic tales about noodleheads (aka fools) and cooked up a graphic novel series starring a pair of literal noodleheads (two macaroni-shaped brothers both named Mac). Goofy antics and slapstick humor abound in both Noodlehead Nightmares (2016) and Noodleheads See the Future (Holiday House, 2017; K-Gr 3), as the not-too-bright brothers engage in silly schemes, take the art of misunderstanding to the extreme, and somehow manage to always pull off a happy-ever-after ending. The vivacious cartoon artwork and snappy dialogue have loads of appeal, and back matter helps interested parties place each of these zany escapades in the context of world folklore motifs.

Fun Fractures, Silly Spoofs, and Magnificent Mash-Ups


Pairing tongue-in-cheek dialogue with snicker-inducing artwork, Mark Teague’s Jack and the Beanstalk and the French Fries (Orchard, 2017; PreS-Gr 4) begins with the standard set up—and then swerves hilariously off course. The titular plant produces an endless bounty of beans, and soon everyone in the village is fed up with eating them—and angry at Jack. Climbing the beanstalk, the boy discovers that Mr. Giant shares his disdain for the all-bean regime, but can they find a solution that keeps Jack off the menu? After hearing about a beanstalk and a boy named Jack from his brother, The Giant of Jum (Holt, 2017; PreS-Gr 2) goes in search of a tasty meal. However, every time he meets a group of “scrumptious” tots, he ends up helping them instead of eating them. Elli Woollard’s witty rhyming text and Benji Davies’s color-saturated artwork describe the big guy’s humorous change of heart…and diet (“Chocolate’s much better than children!”).

Since defeating the Big Bad Wolf, The Three Little Superpigs (Scholastic, 2018; PreS-Gr 3) have spent their time enjoying their newfound fame and keeping Fairyland safe from shady characters. Unbeknownst to the intrepid trio, their nemesis is busy plotting his revenge, and when he breaks out from “Happily Never After Prison” to put his evil plan into action, the heroes will have think quickly to save the day. Claire Evans’s action-packed romp is packed with clever wordplay and porcine puns, fun-to-spot fairy-tale references, and bright, animation-style artwork that bounds right off the pages.

Set on a fanciful African savannah, Alex T. Smith’s Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion (Scholastic, 2016; K-Gr 4) features an adorable protagonist wearing a red A-line dress and hair in pig-tailed puffs who sets off to bring spot medicine to her Auntie Rose. It’s clear from the start that this smiling heroine will outsmart the Hungry Lion who plots to gobble her up, but there are plenty of funny moments along the way (“What tangled hair you have,” Little Red exclaims to her so-called Auntie, and proceeds to give the Lion a new look…turning his mane into a halo of braids and bows). Droll narration, cartoon artwork in vivid hues, and plenty of visual humor make this lighthearted retelling shine.

In The Princess and the Pit Stop (Abrams, Jul. 2018; Gr 1-4), the race-car driving protagonist has just pulled in for service, only to be informed by her Fairy Godmother that she is in last place with only one lap left. Should she give up? Of course not! Clutching the wheel with determination and putting the petal to the metal, she surges forward to overtake all manner of fairy-tale folk and claim her spot in the winner’s circle. Tom Angleberger and Dan Santat play up the humor with a winning combo of sportscaster-style narration packed with word play, entertaining nods to familiar literary characters, and high-octane artwork.

Where’s Halmoni ? (Little Bigfoot/Sasquatch, 2017; K-Gr 4), two Korean-American siblings wonder when they arrive at their grandmother’s house, and the woman is nowhere to be found. Following strange, large-size footprints to the bedroom, they discover a not-there-before set of doors in the wall, crawl through, and enter a mystical wilderness inhabited by characters from classic Korean folklore. Their quest to find their grandmother in this unfamiliar land will demand brother-sister teamwork, clever thinking, and plenty of courage. Gorgeously illustrated with both panels and double-page spreads, Julie Kim’s action-packed graphic novel combines fantastical fairy-tale elements with details of contemporary Korean culture for an unforgettable adventure.

Not-to-Miss Modern-Day Fable


Told in both Spanish and English, Carmen Agra Deedy’s ¡El gallo que no se callaba! /The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! (Scholastic, 2017; K-Gr 4) is set in the noisy village of La Paz, where the mayor has instituted laws against singing. When a brave gallito decides that he won’t be silenced—trumpeting a joyful “kee-kee-ree-Kee!” despite progressively severe punishments from the mayor—he inspires the townsfolk to stand strong against their oppressor. Eugene Yelchin’s sun-drenched paintings shine with visual humor and convey the heart of this original tale.

Elegantly illustrated and eloquently told, Ed Young’s The Cat From Hunger Mountain (Penguin, 2016; K-Gr 4) introduces a wealthy lord who “had everything imaginable, yet never had enough.” The haughty feline dwells in an airy pagoda, dresses in clothing made from “spun silk and threads of gold,” and dines on lavish, half-finished meals from his rice paddies. However, when drought and famine hit the land, Lord Cat must descend from his mountain home, and finally learns what it truly means to be blessed.

When the beloved ruler In a Small Kingdom (S&S, Apr. 2018; K-Gr 4) passes away, his young son is chosen as successor. Considered to be “thoughtful and gentle,” the boy will also inherit his father’s Imperial Robe, an object imbued with the secret powers needed to keep the realm safe from bandits. All is well, until the boy’s jealous older half-brother steals the garment and slashes it to bits, placing the realm in grave danger. Never fear, salvation—and strength—will come from the support and affection of the kingdom’s most humble residents. Enchantingly illustrated by Doug Salati, Tomie dePaola’s original tale offers a timeless and tender testament to the power of love.

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