We were a little ambitious when we found out about Black History Month (BHM) and while we planned on doing an 8-day feature, we (at least Fats and myself who have access to glorious libraries) did a book-borrowing frenzy. Unfortunately, life does get in the way and we can only do so much despite our best intentions. While there are still lovely picture books piled high on my wobbly bookshelf, I choose this Creole-adapted folktale as one of my books for our BHM special.
Clear Lines of Good and Bad – Rose and Blanche. One of the things that attracted me to this book is that it reminded me of fairy tales of old where things make simple sense: good and bad are clearly defined and delineated. One is aware of the order of the universe, there are no gray areas. And the evil ones always get their comeuppance in the end.
The description of the two girls in this adapted folktale happen to be just that – the antagonist and the protagonist are clearly evident at the onset:
Rose, the older sister, was cross and mean and didn’t know beans from birds’ eggs. Blanche was sweet and kind and sharp as forty crickets. But their mother liked Rose the best, because they were alike as two peas in a pod – bad-tempered, sharp-tongued, and always putting on airs.
The first few pages also reminded me of the fairy stories that I grew up with: Cinderella and her stepsisters, Snow White and the cruel stepmother, and Beauty and her frivolous siblings (at least the one in the fairy tale not the Disney version).
The mother made Blanche do all the work around the place. She had to iron the clothes each morning using an old iron filled with hot coals, chop cotton in the afternoon, and string the beans for supper. While she’d be doing these chores, her mama and sister would sit side by side in rocking chairs on the shady porch, fanning themselves and talking foolishness about getting rich and moving to the city, where they could go to fancy balls wearing trail-train dresses and lots of jewels.
Kindness of Strangers. The events take on a magical edge when Blanche helped out an old woman who nearly had a heat stroke and was in dire need of water.
“Thank you, child,” said the old woman when she’d taken swallow after swallow of water. “You got a spirit of do-right in your soul. God is gonna bless you.”
I deliberately included that phrase since one could feel that distinct sense of language unique to this piece of work – and the book having its own authentic voice. The folk tale element – where it was important to show good will to people who are in need – is likewise clearly evident.
House of Oddities and Goodness that Glistens. It was the cruelty and utter unfairness of Blanche’s mother and sister that drove her straight into the kind arms of the same old woman whom she helped earlier that day. After promising not to laugh at anything she would see regardless of how strange it may appear, the old woman “wrapped in a raggedy black shawl” offered shelter and rest for Blanche’s tired and weary soul, opening her house of oddities (complete with a two headed cow with corkscrews for horns; multi-colored chickens running about with one leg, sometimes three, four or even more; and men and lady rabbits hopping about, playing the banjo and doing a cakewalk) to this girl with a “do-right in her soul.”
Never mind that the old lady removes her own head and lays it down on her knees like a pumpkin as she braids her own hair, or that an old beef bone can magically turn into a bubbling, thick stew; or that a single grain of rice could fill an empty pot to overflowing -this book has that kind of surreal yet achingly familiar quality of storytelling the way it should be told, and so soo rich with beautiful illustrations and lyrical text.
All that glitters is not… goOd. One clear message that is shared in this book is that things are more than what they appear on the outside. While absolutes are provided (good/evil – cruel/kindness dichotomy), one is invited to see beyond the surface and dig for truth within. As a present for Blanche’s kindness, the old woman shared her “talking eggs” with the young girl:
Go out to the chicken house. Any eggs that say, ‘Take me,’ you go ahead and take. But if you hear any say, ‘Don’t take me,’ you leave them be. When you get near home, throw those eggs one after another over your left shoulder so they break in the road behind you. Then you’ll get a surprise.
While seemingly-simple, the choice could actually be kind of difficult since it was the plain eggs who said “Take me!” while the gold, silver, and jeweled eggs cried out “Don’t take me!” While Blanche wished that she could take just one gold egg with her, she knew better than to do what should not be done.
When she got home, her sister Rose naturally felt envious after seeing the beautiful things that Blanche took home with her from the plain talking eggs that spilled out: “diamonds and rubies, now gold and silver coins, now pretty silk dresses and dainty satin shoes” and even a handsome carriage with a fine brown-and-white pony! Whether or not Rose would also get the same lovely trinkets that Blanche got from the eggs, I shall leave you to discover for yourself.
The play in words given Rose and Blanche’s names is likewise in keeping with this theme of “all that glitters…” - the name Rose suggests beauty, delicacy, and that fragile quality to it; Blanche on the other hand sounds plain, simple, and totally without guile or charm. We see clearly in the story how things can be so completely different from how things may be packaged on the outside.
Teacher Resources. When I surfed the net, I found quite a number of helpful resources that would assist educators in introducing this book to the class. Here in LessonsPlanPage, one would be able to see lesson activities and discussion questions that can be used in class with materials that can be used for a possible classroom workshop. In this Study Guide created by Jill Ramsey from Tennessee Technological University, educators have the option to use graphic organizers, create their own magical eggs, and some letter-writing activities that can be done given this book.
Robert D. San Souci is the author of so many award-winning picture books for children and he has also written books for adults. A Californian native, San Souci graduated from St. Mary’s College and currently lives in Albany. He has also collaborated with his brother Daniel San Souci who happens to be a very talented illustrator who has also done quite a number of books. Click here to be taken to Robert’s official website.
I was first introduced to the beautiful artwork of Jerry Pinkney in the picture book God Bless the Child (which we featured here) and I’ve been a fan ever since. A frequent recipient of the Caldecott Honor, he has illustrated many award-winning picture books, including the much honored Patchwork Quilt (which I hope to find and read very soon).