Little is known of the person who produced one of the most enduring collections of stories ever: Aesop’s Fables. Some say Aesop was a slave, while others question if he even existed. What is known, however, is that his name came to be associated with hundreds of short stories dating from around the 6th century B.C. These stories include such classics as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Fox and the Grapes.
Aesop’s fables have retained their popularity throughout the centuries in large part because they respond to a fundamental human desire to understand the world in which we live and to have moral guidance on the challenges we all face. The stories originate from a time when the ancient Greeks were studying their world, making scientific discoveries about nature and proposing various philosophical ideas about the best way to live life. So it is not surprising that Aesop drew on the natural world for the characters and situations in his fables. However, he also created stories with an identifiable moral for readers, a form that has become an enduring model for children’s literature. Even young children are eager to reflect on their lives, choices and decisions, and Aesop’s fables provide a certain guidance and wisdom about how to behave and interact with people.
In today’s society, as we are bombarded with various messages from movies, newspapers and advertisements about how to live life, Aesop’s fables provide simple yet eloquent lessons. His fables remain as pertinent today as they were 2,000 years ago. Here are some wonderful, modern introductions to these ancient stories.
The Rabbit and the Turtle (Orchard Books, $18.99)
by Eric Carle – Ages 4 to 7
Eric Carle, best known for his collage-style illustrations and his books The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Lonely Firefly, applies his magical storytelling and illustrating style to 11 of Aesop’s fables. Included are some well-known favourites such as The Lion and the Mouse, The Rabbit and the Turtle and The Fox and the Crow. He summarizes each story on one page and matches it with a wonderful full-page illustration overflowing with fantastic details that children will have fun referring to while reading the stories. Carle ends each one with a clearly visible line that states the moral of the story. Statements such as Be proud of who you are, Do not pretend to be someone you are not, Treat others as you want to be treated, will probably ring true for young readers — as well as adults.
The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown books, $19.99)
by Jerry Pinkney – Ages 3 to 7
Illustrator Jerry Pinkney doesn’t even need to use words to tell the moving story of The Lion and the Mouse, in which a small mouse, threatened by a lion who wants to eat him, promises to help the giant carnivore in the future if his life is spared. Although the lion doubts that the mouse can do anything for him, he lets him live and eventually the mouse makes good on his promise. Pinkney sets the story in the hot African savannah, where no animal, including the king of jungle, is free of threats. Through his rich and evocative drawings, Pinkney beautifully conveys the kinship that develops between the small mouse and the mighty lion and the unexpected courage of the mouse. It is not surprising that this wordless book was honoured with a Caldecott medal for its illustrations.
The Grasshopper’s Song
(Candlewick Books, $18.50)
by Nikki Giovanni – Ages 5 to 8
The award-winning poet and author Nikki Giovanni provides a jazzy update of Aesop’s famous fable about a grasshopper who spends the summer making music rather than preparing for the oncoming winter by storing away food like the hardworking ants. In her version, the grasshopper’s music serves as a motivating rhythm for the ants, but at the end of the harvest they refuse to share with him. The grasshopper decides to take action and hires a team of lawyers, who argue the merits of their client’s artistic contribution. Giovanni’s re-telling unveils the nuances of Aesop’s stories and shows readers an important truth: that little in life is black and white, and what may at first glance appear to be laziness (not storing away food for the winter), may be something else entirely (a different way of contributing to society).