Oh, Those Russians

Oh, snap!  SunBee friends, I am posting my January stories at the beginning of February!  That’s all right, because we have a bit more cold weather before us, and that is just perfect for Russian tales.  Also, I have the wonderful opportunity to share with you the kids’ reactions to these stories, as we have been telling them all month.

I focused on two Russian tales.  The first is the Firebird, also called Ivan, Firebird and Gray Wolf in the version I used.  This is appropriate because while the Firebird is a beautiful prize, the true heart of the tale is the young tsarevich Ivan’s relationship with Gray Wolf.  Gray Wolf can be dangerous if he wants to, but he chooses to help Ivan and oh, what a powerful, crafty, and wise friend to have on your side.

Gray Wolf by SunBee student

Gray Wolf by SunBee student

The children were fascinated by Gray Wolf.  I found this to be an especially popular story with boys: a youngest son, a difficult quest, and a REALLY badass helper on your side.  “This is the best story EVER,” declared one six year old.  (And he’s kind of a tough customer, I can tell you.)

Firebird in the Garden, by SunBee student

Firebird in the Garden, by SunBee student

I wanted a story with a girl protagonist after that, and remembered an image from a book I bought in college at a little Russian shop in a snowy street in Manhattan some fifteen years ago.  A young woman in a dark woods with a lighted skull… Vasalissa.

Vasalissa by Ivan Bilibin, circa 1900

Vasalissa by Ivan Bilibin, circa 1900

The story came up again recently when I was reading the incredible Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  A version of Vasalissa is in that book, and it really called to me.  Here is another story about a neglected young person.  Like Ivan, the pretty people in Vasalissa’s world are mean as rats, and the terrible scary being in the forest (in this case, the witch Baba Yaga) ends up being a powerful friend.  The children were fascinated by the descriptions of Baba Yaga’s house (that it stands on chicken legs and dances around is only the beginning!) We were stuck inside that day because of rain, and they were cranking out drawing after drawing of Vasalissa, the dark forest, the wise but wild witch.

Russian stories seem to me to have such a wealth of gorgeous visual images: the Firebird at night in a king’s garden, the girl with the skull in the woods, the yellow eyes of Gray Wolf, the broom of the witch made from the hair of “someone long dead.”  How delightful for these cold winter nights!  Enjoy.

PS. The following is, ahem, not for kids, but a special treat for you.  Rah rah!  Oh, those Russians…

More Trolls, and a Tomte Too

*(This blog post is a somewhat revised version of the same last year.)

This December we will be journeying to the cold forests of Sweden and learning about tomte and trolls.

tomten

A tomten is a little creature who lives in a farmhouse and protects the people and animals- the farm animals and wild animals- within it.  They are good spirits.  Our Little Kids will experience a puppet show based on the Astrid Lindgren classic.  I am so partial to this story because I grew up with it, my Grandma being Swedish.  It’s hushed, quiet, magical mood makes it a wonderful holiday story no matter which tradition you celebrate.  The recurring theme of a good being watching over the farm while all are sleeping comforts and calms children.  I am always struck by how quiet they are after this puppet show.

tomten_book

Our Big Kids of the mature ages of 4-7 years old have expressed a love of adventure and danger so for these guys we will be learning about trolls.

trolls

tales

This story is called “The Boy and the Trolls, or the Adventure” by Walter Stenstrom and it does follow the classic format of a youngest son who saves a princess who has been kidnapped by the trolls.  I told this story last year and it was the most popular tale I ever told, across the board, in all the classes.  I will be telling this old favorite again… but did you know there are also girl trolls?

changelings

There she is.  The wild troll girl, laughing!  Two babies- a troll princess and a human princess- are switched at birth.  A golden-haired, angelic (and rather goody-goody) Swedish princess raised in a troll family?  A cruel, wild troll princess raised in a civilized palace?  Wait and see what happens…

 

Underdogs, Monsters and Ducks: Oh My!

This February features two stories about underdogs who come out on top.  For our little ones, we will have a puppet show based on the Chippewa tale Shingebiss.  Shingebiss is a little duck who has to fish through ice in winter.  But no matter how North Wind blows, Shingebiss can survive.

You can find this story for free online here: Shingebiss and the North Wind

There’s also a wonderful picture book version by Nancy Van Laan.

golem

Golem

 

Our big kids will be hearing about a whole community of underdogs who work together to free themselves from oppressors.  Part Frankenstein story, part Trojan Horse,  The Golem of Prague concerns a Jewish community whose very existence is in threat by the Holy Roman Emperor.  A clever Rabbi forms a giant monster-man out of clay and brings it to life to protect the community… but not all goes as planned.

Our big kids will be forming their own golem out of boxes and tape, and we will see what their inventive minds can create!

For those that want to learn more about golems: Stories of the Golem of Prague.

 

*A word about religion in SunBee Circle:

SunBee Circle is a secular teaching style.  But because we hear stories from all around the world, sometimes religions surface.  Children are never told what to believe but they do learn that Navajo people in Arizona pray to the Great Spirit, that there are Zen temples in Japan, Hansel and Gretel in a fairytale Europe pray to a Christian god for help, and that the Jewish people keep the Sabbath as a holy day.  The idea to tell the story of The Golem of Prague was inspired by the 70th anniversary this week of the liberation of Auschwitz.  I believe stories can heal, and that learning the values and customs of another culture through a story sows wonderful seeds of peace.

Hear some grown-up stories about the liberation of Auschwitz here.

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

Jewish Cemetery, Prague

 

Everybody loves a tanuki

For many years as a preschool teacher I followed a typical January curriculum: all activities, songs and stories shalt focus on ice, snow, and penguins.  But after a while I didn’t like teaching about snow in a Houston winter.  It really, REALLY tends to spotlight the fact that we kind of don’t have any snow.  Our native Gulf Coast climate must be defective.  Which means we might not value it very much or think it’s ecology is worth protecting.  It’s a slippery, snowy slope.

So.  We are not going to obsess about snow in SunBee Circle this winter.  Our January theme is… Japan!

A tanuki is a doglike foxlike creature with markings like a raccoon, native to Japan.

A tanuki is a doglike foxlike creature with markings like a raccoon, native to Japan.

I love Japanese tales because of two reasons.  (Well, a million, but just to narrow it down…)  First of all, so many are about things turning into other things.  You know, shape-shifting.  A crane into a woman.  A peach into a boy.  A tea kettle into a tanuki dog.  In these tales, nothing is really quite what it seems.   Secondly, there is a moral suppleness to many of the tales that our western stories just don’t seem to have.  The line between good characters and bad, virtue and evil, is not so stark.

Illustration of Bunbuku Chagama by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1889-1892.

Illustration of Bumbuku Chagama by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1889-1892. The walls are all cracked because Bambuku has bashed them up!

This January I have been telling the kids at Beehive preschool “The Magic Tea Kettle,” a classic Japanese fairy tale about a tea kettle in a Zen temple that turns into a tanuki dog and runs wild!  It’s also called “Bumbuku Chagama,” Bumbuku being our tanuki’s given name.  This story is full of those delightful smudges in the good/bad line that I love so much.  And what a lot of humor comes out of that!  The Zen priest, who should be a model of acceptance, certainly doesn’t care for a tea kettle that doesn’t behave itself (by the way, he’s a tightwad, too.)  It’s the poor junk dealer who adopts the runaway tanuki-kettle, the junk dealer who knows how to take things as they come and be kind to animals.  Children can easily identify with the magical tanuki, who seems naughty but isn’t.  Even when wreaking havoc on the monks’ meditation hour he isn’t really bad.  He just needs the right context for his high spirits, and they work much better in the junk dealer’s circus than in a Zen temple.

I read this delightful story in the wonderful “Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories” by Florence Sakade , along with many others.  This book makes the tales wonderfully accessible to children and the illustrations are a dream.

japan_stories

 

 

Of Tomte and Trolls

This December we will be journeying to the cold forests of Sweden and learning about tomte and trolls.

tomten

A tomten is a little creature who lives in a farmhouse and protects the people and animals- the farm animals and wild animals- within it.  They are good spirits.  Our Little Kids will experience a puppet show based on the Astrid Lindgren classic.  I am so partial to this story because I grew up with it, my Grandma being Swedish.  It’s hushed, quiet, magical mood makes it a wonderful holiday story no matter which tradition you celebrate.

tomten_book

Our Big Kids of the mature ages of 4-7 years old have expressed a love of adventure and danger so for these guys we will be learning about trolls.

trolls

Trolls. But if your kids are doing SunBee Circle this December please don’t let them see it! Trolls are so unique and delightfully gross that we will first listen to the story… then draw a picture of the trolls we saw in our minds… then look at this artist’s interpretation of the trolls.

As you can see from this vintage John Bauer illustration, trolls are… not so nice.  They are known for their ugly looks, fondness for eating snakes and toads, hatred of bathing, and nasty tempers.  Some are worse than others but I am afraid our story features a bad bunch and their old troll mother, the worst of all!  This tale comes from another childhood favorite of mine, Great Swedish Fairy Tales.

greatswedish

One of the best books ever! Sadly, I believe it’s out of print now.

This story is called “The Boy and the Trolls, or the Adventure” by Walter Stenstrom and it does follow the classic format of a youngest son who saves a princess who has been kidnapped by the trolls.  We had a strong female lead in First Woman for our November tale, so now I’ll give the boys a brave protagonist who defends someone in trouble.  I like to alternate between months.

How do you vanquish a troll?  Well, the secret is they HATE fresh air!  So you simply say the secret rhyme:

Come west wind and blow away

Long ear, huge chin, big nose.

Come west wind and blow away

All these trolls from mountain gray.

Have a wonderful holiday and watch out for the trolls!

 

Winter in the South

Sometimes it can be very hard to find stories for winter time… a southern winter time, that is.  Here in Houston it has been cold for us (read: ICE!) but there are no snowmen, no penguins, and no hibernating bears, and let’s face it, it’s really hard to find any charming winter songs without these things.

February in Houston does have its own personality, though.  February is gray and icy cold fronts swooping down from the north, followed by the balmy days when you notice the white wing doves are back from Mexico and cooing outside of your window.  February is stepping out one morning in a T-shirt, only to run back home an hour later for your winter coat and hat because that front has moved in.  February is the time to grow paperwhites indoors, and prune the roses, and drive out to the prairie to see the last of the geese if you can.

We're back!

We’re back!

I’ve been looking for stories that celebrate this urban southern Houston winter.  I grew up with stories about snow and penguins in Houston, and while I have no problem with either, hearing only about this sort of classic storybook New England winter as a child made me rather dissatisfied with the balmy one I had.  I always felt that there was something wrong with my native climate; that it wasn’t normal, wasn’t behaving itself, was somehow defective and therefore not worth much; it didn’t really count.  I heard a lot about squirrels, but they were always the cute red kind found up north, not the big gray Texas kind as aggressive and capable of urban survival as the rat.  And I never heard about the doves.  My thinking is that never hearing stories about your own landscape leads to a kind of subconscious devaluing of it.  And Houston has pretty much the worst self-esteem of any city I’ve known.  “It’s ugly, it’s hot, it’s flat”- you hear it all the time.  The prairies are paved with suburbs and we are losing them; we grow up into adults who don’t think our landscape is worth saving.  It doesn’t “count.”

ice on green leaves

ice storm, late January

So I am offering a song about rain, and a Native American story about a freak ice storm coming down to a southern state from up north (sound familiar)?

If children value their own landscape, can this translate to more ecologically conscious adults?  I absolutely think so!

And maybe someday soon, I’ll have a poem about the doves.

Rain Song by Connie Manson

It’s raining, it’s raining, the roofs are getting wet.

The rain will make the flowers bloom,

the mud, we’ll sweep off with a broom,

it’s raining, it’s raining,

the roofs are getting wet.

Ice Man

This tale is a Cherokee legend.  I have adapted it for telling to children.  I originally found it here.  I like it for Houston children because, although we haven’t had snow this winter, we have definitely had a lot of sleet and ice!

Once upon a time, the people had make a fire in the forest, and by accident a big tree caught on fire.  The fire was so big, it even burned down, down, down, all the way into the roots of the tree, and made a big hole in the ground.  Even then the fire did not stop, but kept burning and burning, and the hole of fire got bigger and bigger and bigger.  The people tried to put it out, first by beating it with sacks and then with water, but nothing worked- the fire just got bigger.  The fiery hole grew so big they began to be afraid that it would swallow the whole world!

Finally somebody remembered there was a person who could help!  Far to the north, where it was very cold, there was a little house made of ice.  And in this house was a little man, and he had two long white braids that hung all the way to the ground.  He was the Ice Man.  So the people chose some messengers and they traveled for days and nights to find this man.

It took a long, long time, but finally they reached the little ice house.  The little Ice Man said, “Why yes, I can help you.”  Then he unbraided his long, white hair.  He took it all in his hand in a big bunch, and then THWACK!  He slapped it against his other hand.  “What is he doing?” the messengers asked each other.  But then, they felt a cool, soft wind blowing against their faces.

Once again the little Ice Man took a bunch of hair and slapped it against his other hand- THWACK!  This time the messengers felt a light rain falling.

THWACK!  Ice Man swung his hair a third time.  Sleet started falling down, pointy, wet, fast and cold.

THWACK!  Ice Man swung his hair a fourth time.  CLACK, CLACK, CLACk!  Giant hailstones the size of baseballs pounded down.  The messengers covered their heads with their hands.  Ice Man stopped, and laughed.  Then he sent them all back home.

Back at home, every thing was just the same- except that the giant burning hole in the forest was bigger, and the people were even more scared.  Everybody sat down to watch, and see what Ice Man would do, from his little ice house so far away.

Well, first a cool wind began to blow.  But it didn’t stop the fire- it only made it blaze up higher!

Then a light rain began to fall, but it only made that fire burn hotter.

Then, that rain turned to sleet, so pointy, fast and cold, falling like needles onto the fire, and then hailstones big as baseballs came pounding down- CLACK, CLACK!  HISS, HISSSS said the fire, as it began to steam, smoke and die.

By now the people were even more scared, but not from the fire- they were scared of Ice Man’s storm!  Everyone knows when it is sleeting and hailing it’s best to get inside.  So they ran into their houses and peeked out the windows.  That was a good thing, because now a whirlwind came, full of ice and sleet, throwing hailstones big as boulders down on that fire, into every nook and cranny, smashing every flame and spark, until there was nothing left of that fire, nothing at all, not even the steaming of wood.

Well, finally the whirlwind went away, I guess back up north to Ice Man.  And the people came outside, and do you know what they saw?  That big hole that had been full of fire, was now full of water- a lake!

The only funny thing was… if you went to that lake and listened closely, it almost seemed to be making a crackly sound, like fire.

Snip, snap, snout,

My tail is all told out.