Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick's Picture Books

St. Patrick's Day is a special day for me and the kids, not only because of our Celtic heritage, but also because my mother was born on St. Patrick's Day. I've been sharing some relevant picture books with the kids over the last few days and thought I would take a moment to share them with you.

The Leprechaun's Gold by Pamela Duncan Edwards is a delightful tale of two harpists--kindly and generous Old Pat and greedy and boastful Young Tom. The two are both talented, but have different values. Young Tom wishes to become rich, and charges his neighbors a pretty penny for his harp playing services. Old Pat plays the harp out of love as much as anything, and is willing to play for free for folks he knows can't afford to pay. Tom thinks Pat foolish, but is willing to benefit from his generosity. When the king announces a contest to choose the finest harpist in Ireland, both Pat and Tom are eager to participate--Pat for the potential honor, and Tom for the potential prestige. Tom decides to travel with the older man in the hopes that Pat will share his food, thus saving Tom a bit of money. Along the way, Tom begins to worry that the talented older man will defeat him in the contest, and wickedly breaks one of Pat's harp strings while Pat is not looking. Shortly after this treachery, the two men hear a voice calling for help. Afraid of scheming leprechauns, Tom refuses to investigate, but kindly Pat cannot ignore the plea. The call is indeed from a leprechaun, and the aid that Pat provides is repaid in an unexpected way. This charming tale about the value of good deeds is richly illustrated by Henry Cole, complete with a game of hide-and-seek included in the detailed pictures--within the illustrations, 16 four-leafed clovers are hidden.

St. Patrick's Day Alphabet by Beverly Barras Vidrine was not as much fun in my opinion. I love alphabet books, and hoped that this one might help teach my kids about some Irish culture. It did to some extent, but in some instances seemed to focus too much on religion. To be fair, we are talking about St. Patrick's Day, and Patrick is a Christian saint, so this focus is certainly understandable. My kids did learn some interesting new words, such as bodhran (pronounced BOW-rawn), which is a traditional, flat, one-sided drum and céilí (pronounced KAY-lee), a traditional social dance. I felt some of the selections for letters were a bit lame as well. For example "E is for 'Everybody is Irish, a favorite saying on St. Patrick's Day." would have been more interesting as "E is for Erin, a word for Ireland. People often say 'Erin go Bragh' on St. Patrick's Day, which means 'Ireland forever.'" Still, I have to commend Barras Vidrine for what I think is a clever and educational idea for an alphabet book, and the colorful and detailed drawings of Patrick Soper are appealing.

Finally, Fergus and the Night-Demon by Jim Murphy isn't really a St. Patrick's Day book, but it is an amusing "Irish Ghost Story" with a moral about the value of hard work. Plus, it's great fun to read aloud with an Irish accent, if you can do a decent one. Fergus O'Mara is a lazy young man, always finding an excuse to get out of work and chores. One evening while going off to Skibbereen to party, he encounters a frightening, giant spirit that declares "It is your time, Fergus O'Mara!" Not willing to put the effort even into fearing for himself, Fergus at first tries to write off the towering vision as the result of indigestion. But the red-eyed vision persists and grows larger as the story progresses, eventually demanding the Fergus dig his own grave. Always allergic to labor, Fergus manages to talk his way out of the situation, but has a change of heart at the end of the story, vowing to be a hard working person for fear that the night-demon might return. Fergus's attitude and roguish charm, as well as the menace of the night-demon are skillfully conveyed in John Manders's illustrations. The author also provides some educational notes regarding Irish legendary creatures that helped to inspire the tale. An interesting twist is that while there is a moral regarding the value of hard work, we also come to recognize that everyone, even slackers like Fergus, has his or her own special talents. Fergus has a gift for wheedling out of difficult situations, and it actually saves his life. He doesn't often use this gift for good purposes, but we can recognize it as a skill he possesses. So, there's an extra lesson about learning to see the positive qualities of people and their habits, even if there isn't much positive about the people and their deeds.

Leabhair go bragh! (I hope this means "Books forever!" My apologies to anyone who speaks Irish Gaelic if I've messed up.)

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