Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: Horse Hoovers and Chicken Feet: Mexican Folktales selected by Neil Philip

Philip, Neil, editor. HORSE HOOVES AND CHICKEN FEET: MEXICAN FOLKTALES. Ill. By Jacqueline Mair. New York: Clarion Books, 2003. ISBN 0618194630.

This book is a collection of traditional Mexican folktales. Neil Philip, the editor of this anthology, collected these stories from Mexico, Colorado, and New Mexico. Like Mexico, these stories owe a large part of their origin to tales from Spain, which in turn can be traced back to Moorish tales such as the Arabian Nights. The Endless Tale is a direct descendant of Scheherazade and her “One Thousand and One Nights.” Although many of the stories share themes with other folktales from around the world, these folktales have a uniquely Mexican twist to them. Mexican folktales have 2 special characteristics: 1) the ever-pervasive background presence of Roman Catholicism, and 2) Just like African folktales, these tales are filled with tricksters and storytellers.

Since Mexican culture is steeped in Catholicism, the traditional characters in these stories are Catholic – instead of a fairy godmother in the Cinderella version (The Two Marias), you have the Virgin Mary. In The Priest Who Had a Glimpse of Glory, the main character is a Catholic priest. Pedro the Trickster bargains with the Lord, St. Peter, and the Devil. As well as Catholic concepts, Mexican folklore contains many strong female characters. Death is portrayed as female. The protagonist of The Brave Widow is a mother who fights Judas, king of the underworld, for the sake of her son’s future. And in The Endless Tale, it’s the girl who tells the boy what to do to win her father’s contest.

The stories have very little in the way of setting. They take place in ‘a house,’ ‘a cantina,’ Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, ‘the plaza,’ ‘the ship,’ and other very broad, general locations. The action could really take place anywhere, so the setting is irrelevant to the plot.

These stories have universal themes. In the title story, Horse Hooves and Chicken Feet, the theme is being alert since you never know where you’ll find evil. Other stories illustrate the theme of good ultimately conquering evil. There’s a Mexican flavored theme in Pedro The Trickster, of how persistence can win you heaven. In the story, The Priest Who Had a Glimpse of Glory, the theme is God’s might is more powerful than us puny mortals. It reminds me of a a story in a German book of my mother’s from when I was a child, of a monk who falls asleep in a garden one afternoon while reading the Bible. When he wakes up, a thousand years have passed because he was reading 2 Peter Chapter 3, verse 8 when he fell asleep: “But of this one thing be not ignorant, my beloved, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

Jacqueline Mair’s illustrations don’t add to the stories, but instead complement them. Almost every page number is accompanied by a red chili pepper. There are motifs of animals, dancers, cacti, Mexican feasts, traditional Mexican clothing, the sun and moon, and Día de los Muertos altars. They highlight the Mexican flavor of this anthology. Just like traditional Mexican folk art, the colors are bold and bright, and the drawings are primitive.

In his introduction, Philip explains how most of his stories came from storytelling sources. As such, the sentences are short and to the point, while packed with action. The Devil, magic, witches, and bargaining are prevalent elements throughout the stories. Unlike European traditional literature, the traditional opening of Mexican folktales is “Once there was a ____” or “There once was a ____.” During the course of the story, these phrases repeat themselves to introduce new main characters. However, each story ends differently, without a closing common statement such as “They lived happily ever after.”

As tales transcribed from storytellers, these tales can be read by both adults to children or by the children themselves. Some of them will be familiar, some will not, but all of them will be enjoyable even if you’re not of Mexican descent.

Best Books:
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2004 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States

Children's Literature Choice List, 2004 ; Children's Literature; United States

Notable Books for a Global Society, 2004 ; Special Interest Group of the International Reading Association; United States

Notable Children's Books, 2004 ; American Library Association-ALSC; United States

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2004 ; National Council for the Social Studies; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:
Aesop Prize, 2003 Winner United States

Storytelling World Awards, 2004 Honor Storytelling Anthologies United States


Todd Morning (Booklist, Oct. 15, 2003 (Vol. 100, No. 4))

"…A solid collection that may also find an audience among readers who are older than the target audience. "

Joanna Wiley (Children's Literature)

"As Hispanic culture weaves itself into the American landscape with an ever-increasing saturation, this book of Mexican folktales proves to be a vibrant addition to the folktale genre to which children today are so rarely exposed. Philip has created a wonderful book that not only offers its readers an enjoyable fantasy experience but also insight into the imagery and symbolism utilized within the Hispanic community. While children may be familiar with the basic types and motifs of some of the stories in this collection, such as boy-eating giants, evil step-mothers and wicked witches, the overall presentation and detail included within these rich texts exhibit a distinct Hispanic flair. Particularly, the use of religious imagery proves to be a prevalent motif throughout the book. Mair’s illustrations are exceptionally alive with rich color and illumination. Her depictions of familiar Hispanic images such as the Lady of Guadalupe, the open-mouthed devil and even the chili pepper further enhance the cultural connections of each of these stories. At the end of the book, Philip provides details of each story’s origin and history."

Elizabeth Young (Children's Literature)

"Here is a delightful smattering of folktales from our neighbor to the south. These Mexican tales are enhanced by the exuberantly colorful illustrations of Jacqueline Mair, which are crafted cleverly enough to conceal details of each folktale. While it is evident many of these folktales are based on the country's solid Catholic faith, one needn't be Catholic to enjoy them, though it probably helps. "The Priest who had a glimpse of Glory" and "The two Maria's" are prime examples of their religious foundation. The title of this work refers to the symbolism for witches as described in the tale of the same name, blending deceiving beauty and attractiveness with evil and the demonic. Following the tales are notes on each story, complete with AT number classification. The notes include what source these folktales were taken from and any title variations. Though written for nine-to-twelve-year olds, folktales are ageless and appropriate for every age. Come and partake of another tradition and experience the wealth of another culture."

1. After reading the stories and seeing Mair’s illustrations, have your students illustrate one of these stories. Provide bright pastels, construction paper, and scissors.
2. Bring a piñata in to your class or library. Clear the desks away from the center of the room and let the kids take turns blindfolded trying to break it open.
3. Have your students either perform Readers' Theatre or take turns telling one of these stories in their own words.

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