Folktales. Librarians love ’em. Eat ’em up like ketchup on rye, they do. Children’s librarians love folktales even more than their adult brethren. When you go to library school the professors inculcate you with a deep and abiding appreciation of old-fashioned storytelling. Even if you don’t know how to deal with a giant or whether or not to stray from the path in the woods, by the time you have your library and information science degree you can spout off tales of third born sons and all-too curious chickens like it’s nobody’s business. That’s why it’s sad that the picture book folktales out there are beginning to go the way of the dodo. They use to cram our shelves and fill publisher’s lists. Now you’re lucky if you can find four or five good ones in a given year. One Fine Trade is, however, an excellent example of this old-timey folktale telling. Based on an old folk song it takes Bobbi Miller’s delight with words and Will Hillenbrand’s skill with a paintbrush to tell a tale worth telling well. Will your kids be enjoying this story? No doubt they will, oh children mine.
You want a great peddler? You go to Georgy Piney Woods. And now that Georgy’s daughter Georgianne is getting married, she knows exactly how to put his talents to use. Says she one fine morning, "Dedaw, my wedding day is a-coming soon enough. Can you trade my rail-skinny horse for a shiny silver dollar that I might buy me a pretty new dress?" With his customary, "Always for you, child mine," off Georgy rides. Horse is traded for cow. Cow for dog. Dog for stick. And when the stick is unexpectedly filled with venom it grows to enormous heights. A railroad man is desirous of the wood, but after rainfall renders his choppings toothpick sized, Georgy trades the picks to a woman for one shiny dollar. Pleased, his daughter asks for a hen to be exchanged for a dime, and Georgy does her one better and even exchanges his nanny goat for a ring. A happy ending for one and all.
To my mind, a folktale does you little good if it doesn’t fall trippingly off the tongue. We have an oral tradition to uphold here, people. Fortunately first time picture book author Bobbi Miller appears to appreciate that fact. Since she minored in college in anthropology (her focus: American folklore) Ms. Miller is now able to put her five writing degrees to practice with a story that plays like a variation on Moritz Jagendorf’s Folkstories of the South. In the case of this particular book, it’s a fun read. "Down the road he went, a-riding the rail-skinny horse. The road twisted this way and that, up hill and down dale. All around, the catbirds were a-mewing, crows were a-cawing and herons a-squaking." Miller makes fine use of repetition, always shaking up the format when Georgy meets someone new. With some practice this book will make a top notch readaloud, and the story has enough twists and turns to make it new to most ears that hear it.
First thing I noticed when I cracked this story was how much I liked the look. The peddler’s daughter is probably your typical folktale bumpkin, but I was partial to the fact that she wore her orange overalls with a cheery purple shirt. Heck, she likes those clothes so much that when she puts on the wedding dress, it’s just sorta slumped on over her everyday clothes (tags and all). Hillenbrand then takes you on a roundabout journey over fields, through sticky swamps, and around gloomy woods. I like that when you see the venom swelled cypress stick, the book requires that you turn it onto its side to take in the enormity of the object. Hillenbrand does some nice things with the angle of the images, as well as the basic layout of each page. I also appreciated that you can see the next person he’ll meet as a silhouette in the distance each time (even the railroad man on his handcar). This is flipped when the railroad man is considering his now tiny cypress toothpicks, and you see the silhouette of the Georgy Piney Woods coming along in the distance instead. Extra points for the multicultural characters. Folktales of this nature make it easy for the illustrators to make everyone whitey white. This book mixes it up a little.
How Will Hillenbrand goes about illustrating his books reads like a complex thriller. First he does them with ink and pencil on vellum. Fair enough. Then he scans them into a computer, does some digital mumbo jumbo on them, and then prints them BACK out, only this time on watercolor paper. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, eh? Then the next thing you know he’s whipped out the colored pencils and with a hint of gouache he starts drawing on the same painting all over again. Dude, I’m exhausted just describing this and he has to produce some 32 pages, to say nothing of the cover and title page. Hillenbrand, for the record, has done roughly umpteen bazillion books, but I know that in my own children’s room he’s best known for turning songs into books like Down by the Station or Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush or Fiddle-I-Fee. For One Fine Trade Hillenbrand goes the folktale route and comes out swinging.
And, of course, I’m a sucker for any illustrator who rewards the parent that will potentially have to read their same book over and over again. It’s the little details that are great. On a second reading I noticed the peddler’s daughter getting cozy with her incipient hubby on a swing, but I didn’t notice until a third read that there was a wagon sitting in the yard with the words "Mr. Toad" on the side. Where my The Wind in the Willows people at? There are other small delights as well. The farmer’s actual corncob making up his corncob pipe. The fact that the shiny silver dollar is a real Liberty Head coin. The notice in the dress shop advertising the local Chaplain’s desire to trade a gold ring for a nanny goat. They’re all there for the sharp-eyed spotter.
I did have one moment of confusion with this tale, and that comes right at the end. Right at the last page, to be precise. One moment the daughter asks her father to trade their little red hen for a shiny dime, and her father agrees to do so. But rather than explain about that trade (and I suppose that there’s no need) the next sentence is. "But wouldn’t ya know, he had one more fine trade. Quick as cats pounce he traded his dandy nanny goat for a pretty gold wedding ring." That’s a bit of a subject change and my little old head got confused. Since the daughter didn’t ask for a gold wedding ring, why didn’t he get her a veil? Or did he get the veil after all? The picture accompanying the wedding ring revelation shows the daughter towing her groom-to-be behind her, wedding veil firmly attached to her head, so I guess there’s my answer. Still, it would have been nice to rewrite that sentence as, "And right after that, wouldn’t ya know, he had one more fine trade." That would make it clear that he accomplished his original goal AND managed to get a ring to boot.
That aside, this here’s a sweet and fancy folktale just itching to be told. Neither too short or too long for a storytime, with pictures by a guy who knows how to shake things up, One Fine Trade makes one fine addition to any folktale and fairytale collection. American as apple pie and a great example of good old-fashioned storytelling.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: How often is a story’s finale featured on the cover of the book? An interesting choice, but a nice way of giving the tale a finish it needs without marring the existing ending.
Other Online Reviews: School Library Journal, Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children