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Review of the Day: Aesop in California by Doug Hansen

Aesop in California
By Doug Hansen
ISBN: 978-1-59714-235-9
Ages 3-7
On shelves now.

Gather round me, o ye little children, and hear the tale I tell. Of a time when fairytales and folktales were as ripe and plentiful as the grapes of summer. When you could walk into any bookstore or library and pluck ten of the newest from the shelf so as to compare and contrast their relative merits. Twas a bonny era, and too short indeed. For years these tales have become rarities, difficult to find and even more difficult to publish. But wait! There is hope for us all. For as the great big publishers merge and combine to become capable of competing with the likes of, it is the little publishers that have seen this for what it really is: A glorious niche market. Now folks like Barefoot Books, minedition, Albert Whitman, and more have swept in and filled what was once a huge gap in our collections. In 2013 alone we’ve seen the publication of no less than four different Aesop fable collections. And the best of these? An unassuming but ripe and rich little book called Aesop in California by Doug Hansen. Far more than just a local interest piece for native Californians, Hansen has pinpointed what it is about Aesop that is perfectly adaptable to every nation and age. American to its core and meticulously researched, this is an equal tribute to stories that have lasted the centuries, and to a state that Hansen loves so very well.

Fifteen of Aesop’s fables are plucked from his roster and adapted to the Californian landscape. Are you familiar with “The Lion and the Mouse”? Well then meet a version where it’s a mountain lion and a deer mouse. “The Fox and the Grapes” one of your favorites? Well consider how much sense it makes to place that story in the Napa Valley. With keen insight and forethought Hansen adapts each of his stories with an eye to both the past and the animals of the present. Hares become jackrabbits, crows are magpies, and bulls become male elephant seals (also known as bulls). A heady Introduction begins the collection, and it is followed at the end by Fabulous Facts about each story.

I’m a New York City librarian. I’ve visited almost every one of our 90 some branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. My workplace sports big stone lions out front. I take the subway to work. And the only time I make it to California is when there’s a library conference there. Doug Hansen, in contrast, is California born, bred, and raised. He was born in Fresno, he went to school in Fresno, and he teaches illustration in Fresno. He published Aesop in California with a little outfit called Heyday, which pronounces proudly that their purpose is to “promote wide-spread awareness and celebration of California’s many cultures, landscapes, and boundary-breaking ideas.” So you might not think we’d have all that much in common, Mr. Hansen and I. But that’s where you’re wrong, friend. For though my interest in California is slim to none, I am VERY interested in both Aesop’s fables in any and every form and also a through accounting of American themes, history, and wildlife. And that, to my mind, is why Aesop in California is applicable above and beyond its location. While it’s wonderful that the common thread connecting everything here is a single state, the adaptations are clever, the writing wonderful, and the art magnificent. There is therefore no reason in the world why every library in this great nation of ours shouldn’t have a copy on their shelves.

Though the publication page gives nothing away in terms of Hansen’s preferred style, it looks as though it was illustrated in the lushest possible watercolors. Each one is highly detailed, utilizing jewel-toned pictures replete with shockingly accurate settings. In his Acknowledgments section at the beginning of the book, Hansen describes the research trips he had to take to get these pictures right. When thanking a friend he says, “Without the research trips, I would have missed visual details like the carpet of acorns in `The Oak and the Reeds,’ the knee-high field of wheat in `The Meadowlark and Her Children,’ and the high-rise kelp pile in `The Elephant Seal and the Kelp Fly’.” Near every plant or animal he discovered makes a cameo in the book. At the same time, he pays very close attention to geography as well. On the back of the book you’ll find a map of California with animals from each fable located over the area where their story takes place. They’re evenly spaced out throughout the state over their respective locations. Then in the back of the book Hansen includes additional information about each illustration and tale.

Just looking at the book you can see from the start that the art is gorgeous. That’s a given. But let’s credit Hansen with his writing as well. First off, I really appreciated the fact that in his Introduction he covers not just the historical figure of Aesop but the history of the publication of his fables, but the fact that the “morals” at the end were found in later iterations of the tales not the originals. I’ll admit to you right here and now that I’m no Aesop purist and I sort of need the morals some of the time. Hansen does include these morals, but he has also re-written the tales so that they would fit with their themes. One example of this is in “The Prospectors and the Bear”, which re-imagines the story as a true snippet of American history. The clever intersection of history with an old fable is great, but the dialogue and writing itself is really delightful as well. You could certainly have counted on Hansen to draw beautifully, but who knew he was such a great writer as well?

I should like to make note of my favorite story in this collection. That would be “The Magpie and the Basket Bottle”. Aside from the fact that I’ve always liked the original story, I just love love love the art here. Changing the main character from a crow to a magpie isn’t much of a stretch. Then you have the Californian deserts to attest for the magpie’s desire for liquid refreshment. But I was particular fond of the fact that this is one of the images that really acknowledges the history of California state above and beyond the usual Hollywood/Gold Rush narrative. The magpie finds a basket bottle with liquid in it that was created by the Chumash people. In his notes at the end, Hansen then explains what items the magpie is dropping in (“Chumash shell beads, shirt weights, and arrow straightener”) to make the water level rise. He even gets into how the Chumash people melted powdered tar in their baskets to make them waterproof, and includes a picture of one of their pictographs in the background. Considering how often Native people are forgotten when folks recap the history of his nation, I was mighty relieved at the inclusion.

We all have our favorite Aesop collections (we do, right?) and they vary widely. Aesop is all things to all people. A perpetual font of wisdom that reflects our own times. His stories are plucked out and turned into individual picture books all the time (think of the relatively recent Caldecott Award win The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney as one such example). So it does my heart good to see Doug Hansen pouring so much of his heart and soul into a book like this. Our kids deserve only the best possible books. The ones that have been perfected within and inch of their lives. Hansen has done precisely that and the result is a book that’s going to enchant kids above and beyond the borders of his impressive little state. It may be called Aesop in California but this is an American Aesop at its core, and a book with universal appeal. Go get that thing.

For ages 3-7.

Source: Checked out copy from library for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Review: Kirkus

Other Reviews: L.A. Parent

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Doug Hansen says:

    Dear Elizabeth: My publisher forwarded your dream-come-true review of my Aesop in California book to me. The link is now on it’s way to my mom. I am sitting in my office at Fresno State in a dizzy mood of exaltation because of your kind and close analysis of the book – both pictures and words. I’m working on another California-centric book for Heyday (very early days in the process) but your review encourages me to engage confidently in my writing – to jump in and make those things that seem so wonderful to me come alive.
    That Magpie story was a real journey (always wondering “am I going too far with this?” but the dense textures of Painted Rock with lichen and pictographs screamed to me – “you must make this picture!”
    And realizing I’m just one more writer and artist in two millenniums of Aesop story-tellers was the moment where I gave myself permission to plunge in and retell these fables in my own way. Far from being an unoriginal copycat (which was a thought that tormented me) I’m part of a progression or a tradition.
    Anyway, thank you for your generous review and also for including those images along with it.
    Doug Hansen

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Beautifully put. I think one of the many charms of your book is the fact that you really have sat down and thought about where your own work falls on the continuum of Aesop over the centuries. I see a lot of Aesop books but few consider their role in the grand scheme of things. I love how you’ve put all of this. Thank you. Can’t wait to see your next book (though I noted that Aesop sported images dated 2011, so I suspect I’ll have a couple years ahead of me before I see your finished product).