The Bone Keeper by Megan McDonald, paintings by G. Brian Karas, 1999.

The story in this picture book is written as an unrhymed poem and illustrated with paintings that resemble paintings on a cave wall.

Bone Woman is a strange old woman. She is ancient, legendary, may have powers to bring back the dead, and lives in a cave full of bones.

She spends her time searching for bones in the desert sand. She collects the bones, studies them, and arranges them to form complete skeletons.

When she manages to complete a skeleton, she performs a ritual to bring the creature back to life!

The book is available to borrow and read for free online through Internet Archive.

My Reaction

This is one of those picture books that I think would actually be appreciated more by adults than by children. The poetry and art style seem more sophisticated than the styles that children seem to prefer. Most of the pictures are not very colorful, using a lot of grays and browns and black, although the art style is unusual and fascinating, looking like paintings and drawings scratched into rock.

I think kids could understand the action of the story – a strange old woman who lives in a cave collects bones, assembles them into skeletons, and can use them to bring animals back to life. It’s a strange story, partly because there is no explanation about why she is doing this.

One of my regrets about this book is that it doesn’t explain the background of this story. I had expected that there would be a section at the back of the book that would explain more, but there isn’t. From the context – the pictures, the style of the story, the names that the woman is called, and the fact that the artist thanked the Phoenix Public Library and the Heard Museum (both places that are familiar to me) in the dedication – adults can figure out that this is a story from folklore, but it’s not immediately clear what kind of folklore. Anyone who doesn’t already know the story might be confused. I didn’t know this story when I read the book, so I had to look it up.

The story of the Bone Woman has been told and referenced in other books. The story of La Huesera (the Bone Woman) is a Mexican folktale. Sometimes, it’s also called La Loba (the Wolf Woman) because that is the animal that she particularly wants to resurrect. The Bone Woman is a “wild woman” or a “crone” who uses a kind of natural magic to bring life to lifelessness and restoring what was lost.

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