The Paper Bag Princess


The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, 1980.

Princess Elizabeth is a stylish young princess, engaged to the handsome Prince Ronald. But, one day, a dragon attacks her castle, incinerating all of Elizabeth’s fine clothes and carrying Ronald off to its lair.


Donning the only thing she can find to wear, an old paper bag, Princess Elizabeth tracks the dragon down to rescue Ronald.


In this unconventional fairy tale story, Princess Elizabeth must defeat the dragon in a duel of wits in order to rescue her prince, but in a humorous twist ending, Ronald is somewhat less than grateful for her help because Princess Elizabeth is no longer stylish in her old paper bag.


Books like these can be a good antidote to people who are tired of prissier princess stories with flamboyant gowns and a wedding (or at least kissing) at the end. The story is deliberately humorous and correct in pointing out that people who worry more about the clothes you’re wearing than the things you do for them are not worth bothering with.


The Practical Princess


The Practical Princess and Other Liberating Fairy Tales By Jay Williams, 1978.

PracticalPrincessSilverWhistleThe modern fairy tales in this book (these are not traditional stories or folktales, although they are written in the style of old fairy tales) feature brave and clever girls. These are not just damsels in distress who need to be rescued, but girls who play heroic parts in their own stories. However, I don’t want you to think that the stories get too preachy about girl power. Some of the men in the stories may seem less than heroic at, but each of them is clever in their own way, and they are sometimes the main characters in the stories as well. The stories don’t lecture you about how “girls are just as good as guys and maybe even better“ or try to make the girls look smarter by making everyone else look dumb or things like that (in spite of the name, “Stupid Marco”, Marco really isn’t all that bad). They’re just fun stories in a fairy tale style with interesting heroines. The best part is that the stories also have a sense of humor.

There is only one full-color illustration in the book. The other pictures are done as silhouettes.

The stories in the book are:

The Practical Princess

When Princess Bedelia is born, she goes through the typical fairy tale ritual of having fairies give her gifts. One of them gives her common sense. When she grows up, she uses it to devise a clever plan to free her kingdom from a fearsome dragon. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of the evil Lord Garp, who tries to force Bedelia to marry him. When Lord Garp tries to cheat at the tasks she sets for him to prove his worthiness and she catches him doing it, he imprisons her in a tower, and she must use her wits and the help of his other captive to escape.

PracticalPrincessMarcoStupid Marco

People think that Prince Marco isn’t terribly bright because, instead of applying himself seriously to his studies as his brothers do, he has a habit of spending his time daydreaming and writing poetry, and he can never remember how to tell left from right. However, he has three major accomplishments: he is an extremely likeable person, he can whistle very loudly, and he can cure even the worst case of hiccups. In his kingdom, it’s a tradition for princes to win their future brides by going out and rescuing a princess from something (how do all these princesses get into that much trouble anyway?). To make this task easier for Marco, his father tells him about a princess he can rescue and gives him a set of simple instructions to follow. Of course, Marco loses his way and the instructions. He meets a nice young woman named Sylvia who offers to help him, but still, nothing goes as planned. However, there’s more than one princess in the world and more than one type of rescuing, so things turn out well in the end.

The Silver Whistle

When Prudence comes of age, she sets out in the world to seek her fortune. Before she leaves home, her mother, the Wise Woman of the West, gives her a magical silver whistle. If she blows it once, birds will come to her. If she blows it twice, insects will come. If she blows it three times, animals will talk to her. However, she cannot blow it four times because it will break. Prudence finds employment with an old witch who has a plan to make herself beautiful so that the prince of her kingdom will want to marry her. Although Prudence has doubts about her plan, she uses her magical whistle to help her, but only to a point. Besides, people have different ideas about what beauty is.

Forgetful Fred

Fred works as kind of an odd job man for a very wealthy man named Bumberdumble Pott. However, he tends to be somewhat absent-minded because his real love in life is music, and he’s often thinking about that when he should be focusing on what he’s doing. Bumberdumble Pott continues to employ him because he’s pleasant, kind, and likable. In spite of his wealth, there is something that Bumberdumble Pott wants that he can’t buy: the Bitter Fruit of Satisfaction. It’s a rare fruit found a long way away, across mountains and deserts and is guarded by a dragon-like create, the Fire Drake. Bumberdumble Pott knows that he’s too old to undertake the quest for the fruit, so he asks among his servants if someone else will go on his behalf. The only person willing to try is Fred, and Bumberdumble Pott promises him half his gold if he succeeds. It’s a long journey, and Fred has a map to keep him focused on his task. In the end, it’s no fault of his when he isn’t able to bring the fruit to his employer for his reward, but Fred attains his own kind of satisfaction when he is able to live the kind of life he likes with the nice girl who tried to help him and is able to play his music as often as he wants.


For generations, the royal family of Skyclear Mountain has always had three princes, who are always given the names Michael, George, and Peter. When the princes come of age, they all go on a quest. The two eldest princes go out and seek their fortunes elsewhere, never returning to their kingdom, but the youngest always comes back with a bride to continue the royal line. When the current king and queen have a daughter instead of a son for their third child, they’re not sure what to do. They name her Petronella instead of Peter, but what’s the point of sending her out to seek a bride when she’s older?  As a princess, she should wait for a prince to seek her as a bride. However, when the time comes, Petronella insists that she wants to continue the tradition by going out to seek her fortune and find a prince for herself. Even though it seems oddly backwards from how things are supposed to go, her family agrees. When she and her brothers come to a road that divides three ways, they ask the old man sitting nearby where the roads go. He answers their questions, but Petronella asks him the correct one to release him from the spell that had kept him there. In return, he tells her that if she’s looking for a prince, she should try the house of Albion the enchanter, and he gives her advice about completing tasks that he will set for her and the rewards she should ask for, which will allow her to escape from the enchanter when she decides to flee with the prince. Petronella follows his advice, but the situation isn’t quite what Petronella thinks it is.  Like Petronella’s own situation, circumstances at the enchanter’s house are . . . oddly backwards. In the end, she ends up saving an enchanter from a prince.

Philbert the Fearful

Most knights can’t wait to charge into battle or undertake a dangerous quest, but Sir Philbert is different. He prefers to stay home, read good books, and look after his health. However, his doctor recommends that he undertake a quest because he needs the fresh air and exercise. Whether he really wants to or not, Philbert finds himself going on a quest with three other knights to save the emperor’s daughter from the fearsome enchanter, Brasilgore. The journey is dangerous, and two of the knights are killed, but Sir Philbert does return with the emperor’s daughter. When the other surviving knight complains that Philbert used more trickery than true bravery to defeat his enemies, the emperor explains the value of prudence. Philbert uses his wits to take care of himself and the princess, and there are benefits to staying alive rather than losing your life in a foolhardy stunt.

The Ninth Jewel of the Mughal Crown


The Ninth Jewel of the Mughal Crown: The Birbal Tales by James Moseley, 2001.

BirbalTalesRealBirbalThe characters in the stories, Emperor Akbar and his friend and advisor Birbal (birth name Mahesh Das) were real people who lived in India during the late 16th century. Over the years, stories and legends have grown up around them, although the truth is pretty incredible by itself.

This book, which is a collection of some of the stories about Akbar and Birbal, begins by explaining a little about their history, and there is another section in the back that explains more about their lives.  The book’s introduction says that Akbar’s father died when he was young and that Akbar’s reign was considered a Golden Age in India’s history, although it mostly focuses on his “Nine Jewels.”  The section in the back gives a little more context.

To begin with, Akbar was one of the Mughal Emperors.  The book doesn’t explain much about what that means, but understanding it helps to set the stage for the stories.  The Mughal Empire consisted not only of modern day India but also some of the surrounding countries.  The empire was first established by Akbar’s grandfather, Babur, through conquest.  Babur was born in the region that we now call Uzbekistan, although his family’s origins were Mongolian.  They were distantly descended from Genghis Khan.  They were also descended from Tamir (sometimes called Tamerlane), giving them Turkic and Persian connections.  The early years of the Mughal Empire were unstable, but when Akbar’s father died and Akbar became emperor at a young age, his regent helped him to stabilize the empire and expand it through a mixture of further conquest and diplomacy.  The reputation of wealth and power in the Mughal Empire eventually led to the adoption of the word “mogul” in English to describe a wealthy and powerful person, especially one who has high standing in a particular field of expertise (something which, as you’ll see, was of particular importance to Akbar).  Using the riches and resources gained through his territorial expansion, Akbar worked to develop the economy of his empire and to support the arts and learning.

BirbalTalesRealAkbarAkbar had a great love of learning, but unfortunately, was dyslexic at a time when people didn’t understand the condition very well.  (To put it into context, Akbar was a contemporary of Elizabeth I of England.)  Even though, like the European Emperor Charlemagne (who lived much earlier but was also apparently dyslexic), he wanted to learn to read, he struggled with it throughout his life because of his condition.  Akbar didn’t want his reading difficulties to interfere with his learning or his love of the arts, so he found another way around the problem.  In a way, it’s similar to what Charlemagne did, surrounding himself with learned advisors who would read to him and discuss important topics with him, verbally teaching him whatever he wanted to know.  Akbar chose his advisors very carefully, seeking out people who had demonstrated excellence in subjects that were important to him. Akbar’s advisors became famous for their fascinating and unusual skills and personalities.  He had nine special advisors who were close to him, which is why they were called, “The Nine Jewels of the Mughal Crown.”  Legends grew up around these men and their abilities:

Tansen – An expert in music, whose singing voice was said to be so amazing that he could make candles burst into flame with a song.

Daswant – A master painter.

Todar Mal – An expert in finance.

Abul Fazl – A great historian.

Faizi – Brother of Abul Fazl, a famous poet.

Abud us-Samad – A master at calligraphy, he also designed the imperial coins.

Man Singh – A great military general.

Mir Fathullah Shirazi – A man of many skills, including the fields of medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and finances.

Birbal – Akbar’s Minister or Raja, who had a reputation for cleverness, quick wit, and the service of justice.  He was the “Ninth Jewel”, and his stories are the focus of this book.

BirbalTalesMeetingThere are many more stories about Birbal than the ones included in this book, but they are all about how Birbal uses his wits to serve Akbar and aid the cause of justice.  Like all good legends, the stories are partly based in fact, but have grown with each retelling to the point where it can be difficult to say where the real people leave off and the legends begin.

In the first story in the book, Akbar meets Birbal when he is still a child.  Fascinated by the boy’s combination of courtesy and boldness and his unusual wit, he gives the boy a ring and tells him that when he is grown, he should come to his palace at Fatehpur Sikri.  Years later, Birbal does go there, but when he shows the ring with the emperor’s seal on it to the guard on duty, the guard refuses to let him in until he promises to give him half of whatever the emperor gives him.  When Akbar sees Birbal, he is pleased to meet him again but stunned when Birbal asks him to give him 100 lashes.  When Birbal explains the reason for his bizarre request, it not only gets the laughter of the court, but the approval of Akbar, who appreciates this bold approach to the problem of bribery.

BirbalTalesPortraitFrom then on, Birbal gains a reputation for his ability to mediate disputes and find unusual solutions to problems.  His favored position at court gives him some jealous enemies, but he handles them with the same cleverness that he uses to solve every problem.

In one of my favorite stories, one of the noblemen at court attempts to cheat Daswant out of his rightful fee for painting his portrait by changing his appearance (shaving his beard, shaving his mustache, etc.) after each portrait sitting and then claiming that the portraits Daswant paints do not really look like him.  When Daswant explains the situation to Birbal, he gets the nobleman to promise to pay for an “exact likeness” of himself in the presence of Akbar.  Then, Birbal shows him a mirror, which Akbar agrees contains an exact likeness of the nobleman and deserves payment.

BirbalTalesCoinPurseIn another of my favorite stories, Birbal determines who is the true owner of a coin purse when a flour merchant and an oil merchant each claim that it belongs to them.  He pours the coins into a pot of boiling water and notes the oil that bubbles to the surface.  Because the coins are covered in oil, they obviously belong to the oil merchant.  If they had belonged to the flour merchant, they would have been covered in flour.

One of the interesting aspects of Akbar’s friendship with Birbal was their religious differences.  Akbar, like the rest of his family, was Muslim, and Birbal was from a family of Hindu Brahmins. The Mughal Empire was a multi-cultural society, and Akbar was aware of it.   At one point, he attempted to develop a new religious movement that combined aspects of Islam and Hinduism in order to further unite his subjects, but it never caught on as a mainstream religion, possibly because Akbar’s own strong personality as its leader was one of the most attractive features.  Akbar did seem to genuinely believe in religious tolerance and promoted widespread education among his subjects.

Birbal, the historical person, was eventually killed in battle, and Akbar greatly mourned his loss.  The Mughal Empire continued for generations beyond Akbar, although it eventually collapsed through a combination of military, administrative, and economic decline; the decentralization of power in the empire; internal discord; and interference from outsiders that paved the way for the British colonization of India.  That’s kind of a simplistic description of a long, complicated period of history, but the end of the Mughal Empire was marked by the beginning of British rule in India.  In 1858, the British East India Company deposed the last of the Mughal emperors, sending him into exile, around 300 years after the reign of Akbar began.

Ella the Elephant


Ella the Elephant by Kurt Wiese, 1931.

EllaElephantMotherElla is a happy baby elephant in India.  Her mother takes good care of her, and she enjoys moving with the herd.  However, Ella’s carefree life with her mother ends abruptly when the herd is captured by humans!

Because Ella is small, she is able to escape when the other elephants can’t, but she finds herself alone and frightened in the jungle.  She doesn’t know what has happened to her mother, and she is in danger from predators in the jungle.

Other jungle animals help her, warning her of dangers and helping her to find out where her mother is.  She knows to look out for crocodiles in the river, and a peacock and some monkeys warn her about the presence of the tiger.  A kind water buffalo looks after her at night, using its size to intimidate and keep away the tiger.  The parrots help her to find the village where her mother is being held.  Eventually, she reunites with her mother in the human village after she is captured a second time.

I found this book at an antiques store and included it here because I’d never seen it before, but I have mixed feelings about it.  The part about other animals helping little Ella is fun, but it’s somewhat disappointing that the story ends with both Ella and her mother in captivity.  The story ends with Ella’s reunion with her mother, and we don’t know exactly what happens to them after that. It appears that Ella and her mother will both be treated well by the humans who now have them, and they are relieved to see each other.  Still, to have them now living in captivity seems anti-climactic.


The Blind Men and the Elephant


The Blind Men and the Elephant retold by Lillian Quigley, 1959.

This story is based on an old folktale from India.

Six blind men, who all live together, realize that although they have heard a lot of people talk about elephants, none of them has ever seen one and that they don’t really know what elephants are like.  They have heard that the Rajah, whose palace they live near, has many elephants, so they decide to go to the palace to learn more about them.


When they reach the palace, where a friend of theirs works, there is an elephant in the courtyard, so the blind men start feeling it with their hands.  Because the elephant is large, each of the men ends up feeling a different part of the elephant and coming to different conclusions about what the elephant is like.


As they stop to take a rest, they begin arguing about their conclusions because their experiences of the elephant were very different from each other’s.  When the Rajah hears them arguing, he explains to them that the problem is that each of them is only talking about one part of a very large animal and that if they really want to know what elephants are like, they must consider all the pieces together.  Recognizing the wisdom of what the Rajah says, the men sit down and discuss what they’ve learned more calmly.


The book doesn’t explain the background of the story, but the folktale is famous and is often used to describe situations where people each understand only part of a larger truth or where people stubbornly argue about very complicated issues from very limited viewpoints without considering all sides.


Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears


Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears retold by Verna Aardema, pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon, 1975.

The story comes from a West African folktale, and all the characters are animals.

In the beginning, a grumpy iguana gets tired of hearing a mosquito telling tall tales. He sticks a couple of sticks in his ears so that he won’t have to listen anymore, and this decision leads to a series of unfortunate events that leads to the accidental death of a baby owl.


It starts with a snake trying to talk to the iguana, who does not hear him. The snake, thinking that perhaps the iguana is angry with him, goes to hide from him in a rabbit hole, startling the rabbit out. The chain reaction of events continues, with different animals startling each other, until a frightened monkey crashes through a tree branch, which breaks, killing the baby owl.


The Mother Owl is so distraught at the death of her baby that she doesn’t wake the sun so that dawn can come, as she usually does. When the other animals realize that dawn isn’t coming, King Lion calls a meeting to determine the reason why. Together, they trace the events backward to the iguana. The iguana is not at the meeting because he still has sticks in his ears and hasn’t heard a thing about it.


When the other animals track down the iguana and take the sticks out of his ears, they demand to know why he wouldn’t talk to the snake. When he tells them that he had sticks in his ears because he couldn’t stand listening to the mosquito’s stories anymore, the mosquito ends up taking the blame for everything. The Mother Owl is satisfied with the explanation and hoots to wake up the sun, although the mosquito escapes punishment by hiding. So, ever since, the mosquito whispers in people’s ears to find out if everyone is still angry.


The art style in the book is a little unusual. When I looked at the pictures the first time, I thought of them as looking stenciled. However, there is a note in the beginning of the book, near the copyright information, that says that the pictures are a combination of watercolors and india ink. The artists used an airbrush and pastels, and they created the “cut-out effect” with frisket masks and pieces cut out of vellum.

This book is a Caldecott Award winner.

The Great Kapok Tree


The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry, 1990.

The book begins with a letter from the author, saying that she wrote the book in order to explain to people the importance of rain forests and why they should be preserved.


Two men are walking through a rain forest. They are there to cut down the trees (probably for farming). The animals watch as one of the men begins chopping at a great Kapok tree with his axe. It’s hard work, and before the man gets very far with his chopping, he has to stop and rest.

As the man sleeps, the animals come to him and whisper to him not to chop the tree down. The boa constrictor tells him that his ancestors have lived there for generations. The monkeys tell him that if he chops all the trees down, there will be no tree roots to hold the soil in place, and it will wash away, eventually changing the land into a desert. The birds are worried because people use fire to help clear the forest, and it destroys everything. All of the animals are worried about where they will live and what they will eat if the forest disappears.


The animals also point out to the man that destroying this forest would also be destroying his own future and that of his children. The forest produces oxygen for humans to breathe.


Finally, a human child from the Yanomamo tribe that lives in the forest asks the man to wake up and look at him and all the animals. The man is startled and amazed by what he sees. He thinks about continuing his work, but seeing the child and all of the animals staring at him silently, hoping that he won’t, he decides that he can’t bring himself to do it and leaves.


I don’t remember reading this book when I was a kid, but I remember other stories very much like it.  Environmental issues like this were common topics of discussion when I was in elementary school during the early 1990s.  One of the movies of my childhood, FernGully, came out in 1992, a couple of years after this book was first published.  That movie is also based on a book, although it has even more fantasy elements than this story, which has talking animals.  Both of these stories demonstrate how many children during the 1990s were raised to be environmentally aware.

This is a Reading Rainbow Book.

Tawny Scrawny Lion


Tawny Scrawny Lion by Kathryn Jackson, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, 1952.

The tawny, scrawny lion can never get enough to eat! No matter how much he hunts and eats, he’s always hungry, and his ribs are showing. He thinks that it’s because hunting is so much work that he wears off anything he eats right away. If only the other animals didn’t run so much, trying to get away from him! (Gee, I wonder why.) He tries to tell the other animals that if they would just not run so much, he would have to eat less of them. Needless to say, that argument doesn’t impress them much.


Trying to get the lion to stop chasing the rest of them, the other animals convince the fat rabbit to go “talk things over” with the lion, thinking that if the lion eats the fat rabbit, he’d get fat for awhile and leave the rest of them alone.

Seeing how scrawny the lion is, the rabbit decides to invite the lion to join him and his siblings at his house for dinner. The lion likes the idea of going to the rabbits’ house, thinking of the nice dinner he could have on all the fat little rabbits, but things don’t turn out the way that the lion thinks they will.


The rabbit tells the lion that they are making carrot stew tonight, but before they can eat, they need just a few more things for the stew. The lion follows the rabbit around as he gathers berries, mushrooms, and herbs and catches a few fish to add to the stew. By the time they’re done with all of that, the lion is too hungry and exhausted to chase the rabbits, so he accepts some of their stew instead.


To the lion’s surprise, the stew is actually very filling, and when he has eaten it, he isn’t hungry anymore. For the first time, he feels fat and satisfied. Because of that, the lion ends up not chasing the other animals anymore but helping the rabbits catch fish and gather berries for more of their amazing, wonderful stew!


This is a Little Golden Book.

The Sly Spy

Olivia Sharp, Agent for Secrets


The Sly Spy by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Mitchell Sharmat, 1990.

Someone has been trying to steal Olivia’s business by covering up her flyers with ones that say E.J.’s Spy Service. At the same time, Olivia’s friends are trying to keep Desiree’s birthday present a secret even though she has been snooping at their houses to find out what it is.

Olivia’s friends bought her a pet canary because she said that she likes feathers, and they ask Olivia to hide it at her penthouse until the party. However, it looks like Desiree has hired E.J. to spy on her friends and discover what they’re giving her for her birthday.  Olivia has to outwit the spy and prove to him that some cases aren’t worth taking.

In a way, this story is kind of like business ethics for kids.  First, covering up Olivia’s ads to prevent her from getting business was a form of unfair competition.  Then, when Olivia points out to E.J. that he also has a surprise present to give to Desiree, she helps him to understand why the other kids want to keep their present a secret.  It wasn’t really ethical for E.J. to take Desiree’s case in the first place since it would be better for her to be surprised on her birthday.  Olivia makes sure that E.J. only has a vague notion about what Desiree’s present actually is, and he figures out what to tell Desiree so that he can fulfill his duty to her without giving away the surprise.

The Princess of the Fillmore Street School

Olivia Sharp, Agent for Secrets


The Princess of the Fillmore Street School by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and Mitchell Sharmat, 1989.

Desiree, who has always been a bit prissy, tells Olivia that she has decided that she wants to be princess of their school. She plans to prove that she is a perfect princess by trying to make all the other kids perfect. She is getting on everyone’s nerves, telling them to stand up straight or that their hair needs to be fixed.

When the others ask Olivia to help, she suggests to Desiree that she concentrate on making improvements to the school itself, but even that causes problems. Eventually, things get to the point where the school’s principal asks for Olivia’s help. Can anything stop the princess of Fillmore Street School before she drives everyone crazy?

Olivia’s solution is partly pointing out to Desiree the effect that she’s having on other people and partly explaining that a school which is already governed by a principal doesn’t also need a princess.  Then, she finds a way to help Desiree to feel like a princess even though she can’t be one.