The Black Bull of Norroway and Other Library Picks

The Black Bull of Norroway and Other Library Picks

Wednesday was library day and we got quite a haul. Some days it feels like there’s nothing good on the shelves. Other days you find so many treasures the bag is overflowing and you still had to leave some on the shelves.


The Black Bull of Norroway: A Scottish Tale by Charlotte Huck pictures by Anita Lobel.

Browsing in the folklore section I found this treasure. A retelling of a Scottish folktale set in Norway (pronounced Norroway in the Scots, I guess). The pictures grabbed me right away. I recognized Anita Lobel’s style from one of our other favorites, A New Coat for Anna .

A beautiful beauty and the beast-type tale about the youngest of three sisters, Peggy Ann by name, who makes a rash statement about what she wants in a husband: “I only want him to be kind and good and to love me. I’d even be content with the Black Bull of Norroway,” and then has to live it down. This is my favorite kind of fairytale with elements that are just bizarre and elements that are simply beautiful.


The Seven Chinese Brothers by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Jean Tseng, Mou-Sien Tseng.

After our long detour in Ancient China, this folktale seemed especially apt. Set in the time of the first emperor and featuring the Great Wall of China, it delighted Bella for its connection to what she already knew. But Sophie was the one who chose it for a bedtime story tonight. (After getting quite irate at me when I fell asleep while reading it to her this afternoon.) Seven brothers all look alike but each has a special gift, a magical talent. Together they outwit the cruel first emperor. I liked that the portrait of the emperor in this story matches up with what we’ve read about him in other books, that he was cruel and arbitrary and jealous of his power.


The Dark by Lemony Snickett illustrated by Jon Klassen

This one caught my eye on the new arrivals shelf. We have Jon Klassen’s delightful I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat (I know many people don’t like these books because they see them as saying stealing is ok. I don’t get that. I think they are very fun and my kids always chime in with “That’s not right!” when it comes to the stealing and the eating the thief.) I was a bit concerned, though, when I saw the story was by Lemony Snickett. I read the first two of his Series of Unfortunate Events novels and wasn’t a huge fan. And I knew it might be too dark for my sensitive kids. But I read the book standing there in the library and decided to try it out. And what do you know, this story about a little boy who is afraid of the dark is just absolutely perfect.

And the timing was perfect too. Recently Sophie has become very reluctant at bedtime and has been saying things like, “Why does there have to be night?” and “I don’t like the nighttime. I wish it never had to get dark and I never had to go to sleep.” (I can trace this back directly to a night of insomnia she had recently. After taking a very long afternoon nap she was lying awake until almost midnight one night, poor thing. Just staring at the wall for more than an hour until I gave her permission to read a book.)

Anyway, this story follows a little boy whose nightlight goes out one night, but he finds that the Dark is in fact a friend when it comes to his room and a helpful one at that. The personification of the Dark was absolutely perfect. It caught the fearfulness just right so as to seem familiar to the child who is afraid of the dark and yet not create that fear in a child who isn’t scared, which is one of my big gripes about many “problem books” that they seem to create the problem they set out to solve. This story allowed the boy to keep his nightlight, keep his dignity, and to make friends with the darkness that scared him. Win, win, win, all around.


The Library of Alexandria by Kelly Trumble, illustrated by Robina MacIntyre Marshall.

This book caught my eye when I was browsing for something or other on the library web page and I thought it might be worth checking out. And oh it was. It tells the story of the famous Library of Alexandria and many of the famous scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and other scholars who have been associated with it. A nice little history of ideas it didn’t confine it self to the ancient world but made connections, looking at how the model of the solar system would change from geocentric to heliocentric, looking at how ancient maps of the world and an error in them helped to lead Christopher Columbus to underestimate the distance to Asia and thus to discover America. It follows the library all the way to its destruction by fire. A great book for reinforcing many of the history lessons we did this past year and for weaving together a story about the ancient world from a slightly different perspective than that given in the other history books we read. I’m so glad we found this treasure. And Bella…. loved it. She really is a history nut.

The pictures are gorgeous too. Really give a sense of daily life and the people feel like real people.

One caution: the section on Medicine might upset some young readers. The discussion of Herophilus includes speculation that not only did he steal and dissect corpses, he might have practiced vivisection as well.

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  • If your kids become interested in Scottish stories, although it is an invention and not a folk tale, you might try Wee Gillis by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. The boys will like it for sure – it’s about a boy whose family is half highlanders and half lowlanders. Spending time with each, he develops the lung power to play the bagpipes.

    These are the same people who created Ferdinand the bull.

    • Well, I’m always interested in Scottish stories. After all my maiden name is Scott and my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Cameron.

      Any story with bagpipes has my attention. A good excuse to pull out the bagpipe recordings and blast them at the kids. Now that’s my idea of a good time.