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Stories of Peace and Kindness for a Better World

Authored by Elizabeth Laird
Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Published by Otter-Barry Books Ltd

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Stories of Peace and Kindness for a Better World: ‘Fresh, fierce and funny as when they were first told…there’s wisdom in the old stories, and we need it today’ writes Elizabeth Laird in her introduction to these folktales. The seven stories she has chosen come from across the globe and all have ancient roots. These tales are still being told by oral storytellers in those same settings thousands of years later. Their authenticity resonates poignantly throughout this sumptuous book.

Each story can stand alone and each tale has its own flavour and quality. One tells of a community whose fight escalates from dogs snarling over a bone to become a bloodthirsty clan battle. At the beginning, it is almost ludicrous but the consequences are dire. Only great wisdom can bring the much-needed understanding and reconciliation. Others are gentler; in one, a Sultan is trying to decide which of his three sons should be his heir, as is the way of the folktale. Each son reveals his innermost self, and how wisely or otherwise he would rule, simply by choosing his favourite animal. Unsure whether the choice of cow, dog or camel would secure a kingdom? Then read The Next Sultan: A Story from Yemen; it may well surprise you.

However, whatever the charm or the challenge of individual stories, this collection is well worth reading and considering as a whole. Mehrdokht Amini has created gorgeous illustrations and rich endpapers. Her cover cleverly brings elements of the stories together into a whole. Readers will enjoy identifying the different stories but it is also a fitting way to show the essential unity of the book. The anthology’s stated aim is to celebrate peace and kindness. These stories joined together have a powerful voice showing that true wisdom often lies in piercing through façade. By hiding in a disguise, the characters find a truth that is itself hidden. Fortunes are reversed when true characters are revealed. There is a strong sense of right and justice beating at the heart of these stories, a belief that kindness and hospitality and generosity matter. Thoughtfulness and compassion are the highest of virtues. To be ungrateful, whether to a ruler or to a lion, is to be selfish and cruel.

The pacey and dramatic stories are perfect for reading aloud. The Woodcutter and the Lion is perhaps the best of all for a classroom rendition. Children unaccustomed to the diverse conventions of folktales will benefit from hearing them read and discussing the messages and themes of each one. There is death and destruction in some of the stories. However, the stylised illustrations and the formality of folktale create a certain distance. This means that these tales provide a way in which children can grasp some deeply challenging themes in an age-appropriate way. They can think about the cycle of mounting aggression and resolve to throw away pride and anger. That is surely a resolution worth striving for. The stories show characters learning about themselves; as the exposed villains creep away in shame and remorse they teach the reader vital lessons about self-awareness.

Children will love this book; it is a thing of beauty. The illustrations intrigue and demand explanations. They will draw new readers into these ancient tales and ensure that the stories continue to speak fresh wisdom into a world that needs kindness.