Folklore, that old and diverse repository of cultural wisdom, has a charm that mere history often lacks. Folktales and legends use facts as just one tool — alongside humor and imagination and human insight — in their attempts to teach and remind and sometimes just entertain.
Here are five great books that accomplish all of those purposes, using all of those tools:
Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward: How the Pretzel Was Born
By Anna Egan Smucker
Illustrated by Amanda Hall
Brother Giovanni is a happy man, content to do what he knows best: baking. But all is not well at his monastery, where the monks are trying to teach the children their prayers in time for a very important visit from the Bishop. Having tried everything, they turn to Giovanni — but he doesn’t know anything about teaching! Eventually, though, Brother Giovanni discovers how to use his gifts to offer the children the perfect motivation and invents the tasty treat we now know as the pretzel.
This vibrant book, which includes a historical note and a pretzel recipe, tells the fascinating story behind one of the world’s most popular snacks.
The Legend of Saint Nicholas
By Anselm Grün
Illustrated by Giuliano Ferri
Many stories are told about Saint Nicholas — stories about his generosity and his miracles, stories about the concern he showed for those in poverty. This warm, inviting books tells many of these stories, both familiar and lesser-known. It recounts how he ended a famine by multiplying grain from a merchant ship and how he walked on water to rescue sailors from a terrible storm. And, of course, it tells the story of how Nicholas gave his inheritance to prevent a desperate man from selling his daughters into slavery.
Anselm Grün’s simple, graceful text and Giuliano Ferri’s beautiful paintings combine to provide the perfect way to introduce young readers to the rich life of this beloved saint.
See art from the book in our Saint Nicholas day greeting.
By Odile Weulersse
Illustrated by Rébecca Dautremer
It’s time to go to market, so Nasreddine loads up the donkey and sets off with his father. But when onlookers criticize his father for riding while Nasreddine walks, the boy is ashamed. The following week, Nasreddine persuades his father to walk, and let him ride — but then people criticize the boy for making his father walk! No matter what Nasreddine tries, it seems that someone always finds something to disapprove of.
Nasreddine is a legendary character popular in stories told throughout the Middle East, and this clever story will bring him to a new audience. Accompanied by stunning artwork, this tale offers a gentle reminder to readers that it isn’t always necessary to listen to the world’s criticisms.
By Sally Pomme Clayton
Illustrated by Virginia Lee
On a warm spring day, the beautiful young goddess Persephone is snatched from her home by Hades, god of the Underworld, and taken away to live underground and become his bride. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, goddess of Earth, is so brokenhearted that she curses the land so nothing can grow — a permanent winter.
How will Persephone and her mother be reunited? Will spring ever come again?
This lyrical retelling of the ancient Greek myth by master storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton is brought to life with Virginia Lee’s beautiful illustrations. Young readers will be intrigued by the dramatic story as well as by its clever explanation for the changing seasons.
Gilgamesh the Hero
By Geraldine McCaughrean
Illustrated by David Parkins
This is one of the oldest stories in the world, and it’s about things that still matter to us today: friendship, fame, courage, happiness.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu are friends — best friends. Together they can work wonders, fight monsters, brave earthquakes, travel the world! But waiting in the dark is the one enemy they can never overcome.
Retold by award-winning author Geraldine McCaughrean, and illustrated with great power by David Parkins, Gilgamesh the Hero is a story that will linger in the imagination long after the book has been put down.
Interested in more great books of folktales and legends? See our whole featured collection.