Book Title: Koshka’s Tales, Stories from Russia (available here)
Author/Illustrator: James Mayhew
Publication Date: October 2019
Most Suitable For: KS2
Reviewed By: Louisa Farrow, Assistant Head
Here is a fabulous collection of folk tales from Russia by James Mayhew, written in luminous language and accompanied by equally luminous artwork. The stories are told as tales within a tale by the magical cat, Koshka, and feature a cast of traditional and mystical characters. There’s a sinister witch with a taste for human flesh, a sea princess whose love of music causes her to fall in love with a human and a savage wolf with a conscience and a faithful heart, not to mention the firebird and the girl made from snow.
Traditional fairy tale elements abound, like three magical wishes, and yet the stories are not quite familiar. In the framing tale, the motif of wicked sisters jealous of their younger sister’s success in marrying a powerful ruler is reminiscent of Cinderella, but there is a macabre twist as the tale progresses beyond the wedding.
Four of the nested stories – The Snowmaiden; Sadko the Minstrel; Ivan, The Grey Wolf and the Firebird; and Vassilisa the Fair and Baba Yaga – could be looked at individually and are short enough to be used for close study or as models for writing (with a little adaptation). Ivan and the Firebird, for example, follows a classic journey tale/quest format. Nonetheless, the stories work best as a set. Looking at the whole collection would encourage children to make connections between the stories and allow the overall themes to appear: the power of stories to enchant and the triumph of good hearts over evil ones. If you choose one for close study, do plan to read the rest aloud.
Coming as they do from a tradition of storytelling, the stories would be ideally suited to being read out loud. They would work well alongside any unit on traditional tales but would also complement any geographical study of Russia. They are clearly set in that landscape and climate, with references to forests, mountains and lakes. Real places like Novgorod and Lake Ilmen feature, as well as the harsh climate of the Land of the Midnight Sun. The most able children might even see how the geography of Russia has shaped its stories.
Beyond the classroom, I will be recommending it to boys and girls in Year 4 who still love the accessibility of traditional fairy stories but need to develop their reading stamina and confidence with a little more challenge. I am hoping it will provide a gateway to longer novels such as The House with Chicken Legs or Harry Potter.
Many thanks to the publisher for sending us a review copy of this book and to Review Panel member Louisa for reviewing it.
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