Tale shows there's more to turkeys than meets the Thanksgiving table


November 19, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

Before gobbling down Thanksgiving dinner this year, pause for a tribute to turkeys. Not the domesticated bird -- better known as a bumbling, barnyard butterball -- but the wily, wild turkey.

In "Turkey's Gift to the People," Ani Rucki has created her own version of a Navajo tale that stars Turkey in a role of which he can boast: He's the hero, not the roast.

Ms. Rucki grew up in Columbia and is a 1988 graduate of the University of Maryland. "Turkey's Gift to the People" (Northland Publishing, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8) is her first book, and it's a stunning debut.

She works entirely in colored pencils on black board -- "It's amazing how you can layer it, almost like pastels," she said -- and the effect is vibrant. Her animals, plants and insects are outlined in white and black. The black is a thin rim of the original background that surrounds each figure; the white pencil line drawn just inside that rim serves like back-lighting in photography. Flowers pop off the page.

The story is similar to Noah's Ark -- minus Noah. The "People" refers to "Animal People," and in this version they save themselves from the flood without human intervention.

A huge wall of water is seen in the distance, and the People retreat to higher ground. But the hills are not high enough to escape the flood. It looks like all of the animals will perish, until Mouse comes up with a brilliant scheme.

Two by two, the animals climb into the hollow chambers of a giant reed that is wider than a redwood tree. (The reed is an BTC ancestor of our horsetail plant, of the genus Equisetum, which grew huge in prehistoric times.)

The animals' spirit of cooperation gets everyone safely inside the reed. Everyone, that is, except Mr. and Mrs. Turkey. When they finally arrive, just before the flood waters wash over the reed, the tardy turkeys are asked what took them so long.

Mr. Turkey spreads his feathers, letting fly the thousands of seeds he and his wife have collected so that the People can replant their valley once the flood recedes.

Ms. Rucki first heard the story seven years ago as told by Stuart Mace, whom she met in Aspen, Colo. She had the idea to do the book a few years later and began working on it in 1990, after she had quit her job at a publishing company in Boston and taken a year off to travel across the country.

She returned home to Columbia in 1991 and finished the book while working part-time at the Junior Editions bookstore in the Columbia Mall.

"It hasn't sold a million copies, but it has a quiet following," Ms. Rucki said. Northland, a regional publisher based in Flagstaff, Ariz., is negotiating with Scholastic on the paperback rights. Ms. Rucki is working on two more books that Northland is interested in -- though "Turkey" will be a tough act to follow.

* Thanksgiving traditionalists will be thrilled with "Over the River and Through the Wood: A Thanksgiving Poem by Lydia Maria Child," illustrated by Christopher Manson (North-South Books, $14.95, 26 pages, ages 5-8). Ms. Child, a prolific writer, anti-slavery advocate and feminist, lived from 1802 to 1880.

Mr. Manson is a master of the woodcut, which he paints with watercolor. His prints are graceful and sturdy at the same time; they would fit in a room furnished with pieces from the arts and crafts movement.

The setting is snowy New England, where the family's horse-drawn sleigh slips past farms, inns and skaters on a mill pond. Each double-page spread has a different border -- they look like hand-carved, wooden frames -- and the end papers are patterned with squares that line up like hand-painted ceramic tiles.

As a bonus, the musical arrangement is on the last page. It's often the words, however, that stump folks. The first two lines are easy: Over the river and through the wood,

To Grandfather's house we go;

Da dum da da dum, da da dum da dum . . .

Give up?

The horse knows the way

To carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow.

If you like this book, check out Mr. Manson's "The Tree in the Wood," (North-South Books, $14.95, 26 pages, ages 5-8). It's exquisite, too.

* For better or for worse, Thanksgiving is a time for relatives. Here's betting your family, no matter how crazy, can't top the crew in "The Family Reunion" by Tricia Tusa (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15, 32 pages, ages 4-8). At one point, uncles and aunts and cousins line up for belly-button inspection. Ms. Tusa, who wrote and illustrated "Camilla's New Hairdo," has another winner.

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