Saints, Leprechauns & Bagpipes by Kathie Johnson

Saints, Leprechauns & Bagpipes

This summer, my children's library had its usual summer reading game during a most unusual year. People came only by appointment, and wearing gloves and masks. It was a good reading summer, with people not traveling as much and coming more often to exchange books. We traveled through books. This year, we traveled to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. As usual, the suggestions below only scratch the surface.

Picture Books

There are a couple of nice general picture books. The Story of Scotland by Richard Brassey and Stewart Ross is packed with pictures and an amazing amount of history. Miroslav Sasek's This Is Ireland is less packed, but gives you a wonderful overview of the land, the special buildings, and the people.

Other delightful picture books, liked by both boys and girls, include the Katie Morag series by Mairi Hedderwick. Katie is a spunky girl who lives on a Scottish island, and the wonderful details, in both words and pictures, in these books—available both singly and in collections—help you understand island life in a small community.

Finn MacCoul, the giant from Irish folklore, appears in several books. One, Finn MacCoul and his Fearless Wife by Robert Byrd, has him contending with the Scottish giant Cucullin—and it is Finn's wife who helps him win. In another, Finn McCool [his name is variously spelled] and the Great Fish by Eve Bunting, Finn is advised to catch and eat the fish of wisdom, but his kind heart won't let him to kill it. He gains wisdom another way.

Several picture books feature saints. Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland, by Tomie dePaola, is rich with pictures and story. Sheila MacGill-Callahan also has a story of Patrick called The Last Snake in Ireland. In Saint Ciaran, Gary D. Schmidt tells the story of another early saint of Ireland with gorgeous pictures and poetic text. The Story of St. Columba, by David Ross, is one of the short biographies in the Corbie Scottish history series. Containing more text than pictures, this book tells of Columba coming to Scotland to convert the Picts, and includes the legend of how he gained the people's attention by getting the Loch Ness monster to obey him. Don Brown's book about Columba, Across a Dark and Wild Sea, emphasizes another aspect of this saint—his writing of books. Deborah Nourse Lattimore beautifully tells the story of the writing of The Book of Kells in The Sailor Who Captured the Sea. The illustrations give a sense of this rich treasure.

There are more Scottish biographies in the small-format Corbie series, among them The Story of Rob Roy; Mary Queen of Scots; The Story of William Wallace; and The Story of Robert Bruce. Rich illustrations help carry the text in each. Francene Sabin's Robert Louis Stevenson, Young Storyteller, is a good short biography with pictures of the famed Scottish writer. For a Christian hero born in Ireland, see Amy Carmichael by Renee Taft Meloche. Amy cared for poor children and women in Ireland before eventually going to India. By the same author is Eric Liddell, the story of the great Scottish runner who became a missionary to China.

A few more picture books include Sorche Nic Leodhas's Always Room for One More and All in the Morning Early, favorites based on Scottish tales; Tomie dePaola's Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato; Kathy Tucker's The Leprechaun in the Basement; Deborah King's Puffin, which describes the amazing migration of this bird; and Oliver Postgate's stories about Ivor the Engine, set in Wales.

For Middle Range Readers

Going on to books for what I call the "middle range" reader, Wilma Pitchford Hays's Patrick of Ireland is nicely written, and Eileen Dunlop has put together Tales of St. Columba, the monk who left Ireland to bring Christ to Scotland.

There are also some nice story collections for this age—Lari Don's Breaking the Spell, which features Scottish tales, and Marie Heaney's The Names Upon the Harp, a richly illustrated group of Irish myths and legends. Rumer Godden tells the Scottish legend of a gentle dragon in The Dragon of Og. And Gary Schmidt weaves together legends of Ireland to comfort a sorrowing couple in The Wonders of Donal O'Donnell.

One more book is so haunting, I must mention it. The Children of Lir by Sheila MacGill-Callahan tells the story of four children who are turned into swans by (who else?) a wicked stepmother. One day a year they become human, but the spell they are under means they will be aloft on that day. They are saved by a whale, and many animals begin to take an interest in them. How they are eventually brought back is quite wonderful.

Advanced Readers

Finally, here are a few ideas for more advanced readers. Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped is an obvious choice. One of my favorite authors, Lloyd Alexander, has a five-part series called The Chronicles of Prydain, based on a famous Welsh legend-cycle. The first book, full of magic and wonder, is The Book of Three. My 50-something son still fondly remembers these books from his childhood, when I read them aloud. Another series is Melissa Wiley's The Martha Years, which are take-offs on the "Little House" series. These books follow the imagined life of Laura Wilder's great-grandmother in Scotland.

One family in my reading game discovered Sir Gibbie by George MacDonald and loved it. Padraic Colum has written The King of Ireland's Son, based on an Irish folk tale involving a quest that takes the prince to many strange places. And Yvonne MacGrory's The Secret of the Ruby Ring is a fantasy time-travel story about a pampered Irish girl who is transported back to the 1880s, where she must work as a servant until she can find out how to get home.

Two great writers of historical fiction have books set in these countries. Rosemary Sutcliff's Frontier Wolf is set in the part of Roman Britain that became Scotland, and The Shining Company involves Saxons in a great battle on the Scottish border. G. A. Henty has written In Freedom's Cause, about Wallace and Bruce, and Both Sides the Border: A Tale of Hotspur and Glendower, which includes action in Wales.

All together, the twenty children who took part this year read 1,146 books. Great fun!  

Kathie Johnson has always had a love for children's books. She collected many as a teacher and began sharing them with other teachers. In 1986, she opened a children's library in her home, and it has continued to expand over the years. Many home-schooled and schooled children borrow books from it, and she takes great pleasure in finding the "right" book for a child. She attends First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley.

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