Saturday, May 28, 2016

Featured Illustrator: Demi, part 2: traditional tales

This month's featured illustrator is Demi, who often both writes and illustrates her own works. This post highlights her wonderful traditional tales and folktales, some of which were based on the childhood stories her Chinese husband heard growing up. The previous Demi post featured her picture book biographies.

Folktales and Traditional Tales by Demi

Liang and the Magic Paintbrush (1980) by Demi. In this popular Chinese folktale, young Liang has a magical paintbrush that makes his paintings come to life! The greedy emperor wants to capture the boy and his brush, so he must rely on his own creativity to save the day.

One Grain of Rice: a mathematical folktale (1996) by Demi. This book is a favorite read aloud of my third graders. A young girl, Rani, returns spilled rice to the Raja, even though he is hoarding the rice and not sharing with the villagers in this time of famine. When the Raja grants Rani a wish, she asks simply for a single grain of rice ... that will double each day until the end of the month. This math parable will excite even the math critics among you as they realize the powers of exponential growth!

The Greatest Treasure (1998) by Demi. This Chinese traditional tale contrasts the lives of two men: a rich, miserly man and a poor farmer who delights in his family. When the poor man is tested, he reaffirms the importance of love and family - and helps teach the rich man the lesson too.

Kites: magical wishes that fly up to the sky (1999) by Demi. This fanciful story imagines the origins of kite flying in ancient China, as a mother wishes to send a wish for her son up to the gods themselves. The middle section features many different designs for kites (and their meanings), while the end shares about the modern kite festival of Ch'ing Yang. Directions are included for making your own kite.

The Hungry Coat: a tale from Turkey by Demi. This sumptuous retelling of a single Nasrettin story teaches about the danger of caring too much. After Nasrettin is treated poorly by his friends for his smelly attire, he returns well-dressed to teach them a lesson in humility. (You can read other versions of this tale in my collection on "Foolish" Wise Men of the Middle East and India.)

The Empty Pot (2001) by Demi. This retelling of a Chinese folktale is also available in a multilingual printing that includes two versions of the Hmong language. Young Ping is overjoyed when the emperor puts forth a challenge - the child who can grow the most beautiful plant will become his heir. This story highlights the importance of honesty and good character, and kids will be surprised by the twist at the end! (This is another popular read aloud with my students, and it often leads to some thoughtful discussions.)

The Dragon's Tale and Other Animal Fables of the Chinese Zodiac (1996) retold and illustrated by Demi. Finally, this book presents a different take on the zodiac tales. Rather than explaining how the animals were chosen, this book includes twelve separate fables featuring each of the animals. Each fable ends with a short epigraph that restates the moral lesson. This could be a great addition to a lesson on fable or Aesop or for studying aphorisms. (An aside, this book contains the most fascinating note on the illustrations I have ever read. I am still not sure if it is factual or sarcastic.)

The Girl Who Drew Phoenix (2008) is written in the style of a folktale about a girl who longs to be able to properly draw a phoenix. Despite the teasing of others, she pushes on, following the instruction of the various phoenix and learning moral lessons along the way. (This one uses a very repetitive text structure, and the story itself was not as interesting to me as many of the others. The fold-out gold and red phoenix, however, are incredible.)

When the Animals Saved Earth: an eco-fable (2015) retold by Alexis York Lumbard and illustrated by Demi. The origins of this story go back more than 1,000 years and links through several major world religions. It tells a creation story from the perspective of the animals, who have a unique take on the "arrival" of humans. This is a great book for getting kids to think about other points of view, as well as to talk about environmental issues.

Do you have other favorite folktales written or illustrated by Demi? Click here for part 1, all about her incredible picture book biographies of famous historical and religious figures or click the "Featured Illustrator" tag for more books by talented illustrators!


Shared with #DiverseKidLit


  1. Wow, I'm sure I've seen and read many of Demi's books, but I never quite realized how productive she's been, and how many of her books are classics!

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  3. I loved The Empty Pot! Demi's illustrations are just gorgeous! #diversekidlit

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  5. Demi is one of my favourite illustrators and I have collected nearly all her books - but I have yet to get my hands on When the Animals Saved the Earth, which looks as stunning as ever. I had the great homour of interviewing her when I was with PaperTigers and she is as amazing as her books (

    PS Sorry I deleted this (above) as it was so full of typos and posted before I had checked it properly!

    1. Wow, how cool! Thanks for sharing! Do you mind if I link to the interview in the body of the post?

  6. Like Marjorie, I am also deeply in love with Demi. We have been trying to get her to come to Singapore for the Asian Festival of Children's Content - perhaps I should try again.


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