Saturday, May 31, 2008

Classic Trickster: Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer

Here's a classic literary folktale that is as nearly perfect as a picture book can be.

Mercer Mayer's Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp (Aladdin Picture Books), in print and going strong after 32 years, still has the power to knock the socks off the story circle crowd and delight the individual reader.

Mayer carefully crafts this tale, with its sassy, smart heroine and its outlandish but gullible bad guys, using the traditional trickster tale format, by masterfully intertwining snippets from world folklore into a piece which, like Robert San Souci's The Talking Eggs, emerges as a delightful bit of Americana.

Liza Lou's mama keeps her hoppin', poling her skiff all over the Yeller Belly Swamp in a variety of errands for family and neighbors, despite the undisputed fact that that swamp is the lair of all kinds of nasty characters--a swamp haunt in an abandoned shed, a swamp witch lurking in the reeds, a gobblygook under the Yeller Belly Swamp Bridge, and worst of all, a mean ole' swamp devil at the bottom of an old well. But Liza Lou is a girl who's full of "fancy thinking" and "bold as brass" to boot, and she's got some tricks in her little calico dress pocket to outsmart these characters everyone.

Mining European and African folklore, Mayer equips Liza Lou with some of literature's best ploys, beginning with a well-known one of that tricky little guy, B'rer Rabbit. Here's Liza Lou meeting up with the swamp witch as she totes Auntie Jane's soiled Sunday-go-to-meeting finery home to boil and scrub up for her by Friday:

"Liza Lou," that swamp witch cackled. "I'm gonna boil you in a big pot of water, and then I'm gonna chew on your bones."

"Oh, Miss Swamp Witch," cried Liza Lou. "Boil me in your big pot of water if you must, and chew on my bones as much as you like. But please, oh please, don't boil this precious little child I've got cradled in my arms."

Now everybody knows that a swamp witch is meaner than a stomped on polecat, but not everybody knows that she is blinder than a cave bat.

Of course, that old swamp witch just has to snatch Liza Lou's bundle and toss it into her big black boiling pot just for pure meanness, but when she complains that she can't smell anything cooking in the pot, Liza Lou uses the old Hansel and Gretel trick and coaxes her closer and closer to the pot until she can push her right in. The old witch skedaddles with a hoot and a holler, and Liza Lou calmly fishes her Auntie's now-clean laundry out of the pot and collects the promised payment--one of Auntie's pecan pies all her own--on Friday.

In similar fashion Liza Lou, drawing on the Red Riding Hood motif, lures the swamp haunt right into the clutches of her iron skillet-wielding granny when she begs him NOT to take her tote full of sweet potatoes to granny's house and cook them up in a pan. Borrowing a trick from the Goats Gruff, when Liza Lou trucks a wagon load of junk across the swamp bridge, she cons the gobblygook underneath who threatens to eat her into gobbling her precious "treasure" instead, causing the bridge and the now grossly overweight bad guy to sink into the mucky goo where they belong.

Borrowing from Ananse's capture of the hornets-who-sting-like-fire in Gail Haley's A Story, a Story, Liza Lou pulls off her best trick when, carrying a jug of molasses over to the Parson's for breakfast, she pretends to be happy that a mean old swamp devil is planning on stealing her soul rather than the precious parson's soul she's keeping safe inside her jug. Now Liza Lou knows that no swamp devil can resist transforming himself into a fly to take a look down inside, and when he does, Liza Lou slaps the cork back into the jug and traps that devil fly, whom the Parson's wife proceeds to swat into oblivion when she pours him out atop her morning hotcakes.

As for Liza Lou, she skipped all the way back home to her mother. And from that day to this, no one has ever seen hide nor hair of devils, gobblygooks, witches, or haunts in the Yeller Belly Swamp.

And no one misses them neither.

Liza Lou And The Yeller Belly Swamp (Aladdin Picture Books), lavishly overflowing with some of Mercer Mayer's finest illustrations, is filled with details of swamp life--Liza Lou's pet 'possum, partially hidden cottonmouth snakes, alligators, and bobcats--a menagerie of critters that listening children will enjoy spotting on every page. Meanwhile, Liza, with her freshly-ironed little print dresses and spirited body language, is as charming and in-control a trickster as ever strutted her way through a story. As one of Liza Lou's little rhymes puts it,

"One, two, three, four,
Five on the double.
If you mess around with me
It's a mess of trouble."

It's also a beautifully designed and lovingly crafted book, a thing of beauty which is indeed a joy forever!

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  • Another great book, this one is a classic that deserve an award, the story of the little girl is amazing.

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  • This is such a cute book! Sydnee was given this for her birthday by some good friends that insisted that I read it to her in my best southern voice! I must say that I can't read it any other way and pity those of you without a good southern accent!! I really thought this was a fun book to read with her and she loved it also!

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