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Giselle Potter,1997.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

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Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale; ad. by Anthony L. Manna and Christadoula Mitakidou; illus. by Giselle Potter. Schwartz/Atheneum, 1997. 34p
ISBN 0-689-81093-8 $15.00 5-9 yrs

From the Mediterranean comes this tale of a resourceful, creative, and faithful young woman. Areti, a Greek princess, has a multitude of suitors but as none of them please her, "one day she made up her mind to make a man of her own." After combining almonds, sugar, and semolina into dough, she kneads it all together and molds herself a man, and "for forty days and forty nights she prayed to God." God gives life to the man, Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, and what a man he is: "He was five times beautiful and ten times kind, and his name became known the world over." As unmitigated bliss makes for a nice life but a boring story, Mr. Semolina-Semolinus is kidnapped by an envious (appropriately green-hued and apparently manless) queen, and Areti wears out three pairs of iron shoes going to the moon, sun, and stars to win him back. Areti finally succeeds in rescuing Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, and "to the princess he now appeared ten times beautiful and twenty times kind, for that is the way love is."

A note on the origin of the story gives some cultural background, and places variants in the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Italy, Greece, and Turkey. (Although no specific source notes are given, Italian variants can be found in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales and Ellin Greene's Clever Cooks.) The story of a young woman undergoing great trials to rescue her true love is a common one in many cultural traditions, and there are several lushly illustrated (if somewhat more sedately retold) picture-book versions available: the Dasent translation of Asbjornsen's East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon illustrated by P.J. Lynch (BCCB 12/92), Hooks' Appalachian Snowbear Whittington illustrated by Victoria Lisi, and Craft's Cupid and Psyche (BCCB 9/96), to name just three recent titles. But in these variants the love-seeking maidens only act after the fact; they are not as instrumental in the finding (or making) of the suitor or husband as they are in the saving of him.

Areti does not wait for her father to choose her a husband or for the gods to make up their minds--she takes action, from the first page to the last, in a story that cheerily turns quite a few preconceived notions about feminist folktales and traditional women's roles on their collective ears. Areti isn't a successful heroine because she rejects traditional women's roles, she's successful because she embraces them with such obvious gusto. Her creation of Mr. Semolina-Semolinus takes place in the kitchen, and she makes him from ingredients frequently used in Mediterranean desserts. The heavenly beings who help Areti--the moon, sun, and stars--are introduced to her by their radiant mothers, who have a pivotal and powerful role as liaison between earthly princess and celestial bodies. Not all the female characters are stellar examples of feminist integrity and maternal creativity, though. The green and greedy amorous queen is not only a kidnapper, but she's a crummy cook, as exemplified by her own attempt to concoct a man (the result spoils and has to be thrown away).

The tongue-in-cheek text is given visual life by the naïve technique of artist Potter, whose colored ink and colored pencil illustrations have their own airy humor and tipsy style. Mr. Semolina-Semolinus is bigger than life, looming a bit over the other figures in the compositional landscape, his rosy cheeks and pleasantly smiling demeanor relieving him of even a hint of menace. The objects in the story (kitchens, characters, castles, etc.) give the impression of being barely tethered to the page in compositions replete with a bird's-eye view of the topography, lollipop-like trees, and proportionally creative perspectives. As traditionally romantic as this story is, Potter does not set it in the typically gorgeous, lushly romantic fairy-tale environment used by Lynch, Lisi, and Craft, but rather in a light-filled, childlike setting with capriciously tilting architecture and appealingly cheerful stick figures.

Potter's illustrations and Manna and Mitakidou's text combine to create a picture-book folktale of robust wholeness, one that has appeal for a wide age range, that can be discussed on a variety of levels, and that has the unusual advantage of combining humor and substance. Oh, bliss.

Janice Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
July's Bulletin cover illustration
by Giselle Potter from
Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale,
Copyright 1997. Used by
permission of Schwartz/Atheneum
Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 1997.