Shakespeare’s Storybook

Ryan, Patrick & Mayhew, James. Shakespeare’s Storybook: Folk Tales that Inspired the Bard (2001). 80 Pages. Barefoot Books. $19.99

We all know that it’s only recently that plagiarism really became “bad,” and that playwrights and novelists borrowed liberally from folk tales, novels, and reality to create a lot of their works. I’m sure any of us who have studied any of Shakespeare’s work are aware that he did not think up everything. Rather, he took what was available and adapted it into the very special plays which we know (and mostly love) today.

What this novel does is summarize the barest details of the play, and then introduce a folktale which it was likely (or is known to have been) based off of. It’s illustrated, and explained in terms that your average elementary schooler could understand. My sister Kim said “Hey, that’s cool, I guess.”* The illustrations aren’t bad, either. (They’re really done in a very nicely stylized way.)

We’ve got several stories: “The Devil’s Bet” for The Taming of the Shrew, “The Hill of Roses” for Romeo and Juliet, “A Bargain is a Bargain” for The Merchant of Venice, “Snowdrop” for As You Like It, “Ashboy” for Hamlet, “Cap-o-Rushes” for King Lear, and “The Flower Princess” for The Winter’s Tale.

The stories are nothing special, and most of them are at least passingly familiar. Several of them are Cinderella variations (something I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading) and a few are your standard folktales. A little is said about the origins of each of them, and it is a very cute book. (One which I will be donating to the library, since I don’t need to re-read a children’s book about Shakespeare when I have my massive Norton anthology of Shakespeare anyhow.)

I could explain the contents of the folk tales, but I’ll resist the urge. I’m sure most of you know most of them anyhow. The biggest issue I had with the book was the last story (“The Flower Princess”) in which a “wisest wise woman” calls a King and a Prince “You stupid idiots!” which just doesn’t seem very wise to me. Aside from the fact that her grammar is atrocious, and her vocabulary is hardly child appropriate, there is the fact that she just called two fairly powerful men “Stupid Idiots” to their faces. Before she leads them to “a painting” of their dead loves, only to find out that it’s not a painting when they start to sing. I mean, really. They couldn’t figure out they weren’t a painting? I realize that I’m obsessing over something which by fairy tale conventions I should be willing to ignore, but I’m just not sure I can ignore this one. (And Kim, said sister agreed with me.)

The Quick Version:

If you’re looking to introduce an elementary schooler to some Shakespeare, or want a light fluffy folk-tale read with some heavier literature relationships, then this is the book for you. It’s not terrible, actually. It gets a 3.5/5 and will be donated to the library when I have the time to drop it off.


* She’s 10 next month, so “cool, I guess” is about as enthusiastic as she gets right now. She’s in her “whatever” phase.


Filed under Book Review, Children's Fiction

5 responses to “Shakespeare’s Storybook

  1. When I was a kid, I felt very contemptuous of books for people my age about Shakespeare’s stories. My mother brought home a film version of Twelfth Night when I was nine, and I thought I was ever so sophisticated for watching it. I’d see books like this and be all, “Well, that’s okay for other kids, but I prefer real Shakespeare.” What a dreadful child I was.


    • In a lot of ways, I was guilty of similar things. Given a choice between a children’s book (like this) about Shakespeare, and a chapter-book version which had a summarized version of his plays, I always picked the chapter book. (It was actually a pretty good book, and did a good job getting the essence of his plays in, if I remember properly)


  2. Yeah, I’m not a huge fan of Shakespeare “backstory” stuff in general (Shakespeare in Love still bugs the heck out of me) so I’m not sure about getting kids in on it. Though the idea of “child-appropriate” has varied greatly — the brothers Grimm had more than just language issues by today’s standards! 😉


    • One of my favorite classes was a Children’s Lit course, where we basically… argued about what made a book a “children’s” book. We read Grimms, and we read critiques of Grimms, and we read Andersen, and then we read more modern “Children’s” books.

      I don’t think it’s necessary to talk down to children to make it interesting to them, but it does need to be relatable for their maturity level.

      But then, I totally skipped “Children’s Books” and was into chapter books in 1st grade, so I think my standards are a bit skewed.


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