The Old Country

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From the winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal comes a memorable new work, a novel of singular insight and imagination that transports readers to the Old Country, where "all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic — and there was war." There, Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox, and she and the fox exchange shapes. Gisella's quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its shape. She encounters magic, bloodshed, and questions of power ...

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Overview

From the winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal comes a memorable new work, a novel of singular insight and imagination that transports readers to the Old Country, where "all the fairy tales come from, where there was magic — and there was war." There, Gisella stares a moment too long into the eyes of a fox, and she and the fox exchange shapes. Gisella's quest to get her girl-body back takes her on a journey across a war-ravaged country that has lost its shape. She encounters magic, bloodshed, and questions of power and justice — until finally, looking into the eyes of the fox once more, she faces a strange and startling choice about her own nature. Part adventure story and part fable; exciting, beautifully told, rich in humor and wisdom, The Old Country is the work of an artist and storyteller at the height of his powers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"With his exquisite sense of possibilities, Gerstein urges his readers to remember the tales of wonder that may not be written but are history, too."

The New York Times

 

"Its richness in language and imagery and its snatches of humor will offer layers of inquiry and discussion."

Kirkus Reviews

 

"Gerstein ... skillfully shapes a story ... Vividly descriptive."

Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

 

"THE OLD COUNTRY is an excellent read-aloud book for all ages."

Kidsreads.com

Publishers Weekly
Gerstein (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers) skillfully shapes a story by turns disturbing and comforting. His hybrid of fantasy and fable explores such themes as human nature, war, magic and music. The tale within a tale opens as Gisella visits her great granddaughter, gives her a present and shares a story of her childhood in the Old Country, where, she says, "I was a little girl and where I was a fox." Gisella builds on this note of intrigue, as she describes her wise great-aunt warning her that in the woods "things may not be what they seem. Things change; now it's this, then it's that. Look closely, be careful, and never look too long into the eyes of a fox." Indeed, danger befalls the young Gisella when her brother is drafted into the army, and it's up to her to kill the fox who's been stealing the family's chickens. Deep in the woods, strange things occur-talking animals and "small people." The girl finds herself gazing intently into the fox's eyes, and the two mysteriously exchange bodies. Meanwhile, war breaks out ("Air that had been full of springtime now had a new odor, bitter and jagged. It was the smell of pain, and it was everywhere"), sending Gisella on a labyrinthine journey with a forest sprite as her guide. Gerstein brilliantly ties the war's escalation with the dwindling of magic, and caps off this vividly descriptive narrative with an unexpected ending. Ages 11-14. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Gisella stares in to the eyes of a fox for just a moment too long and exchanges shapes with the fox. Gisella's brother is forced to become a soldier and go to war and her family (and the fox posing as Gisella) flees her home because of the war. In her search to return to her body and reunite with her family, she meets a sprite, talking animals, a chicken that lays a golden egg, and an evil king and queen. Gisella learns about power and justice and, after finally meeting the fox again, must chose her fate. This story has the feel of a traditional fairy tale and could be easily adapted into a language arts curriculum. 2005, Roaring Brook Press, and Ages 10 to 14.
—Terri L. Lent
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-The bulk of this tale takes place in the pseudo-mythical Old Country. At the present time, Great Grandmother Gisella tells her disbelieving young relative the story about how she had been both a girl and a fox. The complicated telling begins, intermingling rather gruesome civil war images, animal tales, Alice-in-Wonderlandesque style legal trials, and slapstick political characters and coups. When Gisella stares too long into Flame the Fox's eyes, they trade shapes. Gisella the fox spends much of the rest of the tale trying to find her family and Flame/Gisella so that she can return to her original form. Mordicai Gerstein seems to tackle too many issues in his novel (Roaring Brook, 2005): human vs. animal existence, war vs. peace, and magic vs. realism. The language, however, is evocative, leading listeners to smell the forest and see the colors of the woods. Actress Tovah Feldshuh greatly improves the novel with her excellent narration. She gives Gisella a generic Eastern European accent, and successfully conveys the morass of emotions felt by the animals, humans, and animal/human combinations in the story. For some reason, her reading makes the clues to Great Grandmother Gisella's true nature and the end of her story about her youth more noticeable. Not a first purchase consideration.-B. Allison Gray, John Jermain Memorial Library, Sag Harbor, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A fable of many large ideas in a slim volume. Gisella recalls a mythical "Old Country" for her great granddaughter. Her story involves journey/quests to recover chickens stolen by Flame the fox; to rescue her family caught and imprisoned in the Emperor's bogus war; and to regain her own body after a magical transference in which she and Flame exchange places. Thematically the story embraces the death of magic at the hands of human violence, the ruinous character of war, the nature of humanity and the hypocrisy of justice systems. Results are mixed, in part due to limitations of the fabulous form and its thin, archetypal characterizations. At quest's end, Gisella decides to keep her fox body and send Flame off to flourish in the New World. The conclusion may not seem to flow credibly from character, leaving some readers to puzzle at Gisella's choice. Nevertheless, its richness in language and imagery and its snatches of humor will offer layers of inquiry and discussion for the special reader. (Fiction. 9-13)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596431928
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
  • Publication date: 9/5/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 144
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Product dimensions: 6.01 (w) x 8.96 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Mordicai Gerstein

Mordicai Gerstein is the author and illustrator of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, winner of the Caldecott Medal, and has had four books named New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Gerstein was born in Los Angeles in 1935. He remembers being inspired as a child by images of fine art, which his mother cut out of Life magazine, and by children’s books from the library: “I looked at Rembrandt and Superman, Matisse and Bugs Bunny, and began to make my own pictures.”

 

He attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and then got a job in an animated cartoon studio that sent him to New York, where he designed characters and thought up ideas for TV commercials. When a writer named Elizabeth Levy asked him to illustrate a humorous mystery story about two girls and a dog, his book career began, and soon he moved on to writing as well as illustrating. “I’m still surprised to be an author,” he says. “I wonder what I’ll write next?” Gerstein lives in Westhampton, Massachusetts.

Biography

Mordicai Gerstein has always been an artist. As a child, he enjoyed painting and eventually graduated from art school in Los Angeles. He continued painting in New York City and supported himself and his family for 25 years by designing and directing animated television commercials. He says, "I had always loved cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, and I found I enjoyed making animated films. Even a 30-second commercial involved drawing and painting, storytelling, not to mention actors, music, and sound effects."

During the 1960s, Gerstein made several films that received critical acclaim. In 1966, The Room won the Award of the Film Clubs of France at the International Festival for Experimental Film, and in 1968, The Magic Ring won a CINE Golden Eagle.

His career took a dramatic turn when he met children's author Elizabeth Levy in 1970. He has illustrated her Something Queer Is Going On chapter books ever since, and it was Levy and her editor who encouraged Gerstein to write a book on his own. His debut came in 1983 with Arnold of the Ducks, the story of a young boy who gets lost in the wild and is raised by ducks. The New York Times hailed Gerstein's freshman effort as one of the year's best children's books, and he went on to write two more volumes exploring the theme of feral childhood. In 1998 he released The Wild Boy, a picture book based on the true story of a young 18th-century French boy who was found living in the woods and was put on display as an oddity, only to escape and be captured again years later. That same year, Gerstein released Victor, a young adult novel about the same boy.

Gerstein tells the story is of a Tibetan woodcutter who is given a choice between reincarnation or heaven in The Mountains of Tibet, which received the distinction of being one of 1987's ten best illustrated books of the year, according to The New York Times. Although the book is written for kids around age seven, Gerstein approaches the subject of death with a bold, sensitive plot and elegant illustrations. Spirituality is a major theme in many of Gerstein's books. He has interpreted tales from the Bible in Jonah and the Two Great Fish (1997), Noah and the Great Flood (1999), and Queen Esther the Morning Star (2001). Other titles such as The Seal Mother (1986), The Story of May (1993), and The Shadow of a Flying Bird (1994) also express Gerstein's reverential awe for the world.

Young readers can also stretch their imaginations with Gerstein's more playful books. Vocabulary is fun in The Absolutely Awful Alphabet (1999), where the letter P is actually a particularly putrid predator! Bedtime Everybody! (1996) has a young girl's stuffed animals planning a bedtime picnic. Behind the Couch (1996) takes readers on an exciting caper into an unknown world of grazing dust balls, Lost Coin Hill and the Valley of the Stuffed Animals. In Stop Those Pants (1998), a boy is forced to play hide-and-seek with his clothes as he gets ready for the day. Gerstein pays tribute to American composer Charles Ives in What Charlie Heard (2002), the story of a boy's unique talent for interpreting all the sounds of daily life.

Another biographical picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2003) tells the story of Philippe Petit, the daredevil who walked across a tightrope suspended between New York City's World Trade Center towers in 1974. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 2004, and parents have praised the book as an invaluable tool for talking to their children about the events of 9/11.

Many of Gerstein's children's books are destined to be classics. His style of writing and illustration brings each of his stories to life, shows a passion for adventure, and relishes the joy that comes from understanding the mysteries of the world.

Good To Know

Despite a successful career illustrating children's books, the first book Gerstein wrote, Arnold of the Ducks, was turned down by seven publishers. Eventually, The New York Times called it one of the best children's books of the year.

Gerstein was inspired to write The Mountains of Tibet after reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Read More Show Less
    1. Hometown:
      Northhampton, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 25, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      Chouinard Institute of Art
    2. Website:

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 14, 2011

    A Quirky, Old-fashioned Delight

    The Old Country is a short and sweet fairy tail at its heart, but the exceptional writing, interesting twists, and social commentary make it a standout. The writing style is interestingly childish despite being written in 3rd person, yet is never lacking in perceptiveness and also has the advantage of being oddly poetic. In fact, I'd have to say that the writing is my favorite part of this, mostly due to the excellent word choice. Another highlight is the twist ending, which while not very difficult to predict, still packs a punch. Similarly, the rather transparent commentary on the futility of war is still effective and a worthwhile addition. Overall, The Old Country may be too simplistic for some, but I found it a refreshing read.

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