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Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys

Mightier Than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys

by Jane Yolen, Raul Colon (Illustrator)

From China to Burma, Afghanistan to America, this collection of fourteen familiar and little-known stories tells the tales of sons, brothers, kings, and trolls—men and boys united by a common heroism that comes from strength of character, wisdom, and compassion. These stories show that brains trump brawn every time.
Renowned storyteller Jane Yolen has


From China to Burma, Afghanistan to America, this collection of fourteen familiar and little-known stories tells the tales of sons, brothers, kings, and trolls—men and boys united by a common heroism that comes from strength of character, wisdom, and compassion. These stories show that brains trump brawn every time.
Renowned storyteller Jane Yolen has created an exciting companion book to her Book Sense 76 Pick Not One Damsel in Distress. An inspired collection of dramatic tales, Mightier Than the Sword will inspire boys and girls alike.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a companion to her Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, Jane Yolen collects and retells 14 folktales focused on boys in Mightier than the Sword: World Folktales for Strong Boys, illus. by Raul Col"n, from Afghanistan, Ireland, China, Russia and around the world. These heroes win with their wits and hearts, not with weapons. Col"n's b&w pen-and-inks, in his signature crosshatch style, enliven each entry. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 3-6-The prolific and talented Yolen sets her sights on folktales that demonstrate that "brains trump brawn almost every time." While she is particularly interested in reaching boys with this message, these 14 folktales will appeal equally well to girls. Some of these tales are seldom found in collections for children, such as the Angolese "The Young Man Protected by the River" or the Hungarian "The Truthful Shepherd." Others are familiar in other guises such as the Irish "Jack and His Companions" that resembles "The Bremen Town Musicians" or the Israeli "And Who Cured the Princess?," variants of which are told in Greece, Ghana, Germany, and other countries. In the back matter, Yolen discusses other retellings of the stories and cites between two and seven sources for each tale. Her versions of these stories are lively, expressively written, ready for reading aloud or telling, and illustrative of her point. Col-n has contributed one pen-and-ink drawing for each story in the collection.-Miriam Lang Budin, Chappaqua Public Library, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Yolen introduces a grand collection of 14 tales with a letter to her sons and grandsons. Each features clever males as heroes who stick to their word and never resort to force. The young lad in "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" uses his respectful behavior to enlist the Devil's own grandmother's help with obtaining the hairs as well as the answer to three questions for which he's richly rewarded. In a lesser-known Israeli tale, "And Who Cured the Princess?," three brothers work together to use their cleverness to cure the princess and win, for one of them, her hand in marriage. Several tales have new twists, such as "Jack and His Companions," reminiscent of the Bremen Town Musicians, but here the treasures are returned to their rightful owner. Yolen, an undisputable queen of storytelling, shines with these retellings. Col-n's black-and-white scratchboard drawings are scattered throughout, presenting a troll just menacing enough, a shepherd just confident enough, and a princess just-well, just demure. A stellar read-aloud volume as well as just right for independent readers. (story notes, bibliography of source material) (Folktales. 8-12)

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.66(d)
720L (what's this?)
Age Range:
7 - 10 Years

Read an Excerpt


The Magic Brocade

A hero's knees do not buckle at the first problem

Many years ago, in a small village in China, lived a weaver and her three sons: Zhu, Shen, and the youngest, Wang Xing.

Now the weaver was a widow and had to support her family by herself. However, she was very skilled-especially at weaving brocade with silver, gold, and silk threads running through. It was said that the animals and birds in her brocades were so lifelike, they looked as if they were ready to leap off the cloth and run into the woods. So, by selling all that she wove, the weaver and her sons lived comfortably, though they were far from rich.

One day, as the widow went through the market carrying her latest weavings, her eye fell upon a beautiful painting. It was of an exquisite white house sitting in the middle of a glorious garden. Among the bushes fluttered red birds, the likes of which she had never seen. A silver river coiled around house and garden, and beyond the river was a forest full of green and gold trees.

"Ah!" she sighed. "I must have this picture." She traded all of her weavings for it and took the picture home.

Placing the picture on the table, she sat down and stared at it, sighing again and again. When her sons came in from the fields, she showed the picture to them. "How I wish we could live in such a place."

Zhu and Shen laughed. "Mother, it is only a painting."

But Wang Xing put his arms about her shoulders. "Why not weave a copy of the picture in a piece of cloth?" he said. "That will be almost like living in it."

"Thank you, my youngest son," said the weaver. Without even cooking the evening meal, she went to her loom and began to work.

From then on, she worked morning, noon, and night on the weaving, sleeping little and eating less.

Zhu and Shen soon grew annoyed. "She is making nothing for the market," they told each other. "There is no food on the table. There are no clean clothes."

Wang Xing took them aside. "Do not trouble our mother, brothers. If you chop wood and sell it, I will do all of her chores. That way Mother can keep her dream. For has she not supported us all these years?"

"Pah!" said Zhu.

"Hah!" said Shen.

But they did as Wang Xing had asked, because he had shamed them.

Weeks passed and still the weaver worked only on the one brocade. Now the older brothers grew tired of chopping wood and hauling it to the market for sale.

Once again, they went to complain to their mother. Once again, Wang Xing stopped them.

"Let me do the chopping and the selling," Wang Xing said. "Let me do all the household chores. Just comfort Mother, and bring her tea."

A year passed. Tears from the weaver's eyes dropped onto the brocade, making the river in the brocade shimmer.

Another year passed. Blood from her pricked fingers dropped onto the bright birds in the brocade, making them shine.

Finally, the third year came and nearly went, and the brocade was finished at last. The white house sat proudly in the middle of the garden. Among the colorful bushes fluttered shining red birds. The coiled silver river shimmered, and behind the river stood a forest full of green and gold trees. And something new-sheep and cattle and goats grazed contentedly in the fields. All this the widow had woven into the brocade. It was a masterpiece.

She took the brocade outside to look at it in the sun, for her eyes had grown so dim with the weaving, she feared she could not see it properly.

"Ah," she said as she spread the great brocade on the grass. "Wang Xing was right; it has almost been like living in my dream house."

Just then, a great wind blew by the weaver's little house, and catching the brocade, it lifted one end up and flung it into the air. Then, blowing steadily, the wind carried the brocade over the hill, and it disappeared into the east.

The weaver gave a scream and tried to follow, but when she got to the crest of the hill and looked to the east, there was no sign of her wonderful brocade.

Clutching her breast, she swooned, falling into the tall grass, where she lay until evening when her sons found her. Carefully, they picked her up and brought her into the house and laid her down upon her pallet.

Zhu held her hand. Shen rubbed her brow with a damp cloth. Wang Xing made some ginger tea, which he got her to drink one small sip at a time. Finally, she slept, and the boys, exhausted from caring for her, slept by her side.

When morning came, the weaver sat up. "Zhu, as you love your mother, go to the east, where the wind went, and find my brocade, for it means more to me than life itself."

Well, Zhu did love her in his own way. So off he went to the east. He put one foot before the other, and within a month he had come to a stone house at the foot of a high mountain.

An old, wrinkled woman with white hair sat on her stone stoop, a stone horse by the door, close to a berry bush.

"Where do you go, young son, and why go in such a hurry?" the old woman asked.

"East," Zhu said.

"Where the sun rises." She nodded at him.

He was so tired he sat down next to her and told her the entire story of the brocade.

"I know that brocade," the old woman told him. She served him a cup of tea.

"Where is it? I must fetch it home," Zhu said.

The old woman held up her hand. "Ah, ah, the fairies of Sun Mountain have carried it away. It is so beautiful, they want to make a copy."

"How can I get it back?" Zhu demanded.

She smiled at him. It did not improve her looks. "The way is difficult."

"I am not a boy to have my knees buckle at the first problem. Tell me. Tell me quickly." His voice shook, though whether with anger or with eagerness, it was difficult to tell.

"Well, first you must knock out those pretty front teeth of yours and put them in the mouth of my stone horse. Then he will be able to eat the red berries hanging in front of him," the old woman said.

At this, Zhu's hand went up to his mouth, but he did not say a word.

She continued. "When the horse has eaten ten berries, you can mount his back and he will carry you over the Mountain of Flame. The fire will sear your feet and burn your hair, but you must not say a word, for to do so will mean your death by that very fire."

Zhu's face went gray. Still he did not say a word.

The old woman went on. "Next you will come to the Ice Sea. The cold will numb your arms and freeze your eyeballs. But if you say a word, you will plunge to the bottom and not come up again."

Zhu's jaw gaped open. And still he did not speak.

The old woman shook her head. "Nah, nah-I can see that you will not be able to stand the test. Never mind. I will give you a small iron box full of gold for coming this far. Take it and live well."

Zhu took the box eagerly and, without a word of thanks, went off, thinking that he had come out of that rather well.

But when he got to the first crossroads, another thought came to his mind: Why should I share this gold with anyone else? After all, did I not earn it on my own? And he turned away from the path that led to home and went over the mountain to the city.

The weaver waited for two months for Zhu to return, and the waiting made her ill. She took to her bed and could barely eat.

"Shen, my son," she said at last, "find your brother and the brocade and bring them both back."

So Shen went the same route as Zhu. And he, too, spent a month walking, till he came to the stone house with the stone horse near the berries and the old woman sitting on the stoop.

Like his brother, he turned gray with fear when he learned what he would have to do to get the brocade back. Instead, he took the box of gold the old woman offered, and off he went to the city without a word of thanks. There he found his brother. Together they spent their gold twice as fast as one could have done alone.

Back home, the weaver had spent the months weeping and had made herself blind with grief.

"Mother, let me go," said Wang Xing. "I will find the brocade and both my brothers and return with everything to make you happy."

His mother nodded weakly. "But if you, too, do not return, my son, then I will surely die."

Wang Xing did not dawdle like his brothers, and within half a month he arrived at the stone house.

He told the old woman the story of the brocade, and she told him of the fairies. Then she told him all that he would have to do to get the brocade back. At last she said, "But I will gladly give you a box of gold, instead, just as I gave your brothers."

Wang Xing looked closely at the old woman, and if he wondered why she was so eager to send him away, he did not ask. All he said was, "My mother spent three years of her life weaving that brocade. She will die without it. These things you tell me are but small difficulties."

And with that, he knocked out his two front teeth with a stone he found by the old woman's feet. Then he put the teeth into the stone horse's mouth.

Instantly, the horse whinnied and shook its head, walked two steps to the berry bush, and ate ten red berries.

At that, Wang Xing leaped onto the horse's back and away they went, galloping toward the east. Poor Wang Xing had never ridden a horse before, so he held on tight, his hands twisted in the horse's stone-gray mane.

Three days and three nights they galloped, till they came to the foot of the Mountain of Flame. The fire began to sear Wang Xing's feet, and he felt his hair begin to crackle and burn. Setting his lips together so he would not say a word, Wang Xing kicked the horse, and over the mountain they went.

On the other side was the Ice Sea. As the horse waded in, the cold began to numb Wang Xing's legs. As they went deeper in, his arms began to freeze. But once again he set his lips together so he could not say a word, and the horse swam across.

The minute they got to the other side, there was Sun Mountain. Wang Xing knew it because there was a brilliant warm light everywhere and he was no longer cold.

"Up, good horse, to the top of Sun Mountain," he urged.

So up the horse galloped.

At the top of the mountain, it was already night. Yet the moon shone bright enough so that he could see that here was a palace of jade, with jade turrets and jade windows and a great jade door.

Wang Xing knocked on the door, and the door opened by itself. He walked in and saw a hundred fairies sitting at looms, each weaving a small part of a copy of his mother's brocade.

The brocade itself was displayed on a jade pedestal, and it was infinitely more beautiful than anything the fairies were making. Wang Xing felt sorry for the fairies then. For all their magic, they did not have the gift his mother had.

One of the fairies, with hair the color of gold, looked over at Wang Xing. "You have ridden the magic horse over the Mountain of Flame and through the Ice Sea."

"Yes," said Wang Xing.

"Then you are the weaver's son," said another fairy, with hair the color of silver.

"I am."

"We will be done by morning. Will you give us leave to finish?" asked a third fairy, with hair the color of bronze.

He nodded.

They took turns bringing him fairy fruit, as red as the birds in his mother's brocade. He ate and felt refreshed.

"I would like to sleep now," he said. So they made him a bed with the finest silk coverlet and he fell asleep at once. Then they hung a great pearl from the ceiling as a night-light so they could keep on weaving until dawn.

One fairy, with hair the color of midnight, looked at her own work and again at the weaver's brocade. She saw what Wang Xing had seen.

"Ah," she said, "how can I live without the weaver's brocade? If he takes it away, he must take me with it." So she left her own loom and, instead, embroidered a likeness of herself sitting next to a tiny fishpond on the weaver's brocade.

When Wang Xing awoke, the fairies were all gone, vanished like evening stars. But his mother's brocade was still there, under the shining pearl.

He picked up the brocade and clasped it to his chest. Then he leaped onto the horse's back and away they went, across the Ice Sea, over the Mountain of Flame, and to the stone house where the old woman waited.

"You are quite some boy," she said to him. "Both clever and brave."

He looked down at his feet. He did not feel clever or brave-just tired and longing to be home.

When he dismounted, the old woman took the two teeth from the horse and put them back in Wang Xing's mouth.

In an instant, the horse was stone.

"I am sorry for that," said Wang Xing. "He served me well."

"He will serve another some day," the old woman said. "Wait here." She went into her house and came out with a pair of deerskin shoes.

"These will help you get home," she said. "And it will seem to your mother as if you have been gone only a moment. Clap your heels and toes."

Wang Xing put on the shoes, stood, and holding the brocade in his arms, clapped his heels and toes, and in a moment he was home.

Entering the house, he unrolled the brocade in front of his mother's bed.

The brocade gleamed with such a magical light that the old weaver's eyesight was restored at once and she felt full of health.

When she and Wang Xing took the brocade outside to look at it in the light of day, another strange thing happened. The brocade rolled out further and wider until it covered all the land for many lis around. Suddenly all of the threads on the brocade bust into life. The white house stood beside them. The red birds sang in the bushes. Green and gold trees moved in a puzzling breeze. The coiled silver river bubbled and burst its banks. Cows mooed and little lambs frolicked near their ewes. And by a small fishpond sat a lovely maiden with hair as black as midnight, whom neither the weaver nor Wang Xing had ever seen before. It was the fairy who had embroidered herself into the magic brocade.

Wang Xing and the fairy were married, of course, and had seven children, all of whom could weave well. They were taught by their grandmother, who lived with them, honored and adored.

As for the two elder brothers, what of them? Well, one day, two beggars came down the road. They were ragged and tattered, having long ago gambled away all their gold.

They stopped at the white house to beg a bowl of rice from the owner. But when they saw who lived there, happily picnicking in the garden, they were so ashamed they picked up their begging bowls and left, never to return.

Text copyright © 2003 by Jane Yolen
Illustrations copyright © 2003 by Raul Colón

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy,
recording, or any information storage and retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

JANE YOLEN is the author of many fine books for young people, including Not One Damsel in Distress, stories that "sing and soar in Yolen's supple language," according to Booklist. She has won several of the most prestigious awards in children's literature. Ms. Yolen lives in western Massachusetts and Scotland.

RAUL COLÓN has illustrated more than fifteen books for children, including My Mama Had a Dancing Heart, a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year. He also collaborated with Robert Burleigh on Pandora and Hercules. He lives in New York.

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