Mary’s Penny: A Feminist Folk Tale

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Mary’s Penny by Tanya Landman, illustrated by Richard Holland

A feminist retelling of a classic folk tale, this book combines a stylish modern feel with the classic feel and tone of a folk tale.  A farmer needs to decide which of his children he will leave his farm to.  Will it be the brawny Franz or the beefy Hans?  He doesn’t even consider his daughter Mary because she is a girl, though Mary does have something her brothers lack: brains.  The farmer gives each of his sons a single penny.  Their challenge is to purchase something with their one penny that will fill the entire house.  Franz heads to the market and purchases lots and lots of straw, but he cannot manage to fill the entire house.  Hans heads to the market and purchases lots and lots of feathers.  Though he fills the house further than his brother, he too fails.  Now the farmer is in despair until Mary asks to try.  And you will just have to read the book to find out how Mary spends her penny and fills the entire house.

Landman’s text here sets just the right tone.  She plays with the repetition and rhythm of the traditional folk tale, yet injects a modern sensibility about the role of women in society.  Thanks to the traditional features of the book, it is a pleasure to read aloud.  Holland too plays with the traditional and modern.  In his case, he uses sleek modern lines and modern illustration techniques yet still manages to have something vintage in them.  The illustrations have lots of white space and textures and patterns that make them very interesting and unique.  They also have a flatness that hearkens back to traditional folk art. 

A skillful combining of the traditional and the modern, this book should not languish on your folk tale shelves.  Get it into the hands of parents and teachers.  It would also make a great choice when librarians visit elementary classrooms, because its modern edge will draw slightly older children into the story.  Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from library copy.