Folk Tale Fan Art

the-singing-turtle-artwork-by-aliisa-leeOld tales get a modern twist when we asked artist Aliisa Lee to re-image twelve folk tale (and fairy tale) creatures as manga characters! Aliisa’s drawings, of course, were stunning. Singing turtles, badger tea kettles, and feisty dragons? Absolutely. Below are each of the characters, along with a very quick synopsis of their stories.



Once there was a golden deer who was King of the Banyan Deer. His herd lived peacefully in the forest alongside the King of the Monkey Deer and his herd. The Ruler of the country, however, was a man who loved to hunt and eat deer meat.  He surrounded the forest with a fence and told the Kings that every day, a deer from their herds must sacrifice his/herself to his table. One day, a mother deer was due to be sacrificed. She begged to wait until her baby was older. The Monkey Deer King would not consent to this, but the brave Banyan Deer King offered to go in her place. The Ruler was touched by the noble sacrifice of the Banyan Deer, and vowed never to hunt or eat deer meat again.

From Told in India, retold by Virginia Haviland, illustrated by Blair Lent (Little, Brown, 1973).

young-dragon-artwork-by-aliisa-leeYOUNG DRAGON (Taiwan)

Long ago, China was a great sleeping Father Dragon. Only the tip of his tail stuck into the sea. Nearby, three young dragons wrestled and played with each other. Eventually, they started nipping at Father Dragon’s tail, biting harder and harder until he awoke with a mighty ROAR. He lashed his tail so hard, the tip broke off and fell into the sea, trapping one of the naughty dragons underneath. Today, the tail tip is the Island of Taiwan, and the mountain range in the middle of the island is the trapped dragon. Father Dragon, now called the Himalaya Mountains, has gone back to sleep. The two remaining dragons continue to play in the Taiwan Straits and China Sea, causing storms and typhoons.

From Tales from a Taiwan Kitchen, written by Cora Cheney, illustrated by Teng Kung Yun-chang and others (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976).

moon-rabbit-artwork-by-aliisa-leeMOON RABBIT (China)

An old hermit lived in a cave with a rabbit. Every day, the rabbit brought berries, herbs, and mushrooms for the hermit to eat. But then came a terrible drought. The rabbit traveled far, looking for food. When he returned to the cave, he couldn’t bear to tell his friend that he had failed to find anything. So he leaped into the fire, hoping the hermit would cook him and avoid starvation. But before the flames touched the rabbit, the Celestial Emperor lifted him to the calm surface of the moon. He praised the rabbit’s bravery and compassion, and sacrifice. The Moon Goddess was delighted to have such a noble companion. The next full moon, see if you can spot the outline of the Moon Rabbit!

From Cloud Weavers: Ancient Chinese Legends by Rena Krasno and Yeng-Fong Chiang (Pacific View Press, 2003).

the-firebird-artwork-by-aliisa-leeTHE FIREBIRD (Russia)

Tsar Vyslav Andronovich had a magnificent garden and a special tree that bore golden apples. But every night, a Firebird would fly into the garden and steal apples from the tree. Tsar Vyslav ordered his three sons to capture the bird, but only Ivan, the youngest, succeeded in plucking a feather from her tail as she flew away. A massive quest ensued, one that involved a gray wolf, a horse with a golden mane, a beautiful maiden, ravens, the water of death, the water of life, and two treacherous, back-stabbing brothers. Needless to say, it all ends well, with Ivan and Elena living happily ever after.

From The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales, edited and with an introduction by Jacqueline Onassis, illustrated by Boris Zvorykin (Viking Press, 1978).

babe-the-blue-ox-artwork-by-aliisa-leeBABE THE BLUE OX (United States of America)

Winter can be hard, but this particular winter was so cold, the snow turned blue! One day, a giant lumberjack named Paul Bunyan went on a walk. He heard a little cry. Following the sound, he found a blue baby ox in the snow. Paul took the baby ox home and named him Babe. In time, Babe the Blue Ox grew to humongous proportions. But he was always a good and faithful companion to Paul Bunyan. By the way, do you know the Mississippi River was formed when a big ‘ol water tank wagon Babe was hauling sprung a leak? It’s true! I swear!

From American Folklore: Minnesota Tall Tales retold by S. E. Schlosser. Original source here.

anansi-artwork-by-aliisa-leeANANSI (Africa)

Nyame, the sky god, held all the world’s stories. Anansi the spider wanted those stories. So Nyame challenged Anansi to capture Hornet, Python, Leopard, and Fairy in exchange for the tales. Clever Anansi trapped Hornet in a gourd by pretending it was raining. He tricked vain Python into stretching out on a branch and then tied him to it. He bound Leopard in a web net, and stuck curious Fairy to a doll made of sticky gum. Nyame was overjoyed at Anasai’s success. He gave him the world’s stories, which Anansai shared with everyone.

From Children’s Book of Mythical Beasts & Magical Monsters (DK Publishing, 2011).

the-mechanical-nightingale-artwork-by-aliisa-leeTHE MECHANICAL NIGHTINGALE (Denmark)

A nightingale lived in a forest. Her song was so beautiful, the Emperor demanded she perform in his court. When she sang for him, the Emperor wept. He commanded her to stay in the palace, but the bird soon grew unhappy. Then one day, a gift arrived. It was a mechanical nightingale, one that sang when you wound it up. It quickly replaced the real nightingale. Time passed, and the Emperor grew very ill. When death came to claim him, the Emperor turned to the mechanical bird for comfort. But it remained silent, for there was no one to wind it. Suddenly, there was a glorious burst of song! The real nightingale sang away death, and the Emperor and the nightingale became good friends.

From Ardizzone’s Hans Andersen: Fourteen Classic Stories, selected and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, translated by Stephen Corrin (Atheneum, 1979).

bayamey-artwork-by-aliisa-leeBAYAMEY (Australia)

When Ocean disobeys Bayamey, the Maker of the World, Bayamey transforms into a giant frog and swallows all the Earth’s water.  Earth’s creatures, fearing for their lives, try to make Bayamey laugh and release the water. Kookooburra Bird, Turtle, and Bumble Bee all do funny things, but nothing works. Finally, the Eel Sisters try an amusing dance. In doing so, they accidently tie themselves together and start arguing. The creatures laugh at their antics, and Bayamey just can’t help himself. He laughs and laughs! The water bursts forth and returns to Earth.

From Eleven Nature Tales: A Multicultural Journey, written by Pleasant DeSpain, illustrated by Joe Shlichta (August House, 1996).



A poor junkman frees a badger from a trap. The grateful badger transforms himself into a fine teakettle and crawls into the junkman’s basket. The junkman, hardly believing his good fortune, sells the kettle to a temple priest.  The priest is shocked, however, when the kettle grows legs and a head and starts dashing around the room! He returns the kettle to the junkman. Next, the badger teakettle suggests that he and the junkman put together a show and become rich. After many performances, the now-affluent junkman returns to the temple, explains his story, and offers the kettle to the priest as a gift. Rumor has it the kettle still resides at the Monrinji Temple!

From Told in Japan, retold by Virginia Haviland, illustrated by George Suyeoka (Little, Brown, 1967).

the-troll-artwork-by-aliisa-leeTHE TROLL (Norway)

Once there were three billy goats named Gruff. There was a hillside full of rich grass they wanted to eat. But first, they had to cross a bridge, and underneath that bridge lived a big, ugly, nasty troll. The youngest brother had just started across the bridge when the troll lunged up, roaring “WHO’S THAT TRIP TRAPPING OVER MY BRIDGE? I’LL EAT YOU UP!” The first brother assured the troll that the second brother would make a better meal. The second brother insisted the oldest brother was even bigger and meatier. The oldest brother got right down to business. He charged the troll and tossed him into the stream. And the troll was never seen again!

From Favorite Fairy Tales Told Around the World, retold by Virginia Haviland, illustrated by S.D. Schindler (Little, Brown, 1985).

the-fox-artwork-by-aliisa-leeTHE FOX (Greece)

One morning, a fox was looking for a bite to eat. She spotted a crow perched high in a tree, holding a piece of cheese in her beak. Calling up, the fox began to praise the crow for her shiny feathers, bright eyes, and strong beak.  The fox lamented, however, that she couldn’t hear the crow’s beautiful voice. The crow was feeling quite flattered at this point (and, it must be said, growing quite vain). She opened her mouth and croaked “Caw! Caw! Caw!” The cheese fell out of her beak. Quick as a flash, the fox gulped it down. The lesson to be learned? Never trust a flatterer.

From Aesop’s Fables by Jerry Pinkney (SeaStar Books, 2000).

the-singing-turtle-artwork-by-aliisa-leeTHE SINGING TURTLE (Haiti)

Everyone in the village is starving except Kanzo. His garden is bursting with peas! Some hungry birds decide to sneak in and have a feast. They loan their good friend Turtle feathers so he can fly with them. The secret snacking continues for days until suspicious Kanzo surprises them and captures turtle. But Turtle amazes Kanzo by bursting into song! Soon, people are paying money to hear Kanzo’s singing turtle, and Kanzo becomes rich. The King demands to hear the Turtle (and secretly plans to steal it for himself). But someone has switched the singing turtle for an ordinary one. The King is enraged at being made a fool of, and Kanzo and his family flee. And the Turtle? He’s probably still singing!

From When Night Falls, Kric! Krac!: Haitian Folktales, by Liliane Nérette Louis, edited by Fred Hay, Ph.D. (Libraries Unlimited, 1999).

Original artwork by Aliisa Lee

Books, Color, Chance

_mur0006The next time you see a telephone book, look beyond the phone numbers, advertisements, thin pages, and wobbly covers. Philadelphia artist Katie Murken did exactly that when she created Continua, a work that combines recycled phone books, color dye, math, elements of chance, and sculpture.

Gathering scores of old and surplus phone books, Katie stripped off their covers and dipped the 3 outer edges into dye. In total, she dyed approximately 1,560,000 sheets of paper with 24 different colors.

dye_readybooks_dryingThen she stacked the altered books into columns. However, the colors she used were determined by a customized color wheel and a pair of dice. A dice roll determined how she would stack the books.

murken_continua_2The result was 24 tall columns of vibrantly colored, gently wavy books pages, arranged completely by chance. And the color! The color! Katie used non-toxic dyes from a small company in California.

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Walking among the stacked pages was incredibly calming, yet energizing. It was also validating. To me, it felt like confirmation of what the knowledge inside books really looks like.

_mur0019If you’d like to see more images of Continua, or read interviews about Katie and her fascinating process, you will find numerous links on Katie Murken’s site.

Photographs courtesy of Katie Murken

Aliisa the Artist

self portrait_artwork by aliisa leeFor the past four years, I have had the privilege of working with an extremely talented Princeton University student artist. Her name is Aliisa Lee, and she has loaned her tremendous abilities to a whole host of artistic endeavors at our library – project templates, event posters, logos, illustrations for children’s stories and poetry, and more.

summer announcement logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Summer announcement logo

hungry caterpillar food drive logo_artwork by aliisa lee

Very Hungry Caterpillar food drive logo. Food drive title and art inspired by the work of Eric Carle.

bad hair day_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Bad Hair Day”

the dragon princess_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Dragon Princess”

Below you can see some steampunk templates she designed for a Journey to the Centre of the Earth event (later, I used the templates for a Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism and a fanciful steampunk airship story time).

steampunk hat

And how about these delightful vanilla-scented French pastry ornaments? Mmmm.


Aliisa’s also worked on completely random (and sometimes rather strange) projects. She didn’t, for example, bat an eye when asked to make 80s paint splatter background.

welcome to the 80s

Or create a police line up of book damage perpetrators

lineup of book baddies

Or depict Hiccup and Toothless at the movies…?

hiccup and tootheless at the movies_artwork by aliisa lee

Last month, Aliisa graduated from Princeton University with a major in English and a minor in Visual Arts. I caught up with her to chat about her experience at Cotsen, her process for illustration, and what she’s going to do next (including – and this is important – continuing to freelance for us).

Tell us a little about yourself!

I grew up in the sunny state of Hawaii, but have since moved abroad several times. I am the fourth of six crazy kids, and all of our names start with A. It makes for some fun confusion when we are all together! In my free time, I love reading, writing, and (you guessed it), drawing. I especially enjoy drawing digitally by using my computer, Photoshop, and a Wacom pen and tablet.

Name a few of your favorite artists / inspirations.

I really look up to the artists of my favorite childrens’ books, like Clement Hurd, Mary Blair, Bill Peet, and Henry J. Ford. I am also a huge fan of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, with all their inspiring storytelling and fantasy elements. I follow many digital artists on tumblr, but I also just I love getting ideas from literature, dreams, and of course, my family and friends!

What have been some of your favorite projects for the Cotsen Children’s Library?

Hmmmm, that’s such a hard question. I’m a bit of a podcast nerd these days, so I loved doing the album art for the BiblioFiles.

bibliofiles artwork by aliisa lee

I am also a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, so the Alice thaumatropes and the Digitopolis posters and logo were a great way to pay tribute to some of my beloved texts.

thaumatrope demo

digitopolis by aliisa lee

My favorite type of project is probably illustrating for our time’s new generation of writers and poets. If I have to choose one assignment that I especially treasure, it would be the art for “The Sun Lifted Me Away.” The young author’s father wrote to us later that his daughter loved the drawing for her poem; hearing that the young author was so happy with what I drew makes that illustration one of my favorite projects!

the sun lifted me away_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Sun Lifted Me Away”

You’ve illustrated kids poems and stories. What’s your process for selecting and illustrating specific scenes or phrases?

It varies piece to piece! Sometimes Dr. Dana will have a fairly specific suggestion for a scene, which has trained my eye and always helps with the process. When the illustration is more up in the air, I often read for specific lines and imagery that stand out, and draw fairly literally from that. (For example, a line from “The Pit,” that says “He clasped the edge and began his ascent.” A very dramatic, specific scene gets a very dramatic drawing.)

the pit_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Pit”

Or, if the piece has more atmosphere than narrative, I brainstorm for scenes or visuals that reflect that feeling. (For example, the poem “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season” is all about the feel of autumn. The drawing and colors reflects this.)

autumn is a color, not a season_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Autumn is a Color, Not a Season”

What surprised you the most about the process of developing, editing, and finalizing a drawing for Cotsen?

Before working for Cotsen, most of my art was just kept to myself or my personal site. When you are doodling in your notebook or drawing just to show your family and friends, you “finish” an art piece when you are satisfied or just get tired of it. One of the greatest things about working with Cotsen and an art director (Dr. Dana!) is having another pair of eyes to help look critically at a piece, then develop it with the ultimate goal of publication. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see how that process and push to make polished illustrations has just made me a better critical thinker and artist. Plus, it is a ton of fun to draw for Cotsen!

storm_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Storm”

In your opinion, what’s the most difficult thing about illustration?

This has probably happened to anyone who has tried to make art: you get a beautiful, inspiring image in your head and you just think, “I NEED to draw this.” But after you sit down and draw, you realize your art just doesn’t measure up to the image your mind conjured up.

This happens to me a lot, especially since the poems and stories I read have such beautiful and creative moments. But it makes we want to work hard to be a better illustrator, since I want to close that gap between what my mind can create and what my hand can draw.

Still, I know that even if I was the best illustrator in the world, I could never quite pin down exactly what my mind envisioned. That could seem frustrating, but it is also kind of beautiful! The imaginations we are given are actually the best artists we could ask for, you know?

the enchanted machine_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “The Enchanted Machine”

Tell us a little about your senior show!

I would love to! My show was entitled “to wake” and included 80+ digital drawings, printed out in various sizes and placed around the space of the gallery. As you walked around left to right, the images sequentially told the story of a mother and daughter, plus a little bit of the fantastic as they traveled in the subway.

to wake 1_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 2_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 3_artwork by aliisa leeto wake 4_artwork by aliisa leeIt was very, very cool to have my own show, and to use the gallery space for both art and storytelling (two things I love!)

What are you going to do next?

I’m hitting the real world and getting a job. As a Princeton Project 55 Fellow, I’ll be working in communications at the non-profit International Schools Services, not that far from Princeton’s campus, actually. I can’t stop making art, so I will also be illustrating for Dana (and maybe a few other clients if I’m successful in expanding my freelance network). You haven’t seen the last of me yet! :)

poets_artwork by aliisa lee

Illustration for “Poets”

If you’d like to see Aliisa’s amazing portfolio, it’s online here. If you’d like to read a little more about her artistic process, she wrote a great post for Princeton University’s admissions blog here.

Thank you for 4 tremendous, tremendous years Aliisa! And here’s to many more!