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Robert D. San Souci (1946-) - Sidelights

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Author of both adult and children's books, Robert D. San Souci is highly regarded for his adaptations of folk tales from around the world, including Europe, Asia, the British Isles, and the Americas. These include such popular titles as The Samurai's Daughter, The Enchanted Tapestry, The Talking Eggs, Sukey and the Mermaid, Cut from the Same Cloth, The Hired Hand, A Weave of Words, and the Caldecott Honor book The Faithful Friend. He has also produced the spooky "Short and Shivery" and "Dare to Be Scared" series, an Arthurian sequence, and retellings of Native American myths, most of which are directed to middle graders. San Souci's adaptations are, according to Mary M. Burns in Horn Book, typified by "impeccable scholarship and a fluid storytelling style." In addition to making more obscure or almost-forgotten stories accessible to young children, his work features female and male heroes from many different places and ethnicities, with a particular emphasis on strong female protagonists.

San Souci was born in San Francisco and still makes his home in the Bay area. At an early age he knew he would become a writer: one of his favorite preoccupations was retelling stories he had heard to his siblings, one of whom, Daniel, has become a well-respected illustrator of children's books. San Souci wrote for his school newspapers and yearbook throughout school, and in college he majored in creative writing and world literature, doing graduate work in folklore, myth, and world religions. Once out of college, he worked variously as a bookstore manager and as a copy editor before breaking into publishing as a full-time children's writer.

San Souci's career writing children's books began with a book based on a Blackfeet Native American tale. The Legend of Scarface is about a young warrior cut off from the others of his tribe in part because of a birthmark on his face. This debut title was illustrated by San Souci's brother, Daniel; this sibling collaboration has continued throughout San Souci's career. Reviewing The Legend of Scarface, School Library Journal critic Gale Eaton praised the "strong" and "accessible story."

Other books retelling Native-American myths and legends have followed. Song of Sedna, a story from the Eskimo people, presents one of San Souci's strong female protagonists, a young Inuit girl who searches for her own Prince Charming. "If Sedna loses out on Prince Charming, the reader only gains from this book," commented Carole Paikin in the New York Times Book Review.

With Sootface San Souci adapts another Native-American tale, this time a Cinderella story from the Ojibwa tribe, while Two Bear Cubs retells a Miwok legend about two cubs who are rescued by the lowly measuring worm when they fall asleep on a rock formation at Yosemite. Once again collaborating with his illustrator brother, in Two Bear Cubs San Souci creates a "story dramatically told to hold young listeners," according to Betsy Hearne in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Hearne further noted, "San Souci is careful to document his sources, describe the context, and suggest related background readings."

San Souci has also tapped other cultures in the United States in folktale retellings, most notably African American. Among these are The Boy and the Ghost, The Talking Eggs, Sukey and the Mermaid, and The Hired Hand, all of which feature African-American characters and stories from the black oral tradition. In a review of the first two books, Malcolm Jones, Jr., described San Souci in the New York Times Book Review as "a wise adapter" and added that the author leaves these tales "more or less as he found them, their plots unsullied, their lingo and custom still that of the 19th century rural South." In The Boy and the Ghost the main character, Thomas, wins a treasure by being brave enough to spend a night in a haunted house. According to a Publishers Weekly critic, "this story will delight long after the last embers have died down." In the opinion of Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper, The Talking Eggs, a Cinderella tale, is a "vibrant adaptation of a Creole folktale." The story concerns a widow who lets her older, favorite daughter, Rose, live lazily while she makes her younger daughter, Blanche, do all the work.

Sukey and the Mermaid is based on a story from South Carolina and the earliest version is probably African. In this tale a beautiful, brown-skinned, black-eyed mermaid saves the young girl, Sukey, whose stepfather's rough treatment makes her want to escape to the sea. Describing San Souci as "a seasoned teller of folktales," a reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that the adapter "outdoes himself here with pungent, lyrical prose," while Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman noted that the mermaid is "a powerful woman, and she helps make Sukey strong." With The Hired Hand San Souci weaves "themes of magic, rebirth and retribution into another splendid retelling of an African-American folktale," according to a contributor for Publishers Weekly. In this picture-book retelling, a stranger turns up at a sawmill looking for work, and it turns out he has magical powers. When the manager's sly son attempts to reproduce some of the hired hand's magic, tragedy ensues.

San Souci's adaptations of tales penned by well-known American authors include a retelling of Washington Irving's classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While his revision was described as "little more than a simple, rather conventional ghost story" by Eleanor K. MacDonald in School Library Journal, a Publishers Weekly writer dubbed the book "a fine alternative" for reading aloud. In another revision of a story by an American writer, San Souci's Feathertop is based on a tale by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but has been "greatly altered," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Nevertheless, the critic wrote, the story "preserves a surprising amount of drama," while School Library Journal critic Shirley Wilton admired the "smoothly flowing oral quality" of San Souci's adaptation.

Based on a poem by American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first published in 1863, The Birds of Killingworth marks another effort by San Souci to bring a literary classic to young readers. In this picture book, the people living in a New England village are determined to get rid of the birds that feast upon their harvest each year. Despite the protestations of the town's schoolteacher, who argues that the birds serve a purpose, as they are creatures of God, the townspeople have their way and the birds are eradicated. Soon, unchecked populations of insects do as much damage as the birds had, and the problem is solved only when a new colony of birds is released into the village. Praising San Souci's "ecologically minded story," Booklist contributor GraceAnne A. DeCandido added that the tale's "environmental lesson is an interesting one and clearly drawn," while Nancy Palmer added in her School Library Journal review that "the slightly quaint language of the retelling retains the flavor of the poem, while making its message much more accessible."

Ghosts and things that go bump in the night are the subject of several collections of stories, including one series that begins with Short and Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales, and continues through More Short and Shivery, Even More Short and Shivery, and A Terrifying Taste of Short and Shivery. Each volume contains thirty samplings of spooky tales based on urban legends, folk tales, and myths from around the world. Reviewing the third title in the series, Jennifer A. Fakolt wrote in School Library Journal, "San Souci continues to blend quality and high-entertainment value in this chilling feast for the imagination."

The author continues his foray into frightening fiction with the books Dare to Be Scared: Thirteen Stories to Chill and Thrill and Double-Dare to Be Scared: Another Thirteen Chilling Tales. A Kirkus Reviews writer "warmly recommended" the latter collection "for solitary, late-night, under-the-covers reading," while in Booklist Roger Leslie praised the tales in Dare to Be Scared for their "crisp, straighforward delivery, and some intriguing endings."

Readers who enjoy San Souci's individual adaptations of American folk tales find more of the same in his American folk-tale collections. Larger than Life: The Adventures of American Legendary Heroes consists of five stories: "John Henry," "Old Stormalong," "Slue-Foot Sue and Pecos Bill," "Strap Buckner," and "Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox." In the opinion of School Library Journal contributor Eve Larkin, the text and illustrations are "exuberant" and the work is an "excellent choice for all collections." Cut from the Same Cloth: American Women of Myth, Legend, and Tall Tale features Native American, African American, Mexican American, Eskimo, Hawaiian, and Anglo American stories, and includes notes and a bibliography. The focus in this collection is on the strength of each story's female protagonist. While a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews criticized the "substantial revisions" of the stories, a Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the author for adding "the flavor and vigor of its individual subculture" to each tale, while a Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books critic called the work "a first-class resource."

The books The Enchanted Tapestry, The Samurai's Daughter, The Snow Wife, and The Silver Charm: A Folktale from Japan each feature tales from Asia and the Pacific Rim. The text of The Enchanted Tapestry, interwoven with the threads of several Chinese folktales, relates the story of a weaver woman and her fantastic tapestry. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded that the text of this "beautiful book" is "skillful and immediate," while a Kirkus Reviews critic remarks that "children should be enchanted" by it.

The Samurai's Daughter is San Souci's version of a medieval Japanese legend. As John Philbrook asserted in School Library Journal, the "strong, independent" heroine of this work "will inspire many admirers." Tokoyo, the daughter of a samurai, does not stay home and grieve when her father is exiled by an insane ruler. Instead, she leaves home in search of him. A Kirkus Reviews writer commented that the "action-filled story is admirably retold," and praised its "unusual glimpse" of a legendary, heroic female.

The Snow Wife is based on an even older Japanese legend. In this tale, two woodcutters seek shelter from a mountain storm and one is saved by the intervention of the lovely ice woman, but at a cost. "San Souci spins a compelling, atmospheric tale," Linda Boyles remarked in School Library Journal, calling the volume "a fine addition to any collection."

Based on a tale from the Japanese island of Hokkaido, The Silver Charm finds the curious Little Satsu straying too close to the forest home of a nasty ogre. Captured, the child escapes in traditional folk-tale fashion, by bargaining for his freedom with his magic charm. Reaching the safety of home, the child soon languishes without his charm, whereupon his faithful pet puppy and fox cub trick the ogre to recover it.

San Souci has adapted several tales and legends from the Caribbean, including the Martinique story The Faithful Friend, The House in the Sky: A Bahamian Folktale, Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, and The Twins and the Bird of Darkness. Two young men raised as brothers set off to win the hand of lovely Paula for one of the duo, overcoming the machinations of her wizard uncle, in The Faithful Friend. This is an "excellent title," according to Marlene Lee in School Library Journal, that "contains all the elements of a well-researched folktale, and convincingly conveys the richness of the West Indian culture." Hearne noted in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that the story "celebrates a friendship threatened by forces of evil" and that older picture book readers "will relish the story's suspense." San Souci was awarded a Caldecott Honor for this book.

The Bahamas is the setting for The House in the Sky, a story of a "younger brother's greed and an old brother's cunning," according to Elizabeth Bush in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Bush further remarked, "The text is a read-aloud delight, with its magical chant, wordplay, and comic conversations." In Cendrillon readers get a Caribbean version of the Cinderella story as told from the godmother's point of view. Judith Constantinides, writing in School Library Journal, called the book "an outstanding Cinderella variant." Another acclaimed tale, which Booklist contributor Annie Ayres dubbed "an action-packed addition to folktale collections," The Twins and the Bird of Darkness finds a king willing to share his kingdom with whoever can save his daughter, Marie, from the seven-headed Bird of Darkness that has taken the young woman prisoner and demanded marriage. Twin brothers set off to rescue the maiden, but after Soliday, the kind-hearted twin, bravely rescues the princess, his identity is assumed by his less-honorable brother Salacota after Soliday falls into a ravine and is assumed dead. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that The Twins and the Bird of Darkness "will best suit those who like their happily-ever-afters preceded by a good case of shivers," while in School Library Journal Barbara Buckley described San Souci's retelling of Guadeloupan folklore as "worldly" and "laden with symbolism and magical allusion." Praising San Souci as "a gifted storyteller," Black Issues Book Review contributor Lynda Jones wrote that the story is "filled with colorful details and rich dialogue," and enhanced by "gorgeous" illustrations by Terry Widener.

San Souci's adaptations and retellings of European tales include The Brave Little Tailor, a retelling of a Grimm Brothers story that was hailed as a "fresh, dynamic version" by a Publishers Weekly critic. San Souci's retelling of The Six Swans, another Grimm tale, along with the book's illustrations, was described as "graceful and elegant" by a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. According to another Publishers Weekly reviewer, San Souci's retelling of Madame d'Aulnoy's old French tale, The White Cat, is "suitably magical" and "his words flow like music," while Boyles noted in School Library Journal that the author's "tighter, more direct" retelling will "appeal to young readers." And of The Hobyahs, San Souci's adaptation of an English folktale, a Publishers Weekly critic wrote that the work is "a strange hybrid of lyrical narrative and amusing illustrations"; Dot Minzer concluded in School Library Journal that it is "a fun scary book that will be a hit as a read-aloud."

Europe has proven to be a rich and fertile ground for San Souci in yet other adaptations from that continent. Nicholas Pipe is a retelling of a folktale about a merman who falls in love with a woman of the land, a tale that can be traced back to twelfth-century legends. "San Souci has woven his magic once again," declared Beth Tegart in a School Library Journal review of the book. A writer for Kirkus Reviews called the results "very bold and heroic," and concluded that in Nicholas Pipe "San Souci may be invoking an old story, but he also frames a few timeless ideas about responsibility, tolerance, and that simple thing called love."

A Weave of Words comes from Armenian folklore and features another spunky heroine. It tells of Anait, a young weaver who refuses to have the spoiled Prince Vachagon, who has become smitten with her, until he learns to apply himself to the art of weaving—a skill that saves him years later when he is king. Booklist critic Carolyn Phelan felt "the story weaves strong characters, an adventurous plot, and underlying wisdom into a fabric as beautiful as the carpet King Vachagon weaves to save his life." Moving further east, Peter and the Blue Witch Baby hails from Russia, and finds a young Czar Peter rejecting the attention of a witch in favor of the Little Sister of the Clouds. When he goes in search of his love, the vengeful witch leaves an infant with horrible blackened teeth at his palace, and as the infant grows it begins to threaten the Czar's home. Fortunately, with the aid of three giants, Peter is alerted to the threat to his home, and manages to save Russia from the destructive infant.

The British Isles—in this case Ireland—is the setting for Brave Margaret, the story of a young woman who defeats a deadly sea serpent to win her love, in a "smoothly written, and rhythmic" turn-around of the classic dragon-slaying tale, according to Booklist writer Phelan. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted, "San Souci's adaptation of a traditional West Irish tale races along at fever pitch, bringing Margaret to the brink of disaster again and again." San Souci has also turned his hand to a retelling of the Arthurian legend in a series of books, including Young Merlin, Young Guinevere, Young Lancelot, and Young Arthur.

Also based on a British story, The Well at the End of the World focuses on Princess Rosamond, a savvy but none-too-attractive maiden who undertakes a risky trip to find a magical well with healing waters when her father becomes ill. Because of her kindness, Rosamond is rewarded with beauty and good fortune; upon her return, her evil stepmother and stepsisters attempt to make the same journey, but, due to their nasty characters, achieve predictably less-pleasant results. In Booklist Jennifer Mattson wrote that San Souci's fable "crackles with brio" and possesses an "easygoing in Kirkus Reviews a critic praised Rosamund as "among the spunkiest and most resourceful" of San Souci's female heroines.

Unlike most of San Souci's work, The Christmas Ark is not based on a folktale. Nevertheless, as a critic for School Library Journal wrote, the author's understanding of "themes from a variety of literary traditions gives an added depth and richness to his story." In this tale, two sisters traveling to San Francisco with their mother by boat worry that they will not reach their destination, and their father, by Christmas, until St. Nicholas intervenes.

Other original tales from San Souci include Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend and The Red Heels. In the former, San Souci tells the heroic story of a young girl who saves a train and its passengers when a railroad bridge goes out, while The Red Heels blends fantasy and folklore in the story of a cobbler lost in the woods and his encounter with a gentle witch. Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin thought the latter story was as "wistful and romantic a tale as any to come out in recent years." A tale based in Arkansas by way of Zaire is related in The Secret of the Stones, which involves two orphans turned into pebbles, a conjurer, and a childless couple. Reviewing this book, Booklist critic John Peters predicted that "children will be riveted and delighted by the tale's suspense, its see-saw climax, and the scary conjure-man's squishy demise."

Fans of San Souci will be happy to learn that, as he once told SATA, he plans "to continue writing as long as I have stories to tell—and an audience that is willing to listen.... Retelling a Grimm Brothers' fairytale or a Pueblo Indian myth allows me scope to tell a story that has a solid structure derived from the inner truths that are the kernels of all legends, myths, and fairytales. In all my writing I'm first of all concerned with the story; but (and I see this more and more as I write) I'm also using the narrative to explore ideas and suggest answers to questions about why and how the world works. I hope my books are entertaining, and I also get pleasure from thinking they may be sharing a little more substance with readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Volume 43, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

PERIODICALS

Black Issues Book Review, September-October, 2002, Lynda Jones, review of The Twins and the Bird of Darkness, p. 56.

Booklist, March, 1979, Gale Eaton, review of The Legend of Scarface, p. 144; August, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of The Talking Eggs, p. 1982; November 15, 1991, p. 625; February 1, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of Sukey and the Mermaid, p. 1034; April 15, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of Cut from the Same Cloth, pp. 1508, 1510; September 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Red Heels, p. 131; September 1, 1996, Michael Cart, review of Pedro and the Monkey, p. 140; January 1, 1998, p. 819; March 15, 1998, Carolyn Phelan, review of A Weave of Words, p. 1241; October 15, 1998, p. 417; March 1, 1999, Carolyn Phelan, review of Brave Margaret, p. 1217; March 15, 1999, p. 1302; January 1, 2000, John Peters, review of The Secret of the Stones, p. 934; May 15, 2000, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Six Foolish Fishermen, p. 1759; September 1, 2000, John Peters, review of Cinderella Skeleton, p. 128; October 1, 2000, John Peters, review of Little Gold Star, p. 343; November 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Peter and the Witch Baby, p. 544; December 1, 2000, Michael Cart, review of Callie Ann and Mistah Bear, p. 716; April 1, 2002, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Birds of Killingsworth, p. 1335; August, 2002, Annie Ayres, review of The Twins and the Bird of Darkness, p. 1968; October 1, 2003, Roger Leslie, review of Dare to Be Scared: Thirteen Stories to Chill and Thrill, p. 322; June 1, 2004, Todd Morning, review of Double-Dare to Be Scared, p. 1729; October 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Well at the End of the World, p. 336.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1983, p. 89; October, 1989, p. 42; January, 1992, p. 138; March, 1992, p. 192; June, 1993, review of Cut from the Same Cloth, pp. 328-329; July-August, 1994, pp. 372-373; September, 1995, Betsy Hearne, review of The Faithful Friend, pp. 28-29; February, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of The House in the Sky, pp. 201-202; July-August, 1997, p. 411; March, 1998, Betsy Hearne, review of Two Bear Cubs, p. 259; April, 1998, p. 295; January, 1999, pp. 181-182; May, 1999, p. 327.

Horn Book, September-October, 1992, p. 593; November-December, 1992, Mary M. Burns, review of The Samurai's Daughter, pp. 733-734; January-February, 1996, p. 94; November-December, 1998, p. 747; January, 2001, Elena Abo, review of Little Gold Star, p. 102; January-February, 2004, Betty Carter, review of Little Pierre, p. 95.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1987, review of The Enchanted Tapestry, p. 475; October 15, 1992, review of The Samurai's Daughter, p. 1316; April 1, 1993; review of Cut from the Same Cloth, p. 464; April 15, 1997, p. 649; May 15, 1997, review of Nicholas Pipe, p. 807; January 15, 1999, p. 151; May 1, 2002, review of The Silver Charm and The Birds of Killingsworth, p. 667; September 1, 2002, review of The Twins and the Bird of Darkness, p. 1319; June 1, 2003, review of Dare to Be Scared, p. 810; September 15, 2003, review of Little Pierre, p. 1182; March 1, 2004, review of The Reluctant Dragon, p. 229; June 1, 2004, review of Double-Dare to Be Scared, p. 541; September 15, 2004, review of The Well at the End of the World, p. 920.

New York Times Book Review, January 28, 1990, Malcolm Jones, Jr., review of The Talking Eggs and the Boy and the Ghost, p. 29; November 9, 1997, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, December 3, 1982, review of The Brave Little Tailor, p. 60; November 28, 1986, review of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, p. 74; March 13, 1987, review of The Enchanted Tapestry, p. 82; June 9, 1989, review of The Six Swans, p. 65; September 8, 1989, review of The Boy and the Ghost, p. 68; August 31, 1990, review of The White Cat, p. 65; November 2, 1992, review of Feathertop, pp. 70-71; March 1, 1993, p. 57; April 26, 1993, review of Cut from the Same Cloth, p. 81; February 21, 1994, review of The Hobyahs, p. 251; July 19, 1993, pp. 252-253; November 25, 1996, pp. 77, 78; April 14, 1997, review of The Hired Hand, p. 75; December 22, 1997, p. 61; January 25, 1999, p. 98; February 8, 1999, review of Brave Margaret, p. 214; March 29, 1999, p. 106: April 15, 2002, review of The Birds of Killingsworth, p. 63; July 22, 2002, review of The Twins and the Bird of Darkness, p. 178; October 13, 2003, review of Little Pierre, p. 79; April 12, 2004, review of The Reluctant Dragon, p. 65.

School Library Journal, December, 1986, Eleanor K. MacDonald, review of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, p. 108; September, 1989, p. 244; October, 1990, Linda Boyles, review of The White Cat, p. 112; September, 1990, p. 220; October, 1991, review of The Christmas Ark, pp. 32-33; November, 1991, Eve Larkin, review of Larger than Life, p. 113; January 13, 1992, review of Sukey and the Mermaid, p. 56; May, 1992, p. 108; November, 1992, John Philbrook, review of The Samurai's Daughter, p. 86; December, 1992, Shirley Wilton, review of Feathertop, p. 90; March, 1994, Linda Boyles, review of The Snow Wife, p. 218; April, 1994, Dot Minzer, review of The Hobyahs, p. 122; September, 1994, p. 235; November, 1994, p. 101; June, 1995, Marlene Lee, review of The Faithful Friend, pp. 104-105; January, 1996, pp. 105, 117; October, 1996, pp. 105-106; May, 1997, Beth Tegart, review of Nicholas Pipe, p. 124; March, 1998, p. 206; April, 1998, p. 125; September, 1998, Judith Constantinides, review of Cendrillon, p. 198; November, 1998, Jennifer A. Fakolt, review of A Terrifying Taste of Short and Shivery, p. 142; September, 1999, p. 203; February, 2000, p. 115; July, 2000, Donna L. Scanlon, review of Six Foolish Fishermen, p. 97; September, 2000, Susan Hepler, review of Cinderella Skeleton, p. 256; October, 2000, Nina Lindsay, review of Callie Ann and Mistah Bear, p. 152, and Ann Welton, review of Little Gold Star, p. 153; November, 2000, Denise Anton Wright, review of Peter and the Witch Baby, p. 148; June, 2002, Miriam Lang Budin, review of The Silver Charm, p. 124; August, 2002, Nancy Palmer, review of The Birds of Killingsworth, p. 168; September, 2002, Barbara Buckley, review of The Twins and the Bird of Darkness, p. 218; September, 2003, Evan Mitnick, review of Dare to Be Scared, p. 220; January, 2004, Sean George, review of Little Pierre, p. 122; May, 2004, Grace Oliff, review of The Reluctant Dragon, p. 122; June, 2004, Molly S. Kinney, review of Double-Dare to Be Scared, p. 148; November, 2004, Kathleen Simonetta, review of The Well at the End of the World, p. 117.

ONLINE

Robert D. San Souci Web site, http://www.rsansouci.com (March 7, 2005).*

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