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(A.) Aubrey Davis (1949-) - Sidelights

review benny borscht button

Aubrey Davis is a writer, storyteller and oral language teacher for developmentally challenged children. He drifted into writing when he was asked to tell a Chanukah story to very young children and couldn't find one that suited him. He told SATA: "In desperation I wrote one myself. Bone Button Borscht was born of necessity. The children loved it and so did the publisher to whom I sent it."

Davis added: "I'm not really sure why I became a writer. I always loved to read. As a boy I had a passion for myths, Bible stories, science fiction and Mad Magazine. My neighbor was a writer for CBC. Maybe I caught the writing bug from him. I loved to write funny stories. My grade six teacher liked them. But my eighth-grade teacher hated them. So I stopped writing creatively until I was forty-two.

"Perhaps my writing began in a non-linear way. One day a supply teacher waltzed into our grade twelve English class. He taught me how to think for myself, to question my assumptions, and to consider what might In his rendition of a nineteenth-century American folktale, Davis's rousing story depicts the many people who are devoured by a savage bear when, one by one, they cross a bridge to buy the baking soda an old woman needs for her biscuits. (From Sody Salleratus, illustrated by Alan and Lea Daniel.) be really important. The following year I joined a theatre group, volunteered with mentally handicapped children, learned to speed-read, and served as president of the student council. Two years later I quit university to travel in Europe and Africa. Maybe it was that teacher's doing, or maybe it was simply the sixties.

"On the Canary Islands I opened a copy of The Sufis by Idries Shah. Because Omar Khayyam was a favorite film from my childhood and because his name appeared in the index I began to read. Lively and intensely thought provoking, this book introduced me to the idea of storytelling. I have always been interested in performance. My mother was very involved in amateur theatre, as was my wife.

"In any case, I became a storyteller. At first I told stories to my own children, then at a weekly gathering in Toronto. I told in nursing homes, festivals and jails. In time I told on national radio and television. I created an oral language program for mentally challenged children. I taught them language through story. And they taught me how to tell and to write simply and dramatically.

"I have worked as a lab technician, logger, and house painter. I've sold antiques and I've raised goats. How In a humorous, cumulative folktale, The Enormous Potato, a farmer calls more and more people to help him unearth his prized spud. (Retold by Davis and illustrated by Dusan Petricic.) did I become a writer? Perhaps it happened by chance or through necessity. Perhaps I was influenced by others or merely guided by my own interests and abilities. But I feel that something within, beneath consciousness led me down strange pathways plucking what it needed from the people and experiences it met along the way. And the insignificant, the unexpected, even the distasteful have proved to be as valuable as the significant, deliberate and pleasing."

Davis has provided his own novel spin on several beloved European folk tales. Bone Button Borscht, one of three Davis picture books illustrated by Dusan Petricic, re-tells the old "Stone Soup" story using an imaginative beggar and a shtetl peopled by miserly folk who learn community spirit from the beggar's offer to make soup from his coat buttons. The story begins in a colorless mode, but as each villager adds an ingredient to the "button soup," the rich hues of the borscht unfold, and all the various characters feast upon it. "Bone Button Borscht truly exploits the dynamic potential of the picture-book medium," wrote Sarah Ellis in Horn Book. "The whole thing moves like an animated short or like a piece of music." Ellis concluded that the work shows "a lovely satisfying shape."

Sody Salleratus is a re-telling of an old mountain tale. A boy sets off to buy some "sody salleratus" (baking soda) at the store, but he is accosted and eaten by a bear before he can bring it home. One by one his family members go looking for him, only to fall victim to the same hungry bear. Finally, the crafty squirrel on the mantelpiece seeks out the bear and plays a trick that frees the whole family. Stephanie Zvirin in Booklist noted that Davis adds "a storyteller's tempo" to the work. Zvirin likewise characterized the book as "a good read-aloud" and a "lively tale." In a similar vein, The Enormous Potato, adapted from an original version involving a turnip, demonstrates the value of teamwork. A farmer has grown the biggest potato anyone has ever seen—but how can he unearth it? He calls upon his wife, daughter, dog, and cat for help, and each push and pull to no avail. Finally, with the help of a lowly mouse, the potato rolls free, providing sustenance for the entire town. Helen Rosenberg in Booklist cited The Enormous Potato for its "freshness and vitality."

Benny's grandfather makes and sells bagels in Bagels from Benny. Every day Benny's grandfather thanks God for the ingredients that go into the bagels, but Benny wants to go a step further. When no one is looking, Benny stashes a sack of bagels in the Ark at his local synagogue. A week later, they have disappeared, and Benny is sure that God has taken them. To his intense disappointment, however, some weeks later he discovers that a poor member of the congregation has been removing them and eating them. Benny's grandfather explains that helping others gives God the greatest pleasure of all. In Booklist, Hazel Rochman praised Bagels for Benny as "the story of how a small gesture can make a difference . . . a moving drama of generosity and faith." A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that the work displays a welcome use of Davis's "fluid prose," which "increases the folktale's accessibility to young readers."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 1, 1997, Kay Weisman, review of Bone Button Borscht, p. 480; March 15, 1998, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Sody Salleratus, p. 1246; November 1, 1998, Helen Rosenberg, review of The Enormous Potato, p. 498; October 1, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Bagels from Benny, p. 333.

Horn Book, September-October, 1995, Sarah Ellis, review of Bone Button Borscht, p. 643.

Publishers Weekly, February 2, 1998, review of Sody Salleratus, p. 88; October 27, 2003, review of Bagels from Benny, p. 66.

School Library Journal, November, 1997, Susan Pine, review of Bone Button Borscht, p. 106; April, 1998, Lisa Falk, review of Sody Salleratus, p. 115; November 1, 1998, Maryann H. Owen, review of The Enormous Potato, p. 77.

Toronto Star, December 11, 2003, Richard Ouzounian, "Heaping Serving of Bone Button Borscht."

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