I love St. Patrick's Day, although I don't have a drop of Irish blood in me.
Partly it's the shamrocks, the Celtic music and the color green that appeal to me, but mostly I am drawn to the Irish folktales.
Who doesn't love a good story about a leprechaun who always seems to get the better of the mortal man, or maybe it's the imagery of the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that draws us in to the stories.
One of my favorite picture books for this time of year is the Irish folktale "Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato" by Tomie DePaola. Jamie is the laziest man in all of Ireland. He would do anything to avoid working, especially if it has to do with growing potatoes.
Eventually his wife, Eileen, injures her back and Jamie is afraid he will have to turn his hand at work! On his way to church, he catches a leprechaun and the leprechaun tricks Jamie into letting him go, not by granting him the usual pot of gold, but by giving him one wish.
But Jamie surely does have the luck of the Irish. Though the wish he is granted initially looks like a bad deal, it eventually sets Jamie and his wife up for life.
I was curious why someone named DePaola, whose father's ancestors hail from the Calabria region of Italy, would have such an affinity for the Irish tales. He has written several books about Ireland besides Jamie O'Rourke, including Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It turns out that his maternal grandfather, Thomas Downey, used to tell young Tomie a great many stories, many from Ireland.
Another favorite Irish folktale is "Fin M'Coul, the Giant of Knockmany Hill," also by DePaola. This story starts out in a lyrical manner, almost like poetry: "In old times, when Ireland's glens and woods were still filled with fairies and leprechauns, giants, too, lived on that fair Emerald Isle." In this beautifully illustrated folktale about one of Ireland's most famous giants, Fin's wife, Oonagh, is the clever one and she figures out how to outsmart Cucullin, another giant who is making Fin's life miserable.
The last book I'd recommend to get you ready for St. Patrick's Day is Teresa Bateman's original story, "Fiona's Luck." Bateman weaves a little Irish history of the potato famine with Irish fantasy -- leprechauns. I know it sounds like an unlikely pairing, but try it and I think you will be entranced by the plucky and clever young girl, Fiona, who does get the better of a leprechaun -- the king of all leprechauns, no less.
She is able to return luck to the land by using her wits, which is more than the men seem to be able to do in most of Irish tales!
In an earlier book, Bateman turns the usual folktale pattern on its head with an original story about a man, Donald O'Dell, who saves a leprechaun's life, but refuses the traditional reward for such an act, the leprechaun's gold. By the end of "Leprechaun Gold," you will see that the leprechaun does manage to pay Donald back, but not in the usual manner.
So visit your local library or bookstore and pick up these tales of the Emerald Isle. They are guaranteed to get you in the mood to celebrate the holiday that encourages everyone to be Irish for a day.
Karen Liebert is a media specialist at International Studies Elementary Charter School in Albany. She previously worked in public libraries in five states.