American Folklore SocietyThe Aesop Prize is conferred annually by the Children’s Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society upon English language books for children and young adults, both fiction and nonfiction.


Nunes, Shiho S.  Chinese Fables: “The Dragon Slayer” and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom. Tokyo/Rutland, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8048-4152-8.

Chinese Fables: “The Dragon Slayer” and Other Timeless Tales of Wisdom is a remarkable collection of 19 brief tales drawn from ancient and field-collected sources. These cautionary tales, known as yu-yen, are narratives with an underlying meaning. These unique tales, some dating back to the third and fourth century BCE, are well-suited to audiences from fourth grade through adult. While these stories impart a life-lesson of some sort, many are simultaneously imbued with humor.

Unlike some collections, which may suffer from dense, impenetrable texts, these delightful fables are highly accessible, yet demanding of the reader’s reflection. The ending of each fable is deliberately abrupt, forcing the reader to pause and grasp its full meaning. Each fable ends without spelling out the full implications of what just happened, trusting in the reader’s intelligence in participation as the full realization dawns. Some endings are very subtle; some set the stage for the “aha moment;” and some prompt full laughter. The sub-title of this book, Timeless Tales of Wisdom, is well-stated, for, despite their ancient origins, these fables provide lessons still valid in contemporary life, for example: “Everybody’s Talking About It!” (gossip), “Kwan-Yin, the Goddess of Mercy” (recognizing the value of the elderly), “A Small Gift” (even the smallest of dubious talents are important), “Cooking the Duck” (petty infighting ruins anticipated pleasure), “Scaring the Tigers” (even the powerful tiger can be deterred by an unlikely fear – fundraising); “The Dragon Slayer” (one’s ego can result in the lack of a meaningful job in life), “A Change of Fashion” (how a random trend can affect the market economy).

Author Shiho S. Nunes has provided impeccable sourcing of these tales. In the preface, she traces the development and writing of yu-yen through the centuries. She describes the brevity of the written versions, and shows how she has participated in the tradition by elaborating and bringing the tales to life. In the back matter, Nunes individually sources each individual tale by text and date.

Illustrator Lak-Khee Tay-Audouard has created artwork in harmony with the culture and moods of the tales. She has drawn inspiration from traditional Chinese art, imparting a sense of history and humor. She utilized natural materials, including ground tea powder, pressed leaves, and earth, creating pencil and wash images on bamboo rag paper. The illustrations, backgrounds, and font form a cohesive package, creating a cultural, artistic experience.

While this book stands on its own as a significant addition to the body of published folk literature, it also offers some practical uses in schools. During this difficult time in American education, when little time is allowed for anything other than prescribed curriculum, these short tales can be fitted into a busy school day for curricular uses. The most notable is during reading instruction; these short stories provide excellent examples for the strategy of inferring. Because the stories stop short of explaining their lessons, students can practice deriving inferences, as they discuss and realize what the stories are really about. Teachers can also incorporate these stories into the study of ancient cultures. In addition, these stories are perfect when teachers and counselors are seeking a story that will provide a good starting point for discussions of social skills, behavior, kindness, and respect.

Importantly, Nunes’ Chinese Fables brings to light heretofore unknown stories, each a small gem. The excellent tellings, the whimsical artwork, and the scholarly sourcing combine to create a holistic package, well-deserving of the 2014 Aesop Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.