Title: The Maiden of Northland: A Hero Tale of Finland

Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Author: Aaron Shepard (adapted from the Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot)

Illustrator: Carol Schwartz

Pages: 40pp

Price: varies

Once, far to the north, lived the old woman Louhi and her beautiful daughter, Aila. Word of Aila's beauty spread throughout the land, eventually reaching the great magician Vainamoinen and the great smith Ilmarinen. Each vowed to make Aila his wife. But when they reached the north, they were presented with a challenge by Louhi: only the man who brought her something she had never seen before could ask Aila for her hand in marriage ....

The original Kalevala was composed by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, born of the songs, poems, chants, and stories he collected while traveling throughout Finland. Today, it is considered to be a cornerstone of Finnish culture and one of the great poetical works of world literature. Unfortunately, it is little-known in the United States, and adaptations for younger audiences are few and far between.

As such, I was very happy when I came across The Maiden of Northland. Here, Shepard tells one story from the Kalevala: that of the romantic rivalry between two great heroes of Finnish mythology. In place of the original trochaic tetrameter, Shepard employs free verse, creating a bouncy, energetic tale. For example:

Age-old Louhi,

dame of Northland,

sat on the floor before her mill,

turning, turning the top stone,

feeding grain through the hole,

slowly grinding the day's flour.

The millstone rumbled,

the woman grumbled.

At forty-four pages, The Maiden of Northland is long for a children's picture book. However, it is divided into different sections ("The Battle of Song," "The Rivals," "The Sampo," and so on) which, combined with the free verse of the text, makes for a fast read. I could easily see this being read, a section at a time, as a bedtime story; or perhaps it could be passed around a storytelling circle.

Like many stories which draw on ancient folklore and oral tales, there are no "good guys" or "bad guys." Instead, there are clever individuals trying to outwit, out-fight, and out-magic one another. This is a story of strength and will and beauty and creativity, not morality.

Shepard's text is accompanied by Schwartz' bright, richly-detailed gouache illustrations. Some are half-a-page in size, while many are full-page: Ilmarinen's red ship resting on the shore, Vainamoinen and Joukahainen crashing their sleighs into one another. Each page is also surrounded by a border of folk, geometric designs. The result is a book that feels more like a work of art; like painted wooden carvings or tapestries hung on the wall of a cozy log house.

For those (like me) who are not fluent in Finnish, there is a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book. There is also a appendix in which Shepard discusses the origins of the Kalevala and many of the story elements which make up the poem. Interestingly, proper names in the appendix have their correct markings (Väinämöinen), which are left out of the main body of the text; I would hazard a guess that this is for the ease of English-language readers, who would be tripped up by such markings.

I very much enjoyed The Maiden of Northland, and I was happy to be able to add it to my personal library. Recommended to anyone searching for a good children's book, especially one based on epic poetry and mythology.