Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Book Review: Gwinna

"Gwinna" by Barbara Helen Berger was our read of the week. We chose it to fit with our study of vowels, "I" and "O" ~ and that there is a griffin in the story, which was one of the Grimm's fairytales we read this week (that post, hopefully tomorrow). The name of the main character is Gwinna and it is a story about owls - perfect!

Some of you may or may not know that I am a big fan of Barbara Helen Berger and I don't quite understand why her books aren't gracing the shelves in Waldorf Bookstores - maybe they are, but I sure haven't seen them. Her name is probably familiar to some, as the author of such breathtaking picture books as

~ "Grandfather Twilight"
~ "A Lot of Otters"
~ "All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet"
~ "When the Sun Rose"
~ "The Donkey's Dream"

and many more...

Her stories are very reverent, honoring the spirit. I think Pagans would especially appreciate them as they are very in tuned with the nature forces, though Christians will also appreciate the spirituality (The Donkey's Dream is the nativity story told through the eyes of the donkey). They are beautifully illustrated and so dreamy. She uses lots of metaphors and I love that. I had done a review last year of "Grandfather Twilight", a brief summary of "A Lot of Otters" and "When the Sun Rose" which can be found here. I found A Lot of Otters to be very AP :D

Gwinna, now out of print, is her longest book - a chapter book with 16 chapters. It is a story of a husband and wife who desperately want a child, but the months pass and still no baby. They gather their courage and travel into the forest to seek out the "Mother of the Owls" who lives deep in a cave and is feared by the locals.

The Mother of the Owls, an old crone/Mother Earth of types (even the stones are her children), wears a shawl of feathers under which many animals reside. She hears the couples plea and grants their wish, removing a feather from her shawl and telling them that they must hang it over the child's bed for protection. She tells them the child she will give them, a little girl, will be different from the other children and upon her 12th birthday, the Mother of the Owls will come for her. The couple agrees, promising to do as the Old Crone advises.

When they arrive home, there in the cradle, is a baby girl. They name her Gwinna and she grows just as the other children grow, with one exception...she has little nubs on her back which seem to be growing and growing into something more. The mother bounds her back with ribbons to hide the change and as Gwinna reaches the 12th year, her parents begin to panic and bury the feather of protection.

This part of the book is rather dark so some sensitive children might not do too well with it until they are older, though as children who have been exposed to age appropriate fairytales, reading it without too much emotion, my girls did fine with it (at age 7). Gwinna hears the owls and feels called to them one night as a band of them fly to claim her. Her mother and father and the house they live in grow very cold and turn to stone.

Gwinna wanders away and finds herself at the cave of the Mother of the Owls. She is welcomed and embraced as the crone removes her garments and unwinds the ribbons to reveal Gwinna's beautiful owl wings. She is nursed back to health and given fine new clothing and shoes. The tale continues with Gwinna developing a friendship with a little owl called Tobin and she learns to fly. She embraces the Mother of the Owls, whom she affectionately calls Grandmother.

I don't want to spoil too much of this fantastical tale, but it involves a journey to learn the song of the mountain, where Gwinna befriends a dedicated Griffin and a magical tree who gives her life to become a sacred harp that Gwinna had always yearned for. Only when Gwinna learns to let go of something she really loves, does she learn to play the harp - taught by the wind. With her song, she brings life back to her home, healing her mother and father from the stone curse and even restoring Grandmother to full health.

I wish I could play the harp or lyre as it would tie in so beautifully with this story. This book celebrates handwork through woodworking, as Gwinna and the Griffin (a master woodcarver who transforms into a grandfather figure) make the harp with their own hands. They take hair from grandfather's beard and Gwinna's hair to string it with and a fire transposes it into the magical harp it becomes.

This lovely book is probably best for ages 7 and up, maybe waiting until age 8 or 9 for more sensitive children. It involves the 4 elements, the seasons, Mother Nature and fantastical elements, like the Griffin and the beautiful talking tree.

Here are a few illustrations from the book - there are not a lot of illustrations, but the ones in there are very beautiful and fantastical:

We found this to be a very special book, worthy of a spot on our permanent bookshelf.


  1. Thank you for this book recommendation. This is finally one our library has and I made a request to have it delievered to my branch. I'm really looking forward reading it to my children.

  2. That's great your library has it! I hope you all enjoy it, Patzi :D

  3. My boys 4&7 & I love "Grandfather twilight" - it's also a great one to read if bedtime is a bit late and you need a quicker story.

  4. Jen,

    I laughed when I saw this as your BOW. I have this book earmarked to read to my girls, but waiting just a bit longer. After reading the reviews, I felt it may be more a 8-9 yr old book as well. We have the same taste in books! LOL

    Another great job.. can't wait to see what is next.

  5. I am so happy to see you review this book. I just read this with my second grade son in the beginning of our school year and we both LOVED it! Definitely a book that will make its way onto our shelf permanently.

  6. this is one of our all time fav books!! i do not undrerstand either why this book is out of print! we also love "All the Way to Lhasa: A Tale from Tibet" as it is a favorite for Zoe who is 1/2 Tibetan. i think i will review our favorite books also over at ""

  7. Thanks for the comments mama's! I love how *loved* this book is :D

    Herbal Tonya, that is wonderful that Zoe is 1/2 Tibetan! Before I got married, I worked on a documentary about Tibet that Richard Gere narrated. At that time, there were very few Tibetans in America. The few that I had the priviledge of meeting were amazingly spiritual and humble, graceful, and so beautiful. The Dalai Lama really opened my eyes to so much. I was most impressed by his messages of peace and consistent messages of forgiveness for the oppression the Tibetans have faced. What an incredible role model!

    I'm also thrilled you will you'll be doing book reviews! I am heading over to your site to sign up :D

    Blessings to you all!

  8. LOVE her books. Her illustrations are like a dreamland.

    I saw you listed under the top 25 naturopathic blogs on Nurstini. Congrats!


  9. My almost 7yo is enchanted with this book! Today she needle felted herself Tobin. Thanks so much for the recommendation, as I hadn't even heard of this one.

  10. Thanks for letting me know, Lisa! And congrats to you for being on the list, as well :D

    Nics - how awesome! I'd LOVE to see her Tobin. He was my girls favorite character, as well!!!