- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In Whitney Stewart’s latest picture book, “A Catfish Tale,” echoes of an age-old fairy tale spring to life.

A humble fisherman catches, then tosses back a fish who claims to have magical powers. Scolded by his greedy wife, he keeps returning to ask for one seemingly impossible wish after another. They go too far, and the fish takes away everything, returning them to their humble life.

“The Fisherman and His Wife” by the Brothers Grimm, right? But for Stewart, a native of Massachusetts who has made New Orleans a second home, there’s more. Having grown up on the Brothers Grimm as a child and being married to a German native, evoking the spirit of Grimm made sense as she workshopped her latest project at her writer’s group.

She told the other members she wanted to dedicate the book to the late Cajun storyteller, Coleen Salley, who had become something of a mentor to her in the 1990s.

“Someone said, ‘If you’re going to dedicate this to Coleen, then why aren’t you going to make it a Cajun story?’” she recalled. “I didn’t think I could do it. So one day, I sat down and tried to channel my inner bayou and then it happened.”

In “A Catfish Tale,” narrated by an alligator and illustrated by Gerald Guerlais, you can hear both the cautionary tone of the Brothers Grimm and the lyrical splendor of Salley’s work in such classics as the “Epossumondas” series.

Like many aspiring Louisiana children’s authors, Stewart sought out Salley while working on a story for Highlights for Children magazine. They became friends.

The story never materialized, but Stewart’s love of Salley and her storytelling style grew. They bonded over the fact that Salley had once lived in Germany and also was a fan of the Brothers Grimm stories. But really, Stewart could just listen to Salley talk all day.

“She just had this way of speaking that, Oh my God … I’m this Yankee, WASPy, puritanical Mayflower girl, and she was just so loud and full of personality!” said Stewart, who also has written middle-grade novels and young adult biographies. “I truly admired that. It got into me.”

So the book published this year by Albert Whitman & Co. is about Jacques, a poor Cajun fisherman on the bayou. His wife is Jolie, a pretty singer who sings “so true even the cicadas hush up to listen.” But she has aspirations of grandure.

For a while, the catfish is more than happy to oblige Jolie’s whims, prefacing each fulfillment with the phrase, “Ah, tooloulou - if that ain’t the easiest thing to do.”

A copy editor wanted to take out “tooloulou,” Stewart said. She said she politely insisted that the word - Cajun French for fiddler crab - remain.

“This is what kids will remember, this is the magic,” she said. “It’s easy to say. It makes them laugh.”

The key for Stewart was capturing the Cajun voice of the story as much as the words. She’d picked up that voice before Salley’s first picture book was published in 2001. When they met in the early 1990s, Salley had become a legend in the French Quarter and reigned as the queen of her own Mardi Gras walking parade while becoming a fixture as a storyteller at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Kids Tent. She died in 2008, and was honored with a jazz funeral.

Storytellers, including Stewart, were invited to provide a memorial at the following Jazz Fest.

“I could hear her reading this story aloud,” Stewart said of her work. “I had to put in more of that vocal burst that she had into it. Fortunately I had a lot of people encouraging me to play around with it a lot more, and to get more of that musicality into it.

“I owe a lot to her.”

___

Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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