Monday, August 17, 2009


To read or not to read (fairy tales), that is the question! Today, we have two terrific but tricky books that invite us to consider our audience.

YUMMY: EIGHT FAVORITE FAIRY TALES by Lucy Cousins (Candlewick)
Always yummy is the artwork of Lucy Cousins, famous for her Maisy series and recognizable for her bold, black-outlined gouche illustrations that remind us immediately of work done on an easel in a primary classroom. Here, she offers us a collection of eight classic tales for the nursery (Red Riding Hood, Three Billy Goats Gruff, Enormous Turnip, Henny Penny, Goldilocks, Little Red Hen, Three Pigs and Musicians of Bremen)...well, maybe a nursery with an occasional odd shadow thrown on the wall. As Cousins did in her wonderful NOAH'S ARK, she creates a straightforward, age-appropriate piece that doesn't resort to the revisionist, even if it will ruffle a reader here and there. I was most concerned with an illustration in which the woodcutter gives a wicked wolf's head a clean and onomatopoetic "chop," until I remembered a similarly unsettling illustration in Paul Galdone's THE GINGERBREAD BOY in which the cookie hero is gobbled down in one gulp, which has dependably elicited screams of delight in every storytime. Likewise, when I shared this aloud, the response was less of horror than collective arm-crossing satisfaction that justice was served and swiftly, and moreover, that there is NO BIG BAD WOLF LEFT to harass, say, us. Well! (Insert hand-wiping motion here.) What proved a far worse problem in this reading was reading aloud the story of "Henny Penny" and repeatedly pronouncing "Cocky Locky," and, somehow worse, "Goosey Poosey" amidst a snickering young audience. I don't know what they do in Lucy Cousin's England, but here, it seems even the little kids watch cable.

Fairy tales are a complicated genre. Their imaginative nature make them in high demand for the youngest reader, but their dark, insinuating psychological depth (suggested in the work of Bruno Bettleheim) and lack of political correctness make them thorny terrain, at least for protective grown-ups. On average, I personally do think fairy tales are best introduced around kindergarten and older, but Cousins has put forth a book that will meet the insistent toddler/preschool demand without any literary compromise, for better or worse. Admirable, readable, and generous, who will add this book to their collection? I will, says the Little Red Hen. Maybe you will, too! (3 and up)

Please also check out the remembrance of reading Little Red Riding Hood by the late genius illustrator Trina Schart Hyman. I think her pictures speak a thousand words in defending the drama of fairy tales for young children.

Also of interest:
I'm am a fairy tale purist, but I can't resist telling you about this pretty, precious revisiting of a classic tale that had me torn. Three chairs, three beds, three bowls of porridge...there were also three things that bothered me about this retelling. One: the stylistic perpetual changing of font sizes throughout, characteristic book design of Child's successful and charming Charlie and Lola series, but not necessary everywhere. Secondly, in this version, Goldilocks has a motive in her breaking and entering: someone needs to help her clean her little red shoes that her mother has asked her to keep tidy, but which she has dirtied most accidentally and with no bad intention. How well-adjusted! What a planner! Pah! I much prefer the adorable, bouncy-curled bad seed of a Goldilocks, who breaks and enters with nary a motive but her own shocking sense of entitlement, one who is naughty so that the reader doesn't have to be. Finally, what I love about the traditional telling (like the one by Feodor Rojankovsky) is how unfettered it is; I know exactly what happens next and exactly where it will end, and at bedtime, that is a very good thing. It takes a while for Goldilocks to arrive at the house (and the action), and there were moments in this reading where I felt like shrieking "sweet Mother of Heaven, where are we GOING with this?!" induced by sentences like "I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that..." and that Small Bear "was a sensitive type" and "I know it's strange to find bears living in a little wooden cottage, but this is a fairy tale..." Yes, yes, I know, but chop-chop, do you know it's 9:45 and before me there is a little girl with eyes still as wide open as windows with broken shades?

But the good of this book might well outweigh any complaint. First of all, there are marvelous photographic illustrations, created by posing dolls and miniatures inside sets made for the occasion, reminiscent of Dare Wright's THE LONELY DOLL and also the darling "puppet storybook" style in vogue in the late 1960's and 70's (and still available on Ebay). The detail and whimsy is sure to inspire interest, imagination and play. The text tightens up considerably in the second half to a proper storyteller's clip (have faith!), and the author brings her red shoe device into the story's conclusion with the aplomb befitting her talent, satisfyingly leaving the distraught Small Bear with a new pair of footwear to compensate for all his trouble and loss. Most importantly, the proof is in the pudding (or porridge, as the case may be), and this book did ultimately accomplish the task of a bedtime story. Short it's not, but oh, how sweet it is. (5 and up)

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1 comment:

Julia Durango said...

Loved reading these reviews from Goosey Poosey (ha!) to The Lonely Doll reference (loved that strange book as a child) to the "sweet Mother of Heaven" reaction to too much text in a bedtime story. Great post, Ms. Esme!


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