Once upon a time, there was a French minister of state (retired), there were two German librarians and philologists, and there was a Danish country boy who’d hoped to make his name as an actor. Before them and since them and because of them was a growing collection of stories, sometimes loosely moral, sometimes mildly sinister, often more ambiguous and a good deal more lurid than anything we’d consider putting in front of today’s three- to six-year-olds. (Did you know about Sleeping Beauty’s mother-in-law, the ogress who took a notion to eat first her grandchildren and then her daughter-in-law while her son was conveniently away on business? Read Charles Perrault’s original and you’re in for a surprise or two. Were you aware of the version in which Cinderella’s stepsisters hack off parts of their feet in order to try and fit the slipper… which, while we’re at it, was not the dreamy but impossible verre, glass, but ver, squirrelskin, in which there was a lucrative medieval trade? And I’m willing to guess your favourite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale isn’t the catalogue of infernal torments that is The Girl who Trod on a Loaf…) Fairy tales in their earliest versions weren’t corralled in the children’s corner: when books were scarce, and other media nonexistent, and life itself was arbitrary and brutal enough, a good story was shared currency and had no need to be sanitised. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected fairy tales (or household tales, as they were then known) not to feed children’s delicate dreams but to capture natural, unselfconscious instances of the spoken language. (The comprehensive German language dictionary which was their chief scholarly goal was finally finished in the middle 20th century, 150 years after their death.)
Fairy tales are very resilient things. I can think of no other collection, whether Bible stories, Greek myths, Aesop’s fables or the like, that has been so whittled down, endlessly recast and embellished, yet remains instantly recognisable and entirely itself. Disney’s Cinderella with her tame mice and friendly birds is a million whimsical miles from the panto version with its hairy fairy and bumptious Buttons – but they’re both unquestionably Cinderella, rags to riches, you shall go to the ball, and if the shoe fits, it’s happily ever after. Fairy tales are so resilient, in fact, that they’re one of the first things we learn to parody: we recognize all the characters instantly, we have their entire stories in a name, and so there’s something especially gratifying, clever and subversive in (say) Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, where we learn “what really happened” in Dahl’s genial, gleeful couplets:
“A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, ‘Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.’ ”
Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? has the lovely conceit of a boy dreaming his way into the storybook, where he discovers that certain of his book-related misdemeanours (crumb-spilling, scribbling, cutting-out) have caused all kinds of inconvenience in the conventional story: an abundance of noisy telephones, a snarky stepmother and a particularly bratty Goldilocks on his case, a missing prince and a bereft Cinderella. How can Herb put everything (well, nearly everything) right? Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? was an all-time favourite bedtime story in this household – not only one that the under-fives requested over and over, but also one their parents didn’t mind reading again and again – a rare tribute.
The under-fives moved on to Don’t Cook Cinderella!, an early outing from Francesca (Horrid Henry) Simon with illustrations from Tony Ross – I suppose it’s natural when you think about it, but loose, sketchy illustrations go with fairytale parody the way ravening wolves go with forests. Beyond the brilliant title and set-up (fairy-tale heroes and villains-to-be in infant school), I have to admit I didn’t love Don’t Cook Cinderella! quite as much as Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book?, but it’s fair to say the then under-sevens listened to it tirelessly.
Fairy tales, whether traditional or revisited, become part of the landscape for beginner readers. Traditional versions give beginners the reassurance and gentle support of a story that they essentially know (parents, don’t underestimate this: what might appear to be going over old and familiar ground for you is hugely comforting and encouraging for the new reader). Revisionist fairy tales offer some of the same reassurance, yet attach their own quirks and challenges: that’s not what I remember, how did that happen, now we’ve gone off in an entirely new direction and what happens next? Or perhaps, as in Philip Pullman’s delightful I Was a Rat!, recognition comes slowly and understanding dawns: that’s who the mystery boy really is, that’s why he did what he did, that’s the mysterious princess; and just as everything threatens to end horribly and unfairly, that’s why we can be sure of a last-minute reprieve and the clearing of misunderstandings.
Looking younger but pitched older, Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle is a beautiful oddity, handsomely produced in picture-book format with sumptuous Chris Riddell illustrations and gilding on every page. Gaiman’s writing is Baroque jewellery, compelling, consummately crafted and exquisitely odd; and is a delight for reading aloud, both for the read-to and the reader, who begins to perceive the brilliant collision of two of the most popular fairy tales of all – just as Gaiman introduces a spectacular twist in the narrative thread. I’ve not heard how this plays with the smallish children for whom the format suggests it’s intended: my guess is that they might be slightly spooked by Riddell’s increasingly unsettling figures, sleep-sodden and cobweb-shrouded, even before they reach the allusion to the one awake figure in the sleeping city being obliged to kill the livestock, inexpertly, one at a time, to survive the long, silent years. For the resident ten-year-old, it was a clever birthday present, and she relished not only the hommage but the storytelling craft; she’s a fairly robust reader, and a fully-paid-up Chris Riddell fan, so the combination could not have been better. (Incidentally, there is a Neil Gaiman Hansel and Gretel published in similar format, with dark and atmospheric illustrations by Lorenzo Mattotti; be advised that it is quite a straight retelling, and perfectly fine in its way, but without any of the extra imaginative filigree of The Sleeper and the Spindle.)
It’s surely hard to match Pullman and Gaiman, and for readers of 7+, I don’t think much does. I’d read good things about Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, and the in-house reviewing team enjoyed it particularly in the first volume’s audiobook version, The Fairytale Detectives. Reading some while after they did, I had the disadvantage of coming to it right after two particularly good YA fairytale reworkings (of which more in the next post). The Fairytale Detectives shared the same, you might say, high concept treatment as the YAs, but somehow it didn’t quite sing: with at least a nod to Lemony Snicket, two orphan girls are shunted from a series of hopelessly unsuitable foster families to an unknown grandmother in upstate New York. Granny Relda’s ways are peculiar and her multicolour cooking even more so: elder sister Sabrina has her down as a phoney from the start. On the first night, the girls attempt to run away, and are overwhelmed by… pixies? Soon they are learning their true nature and calling, as descendants of those Grimms and responsible for policing a town full of fairytale characters. Fairytale characters in upstate New York? Suddenly I had a bad case of déjà vu, surely no more than coincidence: the smart, prolific and most-definitely-not-for-children graphic novel series, Fables, in which fairytale characters relocate to NYC (for the human elements) and the upstate Farm (animals and others). Old King Cole is the mayor, Snow White his highly capable administrator and Bigby (Big Bad) Wolf an effective enforcer, while Cinderella leads a double life as boutique shoe store manager (what else?) and international super-spy. Jack (né Horner, late of the Beanstalk and so on) is an unrepentant wide boy and not-too-loveable rogue. Prince Charming, also not too loveable, decides to run for office against Cole, and is duly elected mayor… the range of fairytale, folktale, mythical and legendary characters is a bookish delight and full of invention (Goldilocks as a brattish agitprop-spouting anarcho-terrorist, yes, that makes sense). Over in Sisters Grimm-land, the writing and the visual description are Technicolor-intense, and the US-based publishers have given it the best instant-classic treatment, with clothbound gold-blocked hardbacks, roughcut pages and atmospheric full-page black-and-white illustrations. More déjà vu: illustrator Peter Ferguson’s rounded figures somehow put me in mind of Pixar animation, and it came to me: this isn’t a children’s book so much as a treatment, crying out for film adaptation. Perhaps it soon will be, or is even now… in which case I do rather hope they’ll call in a genuine Brit to improve the off-key Mockney of at least one key character.
I read the first chapter of Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories and then, so help me, I could go no further. It’s not terrible: all the ingredients are there, and capably combined. Its heart is in the right place – but I have to say, mine was soon elsewhere. I don’t know, try for yourself – what did I miss?
Far more enlivening was Lyn Gardner’s Into the Woods, looking promising from the outset as a handsome David Fickling hardback illustrated by the peerless Mini Grey. The set-up is smart, the characters strong (capable eldest sister Aurora, brave and wayward Storm and baby Any – short for Anything, after her bereaved father’s anguished cry, “Call her anything!”), the writing vivid and the plotting as taut as one might well expect from an acclaimed theatre critic. In time-honoured fashion, the three are left to fend for themselves and survive on their considerable wits while pursued by a deeply sinister exterminator and his wolf-companions; in time-honoured fashion, the safe haven and kindly lady who appear in their hour of need are anything but (never, ever eat the gingerbread). Then again, the dread ogress Mother Collops isn’t quite the monster the girls have been led to expect… The fairytale references pop up like distant relations at a wedding: some instantly recognisable, others taking a little longer to place: the girls’ mother Zella, rescued by their dashing father from an impossibly tall tower, or the terrible risk to Aurora of pricking her finger on her sixteenth birthday. In the best fairytale tradition, too, there are some truly dark and troubling moments: the village apparently abandoned moments before, the food still hot and the mugs of beer still half drunk on the bar, the little skeleton in the cellar, the girl in the graveyard playing knucklebones with, well… As the story builds, happy ever after seems less and less likely, what with baby Any kidnapped, evil Dr. Wilde all set to marry Aurora, Storm on the point of being burned as a witch and, worst of all, one unspeakable choice driving the sisters apart. Although the pitch becomes more and more febrile, it’s no spoiler to say that the worst doesn’t happen and the villains get their just deserts… or do they?
And then we approach Young Adult territory, and things start to become really interesting. Ella, Enchanted has not one but two publishing equivalents of the fairytale birth-curse: it has a frankkly lame cover, and a tepidly-received movie version (overlook both, and in best fairytale tradition you will be rewarded). More encouragingly, it is a Newbery Honor book (the Newbery being the highest children’s book award in the US) and, from the first paragraph in, you’ll see why: a monstrous liability of a fairy gift, a fairy too vain and self-important to imagine the consequences, and a superbly feisty, clear-eyed and likeable heroine whose lapses are entirely understandable, whose resilience is admirable and whose ingenuity in working the most hopeless of situations to her advantage makes you want to cheer in public places. Ella’s “gift” is obedience: tell her to sit still and she must. Tell her to hop on one leg all day and she has no choice. Tell her to cut off her own head and she’d have to. Tell her to cut off someone else’s head… now you begin to see. Gradually you become aware of echoes: the prince Charmont (“Call me Char. Everyone does”), the two ghastly sisters Hattie and Olive with whom Ella is obliged to attend an excruciating finishing school, and the actual fairy godmother found in the last place Ella might imagine. Again and again, Ella manages to sidestep her gift in order to make a friend and make her life bearable. Almost by accident, she subverts court protocol and proves a breath of fresh air and true friend to Char; but when the friendship looks to become something more, she’s the first to realise the terrible danger she represents, and the devastating step she must take to prevent it. Fairy tale ending? Well, of course there’s a fairy tale ending, but by then it seems so unlikely that you simply have to read on to see how it’s possible at all. Oh and as a linguist by training, extra cheers for a story in which a gift for languages is not only relevant but actually life-saving.
So many treats to come: if I carry on, this post will collapse under its own weight. Let me take a break for a week or two, and I’ll come back to the teens and young adults (and perhaps even the adults proper) then.
You thought fairy tales were just for kids? Whatever gave you that idea?