Category Archives: Fairy tales

The Goldsmith and the Master Thief

Pushkin Children’s Books know when they are on to a good thing. So does the Resident IT Consultant who has, yet again, got his mitts on the most recent of the new translations of Tonke Dragt’s books. And I have to say, they always look very appealing:

“The Goldsmith and the Master Thief, by Tonke Dragt, is another translation of a Dutch children’s classic from Pushkin. Originally published in 1961, De Goudsmid en de meesterdief is essentially a series of fairy tales set in a medieval world which, in my mind, seemed to owe something to Bruegel’s paintings.

Tonke Dragt, The Goldsmith and the Master Thief

Laurenzo and Jiacomo are identical twins, and many of the stories depend on the fact that no one can tell them apart. As we read, we see their characters develop through a series of exciting adventures. Magic pays no role in these, though it often appears as if it might. Nevertheless, the tales, twelve in total, have something of the character of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. At other points they could almost be the plot of one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The translator, Laura Watkinson, is the same as for Tonke Dragt’s other books published by Pushkin. As with these, her clear, straightforward language probably makes a significant contribution to the readability of the book.”

I am obviously still in Hans Christian Andersen land, and it really does seem as if this would also make an excellent Christmas present for someone. You will know who.

The Snow Queen

I appear to have come to a Hans Christian Andersen spot. It’s a nice place to be, now that December gets a move on, and it’s Advent. It doesn’t all have to be Andersen, however. Even though The Snow Queen originally is his, this version is by Geraldine McCaughrean.

But however great they both are, and you know they are, what really truly makes this book are the illustrations by Laura Barrett. The are simply fabulous, and I’d be quite happy to ‘read’ only her pictures, with no words at all. Done in silhouette in black and white with some pale blue, this is the most beautiful volume.

Geraldine McCaughrean and Laura Barrett, The Snow Queen

The story is the same it always was, about two young friends torn apart when the Snow Queen whisks the boy away to her palace. And then the girl searches everywhere for her soulmate, never giving up until she finds him.

It’s all very satisfying, at least if you don’t have to endure the cold, and it’s nicely romantic, and just as a fairy tale should be.

Invisible in a Bright Light

‘Se det var en riktig saga det,’ as you occasionally – but far too rarely – say.

I could have wept with happiness reading Sally Gardner’s new book for younger readers, Invisible in a Bright Light. I found myself removed from adulthood and now, straight back to my Hans Christian Andersen days.

Sally Gardner, Invisible in a Bright Light

The fact that Sally has set her story in ‘the city of C-‘ some time in the 1800s helps with the belief that you’re in Copenhagen, which I think you are. It’s where Sally discovered the fantastic chandelier that stars in this story, and it’s where Celeste and her sister Maria would like to be, only to find themselves in the city of C- instead.

As in all the best fairy tales there is confusion and displacement and an urgent need for things to be put right. Celeste, and Maria before her, is unsure where she is and what’s happened. She/they only know that life seems wrong, somewhat dreamlike, and hidden, as if there’s something they can almost touch.

But what is it? And why do some people think Celeste is crazy?

Set in a theatre in a magical city, shortly before Christmas, we meet a host of interesting characters. Some of them Celeste feels she’s known before, somewhere else. Maybe. There’s something she can’t quite put her finger on.

Drama, intrigue, an evil witch, some very talented children, a good King and a sad clown and many others fill Sally’s tale. What’s more, if this is indeed Copenhagen, she writes about it as it might have been, and not as an English town. Places are different, and authors need to show the reader this.

The whole book is so magical! Or did I already say?

Read Invisible in a Bright Light and let yourself be transported back to childhood. Give your children what you had when you were little. In fact, with Christmas so close, this is the book that can be – needs to be – given to everyone, no matter what age.

Magic with snow. And the clock is ticking.

The Wind in the Wall

Why don’t adults read more picture books? By which I mean picture books aimed at older readers. They exist, but I don’t believe I’ve come across very many.

Sally Gardner and Rovina Cai, The Wind in the Wall

Well, here is one by Sally Gardner, with illustrations by Rovina Cai. The Wind in the Wall is beautiful, and in a way quite like a children’s picture book, were it not for  the more mature content of cultivating an amazing amaryllis, or a prized pineapple.

It’s full of magic, which must be how the pineapple grew so perfect and caused our main character so much anguish. He is the Duke’s deposed gardener whose fondness for amaryllis lost him his job when the Duke decided he wanted pineapples from now on.

And who enjoys being replaced by a charlatan? Someone who’s both successful and cruel. A bully.

You are swept away by what happens, but at the same time you don’t really know for sure what’s going on. Just as we loved our childhood picture books, The Wind in the Wall enchants the adult reader.

Witches and legends

We talked mostly about toilets. Sometimes you need to cheer yourself up when you’ve strayed too close to the state of things today, as Daughter and I found when we had coffee with Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper after their Stirling Tinkerbell event on Friday.

Kate Leiper and Theresa Breslin at Tinkerbell

Tinkerbell had invited them to do a signing of An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends. We were quite gratified to find a queue out in the street when we arrived. (Not surprising, I suppose, as we discovered the sign outside promised singing by the two ladies…)

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper at Tinkerbell

The deluge of rain had stopped, so we sat on a stone wall outside in the [pedestrian] street, next to the parked police van, studying the fans and waiting for room to enter the shop ourselves.

Kate Leiper and Theresa Breslin at Tinkerbell

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper

We went in to chat for a bit, and Daughter might just have had a slight accident, buying something lovely-looking. Then all of us trooped outside and sat on the stone walls again, while Theresa read her Stirling-based story, with Kate as the crazy man who thought he could fly. Thankfully she only jumped off the wall in the street, not the side of Stirling Castle.

Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper

Kate Leiper

Daughter and I went off to secure and warm up some seats at the Burgh Coffee House before the ladies arrived, each carrying a gift bag full of shop goodies. Where will they keep their new dragons?

Then it was all toilets and laughter.  There were tales about a librarian, and about Terry Pratchett, even a disposable Starbucks mugs, ‘fuel’ in other countries, and so on.

And then I might have suggested they perhaps had trains to catch. They did. I obviously wasn’t trying to get rid of them, but they had further to go than we did.

(Photos by Helen Giles)

Return to Wonderland

Return to Wonderland

Many writers have a relationship with Alice. A whole bunch of them have now written their own new stories about Wonderland and the wondrous creatures you find there. It’s Alice Day on the 4th of July, or so I’ve been told, and here’s a whole new story collection featuring your favourite characters.

In fact, I was struck by how nicely these authors played; they all seemed to have an affinity with a different character from the other authors, which seems to mean there was no fighting. They simply sat down and mused in an interesting way about the Cheshire Cat, or the Knave of Hearts, or any of the others.

To tell the truth, I only ever read the original Alice once, and don’t have a deep and meaningful relationship with any of them. I like tea parties, but prefer them to be normal. I like my head attached. And so on.

Some of these stories were great, lots of fun and interesting new takes on the old tales. I didn’t like all of them the same, but that’s understandable as the eleven authors don’t write the same way, and maybe for me some of Wonderland’s characters are more my cup of tea than others.

‘One morning, Pig woke to discover he had been turned into a real boy.’

How can you go wrong with a start like that?

Sleeping Beauty?

I had been saving this, but it seems the time has come. Do you know your Sleeping Beauties from your Cinderellas, or more pertinently, from your own obscure and weird little passed-down-the-generations tale? Have you even heard of Simon & Garfunkel?

Apparently you can’t use Sleeping Beauty as a reference in academic circles. It’s not politically correct, for one. And secondly, most people across the world will never have heard of her. They’d be at a disadvantage. Whether because it is truly believed that Sleeping Beauty is a rather limited fairy tale, only found in, say, Hollywood, or because most of the rest of the world’s academics are both foreign and ignorant, I don’t know.

The Guardian article about the prohibition on mentioning Sleeping Beauty was interesting in itself. But then, as the Resident IT Consultant said, what happens to the Goldilocks Zone? This term appears to be used by scientists all over the world, and I’d hazard a guess they know what is meant. (They could always Google it, if not.) They’re astrophysicists, so not all that stupid or badly educated either.

I don’t believe the pc brigade have hit on Goldilocks yet. And please don’t let me be the one who leads them to her!

But it’s rather satisfying having the rightness of porridge define planets in other solar systems, don’t you think?

Arnica, the Duck Princess

This newly translated fairy tale by Hungarian Ervin Lázár didn’t, in all honesty, attract me with its title (the princess sounded more like a homeopathic remedy) nor with the illustrations (which grew on me rather when I read the book), but that brief dip into the text that I like to do, made it look both fun and intelligent. And that’s how it turned out to be.

Ervin Lázár and Jacqueline Molnár, Arnica, the Duck Princess

The style of writing is refreshingly modern and amusing, and the plot does have a poor young man for the Princess Arnica, but there are no three* brothers, nor any stupid or unkind parents. The King is lovely, in fact. Very sensible and kind and fair. Arnica herself is apparently not all that beautiful, or at least not until Poor Johnny, as the hero is called, sees her and falls instantly in love, and that makes her beautiful. Poor Johnny is poor, but the King does not mind this.

All would be just great were it not for the wicked Witch,** who casts a spell making the young couple into ducks. But being so very much in love, they decide to take turns being a duck.

And eventually, after many charmingly different little adventures, the two leave their duck-ness behind and everyone lives happily ever after.

What’s so attractive, apart from the fun story, is the language. I have no way of knowing if this is the style of Ervin Lázár, capably translated by Anna Bentley, or if there is some magic happening in the translation. There is an unusual plot device in that in every chapter the author appears to be chatting to a child about how to proceed and what certain things mean, sometimes having new ideas or names introduced into the story, the way a child might come up with odd little things. It’s really very charming.

And as I said, the illustrations by Jacqueline Molnár turn out to be exactly what the book needs.

*You do get twelve of them at one point…

**The Witch, well, she’s really bad. Mostly.

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading

I want to be Lucy Mangan. We are so alike in many ways, but I haven’t read all the books she has, nor can I write like she does. I want to [be able to] write like Lucy Mangan!

I don’t expect that will happen.

I also want to know what her house/library/bookshelves look like. I can’t conceive how you can keep that many books – in a findable way – in a normal house. Assuming she lives in a normal house.

Lucy Mangan, Bookworm

After reading Lucy’s Bookworm, I now love her parents, too. I especially feel I’ve got to know Mrs Mangan better – and that’s without the letter to the Guardian stating that the Mangans were happy to have their daughter adopted by some other Guardian letter writer.

A friend of mine often mentions the fear induced in millions of people by the four minute warning so ‘popular’ in the 1980s. I’d almost forgotten about it, and never really worried all that much. Little Lucy was extremely concerned, but was reassured by her mother, who clearly knew what the child needed to hear. Basically, it would be in the news, so they would be prepared. They’d not send her to school if the end seemed imminent, and they would all die together at home. Problem solved.

Bookworm is about what one bookworm has read – so far – in her life of loving children’s books. She is not repentant (I must try harder), and will keep reading what she wants, as well as keep not doing all those ghastly things other people like, if she doesn’t want to. That’s my kind of bookworm!

This reading memoir is full of the same books we have all read, or decided not to read, as well as some real secret gems I’d never heard of and will need to look for. Lucy rereads books regularly, but doesn’t mention how she finds the time for all this.

It’s been such a relief to discover that she dislikes some of the same books I’d never consider reading, and even more of a relief to understand how acceptable, and necessary this is. Lucy even has the right opinions on clothes. Very useful to know there are sensible women in this world.

I had to read Bookworm slowly. I needed to savour what I could sense wouldn’t last forever. Although one can obviously reread Bookworm, just as one can other books. (Where to find the extra time, though?)

Growing up a generation – not to mention a North Sea – apart, we didn’t always read the same books. But by now we sort of meet in the here and now, and Lucy ends her book by listing a number of today’s must-read authors, and her judgement is almost completely spot on and correct.

So to summarise; I can read the same books. I can probably not store as many in my house. But I will never be able to write as well. (And I rather mind that.)

(According to Lucy, she loves her young son more than she loves books. Bookworm was given to me – after some hinting – by Daughter, whom I happen to love more than books too.)

Through the Water Curtain

Cornelia Funke didn’t like fairy tales as a child. I’m just about with her on that. I did read them, possibly even liked them, but when you think about it, there isn’t much to actually ‘like.’ Is there?

As Cornelia points out in her introduction to her new collection of classic – but less well known – fairy tales, children are less sensitive than us adults tend to believe. I hope that is true, because there are some gruesome stories here, along with some lovely ones too.

I wasn’t really planning on reading all the tales in Through the Water Curtain. But with one thing and another, I discovered I was sitting there, reading one story after another. So much for that.

But I did actually skip one. It was too gruesome for me, adult though I am, and everything. I permitted myself to leave that particularly bloodthirsty and unpleasant tale right where it was. No doubt someone else will find it and enjoy it.

Cornelia Funke, Through the Water Curtain

This is a gorgeous volume, with a cover that I have found myself stroking repeatedly, all in blue and green with gold. Anyone would love to receive one of these for Christmas.

As Cornelia points out, women get a raw deal in fairy tales. There are so many silly young princes and their father the King, and far too many females quite content to marry the cleverest young man, no questions asked.

The pattern of these stories is much the same as in all fairy tales. With one or two exceptions, however, they are mostly new, to me, and to many westerners. Cornelia has long collected tales from all over the world, and in Through the Water Curtain she offers readers plenty of new material.