Recently in Fairytales & Retellings Category

Dragon Feathers

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illustrated by Olga Dugina & Andrei Dugin, retold by Arnica Esterl
September 2010
The well-known traditional tale about a woodcutter's son on a mission to pluck three feathers from a dragon's back. The book was first published in German as Die Drachenfederen in 1993, and Floris Books is to be congratulated for bringing it to an English reading audience (translation by Polly Dawson) because the illustrations by the husband-and-wife illustrating team are exceptionally good and, on some of the spreads at least, medieval in their attention to detail.

Nut Cracker

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Jan Pienkowski/David Walser
Autumn 2008

David Walser and Jan Pienkowski have combined again to great effect in retelling The Nutcracker. Like two craftsmen plucked from the story itself, they have created a spectacular piece of art. The cover is glittered, with gold foil edging and embossed accents. At the cover's centre, a heart-shaped cutout reveals the lovers. Inside, illustrating the story, there are five full-page illustrations with white paper silhouettes on sparkling, textured backgrounds. The finale is a stunning 3D picture, complete with fairytale castle, trees, icicles and the lovers in a horse-drawn sleigh.

The original story is not the most straight-forward tale but Walser does an admirable job bringing to life the spells and magic of Uncle Drosselmeier and the furious battles with the Mouse King and his army.

It is a book that will delight children of all ages from the moment they first spy it in a bookshop or unwrap it for themselves. It is perfect for reading aloud to KS1 but is equally sought after by children as old as 10 and 11. I read this with a small group of girls who are normally reluctant to read aloud. They were completely captivated from start to finish.

reviewed for ACHUKA by Michael Lucchesi

The Fables of La Fontaine

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Jean De La Fontaine, Trans. C. J. Moore, Ill. Jean-Noel Rochut
Floris Books
Sep 2006
A well developed literary palate has a taste not only for fiction and fact, but also for folk-tales, for poetry, for drama and for fables. French poet and fabulist Jean La Fontaine (1621-1695) took inspiration from Aesop, Horace and the Panchatantra for his own three collections of fables.

A selection of over one-hundred of these has been translated by author and linguaphile C. J. Moore. They are made available, illustrated in full-colour throughout, by Floris Books. Incisive, satirical and always insightful, this selection includes such classics as �The Two Mules� one with his load of salt and the other of sponges and is told with lyrical, rhyming, poetic diction.

Perfect tales with bite at their beginnings and the characteristic sting of the moral at their ending, these translations of the fables are fresh, fun and filled with verve and vitality.


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Geraldine McCaughrean
Oxford University Press
January 2006
Cyrano de Bergerac and his cousin Roxane are a couple of literature�s most frustrated lovers. Fifteen years after the death of Roxane�s late husband, Christian de Neuvillette, their relationship remains constrained by his memory.

Cyrano explains how the pair ended up in this situation. It�s the story of how Roxane was seduced by Christian�s words both written and spoken and how de Bergerac wrote those enticing entreaties to win the heart of the woman he loved for another.

Add in Cyrano�s embarrassment about his rather prominent protuberance, dashing heroism and a sneaky rival in the shape of the Comte de Guiche and all the elements are in place for a classic historical romance.

This is not a tale that has hidden its light under a bushel. Movies in the shape of Cyrano, staring G�rard Depardieu, and Roxanne, Steve Martin, have brought this story to life in traditional and updated environments.

Geraldine McCaughrean�s version is based on the original play by Edmond Rostand and opts for the traditional setting of seventeenth France. It has all the lyrical richness that the tale demands, Cyrano�s swagger is admirably conveyed, Christian is suitably eager and dumb.

The machinations of the Comte provide a darker background for some of the more pantomime moments and everything floats along effortlessly.

It is also book that opens up the debate about the merits of retelling a classic tale: is such a work more valuable than the more �full-on� challenge of inventing your own characters, setting and plot? Is it merely a buswoman�s holiday for McCaughrean?

The marketing team at Oxford University Press won�t care about such writerly concerns, however. They will simply be delighted with the January publication date.

After all, any young beau who wants to convince the object of his affections that he is in touch with his sensitive side on Valentine�s day will find this volume far more effective than a box of chocolates.


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ill. Christian Birmingham text by Geraldine McCaughrean
Nov 2005
I stupidly over-wrote this review when adding a new one. If someone has my original words saved in any format I'd be grateful if they could send them to me so that they can be reinstated. What I remember saying is roughly this: McCaughrean's text (taking its cues from J. M. Neale's well-known carol) is pitch perfect from the start: "So great fires were burning in every palace grate, and twelve days of Christmas feasting lay ahead, silly with song and dance!" Don't you just love that 'silly'?

But it's Christian Birmingham's illustrations that really drive this retelling of the King and the pageboy's charitable visit to a peasant's home. The only other illustrator I can imagine coming near to Birmingham's rich evocation of that peasant-King gathering is P J Lynch. In the following pageturn, revealing such a contrasting scene - a cold aerial view of the snow-smothered cottage and surrounding forest, we see an illustrator at work who really knows how to drive a narrative forward pictorially.

The best new Christmas title of 2005.


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Adele Geras
David Fickling Books
Oct 2005
Anything from the David Fickling YA stable is likely to be substantial, well-written and worth a lot more than a glance. The 400-page Ithaka lives up to these expectations: and yet, for all the brain fodder it offers, all the drama, the big human questions and the beautifully-crafted language, one can�t help wondering how many teenagers will really go for this.

The story is one of waiting. Long years of waiting for Odysseus, who left to fight the war against Troy, to find his way back home, via Cyclops, sirens and the rest. (I hadn�t read Troy, the first of these two volumes, and it�s many years since any scanty contact with The Odyssey, but that didn�t prove significant). Penelope, Odysseus� wife and queen of Ithaka, is struggling to remain true to her husband, to believe in his survival, and to keep all ready - herself most of all - for his eventual return. To a greater or lesser extent, the royal servants and the whole of the island do likewise. Clearly the memory of Odysseus, the tales of his heroism and the need for a king have left a long shadow over the island, even affecting those who were no more than babies when their lord left. The goddess Pallas Athene adds to Penelope�s straitjacket of duty and faith by telling her that 'as long as you are here, unchanged and unchanging, he will come to no harm'. To this end, the queen spends endless hours at her loom, weaving the images of her husband�s adventures and of his ship always heading for home. Meanwhile the hero�s ancient dog, Argos, pads around the place and dreams also of his master returning, whilst Telemachus, Odysseus� son returns again and again to the armoury to take down his father�s massive hunting bow and marvel at it.

Yet the nature of life is change, and as time goes on, the strain of the waiting becomes a curse to the islanders. Soon, many are arguing that Penelope should declare her husband dead and marry again. The queen herself is emotionally and physically unfulfilled and restless, and the palace starts to fill up with a rabble of violent and unsavoury suitors, bringing chaos and disorder. As with a Shakespearean comedy, the idyll of Ithaka becomes tainted and corrupted by misunderstanding, deception, doubt: the reader can only wonder whether order is ever to be restored.

Much of the tale is told through the eyes and the growing pains of Klymene, the queen�s maidservant, and this is its strength, for the loves and losses of the younger characters around the palace are often the most touching and immediate. As a whole, however, there is a distance, a lack of either an emotional hook or a compelling, urgent story, that mars the narrative. Add that to the air of gloom that prevails � 'How much wickedness there was in the world. It was a wonder people found even a small amount of happiness in the midst of all the anguish' - and we are firmly in the realm of Greek tragedy, where the gods have their sport of poor mortals. For those who desire such a read, you couldn�t do better.

The Fairy Tales

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Jan Pienkowski (translated by David Walser)
Oct 2005

This is a sumptuous season for fairy tales. Lauren Child�s covetable version of The Princess and the Pea is the sort of book all real princesses will want to hoard beneath their pillows. There is the much less crafted, but fun, Mixed Up Fairy Tales, from Hilary Robinson and Nick Sharratt, which lets children play around with all the familiar components - like the old game of Tops and Tails � so Goldilocks can be bossed around by two horrid stepsisters, then move in with seven dwarfs before being woken by a band of forty thieves.

But even amongst all this splendour, there is one new collection of fairy tales which has the quality of an heirloom, the kind of book you might buy for a child now, but sense that in thirty years it will be on a shelf, its vividness undimmed, for some other child to rediscover. Jan Pienkowski, (he of Meg, Mog � check out page 15 of The Fairy Tales - and Owl fame), has gathered together the most popular tales of the brothers Grimm and illustrated them with such clarity and such novelty of vision it really is like new lamps for old.

All the favourites are here, Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, although I�m pretty sure this is the first time Sleeping Beauty has been depicted straight off the delivery bed.

I have been reviewing children�s books for some three years now, and the one lack in the market has been a collection of fairy tales to treasure. There are plenty of Disney-fied versions, and plenty of mediocre ones with pictures as flat as their narration. More often than not these books are labelled A Treasury.

Well let us now hail true treasure. In black and white silhouettes, on the thickest of white paper edged in silver, Pienkowski has reworked the oldest genre in the world with the most ancient of skills: real magic.