Although books of fairy tales abound, it's always a pleasure to read a new version of a well-known story, probably because recognition augments the reading experience. Different versions of folk or fairy tales offer young readers fresh ways to explore old material which is rich in the folklore of many cultures.
This fall, Annick Press, Tundra Books and Groundwood include picture books steeped in three well distinguished oral traditions: Stephan Jorisch's As for the Princess? is a folktale from Quebec; Richard Ungar's Rachel Captures the Moon is a Chelm story out of the Yiddish storytelling tradition; and, Adwoa Badoe's The Pot of Wisdom is a collection of Ananse stories from the Ghano-African tradition.
In As for the Princess?, we meet Simon, the youngest of three brothers who, like a typical Simpleton character, sets out on an adventure without even realizing it. His situation quickly changes from a fairly prosperous one to one in which almost all is lost. But Simon, in spite of (or perhaps because of), his naivetT stumbles upon a solution to his problems and ingeniously turns the table time and again to his advantage. Order is restored, the villain is punished and Simon lives happily ever after.
In this retelling of the The Princess of Tomboso, Jorisch successfully highlights with text and pictures the humour of the story from the first to the last page. Its ironic title, which begins and ends the story, establishes the light tone of the narrative voice, matched by the conversational, quick dialogue and by the exaggerated poses and actions of the comical characters inhabiting the book's watercolour illustrations. Jorisch's characters are almost caricatures in the way in which they show their thoughts and give vent to their feelings. His theatrical compositions are like scenes from a Commedia dell'Arte show¨costumes, make-up and scenery supporting a large part of the drama.
In Richard Ungar's Rachel Captures the Moon there isn't just one simpleton, but many, in fact a whole village of them¨the inhabitants of the village of Chelm. Time seems to stand still in Chelm and it's a place where people are still intrigued by the most elementary questions, like children, when they first notice the world and its mysterious nature. And so the moon, up in the sky, brilliant and luminous, cannot be unattainable: there must be a way to bring it to Earth, closer to human touch and sight. Many are the men and women who try their hand at capturing the moon, by charming, enticing or coaxing it. Each villager with his or her special craft reaches up for the moon. But no one is able to bring it to Chelm. They are almost ready to give-up when a young girl, Rachel, finally captures the moon. It is only when we see with a child's eyes that we can find the magic. Ungar's intense watercolour paintings create a dream-like quality, a far-away feeling in the air of Chelm. The compositions have unusual angles and perspectives creating a different sense of distance. The deep hues of red, blue and purple are in contrast to the brilliant gold of the moon large and magnificent in the night sky. The subdued gaze and demeanor of the characters, busy at work, sometimes alone or together in groups working to achieve their unachievable goal also puts in contrast the ordinary world below with the extraordinary world above.
If Rachel, like Simon, is ingenious, Ananse is a trickster par excellence, a naturally cunning rogue or hero, or indeed both. In The Pot of Wisdom, Adwoa Badoe retells several of the most well-known Ananse stories. Ananse moves from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again, and every time it's Ananse's ingenious wit that moves him forward, or backwards, whatever the case may be. Only Ananse behaves in such outrageous and unpredictable out-of-this world ways that he becomes a bigger-than-life character, beyond judgement or morality for the most part. We find out why spiders live in corners or how Ananse became the owner of stories. He accomplishes many deeds and at times he even appears as if he has gained wisdom. And yet, he remains one of us, perhaps because he still does foolish things that make us laugh.
Adwoa Badoe fluently retells the stories as she heard them told by her grandmother. The narrative flow is easy and relaxed, but at times the reader looses the oral voice's inflection typically light and warm in traditional storytelling fashion and the endings sound more moralistic than intended. The color illustrations are reproduced from hand-made glazed ceramic tiles which are rich in texture and tone. Baba Wague Diakite carefully depicts landscapes full of things, animals, symbols and people from Africa. An abundance of earthen color takes us deeper into the hot tropical land. Ananse is everywhere, in different costumes and disguises. Framing some of the color illustrations are tinier black marker drawings of Ananse and on the last page a magnificent bowl is reproduced, with Ananse at the centre, surrounded by all the animals of the jungle.
Art and story in each of these books are blended harmoniously to create pleasurable reading for children and their parents. At the same time readers can experience the folklore tradition first hand and be culturally enriched.
Mariella Bertelli is a writer, storyteller and children's librarian at the Toronto Public Library as well as a partner in Mary Contrary Associates.