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For Young Readers

Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page BW11

Fairy Tales

Susan Jeffers opts for a traditional take on Cinderella (Dutton, $16.99), peopling Amy Ehrlich's retelling of Perrault's classic with powdered ladies and gentlemen straight from 18th-century Versailles. Yet despite the Disneyesque setting, complete with waterfall chandeliers, stardust, garlands and swans, Jeffers paints her Cinderwench as a strong, thoughtful-looking girl -- with surprisingly big country feet.

In adapting Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina (Dial, $16.99), the tale of a girl "so little she was able to use a walnut shell for a bed," Brad Sneed imagines the world as a person two inches high might see it. A crimson tulip petal is a boat in a bowl-size lake. Cornstalks loom like tree trunks. A beetle soars off the page, with Thumbelina in his giant pincers, like a hairy, armor-plated 747 passing overhead. Throughout, the almost violent intensity of Sneed's palette -- flowers the colors of blood and gold, air so blue it hurts, even the mud-brown of a mouse's claustrophobic hole -- mirrors the intensity of the tiny girl's emotions as she fights to find her niche in the scheme of things.

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The Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger draws out Andersen's wistfulness and whimsy in new illustrations for The Little Mermaid (Minedition, $15.99, translated by Anthea Bell). The story of the mermaid who fell in love with a human prince but sacrificed herself for his happiness is one of the world's saddest. (Andersen wrote, "It was the only one of my works that affected me while I was writing it.") Ethereal full-page watercolors contrast the monotone loveliness of the peaceful undersea kingdom ("a strange, shimmering blue light surrounded everything down there") with the knife-sharp colors of the bright human world above, suggesting the inevitability of the little mermaid's painful choice. Fish, turtles and other sea creatures, as well as the odd dragonfly and cricket, float on the page borders -- oblivious onlookers to the heartbreaking quest for human love and an immortal soul. A beautiful book for all ages.

Andersen is all fun, by contrast, in John A. Rowe's interpretation of The Emperor's New Clothes (Minedition, $15.99). Unlike other recent versions, which set the famous tale in China or cast the red-faced, naked emperor as a frog or a public school principal, Rowe's mostly follows the original -- and his setting is pure 19th-century Copenhagen. Conventional perception stops there, however. On some pages, the quaint, leaning houses are all blue. The emperor is a dandyish Mad Hatter with a clown's nose. His courtiers are a troop of mice and monkeys. The townspeople include a bunch of eccentrically garbed farm animals, a geisha mouse and a flock of top-hatted crows. Only the swindlers who sell the emperor a bolt of nonexistent cloth meet expectations: They are a pair of foxes. Rowe, like the emperor, sees what he wants. Accordingly, he has re-jiggered the ending, substituting happy-go-lucky bravado for Andersen's trademark pathos. Remember how, in the original, the exposed emperor thinks to himself, 'Now I must bear up to the end' and walks on with even greater dignity? Here he laughs out loud as he thinks about how funny he must look (and to give Rowe credit, he does), bows and declares a public holiday. Take your pick -- or both.

Stu Smith makes a notable debut with Goldilocks and the Three Martians (Dutton, $15.99; ages 4-up), a rhyming space-age version of the old cautionary tale in which Goldilocks, fed up with Earth (or her mom), blasts off in a porridge-fueled rocket to look for a more congenial planet. Mars seems "just right" -- until the green, multi-armed, gherkin-shaped Martians show up. Veteran illustrator Michael Garland captures the sheer outlandishness of it all with his kinetic, computer-generated images, but the bonus is that he also makes those glowing, far-off worlds so eerily beautiful.

Finally, another Austrian, Brigitte Weninger, spins an original fairy tale in The Magic Crystal (Minedition, $15.99; ages 4-8), gorgeously illustrated by Australia's Robert Ingpen. Pico is an ugly, shy, lonely dwarf. Nobody visits him but a mean, stinky old troll. Climbing on his mountain one day, Pico comes across some dwarf crystal-miners, whom he charms with his gift for poetry. The crystal dwarves take him to their king, deep in the mountain, who rewards him with a piece of his gigantic magic crystal. All who look through this crystal see things, including themselves, in their true light. Naturally, lives are changed by this -- both Pico's and the troll's. Ingpen's grave, iconic paintings modulate through a rainbow of background colors, from sunshine yellow to midnight blue and back, following the arc of the story. And kids will be mesmerized by the faceted, foil-stamped crystal chips glimmering on each page. I certainly was.

-- Elizabeth Ward


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