Grimm and Not-So-Grim

By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, July 29, 2007

The best way of passing on a fondness for folk and fairy tales is, of course, to read them aloud, letting kids imagine their own Cinderellas, Rumpelstiltskins and magical landscapes. But then comes the fun of discovering how differently others see them.

Poet and professor John Cech offers a smooth, transparent retelling of the Grimm brothers' The Elves and the Shoemaker (Sterling, $14.95), lit by touches of lyricism: "The elves finished their work, lined up the shoes on the bench, and left the shoemaker's shop like two whispers in the wind." But Russian illustrator Kirill Chelushkin depicts a much murkier world, all blood-red and shadow-gray, whose topsy-turviness reflects the disorienting effect of these supernatural visits on the down-on-his luck tradesman and his wife.

Hang on for a wild ride with South Africa's Niki Daly, who in Pretty Salma (Clarion, $16) picks up the tale of Little Red Riding Hood and plunks it down in Ghana. He has a good time messing with it. Skinny little Salma dons a blue head scarf and a red-and-yellow wraparound skirt rather than a red riding hood (what's a riding hood, anyway?) for her trip to the market. Mr. Dog stands in for the wolf. And that bad canine dresses up as Salma to hoodwink Granny, rather than the other way round as the original calls for. But the moral about steering clear of strangers is the same, and Daly's airy, action-packed illustrations are hilarious.

Caldecott Honor-winner Rachel Isadora also looks to Africa in her simplified version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea (Putnam's, $16.99). The text sticks to time-honored fairy-tale phrasing: "Once upon a time, there was a prince. The prince wanted to marry a real princess, so he traveled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady." But the brown-skinned hero is decked out in rainbow-colored headgear and robes with kente cloth accents (he gets a wardrobe change on nearly every page), while the "ladies" are beauties from Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya, complete with neck rings and head-to-toe body paint. And the real princess, she who can feel a pea through 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds, sports some truly fine dreadlocks.

In September, Putnam publishes Isadora's even more gorgeous African-inspired take on the Grimms' The Twelve Dancing Princesses ($16.99). It could be worth another Caldecott nod.

Austria's Lisbeth Zwerger has won awards for her subtle interpretations of the Grimm brothers, Andersen, Lewis Carroll and others. Now she works her wry magic on The Bremen Town Musicians (Minedition, $16.99), the tall tale about a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster -- all past their prime but still quick-witted -- that is one of the funniest collected by the Grimms. Don't be deceived by the prettiness of Zwerger's watercolors; little visual jokes lie in wait everywhere.

British illustrator Angela Barrett, known for her ethereal, flower-strewn style, holds the chocolate-box tendencies in check in her pictures for Max Eilenberg's superb retelling of Beauty and the Beast (Candlewick, $17.99). Giving the 18th-century French tale a 19th-century setting, Eilenberg plays up both its comic strain and its emotional intensity. There's certainly more Dickens than Disney in the bluff merchant father and the "strange, sad monster who seemed so hateful and yet so full of hurt; so eager to please and so easy to pain." Barrett does justice to both aspects, so we won't begrudge her that rose-bedecked final flourish.

Andersen, master of strangeness, never wrote a stranger story than The Tinderbox, given a vivid new translation here by Stephen Mitchell (Candlewick, $17.99). Unlike most of the Grimms' tales, this unsettling story of an unscrupulous soldier saved from the gallows by three magical, huge-eyed dogs appears to value cunning over virtue. Still, it is a compelling yarn, and Bagram Ibatoulline's delicate watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations bring out its latent, violent weirdness very well. One quibble: The translation I knew as a child said the dogs' eyes were as big, respectively, as teacups, mill wheels and a tower; Mitchell compares them to clocks, dinner plates and wagon wheels. I have no idea what the original Danish said, but I do know the pictures in my book showed them growing horrifyingly from one dog to the next. In Ibatoulline's illustrations, those eyes -- the stuff of nightmares -- hardly grow at all. Maybe this is one case where kids' imaginations need no outside help. ยท

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at

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