"ABOUT ONCE every hundred years," the British fantasy writer C. S. Lewis observed, "some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale." But to judge by the current season's list of fairy tale revivals, those durable old enchantments are not, for the moment, in any danger of being lost or forgotten. Among the new picture books, Grimms' stories predominate, with Lisbeth Zwerger's The Seven Ravens , Nonny Hogrogian's Cinderella and Donna Diamond's The Bremen Town Musicians -- the third rendering of that last tale within the year -- all notable in some way.
First published in Austria, Zwerger's Ravens and a British import, Tony Ross' Jack and the Beanstalk are among the growing number of full-color picture books to be "co-published" here and abroad in order to gain the economies of scale of larger press runs -- and to make available to wider audiences the finest new work, whatever its point or origin.
The well-told original story remains a rarity this spring. But Susan Jeschke's Perfect the Pig is both a well-told and original picture book story.
Illustrated by the Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger, with text translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, The Seven Ravens (Morrow, $8.95. All ages) is among the very few recent books based on a Grimms tale whose illustration are as memorable as their classic text.
A wish, carelessly uttered by an impatient father -- that his seven sons, late in returning home from an important errand, be turned into ravens -- literally comes true. To save the boys, their sister, who for certain reasons believes her own fate to be bound by their misfortunes, sets out in search of them on a journey to the sun, the moon and stars.
Zwerger, in painting many of the story's scenes from above, invokes in visual terms the all-knowing and impassive narrator of the traditional tales. The characters, seen from this vantage point, look perilously small. Yet their individuality and emotional range, as interpreted by Zwerger, are also remarkable. One does not forget the artist's droll -- and yet elegiac -- depiction of the stars as a sparse congress of oddly festive wizard-courtier-clowns. And one smiles knowingly at the satire of a bowing servant-dwarf who with long pointy snout strangely resembles the seven master-ravens imperiously pecking at their evening meal.
Such affecting touches of the comic-grotesque, along with Zwerger's restrained but luminous colors and the unblinking ease with which she mingles details of fantasy and the everyday, remind one of the best work of the celebrated turn-of-the-century illustrator Arthur Rackham, and The Seven Ravens is, with all else, an accomplished homage to that English master.
Her clearest departures from Rackham's style are seen in the illustrations' settings, which Zwerger has left mainly bare with only an atmospheric, shadowy watercolor wash -- suggestive as shadows -- and an occasional ground line, door or other prop painted in to specify locale. In such stark surroundings characters and what few objects obtain to them stand in solitary relief with poignant intensity, as they do in the story itself where impossible occurrences are reported as mere facts and the reader must tell what power of magic or emotion lies behind them.
But in Nonny Hogrogian's Cinderella (Greenwillow, $7.95. Ages 5-9) atmosphere upstages and nearly overwhelms emotion. A softly focused lyric decorativeness that characterizes the illustrations becomes the story's world as though the artist were siding with the beautiful heroine instead of chronicling her fate in the bracingly matter-of-fact way of the traditional tales. By being too pretty, the illustrations do not let us doubt the story's outcome. Emotinally, Cinderella seems both too remote and too near, and drama turns to melodrama in the confusion of distances.
The Grimms' Cinderella , which Hogrogian has chosen to illustrate -- and which is not incidentally the version known to most readers -- is both a menacing and moving story. Enchanting as they are, the fairy godmother who clothes the heroine for the king's ball and the pumpkin-coach-and-four that takes her to and from the party do not occur in this retelling, which depends for its magic less on glittering wands and courtly regalia than on the simple details of a few symbolically charged moments in the young girl's adventure.
Another unfamiliar feature of the Grimms' version concerns a note of violence, which in fairy tales is rarely gratuitous; Hogrogian in retelling a traditional story has shown courage in not ommitting the few pointedly grizzly narrative details that jar the reader into a sudden sharper knowledge of what certain characters are at heart.
In her many picture books, this artist, twice winner of the coveted Caldecott Medal for illustration, has worked in as various an assortment of graphic styles as seemed called for by the stories at hand. Her best books are as different visually from each other as they are alike in the wholeness of their artistic purpose. Yet if the bright and zestful spiciness of her drawings for The Contest , an Armenian folktale that is perhaps her most fully realized picture book, would not have been apt for the in some ways more delicate Cinderella tale, some subtle undercurrent of that earlier book's earthy here-and-now vitality might have lifted Cinderella out of its wistful airs. To gaze, though, at Hogrogian's enigmatic portrait of Cinderella's natural mother, or at the wicked stepsisters' churlish grins, is at least to glimpse a more piquant art in which the illustrator's intensities, and the tale's, are one.
A cunning tale about living by one's wits, The Bremen Town Musicians (Delacorte, $8.95. Ages 4-7) is also curiously touched with a wise and joyful melancholy.
Diamond has cast black-and-white illustrations in a delicate, pinpoint style with flat, silhouette-like images contrasted with other renered in full perspective. The art work and the book's overall design are dramatic in their understatement; in a brief explanatory note the artist reports having attempted to combine the "intimacy and warmth of . . . turn-of-the-century classic books" with contemporary graphic ideas.
As many picture books today merely trade in loud, showy effects, Diamond's experiment is welcome enough, though it does not fully manage in its own terms. Certain flaws in the illustrations (except in silhouette, her human faces, for instance, are less expressive than her animal faces) are distracting and, more than once, that very intimacy she refers to shuts the gate on the story's own expansive mood, which only builds as donkey, rooster, dog and cat set out to make their fortunes on the road to Bremen.
Boisterous as they sometimes were, the Bremen players might have had a good laugh from Tony Ross' Jack and the Beanstalk (Delacorte, $8.95. Ages 6-9), a high-spirited, broadly farcical cartoon-like rendering of the familiar story. Ross' Jack is a tale told for the sheer fun of it and the whole world, as drawn by this artist, seems to lurch or wobble slightly with prankish glee. But here and there the color work (especially in the reds) seems merely out of Ross' (or the printer's) control. And for all the jauntiness and wit of both pictures and text a note of jadedness will linger of some readers, a sense that the storyteller did not at heart want us to believe his tale, but, like him, only to know better.
A modern fairy tale of sorts, Perfect the Pig (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $9.95. Ages 6-9), written and illustrated by Susan Jeschke, begins with the magical granting of a wish: a kind-hearted runt pig reveived a longed-for gift of wings and sets out into the world for high adventure. Landing in a city, an artist befriends him but a small-time shady character soon hustles him away to be exhibited as a side-show attraction. The city, then, is proved an inhospitable place -- at least for one who is a fledgling pig with wings -- though Olive, Perfect's artist friend, looks a bit world-weary herself, painting and growing fruits and vegetables in her apartment; on being reunited, the two of them move to a farm in the country where, we're told, they find "peace and happiness" at last.
It is a strange tale, deadpan and bitter-sweet, wide-eyed and caustically satirical all at once, as are Jeschke's black-and-white pencil illustrations, in which the characters, especially, are wonderfully animated and observed, even if the backgrounds often lack strong enough visual contrasts, leaving the sense of light and spatial depth in them distractingly vague.
But what of the tale's end, that quiet retreat "back to nature?" Jeschke, one imagines, is having her fun. A magical pig, a "sensitive" artist type -- and a growing child -- may indeed all need their safe havens. But Perfect is not so much a naive tale about escape as it is a shrewd story about affection between friends in which -- much as in our world, where shared myths have largely been exchange for private obsessions -- irony comes thickskinned and a single touch of magic is often all one can afford.