Here are five picture books, all illustrated by their authors, each with its own flavor, and all set in countries other than America. Two are retellings, one a translation, one original, and one a mini-biography --a nicely mixed bouquet for summer reading, and looking.
Rapunzel is one of the Grimms' best-known folk tales and this version, retold and illustrated by Jutta Ash, was printed in Italy. They did a nice job; it's handsomely produced. The text is a little bumpy, but the story is all there--a peculiar one, really, when you stop to consider that the witch, alone among all the "good" characters, is without guile. Rapunzel's mother covets the witch's garden greens; the father steals them; Rapunzel trysts with the prince in the tower and later, cast out, bears two children by him; the prince is a stealthy Don Juan. But all pay the piper and so earn their happy endings. At least, Rapunzel and the prince have a happy ending; we don't learn what becomes of Mother and Father.
Ash's pictures are unusual and hard to describe. The best I can do is to say that they have the dusty, muted colors of a tapestry where here and there bright gold threads have been woven in. In fact, close examination reveals a cloth-like texture under the paint, though stippling effects often obscure it. The figures and settings are reminiscent of tapestry, too, at times, in the way tapestries have of filling every inch of space with something to look at, though the feel here has more in it of India than of Europe. I say "figures" because they are more that than characters, being doll-like and mainly impassive throughout.
There is something a little jarring to me in the combination of all these ingredients--it's a rich enough visual stew, but one suspects a good deal of the salt has been left out. Grimm tales, sturdy as they are all by themselves in complete translations, have long had to suffer this indignity, due largely to their adaptability and their availability as handy pegs to hang pictures on. There's no real harm in the practice, but it gets to feel a little repetitious.
Still, in the right hands, some Grimm retellings are welcome. That is the case, I think, with Barbara Cooney's Little Brother and Little Sister. In the first place, this particular story is less well-known than some of the others, and in the second place, the telling here seems both faithful and pleasingly readable. A brother and sister, to escape their evil stepmother, flee into a deep forest where Brother drinks from an enchanted stream and is changed into a fawn. Sister takes him with her to an abandoned cottage where they live simply until one day years later the King comes to the forest to hunt, sees the fawn's golden collar, and is led to the cottage where he finds Sister, falls in love with her, and makes her his queen. The fawn lives with them at the castle, and all is well until the Queen bears a son. Then the evil stepmother comes and by trickery kills her, putting her own daughter in her place. The Queen, now a spirit, comes three times in the night to visit her baby and the fawn, and on the third night is discovered and brought back to life by an embrace from the King, after which everyone gets what he deserves and the fawn becomes Brother once again.
The tale is full of undertones and resonances, and Cooney, wisely avoiding bravura, lets it have its way. Her watercolor paintings are simple and direct, with clear colors and a very nice immediacy to them. The texture of the paper is everywhere allowed to show itself, with the result that you can almost feel the sure sweep of the brush laying in grass, sky, wood, and stone, while details of forest growth, costumes, and faces--these last nicely varied--are added with admirable skill and invention. I happen to think watercolor of this type is the most difficult of all mediums; you have to get it right the first time, or begin again from scratch. Barbara Cooney knows how to do it right, and has made for this story a handsome setting that never overwhelms it.
The Prince Who Knew His Fate is an ancient Egyptian tale here translated and illustrated by Dr. Lise Manniche, a Danish Egyptologist. In an eight-page author's note at the back of the book, accompanied by map, cameo hieroglyph dictionary, and line drawings, sources for all the characters in the illustrations, as well as an explanation of how the story itself was crafted from a papyrus fragment in the British Museum, are presented to the child reader--an interesting addendum. I think the difficulty here is that it's hard to know whether Manniche thought the story worth telling for its own sake or wanted, with pardonable pride, to present an exercise in scholarship. The addendum, and the actual hieroglyphics that accompany each page of text-- somewhat distractingly, for me--would seem to indicate that in toto this is in fact an exercise in scholarship, albeit a happy one, and should be received as such.
The final page carries this caveat: "With the help of the writer, Lise Manniche, the story has reached a happy end. Those who speak evil of it will have to contend with Thoth, the god of the scribes." I have no desire to get into trouble with Thoth, so I will say that the tale here told is a nice, straightforward one wherein a prince, aware that he will be killed by a dog, a snake, or a crocodile, goes bravely out into the world anyway, wins a princess and, escaping snake and crocodile, is torn to pieces by his own dog but is brought back to life by his clever wife.
Though it far predates them, there are elements here familiar from the folktales of Europe, including Sleeping Beauty and The Princess on the Glass Mountain--a comfortable and surprising cross-cultural link. And the pictures, in bold blues, reds, and yellows, are handsome indeed, all copied carefully from relics of the proper period in Egyptian art.
The fact that the book is a scholarly exercise and, as the addendum tells us, "one of the oldest fairy tales known today," won't for a minute endear it to most child readers--for that, it must stand on its own as a satisfying story. On the whole, if one peels back the academic trappings, I think it can, though there is some textual awkwardness--e.g., "But there in the lake was a giant who would not let the crocodile out, and so the crocodile refused to let the giant out"--and dog lovers will shudder over the prince's dog, owned "ever since it was a puppy," who turns on him so savagely. Still, presented in the proper way--story first, with pictures, and background afterwards--it ought to find its audience.
Arnold Lobel's Ming Lo Moves the Mountain is not a retelling of anything, but an original story that is all of a piece with his pictures. It's a very funny story told in a solemn voice that is part of the humor and has, as well, a nice comment to make on faith in the pronouncements of sages.
Ming Lo and his wife live at the foot of a mountain which gives them considerable trouble in the way of falling rocks, making holes in their roof, and too much shade, frustrating their gardening. They decide that the mountain must be moved and Ming Lo goes to the village wise man for advice. The wise man, on reflection-- and much smoke from his pipe--tells Ming Lo first to shove the mountain back with a fallen tree, later to frighten it back by yelling and banging on pots, and still later to enlist the help of the mountain's spirit by offering it lots of bread and cake.
These efforts are all fruitless, and so, on Ming Lo's fourth supplication, the wise man, now almost completely hidden by pipe smoke, suggests that he and his wife take their house apart, bundle it and all their possessions on their backs, face the mountain, and close their eyes. They are then to do "the dance of the moving mountain," which consists of one step at a time backwards, for "many hours," after which time they will find "that the mountain has moved far away." Ming Lo and his wife make this final attempt, and--it works! The mountain is indeed far away and there is "happiness in their hearts."
This is a splendid story, seemingly simple, but finally full of subtleties. Ming Lo is not the fool of traditional tales. He goes for advice, follows it carefully, and his ingenuousness and faith are in the end rewarded.
To back it all up, Lobel has created a soft, pleasing green and brown Orient everywhere made up of curves and circles, and his wise man is just inscrutable enough without tipping over into stereotype. The pictures make it clear that between the wise man and Ming Lo there is a perfect understanding of the ritual of question and answer, a ritual full of mutual respect and formality. And I especially like the mountain, which has a sort of draped, implacable look to it as it looms on its haunches behind Ming Lo's house, wearing a halo of mist. It is only peripherally derivative of Chinese painting; mainly it is Lobel.
But to say that it is "Lobel" is misleading; one of the things that is admirable about Lobel's work is that he is able always to adapt his style to the demands of the story, and that is a rare quality. It demonstrates courage, flexibility, and responsiveness, three of the factors which contribute to his solid and well-deserved reputation.
Tomie de Paola's style is nearly always the same, but it suits his newest book, Francis, the Poor Man of Assisi, wonderfully well. This work was a sheer labor of love, for the author's note tells us that de Paola has had a life-long interest in St. Francis and has for years been planning to write about him. The book has appeared on the 800th anniversary of the saint's birth and has, throughout, a glow that can only come from the deepest concern for the subject.
The author's note also tells us that the book is a distillation arrived at after reading everything available on the lives of Francis and his companion saint, Clare. If so, the decisions as to what to include and what to leave out have been good ones, for the book moves well from event to event, each one a mini-chapter contained on a single left-hand page with illuminated opening capital and a simple scene at the bottom, while on the right a full-page illustration occupies the same kind of nicely balanced space.
The impression here given of Francis is that of a flesh-and-blood human, in spite of all the legendary miracles that surround him, and that is something of a miracle in itself. In simple, direct prose, de Paola tells of an unruly boy, son of a rich man, whose life is slowed by two long illnesses and then forever altered by a vision of the voice of the Lord from a crucifix in an old church near Assisi. The first steps that lead Francis forward from that moment read very much like an account of a flower child of the 1960s, but the difference becomes evident as the story progresses: Francis does not return to his "senses" but devotes his life entirely to his religion, attracting a large group of followers, achieving papal recognition for the Order, and, eventually, sainthood two years after his death in 1226.
This is a story worth reading no matter what one's philosophies. It is an uncomplicated account which reports both the miracles and the public skepticism without comment, bringing Francis to life in a way that helps the reader to understand something of the flavor of altree, l great obsessions. De Paola has been careful to avoid all pietistic sog both in text and pictures, and the latter are quite wonderful, I think: strong outline, soft colors, no fussy detail anywhere, a nice feeling for the countryside and architecture of the place and time. All of the things that are positive about his style work well for him here, including the fixed serenity of his faces. Only once in the book is a face shown open-mouthed, giving it the emphasis it needs: a picture of Francis near death, leading his companions in song. De Paola is to be congratulated for a beautiful piece of work. CAPTION: Illustration 1, no caption, by Barbara Cooney from "Little Brother and Little Sister"; Illustration 2, from "Francis: The Poor Man of Assisi," by Tomie de PaoloRAPUNZEL: A Tale by the Brothers Grimm. Retold and illustrated by Jutta Ash. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Unpaginated. $10.95. Ages 5-9; LITTLE BROTHER AND LITTLE SISTER. Retold and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Doubleday. Unpaginated. $10.95. Ages 5-8; THE PRINCE WHO KNEW HIS FATE. Translated and illustrated by Lise Manniche. The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Philomel. Unpaginated. $10.95. Ages 6-10; MING LO MOVES THE MOUNTAIN. By Arnold Lobel. Greenwillow. Unpaginated. $9.50. Ages 4-8; FRANCIS: The Poor Man of Assisi. By Tomie de Paola. Holiday House. Unpaginated. $14.95. Ages 5-9