OVER THE LAST five years there has been a quiet resurgence of interest in the fairy tale--both on the part of the publishing industry and among parents and teachers. The notion is waning that the fairy tale and its concomitant dose of aggressive conflict between good and evil are inherently harmful to children. More and more of those involved with children in the home and classroom are inclined to agree with Bruno Bettelheim's view that folk and fairy tales owe their longevity to the great service they have always performed: communicating in a variety of ways (humor, tragedy, and romance) that conflict is at the center of life, that courage and perseverance in the face of great odds are rewarded, and that life is worth living.
Here are six picture books portraying the challenge and struggle of youth. In some instances the struggle between arists and story proves less successful than those waged by the young protagonists. In every case, however, the stories are worth reading--particularly aloud, to children who have not learned to read or are just beginning the process. Long before pictures were added, these tales were part of the oral tradition, the mind's eye painting images more vividly than any artist's brush or pen.
By far the most successful of these books is The Legend of the Bluebonnet, retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. A Comanche Indian legend, the tale centers on an orphan child named She-Who-Is-Alone, who devotedly clings to the warrior doll made by her mother and father. Her parents, like many others from her tribe, have died in a great drought and famine.
When the shaman announces that the Great Spirits will send their healing rains once the tribe atones for its sins by sacrificing its most prized possessions, each member finds reasons why the Spirits would not want his or her favorite item. She-Who-Is-Alone, however, knows it is her beloved doll that the Spirits want and she burns it in sacrifice, scattering its ashes to the four winds. The morning light brings not only the long- awaited rain but also a carpet of blue flowers across the sandy hills--the bluebonnet that would eventually become the Texas state flower.
Tomie dePaola's moving illustrations provide a perfect backdrop for the story. His balanced hand allowed him to use many of the brilliant hues of the region without interfering with the somber tone of the tale. The author's note at the end of the book, giving a brief description of the bluebonnet and Comanche legend and how the artist came to it, gives further dimensions to the book and is a device which more authors and editors should utilize. Incidentally, parents and teachers reading this tale my be reminded of a popular turn-of-the- century tale by Raymond MacDonald Alden that is still in print--"Why the Chimes Rang."
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs succeeds for much the same reasons that dePaola's effort does. The artist never allows her art to impose itself on the story line; there is ample white space between art and text, thus ensuring the "lookability" that children need in their picture books.
The tale describes the pains taken by a jealous king to prevent a young boy born with a good-luck sign from marrying the king's daughter. Good fortune and the generosity of Good Samaritans enable the lad to circumvent the king's wicked designs and marry the princess. Upon learning of the fait accompli, the enraged king forbids the union until the luck-child performs what appears to be an impossible task: obtaining the three hairs from the head of the devil. This tale would have benefited from a short author's note like dePaola's explaining the meaning of the word "caul"--the membraneous luck-sign. Every youngster will ask, "What's a caul?" Stopping to look it up in the dictionary can only serve to interrupt the flow of the story.
The Snow Queen, a condensed retelling by Amy Ehrlich and illustrated by Susan Jeffers is less successful than the first two books. One of Hans Christian Andersen's longer tales, the original version is rather heavy- handed in its theology and many of its plot meanderings seem intended more for adults than children. This retelling helps to bring the tale within the range of 7-year- olds while retaining much of Andersen's powerful imagery in depicting a young girl's painful and tireless efforts to win her childhood friend from the clutches of the evil Snow Queen.
The power of the tale is not matched by the power of its illustration--full color cross-hatched drawings on oversized pages that seem to exist more for the purpose of detail than tone. There is little of the heartless cold the story demands--even the robbers' castle appears cozy instead of damp and dark. A further fault lies in the fact that her heroine appears to vacillate between seven and 13 years of age on alternate pages.
Lisbeth Zwerger's Little Red Cap, translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford, is a fine retelling of the Grimms' classic (16 versions now in print under the title "Little Red Riding Hood"). Zwerger has magnificent control of her ink and washes and she captures both the human figure and personality as well as anyone in the children's field today. There is, however, one failing with the book's art. Missing entirely is the imposing darkness of the forest through which Little Red Cap must journey to her grandmother's house. Instead of the threatening bark and branch of the woods, Little Red Cap inhabits fog and brown fields of flowers. Perhaps all of this will make the story less frightening for young children; it certainly lessened it for me. It was also less memorable.
Like Little Red Cap, Hansel and Gretel continues to challenge today's illustrators (18 versions in print), inviting two more here to try their luck on the forest waifs. Svend Otts S. has made a totally unconvincing interpretation. The art is muddy, the forest unthreatening, and Hansel and Gretel look like they need to find their way to Weight Watchers instead of home. Paul Galdone also misses the mark but not as completely. His children, parents and witch are convincing enough but the color wash separations are not. The density of the washes frequently overpowers the soft penciled features of the characters' faces. Both artists have done much better work.