Fairy Tales Transformed

The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan; Arthur A. Levine, $24.00, 192 pages, ages  14 and up. 

Australian artist Shaun Tan has made his name creating surreal, slightly peculiar works of art with the ultimate goal of encouraging dialogue and social engagement–Tan worked on the science-fiction animated film WALL-E, for example–and in The Singing Bones he tackles the Grimm brothers’ literary canon with similar verve. Seventy-five pieces of original art are accompanied by a portion of text from obscure and beloved tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Inspired by Inuit and pre-Columbian stone carvings, Tan’s compositions are molded of earthy, unpretentious materials–papier-mâché and air-drying clay adorned with acrylic paint and shoe polish–resulting in art that looks like it has weathered the passage of time.

Many of the selections may not be well known to contemporary readers, at least not in the forms referenced here: in “Mother Trudy” an overly inquisitive young girl is turned into a block of wood and cast upon the hearth by a witch, and Tan’s sculpture depicts a demonic-looking old creature nestled comfortably in front of a recently lit blaze. A wicked stepmother decapitates her stepson in “The Juniper Tree” and the attending artwork is a disturbingly complex rendering of multiple moments that unfold in the narrative. Snow White and her long-forgotten sister Red Rose gleefully traipse on a magical bear in another excerpt. Though summarized in an annotated index, only the basic sketch of each story is provided, encouraging readers to explore the fairy tales separately.

Reigning master of macabre Neil Gaiman and renowned fairy-tale expert Jack Zipes  provide thoughtful introductions and commentary on the enduring importance of the Grimm fairy tales for our generation.

The Singing Bones is a powerful examination of the range of human emotion, and how much greater that range can be for children, if adults will allow it. 31-juniper-tree9780545946124_interior-101

Brains Over Beauty: A Look at Two New Picture Books

Books about smart girls are sweeping the picture-book industry, and rightly so; saccharine stories about ditzy dumbos are a dime a dozen, and girls need industrious, adventurous role-models to admire. Merryn’s Journey (Brian Hastings, illustrated by Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook; Sterling Children’s Books, $14.95, 40 pages, ages 4-7, October 4, 2016) hopes to join the girl power pantheon, but it doesn’t quite make the cut. In video game developer Brian Hasting’s first children’s book, Merryn is a faithful, hardworking young girl whose fisherman father goes missing. A vivid dream convinces her to craft a submersible and retrieve him. Along the way, the intrepid Merryn meets a giant sea spider, baby sea serpent, mermaids, and other creatures. Though well-intentioned, the story falls flat–it should sing, but rather, it focuses too much on providing a female character who is admired for her skill instead of her beauty. Admirable for its goals, this narrative feels forced and formulaic. Sometimes, stories can be saved by great art, but Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook’s illustrations are proasic, surprising given that the book is a companion to the Song of the Deep video game starring Merryn and her subaquatic consorts–the illustrations should be dynamic. 

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Images used with permission from Sterling Books. Text 

© 2016 Brian Hastings Images 

© Tony Mora and Alexis Seabrook

Parents looking for a truly superb picture book celebrating young girls and their talents would do well with the recently published Cleonardo: The Little Inventor (Arthur A. Levine Books, 48 pages, $18.99, ages 4-8, August 2016), by Caldecott Honor winner Mary Grandpré. Here too, is a celebration of brains over beauty–little Cleonardo is the granddaughter of master inventor Leonardo da Vinci (here charmingly referred to as “Grandpa Leo”). Cleonardo’s dad Geonardo is a tinkerer, with plans to enter the town’s Grand Festival of Inventions. Cleo wants to help, but Geonardo pushes her away. Determined to impress her father and show that she’s equally capable of inventing, Cleonardo enlists the help of Grandpa Leo to enter her own creation in the fair. Will father and daughter realize that two heads are better than one? An outstanding ode to the value of collaboration, determination, and ingenuity,

Grandpré’s paper collages and acrylics bathe the characters in that famous Italian luminescence, each page richly in textured and full of nuance, just like family dynamics.

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Images from Cleonardo, The Little Inventor written and illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Used with permission from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

Hector and Hummingbird, by Nicholas John Frith; Arthur A. Levine, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 3-6. (March 2016) 

Nestled somewhere in the wilds of Peru live Hector the bear and his best friend, Hummingbird. Lately, Hummingbird has been more of an albatross than buddy, and his constant chattering finally pushes Hector to the limit. The bear heads deep into the forest in search of peace and quiet, only to realize he and Hummingbird are birds of a feather. British author Nicholas John Frith’s debut picture book is a catchy readaloud, and the bright, bold illustrations done in flamingo pink, turquoise, and astroturf green have a delightfully retro appeal. Fifteen Peruvian animals are hidden in the backgrounds (there’s a guide on the endpages), a fun bonus activity for when the reading is done.

Frith’s innate ability to combine words and text for the picture-book crowd make him an author to keep on your radar. It’s hard to believe that this is his debut. Perfect pace, great art, fun story. I think (and hope) we’ll see more from him in the future.