The Iliad, by Homer, retold by Gillian Cross, illustrated by Neil Packer; Candlewick Press, $19.99 160 pages, ages 9 and up.

Rediscover Homer’s epic poem that pitted the ancient Greeks against the fearsome Trojans in this superb retelling of The Iliad by Carnegie Medalist Gillian Cross, who also refitted the Odyssey for a younger audience. Cross has managed to take this daunting work and wrangle a fluid and enjoyable version full of action and adventure. The book opens with helpful a character map and concludes with the Greek alphabet and an appendix dedicated to discussing whether or not the Iliad was based on a true story. Illustrator Neil Packer, who collaborated on Cross’s Odyssey (2012), returns here to render the scope of human emotions with his instantly recognizable gouache and pen and wash art. (His work ought to be familiar to Folio Society fans: previous commissions for that publishing house include Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose (2001) and 2004s illustrated version of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.) Here, Greeks and Trojans locked in eternal battle are rendered in bold colors and appear as if they’ve been plucked directly from some ancient amphora, and it’s wonderful. (Readers interested in seeing Packer’s art for themselves can do so through October 24 at the Illustration Cupboard in London.) Printed in a large-format volume, this Iliad is a welcome addition to the picture-book world, filling the void between overly sanitized editions and those with blood practically oozing from the binding. A masterful gift for the ages. 

Folio Society Announces Retail Presence in NYC

MANHATTAN – On Tuesday June 5th, representatives from the Folio Society marked its entrée into select New York City bookstores with champagne toasts and hands-on time with some of the publishing house’s finest wares. Chartwell Booksellers hosted the event. The celebration marks the first time in Folio Society’s sixty-seven year history that its titles are available in bookstores. 

The fine books publisher began developing a partnership with retailers in 2001, when the company extended its catalog to London-based Harrods’s, Waterstones, the British Library and the British Museum. Tuesday’s affair recognized the Folio Society’s US launch.

Folio Society’s move into bookstores means customers do not have to first become Society members, and they will be able to physically handle the books, two salient points the company considered before pursuing its push into retail outlets. “The best way to appreciate our craftsmanship and the quality of our editions is to experience them first hand,” says Folio Society’s managing director Toby Hartwell.

In addition to Chartwell Booksellers, New Yorkers can find Folio Society editions at the Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, children’s books at Books of Wonder and at Writers Shop at the NYPL. The Frick Collection will be offering art books for sale as well. 

 The Folio Society plans to expand its retail presence into Boston later in 2014. 

THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

“The Princess and the Goblin,” by George MacDonald, introduced by Maria Tatar, illustrated by Madalina Andronic; The Folio Society, $44.95, 192 pages, all ages.

This stunning edition of George MacDonald’s eerie tale of Princess Irene and her daring battles with subterranean-dwelling goblins will delight the fantasy fans on your holiday list.  In fact, this offering from The Folio Society would probably be adored by anyone who enjoys receiving beautiful books. Originally published in 1871, readers unacquainted with The Princess and the Goblin will likely recognize similarities with Alice and Wonderland, another Victorian-era fantasy tale.  Here, a young, bored girl discovers a hidden stairway that leads her to an enchanted world filled with magical, otherworldly beings where she must do battle in order to save kingdom from the goblins. A favorite of J.R.R Tolkien, MacDonald’s tale of adventure and bravery will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Harvard University’s Professor of Germanic Languages Maria Tatar wrote the introduction, and readers will benefit from her instructive explication of MacDonald’s creative ideology.  Romanian artist Madalina Andronic’s bright and detailed watercolor and inks perfectly match this timeless flight of the imagination.

Searching for Serendipity in Cyberspace

Recently I wrote about the Folio Society’s new edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant and Other Stories. (Check out some of the book’s illustrations here and the story here Greenaway Medal winner Grahame Baker Smith created the illustrations.  

After my story went up,  I wandered the Twittersphere until I unintentionally stumbled upon the illustrator’s Twitter handle. In 140 characters I asked him if he would discuss perfecting his craft, inspiration, and future projects. He agreed, and below is our conversation, happily unrestricted by character limits.


THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

Could you tell me how you prepared for this commission?

A couple of coincidences actually prepared me for this commission, not the other way around. In early 2012 I was reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde, (a fabulous work of literature in its own right) which chronicles the extraordinary and poignant life story of Wilde.  At that time I also received a letter from a man named Nicholas Wilde inquiring about the illustrations I made for the 2011 Folio edition of PinocchioNicholas Wilde is a book collector and he particularly enjoys illustrated editions. We exchanged a few letters before I finally asked if he was by any chance related to Mr. Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. In fact, he is very distant cousin, and suggested that I ask Folio if they would like to do an edition of Oscar’s stories. Since the Folio Society is always open to suggestions they seized the opportunity.

What inspired your illustrations for this book?

The stories are what inspired me, it’s always the story and then – after lots of reading and making notes – I just start drawing and see what happens.

How long did it take to complete the images?

Each image took about a week to a week and a half, spread out over a period of about six months.

You are self taught. Can you describe how you became an artist?

I always loved art at school but didn’t get great marks for it (or anything else). I had a couple of jobs after leaving school but soon realised the ‘work’ thing wasn’t going to light me up! A period of unemployment became a time of complete obsession with drawing and painting. Sometimes it was very lonely, but my dream of doing this – and only this – became a powerful motivating force to practice, practice, practice and get good, something I’m still trying to do. So, I didn’t really become an artist – there just wasn’t an option to do anything else with my life! I still feel the same now, there is a cost in following your dreams but any other path seemed to me as a waste of life.

Do you have a favorite medium?

I have worked in most mediums at various times in my career – acrylic, watercolor, gouache, pastel, charcoal pen and ink. When I started using Photoshop five or six years ago I found it incredibly exciting to be able to mix virtually anything together. I still use a lot of drawing and other traditional methods, but usually it all gets filtered and composited through Photoshop.  For example, I used Photoshop techniques in the Wilde illustrations. It’s a part of the process now, just as drawing or painting is. 

What would you like to illustrate next?

I would love to illustrate some Edgar Allen Poe next, and do more fiction book covers, for some reason I don’t often get asked to do them. I’m also writing a novel for Templar (who published FArTHER) which will have black and white illustrations.

What are you working on now? 

I have formed a company called MisFits with my wife Linda, who is also an illustrator and designer. It’s a family affair; our 17 year old son is a brilliant coder for iOS and is helping us tremendously. We are using MisFits to develop story apps for iPad. We create apps from the idea phase to story, plot the flow-through and wireframe it, create the interface, artwork and animation and then code in the function and interactivity – all in-house! This is a really interesting challenge and it is amazing to weave animation and sound into a story. In terms of the artwork, we maintain the same standards as are applied to print books.  We are also actively finding other ways around the awful ‘page turn’ effect, a totally redundant feature in page-less applications.

I feel the creative possibilities are enormous but it seems a very natural progression to make. We want to make something beautiful and hopefully inspiring – that goal never changes.

I’m not turning my back on books though. I love books more and more as I get older and feel there is an awful lot more to do in print. I never want to give up illustrating books. To me, every day, it is a great joy and privilege to be involved in the world of story-telling.


Thanks to Cathleen Williamson and the Folio Society for sending these great images from Pinocchio. 

PINOCCHIO Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.

Wilde and Wonderful

“The Selfish Giant and Other Stories,” by Oscar Wilde; The Folio Society, $44.95, 192 pages, ages 13 and up.


THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.   

Perhaps best known as a playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde also wrote several fairy tales. The Folio Society has published a new edition that would make an excellent gift to fairy tale fans as well as to those who love a beautiful, well-crafted book.

As with everything published by the Folio Society, the production standards for The Selfish Giant are first-rate. A sturdy metallic silver box keeps everything safe, and beautiful end papers covered in snowflakes set a magical mood. The book is printed on Abbey Wove paper and is three-quarter bound in buckram. (Buckram is a 100% cotton cloth used to cover the boards of the book.) On the cover is an exquisite illustration of the title character looking over a little boy sitting in an ethereal white-blossomed tree.

Grahame Baker-Smith illustrated The Selfish Giant. (Smith was also recently commissioned to illustrate the Folio Society’s 2012 edition of Pinocchio.) During a conversation with the illustrator I asked if he incorporated Wilde’s likeness into any of the images. He did; try to find which one it is in the accompanying image post. The mixed-media illustrations capture Wilde’s wit, yet recall a certain melancholy, suggesting – rightly – that these stories are not for the faint of heart.

British fiction author Jeanette Winterson writes an engaging introduction, giving readers a quick primer on Wilde’s life while intertwining major life milestones with his work. She reminds us that these are not bedtime stories for babies; rather, Winterson declares that these tales ‘tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not’. As a result these stories deal with themes that young children may not understand.  Still, this is a glorious book, and as Wilde himself said, “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” 


The Selfish Giant Illustrations © 2001, 2013 by Bill Bell All Rights Reserved.

Sky Pony Press has also recently published a version of The Selfish Giant, retold by Mary Hollingsworth and illustrated by Bill Bell. At $14.95, this book is within the purchasing power of most consumers. The acrylic paintings are more whimsical than those in the Folio edition, and more appropriate for a younger audience. Hollingsworth has taken Wilde’s original text and modernized it somewhat, yet the story retains most of what exists in the original.

Here, young readers may better appreciate the story of an inconsiderate giant who chases children from his garden. To make sure the children stay out, the giant builds a wall. Not only are the children banished, so too are the seasons. The Giant is punished for his behavior until something unexpected happens, encouraging the ogre to change.

Unlike the Folio Society’s publication, Sky Pony has published just one fairy tale. It is short enough to be read in one sitting, but it does deal with themes of death as well as the Resurrection.  Avoid reading this story if your child has trouble conceptualizing death, unless this book is to be used as part of a larger conversation about mortality.

Thanks to Cathleen Williamson at the Folio Society for these images from The Selfish Giant and Other Stories. 

THE SELFISH GIANT Copyright © 2013 by Grahame Baker-Smith. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London.   

The Olive Fairy Book

“The Olive Fairy Book,” by Andrew Lang, illustrated by Kate Baylay; The Folio Society, $84.95, 296 pages. 

 In late January, author Jane Yolen – considered by many to be the ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ of her generation  – spoke with me about the introduction she wrote to the Folio Society’s The Olive Fairy Book, a new edition of fairy tales originally published in 1907 by Scottish author Andrew Lang. We also talked about heroes, magic, and discovering hope through storytelling.image

THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

The Folio Society & Andrew Lang

There are twelve Fairy books, and the Olive Fairy is the eleventh in the series. As a child Yolen read many, if not all, of the Rainbow Fairy series. In the introduction to the Folio Society’s edition she highlights three of her favorite stories– ‘Jackal or Tiger,’ ‘Samba the Coward,’ and ‘Kupti and Imani.’

“I’m pretty sure I read them all as a child. I was one of those childhood readers who, once I found something that I loved, I would seek out everything that was related to it.”  The Olive Fairy Book includes all the elements necessary for riveting reading – heroic princes, wise fairies, talking animals, evil trolls, and witches. While being a prolific writer of children’s novels and poetry, Lang was recognized as a leading authority on world folklore and mythology.

Bound elegantly in olive green cloth, this edition of The Olive Fairy is itself a work of art, featuring an Art Deco frontispiece and bright gold illustrations by British artist Kate Baylay. Inside, readers will find more visual feasts– twelve full-color illustrations and thirteen black and white drawings.

Yolen discussed the era that inspired the artwork, and why it is wholly appropriate for this edition. “This book was published originally in 1907, which is when arts and crafts, art nouveau and art deco all come together.” 

Yet as beautiful as these pictures are, this edition is perhaps most appropriate for older readers.  “I think the pictures in this book are exquisite. But they’re also not for children. They’re very sexy, very dark; some are quite violent. It’s exquisite bookmaking and of course the Folio Society is known for that. And the price reflects that; it’s for collectors. You can get the edition in paperback for very little money, but the point of this kind of book is that it’s an art object.” If a collector wishes to acquire the entire Rainbow Fairy series, The Folio Society is issuing all twelve of the books, each similarly designed and illustrated by a contemporary artist. The Olive Fairy Book is the tenth to be published.


THE OLIVE FAIRY BOOK Copyright © 2013 by Kate Baylay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, The Folio Society, London. 

At least once a summer for the past twenty years Yolen has visited the gravesite of Andrew Lang in St. Andrews, Scotland, partly because his work played a significant role in her development as a writer. “He was one of the most important ones [to me.] And I happen to have a house there. When writers visit, I’ll take them to the grave. Or if I’m on my own I’ll go. It isn’t that I’m genuflecting at his grave, it just happens to be a lovely grave with a beautiful Celtic cross on it.”

In a classic example of serendipity, Yolen was unaware of the writer’s presence in the town before settling there with her late husband, David Stemple. “I didn’t even know about the connection when I first moved there. My husband was a professor of computer science, and took his second sabbatical at St. Andrews.” (Now she spends her summers there, and returns to her home in western Massachusetts each winter.) After some poking around, Yolen found a chapel with a plaque dedicated to Andrew Lang. “I discovered that Lang was buried on the cathedral grounds. It was a hunt.”

In November 2012, Yolen was the 22nd person and the first woman to deliver the annual Andrew Lang Lecture at the university, which was also celebrating the centennial of Lang’s death. “Every academic in Cambridge has lectured here. The month after I was born, in March 1939, an Oxford professor named J.R.R Tolkien gave the lecture, which became the iconic essay on fairy stories – and really changed my life as a writer.  So St. Andrews asked me, and I said, ‘How can I follow in these footsteps?’ As I said to the audience, ‘Here I am, walking in Tolkien’s shoes, who walked in Lang’s shoes – why not give me a ring and point me towards Modor?’”


Fairytales and Heroes

In her own work, Yolen crafts heroes – especially female ones – to whom young readers can relate.  She feels that everyone, at every age, searches for role models.  “I think we all look for heroes because we feel ourselves, non-heroic. Especially as a child, we think ‘How could I possibly be a hero?’ But even as an adult, we still think, ‘How could I possibly be a hero?’”

 Yolen eschews the typical hero stereotype for someone who demonstrates a greater definition of heroism.  She points to video game characters as an example of false heroes. “One of the problems I have with the huge emphasis in video games, now, is it’s like a shooting gallery. I look for stories about the quiet heroes, or the hero who said or did the right thing. I’m looking for stories where the hero is smart and learns along the way, and through their wits, skills, kindness and generosity, are the ones that win through. And they are heroes as much as anyone.” 

Yolen has published more than 300 books over the course of her thirty-year career, many of which include the types of heroes she feels are instrumental in developing young minds. These characters are found in works of science fiction, fantasy, children’s literature and poetry.  Yet she didn’t always write fiction; like her late father, Will Hyatt Yolen, Yolen started out as a journalist, but unlike her father, she didn’t quite have the knack for sticking to just the facts.  “It turns out I was a lousy journalist because I made stuff up. That’s when I first understood that I was probably a fiction writer.”


Storytelling across genres and cultures

Often, Yolen’s work in one genre influences another.  A speech she recently gave has inspired a new trio of poems. “I’m writing three poems that come from a speech I’m giving on landscapes. I wrote some little pieces to show how one could use landscape, and then out of those pieces I carved out what was essentially a poem. That kind of cross-fertilization is really exciting.”

Yolen brings the idea of cross-pollination back to fairy tales. “You see that influence in fairy tales, where one aspect of a fairy tale crosses over to another, or to another country, and is developed in a slightly different way. I can read a story by Andrew Lang, but I’ve read it in a slightly different version somewhere else. Fairy tales have to attend to the cultures that they are now in.”

Andrew and Leonora Lang discovered the content for their books in faraway cultures and shared these stories with their English-speaking readers, for whom this was likely their first exposure to such exotic stories and locales. For the Langs, presenting these tales to an Anglo audience also meant modifying them by taking out some of the violence and making them more educational. 

In The Olive Fairy Book, the Langs state upfront that they changed quite a bit because many of them were not originally intended for children. Yolen also discusses when changes in storytelling are subtler.

“We reclothe our stories to suit our audiences. “Once you have audience hanging on your words, you make changes. If you are telling a story to children, you might say, ‘I don’t want them to be up all night, I’ll take that part out.’ Or if you’re talking to your buddies at the pub, you’re going to stick in rougher, sexier elements, boasting elements.

              image©Jason Stemple

Storytelling and a Poem A Day

Part of the creative process involves reading everything aloud, especially work intended for children. “Poetry and picture books absolutely have to be read aloud,” Yolen said,  “because they’re going to be read aloud. I also read novels and speeches aloud.  They’re very musical, so aurality is very important to me.”

In 2010, Yolen started a project called “A Poem a Day,” in which she committed herself to writing one poem every day, in January 2013 she convinced subscribers to sign up for her daily verses. Now she has 150 subscribers who receive a daily poem in their inboxes. “I explain to them that many of these poems are never going to be in books – they’re not good enough – but, the more you write, the better you get.”

Subscribers pledge that at the end of each month they will either purchase or borrow one of Yolen’s books. She felt that the experiment has been successful thus far because the daily deadline forces her to write no matter what. Of course, sometimes life intervenes. “Some days I cheat and write three or four poems in case something comes up. For example, recently I wasn’t supposed to look at a computer screen due to eye surgery, so I had written a few poems ahead of time.”

College Life and Enlightenment

            Yolen graduated from Smith College in 1960 with an English degree and great promise.  (Full disclosure: I graduated from Smith in 2003.) She also received an acceptance letter from Wellesley, but she said the choice for Smith was easy. “I chose Smith mostly because people sang, they seemed to have a joy that was missing at Wellesley.”  Still, her first two years in Northampton were challenging. “I learned that I wasn’t the smartest girl on the block. That’s important to learn. When I got to Smith, I thought, ‘piece of cake,’ and turned out it wasn’t. I was probably, comfortably, in the upper 20 percent of the class, but that was by working really, really hard.” 

A poetry course she took with Pulitzer Prize-winner Anthony Hecht forever changed Yolen’s approach to writing and teaching. “I liked his poetry a lot. But he hated mine, and he absolutely tore apart everything I wrote in front of the class. I almost gave up writing.” Years later, while reading at a bookstore in upstate New York, the proprietor told her that her old poetry teacher had called to say he was sorry he couldn’t attend the reading, but wanted to let Yolen know that she had been the best student in her class. 

“I asked who that was, and the woman said, ‘Why Tony Hecht.’ That was his method – he was harder on the people he thought had promise. That forever changed how I treated people when I taught writing. If there was somebody who was that good, I would take them aside and say, ‘I want you to know that I think you are the best one in the class, so I am going to be rougher on you than anyone else, because you are the one who needs to learn the most. I can teach the others how to write. I am going to teach you how to write at your very best.’ But at least I gave them a heads-up.”

During her senior year, Yolen was wrestling with whether she should write a book of poetry or pursue the cum laude diploma, which would require writing an academic thesis.  Her advisor, professor William Van Voris (who would later become close friends with Yolen and her husband), offered sage advice.

“In those days in order to graduate with Latin honors, you had to write a thesis. Creative work didn’t count. (Now it does.) We were sitting in a coffee shop on Green Street, and he said, ‘Don’t you understand what academics do all the time? We try to understand and teach the sort of thing that you write!’ I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to write the book of poetry.’

In 2003 Yolen was awarded the Smith Medal and an honorary degree. “It all finally came around – because of that choice that Bill van Voris helped me make. I remember being at a dinner party at his house, and David and I were the only non-English department people there, and everybody around the circle was talking about the mystery novel that they were trying to write, and could I give them any points? So it totally validated everything that Bill had said.”

Over a century ago the Langs brought magic to children through The Rainbow Fairy series, and today Jane Yolen continues the tradition of crafting enchanted worlds for readers to enjoy. We part then, with prudent words from Andrew Lang from his preface to The Olive Fairy Book: “It is my wish that children should be allowed to choose their own books.  Let their friends give them money and turn them loose in the book shops!”