Last week, I read two books that wow’ed me. I knew I wanted to write about them, but it wasn’t until just now that I realized (I may need some more coffee) that they share something in common: Both are here because of the Brothers Grimm.
First up is Shaun Tan’s The Singing Bones, which has an interesting publication history. You can read details here at Shaun Tan’s site, but essentially it goes like this: After Philip Pullman’s 2012 publication of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (an excellent book I wrote about here at Kirkus four years ago), Tan’s German editor asked if he’d consider doing the cover art and some internal illustrations for a new edition of that book. Tan hesitated—for reasons he explains at his site—but eventually created sculptures for the book (re-discovering his childhood fascination with sculpting); as I understand it, he created 50 pieces of art for this. Grimms Märchen was the name of that one, published in 2013. But Tan continued to create sculptures for other tales not included in that book. That brings us to The Singing Bones, which Tan describes as “an art book.” It includes 75 sculptures, and it was released in 2015 with a foreword by Pullman. This new U.S. edition, coming to shelves this October, includes a foreword by Neil Gaiman and an introduction from scholar Jack Zipes.
There’s so much to love about this book, beyond the well-crafted foreword and informative introduction. Tan’s very approach, reverent to the inherent structure of fairy tales, is smart. Given that fairy tale characters are types, stock characters with broad personality traits, the lush, detailed illustrations we often see in fairy tale collections often miss the mark (though they may be so much eye candy). Here, as Gaiman writes:
Each sculpture, as Tan’s detailed art note states, is between 2¼ inches and 16 inches tall, and they are made primarily of papier-mâché, clay, and paint. (They are “generally about the size and weight of an orange,” he writes later in the book.) The art note includes a long list of other materials used, which in and of itself is a delight to read. (Sugar, salt, rice, berries, leaves, and pepper, anyone?) Dramatically photographed (even light and shadow go a long way in communicating meaning here), each sculpture—accompanied by an extract from the tale they illustrate—starkly stands alone, offering up visions that are, by turns, spine-tingling, haunting, and elegant. “Cinderella” is represented by a golden head that lies where the ashes of a hearth would be; a girl made of clay and the simplest of shapes stands before her 12 brothers, shaped themselves like coffins, in “The Twelve Brothers”; and in “Lucky Hans,” a sculpted boy with a gold nugget for a very head navigates a terrain of nails.
The book includes an annotated index of stories and suggestions for further reading (from both Zipes and Tan). It’s a must-have for fans of the Grimms’ tales. To see how Tan found “the hard bones of the story,” as he writes in the afterword, “as if they’ve emerged from an imaginary archaeological dig,” is a thing of beauty and wonder. (You can see a sampling of images here at Tan’s site.)
“Snow White” is one of the Brothers Grimm’s best-known tales, and this month Matt Phelan brings readers a graphic-novel adaptation of the classic story, Snow White: A Graphic Novel. It can’t be easy to reinvent such an old fairy tale, one so worn-out that its luster is lacking, but Phelan’s rendition represents this author-illustrator and graphic novelist at his absolute best.
This is the Snow White of 1928. It’s New York City just before the Depression. In the opening spread—white words on black with a font and design that puts readers in the mind of silent film-viewing—we see chapter titles. We then see that a beautiful young woman is lying in the bed of a department store window. The NYPD investigates, and a young boy nearby sheds a tear. This mysterious opening is the first sign to readers that they’re in good hands – and that a compelling story awaits.
We all know the bare bones of this tale, but in this noir re-telling it’s a young girl named Samantha, whose business tycoon father, after the death of his wife, re-marries the so-called Queen of the Ziegfield Follies. She’s the witch of our tale, and instead of talking to a magic mirror to learn that her beauty has been surpassed by her stepdaughter’s, she reads the ticker tape her husband so often consults to learn of his earnings. (The moment the ticker tape tells her to simply “KILL” will send shivers down your spine.) And, instead of seven dwarves, Samantha meets “seven small men,” a gang of orphans who roam the streets. In the end, Detective Prince falls for her, and they live happily ever after – in a world, in fact, that starts to fill with color. The book is dominated by greys, Phelan judiciously using striking drops of red throughout, but when the boys come to live with her and her new partner at the story’s close, their lives brighten in more ways than one.
It’s remarkable how much emotion and intensity Phelan conveys in these primarily (but not entirely) wordless spreads, expertly paced. These are evocative drawings, showing what has become Phelan’s flawless feel for graphic narration.
Tan and Phelan – two masters of their craft with brand-new offerings that will make your eyes happy.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.