August 03, 2006

(++++) OFT-TOLD TALES RETOLD

Pancakes for Supper! By Anne Isaacs. Illustrated by Mark Teague. Scholastic. $15.99.

Twice Upon a Time: Sleeping Beauty—The One Who Took the Really Long Nap. By Wendy Mass. Scholastic. $5.99.

     The impulse to redo and reconsider well-known stories is well-nigh irresistible.  If the tales thrilled and amused people for many years, why shouldn’t they be equally enjoyable today – when altered to reflect modern sensibilities?  The updates do not always work – the very elements of the original stories that made them fresh and interesting are sometimes lost – but when they do work, they can be just as much fun as the earlier stories.

     Both these books are successful updates, although in different ways.  Pancakes for Supper! is a thoroughgoing modernization of a book that is so politically incorrect nowadays that Anne Isaacs does not even acknowledge it as her source: The Story of Little Black Sambo.  Helen Bannerman wrote the original in 1899, and it has been controversial for decades because of its title and its original, stereotypical illustrations.  But the story has always had a great deal of charm, and its critics seem to forget that the whole tale shows pluck, bravery and quick thinking in the boy hero.  Nevertheless, Bannerman’s original is politically unacceptable nowadays, and various rewritings have been tried.  Isaacs’ is quite a good one.  The protagonist is changed to a girl named Toby, who is accidentally bounced out of her parents’ horse-drawn wagon as the family travels to a new town.  Alone in the forest, Toby meets five animals, each of them determined to eat or otherwise harm her – and each of them saying so in rhyme.  The cougar, for example, says, “Kits in the den, waiting to eat!/ My kitties would love a girl so sweet!”  Like Sambo, Toby tricks the animals by giving them articles of her clothing.  All the animals eventually meet, each claiming to be the greatest in the forest, and they all start chasing each other until they melt into syrup for Toby and her family to have on their pancakes.  The book contains all the essentials of Bannerman’s original (which Isaacs really should have acknowledged, as a simple authorial courtesy); and Mark Teague’s illustrations – giving the characters a combination of real-world appearance and a sort of fairy-tale reality – add to its charm.

     The charms of Wendy Mass’ version of the Sleeping Beauty tale are of a different sort.  Mass tweaks the familiar story into a chapter-by-chapter retelling, some chapters called “Princess Rose” and others called “The Prince.”  The book starts with Rose’s awakening, then slips back 116 years to the start of her story – which is not quite what readers may expect.  The basics of the fairy’s curse are retained, but the prince is given far more character than in the original tale – along with a mother who is part-ogre.  There is an up-to-date feeling to the whole story, even though it is of course set “once upon a time.”  The prince, for example, explains, “I told [Rose] about the rumors of a ghost and the research I did to find out the truth.”  The prince, in fact, lives in a castle that is a duplicate of Rose’s, and his family has been trying to rescue the princess for generations.  Also, Rose has a lady-in-waiting and best friend, Sara, who shows up midway through the book.  And the prince is full of self-doubt, and we learn that he has not had an easy life.  And a fairy shows up late in the book, offering a cryptic prophecy and commenting, “Men.  Do you understand nothing?”  Everything does end happily after all the twists and turns, but aside from that happy conclusion, there is little in this version of the Sleeping Beauty tale that will be familiar to readers – and that’s just fine, since it makes this old story seem new again.

2 comments:

  1. I know Anne Isaacs; the reason she didn't credit Bannerman is because Bannerman wasn't the original author either. She copied it from an older story, the origin of which has been lost. I'm not authorized to speak for Anne, but I believe the reason she decided not to credit Bannerman was (a) Bannerman wasn't the original author, and (b) Bannerman's work was so racist (as you pointed out), why give her the credit for something that wasn't even hers?

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  2. Good points. But it is Bannerman's story that was clearly Isaacs' source -- as you say, the tale's origin is unknown. It is unfair to judge Bannerman's racial attitudes by modern standards, and seems just plain petty to omit even the slightest small-type acknowledgment of a book on which you base an entire work of your own.

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