May 30, 2013
(+++) FOLK TALE TIME
Henny Penny. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Cinderella. By Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Tommysaurus Rex. By Doug TenNapel. Graphix/Scholastic. $9.99.
Paul Galdone’s retellings of classic folk and fairy tales have stood up quite well over the last several decades. Galdone (1907-1986) illustrated numerous books, including Eve Titus’ Basil of Baker Street series – the basis of a Disney animated film – but it is for the fairy and folk tales that young children know him today, thanks to a series of reissues of his books by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The two latest are Henny Penny, originally published in 1968, and Cinderella, originally from 1978. Designed for young readers, the books retell the stories in sanitized form, without the violence and grotesquerie frequently present in the original versions of the tales. In the case of Henny Penny, there is no way to escape discussing the fate of the foolish birds that venture into the fox’s den, but there is also no need to show what happens, and Galdone does not, simply ending the book with the happy fox family remembering “the fine feast they had that day.” And in Cinderella, the stepmother and stepsisters are only moderately mean and do not suffer the frightful revenge visited on them in the original story – Cinderella simply forgives them and asks them to love her, and arranges for them to move to court and for the stepsisters to marry well. What makes these books attractive is not so much the way Galdone adapts the tales as the way he illustrates them. The birds in Henny Penny are drawn quite realistically, but they have expressive eyes and a look of appropriate intensity as they run along to tell the king the sky is falling. The fox’s face is quite expressive, too, and Galdone’s rendering of the king sleeping on his throne with his jester and a cat at his feet, oblivious to the sky-is-falling message, is particularly humorous. In Cinderella, the contrast between the muted tones in which Cinderella is drawn and the brighter ones used for the dressed-up stepsisters is a nice touch, and the realistically portrayed mice, rats and lizards that become Cinderella’s entourage are a reminder of how good Galdone always was at portraying animals (he even throws in a cat, which appears in several scenes but has nothing to do with the story). These reissues will be pleasant additions to a young child’s library.
Doug TenNapel’s graphic novels are for older readers, and they are far less consistent than Galdone’s books. TenNapel essentially creates modern fairy tales, with all the appurtenances of 21st-century illustrated books: lots of action, minimal characterization, strong lines in the drawings, panel-by-panel progress in which panel size and shape vary significantly to help the story along dramatically, and so forth. The quality of TenNapel’s graphic novels seems to alternate from excellent to so-so, with Ghostopolis and Cardboard being first-rate and Bad Island and his new book, Tommysaurus Rex, on the so-so side. Of course, none of the books is intended to be realistic, but the better ones create worlds that are true to their premises and characters who behave in consistent ways, while the less-successful ones have confused or overdone plots, with the obviousness of the ways in which TenNapel manipulates the story becoming intrusive. And so it is in Tommysaurus Rex, in which a boy named Ely is very close to his prone-to-misbehavior dog, Tommy, who pulls his leash out of Ely’s hands, runs into the street, and is hit by a car – which leads to Ely being sent to his grandfather’s farm for the summer. Ely’s grandpa gives him a model tyrannosaur as a gift, after which Ely, while being pursued by local bullies, finds a real tyrannosaur in a convenient cave; and the whole town just kind of accepts the dinosaur’s existence, with the mayor looking for ways to use it as part of his reelection campaign and Randy, the bully who chased Ely, looking for ways to undermine Ely’s happiness because, well, he’s a bully. Is the dinosaur the model come alive? Is it some sort of reincarnation of Ely’s dog, which is what Ely comes to believe (hence the book’s title)? TenNapel never really explains what events, magical or otherwise, are moving the plot, with the result that the book creaks, even during the action scenes. Flashes of humor involving dinosaur droppings are more successful than attempts to humanize Randy, and the eventual plot maneuver of tying the fatal encounter of Tommysaurus Rex and Randy to the fatal meeting of Tommy and a man who turns out to be Randy’s estranged-or-just-temporarily-missing father is just unbelievably ridiculous. What is best about Tommysaurus Rex is the obvious delight that TenNapel takes in rendering the dinosaur from all angles and showing it doing all sorts of things, from assisting in construction projects to inadvertently fetching a police motorcycle, complete with ticket-writing officer. The book’s coloring, by Katherine Garner, is another strength, nicely reflecting the action and helping differentiate the characters and scenes. On a purely visual basis, Tommysaurus Rex is great to look at, but as a story, it falls far short of what TenNapel is capable of and what he has done elsewhere.