September 03, 2015


Austin, Lost in America. By Jef Czekaj. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

The Elves and the Shoemaker. Retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.

Rumpelstiltskin. Retold and illustrated by Paul Galdone. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.99.

     A modern fairy tale wrapped around a geography lesson, Jef Czekaj’s Austin, Lost in America is the story of a dog who grows up at a pet shop and decides to take his fate into his own hands by escaping and finding just the right place to live – somewhere. Czekaj calls it “A Geography Adventure,” and so it is, as Austin starts out in Maine (where his original home, Sketchy’s Discount Pets, is located) and works his way through all 50 states, learning a thing or two about each one in the process. Maine, for instance, produces 99% of all the blueberries in the United States, and 100 million pounds of lobsters are caught off its coast – but Austin is allergic to blueberries and lobsters, so no Maine for him. On and on he goes, learning things about Massachusetts (Fig Newton cookies are named after the town of Newton), Connecticut (where the lollipop was created), Florida (which has 663 miles of beaches), South Carolina (which contains the world’s largest fire hydrant), West Virginia (where the world’s largest water-tasting competition is held), and on and on. “Every state had fun things to see and do, but none was a perfect fit,” writes Czekaj, so Austin marches on, also taking the bus and train and even an airplane from region to region so he can explore all the states – and pick up informational tidbits such as the fact that Washington is the state that grows the most apples, Idaho has the largest potato chip in the world, California has the nation’s highest population of cats (definitely not the right place for Austin), Utah has the world’s largest known natural bridge, a town in Wisconsin is the world’s yo-yo capital, and North Dakota hosts the annual World Champion Turtle Races. There is so much to see, so much to do, so many places to visit, but never just the right place for Austin. But then, at the very end of his travels, Austin finds himself in Texas, where there happens to be a city named…Austin! And he knows this is where he belongs – especially when a friendly little girl spots him and says she has been looking for a puppy just like him. So Austin’s long trek comes to an end, he has his very own family at last, and when we leave him, he is sending postcards of greeting to his friends at Sketchy’s Discount Pets in Waldo, Maine – a real town, and also a tribute to Martin Handford’s “Where’s Waldo?” books, which surely influenced Czekaj in creating this one.

     Unlike modern fairy tales along the lines of Austin’s, old-fashioned stories from the Grimm brothers tended to be, well, pretty doggoned grim. Never intended for children, the stories were filled with violence, sex and all sorts of racial and religious prejudices that were systematically cleaned up during the 19th century (starting in later editions of the Grimms’ own collection) to make the tales palatable for children and for right-thinking Victorian families. There were, however, a few Grimm fairy tales whose message was one of warmth and inclusion, and Paul Galdone (1907-1986) retold and illustrated one of them in 1984: The Shoemaker and the Elves. Galdone’s words are based on Lucy Crane’s translation of the Grimms’ German, but the words – telling about a poor shoemaker visited nightly by elven cobblers who make beautiful shoes for him to sell – are only part of the book’s charm. The rest lies in Galdone’s moody but apt illustrations, using many dark colors to show the initial living situation of the poverty-stricken shoemaker and his wife, then contrasting those scenes with those of the naked elves (wearing only very long, bright orange stocking caps) at their work. The kind shoemaker decides to thank the elves for their assistance by making them clothing, and he and his wife produce tiny clothes that are far brighter than the ones they wear themselves, leaving them out one night for the elves to find. The delighted elves are shown donning the clothes, singing and dancing their joy and vowing nevermore to be cobblers – and indeed, the story says they were never seen again. But all still ends happily, for the riches made possible by the elves’ help and the shoemaker’s own goodness remain with the man and his wife all their lives. This is a lovely story of unexplained magic (the reasons for the elves making shoes, choosing this particular shoemaker, and being naked are never given), the moral being that if you are good, good things will come to you sooner or later, in one way or another. There is nothing exceptional about that message (and, indeed, the story is told without a moral, both in the original and in Galdone’s version); but young readers will likely enjoy the lack of preachiness in the tale, as well as the highly engaging way Galdone retells and illustrates it.

     A more-typical Grimm tale retold and illustrated in Galdone’s manner is Rumpelstiltskin. But while The Elves and the Shoemaker is in the “Folk Tale Classics” series of small-scale hardcover books, and Galdone’s Rumpelstiltskin is also available in that format, the new version of this 1985 book is something quite different. It is a giant-size paperback: not a traditional coffee-table book, but large enough to cover a small coffee table completely. At 14 inches wide and 17 high, this is a book whose two-page spreads open to 28 inches – scarcely something to be read to a child in one’s lap. It is the sort of book that invites parents and kids to sprawl on the floor and revel in the story and its illustrations. The ones Galdone produces here, because they are so large, show his technique clearly, and also display the cleverness with which he packs his pictures with ancillary characters and elements that are not in the story but that add to its impact. In Rumpelstiltskin, there is the king’s court fool, who watches the evolving action carefully even though he is no part of it, and whose expressions make it seem that he knows more about what is going on than the principal characters do. There are the dog and cat in the new queen’s bedchamber, as awake as she is while she tries to think of the little man’s name. There is the squirrel on the last page, staring quizzically at the hole in the earth into which Rumpelstiltskin has vanished after the queen correctly identifies him. Galdone hints at but never overtly discusses the unpleasant elements of this story, which come through even in the modified version familiar to families today. It is the avaricious and bloodthirsty king, not the helpful Rumpelstiltskin, who, it can be argued, is the real villain here – and Galdone shows him to be haughty, demanding and cruel-looking. Rumpelstiltskin is actually helpful, not only in spinning the straw into gold but also in allowing the miller’s daughter a way out of the bargain she makes in desperation to save her life: to give the little man her first-born child after she becomes queen. The Grimms’ audience would have understood that the little man is inherently evil  because of who he is, no matter what he does; and the story has decided anti-Semitic overtones as well. Those have long since been scrubbed out and are certainly no part of Galdone’s retelling, but they do explain why Rumpelstiltskin is the “bad guy” of the story even though it is the king who is cruel and greedy and the miller’s daughter who wants a way out of her promise to the little man. Galdone’s retelling is perfectly appropriate for today’s children, and the very large format of this new edition provides plenty of enjoyment not only in the carefully chosen words but also in very well-crafted illustrations that were obviously made with loving care and that today’s families can examine here in as much detail as they wish.

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