August 26, 2010


The Storyteller’s Secrets. By Tony Mitton. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

The Complete Adventures of Curious George. By Margret and H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $29.99.

     Tony Mitton’s The Storyteller’s Secrets is a rarity: a book of old tales, some of which young readers may have heard before, that transcends the familiarity of the stories – and some obvious elements of the meta-story within which the old tales are re-told – to become a highly involving and genuinely moving book. This happens largely because Mitton is so good at distinguishing his “framing tale,” in which a typically mysterious wandering tale-teller named, well, Teller, meets two children named Toby and Tess, and provides them with stories, initially in return for the food they generously offer to share with him. The “framing tale” is told in prose, the stories themselves in verse, and this approach – which could easily seem artificial – comes across as wholly fitting, emphasizing the old tales’ poetic qualities and making it clear that they are stylized, nearly mythic, while the “framing tale” of the children and storyteller is more prosaic. Or seems to be – for as The Storyteller’s Secrets goes on, it turns out that what is happening with the mysterious Teller and the two modern children is itself an old story, one of passing the torch of knowledge from the past to the future, exemplified here by the little souvenirs of the stories that Teller gives to the children at the conclusion of each narrative. The narratives themselves, even when not completely familiar, will have familiar elements for many young readers. One is a modified version of an old fairy tale about a bullying stepmother who makes impossible demands of her stepdaughter – which the girl fulfills through the help of a dozen elves representing the months of the year (this is a variant of the Cinderella motif). Another tale here is of Tam Lin, the human captive of the Fairy Queen, and the young girl who rescues and later weds him (this is in its origin a strongly sexual tale, but has been thoroughly scrubbed in Mitton’s version). Before stories start and after they end, Teller explains their importance, saying that a story “can take you places you might never get to in your body. And it can teach you things by telling tales that seem unbelievable.” The mystery of Teller himself increases as the book goes on, and if the final revelation of who he is turns out to be a bit prosaic, it nevertheless fits well with the notion that stories have a magic all their own, one preserved and passed along from age to age. Peter Bailey’s atmospheric illustrations add an extra dimension to these tales of selkies, pedlars and many kinds of magic.

     The magic of Curious George is of more recent vintage but no less charm. The wonderful 70th anniversary edition of all seven books by Margret and H.A. Rey, The Complete Adventures of Curious George, is both old-fashioned and up to date. It is old-fashioned in its reproduction of the original stories with illustrations in their original colors, and in including at the back of the book an eight-page section of black-and-white photos of the authors from the late 1930s to as recently as 1996 (when Margret Rey turned 90 and, later in the year, died). It is up to date in containing a delightful bonus: two CDs featuring readings of all seven Curious George books: Curious George by Don Wescott, Curious George Takes a Job by Valerie Stephens, Curious George Rides a Bike by Wes Sanders, Curious George Gets a Medal by George Capaccio, Curious George Flies a Kite by Cheryl McMahon, Curious George Learns the Alphabet by Wendie Sakakeeny, and Curious George Goes to the Hospital by Jane Staab. But in fact all seven books are best read by involved parents and the young children for whom the books were intended. This is not to take anything away from the readings on the CDs, all of which are quite well done and may make a dreary afternoon or a long car trip more enjoyable. But much of the fun of the Reys’ books, which were originally published between 1941 and 1966, lies in reading the simple words and looking joyfully at the wonderfully colored, stylized and ever-amusing illustrations. Not all the pictures are politically correct by today’s standards: a sailor smokes a pipe in the very first Curious George book, for example, and shortly thereafter, so does George himself – very enjoyably. But thank goodness no busybody editor made any attempt to “update” or “correct” the pictures! These are works that are from a different age, it is true, but they are also works that have stood the test of time precisely because their underlying messages about curiosity and enjoyment of life wear so well. The Reys did not whitewash George’s misadventures – who can forget a sad George in the first book, thrown in jail for turning in a false fire alarm, or George crying when he is hospitalized and needs an operation in the seventh book because his curiosity led him to swallow something he should have left alone? But George’s essential goodness and resilience carry him through every time. The Reys handled his personality with consistency and unending delight, perhaps most clearly in the alphabet book, which is a very nontraditional one indeed, as the parade of letters is repeatedly interrupted by George being George – making a mess of visual aids on one page, creating such words as “glidj” and “blimlimlim” on another. The very last page of The Complete Adventures of Curious George is a photo of H.A. (Hans Augusto) Rey with a telescope – Rey was an astronomer and astronomy teacher and wrote several books on the subject for young readers. The photo is a lovely final image of Rey (1898-1977), but it also draws attention to the fact that, for all his stargazing, his most enduring and endearing creation was a very down-to-earth little monkey who was “always very curious.” And still is.

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