September 30, 2010


My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Edited by Kate Bernheimer, with Carmen Giménez Smith. Penguin. $17.

Three Classic Children’s Stories. Drawings by Edward Gorey. Text by James Donnelly. Pomegranate Kids. $17.95.

The Fairy Tale Book. Adapted by Liz Scoggins. Illustrated by Lisa Jackson. Scholastic. $9.99.

The Bedtime Story Book. Adapted by Jen Wainwright. Illustrated by Angel Dominguez. Scholastic. $9.99.

     With contributions by such well-known writers as Neil Gaiman, Aimee Bender, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Kim Addonizio, the new collection edited by Kate Bernheimer (who also contributes a story of her own) is an outstanding book – provided that you do not take its subtitle at face value. This is not a set of new fairy tales but a reconsideration, revamping, retelling and reinterpretation of dozens of old tales – not 40, either, since some are used by more than one contributor (and just to confuse things even more, there are actually 41 stories in the book). There are reworkings of Grimm and Perrault stories here, and of the Disney version of old tales, and of stories by Goethe and by Italo Calvino. Every single piece in the book is far more overtly (if not psychologically) complex than the originals – which were never intended for children but were explanations of aspects of the world and the way it works (or should work, or might work). There have in fact been many, many instances of fairy tales being redone, updated, interpreted through the lens of (for example) feminism or psychoanalysis, and generally turned into something different from what they originally were – whether something more or something less is a matter of opinion. The title of this new collection is a pretty good echo of the sort of underlying theme that gives fairy tales continued resonance – even, to some extent, in the Bowdlerized versions in which they have been known since the Victorian age. Specifically, the title refers to the theme of the Grimms’ “The Juniper Tree,” and therefore to Alissa Nutting’s “The Brother and the Bird” rewrite, which uses the title’s exact words. The stories in the collection, all of them well written (although stylistically very different), sacrifice the simplicity and straightforward nature of fairy-tale narrative (in which fantastic events happen often, but are always described matter-of-factly) in favor of styles that call attention to themselves and themes that extract underlying content from the tales or, in some cases, add additional material to them (whether weighty or merely heavy is, again, a matter of opinion). Thus, in Michael Martone’s “A Bucket of Warm Spit” (based on “Jack and the Beanstalk”): “The water rained from the ground pouring into the sky sighing as it went. The water, it up and went.” From Rabih Alameddine’s “A Kiss to Wake the Sleeper” (based on “Sleeping Beauty”): “I was a mess. I had SCID (no dirty jokes about skid marks, not that kind of mess – ha, ha), Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. No B cells, no T cells, nothing to protect me from any organism wishing to penetrate my body.” From Joyelle McSweeney’s “The Warm Mouth” (based on “The Bremen Town Musicians”): “What does it signal? What can it mean? This pattern in the blinds and shades. This blind pattern. And how a gunshot’s made a sunburst of the cashier’s booth.” And “Cinderella,” that prototypically simple title, becomes, for Stacey Richter, “A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility.” Each of these stories – and each of the others in the book – is interesting to read, and most have unusual approaches to fairy-tale themes even if those themes connect only vaguely to the events narrated by the modern authors. It can be especially interesting to read alternative approaches to similar tales – there are two takes on “Bluebeard” and two on “The Little Mermaid,” for example. The writing is by and large modern or post-modern, which means it tends to be self-referential and sometimes self-conscious – pretty much the opposite of typical fairy-tale narration, which in many cases was written down from oral traditions that, of necessity, valued simplicity and repetition above stylistic elegance. There are also a few stories here based not on what are usually called fairy tales but on such myths and legends as “Cupid and Psyche” and Homer’s “Odyssey.” In all, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a mixed bag, as anthologies tend to be, but it is an unusually high-quality one in terms of its writing; and if many of the authors overwhelm the fairy tales that inspired their works, at least they demonstrate – through their interpretations and reinterpretations – the enduring power of those old tales’ underlying themes, no matter how filtered those subjects may be through 20th- and 21st-century thinking and 20th- and 21st-century prose.

     There is filtering going on as well in Three Classic Children’s Tales, which hew fairly closely to the original fairy tales but are directed at somewhat older children than those to whom those tales are usually told. The age-related reason is not Edward Gorey’s illustrations – they are quite wonderful and quite appropriate to the subjects, but there is nothing in them to disturb young kids’ minds or their sleep. However, James Donnelly – even though his text gets second billing to Gorey’s pictures, and his name appears in smaller print – manages to enliven three familiar stories with some very fresh and funny writing. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” for example, right after Red meets the wolf (who arrives with a “WHUMP and a minor cloud of dust”), Donnelly writes, “Little Red Riding Hood had heard her share of wolf stories – how the sleigh carrying Count Mazurka and all his gold had been found, horseless and Countless, overturned in the snow among a welter of sharp-clawed pawprints; how Lame Edgar’s beard turned white overnight while he clung terrified to a high branch, the Black Mountain pack gazing hungrily up at him till dawn.” In “Jack the Giant Killer,” Donnelly gives the giant a name, Gawr, and says of one of his depredations, “Passing an abbey, he plucked up and devoured a monk distracted by prayer; then he ate the abbot’s milch cow, and then he ate the abbot.” And in “Rumpelstiltskin,” whose heroine, the miller’s daughter, is given the name Omoline, the A-to-Z list of “common names” that Omoline tries out on the little man includes Egismund, Hortipher, Kidneigh, Lupinaster, Roygedowdy, Turlock, Venividivici and Wobshire. Later, when – in an amusingly extended scene – Omoline learns the true name from a faithful but long-winded courtier, she deliberately draws out her revelation of it, using such phrases and sort-of-names as “rumpled storkskin,” “purple stickpin,” “Crumble Skunkstink” and “Simple Rumpsplint.” The breezily offbeat writing beautifully sets off Gorey’s immediately recognizable and wonderfully detailed drawings, which date to the 1970s. And Gorey really does a marvelous job of implying violence without showing it: in “Little Red Riding Hood,” the only visible part of the cut-open wolf is his feet; Jack brains the giant with a shovel, but except for the word “WHANG,” there is no attack shown; and Rumpelstiltskin does not tear himself in half, but rather stamps a “jagged, smoke-filled hole” in the floor and sinks into it, after which the hole heals itself. By retaining the narrative of the tales while expanding it both verbally and visually, Three Classic Children’s Stories becomes a very special experience that will bring considerable pleasure to children and parents alike.

     Most fairy-tale books for children hew much more closely to the simplistic versions of the stories, though; indeed, the Victorian forms of fairy tales (which began to appear in later editions of the Grimms’ collection, although not their first edition) have proved remarkably durable and have themselves produced even-more-watered-down stories through Disney renditions and others. The Fairy Tale Book and The Bedtime Story Book both contain fairy tales and are both subtitled “Classic Tales from Childhood,” so families can rest assured that there will be nothing unexpected or particularly disturbing here. It is, however, interesting how many of these stories are taken from the works of Hans Christian Andersen, whose original tales are quite gloomy and generally offer solace only in the form of adherence to the tenets of organized Christianity (several of them are, in fact, anti-Semitic). Andersen’s stories are inevitably adapted for collections like these. “The Tinderbox” becomes far less gritty and far less violent; “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” gets a happy ending instead of a bittersweet one; “The Little Mermaid” retains some of the original’s ambivalence but none of the religious reasons for it (Andersen has the mermaid lacking a soul and needing to work diligently after her final death and transformation to obtain one); the wonderful “goblin mirror” opening of “The Snow Queen” is barely mentioned, so the tale can become a story of innocent love. All these are in The Fairy Tale Book, along with other stories from several sources. The Bedtime Story Book includes Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” as well as Grimm and Perrault tales and legends from Norway, Africa and elsewhere. Both of the books are well-made small-size hardcover volumes that will fit nicely into a child’s personal library and make pleasant, if unchallenging, daytime or nighttime reading. They get (+++) ratings because, while they do what they do well, what they do is not particularly special or innovative. Indeed, kids may have all or at least most of these stories already, in other volumes and perhaps other versions. But for children who do not have similar collections, these two are just fine and should be quite enjoyable.

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