Fairy Tales and Tellers
- Tiina Nunnally (Translator), Hjørdis Varmer (Author), and Lilian Brøgger (Illustrator)
Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Karen Kain (Author) and Rajka Kupesic (Illustrator)
The Nutcracker. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sarika P. Bose
Hørdis Varmer's Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life is aimed at ten-year-olds while Karen Kain's The Nutcracker claims to be for all audiences, but both these picture books seem best suited for younger children, with a deliberately naive and straightforward oral storytelling style and a lavish hand with illustrations.
It seems fitting that the biography of the legendary Danish children's fairy tale writer, Hans Christian Andersen, has been written by one of Denmark's most famous contemporary children's book writers, Hørdis Varmer. This new translation of the 2001 biography, strongly endorsed by the Danish government, presents Andersen's slow rise from an obscure, poverty-filled background to financial independence and literary recognition. This episodic chronicling of Andersen's life follows a Cinderella narrative pattern: Andersen emerges as an underdog coming from a desperately poor family. The significant losses and difficulties suffered in his childhood, such as his father's early death and replacement by a stepfather, set a pattern for feeling an outsider in his world. The fitful patronage of a godfather-like protector later helps him overcome his seemingly hopeless beginnings. The book often gives the child's point of view, with its emphasis on the injustices of the adult and later, wider world.
This point of view also results in a portrait of Andersen as an ambitious and hardworking but somewhat confused character who must pick his way through the minefield of capricious adults and patrons who dole out favours only to snatch them back. Some of Andersen's bizarre and unusual childhood experiences, like exposure to prisons and lunatic asylums, are seen to be only the more extreme manifestations of the harsh realities of working-class life—alcoholism, dangerous and soul-breaking factory work and dependence on the unreliability of rich patrons. Varmer implies that these experiences had a strong effect on Andersen's imagination. His ability to read, unusual given his working-class background, his interest in artistic expression in the form of paper cutouts and puppet-making, and his talent for singing establish him as a naturally creative person. Andersen is also portrayed as a somewhat awkward misfit whose efforts at being accepted into various communities during his early years, whether in a textile factory or upper class circles, are couched in terms of his storytelling abilities.
A particularly arresting feature of this book is its use of Anderson's own work, both in storytelling and in art. Varmer partly draws on Andersen's autobiography, which gives his biography authenticity, and also influences the teleology and child-centred perspective that never forgets injustice.
It is intriguing to see how Anderson's own paper cutouts have been incorporated into the colourful collage and crayon illustrations by Lilian Brøgger. The lively yet dreamlike style that incorporates influences from Chagall and Picasso is often sinister and nightmarish, with disproportioned heads or pictures that interrupt or loom over parts of the text. The illustrations, particularly in light of Andersen's own contributions, are interesting for adults, but might be disturbing for younger children.
In contrast, award-winning illustrator and dancer Rajka Kupesic draws in a Russian folk-decoration style to complement Karen Kain's retelling of Piotr Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Nutcracker. Although this folk style is, by its nature, static, the oil paintings are richly layered, and the book itself beautifully produced, with gilt-edged pages.
Karen Kain, former Principal Dancer of Canada's National Ballet, and its current Artistic Director, retells The Nutcracker's story as it was adapted and interpreted in James Kudelka's famously long-running production, and thus preserves a moment in ballet history. This book too, is structured episodically, as the children move from one fantastical adventure to the next. While there are some differences in names, characters and situations, many of the familiar episodes and relationships between characters remain. The Magician/Uncle is still sinister, and the Nutcracker still turns into a handsome prince and takes the children on adventures during the duration of the child-protagonist's dream. The focus on Russian culture is stronger than in more conventional versions of this tale.
The term "fairy tale" is appropriate for both books: The Nutcracker tells of magical characters and situations, while the progress of Andersen's life evokes the unusual challenges and great rewards commonly found in fairy tale narratives. The dreamlike qualities of the illustrations add to the attractiveness of these picture books.
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- L.M. Montgomery Studies by Benjamin Lefebvre
Books reviewed: Windows and Words: A Look at Canadian Children's Literature in English by Susan-Ann Cooper and Aïda Hudson, Anne of Green Gables by Cecily Devereux and L. M. Montgomery, and The Intimate Life of L.M. Montgomery by Irene Gammel
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Books reviewed: Home Words: Discources of Children's Literature in Canada by Mavis Reimer
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MLA: Bose, Sarika P. Fairy Tales and Tellers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 135 - 136)
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