I'm not so cynical as to call it "dumbing down" when publishers create books that are faster paced and have less sophisticated vocabulary; instead, I think these books accurately reflect our culture, specifically trends in language influenced by journalism (and figures like Hemingway), as well as by other media, beginning with MTV and continuing on to social networking. When all problems can be solved in 30 minutes, not counting commercials, and political issues are summarized in sound bites, yeah, we're living in a different world. Of course, Twitter is a recent and obvious example, in which dibs and dabs take on a strangely surreal importance.
But even if the shift is merely stylistic, one result is that the story book is getting squeezed out.
Pretty much everybody knows about the genre in children's literature called picture books, but what are story books? These are written for slightly older readers, say, second and third graders as opposed to kindergartners and first graders. The language is often more difficult, and the books are generally meant to be read aloud. You'll find that there are a lot more sentences on a page and even a smaller font; in fact, one approach to the story book is to isolate the text on one side of the spread and place the illustration on the other. (Cover above left is Trina Schart Hyman's Sleeping Beauty.)
Most often, books set up this way are fairy tales. The classic examples are those illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, although Kinuko Craft appears to have taken her place as the queen of the illustrated fairy tale. Texts for stories like "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Twelve Dancing Princesse," and "Little Red Riding Hood" are lightly adapted from Grimm or Perrault for such books. The language reflects the grandeur of oral storytelling, where phrasing could afford to be rich and rolling and was as important or more important than any Johnny-come-lately artwork.
In some cases, the fairy tales are new stories which simply sound like they come from the Brothers Grimm or other collections based on the oral tradition—such as Jacqueline K. Ogburn and Laurel Long's The Magic Nesting Doll (see cover art below right). Or they may be stories combining a couple of traditional tales.
But the story book is losing ground fast, with publishers pushing them to reinvent themselves as picture books. My own experience in this regard is as a writer of original fairy tales. In fact, the first book I sold, The Secret-Keeper, was selected from an unpublished collection of such stories by my editor at Atheneum. It took awhile to come out, and although I'm told it's a lovely book and it garnered a Parents' Choice Recommended award, it hasn't exactly sold like hotcakes. In the aftermath of that experience, I spoke to my editor a year or so ago and told her, "I've noticed there's a need in the market for what I call 'rowdy boy books,' so I've been writing some of those."
She heaved a sigh of relief, and we proceeded to have a conversation in which she admitted that while she likes my fairy tales, she feels that the market doesn't really support them at this time. Not long after, I sold her one of my new "rowdy boy books."
The story doesn't end there. I had already signed on to do a retelling of a Grimms' fairy tale, Hans-My-Hedgehog, illustrated by John Nickle. This project was the illustrator's idea, and when I began working on the text, I produced a somewhat fast-paced version because my head was full of his pictures for The Ant Bully. But my editor wrote back, asking for the "lush fairy tale style" I'd used in my first book. I rewrote the manuscript, pleased, since I actually prefer the traditional fairy tale voice.
The wheels of publishing turn slowly, however, and the project made its way through more than one changing of the guards, for a grand total of four editors. This fall the last editor, some three years after that "lush" request, told me that they really wanted a tighter text because today's picture books are quite spare. Kicking myself for losing the earliest version I'd produced, I rewrote the story, paring out most of the lush language. So that's Exhibit B.
Insufficient evidence? Perhaps. But watch for this particular trend to continue, and I think you'll see what I mean.
One implication is that there's little room in today's picture book market for true storytelling. The small gap between the picture book, in which text is entirely secondary to artwork, and the chapter book with its single piece of cover art is closing. Those doors I mentioned again, marking the proverbial end of an era. I suspect even well-known folktale retellers such as Robert San Souci and Aaron Shepard are feeling this particular pinch. Because right now, publishers would rather see a Fancy Nancy or a "rowdy boy book" than good old-fashioned storytelling. (Cover art at right is from Paul O. Zelinsky's Rapunzel.)
Should we mourn the loss of this subgenre? Or is it, like the extinction of certain species in nature, an inevitable evolution? I will point out that a spot remains for this type of rich, roll-off-your-tongue, read-aloud storytelling in collections for older readers with few or no illustrations, although again, it's not considered a strong commercial segment of the market. And yet, Kinuko Craft seems to be holding her own, arm firmly thrust through those closing doors and waving a masterful paintbrush.
The emphasis is clearly on illustration in today's picture book market. Sounds like sour grapes, I know, since I come from the writing side of things. But trends are trends, and I think this one is worth mentioning. I do know that even in the haiku-like format of the true picture book, when the storytelling is as breathtaking as the artwork, you've got one of those books that will stay in print forever and ever. (E.g., Where the Wild Things Are and Millions of Cats.)
And so, in honor of today's post and those ominous doors I keep talking about, I give you a smorgasbord of Cinderellas from my own library (which is cheerfully attempting to take over the house). Many of these books are out of print, but you can always visit your local library to find them.
Cinderella, by Max Eilenberg and Niamh Sharkey
This is the newer book that got me thinking about this topic. Aside from its symbolic value as described above, I really do like it! Here is the first page:
Once upon a time there lived a girl whose mother—the kindest mother in all the world—had died and whose father had married again.
The wedding had barely ended before the new wife began to reveal her true nature. She was snobbish, mean, and foul-tempered. Ooh, she was horrid!
And she was especially cruel to the girl, whose beauty made her own two daughters look positively hideous. The stepmother couldn't stand this.
I think you'll find that this is a very good retelling for 5- to 7-year-olds. And you as a parent or teacher will catch the Britishisms from the London-based writer (e.g., "In fact, they looked frightful."). I particularly like the way the author uses sounds, which are presented in a larger font in the middle of the page. For example, listen to the fairy godmother's wand in action: "Tap tap WHOOSH!" My only disappointment about this Cinderella is that the art is sometimes bland.
Cinderella, by Ruth Sanderson
Sanderson has it all, combining elements from the "Cinderella" most children know with pieces of a less well-known version, the German "Ashenputtel." Sanderson includes the hazel tree with its white birds that help Cinderella, leaving out the mother's grave. Instead she adds a white rose tree nearby to symbolize the mother's love. But the author also brings in an actual fairy godmother. For those who know the two stories, this results in a considerable muddle, but young readers probably won't notice. The birds do punish the stepmother and stepsisters at the end, though less violently than in "Ashenputtel." Sanderson's illustrations, which she paints from live models, are a nice blend of romanticism and realism.
Cinderella, by Susan Jeffers
The text occasionally lapses into summary, but is basically accessible and well told. Jeffers' colored pen-and-ink illustrations are the best thing about this version, although none of the interior paintings come close to the beauty of the portrait of Cinderella on the front cover. Then again, the spread showing Cinderella on her way to the ball is quite striking!
Cinderella, by Charles Perrault and Loek Koopmans, translated from the Swiss by Anthea Bell
I'm not sure whether Bell translated from Perrault's French or a Swiss rendering of Perrault's tale, but the illustrations are a little unexpected and very likable. I particularly enjoyed one that shows Cinderella holding a pumpkin aloft in a daylit garden, and another of her sleeping by the fire. Watch as well for the surprising way in which the prince takes Cinderella away from her home.
Cinderella, by Barbara McClintock
Right now McClintock is best known for her Adele and Simon books, but her faintly theatrical rendering of Cinderella is worth owning. As the back flap copy explains, the illustrations "were inspired by a trip to Paris. The prince's palace is based on Versailles and the Paris Opera, and all the costumes and hairdos reflect France in the time of Louis XIV. [McClintock] was also influenced by the work of Watteau, Fragonard, the films of Jean Cocteau, and the Tintin comic books."
Cinderella, by K.Y. (Kinuko) Craft
Craft's paintings are unabashedly luxurious and traditional, evoking the old masters and the decorative arts from various European courts a few hundred years ago. Her heroines and even her heroes tend to have curling blonde hair and blue eyes, not to mention those cupid's-bow lips you mostly see in royal portraits hanging in museums rather than on actual faces. It's all beautifully done as well as delightfully decadent, and 8-year-old girls will eat it up. Fancy Nancy's got nothing on these illustrations!
Cinderella, by David Delamare
I treasure this unusual book, which gives us a Cinderella who lives in a slightly magical version of Venice. Think powdered wigs, and you've got the right era. The palette is dark and mysterious. Cinderella's face is a bit too modern with its Angelina Jolie lips, and the fairy godmother really doesn't work for me. But the rest of the artwork is marvelous, and a nice change from the traditional look of this particular story. The text is less striking, though pleasant.
Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper, by Charles Perrault and Errol Le Cain
If you haven't seen Errol Le Cain's illustrations, you really should. His style is closer to the work of Erté than just about anything else I might mention, but with a liveliness that non-illustrators in the art deco movement never even attempted to capture. Take a look at Le Cain's rendering of a mouse turning into a horse, for example, tinted blue and green and even a little red in the moonlight. Or details such as the profiles of the stepmother and stepsisters appearing at the edge of an illustration of Cinderella in the kitchen, where they watch her malevolently. There's nothing else like this out there.
James Marshall's Cinderella, by Barbara Karlin and James Marshall
Despite all the gorgeous artwork I've been talking about, if I had to choose only one Cinderella, this would be it. The facial expressions alone are worth the price of admission. For example, when Cinderella brings in two lizards from the garden, she holds them out at arm's length on either side of herself and makes a face like, "Oh, yuck, I can't believe I'm doing this!" Meanwhile, the fairy godmother and the rat sit there, kind of laughing. Very, very fun. This story is far more entertaining when it isn't taken so seriously, but only James Marshall could make such a humorous retelling work so well.
Some of the Cinderellas out there are versions from around the world.
Shirley Climo's retellings: The Egyptian Cinderella and The Korean Cinderella, both illustrated by Ruth Heller; The Persian Cinderella, illustrated by Robert Florczak; and The Irish Cinderlad, illustrated by Loretta Krupinski
In case you didn't know, state educational standards often include a requirement to compare different versions of the same folktale from around the world, usually in second or third grade. That only partly explains the market for books like Shirley Climo's, which are excellent stories in their own right. I think The Persian Cinderella is my favorite. You'll find that the women go to the "ball" but don't interact with the men since the women's and men's parties are held separately. Here the glass slipper is a lost ankle bracelet.
The Egyptian Cinderella is a Greek slave in Egypt named Rhodopis. Then a falcon steals her red-gold slipper and brings it to Pharoah... whereupon the search for the shoe's owner begins. The Korean Cinderella, Pear Blossom, is helped by a frog, sparrows, and an ox before her sandal is found by a handsome young magistrate.
The Irish Cinderlad features a boy who befriends a magic bull. The bull helps him slay a dragon and rescue a princess. She then tracks him down using one of his large boots—Becan's family had always teased him for his oversized feet.
Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, by Ai-Ling Louie and Ed Young
Famed illustrator Ed Young illuminates Louie's retelling of the Chinese Cinderella, in which the part of the fairy godmother is played by a magic fish. After her stepmother kills the fish, Cinderella gathers the bones, which continue to help her. Young's soft illustrations add to the magical mood of the story.
The Rough-Face Girl, by Rafe Martin and David Shannon
In this Algonquin version, village girls vie for the attention of a supernatural warrior called the Invisible Being. The Rough-Face Girl is scarred from working by the fire, but her pure heart allows her to see what others cannot in a challenge conducted by the warrior's sister.
Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe
This highly regarded book is a Caldecott Honor winner and gives us a Cinderella set in historic Zimbabwe, from a story collected in Africa by a man named G.M. Theal and published in 1895 in his Kafir Folktales. Kind Nyasha and selfish Manyara get their appropriate rewards, and we learn that the fairy godmother, a small green snake, is also the prince—or rather, the king.
Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition, by Jewell Reinhart Coburn and Connie McLennan
Adelita: A Mexican Cinderella Story, by Tomie de Paola
I'm not too crazy about Reinhart Coburn's variation. It seems a little long winded. I prefer Adelita, Tomie de Paola's Mexican Cinderella, which I recently checked out from the library to read to a student. In going on Amazon to order a used copy of Adelita, I noticed that Reinhart Coburn has also written Hmong and Cambodian versions of the story. Visit them at the library and see what you think.
Then we have some colorful contemporary variations:
Cinder Edna by Ellen Jackson and Kevin O'Malley
There aren't very many didactic books that I like, but this one's a doozy. In a blatantly feminist take on the world's best-loved fairy tale, Jackson gives us two Cinderellas—the one you think you know and a girl who lives next door, Cinder Edna. Jackson has a wonderful time making the traditional Cinderella out to be a complete wimp and creating a sensible, proactive counterpoint in the form of her title character. There's even a nod to recycling here. Fortunately, Jackson's message takes a backseat to the humor of her storytelling, which is all the more delightful thanks to O'Malley's lively illustrations. My favorite page shows the fairy godmother practically rolling her eyes at Cinderella's lack of initiative:
Meanwhile, Cinderella's big, bright eyes brimmed with tears. "But, Fairy Godmother, how will I get to the ball?"
The fairy godmother was surprised that her goddaughter couldn't seem to figure anything out for herself. However, with another wave of the wand, she changed a pumpkin into a carriage, six white mice into horses, and a stray rat into a coachman.
"Be sure to leave before midnight," she warned Cinderella as she helped her into the elegant carriage.
Cinder Edna took the bus.
Smoky Mountain Rose: An Appalachian Cinderella, by Alan Schroeder and Brad Sneed
This story is written partly in a backwoods dialect, but it's not too hard to follow. Sneed is a terrific illustrator, and I love the fact that the fairy godmother is a large hog.
Cinderella Skeleton, by Robert D. San Souci and David Catrow
I hope you recognize both these names. San Souci is a highly regarded reteller of folktales, and David Catrow is known for his amazingly nutty and cartoonish illustrations (e.g., in I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont). This skeletal Cinderella would be perfectly happy in Tim Burton's movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. San Souci's rhymed text is a little overwhelming at times, but it's certainly ambitious and often funny.
Prince Cinders, by Babette Cole
If you've never read any of British author-illustrator Cole's other books, you've been missing out. We're talking tongue-in-cheek contemporary stuff with a unique flair. In this book, Prince Cinders does all the work while his three big hairy brothers go out partying at the disco. Of course, it's dangerous to wish to be big and hairy when your fairy godmother is a little ditzy. And then there's the pair of lost jeans, dropped by a guy who's less of a hero than a sweet mix-up... Track this one down!
Cinderhazel: The Cinderella of Halloween, by Deborah Nourse Lattimore
Hazel doesn't mind a bit when her witchy stepmother and stepsisters accuse her of being grimy:
"You are disgusting! Absolutely yucky!" said her stepmother. "All you think about is dirt. For all the time you spend in that fireplace, we ought to call you Cinderhazel."This witch can't fly right, but she loves dirt. Could it be that she and the prince have something in common? A little-known but entertaining read-aloud, especially at Halloween. Really, though, it works any time of the year.
"Ooooh, would you?" asked Hazel.
I'm embarrassed that I don't have the classic Marcia Brown Cinderella, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1955, but here are a few of the others I've come across, whether in the library, in the bookstore, or while surfing Amazon:
Cendrillon: A Caribbean Cinderella, by Robert San Souci and Brian Pinkney
Cindy Ellen, A Wild Western Cinderella, by Susan Lowell and Jane Manning
The Gospel Cinderella, by Joyce Carol Thomas and David Diaz
Cinderella's Rat, by Susan Meddaugh
Bigfoot Cinderrrrrella, by Tony Johnston and James Warhola
Cinderella Penguin, or The Little Glass Flipper, by Janet Perlman
And even Sumorella: A Hawaii Cinderella, by Sandi Takayama and Esther Szegedy
With all these Cinderellas, it may seem odd that I'm worrying that the literary fairy tale is on its way out. But consider how many—or how few—fairy tales are being published at present. And think of one more thing: the way Disney has commandeered the genre. Besides all the books based directly on the movie art, have you seen the recent Disney version with text by Newbery medallist Cynthia Rylant? Which should be a good thing, but I was put off by the concept, let alone the vague artwork by Mary Blair, who was apparently told to create a more painterly rendering of the animated version. [Update: Read Becky's contribution in the comments to find out exactly how I misjudged Mary Blair—very interesting!]
So keep an eye on your fairy tales, folks. Because the story book has developed a nasty cough, and that corner of the children's literary canon inspired by the Brothers Grimm just isn't what it used to be.
Update (1-24-10): See this striking discussion of the demise of the folktale picture book (really the same thing I'm talking about here) at author Bobbi Miller's site. She also provides other great links.