Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Favorite Beauty

There are plenty of Beauty and the Beast retellings out there.  My favorite by far is Robin McKinley's Beauty. This seems unfair of me, because McKinley has written more than one Beauty and the Beast retelling, so I worry it may sound as if I am saying "of all your children, I like that one best."  Which means, in turn, that I'll sound a bit silly when I hasten to add that I like all of Robin McKinley's Beauty and the Beast retellings.  There's a very meta bit in Sunshine, where the narrator says "There was a lot you could do with the story of Beauty and the Beast, and I had done most of it, and I did it again now."  I'm perfectly happy to keep reading Robin McKinley Beauty retellings if she keeps writing them.  I will like them all.

But Beauty is one of those books I grew up with, and it has that comfortable feeling for me of a book I've re-read every few years for decades, and so it is my favorite.  When I read other versions, I still hear echoes of this one in my head.

I'd love a really lush, deluxe edition, with lots of interior illustrations.  That type of thing doesn't often tempt me, but I'd make an exception here.  In my fantasy library, I'm voting for a version illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, in the style of her covers for the hardcover original edition of Dealing with Dragons.  Ideally, there'd be one of those multi-artist pinup sections in the back, as used to be common in certain comics in the 1990s, and so I could have the Thomas Canty page (for roses!) and the Kinuko Craft page (for gardens and swirly magic), and so forth through all my favorite illustrators from childhood.  Maybe a David Wiesner pinup for the library.  You know, as long as I'm fantasizing.

Wishing you a day full of comfortable and delightful reading in the library of your dreams.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reader's Digest Anthologized Andrew Lang for Me

Reader's Digest (yes, they of the Condensed Books) put together a two volume anthology of The World's Best Fairy Tales, originally in 1967, though the copy sitting around my house was almost definitely the 1977 edition. My hazy recollections from library school are that the 1960s were a boom time for folklore anthologies for children, with an emphasis on collections of tales from one country, region, or culture.  Reader's Digest was probably going along with that trend when they snagged a bunch of stories from the Andrew Lang colored fairy books, and then added in some Andersen and some Grimm and a smattering of other things.  The pictures were by Fritz Kredel again.

I tend to think I didn't have much exposure to the Andrew Lang collections as a kid, and it's true, I didn't read the colored fairy books directly, but I read a number of stories from them via Reader's Digest, and enjoyed them very much.  Since Lang did his anthologizing in the later 1800 and early 1900s, and there was a surge of interest in comparative folklore for children in the U.S. in the 1960s, I'm tempted to believe this sort of thing is cyclical.  If so, I hope that we're ready for a new upswing of interest in folklore from cultures around the world, perhaps this time with a bit less bowlderization and more of the original content and context.  My sense from watching library collections get weeded is that many of the 1960s era collections of folklore and fairy tales from many lands have been pulled from general collections.  They were older, and didn't circulate well.  I'd love to see something new and stunning take their place.

In the meantime, if you don't happen to stumble on a copy of the Reader's digest collection in a thrift store somewhere, and want to read the stories online, I enjoyed the Bronze Ring (from the Blue Fairy Book), Five Wise Words (from the Olive Fairy Book), and The Boy Who Kept a Secret and the Colony of Cats (from the Crimson Fairy Book). 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ambivalent about Andersen

I rarely return to Andersen's fairy tales as an adult.  My early exposure to Grimm's fairy tales came along with a nicely illustrated companion volume of Andersen's tales. And because I read whatever I could get my hands on, I read about the Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, and The Red Shoes.  These stories in particular still frighten me.  And I feel sorrow and pity when I read about the Little Mermaid, trying to do enough good deeds in 300 years as an insubstantial spirit to earn herself a soul.

Most Andersen fairy tales left me disturbed long after the story ended, unable to understand why the characters deserved the fates and punishments they encountered. Perhaps for this reason, I often enjoy retellings of Andersen tales as much as or more than I enjoy the originals.  I love Andersen's Snow Queen, but delight in Patricia McKillip's version of the Snow Queen in the Datlow and Windling edited Snow White and Blood Red.

So I've got very mixed feelings about Andersen fairy tales.  The language is lovely, and the images and characters stick in my mind, but the underlying morality of the fairy tale worlds Andersen creates often does not match well with mine.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Starting out Grimm

The first volume of fairy tales I read was this collection of Grimm's Fairy tales.  It must have been the standard household volume in the 1950s, as both sets of my grandparents had it, along with a matching volume from Andersen.  Every bedroom I knew had a shelf of books, but there weren't a lot of books in common between the bedroom shelves of my paternal grandparents' Manhattan penthouse apartment and my maternal grandparents kit-built chalet on a dirt road in Sandgate, Vermont. These books were in both places.

After family dinners with either set of grandparents, I'd sneak off to the spare bedroom and come back with Grimm's fairy tales.  Then, while grownups drank after-dinner coffee or aperitifs, I'd read about lost children, transformations, and the unfortunate effects of badly worded promises.  The 1945 Grimm's was a bit less expurgated than versions common in the 1980s, so it never came as a surprise to me that Snow White's evil stepmother had to dance to her death in red hot iron shoes, or that Cinderella's sisters cut off their heels and toes (at their mother's urging) to wedge their feet into Cinderella's slipper.

Things I learned from my first volume of fairy tales: Be careful what you promise. Be polite to strangers. Be careful who you trust.

The fairy tales were dark.  There was a lot of death, drugging, betrayal, and chicanery.  There was also poetic justice and humor and beauty and transformation. There was a streak of practicality throughout.  The world of those stories was a world where sometimes you were gifted with the best outcome, sometimes you had to earn the best outcome, and sometimes things were just stacked against you no matter what you did.  Much like the world we live in.