Fairy Tales, Part 1

The uni­ver­sal appeal of fairy tales is doc­u­ment­ed by the sim­i­lar­i­ties of sto­ries across coun­tries, cul­tures and cen­turies. The “Cin­derel­la” sto­ry alone is over 1000 years old with over 1000 vari­ents. What makes an indi­vid­ual pic­ture book ver­sion of a fairy tale unique? The illus­tra­tions. Jane Yolen (2004) states, “Many of the pic­ture-book retellings of folk­tales are more about the art than the sto­ry” (p. 43). Illus­tra­tors add cul­tur­al con­text and details to the char­ac­ters and set­ting, details that are lack­ing in the text, and the style they choose affects the mood of the sto­ry. The list of Calde­cott Award books reveals numer­ous fairy tales. Five sto­ries won the Calde­cott Award more than once. What fol­lows in this month’s col­umn and the next is an exam­i­na­tion of four fairy tale pair­ings and one trio to appraise the illus­tra­tions that sin­gled out these books as “most dis­tin­guished” in a giv­en year.

CinderellaNot only is the Cin­derel­la sto­ry “….the best-known fairy tale, and also prob­a­bly the best-liked” (Bet­tel­heim, 1977, p. 236), Cin­derel­la; or the Lit­tle Glass Slip­per, trans­lat­ed and illus­trat­ed by Mar­cia Brown, was also the first fairy tale to win the Calde­cott Medal in 1955. Brown’s trans­la­tion of the sto­ry is based on Charles Perrault’s famil­iar ver­sion. Per­rault lived in 17th cen­tu­ry France and told his sto­ries at court, strip­ping them of any­thing that might be con­sid­ered vul­gar or offen­sive to that audi­ence (Bet­tel­heim, 1977). Brown’s Cin­derel­la reflects inno­cence, good­ness, and beau­ty with gold­en hair and a soft pas­tel-col­ored gown drawn in del­i­cate ink lines. Even the wicked step­sis­ters, though not beau­ti­ful, are always pleas­ant­ly smiling. 

Brown did con­sid­er­able research of that time peri­od to be able to depict the set­ting and char­ac­ters real­is­ti­cal­ly through archi­tec­ture, cloth­ing, and hair styles using gouache, cray­on, and water­col­ors (Com­mire, 1987). Coif­fures of men and women alike are long curly tress­es. When the slip­per fits and Cin­derel­la is again trans­formed by her god­moth­er, she fair­ly glows in an out­line of white that adds to the enchant­ment of this roman­tic tale.

Cinderella Marcia Brown

illus­tra­tion © Mar­cia Brown, Cin­derel­la: Or the Lit­tle Glass Slip­per, Atheneum, 1971

Mufaro's Beautiful DaughtersIn con­trast, Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters: An African Tale takes place in the fields and forests of Zim­bab­we. Rather than mag­i­cal and frilly, the real­is­tic illus­tra­tions are vibrant with lush col­or. The cross­hatch­ing tech­nique using ink and water­col­or adds tex­ture. John Step­toe wrote and illus­trat­ed this Cin­derel­la sto­ry based on a Kafir folk­tale and won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1988. Mufaro’s two daugh­ters respond to the king’s invi­ta­tion for all the beau­ti­ful young girls to appear before him so he can select a wife. Steptoe’s daugh­ter was the mod­el for both sis­ters, and the dis­tinc­tion between their per­son­al­i­ties, one good and kind, the oth­er self­ish and mean, are clear in their facial expres­sions (Olen­dorf, 1991). 

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters

illus­tra­tion © John Step­toe, Mufaro’s Beau­ti­ful Daugh­ters, Lothrop, Lee and Shep­ard, 1987

Step­toe researched African his­to­ry and used the ruins of an ancient city to depict archi­tec­ture and cul­ture far more advanced and sophis­ti­cat­ed than was thought pos­si­ble in pre-colo­nial times. His char­ac­ters are qui­et­ly dig­ni­fied. In his accep­tance speech for the 1987 Boston Globe-Horn Book Pic­ture Book Award, Step­toe said, “I want­ed to cre­ate a book that includ­ed some of the things that were left out of my own edu­ca­tion about the peo­ple who were my ances­tors, …. and the more I read, the more rea­sons I found to be proud.” He chose to write a Cin­derel­la sto­ry because it is not just a Euro­pean tale, and he want­ed to show that “indus­tri­ous, kind, and con­sid­er­ate behav­ior has always been an ide­al to be encour­aged.” (Olen­dorf, 1991, p. 163 – 164).

Puss in BootsBefore she won the Calde­cott Medal for Cin­derel­la, Mar­cia Brown won a Calde­cott Hon­or in 1953 for Puss in Boots, anoth­er fairy tale attrib­uted to Charles Per­rault. When their father dies, the eldest son inher­its the mill, the mid­dle son the don­key, and the youngest son is left only the faith­ful cat. Despair­ing how he will sur­vive, the youngest son is res­cued by Puss who cre­ates a new iden­ti­ty for him as the Mar­quis of Carabas. The crafty feline accom­plish­es this by bul­ly­ing the peas­ants, defeat­ing an ogre, and show­er­ing the king with gifts from the “mar­quis.” The king then offers his daughter’s hand in mar­riage to the young man, and Puss lives out his days as a grand lord.

Like her Cin­derel­la, Brown’s Puss in Boots reflects the cloth­ing and hair­styles of a sim­i­lar time peri­od in French his­to­ry. Using wood­cuts and water­col­or, she achieves the same effect of wavy hair and ornate car­riages. The gowns of both Cin­derel­la and the king’s daugh­ter are remark­ably alike with V‑shaped bodices. In Puss in Boots, though, Brown’s palette is not pas­tels but bold corals, yel­lows, pur­ples, and grays. Hard at work in his jaun­ty boots, Puss strides across the pages. He appears in his full court­ly regalia includ­ing a plumed hat, sash, gloves, and the boots, of course, in a last por­trait-like illus­tra­tion that also appears on the book cover.

Puss in BootsPuss also gazes out from the jack­et of the Puss in Boots trans­lat­ed by Mal­colm Arthur and illus­trat­ed by Fred Mar­celli­no. What is unusu­al about this jack­et is that Puss is all that appears on the front, and it is an extreme close­up show­ing his face with real­is­ti­cal­ly detailed fur and whiskers, a Renais­sance ruf­fled col­lar, and part of his hat and jack­et. Marcellino’s past career was as a book jack­et and album cov­er design­er, and he want­ed to cre­ate a unique pic­ture book jack­et. Con­sid­ered uncon­ven­tion­al at the time, the title and cred­its appear on the back of the jack­et rather than on the front. Mar­celli­no said, “I’ll nev­er be able to do it again; it would com­plete­ly lose impact the sec­ond time around” (Olen­dorf, 1992, p. 154).

Mar­celli­no designed every aspect of his first pic­ture book, includ­ing the old-fash­ioned font, and he won the 1991 Calde­cott Hon­or for his artis­tic inter­pre­ta­tion. He observed that “… design­ing a book that has been told and illus­trat­ed many times….puts you in a posi­tion where every­one who looks at the book will mea­sure you against the past and the way oth­er peo­ple have done the book” (Olen­dorf, 1992, p. 152.) He felt that even though Puss acts rather human, he is always a cat, and that dif­fer­en­ti­ates his book from pre­vi­ous retellings.

Anoth­er fea­ture of Marcellino’s art that dis­tin­guish­es his book is the humor he incor­po­rates. Two frogs look inquis­i­tive­ly at each oth­er as the young man swims in the riv­er, the ser­vant is repulsed by the snake he must serve the ogre, the princess flirts side-eyed with the “mar­quis,” and the “mar­quis” acknowl­edges Puss as he bows to the king and princess. Puss, mean­while, fac­ing away, non­cha­lant­ly leans against a stool with his legs crossed and his paw on his hip.

As did Brown, Mar­celli­no researched the time peri­od to draw the set­ting and cloth­ing as his­tor­i­cal­ly accu­rate. The col­ors are mut­ed, and though the scenes seem hazy, the illus­tra­tions are very detailed. Using “col­ored pen­cil on taupe-tex­tured illus­tra­tion paper” (ALSC, 2017, p. 117) lends a grainy look that makes some cloth­ing appear to be vel­vet and adds rich­ness to car­pet­ing. The archi­tec­ture and the tiled or par­quet floors show the influ­ence of Marcellino’s time in Italy as a Ful­bright scholar.

Mar­celli­no described his work as “tra­di­tion­al,” but said it also had a “cin­e­mat­ic qual­i­ty – mod­ern in the sense that the objects are cut off or seen from non­tra­di­tion­al view­points” (Olen­dorf, 1992, p. 154). The van­tage point is often a cat’s eye view. But, to add vari­ety, there is a view from below to make the ogre seem more omi­nous, or from above, as in the two-page spread of the wed­ding feast. The ban­quet is across the top of the page with the stair­way in the fore­ground. The ban­is­ter slants diag­o­nal­ly down to Puss, boots dis­card­ed, curled up peace­ful­ly in the cen­ter of the land­ing, mis­sion accomplished.

Puss in Boots

illus­tra­tion © Fred Mar­celli­no, Puss in Boots, Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, 1990

Hav­ing won the Calde­cott Award nine times, three medals and six hon­ors, all for fairy tales, folk tales, or fables, Mar­cia Brown speaks with author­i­ty when she states, “When an illus­tra­tor attempts the inter­pre­ta­tion of a folk or fairy tale that already stands as an enti­ty, the prob­lem of adding a new dimen­sion and bring­ing the whole into har­mo­nious uni­ty is great. Illus­tra­tion becomes a kind of visu­al sto­ry­telling in the deep­est sense of the word” (Com­mire, 1987, pp. 33 – 34).

Pic­ture Books Cited

Per­rault, C. & Brown, M. (1954). Cin­derel­la: Or the lit­tle glass slip­per. (M. Brown, Trans.). Antheneum Books for Young Readers.

Per­rault, C. & Brown, M. (1952). Puss in boots. (M. Brown, Trans.). Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Per­rault, C. & Mar­celli­no, F. (1990). Puss in boots. (M. Arthur, Trans.). Far­rar Straus Giroux.

Step­toe, J. (1987). Mufaro’s beau­ti­ful daugh­ters: An African tale. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.

Sources Con­sult­ed

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). (2017). The New­bery and Calde­cott Awards: A guide to the medal and hon­or books. Amer­i­can Library Association.

Bet­tel­heim, B. (1977). The uses of enchant­ment: The mean­ing and impor­tance of fairy tales (Vin­tage Books edi­tion). Ran­dom House.

Com­mire, A. (Ed.). (1987). Brown, Mar­cia 1918-. In Some­thing about the author (Vol. 47), (pp. 28 – 45). Gale.

Olen­dorf, D. (Ed.). (1991). Step­toe, John (Lewis) 1950 – 1989. In Some­thing about the author (Vol. 63), (pp. 157 – 167). Gale.

Olen­dorf, D. (Ed.). (1992). Mar­celli­no, Fred 1939-. In Some­thing about the author (Vol. 68), (pp. 152 – 160). Gale.

Yolen, J. (2004). Once upon a while ago: Folk­tales in the course of lit­er­a­ture. In Pavonet­ti, L. M. (Ed.), Children’s lit­er­a­ture remem­bered: Issues, trends, and favorite books (pp. 39 – 48). Libraries Unlimited.

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candice ransom
3 years ago

I adore Mar­cia Brown’s Cin­derel­la for its authen­tic­i­ty and del­i­cate beau­ty. I devot­ed an entire class on Mar­cia Brown’s work when I taught my grad­u­ate lev­el his­to­ry of pic­ture book illus­tra­tors at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty. I used to buy nov­els just for the Fred Mar­celli­no jack­ets. Mar­celli­no was mod­est, but his work was far from tra­di­tion­al. He paint­ed star­lit skies that made me want to make a wish. So glad you brought fairy tales out of the vault!

3 years ago

Fan­tas­tic post. I am a teacher train­er for future EFL teach­ers, and am going to use this! Thank you.