I wrote a beautiful post earlier on. In it, I told you that when I was really little I had a Thing about fairy tales. I read all of them that I could, and I even, when I was about eight, tried to track the development of different versions of fairy tales from culture to culture, and to figure out whether they sprang up independently of each other or whether they travelled from one place to another. I was, in a word, somewhat obsessed. I was also rather smug: I thought that no fairy tale could surprise me, given how well-read I was.
Take a look at this, Snow White by Matt Phelan:
Yes, in that other post I told you that this book came out a year ago and it surprised and delighted me to such an extent that I’m completely unable to account for why I let a year pass by without telling you about it. (Well, that’s not completely true. I’m kinda busy with my dissertation, but, well. All the same. Mea culpa.)
In that other post I went on to tell you about what made this book so special and distinctive. I told you that it was a graphic novel set around and about 1928, and that it had a distinctly film noir vibe and beautiful art. In fact it’s so beautiful that part of me wishes that it were in a larger format so that I could display it on the coffee table I don’t have. Or maybe it could be made into an actual film noir-style movie somehow? Basically, I want to wrap myself up in the art in some fashion or other. In the meantime, while I’m figuring out how to get this art onto highway billboards in place of pointless ads for fast food joints, let’s enjoy its current format for Middle Grade readers, who will enjoy its sleek sophistication (the website recommends it for Grade 5+, which is about right).
This is the point in that other post where I explained to you how exactly Matt Phelan had gone about transposing the story of Snow White into Depression-era New York City. I explained how all seems well for little Samantha, nicknamed Snow by her loving and beloved mother and her wealthy businessman father, until her mother dies (probably of tuberculosis, since we’re shown her coughing up blood), her father marries the “Queen” of Ziegfeld Follies, and Snow is sent away to school. By the time she gets back, her father is mysteriously dead (after her stepmother had given him a nighttime drink– the first hint of her affinity for poisons), and her father’s lawyer is explaining that, a few weeks before he died, her father had changed his will so that he left the greater part of his property to Snow when she turned eighteen. This, naturally, puts Snow’s life in danger, so she runs away, only to be rescued by a band of street boys who call themselves the Seven (they refuse to give their real names… at that time). After she fails to have Snow killed by Mr. Hunt, the stepmother turns to her poisons again, and, disguising herself, gives Snow a poisoned apple. Unable to rescue her in time, the Seven place her in a window display at Macy’s where a detective finds her and pronounces, “I’ve seen a lot of stiffs, McChesney. And that’s not one of them.” He wakes her with a kiss (chastely, on the cheek), and she, the Seven (who have now told her their names), and the detective live happily ever after.
In that other post, I told you that what was interesting about this book wasn’t just the transposition from traditional fairy tale to Depression-era New York City. It was the whole work of art, and I think we can almost refer, in this case, to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk: the art, the lettering, the text, the colouring… the whole shebang is thought out and executed beautifully. (Yes, I really want it to be made into an animated film…) Let’s take a look at an example of what makes this book so distinctive. I want to start with the limited text, and for that we’re going to take a look at a not-so-great picture of this two-page spread (I highly recommend that you buy the book in order to get a better view of what we’re talking about!).
Note that we have no word balloons here. Yes, there are sound effects: the “click” of the key in the lock, the “shhh” of the knife being withdrawn from the knife block– but there’s no actual dialogue. Now, in that other post, I indicated to you that this left the speech to the thousands of words expressed by the images, and we chatted for a bit about how in the original fairy tale the heart in question was usually a deer or pig’s heart, but here we have no idea where the heart comes from… and Matt Phelan isn’t telling.
We also talked, in that other post, about the art. I mentioned the loose, deceptively easy lines and how they reminded me of Edward Ardizzone and Charlotte Voake, but a bit more grown up in feeling, and we talked at length about the limited palette. The black and white with every shade of grey (Matt Phelan worked in pencil, ink, and watercolour) are remarkably flexible in his hands: in the beginning, as Snow plays with her mother, they’re gentle and muted and dreamy; they become moody and mysterious after her mother’s death; and they become frankly frightening as he zooms in on her stepmother’s furious eyes or the harsh geometric lines of her angry profile. I’m having a hard time thinking of another illustrator who can make such limited colours and lines cover such a range in a single book.
If the black-and-white images can do a lot, however, the colours do even more. First, it’s the colour red: Snow’s cheeks are rosy from playing outside, but we’re soon shocked to see the red of the blood her mother spits out. All is dark again until we see the bloody heart at the butcher’s, and the red of the poisoned apple. We’re once again plunged into unrelieved darkness until Snow is behind the glass at Macy’s: and then we have our first new colour, a delicate, ethereal blue-washed background. The colour deepens as Snow wakes, and then, finally, as we look in on her new home, we get full colour, like Dorothy in Oz. It’s warm, light, slightly vintage in feel, but after the pages of darkness it suffuses the story, even without words, with a sense of home.
As for the ending? In that other post I told you the happily ever after was a little ambiguous: Snow ends up taking in the Seven, and she ends up with the detective, but it’s not quite clear if they’re married or just courting. He does bring her flowers (as I forgot to tell you in that other post). The ending is warm and satisfying, especially as the stepmother has met an end I won’t tell you about. You need the element of surprise to fully appreciate it. (She doesn’t dance to death in red hot shoes.)
In that other post I told you that I thought this book merited a place of honour, right beside Catherynne M. Valente’s Six-Gun Snow White on one side and Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell’s The Sleeper and the Spindle on the other– which, in the other post, brought me to the revelation that I actually had encountered quite a number of surprising fairy tale books, more than I had previously thought.
I really wish you could have read that other post. I thought it was pretty good and it told you about an amazing book. You should really check it out.