Fairy Tales Series: Part 1, we begin in Newfoundland

The title is slightly deceptive. The renewal begins in Newfoundland, this part begins in Newfoundland– but really it goes back to the year… hm. Maybe 1995? I remember this, and pretty much only this: I was about eight or nine years old. I had read a few different Cinderella stories and noticed similarities and differences. I talked to my mother about them and she said something about scholars not being sure to what degree the stories had started in one place and travelled elsewhere and to what degree the same type of story had sprung up independently around the world. Being an eight-or-nine-year-old with no academic background but limitless reading time and no barriers to my sense of possibility, I decided it was a very a simple question and that it was up to me to solve the problem.

All you had to do, I decided, was read all of the stories out there (oh sweet child) and sort them out according to time and place on a map and then see whether there was a pattern to show they’d travelled. If there was, they’d travelled, if there was no discernible pattern, it showed that humans everywhere have a natural sense of story and the stories spontaneously emerged across the globe! Simple!

Dear, quixotic child that I was. I read a lot of stories and had a great time and my Unified Theory of Fairy Tales never was published given that I came to no conclusions beyond “huh this is complicated– ooooh another story!” I read Cinderella-style stories from around the world, I read animal transformation stories, and I began to weigh the bestial nature of the beast against other figures… and I learned a great deal from those traditional stories. And I also noticed the other stories. Stories like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Jon Scieszka. “Cute,” I thought rather condescendingly, “but… I have work to do, Mr. Scieszka, don’t interrupt me.” (Note: I was still about 9 or 10 years old. I had limitless reading time and so much condescension.) (Mr. Scieszka, it’s a good story and I enjoy it to this day, please don’t take this as any type of criticism, it just didn’t fit with my Big Job, OK?)

In hindsight, I think that was maybe the beginning of a shift, though? I never stopped loving reading “original” stories, but I didn’t see so many new editions and anyway as my reading level went up, the available stories turned towards retellings: Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, Beauty by Robin McKinley, and, of course, the more recent, older ones: the Fairyland series by Catherynne M. Valente, not to mention her not-for-kids Six-Gun Snow White and Deathless, and the graphic novel Snow White by Matt Phelan… I’ve written about Hilary McKay’s rather extraordinary Straw into Gold, I know.

These are all fairy tale adjacent, to greater or lesser degrees, but not one single glorious picture books of folk and fairy tales of the kind I grew up with and I have to say I’m really missing those on book store shelves. Which brings me back to Newfoundland, and a box I got from Running the Goat Books.

I’d posit that part of the reason for the decrease in single picture book fairy tale editions is, quite simply, wordcount. (Pause: I’m using a lot of qualifications for a reason. Broad generalizations are broad, I do not want to go into the niggling details, I’m not an expert, I don’t work at a publisher, I’m not published, etc. This is a very limited view from one person who would like more fairy tale books, please. Got it? Don’t wave your bundle of exceptions at me unless there are really awesome book recommendations in there, in which case—do.)

There’s been a really noticeable trend from “storybooks” to “picture books” over time, and that means (generally speaking, very much generally) that authors who want to actually get a book published will limit wordcount because agents know that editors want fewer words on the page, not a Big Fat Story.

Exceptions? Absolutely. Nonfiction, for one. If you’re writing a picture book biography, for example, you’ve got to do what the narrative requires, and that will have heavier wordcount. Likewise, for example, a scientific concept, natural history, history of a time period, etc. Are you covering a lot of facts? Those facts are going to be delineated in words. While you don’t want to waste words, as, for example, may happen in a blog post which no one is editing for length and clarity for example—you probably need more words than would go into, oh, concept picture books, for example, such as A Child of Books. Think of the sparse wordcount and enormous feeling in I Talk Like a River.

“Yes but I get lots of picture books that tell a good story, and do so within a limited wordcount!” So do I! I’m happy with them and am beyond thrilled that you are, too. Not complaining in the least about them and I’ll cheerfully list a bunch that have come out and I never got to review: Sara O’Leary and Kenard Pak’s Maud and Grand-Maud is a wonderful story of relationship between grandmother and granddaughter; Shawn Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower? shows us a kid really seeing a flower; Maile Meloy and Felicita Sala’s The Octopus Escapes tells of, surprise!, an octopus’s escape back to the wild.

But I can think of only one absolutely glorious recent picture book narrative with a dense, wordy story (which I have to admit Candlewick sent me, I didn’t spot it “in the wild”): P. J. Lynch’s The Haunted Lake (I still really want to review that one, but don’t wait on me, get it now). It’s dense, rich, and packed with a story as wild and wonderful as the muted, dangerous illustrations.

The types of fairy tale books I grew up with, though, I’m not seeing renewed: Paul O. Zelinsky, Trina Schart Hyman, K.Y. Craft… I just don’t see editions like those coming out again. And what’s sad to me is that while we can say that those were done and don’t need to be done again (no one will do a better Rumpelstiltskin than Paul Zelinsky or a better Snow White than Trina Schart Hyman, which I can’t seem to find in print?, ever, fight me)—I feel pretty strongly that there are stories not told.

Ashley Bryan told stories from Africa in Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, for example, back in 1980. And those were still in collections, not the big individual hardbacks I crave. My vague memories of old stories from Canadian First Nations tribes is that most were collected by white people, though I won’t swear to that, and I think an Inuit tale is (probably, but not certainly) best told by an Inuk author, illustrated by an Inuk artist. I think there’s a real lag in telling old stories right now: I love the new ones, I don’t want them to stop, but I do want old stories told and illustrated by people who know them, and I want them individually packaged in big, beautiful hardbacks. Thank you. Hop to it.

The reason I rant at such length is that I’ve been stewing over this for a while, pretty cranky, if we’re honest.

And then I got a beautiful, lovely email from my personal hero right now: Marnie Parsons of Running the Goat Books & Broadsides in Newfoundland. First of all, Marnie had obviously read my page explaining how I handle review copies. (I love it when people read first! It makes me feel all warm and cozy like a teacher whose student reads the syllabus!) Second, when I selected a few books and she sent them (very promptly), she sent a few extras and very good materials explaining background for each book. Third, she also handles shipments from their store in Tors Cove in Newfoundland and she kindly arranged a package to my friend in Newfoundland. So Marnie is just the best.

And the books. My friends. Local, independent presses are never to be underestimated. Running the Goat produces curated books from incredibly talented local authors, takes the time to shape and edit the text beautifully, the illustrators are often astounding, and the design and production values are great.

And the best bit? This is Newfoundland. I GOT LOCAL FAIRY TALES.

The first one I saw on the website and immediately requested from Marnie was Spirited Away: Fairy stories of old Newfoundland, collected and told by Tom Dawe with perfectly eerie illustrations by Veselina Tomova. Note: this is a collection, not the single story spun out over 32 pages I was craving. But it was a re-immersion in the collections I loved from later childhood. A prim, usually upper middle class gentleman or lady during the Celtic Revival would wander around Ireland or Scotland writing down stories told by an older woman or gentleman, spinning literal and figurative yarn simultaneously while the earnest recorder set down the words. The methodological issues with those early collections are known and I won’t revisit them, but I’m glad to have them. Tom Dawe’s collection is better than those of the Celtic Revival, if I’m being blunt. He knows these stories in their creepy, delightful, eerie beauty. He knows them in his blood and bones and spins them into words with lyrical honesty, with a voice that reminds me of Ellen Bryan Obed’s in its poetry and simplicity. Veselina Tomova, originally from Bulgaria, illustrated these stories with dark wood-cuts that snatch the heart of the story and splay the feeling across the page, grabbing the eye into the mood from the first glance. I love her art and want it on my wall.

I was less sure what to expect from Andy Jones (Marnie sent me Barefoot Helen and the Giants and Jack and the Green Man before I started reading. It didn’t say “fairy tale,” because, well, I guess they aren’t fairy tales. But they are the closest thing I’ve seen to what I was craving, and surpassed my wildest desires in actual execution.

Andy Jones is a storyteller of the Robert Munsch kind: he tells a story and knows how to record it in words such that the voice emanates from the page. (In fact, he reads his own stories on audio, available for download from the Running the Goat website!) And they’re real stories, with brilliant, exciting narratives with kings and queens and princesses running around and giants and everything—all in a hardback with gloriously flamboyant illustrations. And the stories are decidedly familiar: there’s your Molly Whuppie (Barefoot Helen slaying the Giants), there’s your Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Jack and the Green Man), but there’s also a failed fishery with families moving away, and there’s rediscovering old family and remaking a new family. The Master Maid narrative gets a bit of a mischievous makeover, and Molly Whuppie doesn’t end as expected, either. If you, like me, sometimes grumble about stupid worthless princes and heteronormative storytelling… fear not.

The art? Barefoot Helen and the Giants is illustrated with bright, quirky, and bold art from Katie Brosnan. It’s fun, upbeat, and not too beautiful for the story, which emphasizes boldness over beauty—thus leading us to a new type of beauty in the end. Jack and the Green Man is illustrated by Darka Erdelji who also designs puppets in Slovenia, and you can absolutely see that narrative drama in her work, and I just loved tracing the story in the visual landscape of the page.

(Side note to Marnie: Can you get your illustrators to produce prints to sell through your shop? I have a few in mind…)

For me, the icing on the cake was this: Andy Jones brings both the hardback glory of a single story excitedly sprawling its tall tale across 32 pages and the glorious notes of Joseph Jacobs who kindly and accessibly explains his sources at the back of this collections so that nerds like me could run after them and read more stories.

Marnie Parsons is the actual best because in the finest form of every publisher and bookseller she found me new books, authors, and illustrators to love and get excited about.

My friends, I was wrong. There are new folk and fairy tale or tall tale storybooks out there. But don’t limit yourselves to the Big However Many (Big Five, Big Four?) in your searches. It’s totally worth it to look more broadly, and I pledge to tell you of any I find. (There’s a reason this is Part 1…)

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