August 10, 2017
(++++) FAIRY TALES, TWISTED
Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales. By Kiersten White. Illustrations by Karl Kwasny. Scholastic. $16.99.
Even Fairies Fart. By Jennifer Stinson. Pictures by Rebecca Ashdown. Harper. $17.99.
Paddington Goes to Town. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
Fairy tales have spoken to readers – and, before widespread literacy, to listeners – for uncounted generations, and still do so both in their original forms and in contemporary variations. Most were not stories for children but explanations of the way the world works and warnings about it. And many were very frightening, as readers of the collections by Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers can easily discover by tracking down and reading those groupings’ original versions. The stories have been significantly toned down for younger readers’ consumption – even later editions of the Grimm tales did some of this – but nowadays often exist in separate versions for adults (emphasizing and even accentuating the stories’ darker side) and children (keeping things light). Kiersten White’s Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales stakes out (so to speak) a kind of middle ground, being intended for middle-school reading and aimed at providing a certain number of rather ick-inducing incidents mixing mild scariness with offbeat humor. The book’s cover, by illustrator Karl Kwasny, does an unusually good job of encapsulating White’s whole approach: leaves and vines from Jack’s beanstalk form the eyes and nose of what looks like a scowling skull, with the turrets of a castle in the background forming jagged-looking “teeth” and with traditional fairy-tale characters, human and otherwise, appearing in the picture looking eerier than they usually do in versions of the stories for young people. What White does in the stories is create a kind of mashup “overview” narrative that she eventually uses to connect a number of different tales – and within the individual stories, she makes things creepy and/or gross and/or funny in ways that allow her eventually to bring the whole book to an interrelated-tales climax. White is also fond of puns: in the very first story, a variation on the tale of Rapunzel, “let down your fair hair” sounds just like “let down your fair Herr,” which turns out to make a great difference to the hapless prince and also to the narrator, who points out the importance of proper spelling. White introduces each tale with a suitably modified little poem: this story of Snow White starts with “one, two, buckle your shoe,” in a version that ends, “nine, ten, something’s hungry again.” And there is plenty of snarkiness as well: in the same story, the narrator comments that the queen who wanted a baby must not have spent much time around babies, because “they smell bad, they throw up a lot, and they cry instead of sleeping.” On and on the book goes, through “The Princess and the Pea” (in which the spelling of the final word turns out to matter quite a lot), “Little Dead Riding Hood,” “Cinderella” (here called “Cinders and Ashes” and ending even before the fairy godmother shows up, then starting again to be sure she is included) – and so forth. The typical evil stepmother turns out in this book to be as close to heroic as anyone or anything does: she “had devoted her life to putting out fires,” sometimes metaphorical ones and sometimes not. And the tales are enlivened (sometimes en-dead-ened) not only by Kwasny’s pictures but also by occasional fancy typography, such as that used to show the way the beanstalk grows after the beans take root thanks to all the drool that comes out of Jack’s mouth while he sleeps. Bean Stalker and Other Hilarious Scary Tales is certainly a version of multiple fairy tales, and a few nursery rhymes, unlike any other – and although it does not supplant the old tales either for humor or for fright, it does a mighty good job of aligning both the amusement and the scariness with the experiences and expectations of young readers today.
One thing today’s young readers apparently expect – or at least one that authors and publishers expect them to expect – is frequent use of the word “fart” in stories and even in book titles. Families that find the word offensive, or simply unnecessary when a short phrase such as “pass gas” works quite as well, will have no interest in a book such as Jennifer Stinson’s Even Fairies Fart. But the book is not intended to shock (apparently even extra-large lettering for this word, as on the book’s cover, is now acceptable). Stinson’s underlying message is fine: fairy tales (at least as directed at children) seem to show an ultra-perfect world, but in reality, life is not like that. Really, a book of this type would be even better if aimed at the pervasive forms of entertainment directed at contemporary children: television, movies, YouTube, video games, etc. All these offer hyper-unrealistic worlds in which natural bodily functions are either absent or played for laughs. Stinson’s story and Rebecca Ashdown’s well-matched illustrations try to meld humor and a degree of realism; but the emphasis is on amusement, as on the inside front and back covers, which show fairies of all colors, shapes and sizes emitting gas, and the front cover, which has one fairy (who looks just like a little girl) sending out a cloud big enough to cover almost the whole front of the book. The somewhat-serious message here is presented after showing the perfection that usually appears in fairy tales: “It all seems so amazing!/ Can’t we be perfect too?/ If we wish on the brightest star,/ could all this stuff come true?” The answer, of course, is “no.” Perfection is unattainable, and even fairies, Stinson says, do not have it. Nor do other fairy-tale characters: a dragon is shown cheating at cards, a princess picks her nose, an elf has a bathroom accident, “wizards mope and pout,” witches whine, “monsters sometimes want their mommies,” and so on. These shortcomings are not important, according to Stinson’s writing and Ashdown’s illustrations. All sorts of bodily functions, all sorts of less-than-perfect behavior, are simply normal, no matter what fairy tales may say and no matter what they omit. “And who cares?” asks Stinson. None of this stuff matters – it’s fine to love and enjoy fairy tales, and by extension to love and enjoy all the kids who play “let’s pretend” and who themselves like fairy-tale stories, even in the knowledge that perfection does not really exist anywhere. That is a fine and uplifting message, and one that parents will be glad to pass along to their children. Whether this specific book, using this specific language, is the best way to do that, will be a matter for individual families to decide.
The fairy-tale world of Paddington Bear is scarcely perfect, but the late Michael Bond had no need of bodily-function words or any sort of strong language to provide joy and entertainment to young readers and equally enchanted adults for more than half a century. Paddington Goes to Town dates to 1968 and is the eighth collection of Paddington’s adventures to be published (the first came out 10 years earlier). Now available in a new edition, Paddington Goes to Town is not officially a memorial to Bond (1926-2017) but will feel like one to Paddington’s many fans. Its seven stories of curiosity and misunderstanding are entirely typical of tales in the Paddington canon. The first, in which Paddington is an usher at a wedding, is especially amusing. “Mr. Brown wasn’t overenthusiastic about weddings at the best of times, and the thought of attending one at which Paddington was lending a paw filled him with foreboding” – a suitable feeling, as things turn out. Also here, Paddington tries golf, mistakenly visits a psychiatrist at a hospital and causes considerable verbal confusion, rolls a boulder down the aisle of a bus, and has several opportunities to display the “very hard stare” that he had “when he liked.” Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations perfectly encapsulate all Paddington’s expressions, both the facial ones and his body language. Charming and gentle errors in which Paddington behaves like an inquisitive human child are Bond’s stock-in-trade in all the Paddington books, as is language that, while simple and easy to follow, does not talk down to its intended young readers. The language is certainly not as direct or crude as in many recent books for young readers – indeed, even Bond’s 21st-century books retained old-fashioned sweetness and verbal sensitivity. There are occasional British expressions that may take some getting used to for Americans, but the writing will just as likely add to the stories’ overall charm: “Altogether he was thankful when at long last he peered round the side of his load and caught sight of a small queue standing beside a familiar-looking London Transport sign not far ahead.” Paddington Goes to Town is as good an introduction to the bear from Darkest Peru as any other of Bond’s collections: the stories are all independent, and the bear’s personality shines through in them all. The pleasantries of Bond’s urban fairy tales are a continuing source of joy, and it is easy to imagine these stories still being found quite delightful when books featuring cruder language and characters have been supplanted by the next new or faddish creation.