Children’s Book Reviews: Revisiting Fables and Fairy Tales

By Cyrisse Jaffee

A new interpretation of an old fable and a newly reissued fairy tale provide delightful reading for kids — and perhaps good holiday gifts as well.

The North Wind & the Sun by Philip Stead. Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2023.

Little Red Riding Hood, retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Holiday House, 1983, 2023.

A perfect choice for the beginning of winter (in the Northern hemisphere at least), this retelling of an Aesop fable is expressed through poetic language and lovely colored-pencil drawings. “Although the sun brightly shone,” the narrative begins, “a coldness had begun to creep in.” Three sisters, clothed in “beautiful coats — many times patched and many times mended,” decide to take a walk “before the weather turns.” The Sun is happy and admires the sisters’ coats, but the North Wind is angry. “These patchwork coats are no protection from me,” he says boastfully, “I am the great North Wind.”

So begins a tale of two forces of nature — the gentle Sun and the fierce North Wind. The Sun says that she is as strong as the North Wind and can “easily pull the coats from the sisters’ backs.” The North Wind disagrees, sending blustery winds that uproot trees, topple castles, cause shipwrecks, and pound mountains “into deserts of sands.” He generates not only destruction, but sadness and regret as well: “His fury made ripples in the teacups of old women, who felt the sorrow of friendships lost to the past, and his hatred whipped dust into the eyes of old men, who felt the regret of arguments never resolved.” The three sisters stand steadfast, understanding that he is a force for “lies, spitefulness, and mockery,” deserving pity, not fear. It’s only when the Sun shines down with cheery, life-giving warmth that the sisters shed their coats. Thus kindness triumphs over aggression — the moral of the story.

The Sun and the North Wind are drawn with childlike pencil strokes, dominating the pages and the human characters below. The North Wind is messy and scattered, surrounded by blues and purples. The Sun is tidy, with red and, of course, yellow around her. Despite the timelessness of the tale, and its welcome message, there is a slight discomfort in aligning stereotypical qualities with the female Sun (patient, flowery, smiley) and the male North Wind (forceful, action-oriented, bold). Yet the presence of the three sisters helps to balance the equation and offsets the conventions inherent in this traditional tale.

Another well-known tale, Little Red Riding Hood, retold and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, has just been reissued, “restored and repackaged.” First published 40 years ago, this is a splendid volume, featuring Hyman’s gorgeous illustrations, with a new foreword by Caldecott-winning medalist Jason Chin. As Chin notes, after he discovered Hyman’s artwork, her images “worked on me like magic, transporting me out of the library and into the world of the story.” Rich and vibrant, each page is like a medieval manuscript, with illustrations full of color, details, and decorative borders. The pages overflow with blooming flowers, charming cottage interiors, playful cats, and distinctive people, young and old — plus a very realistic wolf.

Like most of Grimm’s fairy tales, the story contains elements of danger and violence. The grandmother and the little girl are both eaten up immediately by the wolf. Later, the huntsman is just about to kill the wolf with his gun drawn. Luckily, he decides to use a knife — later used to skin the wolf — to cut him open, just in case Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are inside. (They are.) And book banners beware: Little Red Riding Hood brings her grandmother not only a basket full of bread and butter, but also a bottle of wine, which grandma is shown drinking after her rescue.

Trina Schart Hyman (1938–2004) was a popular, prolific, and well-respected children’s book illustrator. She illustrated more than 150 children’s books, winning the Caldecott Medal in 1984 for the volume St. George and the Dragon, as well as three Caldecott Honors (including one for Little Red Riding Hood). A longtime resident of Lyme, New Hampshire, she frequently used family and friends as models, and was one of the first children’s illustrators to include diverse characters. Known for her lush, romantic, jewel-like style, she often combined realism with fantasy elements, and was equally at home with myths and fairy tales as she was with contemporary stories. Readers will be glad that this particular classic tale is available once again.

Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

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