GREENAWAY MEDAL WINNER – 1971
written by Joan Aiken
illustrated by Jan Pienkowski
Jonathan Cape, 1971
104 pp. – 11 stories
Age: 5 +
Interests: fairy tales, folktales, Eastern European folklore, magic, princesses, princes, mermaids
Also by this illustrator: Haunted House, Meg and Mog series
Also by this author: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase series
This is a collection of traditional East European folk tales, marvellously retold by Joan Aiken. Not as well-known, perhaps, as the more standard fairy tales, these are refreshingly full of unexpected events and startling situations. From the evil crone Baba Yaga to the tragic girls trapped in reeds to a Queen imprisoned in a castle wall to a hundred drunken elephants, this is a bewitching set of stories.
The illustrations only add to the beauty and charm of the text. This is more of a chapter book with elaborate silhouette artwork on every page and the occasional full-page silhouette against gorgeous marbled paper. The incredible, fascinating detail of these silhouettes is perfect for children to gaze on as you read. They really are marvellous, and are in the perfect romantic style of the stories.
As these are traditional folktales there is a certain amount of threat and violence – a knight has to cut off his hand to get past guard wolves (it grows back), a girl is threatened with being baked in an oven (she gets away), two errant youths set fire to their grandfather’s hut (they repent), an entire army is killed by an angry sun… that kind of thing. However, as the drawings are somewhat stylized the more graphic elements are not as alarming as they could be. (And these stories are nowhere near as bloodthirsty as the Grimms’ Tales.)
Being very old, traditional stories, there are an awful lot of rather passive females here – most noteworthy for being kind and generous but rather timid. Luckily there are two plucky gals here though: in the title story and in Baba Yaga’s Daughter.
The stories: The Kingdom Under the Sea, The Imprisoned Queen, Baba Yaga’s Daughter, The Sun-God’s Castle, The Reed Girl, The King who declared war on the Animals, The Venetian Princess, The Pear Tree, The Sun’s Cousin, The Golden-Fleeced Ram and the Hundred Elephants, The Goose Girl.
The story about the elephants is particularly wonderful, with a hundred drunken, cavorting elephants, and an unexpected, happy twist at the end.
“The wine and brandy made them joyful and they began to dance, waving their long trunks and fanning each other with their great ears. They trumpeted gaily, and the ground shook, so that the people in the king’s city trembled and thought the mountain must be falling down.”
Sadly this appears to be out of print, as there are only used copies for sale on amazon: