A little retell therapy

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Traditional tales are given a fresh outing in this collection, reviewed by Jane Doonan

The Little Black Hen By Antony Pogorelsky Illustrated by Gennady Spirin Retold by Elizabeth James

Simply Read Books pound;11.99 Yakov and the Seven Thieves By Madonna Illustrated by Gennady Spirin Puffin pound;12.99

The Donkey and the Golden Light By Gill Spiers Illustrated by John Spiers Abrams pound;9.95.

The Elves and the Shoemaker Retold from the Brothers Grimm and illustrated by Jim LaMarche Chronicle Books pound;10.99

Abel and the Wolf By Sergio Lairla Illustrated by Alessandra Roberti North-SouthRagged Bears pound;9.99

The Tiger and the Wise Man By Andrew Fusek Peters Illustrated by Diana Mayo Child's Play pound;4.99

Noah's Boat By Louise Elliott LothianRagged Bears pound;8.99

Peter and the Wolf Retold by Pie Corbett Illustrated by Nik Pollard Chrysalis Children's Books pound;10.99

Perrault did it, the Grimms did it, even an educated Dane did it; let's do it, let's tell old tales. The Little Black Hen, retold by Elizabeth James, is one of the first Russian fairy tales for children written by Antony Pogorelsky for his nephew, the future writer Alexei Tolstoi. Set in St Petersburg, it tells of how Alyosha saves the life of a black hen destined for the pot. This action leads to adventure in a secret kingdom, a promise, and betrayal. The young hero finally redeems himself, but the damage he has inflicted on others cannot be undone. Plenty of room for discussion there.

In this picture story book edition, the illustration is by the distinguished Russian-born artist Gennady Spirin. Masterly drawings and large panels and cameos in atmospheric muted hues express the elegance and decorum of the period.

Spirin's illustrations are the best reason for buying Madonna's Yakov and the Seven Thieves. It's a retelling of an 18th-century Ukrainian tale in which the prayers of seven low-life law-breakers - representing the bad things in us that need to be changed - save the life of a sick child. The internal logic of the story doesn't bear inspection, and the mawkishness and moralising is unappealing.

The Donkey and the Golden Light, by John and Gill Spiers, encompasses religion, art history, and story. The text covers the lifespan of a donkey that is born and dies in the same place and week as Christ. The illustration records the donkey's adventures, while important stages of Christ's life are represented in the background of each setting. A late medieval device creates another parallel story of the life of Jesus, with the seasons and labours of the months.

The pictures are inspired by the works of Pieter Breughel the Elder.

Historiated capitals, large frames in gold borders, and paintings that teem with activity make for a rich visual assault. This multi-level work has relevance for several subject areas for Years 2 to 6.

Jim LaMarche conjures a classic folktale world from acrylic washes and coloured pencil and watercolour paper in this re-creation of The Elves and the Shoemaker. Harmonies of light - glow, glint, gleam, and sheen - give the illusion of life. Adding to the pleasure for the young viewer, the pictures show telling details that escape the narrator; it's a good feeling to be let into secrets.

The way to a wolf's heart is via his stomach. In Abel and the Wolf by Sergio Lairla, Abel leaves home with a culinary survival kit. He settles in a dark forest that belongs to a wolf, mighty interested in the mouth-watering smells wafting from Abel's kitchen. Through his generosity, Abel transforms the hungry animal into a good friend. Uncluttered space, pictorial stillness, and varying subtle surface effects characterise Alessandra Roberti's illustrations.

The Tiger and the Wise Man, by Andrew Fusek Peters, is a traditional Indian tale, illustrated by Diana Mayo. Her pictures are as bold and sharp as the tiger's tooth, in colours as hot as his breath. The story concerns a tiger that catches a wise man. Should he eat his captive? Anthropomorphic animals and a tree give their opinions on the way humans treat the natural world.

This topic could run and run with Year 2 groups.

Noah gets his wake-up call to build the Ark. After some dithering he sets to work but every day brings another animal with a new set of demands, and he has to revise his plans. Louise Elliott charts his progress in Noah's Boat. The story is engagingly told, and the illustration intriguing; the characters, robustly drawn in small-scale cartooning, are superimposed on photographs of landscape. This ark will be docking in the English, RE, and art curriculum.

To finish on a rousing note, Peter and the Wolf, retold by Pie Corbett and illustrated by Nik Pollard, is novelty picturebook with computer-generated artwork in dazzling colour, and five pop-up spreads. Use it to introduce children to Prokofiev's symphonic fairytale and send them home with music ringing in their ears.

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