Children's Literature

28th February 1997 at 00:00
CLASSIC FAIRY TALES TO READ ALOUD Selected by Naomi Lewis Kingfisher Pounds 12.99.


The fairy tale provides a rich and satisfying literary experience. There is an abundance of material - classic collections, lavish picture books and modern retellings. So the production of a new volume begs the question: what does this particular book add to the experience?

Naomi Lewis's Classic Fairy Tales To Read Aloud is a delightful collection, an excellent introduction to the fairy tale and an important addition to the class bookshelf.

Stories to read aloud must be engaging, with strong narratives and powerful themes. Those in this book are told by accomplished storytellers of the literary tale, from Andersen to contemporary writers such as Susan Price and William Mayne.

The most important collectors of the folk fairy tale are represented, including the Grimms (Germany), Perrault (France), Afnasiev (Russia), Jacobs (England), Asbj?rnsen and Moe (Norway). The tales chosen to exemplify their works have been skilfully selected for contrast, contribution to the genre, and powerful storytelling.

They are unsentimental; how refreshing it is to have Perrault's "Red Riding Hood" included ("At that the wicked wolf threw himself upon Little Red Riding Hood and gobbled her up too"). This may not be to everyone's taste but at least it brings the story to the attention of a popular readership to be discussed and argued about.

The tales assembled here show that traditional characters do not, as so frequently claimed, necessarily fall into easy stereotypes. Baba Yaga, as Lewis points out in her introduction, is a sorceress of quality, a worthy foe who, fortunately, does not meet the grim end more commonly associated with the fairytale witch. And in "The Firebird", the much maligned wolf has the chance to make amends by assisting the hero in winning the heart of the Princess Loveliness.

Lewis's authoritative and engaging introductions whet the appetite, setting the context of each tale, making connections with similar tales and inviting the reader to explore deeper into the world of the fairy tale.

The style of the tales varies but they all possess the immediate impact,pace and directness in the telling that make them ideal for reading aloud.A good read-aloud tale should delight the ear, playing to the rhythms and structures of the language. While the language in many of these tales is rich and memorable ("And thither you'll come late or never," says the Old Hag in "East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon"), it is not excessively descriptive and does not disrupt the flow of the narratives.

An important consideration in choosing stories to read aloud is the length. Between 10 and 20 minutes is generally considered a reasonable time for children to listen and reading aloud for longer can be tiring for the reader. Teachers might find the listed reading times useful.

William Mayne's stories in See-Saw Sacradown have their roots in the folk tale, animal fable, ghost story and gothic tale. They contain recognisable characters from traditional tales such as Simple Simon in "The Ridingbird" and Cinderella in "Clinker at the Carney", but the narratives are fresh and original.

Characteristic of Mayne's writing is the movement between past and present. Some tales such as "Forbidden Music" are set in clearly identifiable periods; in others the setting is a more nebulous medieval or 19th-century London.

Landscape provides the key to the past which is frequently hidden beneath our feet; the mine shafts in Totteridge, the cellars at Blackfriars, deep in Lambeth Marsh, beneath Pippen Hill, or the foundations of a supermarket in Dagenham. Who knows when we might accidentally "open the gate to the place you can't get to"?

Mayne creates a credible world through attention to detail - topography, knowledge of traditional crafts and occupations, the inclusion of well-known nursery rhymes. His style is not easy and he often confounds our expectations of syntax, but the effect is to bring the reader closer to his characters.

The shadowy style of Peter Melnyczuk's illustrations complements the enigmatic spirit of this collection. The depiction of the creature in "The Milestoner" as a suggestive hand, creeping over the top of the milestone, creates a wonderful moment of dramatic tension. But the choice of subject for other illustrations is less discerning: the drawing of the Pollywog is extraneous and leaves nothing to the reader's imagination.

Nevertheless, the second volume of Mayne's The Fairy Tales of London Town is an original and imaginative collection. To read it is to visit somewhere familiar yet strange.

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