New takes on old tales

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
The King with Horse's Ears. By Eric Maddern, illustrated by Paul Hess. Frances Lincoln pound;10.99.

The Pea and the Princess. By Mini Grey. Jonathan Cape pound;10.99.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. By Laura Ljungkvist. Abrams pound;10.47.

The Faery's Gift. By Tanya Robyn Batt, illustrated by Nicoletta Cecolli. Barefoot Books pound;10.99.

Tiger on a Tree. By Anushka Ravishankar, pictures by Pulak Biswas. Tara BooksTurnaround pound;9.99.

Traditional stories are getting a makeover, says Ted Dewan.

Far away and long ago is still a great place to set a picture book. But timeless storytelling really comes to life when illustrations and text have contemporary resonances and don't pretend to come from some distant NeverNever Land.

The King with Horse's Ears is a variation on an old folk tale linked with the legend of King Midas, who was given ass's ears for choosing Pan's pipe over Apollo's harp. Eric Maddern and Paul Hess's version gives the tale new legs and a strong heart. King Mark has horse's ears and his barber becomes ill under the pressure of being the sole keeper of the dreadful secret (and under threat of beheading). The only relief for the barber is to tell the secret to the ground. But from that patch of ground sprouts the very reed that the king's minstrels use for a pipe, and it broadcasts the secret to the whole kingdom, right in front of the king. The perfect pairing of the king's subtle facial expressions and the matter-of-fact text leaves room in the reader's heart for an overwhelming moment when the king reveals his ears. It's rare for a picture book to hit such an emotional height.

The Pea and the Princess tells the familiar tale from the point of view of the pea, whose nocturnal utterances help an unlikely candidate to pass the princess test. Mini Grey's characters are intelligently drawn, including a vegetable-morphic Queen who resembles Elizabeth II. The watercolour and ink illustrations use witty visual storytelling devices reminiscent of David Macaulay. The text leaves plenty of room for the pictures to explain some of the crucial details. I admired its hard-earned originality, which makes it stand out from the crowd of upside-down fairy tales.

Laura Ljungkvist has given Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a makeover, using an illustration style that combines basic shapes and a single roaming black line. This most Gothic of tales struggles in the straitjacket of this abstraction. It's difficult to agree that Ljungkvist's geometrically featured Snow White is really the fairest of them all. A much better introduction to this illustrator's work is her first book, Toni's Topsy-Turvy Telephone Day, which uses the same style more successfully.

The Faery's Gift is the tale of a woodcutter who, after an act of mercy to an elf, is granted a single wish with which he must satisfy the various needs of his extended family: a dilemma he resolves brilliantly. The mock "fairytale-ese" text has a little too much flavour of the pantomime, but Nicoletta Ceccoli's illustrations have a magic tactile quality, a bit like Eric Gill done in orange and green Nerf ball foam, with the torment of the dilemma depicted in surreal and psychologically accurate allegorical pictures.

And climbing into the ring with the four-colour glossy contenders is Tiger on a Tree, a fascinating screen-printed, two-colour volume. The bouncy, minimalist story follows a tiger that is being pursued by tribesmen, and its eventual humane release. The computer-generated text is an integral part of the raw graphic illustration, and the rapping rivals Eminem's.

Ted Dewan is a creator of picture books. His Bing Bunny series for under-fives is launched this month.

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