Traditional tales tuned to modern ears

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Retellings selected by Elaine Williams

FEARLESS GIRLS, WISE WOMEN AND BELOVED SISTERS: Heroines in folktale from around the world. Edited by Kathleen Ragan. Norton Pounds 19.95.

Kathleen Ragan delved deep to collect this set of fascinating little-known tales - and with a purpose. At the heart of all of them are women: powerful joker-women, as in the Irish tale "The Three Sisters and their Husbands, Three Brothers"; brave and self-possessed girls, as in "The Night Troll" (from Iceland); exceptional mothers, as in "The Child of Death" (from Vietnam) where a woman gives birth and suckles even beyond the grave. "The Magic Eagle" (Timotean People, Venezuela) is a touching tale of friendship and loyalty.

These tales are relatively short, simply written and at the end of each Ragan gives a brief exposition of the cultural background and significance of the plot.

Tired of reading to her daughter about male protagonists and heroes, Ragan has set out to uncover forgotten and little-known heroines in order to help women shape "their collective sensibility". This book is not the first to map this territory, but it constitutes an admirable achievement which teachers and parents can use to good effect, either for reading aloud or as a resource.

CLEVER KATYA: A fairy tale from old Russia. By Mary Hoffman. Illustrated by Marie Cameron. Barefoot Pounds 9.99.

Another tale about a heroine, but this time of the weakest kind. However, Katya, the seven-year-old daughter of Ivan the peasant, outwits the Tsar of Russia with her wisdom and humour.

Mary Hoffman has chosen with care and maintained a vivid, simple style for this old tale of "The Wise Little Girl". Marie Cameron's delightful Chagall-like illustrations, with their clarity and strong, graphic borders,do much to enhance the text.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD AND MARIAN. By Adrian Mitchell. Illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark. Orchard Pounds 12.99. ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MISERABLE MEN. By Dick King-Smith. Illustrated by John Eastwood. Puffin Pounds 3.99

Adrian Mitchell's story is a lighthearted and simplified version of the legend with the Maid Marian figure ("Lady Matilda") playing a dominant role.

Michael Morpurgo and Michael Foreman's Robin of Sherwood (Hodder Pounds 8.99) was an epic homage to the outcast, which showed Robin deluded and weak as well as brave. In the latest Robin retelling, Mitchell takes Marian's dominant role a little further, with plenty of humour.

Maid Marian becomes the prime creator and perpetuator of the Robin legend.She is strong, but praises him as stronger. She makes the wiser decisions. When Robin shoots his final arrow it is Marian who places it in the oak, so that his dying shot will impress.

Dick King-Smith favours wildly hilarious subversion. His Robin is a pathetic weakling, a terrible bowman with a useless lot of "in-laws" - husbands of Maid Marian's sisters. It's only after his even more pathetic death that the story begins to change.

JAMIL'S CLEVER CAT: A folk tale from Bengal. By Fiona French. Illustrated by Dick Newby. Pounds 9.99.

A pleasing account of how a little feline cunning can get you a long way,simply told and cleverly illustrated. Dick Newby's lovely, richly coloured,hand-painted paper collages make reading this book a sumptuous and sunny experience.

AFRICAN MYTHS AND LEGENDS. Norse Myths and Legends

Philip Ardagh. Belitha Pounds 9.99 each.

Part of a series which differentiates between myth and legend and sets out cultural, historical and literary background. These are competent retellings which give children a chance to enjoy folk treasures of other countries with some understanding of the context.

RUMPELSTILTSKIN. By Marie-Louise Gay. Groundwood Pounds 8.99.

MARIE-LOUIE GAY has not so much as tweaked the text of the familiar story,but her zany, inventive illustrations sharpen this wicked, spine-chilling tale. The calligraphic nature of the work and inspired detail enlivens the evil nature of Rumpelstiltskin, a very devil of the backwoods, while highlighting the isolation of the miller's daughter.

THE WISE DOLL. By Hiawyn Oram. Illustrated by Ruth Brown. Andersen Pounds 9.99.

Baba Yaga is a witch whose role in life is to be truly terrifying and Too-Nice is a girl with a quest. This is the story of what happens when the two meet.

Folk tale gives wonderful opportunities for illustrators to lend new resonances to a story and this book is Ruth Brown at her very Rackhamesque best. Her pictures are powerfully expressive, atmospheric, witty and gentle, making this story wonderfully ironic.

A tale for today.

THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF TRICKSTER TALES. By Richard Walker. Illustrated by Claudio Munoz. THE BAREFOOT BOOK OF. TALES OF WISDOM AND WONDER. By Hugh Lupton. Illustrated by Niamh Sharkey. THE WIZARD KING AND OTHER SPELLBINDING TALES. By John and Caitlin Matthews. Illustrated by Jenny Press SUN-DAY, MOON-DAY: How the week was made. By Cherry Gilchrist. Illustrated by Amanda Hall. Barefoot Pounds 12.99 each.

Barefoot's collections offer some finely-honed retellings with high-quality illustrations. Niamh Sharkey's pictures in the Wisdom and Wonder tales are impressive, particularly for a first picture book, drawing from Paul Klee's archetypal imagery to create whimsical cameos.

These books seem especially appropriate in a cross-cultural world, showing how ideas and archetypal characters translate in different countries.

MOBY DICK. Retold by Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Victor Ambrus.Oxford University Press. Pounds 12.99, Pounds 7.99.

MOBY DICK Adapted and illustrated by Allan Drummond. Orchard Pounds 9. 99.THE ILIAD Retold by Ian Strachan. Illustrated by Victor Ambrus. Kingfisher Pounds 12.99

When you read epic tales as an adult, it's always a let-down to realise that the version you read as a child was but a pale shadow. However both Strachan's and McCaughrean's adaptations remain true to the spirit of the story and maintain the richness and power of language of Herman Melville's classic tale. McCaughrean's Moby Dick (now reissued in paperback) makes this complex but compelling account of a doomed voyage of obsession - tied up with the bloody history of whaling - available to children without compromise or condescension.

Drummond's version is a pleasing picture book that has little to do with the original epic. It presents a whistle-stop account of the voyage of the whaling ship Pequod, full of light and movement and with some lovely Ardizzone-type illustrations. But it fails to convey the complex nature of the tale with its heart of darkness.

Strachan's work presents Homer's The Iliad with verve and energy, with the condensed text bringing the reader into the thick of the action.

Victor Ambrus's illustrations for this and the OUP Moby Dick are muscular and evocative. He has penetrated the spirit of these very different epics, interpreting characters and scenes in a way that develops the text further.

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT. By Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Puffin Pounds 3.99. MAD MYTHS: Must Fly. By Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore. Puffin Pounds 3.99.

HUGE RED RIDING HOOD. By Dick King-Smith and John Eastwood. Puffin Pounds 3.99.

LITTLE RED RIDING WOLF. By Laurence Anholt. Illustrated by Arthur Robins.Orchard Super Crunchies Pounds 6.99.

THE FRIED PIPER OF HAMSTRING. By Laurence Anholt. Illustrated by Arthur Robins. Orchard Super Crunchies Pounds 6.99.

It is possible to be too reverential about folk tales, those time-honoured vehicles for expressing the gamut of human experience. After so long, when they have instilled the most fear, sorrow, relief and happiness, the temptation is just to poke fun, to turn them on their head, to have a laugh.

All these books can be recommended for comic relief. Dick King-Smith and Laurence Anholt, especially, are masters of subversion, while the Ahlbergs' story is a crazy mixed-up catalogue of all the creepy-crawly tales and ghostly legends the boy Antonio can recall to keep his kidnappers at bay - loaded with a large dollop of irony.

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