Worth telling again

12th December 2003 at 00:00
Jane Doonan finds magic in some fresh treatments of traditional tales and new stories with a fairytale twist

ELLA'S BIG CHANCE: a fairy tale retold. By Shirley Hughes. The Bodley Head pound;10.99

Pinocchio. By Carlo Collodi, translated by Emma Rose. Illustrated by Sara Fanelli. Walker Books pound;14.99

Gentle Giant. By Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Picture Lions pound;9.99

The King of Capri. By Jeanette Winterson. Illustrated by Jane Ray. Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;10.99

HALIBUT JACKSON. By David Lucas. Andersen Press pound;10.99

THE BEE-MAN OF ORN. By Frank Stockton. Illustrated by PJ Lynch. Walker Books pound;12.99

SLEEPING BEAUTY. Retold by Adele Geras. Illustrated by Christian Birmingham. Scholastic Press pound;14.99

In the Woods. By Christopher Wormell. Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

The Ravenous Beast. By Niamh Sharkey. Walker Books pound;10.99

Who Will Comfort Toffle? A tale of Moomin Valley By Tove Jansson, translated by Sophie Hannah Sort Of Books pound;8.99

The Oxford Treasury of Fairy Tales By Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by Sophy Williams Oxford University Press pound;20

Who cares if it's cold outside? Time to gather round and marvel at old tales retold or new ones with their roots in tradition. Take the story of Cinderella. One of the themes is the recognition and reward of natural goodness. Anyone who thinks Buttons has a raw deal in the traditional version will enjoy seeing how Shirley Hughes, with flawless logic and characteristic humanity, puts things right in Ella's Big Chance.

Widowed Mr Cinders runs a dress shop with his daughter, Ella, a small, buxom redhead who looks like Alfie's sister, Annie Rose, grown-up. The story stays close to the familiar pattern until the end, when Ella shows better judgment than her dad in affairs of the heart.

Hughes has been inspired by great French couturiers such as Poiret, Doucet and Patou when designing Mr Cinders' stock. As for the ballroom setting - Fred and Ginger would be in their element.

Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi's classic story, is about the temptations and tribulations of growing up and accepting the responsibilities of love. In this translation, Emma Rose catches Collodi's intimate style of directly addressing the child audience while illustrator Sara Fanelli's mixed-media fantasmagorical interpretation is as knockabout as the Commedia dell'Arte tradition upon which Collodi drew, and sharp as Geppetto's chisel.

This new edition, in which Pinocchio's nose appears to grow as the slip cover slides away, might well be the very one to capture today's groundlings.

Michael Morpurgo's fable, Gentle Giant, sets out the folly of judging by appearances, and the regenerative power of nature. Michael Foreman's interpretation, in tender drawing and fluid colour washes of blue, turquoise, gold and viridian, encourages reflection. The giant, who lives on an island in a lake, is feared and shunned by all because of his stature and inability to speak. Nevertheless, he proves a worthy hero who rescues a young girl from drowning, saves the lake from weed pollution and ultimately wins the love and respect he deserves.

Jeanette Winterson's story of The King of Capri has the wisdom of a folk tale, with a hero whose life is set for change. The king (greedy, indulgent and selfish) experiences a reversal of fortune when a stormy wild wind deposits all his wealth in a poor washerwoman's yard in neighbouring Naples. He loses his false friends, discovers compassion and wins a jewel of a wife.

Jane Ray's decorative style, with its accomplished use of collage, exuberant patterning and celebration of colour, catches not only the spirit of the words, but also the sense of place: the pellucid turquoise sea, the solid little houses with walls of plaster pink and lime white that line the curve of the bay, and the velvety blue star-dusted Mediterranean night sky.

There's change in store, too, for the hero of David Lucas' Halibut Jackson. Halibut, who looks like an amiable apple dumpling on legs, is so shy he always wears clothes to blend in with the background. But when he arrives camouflaged in cloth of gold and silver for a royal party, then discovers it's a garden party, his mistake leads him to a happier life.

Pen and watercolour illustrations are cunningly composed to make it difficult to spot Halibut at first glance.

The next two picture storybooks are contemporary versions of early 20th-century gift books. P J Lynch, in his acutely heightened naturalistic style and hues that seem glazed in honey, interprets Frank Stockton's classic tale of 1887, about an old beekeeper whose contented life is unsettled when a junior sorcerer tells him he has been transformed, and was once something else.

Sleeping Beauty, spun from Ad le Geras's fine prose, is based on Charles Perrault's traditional version of the story. Christian Birmingham collaborates with small velvety graphite drawings that contribute their own narrative detail, and large soft-focused paintings that are the stuff of dreams. The result is a beautifully balanced work.

In the Woods by Chris Wormell has echoes of a familiar song. When this trio of teddy bears go down to the woods they're sure of a big surprise: a wolf on the lookout for a perambulating picnic. But he's in for a surprise too.

Humour, tension, a chase, and a terrific climax appear in a feast of large frames suffused with hues of goldy bear-brown, dusky blue, and shadowy violet.

Niamh Starkey's The Ravenous Beast is a fresh take on a nonsense rhyme form, which encourages chanting, memorising, counting and having fun. The text has a cumulative pattern as the eponymous hero, followed by a little white mouse and a parade of other hungry animals, top each other's boasts about how much they can eat. There's a rumbustious conclusion as the beast makes good his claim by scoffing the lot of them.

The drama is presented in bold images, bizarre characterisation and visual jokes a-plenty. Who Will Comfort Toffle? by Tove Jansson, world-famous for her tales of Moominland, receives a new translation by poet Sophie Hannah.

Toffle, a lonely, timid creature, is driven from his home by fear of noises of the forest. After several lost opportunities to make friends, Toffle rescues Miffles, who is even more lonely and timid than he is. In Scandinavia this story, illustrated in elegant graphics, has never been out of print since its first publication 43 years ago.

The Oxford Treasury of Fairy Tales is a collection of well-known favourites, such as The Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel, and such less familiar stories as The Three Oranges, and Tamlin. Geraldine McCaughrean, an immensely skilled storyteller, breathes new life into the tales through poetic imagery, bringing the characters psychologically close through telling detail, and sharing humorous asides with the reader.

But Sophy Williams's illustrations in pastel, though rich in colour and decorative in effect, only rarely rise above blandness in concept. One wonders, also, why there is no information about the origins of the tales.

This seems like having a pair of seven-league boots with no insoles.

Learning where stories come from adds a dimension for readers of any age.

Surely it's a literary courtesy to acknowledge Perrualt, the Brothers Grimm, Andersen, Afanasev and others. Even if they didn't make up the tales, they were the first to get them down on paper.

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