Once upon a time, twice, three times
THE LITTLE WOODEN ROBOT AND THE PRINCESS AS A BUCKET
Written and illustrated by Tom Gauld
BLANCAFLOR, THE HERO WITH SECRET POWERS
A folk tale from Latin America
Written by Nadja Spiegelman
Illustrated by Sergio García Sánchez
DULCINEA IN THE FORBIDDEN FOREST
Written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke
It’s a tale as old as time …
Or, rather, it’s a tale that dates back about ten years: a father and his teenage daughter sit on the family couch and burst into “The Great British Baking Show”. They revel together in the little dramas and the endless range of confectionery creations. There is laughter. There are a few tears. The father is a little shocked at how invested he is. Sometimes the father even has to press “Pause” because he thinks Mary Berry made Ruby cry.
One of the things I love the most about the show is something I love about the very idea of baking – it usually relies on a combination of eggs, flour, water, milk, butter, sugar, salt. Exotic ingredients appear intermittently, sure, but it’s the fundamentals that are key. The try-and-true. And what a myriad of results can be achieved!
I love fairy tales for the same reason: they remix what has been proven to work. Fairy tales deal with elementary symbols and basic situations: keys and crowns; intelligent daughters and younger sons; swords and lakes and mirrors and mountains. In the field of storytelling, fairy tales are more pastry than culinary. The same simple ingredients can be pieced together into surprisingly fresh stories with entry points as familiar as “once upon a time.”
The three new fairy tales gathered here are all made up of the most common ingredients: ogres and witches, princesses and lumberjacks. Brothers in search of lost sisters and vice versa. Nothing exotic. But the combinations! These are the footprints of the bakers, and they lead to the most wonderful stories.
“The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess” by Tom Gauld is one of the best picture books I have read this year. It is a cabinet of curiosities in a watchmaking castle.
Gauld comes to picture books as a master designer. (If you are not familiar with his work, just search “Easter egg hunt with Werner Herzog” and go from there.) Comics is a craft that transfers well to picture book format, where words and pictures are slightly separated but still work very closely together. Gauld took the leap as if it was the most natural thing in the world, adapting his meticulous, clean style to a world without panel borders or word bubbles. The book’s cover and flyleaves feature a mix of powerful quest items – keys, gems, bottles, lanterns, eggs, pendants, leather pouches – all pointing the way to a world without limits.
But “The Little Wooden Robot” isn’t just a visual feast; it is also a fun, sinuous and sincere thread. Impossible not to applaud this improbable duo of siblings, the eponymous little wooden robot and his sister, the princess of the log.
Their story ? In the form of a real fairy tale, a king and queen without children turned to less than traditional methods of obtaining offspring. The king visited the royal inventor, who created a “wonderful and intricate” little wooden robot, while the queen stopped by a kind witch, who created a “perfect” little princess from it. ‘a log. The complication is that every night the princess turns into a log and can only be awakened by the words “Wake up, little log, wake up”. All goes well until the fateful morning when an uninformed maid throws what she thinks is just an ordinary log out the window, setting in motion a quest in which brother must save sister and sister must then save brother.
In addition to the engaging central quest, Gauld ironically lists, via short titles and unique images, the other too many-to-tell adventures that each brother experienced individually “along the way.” (I’d rather read “The Little Wooden Robot and the Giant’s Key” or “The Log Princess and the Baby in a Rosebush.”)
The book is also welcome and interesting, diverse, overturning familiar formulas. The log queen and princess introduce themselves as Black. The king and the little wooden robot are presented in white. And the inventor and the witch could well be sisters.
“Blancaflor”, by Nadja Spiegelman and Sergio García Sánchez – published simultaneously in Spanish – is a popular Latin American tale told in comics. This particular story shares DNA with some of the oldest tales that exist, as the afterword notes: “A version of… ‘The Girl as Assistant in the Hero’s Flight” exists in almost every culture. “
García Sánchez’s art weaves animation-style gestures into something that looks like a beautiful tapestry, and the characters straddle the cultural lines of the story’s various origins in beautiful and understated ways. The ogre, for all his horns and sharp teeth, is dressed like a 19th-century Spanish landowner, while his daughters (including the magical Blancaflor) appear in something more akin to native or Mayan dress. And the prince, well, with his pantyhose and cut-off-sleeved doublet, he looks like he’s stepped out of a sixteenth-century tale of “Cinderella.”
Blancaflor herself is powerful, intelligent and courageous. And her prince is a delicious fool. At first I found Blancaflor’s love for him a bit inexplicable. But in a fairy tale, this is exactly the sort of thing you are not supposed to think about, and I was finally won over. The prince might be a little stubborn, but who needs wit when you have kindness, a guitar, a positive attitude and really beautiful hair? The two make a good team and they achieve their happiness side by side.
While “The Little Wooden Robot” is a good read aloud, “Blancaflor” (more of a comic than a picture book) is aimed at early and visual readers. It’s beautifully designed and impeccably colored, and it crackles at an adventurous pace that makes for a great treehouse read.
“Sweetheart in the Forbidden Forest”, by Ole Könnecke, feels like a classic fairy tale from a big book in a forgotten attic, dusted off and slightly adapted for modern readers, with visual gags and a few sly winks. But “Dulcinea” is in fact a completely original tale. It’s just made up of all the traditional elements. He has a lonely castle, a gentle lumberjack, an eccentrically wicked witch (this one is so distracted she can’t remember a single spell without her magic book), and a very loyal duck.
Dulcinea leads an idyllic life with her father in a house on the edge of a large forest. She helps with household chores but most often plays with garden animals. What they do not grow themselves, they collect at the city market. There is only one rule: do not go into the forest. Because that’s where the witch lives. This is where the witches always live.
The twist here is that it’s Dulcinea’s father who ends up breaking his own rule. On her daughter’s birthday, nothing less. Because he needs blueberries for the pancakes. And of course the witch catches it. And of course, she turns him into a tree (a tree with kind eyes and a very alluring mustache). And of course, it’s up to Dulcinea to walk through the forest to the witch’s castle and steal the magical spellbook to make things right. “Thank God Dulcinea could read.”
It’s a well-told story with a tireless heroine and a play on words and images that feels like sharing lineage with Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl. A beautiful winter evening to read aloud, to be enjoyed by a cozy fire with a plate of cookies. Or, you know, “cookies”.