By Angela McAllister (writer) and Aitch (illustrator)
Published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books ISBN 978-1-78603-044-3
Reviewed by Spencer Hill
This book by Angela McAllister is a retelling of fifty animal themed folktales and legends from around the world. It includes some I have heard before such as The Three Billy Goats Gruff (which I had no idea originated from Norway), and many I have not. Of these, some of my favourites include Why The Bear Has A Stumpy Tail and How The Jellyfish Lost His Bones. The stories are intended for children, but the writer has not dumbed them down in any way, so expect some quite harrowing stories of drownings, betrayal, slaughter and more. Folktales are not for the faint hearted…
To illustrate these stories the publisher has commissioned Aitch, and I can’t compile a better summary of her than this one from her entry on the Central Illustration Agency website:
Nomadic Aitch originally hails from Romania but prefers not to put down roots in any one place, new scenery inspires and invigorates her tactile, folky illustrations and a constant string of exhibitions in cities across the continent pushes her technique further. Her dreamy characters hide amongst William Morris-esque gardens and bring to mind a bright and bold reincarnation of Victorian melancholy while still retaining a strong sense of her Romanian heritage.
It is true. If you check out Aitch’s website then you will see many more examples of her work, and I agree that her style is a perfect fit for these stories. There are hundreds of illustrations in the book, and they feel as if they were painted on location as the storyteller and artist travelled the world gathering these tales. I doubt that is what happened, but that’s the best way I can explain how folksy and appropriate the illustrations feel. You can imagine this book presented as a series of ancient scrolls, with the paintings beautifully preserved on the thick parchment. My favourite is the smaller illustration for Urashima and the Turtle. I love the blues used to create the water, and the structure of the illustration on the white page.
I had large books of stories like this when I was a child, and I remember the joy of being able to dip into them at any point and discover a new story, or the additional stories you can tell yourself by picking one of the illustrations and using your own imagination to describe it.
The stories are often quite sad, and someone usually dies in each one, but they are captivating and often have important moral messages to convey. The illustrations and writing work together superbly to create an experience which is greater than the sum of its parts for me – which must be what we are all striving for as illustrators.