Books to Love: The Only Magic Left in the World
Much of what I remember from childhood where fairy tales are concerned are the magnificent illustrations that accompanied the stories. Before I could read, I would lose myself in the pictures. I was fortunate in that several of my honorary aunties and uncles worked for large publishing houses. For birthdays and holidays, I was gifted some of the most beautiful hard bound editions of the classic fairy tales, and in these editions were exquisite illustrations by rather pre-eminent illustrators. I did not know they were pre-eminent at the time, but as I’ve been revisiting these books for the various fairy tale related blog posts I’ve been writing, I feel the full impact of what a true gift these books were to me.
Revisiting my childhood library has been quite the education. It’s also been an enchanted walk down memory lane. As I peruse the pages, I’m transported back to the wonder I felt as a kid when I lost myself in the fantastical images of Michael Hague, Greg Hildbrant, and Chihiro Iwasaki.
Babushka adapted and illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak
Published the year I was born, this children’s tale is a classic Russian Christmas story that tells the tale of a peasant woman who is invited by the Three Wise Men to accompany them on their journey to find the King. The tale is quite simple, as most children’s stories are. Babushka leads an ordered life where she rises with the sun, polishes, cleans, and cooks in her little home before retiring to sleep with the dark. One snowy winter day, just as she’s about to sweep off her snowy stoop, a waft of warmth fills the air with cinnamon. A procession moves silently through the street. Three ornately adorned men upon camels with a heavy laden caravan stop at her door and entreat her to come with them to follow the star to the King. Thinking of her responsibility, Babushka thanks them but remains with her tidy home. However, the next morning when she awakes, the scent of cinnamon still lingers around her and prompts her to warp a Babushka around her golden hair and hurry after the Three Wise Men. She never finds them, nor the King, but she learns that they did find their King and that he was a child. She travels the world with sweets and hand carved toys in her apron pockets, leaving a gift for each child she encounters hoping that it is the Christ child. So, if you catch a whiff of cinnamon in the air and find a sweet wrapped in shiny paper on your child’s pillow, then you’ll know that Babushka has visited your home.
I included the summary of this tale because of all the ones mentioned today, I’m betting this is the one you’ll be the least familiar with. This book, however, was a staple in my childhood. I can trace my affinity toward the Three Wise Man to this children’s book. To say nothing of association of the scent of cinnamon with Christmas. Charles Mikolaycak’s illustrations are rich with Russian heritage and conjure the sense of hearth and home of the holidays with his warm color palette. This book was so transportive that Charles Mikolaycak received an award for it: The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award. If you’ve not read this one, scour your local library and used books stores for a hard bound edition of this one and get lost in its pages.
Michael Hague’s Favorite Han Christian Andersen Fairy Tales Jane S. Woodward (adapted by), Michael Hague (illustrator)
When you read through the various tales showcased in Michael Hague’s Favorite Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales, you’ll see the truth of the above statement. It seems that same effortlessness that brought Hague’s images to life exudes off the page because getting lost in these pictures is an effortless thing. I did it for hours as a kid and, it would appear, they still contain the same magic of my youth. Michael Hague’s illustration is not exclusive to children’s books, either. There’s his illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, and, a personal favorite, World of Unicorns. His works hold a treasure trove of imaginings for those who like to lose themselves in fantasy and folklore. For a quick taste of his works, I would recommend his Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales because they contain a personal element. He picked each of these fairy tales because they resonated with him. They were his old friends, and he wants to share the wonder and joy of his childhood with you and me.
Sleeping Beauty Mahlon F. Craft (author), Kinuko V. Craft (illustrator)
Kinuko V. Craft is a magnificent illustrator. Her works are rich in Renaissance influence which melds eloquently with the fairy tale retellings of Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and the like. Intricate brocades. Gold gilding. Elaborate compositions. All these harken back to the Renaissance masters. Sleeping Beauty was the first book I read that K. V. Craft illustrated. Her pictures brought the story to life almost as spectacularly as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty where Eyvind Earle and his team were given carte blanche where time was concerned to create a fairy tale paradise. If Leonard DaVinci had ever done the illustration of a children’s book, I’d bet my bottom dollar that the compositions would turn out a great deal like K. V. Craft’s. Whenever I pick up one of K. V. Craft’s illustrated children’s books, I seriously wish that I could jump right into one of them. They are, quite simply, beautiful.
The Little Mermaid Anthea Bell (adapted by) Chihiro Iwasaki (illustrator)
Japanese illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki’s work retains an ineffable innocence which is perfect for children’s books. Using a mastered technique with watercolor, her works have a lightness to them, that renders a sense of tranquility in the viewer. Though she has many works to pull from, I find her illustration of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid to be perfect. The watercolor washes, the color palette, the light technique of suggested features all lend themselves beautifully to the fairy tale. I particular appreciate how Iwasaki gives such life to the underwater scenes while keeping those parts set on land more sedate and realistic. When the Little Mermaid is beneath the sea in her habitats, the compositions are filled with color and activity. This rendition of The Little Princess stays truer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale. So, it’s not the Disney’s happy ending here. However, while it does not have the Little Mermaid sailing off with her prince, the ending is no less satisfying.
Greg Hildebrandt’s Favorite Fairy Tales
I’ve saved my particular favorite for last. Greg Hildebrandt is a prolific illustrator. He and his twin brother, Tim, were known within the art community as the Brothers Hildebrandt for their numerous collaborations on anything from fairy tales to pin-up posters to the critically acclaimed and now iconic Star Wars ‘Style B’ poster for United Kingdom release in 1977. Together they’ve worked for Marvel Comics and DC Comics. In the 1970s, they collaborated on a highly successful series of Lord of the Rings calendars which are now collector’s items. Sadly, Tim passed away in 2006, but his brother continues illustrating today, including an annual commitment to the Trans Siberian Orchestra, for whom he designs their annual tour program.
In Greg Hildebrandt’s collection of 20 Fairy Tales, he chooses from a wide variety of stories- reaching further afield to ancient Greece with the Cyclops and Perseus to the Middle East with Aladdin and Sinbad to even newer folklore with Rip Van Winkle. Of course, there are the more classic tales we look for such as The Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Over all, this collection is a great beginning for any collector. And while I appreciate the variety of stories, for me, it’s the illustrations that are indelibly marked in my mind. They are magnificent. Every since picture in the book is rendered flawlessly. They are so realistic you feel like you can reach right into them.
There are many other books I could have included in this post, but I limited myself to four. Now it’s you turn, dear readers. What books from your childhood did you lose yourself in?