Books, the Beast, and me

Beauty and the Beast by Eleanor Vere Boyle

It's a nuisance having a chronic health condition. In my youth, I mostly tried to ignore it -- as if by pretending that the Beast lumbering behind me wasn't there, then no one else would notice his presence. And yet there he'd be...disconcerting, disagreeable, and endlessly disruptive. Lurking over my shoulder in New York editorial meetings, pacing the floor at the Endicott Studio in Boston, riding shotgun in the truck in which I moved to Arizona, making himself entirely at home across the ocean in Devon. If this were a fairy tale, I would have learned to love him, and then discovered he was really a handsome prince in disguise....

But no, he's just Beast, and as Beastly as ever. During good stretches of time he sits muttering in the corner and I can get on with my life without paying much mind...until all of a sudden he jumps up and bellows, demanding attention, demanding my time. He is sometimes alarming, sometimes merely annoying, but always a downright nuisance -- not only to me but to family, friends, and work partners who gently, patiently take my abrupt disappearance from daily life in stride (bless them all).

There is one good turn the Beast has done me, however; one good thing that his shuffling, snuffling, discomforting presence has brought to my life: the time to read.

Reading in bed

He gives me long, still hours in quiet bedrooms, doctors' waiting rooms, hospital corridors (awaiting scans, blood draws and tests) and anxious days in hospital beds. In those places, reading is sometimes all that I can do, and that's a genuine, if back-handed, gift. Thus to the bane of my life, it seems to me now, I also owe one of my life's greatest blessings: the wide range of books that live inside me, that have shaped my mind and formed the writer I've become. Perhaps it's a fairy tale after all: not the kind that ends "happily ever after," but the kind where straw turns into gold, milk maids into heroes, Beasts into grey-muzzled old companions.

So come sit beside me, old Beast, old friend. Let me read you a story. This one's for you.

Books, bunny, and sheep Art above: "Beauty and the Beast" by Victorian painter Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916); and reading in bed with sweet Tilly, my other daily companion (since the Beast is too shy to be photographed himself). This post is dedicated not only to the Beast, but also to the patient friends, family members, and work partners mentioned above. You are saints and I love you.


The art of Kinuko Y. Craft

The Queen of the Golden Wood by Kinuko Y. Craft

After yesterday's post about Patricia A. McKillip's books, illustrated with the sumptious cover art from the Ace Books editions, let's take a closer look at the artist with whom Patricia's novels have long been paired....

Kinuko Yamabe Craft is widely acknowledged as one of the finest illustrators working today. She has won more than one hundred awards for richly detailed work ranging from fairy tale and folklore subjects to Shakespeare, historical themes, and modern mythic literature. Whether painting Baba Yaga or Turandot, Sleeping Beauty or Romeo and Juliet, she conjures the glow of magic at the heart of the world's great stories.

Kinuko Y CraftKinuko was born and raised in Kamazawa, Japan, where she fell under the spell of art as a child pouring over the books in her maternal grandfather's library. She received a BFA from The Kanazawa Municipal College of Fine and Industrial Art in 1962, and then obtained sponsorship to study at the School of Art Institute in Chicago. She subsequently worked with two commercial art and design studios in Chicago before branching out on her own as a freelance commercial artist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Time, Playboy, Forbes, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic other major publications, and on book jackets for a range of authors including Isabel Allende, Dorothy Dunnet, Carl Sagan, Eileen Goudge, Antiona Fraser, Barry Lopez, and Stephen King. She's also created illustrations for historical works, Shakespeare, and opera classics. "I'm comfortable creating imagery crossing over many different cultures," she says, but she'll only take an assignment if the subject speaks to her, and allows her room for self-expression. "I choose my jobs by instinct, by my reaction to the theme or manuscript. The writer's sensibility must meet me half way. There must be room for my imagination and heart. I can't just be a hired hand. If something's not right, if I read the story and it's like a blank, then I know that I can't do it."

The Dreamer by Kinuko Y. Craft

Kinuko works in a variety of styles, but she's especially drawn to fantasy and folklore themes, which resonate with her own rich imagination and aesthetic sensibilities. In the 1980s, her work began to appear on the covers of adult fantasy novels, where she quickly developed a loyal following for her jewel-toned imagery. Over the next two decades, Kinuko's dreamlike, distinctive paintings graced books by such fine fantasists as C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, Sheri Tepper, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ellen Kushner in addition to Patricia McKillip; at the same time, she also created exquisite art for children's picture books including Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, Cupid and Psyche, Pegasus, and King Midas.

Beauty & the Beast by Kinuko Y Craft

When she's working on a book, Kinuko spends many hours with the manuscript, letting its mood seep inside her, tint her dreams and spark inner visions. "Stories have color," she explains, "a certain smell and taste. I have to spend time with that, inhabit it, taste it, know it. I want to bring out my fantasy about that flavor." Although it's import to her to understand and express what the author has written on the page, it's ultimately her mission to tell her version of the story -- to render her reaction to it in color, shadow, and line. She doesn't like to be rushed, but rather to take the time to truly live with the tale. "The more time I put in, the more something lives in the image. I actually live in the book while I work. I function much like an actor taking on a role. The outside world fades away. It can be a real problem, especially when we run low on food during an ice story, and I've just spent twelve hours in my studio. But I think I've been in a fantasy world all my life."

Eleanor of Aquitaine by Kinuko Y Craft

Accuracy is important to her -- not only the little details of a character's hair coloring or dress, but historical accuracy, which is always meticulously researched. Even her fantasy paintings, she says, "must have a basis in reality -- a loosely assigned place in history. That sets the tone and flavor within which I must work, like a stage in a play and then I must fold my own fantasy into it. I consider myself a storyteller, and like any good actor, must convincingly portray my subject in a way that lends credibility to what I paint."

Elizabeth of the New World and King Midas

She particularly revels in her roll as storyteller when creating picture books for children, in which the reader is guided through the story by means of a string of linked images. She doesn't view them as books just for children, however -- and indeed, her picture books are also collected by many adult art lovers. "I create the images mainly for me," she notes, "for both the mature woman and the child within myself. I believe we are always young inside and psychologically never grow old and worn out, from birth to death."

Cinderella by by Kinuko Y. Craft

The books of her grandfather's library provided her earliest art education, and it's no accident that her work is most often compared to Renaissance art. "He had a few volumes of Renaissance work. I was quite mesmerized by them and spent hours in their capture. I wanted to somehow become a storyteller like Giotto, Martini, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Credi, Ghirlandaio, Bellini, Mantegna, Titian, and especially Leonardo da Vinci, who to me is the greatest painter who has ever walked the earth. I'm also attracted to painters of neoclassicism, romanticism, the symbolists, pre-Raphaelite paintings, Hudson River School works and Boston painters of the early 20th century. And also more modern works by artists like N.C. Wyeth, Kay Nielsen, George Tooker, Jared French and Richter attract me, maybe because I am moved by the elements of fantasy or the poetic themes of their paintings."

Sleeping Beauty by Kinuko Y Craft

Kinuko has her own method for creating her distinctive imagery, combining watercolor and oil paints:

Rhiannon by Kinuko Y. Craft"First I make a very careful drawing on Strathmore brand illustration board. Sometimes, just planning the drawing can take longer than the actual painting. When I am pleased with the design, I begin by overpainting it with thin watercolor washes. That lays in the basic colors and tones. After that, I apply a sealer to the surface, to prevent the oil paint from soaking into the surface. The next step is quite time consuming. I work with very small Windsor Newton watercolor brushes, overpainting the watercolor with oil paints. Sometimes a painting can take up to a month."

Kinuko's original paintings are even more beautiful than book reproduction conveys, and as a result her art has been widely exhibited and collected. Highlights among her long list of shows include Brave Little Girls at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (which subsequently traveled throughout the U.S.), New York 5 at the Art Directors Club of New York (which subsequently traveled to Japan), Women and Illustration: Contemporary Visions and Voices and The Art of Enchantment at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Illustrating Women at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Masters of the Art of Children's Books at the University of Wisconsin,  Storytellers at Westmont College, The Fantasies of Kinuko Y. Craft at the Norfolk Library, Visions of the Floating World at the Cartoon Art Museum, a one-woman show at the Society of Illustrators in New York, and numerous appearances in the Society of Illustrator's annual exhibitions. Her work is in the permanent collection of The National Geographic Society, Time Inc., and The Museum of American Illustration, as well as in private collections world-wide. 

A detail from a painting by Kinuko Y Craft

The pictures in this post are just a fraction of the imagery Kinuko has created over decades of dedicated, focused, passionate work. What keeps her inspired? "I'm driven by an attraction to beauty wherever I find it," she says. "That can be in the natural world, or in music, poetry, literature, or in a picture in an art museum, or in anything that touches my sensibilities or strikes a chord in my senses. I like to try to create the feelings these things touch off in me in my paintings, but always fail miserably. That's why when someone asks me, 'What's your best painting?' I always answer 'My next one,' in the vain hope that I may finally be successful."

Kinuki Y Craft's cover art for The Bell at Sealey Head

I must beg to differ with Kinuko's humble appraisal of her work. In gifting us with her unique vision, creating imagery that is deeply personal yet also universal, she has increased the world's store of enchantment, painting by painting, book by book. The beauty that illuminates her art is both restorative and necessary in this age of harsh discord: it nurtures our sense of wonder, and helps us to find the magic in the world around us. Her paintings, like Patricia McKillip's stories, are absolutely luminous, and may the faeries bless everyone at Ace Books who conspired to put these two remarkable women together.

Thomas the Rhymer by by Kinuko Y. Craft

The quotes above are from an interview with the artist by Maurizio Manzieri (ASFA Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2003), an interview by Karen Haber (Locus Magazine, August 2002), and from Kinuko's website. Titles for the paintings and drawing can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art above reserved by Kinuko Y. Craft.


Recommended reading: on fairy tales

The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac

Following on from yesterday's post, for those who would like to read about fairy tales (in addition to literary re-tellings) I highly recommend Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales by Katherine Langrish.

Now while I might seem biased because Katherine is a family friend, in truth I am sharply opinionated when it comes to books about folklore and fairy tales; I was mentored in the field by Jane Yolen, after all, which sets the bar pretty darn high. Thus it is no small praise to say that Seven Miles of Steel Thistles is an essential book for practitioners of mythic arts: insightful, reliable, packed with information...and thoroughly enchanting. 

Little Red Riding Hood by Margaret Ely WebbIn the book's introduction Katherine writes:

"As a child I was usually deep in a book, and as often as not, it would be full of fairy tales or myths and legends from around the world. I remember choosing the Norse myths for a school project, retelling and illustrating stories about Thor, Odin and Loki. I read the tales of King Arthur, I read stories from the Arabian Knights. And gradually, I hardly know how, I became aware that grown-ups made distinctions between these, to me, very similar genres. Some were taken more seriously than others. Myths -- especially the 'Greek myths' -- were top of the list and legends came second, while fairy tales were the poor cousins at the bottom. Yet there appeared to be a considerable overlap. Andrew Lang included the story of Perseus and Andromeda in The Blue Fairy Book, under the title 'The Terrible Head.'  And surely he was right. It is a fairy story, about a prince who rescues a princess from a monster....

Beauty and the Beast by Walter Crane

"The field of fairy stories, legends, folk tales and myths is like a great, wild meadow. The flowers and grasses seed everywhere; boundaries are impossible to maintain. Wheat grows into the hedge from the cultivated fields nearby, and poppies spring up in the middle of the oats. A story can be both things at once, a 'Greek myth' and a fairytale too: but if we're going to talk about them, broad distinctions can still be made and may still be useful. 

The Complaint of the Three Maidens by HJ Ford"Here is what I think: a myth seeks to make emotional sense of the world and our place in it. Thus, the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades is a religious and poetic exploration of winter and summer, death and rebirth. A legend recounts the deeds of heroes, such as Achilles, Arthur, or Cú Chulainn. A folk tale is a humbler, more local affair. Its protagonists may be well-known neighborhood characters or they may be anonymous, but specific places become important. Folk narratives occur in real, named landscapes. Green fairy children are found near the village of Woolpit in Suffolk. A Cheshire farmer going to market to sell a white mare meets a wizard, not just anywhere, but on Alderley Ledge between Mobberley and Macclesfield. In Dorset, an ex-soldier called John Lawrence sees a phantom army marching 'from the direction of Flowers Barrow, over Grange Hill, and making for Wareham.' Local hills, lakes, stones and even churches are explained as the work of giants, trolls or the Devil.

Jack the Giant-Killer by Arthur Rackham

"Fairy tales can be divided into literary fairy tales, the more-or-less original work of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde (which will not concern me very much in this book), and anonymous traditional tales originally handed down the generations by word of mouth but nowadays usually mediated to us via print. Unlike folk tales, traditional fairy tales are usually set 'far away and long ago' and lack temporal and spatial reference points. They begin like this: 'In olden times, when wishing still helped one, there lived a king...' or else, 'A long time ago there was a king who was famed for his wisdom throughout the land...' A hero goes traveling, and 'after he had traveled some days, he came one night to a Giant's house...' We are everywhere or nowhere, never somewhere. A fairy tale is universal, not local."

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Health Robinson

Katherine concludes the book's introduction with the reminder that fairy tales, found all around the world, are amazingly diverse and amazingly hardy. "They've been told and retold, loved and laughed at, by generation after generation because they are of the people, by the people, for the people.  The world of fairy tales is one in which the pain and deprivation, bad luck and hard work of ordinary folk can be alleviated by a chance meeting, by luck, by courtesy, courage and quick wits -- and by the occasional miracle. The world of fairy tales is not so very different from ours. It is ours."

It is indeed.

Brother and Sister by Warwick Goble

There are seven miles of hill on fire for you to cross, and there are seven miles of steel thistles, and seven miles of sea, says the narrator of an old Irish fairy tale.

With this delightful collection of essays as a guide, the journey is worth every step.

East of the Sun  West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

Seven Miles of Steel Thistles by Katherine Langrish

The passages by Katherine Langrish in the post above and in the picture captions are from Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author. You can read Katherine's musings on folklore on her blog, also called Seven Miles of Steel Thistles; and learn more about her other books, stories, and essays here.

The text of this post was written when Katherine's book was published in 2016, but the illustrations are new today: eight marvellous pictures from the Golden Age of Illustration. From top to bottom they are: The Wind's Tale by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953), Little Red Riding Hood by Margaret Ely Webb (1874-1965), Beauty & the Beast by Walter Crane (1843-1915), The Complaint of the Three Maidens by H.J. Ford (1860-1941), Jack the Giant-Killer by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), Hans Christian Andersen's The Real Princess by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Brother & Sister by Warwick Goble (1864-1943), East of the Sun West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).


Recommended reading: adult fairy tales

Snow White illustrated by Angela Barrett

Fairy tales, in previous centuries, weren't considered stories for children only. The name "fairy tale" comes from the French conte de fée, a term coined in 17th century Paris for a literary fashion popular with adult readers. At the heart of the 17th century's profusion of literary fairy tales are the remnants of much older tales from the oral tradition -- mixed with literary influences from medieval romance, and from 16th century Italian publications. French writers from the salons of Paris -- such as Madame D'Aulnoy, Marie-Jeanne L’H’éritier, Comtesse de Murat, and Charles Perrault -- created complex, enchanting tales still known and enjoyed by readers today (though often in simplified forms) : Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, The White Cat, The Discrete Princess, Bearskin, and numerous others. A second wave of French writers added to the genre in the 18th century, including Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, the original author of Beauty and the Beast.

Snow White illustrated by Angela Barrett

German writers (especially the Germantics Romantics) took up the literary fairy tale form in the 18th and 19th centuries, creating adult works inspired by previous French and Italian stories mixed with tales from the German folk tradition -- as popularized by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and their prolific circle of writers and scholars. Also in the 19th century, Denmark's celebrated Hans Christian Anderson created such beloved fairy tales as The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen; and England's Oscar Wilde penned poignant stories such as The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale and the Rose. By this time, however, fairy tales had become increasingly associated with children. The older, darker stories were cleaned up by Victorian editors and published in the prosperous new market for children's books.

This bowdlerization of fairy tales continued in the 20th century, epitomized by the simple cartoon versions created by Walt Disney. Alas, these simple versions of the tales are the only ones most readers know today -- versions in which the complexity, sensuality, and horror have been carefully toned down, or stripped out altogether. Where once we had stories of active heroines making their own way through the dark of the woods, now we have girls who sit crying in the ashes, awaiting rescue by a rich Prince Charming. Where once Sleeping Beauty was impregnated by her prince, waking all alone at the birth of twins, now she's awakened by a chaste kiss and the tale ends promptly with a wedding.

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

Despite the pervasive Disney influence, at the end of the 20th century a revival of adult fairy tale literature began (primarily) among three overlapping groups of authors: feminist "mainstream" writers, feminist poets, and writers of fantasy literature. Foremost among them is Angela Carter, whose brilliant re-working of fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber  (1979), influenced a generation of writers and did more than other single text to bring fairy tales back into vogue with adult readers.

Four decades later, the revival is still going strong, with many fine authors working with fairy tale themes. The story collections pictured below are by two of the very best of them, Theodora Goss and Veronica Schanoes -- both of whom, it should be noted, are fairy tale scholars as well as excellent writers of fiction. 

If Angela Carter were alive today, I have no doubt she'd love Snow White Learns Witchcraft and Burnings Girls as much as I do. Please don't miss these marvelous books.

Adult fairy tales by Theodora Goss and Veronica Schanoes

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

If you'd like more recommendations of fairy-tale-inspired novels and stories, you'll find them here.

Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Angela Barrett

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories & Poems by Theodora Goss was published by Mythic Delirium Books, 2019, and won the 2020 Mythopoeic Award. The Burning Girls & Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes was published by Tor Books this year. Both volumes contain introductions by Jane Yolen, a fairy tale master herself.

The illustrations above are by Angela Barrett, from her beautiful editions of  Snow White and Beauty and the Beast. All rights reserved by the artist. 


The power of stories

From Old Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett

I'd like to share a second passage from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell which seems particularly germain today:

"In 2016, my understanding of the world I lived in was upturned: by Brexit, Trump, a sweep across Europe towards nationalism and insularity, terrorist attacks. In the immediate aftermath, adult literary fiction did not help: I couldn't make it work.

Blondine Sees the Castle by Virginia France Sterrett"It was reading through the prism of children's fiction that brought back my faith in what books can do: because what helped were the old narratives, told for the benefit of children and adults and anyone who would listen: Icelandic folk tales, Grimm. They said that this, though it felt like an ending, was not: there has always been vaunting ambition, bitter acrimony, misunderstanding, hunger for power, folly, kindness, passion. Fairytales have already recorded, in their sideways way, all of human vice and yet not fallen silent in despair.

"I still believe -- most days, most of the time -- that stories have power. I believe, like Aristotle, that fiction can put forward truths, via narration, which cannot be baldly stated by abstract theoretical language. There are ideas in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that I could no more summarise than I could sing you all the parts of a hundred-instrument symphony: fiction resists reduction. Fiction can't, by itself, right the world. But I believe, still, in the wild and immeasurable value of pouring everything you think good or important into a text, that another may draw it out again: what Elena Ferrante calls 'a fishing net that captures daily experiences, holds them together imaginatively, and connects them to fundamental questions about the human condition.' "

Old French Fairy Tails illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

In his remarkable essay "The Power of Stories," Scott Russell Sanders speaks of the ways that stories create, sustain, and mediate our sense of community:

Leger Meets the Wicked Princess by Virginia Frances Sterrett"They link tellers to listeners, and listeners to one another. This is obviously so when speaker and audience share the same space, as humans have done for all but the last few centuries of our million-year history, gathered around fires or huddled in huts; it is equally if less obviously so when we encounter our stories in solitude, on the page or screen. When two people discover they have both read Don Quixote, they immediately share a piece of history....Strangers who discover their mutual devotion to fairy tales or gangster movies or soap operas or Shakespeare's plays become thereby less strange to one another.

Violette Takes Refuge from the Wild Boar by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Frank O'Connor went so far as to declare that 'the one subject a storyteller must write about' is 'human loneliness.' Whether or not stories speak to it directly, they offer us a relief from loneliness, by revealing that our most secret feelings and thoughts do not belong to us alone, by inviting us to join the circle of readers or listeners. The strongest bonds are formed by sacred stories, which unite entire peoples. Thus Jews rehearse the events of Passover; Christians tell of a miraculous birth and death and resurrection; Buddhists tell of Guatama meditating beneath a tree; the Hope recount the story of their emergence from the earth; the Aborigines repeat in song the primal deeds of their ancestors."

Tanglewood Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett (1921)

But the power of stories, Sanders reminds us, can also be used with malign intent:

"As we know only too well, sacred stories may also divide the world between those who are inside the circle and those outside, between us and them, a division that has inspired pogroms and inquisitions and wars.

The Broom Was on Fire at Once by Virginia Frances Sterrett"There is danger in story, as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

Cadmus and the Dragon by Virginia Frances Sterrett

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.'

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett"Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found.

"At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means. Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

From Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Francis Sterrett

The art today is by American illustrator Virginia Frances Sterrett (1900-1931), who was born Chicago, but raised in Missouri after the early death of her father. She studied briefly Old French Fairy Tales illustrated by Virginia Sterrettat the Art Institute of Chicago, receiving a full scholarship when she was just 15 -- but had to leave when her mother grew ill and she took on sole support of her family. She worked in Chicago's advertising industry, and obtained her first book commission at the age of 19: illustrating Comtesse de Ségur's Old French Fairy Tales for the Penn Publishing Company in 1920 and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales in 1921.

At the same time Virginia's own health was failing and the diagnosis was grim: tuberculosis. The family moved to the warm, dry climate of California, but her health grew worse and worse, and she entered a sanatorium in Pasedena at age 24. She continued to work, but her output slowed, and her third book, The Arabian Nights, was not published until 1928. She was working on her last commission, Myths & Legends, when she died in 1931.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterratt

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019) and "The Power of Stories" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in his essay collection The Force of Spirit (Beacon Press, 2000). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures:  The art above is from Old French Fairy Tales by Comtess de Ségur and Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett. The picture titles can be found in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.)


The hope that is sharper than teeth

The White Stag by Helen Stratton

I have so many things I want to talk about on Myth & Moor as the new year begins, and so many books to share with you...but today let's start with a subject that is at the very heart of this blog: the enduring value of fairy tales.

The following passage comes from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise -- a wonderful little volume by Katherine Rundell, who is one of the very best authors writing for children today. She says:

The Lily of Life by Helen Stratton"Fairytales were never just for children. They are determinedly, pugnaciously, for everyone -- old and young, men and women, of every nation. Marina Warner argues that fairytales are the closest thing we have to a cultural Esperanto: whether German, Persian, American, we tell the same fairytales, because the stories have migrated across borders as freely as birds.

"All fairytales, by and large, have the same core ingredients: there will be the archetypal characters -- stepmothers, powerful kings, talking animals. There will be injustice or conflict, often gory and extravagant, told in a matter-of-fact tone that does nothing to shield children or adults from its blunt bloodiness. But there will also usually be something -- a fairy godmother, a spell, a magic tree -- which brings the miracle of hope into the story. 'Fairytales,' Marina Warner writes, 'evoke every kind of violence, injustice and mischance, but in order to declare it need not continue.' Fairytales conjure fear in order to tell us that we not be so afraid. Angela Carter saw the godmother as shorthand for what she calls 'heroic optimism'. Hope, in fairy tales, is sharper than teeth.

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Wild Swans by Helen Stratton copy

"That spirit of heroic optimism -- optimism blood-covered and gasping, but still optimism -- is the life principle writ large. It speaks to all of us: because fairytales were always designed to be a way of talking to everyone at once. They provide us with a model for how certain kinds of stories -- by dealing archetypes and bass-note human desires, and in metaphors with bite -- can yoke together people of every age and background, luring us all, witch-like, into the same imaginative space.

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Little Mermaid illustrated by Helen Stratton

"Fairytales are also a way of tracing our cultural revolution. More than any other kind of story, they live and breathe and change."

The Princess and the Pea illustrated by Helen Stratton

Andersen's Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen StrattonThe paintings and drawings today are by Helen Stratton (1867- 1961), a prolific artist who published many popular books during England's "Golden Age of Illustration" at the dawn of the 20th century. Stratton was born in India, where her father was a surgeon with the Indian medical service, but she spent most of her childhood in Bath. She studied art in London in the 1890s, where she fell under the spell of Pre-Raphaelitism and Art Nouveau, and then settled in Kensington with her mother and siblings after her father's death. 

She received her first illustration commission (Songs for Little People) in 1896 and worked steadily over the next several decades, producing beautiful editions of Hans Christian Andersen and Grimms fairy tales, Charles Lamb's Shakespeare for Young People, The Book of MythsThe Children's King Arthur, two classic children's novels by George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie), and numerous other works, as well as collaborating with William Heath Robinson on a lavish edition of The Arabian Nights.

Stratton returned to Bath in the 1930s, where she resided and worked until her death at age 94. She's a woman I long to know more about -- so if there are any biographical writers out there looking for a subject, please consider this remarkable artist.

Brother and Sister illustrated by Helen Stratton

Grimms Fairy Tales illustrated by Helen Stratton

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen by Helen Stratton

Katherine Rundell

Words: The passages quoted above are from Why You Should Read Children's Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019). All rights reserved by the author.