Fairy tales are part of our cultural history. We share these magical, gripping and frightening stories in childhood and their characters, messages of magic and bravery, evil and love stay with us into adulthood. They are referred to in a wide range of literature for both adults and children and each individual cautionary tale offers a template for coping with circumstances and events. In fairy stories good conquers evil, the wicked are punished and after trials and tribulations our heroes live happily ever after. So why would an author rewrite them? Many do. Often these retellings are humorous such as Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl or tell the story from a different protagonist’s point of view such as The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.
In Straw into Gold Hilary McKay takes ten of the best loved fairy tales and with care, humour and wisdom retells these stories with a freshness and with unexpected twists and updates and yet they retain the heart of the originals. Each story feels comfortingly familiar, the traditions and the key elements that we know are still there but the messages and the characters feel relevant to today’s readers. Both adults and children, particularly if they know the originals, will love the jokes and references and the way in which the characters are subtly redrawn.
The fairy tales chosen include Rapunzel, Snow White, Rumpelstilstkin, The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Cinderella so the most well known children’s favourites are all there. What I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Hilary McKay answered some of those unanswered questions and observations from my childhood. I always fretted about the ending of The Pied Piper and wondered what happened afterwards. The retelling of Rumpelstilstken is thoughtful and thought provoking making me care about a character who terrified me as a child. Chickenpox and Crystal, the Snow White story, contains a wise message about modern culture’s obsession with appearance and an ending that I loved. It is impossible for me to select a favourite. The Tower and the Bird (Rapunzel) with its gentle look at coping with ones fears was touching. The Princess and the Problem, (the Princess and the Pea) made me smile. Each and every one was a delight to read.
The subtle silhouette illustrations by Sarah Gibb are a perfect match for the stories. I think they are beautiful and they reminded me a little of Jan Pienkowski’s work. The outlines of the characters leaves the reader to imagine features and other characteristics but capture the historical and traditional nature of the stories themselves. Hilary McKay’s prose describes settings and landscapes so beautifully that images are created in your mind as you read and I found the simplicity of the illustrations worked extremely well with the writing. The cover with its scattering of motifs from the stories is stunning too.
This would be a valuable addition to home and school bookshelves. The ten short stories would be perfect to read aloud in the classroom and the retelling of traditional tales would be an excellent discussion and writing prompt for teachers to use in English lessons.
Straw into Gold was published in paperback in 2018 and is available to purchase in all good bookshops, online or to borrow from your local library.
This was the fifth in the books I earmarked for the 20BooksOfSummer challenge organised by Cathy on 746 Books. It is time to face up to the fact that I will not manage all twenty books so I will select two or three more from the ones I originally chose. Full details are in this post