Friday, 8 December 2017

Hilary McKay's FAIRY TALES reviewed by Adèle Geras

Please notice the title of this book. It's not  "Fairy Tales by Hilary McKay" but rather "Hilary McKay's Fairy Tales." And that is precisely what these are: tales that Hilary McKay has taken from the general stock of such stories and made entirely her own. She is well-served by the beautiful illustrations of Sarah Gibb, who has decorated this volume with a series of pictures, using paper cut-outs, which perfectly capture the flavour of each story.

For a wonder, Hilary McKay is someone I've never properly met, though we are buddies on Twitter and by post. But as ever, I have to assure my readers that I am in the enviable position of ONLY reviewing books I really want to review and this is one of them. I have form with fairytales. I've retold them several times. I have written a modern YA trilogy based on them (Happy Ever After: the Egerton Hall trilogy). I love them. I want children to know them and I don't object to Disney's contributions in this field. I grew up with the original, OLD  versions of Snow White and Cinderella and they still colour my image of these stories. I am promised the new, non-animated Beauty and the Beast next weekend, when I'm babysitting my grandchildren and I can't wait. 

It's difficult to convey exactly what Hilary McKay has done, but it's a combination of retelling of the original stories in their conventional form, together with added twists, updates, references and jokes, too, which lift them straight into modernity, without losing any of their old-fashioned magic and power. And the pictures, such as that for Snow White above (the hunter taking Snow White into the forest to kill her, on the orders of her stepmother) are old-fashioned and resolutely decorative.  They add enormously to the pleasures of reading this book.

McKay has chosen 10 stories out of many. She asks questions about the tales to which she provides modern answers. In her introduction she writes: 
"It was exhausting and wonderful to write this book. I walked miles through forests. I watched swans and skies.  I read and read. I studied silks  and brocades. I visited salt marshes and windmills. .....If ever I wrote a book with love, it is this one."

The love is apparent on every page. Those readers who know Hilary McKay's other work will know what an assured and stylish writer she is. Basically, she doesn't put a foot wrong. There are no false notes anywhere in her prose. Her timing is brilliant. Look at those short sentences and see what poetry she can conjure up just by the placement of several full stops...she's a marvel.

And, of course, we know the stories are great. Most of us have read them before.  Therefore we can enjoy such twists as appear. For example, the 'Princess' in Princess and the Pea is not entirely who she seems to be and  (this is spookily prescient! Meg can, of course be a diminutive of Meghan!)  Also, the jokes are fun. There's a fabulous school in the Hansel and Gretel story, where the teacher, one Angelika Maria (I wonder who McKay could possibly be thinking of?) takes a delightful register, containing such pupils as  'Punzel. R' and asks why she's absent. Gretel tells her: "She's been locked up in a tower for ages." And Hansel and Gretel's tale is presented as a 'What I did in my holidays' composition.

The other stories are no less clever and no less poetic. McKay also provides wonderful references for older readers. For instance, the heroine of the Red Riding Hood story is called Polly, which of course will remind many people of "Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf" by Catherine Storr: another real classic. This book too is  destined to become part of the fairytale canon. Any child who gets it for Christmas will be set up for a lifetime of taking pleasure in these old, old stories. 

Published by Pan Macmillan in hardback £12.99



Pippa Goodhart said...

Well, that goes STRAIGHT onto the 'what I want for Christmas' list!

Hilary Mckay said...

Thank you, Adele, for the best review of my life!

Ann Turnbull said...

I've put this on MY Christmas list, too.

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