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For all ages. Fairy tales: New versions of some old favorites

By John Cech / November 1, 1985



A book of fairy tales -- often lavishly illustrated -- has been a staple on publishers' lists for over a century. But in the past few years there have been, it seems, more new editions than ever before of the old standards from Grimm, Perrault, and Andersen. Among the new collections of fairy tales, The Larousse Book of Fairy Tales is interesting, though perhaps more as a historical curiosity than as a successful collection. The illustrations for the 17 tales included here have all come from the ceramic mosaics of fairy-tale scenes that were created by Royal Doulton artists in the early 1900s. Again, many old favorites are represented (``Little Red Riding Hood,'' ``Puss 'n Boots,'' ``The Tinder Box''), along with a number of British tales (``The Babes in the Woods,'' ``Jack the Giant-Killer,'' ``Dick Wittington''). The illustrations, with the exception of one of the ones ``Puss 'n Boots,'' are quite pretty and restful in their own highly stylized way. This assortment of tales, which draws on the classic versions of such 19th-century collectors as Andrew Lang, is like one of those respectable tins of English tea biscuits. There are no real surprises here either, but everything is done in very good taste. (Larousse, $14.95.)

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Among the new versions of individual tales, one of the more successful picture books is The Falling Stars, illustrated by Eugen Sopko. Sopko's naive illustrations capture the innocent essence of this rather obscure Brothers Grimm tale about a little girl who gives away everything she has to those who are less fortunate, right down to the shirt off her back. Sopko's visual narrative is vital and quite touching, as generous and unself-conscious as his subject matter. His palette effectively su ggests the isolated vastness of the world into which the little girl makes her openhearted journey, as well as the feelings that lead her to create a community of love and generosity between herself, the other characters of the story, and the reader. (North-South Books, $10.95.)

Beatrice Schenk de Regniers' retelling in verse of Jack and the Beanstalk brings new zest to this favorite English fairy tale by putting it into lively, contemporary poetry. Jack (``bold as brass,/Sharp as a tack'') and the giant (``not very bright,/But mean and Big./In just one bite/He can swallow a pig.'') meet in a battle of wits that is both hilarious and hair-raising. Anne Wilsdorf's illustrations are pure delight. They remind me of those animated drawings of Wilhelm Busch, the great 19th-cen tury German artist, who gave us ``Max und Moritz.'' She is often able to put more character into one of her small watercolors than many artists can muster for a whole book. (Atheneum, $12.95.)

Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, retold by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Gerald McDermott, gives us our first new version of this classic tale from the ``Arabian Nights'' in some time. Mayer's crisp, intelligent prose is balanced and complemented by McDermott's lush illustrations that suggest scenes from Persian miniatures. Together they create a stunning whole that is a joy to look at and to read, a soaring magic carpet ride of story. (Macmillan, $15.95.)

Of this year's harvest of fairy-tale books, among the most satisfying are the revisions of Andersen.

Beni Montresor's new illustrations for The Nightingale are masterful, richly evocative -- and, in the sequence surrounding the grave illness of the Emperor of China as he reviews his life for its meaning, they are bold, grim, and graphic. The book evokes powerful, climactic images, and Montresor earns the right to use them because he is true to his imaginative sources, both in Andersen and in himself. (Crown, $12.95.)

Lisbeth Zwerger's version of Andersen's Thumbeline, with a new translation by Anthea Bell, is one of the most elegant of all the Andersen remakes this season. Zwerger has the ability to make credible Andersen's fantasy world of the tiny girl, caught in the dark underworld of moles and field mice and spiders, who finally, through her kindness, long-suffering, and pluck, manages to escape to find her true love -- not in the mole's house, but on a daisy petal, with the prince of the flowers. In looking at Zwerger's work, one thinks of Rackham and other 19th-century masters of illustration. But the sensitivity and grace of these illustrations are all her own, and she gives of both qualities fully in her recreation of this story. (Picture Book Studio USA, $11.95.)

Walter Benjamin once wrote that ``the first storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairytales. . . . He is the man who could let the wick of his life be consumed completely by the gentle flame of his story.'' Perhaps, on some level, this is why so many writers and illustrators keep returning to the fairy tale. These tales touch us deeply, and by retelling them we may hope to illuminate some of those dark corners of our common humanity.