Thursday, January 4, 2018

Tales from a tall forest by Shaun Micallef

“As a kid, I found the peripheral characters in these stories slightly more interesting. Like the old woman who built the confectionery house. How would she get planning permission for that?” Shaun demands, eyebrow cocked askance.

Shaun Micallef is able to seamlessly weave so many famous fairy tales into the first story in this collection. We meet two builders who are excited by a new project commissioned by an old crone called Baba Yaga to build :

"a sweet little cottage with liquorice-allsort stones, candy-cane door frames and a rooftop of chocolate pieces all grouted together with marzipan."

Any astute reader will know at some point we are going to meet Hansel and Gretel and that there may even be a trail of breadcrumbs but before we reach these scenes the focus shifts to the castle where the new Queen is practicing her smiles and seething with rage over the natural beauty of her step daughter.  The Queen summons the Royal Woodsman to chaperone Princess Mathilda into the forest.  The puzzling thing is the Queen "also wanted her stepdaughter's heart cut out and bought back in a jewellery box." Naturally the Woodsman cannot go through with this plan and luckily, as chance would have it, along comes a terrified little girl in a red poncho.  Her grandmother has been eaten by a wolf.  They hurry off to the grandmother's cottage, the Woodsman cuts open the belly of the sleeping wolf and releases the grateful grandmother and takes out the wolf's heart.  The wolf is still alive (yes this is amazing) and really mad, especially now he has no heart. The panicked group follow a trail of breadcrumbs but end up at the Candy Slaughterhouse. The wolf arrives and devours Baba Yaga. The children and Tiny Poncho Girl deliver the beautiful Princess to the dwarves' house where she will be safe but her bed is occupied by that girl with the curly blonde-hair.  Eventually the Princess is able to return home, the wolf is killed in an accident and the Woodsman receives a knighthood. AND of course they all live happily ever after.

There are three main stories in this collection book-ended with Begin the Beginning and Ending the End.  The first story The Wolf and the Princess and the Trail of Crumbs as I described above was my favourite.  Many reviewers list Tales from a tall forest as a Young Adult title but I think older Primary students would enjoy this book. The only topic that is mentioned that might be more suitable for older students are the consequences that come from first cousins who marry and have children. Before reading the second story The Fisherman and the monkey and the Three wishes I recommend you revisit The Fisherman and his wife

This whole book is a thorough romp but there is one poignant moment which lingers with me.  When the Woodsman explains why the Queen is jealous and wants Mathilda killed he tells her this is because she is beautiful.

"The Princess had never thought of herself as beautiful before and the realisation changed her forever. She lost something of her innocence that day by the pond and, in a cosmic injustice that regrettably is the stuff of life, the young Princess would never quite be as enchantingly lovely as she was before she had her enchanting loveliness pointed out to her. The witless would be quick to call that 'irony' - but it was sadder than that."

Peter Bentley is also the illustrator of Blue Sky, Yellow Kite which was a book I loved reading earlier this year.  You can read more about Tales from a tall forest here.  Since this book is Australian and published in 2017 I wonder if it might be selected the the CBCA shortlist?

In this rich and rambunctious tapestry of tales, satirist Shaun Micallef unravels the traditional fairy story and nimbly weaves your favourite characters into new and surprising adventures
Better Reading

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