January 7, 2011

Fantasy Picture Books of Note

        When I consider juvenile fantasy I'm mostly thinking of chapter books, but of course there are plenty of picture books that fall into the fantasy category, too, and a number of them are quite wonderful.  I make no claims to comprehensiveness; here's a selection of just a few that have caught my attention recently, or held my memory for a long time.
        The first big category is fairy tales.  There are thousands of picture books retelling traditional fairy tales and folk tales, and I couldn't even begin to cover
them here.  You'll just have to go to the library and start browsing.  (Just remember that they're probably shelved in the non-fiction section under 398 in the Dewey decimal system, instead of being shelved with the other fiction picture books.)  I'll just mention a couple that have struck me particularly in the past couple of years...
    The Lady and the Lion, by Laurel Long and Jacqueline Ogburn.  This is a very appealing retelling of a less famous fairy tale, emphasizing the love and loyalty of the couple.  The illustrations by Long are utterly gorgeous, rich and opulent and beautiful.
    Clever Katya, by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Marie Cameron.  There are many tales in which a peasant's cleverness in answering riddles gets the better of - and impresses - those who expect to know better.  This is a nice retelling in which a seven-year-old girl is the wisest character, but the tsar is also portrayed as intelligent and likeable.  (Perhaps this folk tale isn't even fantasy according to my narrow definition, but I'll go along with the library's shelving system for now!)

        The next category is twists on traditional tales…
    Rumpelstiltskin's Daughter, written and illustrated by Diane Stanley.  I love how Stanley's changed the original, making the greed of the king a focus, and making the titular hero into a girl of resource, cleverness, and generosity.  Unfortunately I don't like the cartoony illustrations nearly as much as the story.
    Falling for Rapunzel, by Leah Wilcox.  Rapunzel keeps mishearing the prince and throwing down the wrong things until he gets quite annoyed.  I heard of this wonderfully silly book when P and T had it read to them in school a few years ago.  They came home full of laughter to tell me about it… especially the part where Rapunzel mistakenly throws down her (giggle giggle!) underwear!  As usual I'm not crazy about the overly cutesy illustrations, but the book undeniably hit just the right chord with my children.

        And finally, original fantasy tales (which could be shelved with fiction picture books)…
    The Queen Who Couldn't Bake Gingerbread, by Dorothy van Woerkom, illustrated by Paul Galdone.  Galdone, though a big name in children's book illustration, has never been my favorite.  Still, his illustrations work well with this cute, funny tale.  There are several good lessons hidden not at all preachily in the story - how to love people for who they are, how to value what's important, how to take responsibility for your own happiness…
    Five Golden Wrens, by Hugh Troy.  A very traditional fairy tale story line, but with the addition of such new-fangled modern inventions as radio programs and flash photography.  Virtue triumphs, evil is punished, and bad news programs are overcome.
    How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, by Bill Peet.  This is a cute story of a dragon who wants to live a useful life, and a boy who refuses to betray him… and a king who might have been a villain but turns out to be quite reasonable.  Bill Peet has done a number of books that count as fantasy, including Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent and The Whingdingdilly.  He was my favorite author when I was in second grade.
    Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson.  Most people probably wouldn't consider this classic to be in the fantasy genre, but of course it is, with magic and even a fierce dragon.  Many others have raved about Harold, so all I can say is that it's sheer genius.  From the understated narration with its gentle wordplay ("He drew up his covers…") to the simple line drawings, to the underlying concept that plays with our assumptions about art, story, imagination, life, and finding the way, this book is magic on every level.

[Pictures: "The Lady and the Lion in the garden," from The Lady and the Lion, painting by Laurel Long, published by Dial, 2003;
"Droofus sleeping in a cave," from How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, drawing by Bill Peet, published by Sandpiper, 1983.]


  1. Hi Anne! Great post! I am going to go look up the Rumplestiltskin book...it just gave me a cool idea for a story.

    Also, I mentioned your site yesterday on my Penelope page. Hope all is well!

  2. Thanks, Anne, for including my personal favorite, "Five Golden Wrens". I used to love Crocket Johnson's comic strip, "Barnaby". (Man, that dates me!)
    Penelope, thanks for commenting: I just looked at your post and that cool list of blogs you enjoy. I may never get up from my computer.

  3. Ooohhh, glad to have been of inspiration, Penelope!
    And thanks for the awesome mention on your page... now I have to get to work thinking of how to pass it on!

  4. That dragon is wonderful. I worked in the field of children's literature for a long time, but somehow missed Droofus. What a mistake!

  5. These look like they'd be so much fun for the sort of call-and-response storytelling used in circle times - especially Falling for Rapunzel. Gorgeous, gorgeous illustrations, too.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Annie and Tanita! There are just so many incredibly beautiful children's books available now that it's all too easy to miss some real treasures. That's why it's nice to spread the word about our favorites!