BRAVE RED, SMART FROG
A New Book of Old Tales
By Emily Jenkins
Illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason
94 pp. Candlewick Press. $17.99.
(Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)
SNOW AND ROSE
Written and illustrated by Emily Winfield Martin
$17.99 205 pp. Random House Children’s Books
(Middle grade; ages 8 to 12)
Since the beginning of “once upon a time,” adults have spent so many hours analyzing and worrying over fairy tales, it’s a wonder most aren’t worn down to a few frazzled golden threads. But before we can get to the meaning of a fairy tale, it must delight us, or scare us, or perhaps both. Two books for young readers — Emily Jenkins’s “Brave Red, Smart Frog,” illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason, and “Snow & Rose,” by Emily Winfield Martin — reimagine Brothers Grimm fairy tales, treating delight, with a few grisly bits folded in, as its own reward. The deeper meanings of these stories do emerge, but the pleasure they give is paramount.
“Brave Red, Smart Frog” is subtitled “A New Book of Old Tales,” and the stories in it include riffs on “Snow White” and “Red Riding Hood.” But Jenkins adds welcome layers of texture to parables we think we know well. She’s particularly interested in flawed heroines, like Crystal, the princess in her version of “The Frog Prince,” a girl with too many pretty dresses, too many pairs of shoes and “too many ladies-in-waiting instead of friends.” Crystal is spoiled, but it isn’t wholly her fault. She has “too few occupations and too few real conversations” — in a way she’s like today’s superbusy, superachieving kids, who barely have time to imagine what it might be like to kiss a frog. Eason’s finely detailed illustrations balance the natural world with a fantastical one: A witch’s candy cottage looks as realistic and believable as the elaborately etched bark of a tree.
In “Snow & Rose,” a reimagining of the Grimms’ “Snow-White and Rose-Red,” the lives of two sisters — practical, considerate Rose and petulant, anxious Snow — are changed forever when their father disappears in the woods. They’re forced to leave their comfortable house filled with pretty things and, with their grief-stricken, somewhat checked-out mother , make a new home in the very forest that swallowed up their father. Rose attempts cheerfulness; Snow, ever wistful, can’t stop thinking about all that the family has lost. As the two try to make the best of this terrible change in circumstances, they open their eyes to the new people and creatures around them. There’s an ancient librarian with a wooden leg, whose shelves contain not books but strange, useful treasures; a crabby little elf-man out to stir up trouble; and a boy who specializes in growing polychrome mushrooms. He’s given them fanciful names like Ruby Toadstools, Flea’s Parasols, and, my personal favorite, Butterscotch Tinies.
Martin, ties up the story with a graceful, satisfying flourish. Her illustrations — a bear caught in a trap, his face a world of confused, hurt feelings, or Snow, Rose and their mother heading out on Christmas Day in cozy cloaks with pointed hoods — have a gentle folkloric naïveté, reminiscent of Tasha Tudor’s work. They’re very pretty but also suitably mysterious.