In a talk to a high school fine arts class, the local symphony conductor told a story about his neighbors. When their daughter came to babysit, he asked if her parents were going to the symphony performance. "Oh, they've already seen this one," she replied. He was surprised, he told the class, because each conductor and orchestra have a different take on the interpretation of the music. To prove his point, he played--via cassette tape-- three different versions of one movement from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and discussed with the class those differences.
All this is background to the reason why someone would create another "version" of an established fairy tale. Dear Reader, this is a version of "The Ugly Duckling" you will want for your very own children, classroom, or library. It is gorgeous! Even better, the storyteller, Stephen Mitchell, has added elements not found in the original story by Han Christian Andersen. Illustrators Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher also show us a new way of seeing. Just as that conductor demonstrated with music, each writer and illustrator "sees" the story in a slightly different way. In this book that way is remarkably different.
The question is: Is this "Ugly Duckling" worthy enough for print? Walker Books (publishers) thought so in 2008 when they published this version. Let's examine it for ourselves.
1. The illustrations are simply eye-popping. Once you stuff those eyeballs back in their sockets, take a close look at the texture and patterns on every page, especially duckling's feathers. There are swirls and twists, criss-crosses that resemble a type of lace. Extraordinary! These two artists took patterns found elsewhere in both the natural and the man-made world and superimposed them on--well, on almost everything in the natural world. The first time I looked at the ugly duckling on the cover, I was grossed out. Ug, what in the world?, I actually said aloud right there in that bookstore. So I studied all those illustrations. Here are fish scales superimposed on the "duckling." The design of those white "weeds" whose little seed rods go poof into the air when they are ripe is superimposed on the little ducklings--the real ducklings. What is the point?
Just as fairy tales reflect the contents of our collective unconscious, this artwork reflects the art of the world in the broadest sense. For there is the pattern of rope--does it occur naturally?--and there is a pattern of chain mail used in war or even, simply, knitting. What is more organized than the pattern represented by knitting?
Even without my interpretation of the art, I do know that inquisitive children love to look all over the place in an illustration just to test their knowledge of things. It's Field Day here! That alone suffices in "explaining" the art.
2. The author also adds his take on events. This is my favorite example: It concerns mother duck, who is initially disappointed to find a huge egg that takes too long to hatch. Later, when neighbors in the barnyard say snitty things about her "ugly" child, she defends him: "He may not be pretty, but he has a very good heart. He's kind and considerate, and that's worth at least as much as good looks." There is a return to this theme at the end of the story for a wrap-around effect. I like that very much!
(I cannot help but look at all these illustrations as I turn the pages. How long did it take to create all these patterns then tediously draw each all over the place? I am filled with wonder and admiration.)
This is one of those books I found on the discount table at a local bookstore. Why in the world would THIS book be discounted? Anyway, I bought it with my own money with the idea of donating it to the library where I work. However, some books attach to my heart and make me keep them. "The Ugly Duckling" will now join my Olivia series and the Fabian and Hondo books, Mirrette and her high wire, among other books special to me. Yes, "The Ugly Duckling" is definitely worthy. But, certainly, I need to find a copy for the library!