7 children’s picture books/collections of fairy tales. Classic, modern and sumptuous treatments of these enduring tales

"She took then the little key, and opened the door, trembling". Blue Beard from The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book

“The marvels and prodigies, the seven-league boots and enchanted mirrors, the talking animals, the heroes and heroines changed into frogs or bears or cats, the golden eggs and over-flowing supplies of porridge, the stars on the brow of the good sister and the donkeytail sprouting on the brow of the bad – all the wonders that create the atmosphere of fairy tale disrupt the apprehensible world in order to open spaces for dreaming alternatives.  The verb ‘to wonder’ communicates the receptive state of marvelling as well as the active desire to know, to inquire, and as such it defines very well at least two characteristics of the traditional fairy tale: pleasure in the fantastic, curiosity about the real.”

From the Beast to the  Blonde. On Fairy Tales and their Tellers by Marina Warner

I have a huge interest in discovering more about fairy tales, their social and cultural contexts, their origins and their tellers.   And I can’t recommend Marina Warner’s book From the Beast to the Blonde more highly.   I am only at the beginning of my journey through this book and I am completely fascinated.  In the meantime, I offer up our favourite collections and picture books of fairy tales.   I start with Arthur Rackham whose illustrations, I think, perfectly suit the style of fairy tales – his use of illuminating colour washes and silhouette cut-outs.     I particularly like his amazing use of light and the sense of sunlight flooding through the windows in the main picture above, “She took then the little key, and opened the door, trembling”, Blue Beard, The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book.   The silhouette cut-out is a style that is also used beautifully in a modern-day fairy tale The Princess Who Had No Kingdom, written by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Sarah Gibb.

The Arthur Rackham Fairy Book – 23 Favourite Tales with Illustrations by Arthur Rackham   ‘Old tales with new illustrations’ was how this book was described when it was first published in 1933.   I think the illustrations are as appealing and fresh as they were back in 1933 and are a delightful accompaniment to this collection of some of the most famous and well-loved fairy tales.  Included are Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, The Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Hansel and Grethel.  Some less well-known ones are also here – Blue Beard, What the Old Man Does is Always Right, Toads and Diamonds and Jack the Giant-KillerAge 8+

"Is that you, my prince? I have waited for you very long" Sleeping Beauty

"Will you not come down?" shouted Blue Beard

Fairy Tales told by Berlie Doherty, illustrated by Jane Ray    Jane Ray is one of my all-time favourite children’s books illustrators.  My two daughters were absolutely captivated by her book Jinny Ghost the first time we got it from the library and it has remained a favourite of ours ever since.   So I was absolutely thrilled to receive Fairy Tales as a birthday present from my sister, also a talented artist and illustrator and I think you’ll see why when you scroll down to Jane Ray’s illustrations.  Jane Ray’s illustrations are typified by rich, dazzling colours and gold within and around.  I love the way they and the text are set against fairy-like wall-papers.   The tales included are Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty in the Forest, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, Little Red Riding Hood, The Fire-Bird, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince and The Wild Swans.  Both the text and the illustrations take on a dream-like feel in this beautifully crafted collection.  Age 5+

Rapunzel, illustrated by Jane Ray

Rumpelstiltskin, by Jane Ray

The Wild Swans, by Jane Ray

The Princess Who Had No Kingdom, written by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Sarah Gibb  A mixture of silhouette cut-outs with colour highlights and delicate, full colour illustrations bring this modern-day fairy tale to life.  The expressions on the enraged and spoilt princes are hilarious and fit with the text perfectly.

“The two princes were so enraged they pelted the new king with pastries.  The king wasted no time in bombarding them both with gooey gateaux, and soon everyone there was at it, which seemed like a terrible waste of food to the princess.   So she slipped away ….”

A wise and witty tale of a princess who sees through all the shenanigans and arrogance of the available princes and finds true love in someone with his feet firmly on the ground. Age 4+

My Favourite Fairy Tales, retold and illustrated by Tony Ross     Classic fairy tales have been given a modern, quirky and humorous treatment in this collection of Fairy Tales by Tony Ross (best known for his illustrations for Horrid Henry, and as writer/illustrator for Little Princess).    I particularly LOVE Ross’ retelling of The Hedley Kow, about an old down-on-her-luck woman who feels so blessed when just about everything goes against her.   On her way down a lane looking for something to sell in order to buy some food she finds an old pot with a hole in it.  Upon closer examination she discovers it is full of golden coins!  “Well, I’m blessed with luck to find this!” and she starts to drag it home.  Along the way, she finds that the pot of gold has turned into a lump of silver.  “That’s lucky,” she thought, “since silver is less valuable than gold, I am much less likely to be robbed.  Oh how lucky I am!”  And so the story continues – as she journeys home, her heavy load changes again to a rock and then finally into the Hedley Row, a fairy trickster who had changed himself into the pot of gold in the first place.   As the old woman watches him skip down the road, she declares “Folks round here have heard of the Hedley Kow but I’m the only one who has seen him.  Oh, how lucky I am!”  Other fairy tales retold are The Musicians of Breman, Sweet Porridge, Rumpelstiltskin, Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess, Fairy Gifts and Beauty and the Beast.   Each fairy story retold is accompanied by Ross’ instantly recognisable alluring line and colour illustrations.  Age 4+

Sweet Porridge by Tony Ross

Sweet Porridge by Tony Ross

Rumpelstiltskin by Tony Ross

Hansel and Gretel by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark    A stunning retelling of this most favourite fairy tale although it is quite a grown up, somewhat darker adaptation of the story.   A warty old witch with eyes that “glowed red, red as blood“, is desperate for the love of Hansel and Gretel’s father, Gabriel.   She ‘dispatches’ Lisette, their mother, and transforms herself into a beautiful young woman called Belladonna.  She gradually works her magic and gets under the skin of Gabriel and they marry.  But the children don’t like Belladonna.   “There’s something scary about her, about her eyes.  Have you noticed how cold they are when she looks at you from far, far away, as it she can’t see you properly.  And when she smiles, she only smiles with her lips, not her heart.  And her lips are as red as blood.”  You see, although she was able to take the shape of a beautiful young woman she was still a witch, a witch who could not see very well but who could hear and smell perfectly.   Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations are visually stunning, dazzling yet dark too – the witch, in her true form, is actually quite scary, sinister even.  For this reason and because Morpurgo touches upon themes of hunger and cruelty, I would recommend this version for slightly older children, perhaps aged six plus.  Age 6+

"There's something scary about her, about her eyes. Have you noticed how cold they are when she looks at you, cold as ice?"

None of them noticed the magpie that was flitting through the darkness, silently, following them, silently.

"Nibbledeeday, nibbledeeday. Who's nibbling at my house today?"

Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Joel Stewart    This is a beautiful, sumptuous volume of tales from Hans Christian Andersen including The Princess and the Pea, The Tinderbox, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Wild Swans, The Flying Trunk, The Ugly Duckling, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Little Match Girl and The Goblin at the Grocers.  The introduction to the book is a fascinating story in itself – Andersen’s story.   An only child to impoverished, somewhat mismatched parents, he inherited his father’s freedom of thought and originality – “he gave his child the thought that every non-human creature or thing – a leaf, a beetle, a darning needle – has a character of its own: a thought that was to prove invaluable to the later Andersen.   Invaluable too was his father’s teaching him how to make and work small toy theatres – human life in miniature.“  It seems that his fairy tales reflect Andersen’s own life story – trials, rejections, disappointments, rags to riches.   Not only that, Andersen, apparently, deliberately, included glimpses or perhaps even a portrait (The Ugly Duckling) of himself in each and every one of his tales.   Naomi Lewis challenges the reader of the book to take on the quest of seeking him out in the stories.   Helpfully, Naomi Lewis also includes an introduction to each of the stories too – giving us a flavour of how the story was conceived, how the story was received by the critics of the day and what we, today, nearly two hundred years on, can take from the story (I have in mind The Emperor’s New Clothes, see image below).  Age 6+

"If your Imperial Highness will graciously take off the clothes he is wearing now, we shall have the honour of putting on the new ones here; you can see the effect yourself in this great mirror."

"The sun had not yet risen when she came in sight of the prince's palace and made her way up the splendid marble steps...she fainted, and lay as though dead". (From The Little Mermaid)

"She was so beautiful, wonderfully delicate and grand; but she was of ice all through, dazzling, glittering ice - and yet she was alive." (From The Snow Queen)

Hansel and Gretel, written and illustrated by Anthony Browne    Anthony Browne’s books are an invitation to “value the act of looking” (his words).  To see beyond what is obvious, as if looking at something for the first time, as children do.  And children really do see things differently from adults.   My children are often first to see the faces in the knots and bark of trees or the hands in the tangled roots on the forest floor.  In Hansel and Gretel there is even more than meets the eye.   Take for example the illustration (see below) where the stepmother is looking down on her two sleeping step-children as she prepares to rouse them.  See how her shadow on the wall behind her extends to the gap in the curtain and so gives the impression she is wearing a pointed hat.  Likewise the picture of the old woman watching at the window of the gingerbread house.  Again the curtains are arranged to look like she is wearing a pointed hat.   Anthony Browne is not afraid to draw out the darker themes within fairy tales and in Hansel and Gretel there can be nothing darker than the betrayal of a child by it’s mother.  Anthony Browne’s response?  “Children are more than capable of coping with all kinds of stories; it’s adults who are threatened by the darkness in children’s books.   But it has a place: an essential place. If we insist on telling children that everything in the garden is lovely, we’re doing them a disservice.”  Age 6+

"At the edge of a large forest lived a poor woodcutter with his two children and their stepmother. The family was always very poor, and when a terrible famine came to the land, they could find nothing to eat."

'At daybreak, before the sun had risen, the woman came and wakened the children. "Get up, you lazybones, we must go to the forest to fetch wood."'

"From another window an old woman watched them."

"They began to run, rushed inside and threw their arms around their father."


This entry was posted in Age 4-6, Age 6-8, Age 8-10, Browne, Anthony, Chichester Clark, Emma, Doherty, Berlie, Gibb, Sarah, Jones, Ursula, Lewis, Naomi, Morpurgo, Michael, Pre-teen, Rackham, Arthur, Ray, Jane, Ross, Tony, Stewart, Joel, Teenage. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to 7 children’s picture books/collections of fairy tales. Classic, modern and sumptuous treatments of these enduring tales

  1. griselda hamway says:

    What a fantastic choice. All these illustrators are wonderful in their own way, each knowing exactly how much to give in their pictures while leaving that crucial sense of mystery and magic that draws the child (and adult) in. A revelation.

    • Yvonne Keen says:

      Yes, you’re right. I love each and every one of these illustrators. They are so varied in their craft but at the same time, I think, completely understand fairy tales.

  2. Clara says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this connoisseur’s choice. I’ve just had a wonderful few moments out of the morning’s work to feel inspired and transported… all so different and none better than another – but that Rackham featured at the very top took my breath away!

    • Yvonne Keen says:

      I really enjoyed putting this together. I have enjoyed Arthur Rackham since childhood – my father was a talented artist and so we had books like these all round our house. Thank you for your lovely comments.

  3. Library Mice says:

    I am a huge fan of Sarah Gibb’s work. Her style is perfect for conveying both the enchantment and darkness of fairy-tales. Have you seen her Rapunzel? I reviewed it here: http://www.librarymice.com/2011/01/rapunzel-week-1-rapunzel.html . I’ve also had a sneaky peek at her Beauty and the Beast which is coming out later this year and it is wonderful too.

  4. I love the translation of “Rumpelstilzchen”! :-)
    There is a new fairy tale book out which uses pictures only, no words.
    This book is magic!


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