Stormy Fairy Tales

By Matilda Woods

By Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Written and illustrated by Annet Schaap
Translated by Laura Watkinson

Many of us discover as children that books can be like secret doorways. They might be at the back of a wardrobe or in the side of a giant tree, but wherever the doors lead, once we step through, time will cease to matter and our everyday worries will disappear.

Things might get dicey, as there are bound to be stormy nights, impenetrable forests, monsters and witches, but in the end, and this is most important, everything will be all right.

I’m almost 50 and both of my daughters are nearly grown, so it is rare that I pick up a children’s book anymore. What a delightful surprise, then, to be handed three new books that so perfectly evoke that childhood sensation of falling in love with reading. At a library or bookstore, these would be shelved in the “young reader” section, but I believe in 2020 we all might find a little solace in stories about kindness and bravery, about winter giving way to spring and suffering to joy.

In the Australian author Matilda Woods’s third magical realist novel, “Otto Tattercoat and the Forest of Lost Things,” the town of Hodeldorf is the coldest city in the world. What better place for Otto’s mother to set up shop for the beautiful coats she sews?

But when she goes missing and Otto is left to fend for himself, he ends up homeless, friendless and coatless. He finds refuge with a motley group of “tattercoats” who sleep by chimney tops to stay warm, follow a strict code of ethics for thieving and surviving, and could easily be mates of Oliver Twist.

It is a brutal life, but there is something worse: the boot polish factory where children are forced to work long hours for the cruel Frau Ferber.

More frightening yet? The dangerous forest outside of town that is home to snarling beasts, a hungry witch and a particularly suspicious traveling salesman.

Of course that is where Otto and his friends must venture if they are to rescue his mother and solve the mystery of why Hodeldorf is so very cold.

In this charming tale, the most cutting curse is “Cabbages and moldy bread!,” the hero of the day is a rat named Nibbles in his tiny blue coat, and happiness is a warm apple tart.

What I enjoyed most, however, is the conviction that we need one another to survive. “That’s what we do in the factory,” one of the children says. “We help one another out.”

In “The Way Past Winter,” by the British children’s, young adult and adult author Kiran Millwood Hargrave, the snow and darkness have lasted five long years, and people are beginning to forget the warmth of summer.

In their house in the woods, Mila and her siblings once listened to their mother tell stories about Eldbjorn, the powerful bear from the island of Thule who guards the trees.

With both of their parents gone, the children are visited by a mysterious man dressed all in fur, and the next day their brother, Oskar, has vanished.

Mila is determined to set off alone in search of her brother, but ultimately she will need the help of her two sisters. They will brave snowstorms, a pack of wolves, a giant eagle and Eldbjorn himself.

Is it possible the fairy tales their mother used to tell were true after all, and that by saving their brother they can end winter?

The plot becomes so twisty and fantastical that I lost some interest toward the end, but those same traits might captivate young readers. I was won over, instead, by the beautiful descriptions of frosty branches and starry night skies, of flying across the snow on a sleigh pulled by dogs, but most of all by its heartening message: “We will weather this together.”

Storms of a different kind brew in “Of Salt and Shore,” the debut novel of the Dutch illustrator Annet Schaap, translated by Laura Watkinson. These pages are full of crashing waves, rocky beaches, pirates and mermaids.

Once I picked the book up, I didn’t set it down until I finished it with tears in my eyes, perhaps because it called to mind two beloved books from my own childhood: “The Secret Garden” and “Treasure Island.” I was also moved by Schaap’s exceptional writing, which manages to be lyrical and whimsical, yet unsentimental. Of the three books, it is the most disturbing, but also the most endearing and poignant.

The story begins with Lampie helping her drunken, one-legged father keep the flame burning at the lighthouse, until one stormy night when she forgets to buy matches and, in the darkness, a ship wrecks against the rocks. To punish them both, Lampie is sent to earn her keep at the imposing admiral’s house. The housekeeper forbids her ever to enter the tower room, where a monster is locked away.

Lampie strives to do her work, with hopes of being reunited with her father, but curiosity beckons her to the top of the tower.

There she finds “the monster” hiding under a bed: “It’s actually a kind of boy, Lampie sees. A boy with a head that’s a bit too big. His face is gray and scaly and his tousled hair looks almost green. … His legs have grown together into a dark tail.”

The boy insists he is deformed; Lampie begins to suspect he is something much more magical and surprising. In some of my favorite scenes, the boy teaches self-doubting Lampie how to read and she helps him to escape his own prison.

Ultimately, it is a continuation of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen, but Schaap’s story is less about transformation and more about finding friendship and love in our differences.

All three of these books pay homage to the fairy tales and children’s stories that made readers out of so many of us, while also casting their own spells. They are a reminder that even the loneliest winters will come to an end. The sun will shine again. And in the meantime these stories, just like Schaap’s lighthouse, make the nights a little less dark.

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