The Emperor’s New Clothes and Other Tales Tweaked for Today

As soon as I returned to my office with a copy of Ying Chang Competine’s new picture book, The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes illustrated by David Roberts, I picked out  two other retellings of well-known stories to round out this post.   Probably the most common way of putting a new spin on an old favorite is to situate it in a different time and place, which gives the writer, artist, or author-illustrator the freedom to imagine richly detailed settings.  When done with skill and imagination, the retelling pays tribute to the original and the recreator.  However, this trio of picture books play with the texts in a more radical way, because the plots have been restructured to highlight themes of collaboration, cooperation, and collusion.

Alison Jackson, I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie, illustrated by Judith Byron Schachner. (New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1997). Promised gift.

Alison Jackson turns the old accumulative rhyme “I Know an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” into a tribute to Thanksgiving gluttony.   An grandmotherly lady shows up on the doorstep of a young family’s house bearing a pie.   As soon as she  crosses the threshold, she wolfs down the pie and has to wash it down with a gallon jug of cider.  This dubious  accomplishment  impresses the two children so much that they  want to see what else she will eat. They try to restrain her when she lunges for the turkey platter, but would they be smiling if they weren’t secretly hoping she’ll go for it?  Can she get the entire uncarved bird down her gullet and survive?  She does.  The children hesitate momentarily when the old lady–now monstrously bloated with pie, cider, salad, squash, turkey, and a stock pot–menaces the dessert, a ten-layer cake.  But there is no stopping her and afterwards the baby and cat loll on the old lady’s huge, pillowy body, while the little girl tries to retrieve her skinny feet from under the dress.  The parody of the rhyme wouldn’t be anywhere as funny if Schachner (better known as the creator of Skippy Jon Jones) hadn’t created this subtext about the children egging on the old lady, which isn’t suggested in the text.   Giving the greedy old lady an audience does make this retelling a little grosser and more subversive than the original.

Margie Palatino, Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes, illustrated by Barry Moser (New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, c. 2009) Promised gift.

Lousy Rotten Stinkin’ Grapes, written by Margie Palatino and illustrated by Barry Moser, presents the fable of the fox and the grapes as a disastrous team effort.  When the fox discovers he can’t jump high enough to get the luscious fruit, he seizes the day when his acquaintance the bear lumbers along and allows himself to be roped into the fox’s plan.  Still unable to reach the fruit when balanced on the bear’s snout, the fox tries to make what ought to be a sure fire concept work by dragging in more collaborators with half his brains.

The tottering pile-up could be out of the Grimms’ “The Bremen Town Musicians,” but the higher it gets, the farther it is to the ground.  Having lost face in front of his helpers, the fox stalks off saying he didn’t want the “lousy rotten stinkin’ grapes” anyway.   The supposedly slow-witted team members gather the grapes without any difficulty and the would-be captain’s absence doesn’t seem to decrease their enjoyment of the fruit.  A case could be made that Palatino has improved on Aesop by making fall of the cocksure fox more dramatic than it is when he has no witnesses.

The reinterpreted plots in the first two picture books do not change the outcome of either story.  YIng Chang Compestine’s revamping of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” turns a perfect story on its head and claims this is the real version–always a risky move.

The emperor of China is a nine-year-old boy Ming Da controlled by three dishonest ministers who are enriching themselves at the kingdom’s expense.  Hungry, ragged children in the street, whom he cannot feed and dress, remind the little emperor how powerless he is.  While inspecting fabrics at the tailor’s shop for a New Year’s gown, the boy thinks of a plan to outwit the bad ministers that just might work if the tailors will help him execute it.  The emperor invites his ministers to the tailor’s shop to admire his new magical robes, whose splendor can only be seen by the honest.  The robe is nothing more than a painted burlap sack, but the ministers lavish praise upon the quality of the silk and the beauty of the embroidery rather than admit they don’t see anything of the kind.   The emperor invites the ministers to have such garments made for themselves.

Ying Chang Compestine, The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes, illustrated by David Roberts. (New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2017). Promised gift.

Behind a screen in the tailor’s, Ming Da spies on the ministers when they return to inspect the finished robes.  Of course, each of the burlap robes is imperfect, so the ministers, determined to outshine each other, supply the tailors with more jewels, gold, and rice to ensure the receipt of the finest garment that can be had.  The tailors hand off the treasure to the little emperor, who purchases cloth and rice so that the poor people can be clothed and fed.

At the New Year’s parade, the ministers in their burlap finery march behind the emperor, puzzled by the lack of response from the crowds in the street.  The spectators  break into raucous laughter as soon as when the children expose the deception by shrieking that the ministers are clothed in itchy rice sacks instead of gorgeous silks.

Humiliated at  having been tricked, the ministers flee the country and the little emperor replaces them with honest men.   During the rest of Ming Da’s reign, everyone is happy because no one goes hungry or naked.   The story concludes like this: “The emperor marched through the town to save his country.  I don’t know how people ended up with the old folktale about two sly tailors fooling a vain emperor.”   There are several possible morals–that the powerful few will rule justly with the interests of the many at heart, or even the mighty need the humble to achieve social justice.  Perhaps the author rewrote Andersen like this so children would have faith in the rectitude of authority.  But I miss the puncturing of human vanity with the light and deadly touch.

The British illustrator David Roberts, who spent time as a milliner and fashion illustrator in Hong Kong, has done research to give this story a distinct Chinese flavor. The characters’ attire, crisp outlines, and caricatured faces recall animated Chinese films from the second half of the twentieth century. This aesthetic borrows and remixes visual elements from various Chinese art traditions, including ancient architecture and Peking Opera make-up and stage design.

Animated Chinese film Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in Heaven, first aired in 1964.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes presents an anachronistic ancient China, which can often be spotted in picture books illustrated by cultural outsiders. The green robes and official winged-flap headwear of the three evil ministers signal that they are from the Ming dynasty or earlier. However, the Manchu braided hairstyle worn by the emperor, the tailors, and the children betrays the Qing dynasty. The confusion between these two consecutive dynasties is especially evident in a picture of the little emperor, who is wearing a Qing braid and a green robe and hat that are more likely Ming. Children’s literature critics have repeatedly lamented the peril of cultural misrepresentation, suggesting that publishers seek feedback from cultural insiders during the editing process. Just like Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” a fairy tale set in an imagined China, this rebellious retelling of Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” takes place in a distant China that never was.

(Minjie Chen contributed to the essay.)

Jim Kay’s Wizarding World 3: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Design of Dementors for the right rear pastedown endpaper of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Azkaban is on an island somewhere in the North Sea, but being unplottable, it cannot be found on a map.  The Minister of Magic officially administers rhe prison, but who takes responsibility for daily operations is a mystery.  No episode in the Harry Potter series is actually set in Azkaban, so it never seems as real as the Chamber of Secrets or the Ministry of Magic.  What readers hear repeated over and over is information everyone in the wizarding world knows about the debilitating aura of the Dementors who guard it.   After a few weeks in their presence, most prisoners perish   Hagrid survived  a two-months’ incarceration in The Chamber of Secrets, but would not (or could not) say anything about his experiences.

Jim Kay makes Azkaban almost as terrifying as Tyrion Lannister’s sky cell in the Eyrie by situating the prison in a somber landscape on the book’s preliminary pages. The front end papers depict a graveyard of ships off a beach outlined by monumental jutting rocks with the prison tower looming behind.  On the half title, heavy seas dash an unmanned ship against the island. The next two double-page spreads zoom in on the tower.  The first shot is a view of the prison entrance from the ship’s deck; the second pans up the prison’s stone walls.  It was not a felicitous design decision to set the list of Rowling’s works, the title page, the extensive copyright information, and dedication on these four pages of sublime drawings. All the type obscures the drawings’ grandeur and the type is largely illegible with the highly textured images as background.  But it is consistent with the greater use of ghosted patterns and figures here than in the first two volumes.  Some like the embossed paper napkin are relatively unobtrusive, others like the chocolate bar wrapper are distracting enough that the words cannot do their work.Thus far Kay has taken advantage of the artistic freedom J. K. Rowling and the publisher have given him.  With the third volume of the set completed, readers can expect certain things.  The Hogwarts faculty picture gallery has been expanded with three portraits, complemented with more informal views of the characters elsewhere in the story.  Professor Trelawney’s huge glasses, strongly marked features, and prominent front teeth are comically exaggerated for having been painted from below.  When she falls into a prophetic trace later in the story, her face appears eerie and mannish.  Greasy locks of hair frame Severus Snape’s unsmiling face and his crossed hands are surprisingly full of tension. Lying near the hand darkened with soot is a sprig of lily of the valley, the emblem of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother.  On the following page,the potions master looks much uglier as he grimaces at Neville’s toad.   A third illustration of Snape in chapter nineteen, which looks down on him as he casts a spell, makes him look quite formidable.  By changing his appearance in every illustration, Kay keeps readers uncertain as to which is the true Snape.  Remus Lupin, shown in his study before leaving Hogwarts in disgrace, looks down at the floor.  It is a startling contrast  to his first appearance in chapter five, with his back to the reader and his startled face reflected in train compartment’s door.

Illustrations of magical creatures are among the delights in Harry Potter’s  first two volumes and Kay provides some more wonderful ones in Prisoner of Azkaban.  Of the “scientific” illustrations, the Grindylow, which supposedly comes from Aquatic Wonders of Yorkshire: A Wizard’s Field Guide, is a gratifying mixture of the scary, gross, and humorous.  Hagrid’s hippogriffs, noble hybrids of eagle and horse, are given three illustrations.  There’s one of the spirited herd crossing the paddock and an endearing one of Buckbeak  asleep on Hagrid’s bed, its head resting on a plate of dead ferrets.  The book’s most important illustrations of magical creatures turn out to be three men who can transform themselves into animals.  All of them belonged to James Potter’s Hogwarts posse and the pictures contain visual clues pointing to their dual natures. The sinister plate of the Werewolf is drawn in the same sepia tones as Remus Lupin’s portrait.  The animage Sirius Black’s thinness, unfathomable dark eyes, and messy, bristly, black hair is unsettling when he is portrayed as a dog, although the gigantic picture of Sirius spread over four pages was an experiment that did not quite work for me.  When Kay finally draws Sirius as a half-starved man with an uncanny resemblance to Rasputin, he makes it difficult for the reader to be sure whose side he is on. Peter Pettigrew presented a somewhat different challenge because the secret that he did not die thirteen years previously must be concealed until late in the story. Throughout Prisoner of Azkaban, Pettigrew is present like Sirius, but not in his human form.  Until Remus spots Pettigrew’s movements on the Marauder’s Map, only Hermione’s cat Crookshanks knows that there is something peculiar about Scabbers, the Weasleys’ mangy, ancient pet rat.  Kay misdirects the reader’s attention by drawing the rat and cat scampering across the pages like a couple of Keystone critters.  Given the fact that the chase was dead serious, perhaps these drawings were a little too cartoony in style.  If Crookshanks had dispatched Scabbers/Pettigrew, imagine how the plot of The Goblet of Fire  would have been altered…  Deep blacks and purples in The Prisoner of Azkaban could be associated with the difficulty of reading character from faces, with treachery, with the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children.   Certainly yellow, blue and orange are prominent in illustrations where the future members of Dumbledore’s army are coming into their own, as when Parvati masters the Ridikulous charm or Harry and Hermione fly Buckbeak to the tower where Sirius is being held.  The scene by the lake where Harry is confronted by the Dementor is painted in  impenetrable blacks, but a snaky, Slytherin green similar to the one used in the background of his fight with the basilisk.  Even the unfortunate accident where Harry blows up his hateful Aunt Marge is bright with color, as if to emphasize that the Dursleys, no matter how awful they may be, are not the real enemies.What’s out of balance in The Prisoner of Azkaban is the weight given to the dark, sometimes nearly illegible illustrations of the past represented by James’ circle, and the colorful light-filled ones of the future, represented by Harry and his friends.  The glimpses readers catch of the school days of James, Sirius, Remus, Peter, Severus, and Lily revolved more around competition, cruel tricks, and one upsmanship instead of harmless fun, like visiting the pet store in Diagon Alley.  Nor are readers treated to enough scenes like the one in Madame Rosmerta’s pub, where the drama comes from the interaction between the figures, rather than isolated moments of horror or fear.  Another major disappointment  was the exciting sequence where Hermione takes Harry back in time to save Buckbeak and Sirius.  In terms of the number of illustrations the episode was allotted, it ended up being all about Harry’s conjuring of the Patronus, not Hermione proving herself the cleverest witch of her generation as well.For many Potterites and literary critics, The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of the set. Will many readers be disappointed that the children did not get the attention they deserved because Kay was rushing to meet the draconian deadline of a volume a year?  I suspect there was added pressure on him to produce enough dazzling drawings for the British Library’s exhibition “Harry Potter: The History of Magic.”  At least the powers- that-be have realized that Kay deserves more time to work his magic on the fourth installment–but we’ll have to wait until 2019 to see the results.