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 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.
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.
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.
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.)