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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Tchana, Katrin, ad. The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women; Little, 2000. 113p
ISBN 0-316-38701-0   $19.95    Gr. 4-8

Past popular wisdom held that female characters in folk and fairytales were passive, weak, and brainless, an impression most likely garnered from animated retellings featuring big-eyed damsels often in distress. Rosemary Minard, Ethel Johnston Phelps, James Riordan, and Angela Carter addressed this apparent lack of preferred role-models by researching, collecting, and retelling, to various extents, traditional folktales featuring women in active roles, and books containing those stories found their way to secure spots on library shelves. These titles were followed by picture-book versions of similar tales as well as more collections until the tradition of the active folktale heroine in books for youth was at least tenuously established. Here to cement that tradition is Katrin Tchana and Trina Schart Hyman's first collaborative effort.

This is a collaboration between adaptor and illustrator, mother and daughter, and that familial connection resonates within the storytelling tradition of the selected tales. Mothers and daughters, sisters and wives all indelibly make their mark in these eighteen folktales featuring heroines who win the day through courage, cleverness, and, sometimes, subterfuge. Tchana offers solid retellings of the oft-anthologized ("Kate Crackernuts") and the not oft-anthologized ("Sister Lace"), from countries ranging from Russia to the Gambia. Her affection for her subject is clear from the preface (wherein she states her reasons for compiling this collection) and from her precise handling of the tales themselves.

The opening sentences of the tales are crisply evocative, instantly transporting reader and listener to the worlds the focal characters in habit: "In the dark time of the year, when the days are short and a cold wind blows from the north, a serpent came to live in an old cave on the mountain of Yung Ling" ("The Serpent Slayer"); "Long ago there was a powerful emperor who lived in a palace of pure gold in the midst of a city more splendid and dazzling than the world had ever known before" ("The Magic Lake"). Most of Tchana's heroines travel the well-worn path to happily-ever-after endings, but several women take the more adventurous road to unresolved, ambiguous conclusions ("Grandmother's Skull"; "Sun-Girl and Dragon-Prince"). The thematic variety of the stories provides something for everyone: tales of swashbuckling adventure ("The Rebel Princess"); compassionate courage ("Nesoowa and the Chenoo"); redemptive love ("Three Whiskers from a Lion's Chin"); and clever self-determination ("Duffy the Lady") shine from an impressively designed volume.

Each tale opens with an illustrative vignette reflecting some plot incident, and each contains a full-page painting that evokes the emotional sensibility of the tale. Hyman's ink and acrylic art balances between the robust and romantic; the larger-than-life heroines are given stature, energy, and power through the artist's visual characterizations. Women old and young, plump and willowy, maidenly and motherly have their defining moments in this classy compendium, and there is enough physical variety here to ensure that just about everyone will see someone that looks like her.

Humor, suspense, romance, and horror are reflected through the medium of Hyman's powerful art. There isn't a glamorized, gauzy moment in the bunch, but readers and listeners won't miss the fluff. The artist eschews fussy ornamentation, instead employing fluid, bolder lines that suit her bolder subjects. The women are dynamically posed: Li Chi, barefoot with curved sword and flying hair, aims a death blow at a hideous scaled serpent with horrific fangs and malevolent eyes; dark-eyed Nesoowa sits in the almost-night across from a monstrous, cannibalistic Chenoo, offering soup and affection; wary Maria crouches in the brush, flute on her shoulder and machete in hand, waiting for the mountain lion that will either save her marriage or eat her.

The strength of this colleciton rests not on individual stories or images, but instead upon the connections among these particular stories and these particular images. Other recent compilations have made inroads in the redefinition of the popular image of women in folktales--Kathleen Ragan and Jane Yolen both have similarly themed collections--but this collection has a pronounced advantage over its more academic predecessors. Tchana's fresh and unpretentious storytelling voice is reinforced by the earthy glory of Hyman's illustrations, and the result is an elegantly conceived and executed volume that belongs on the shelf at home, in the library, and in school. Generous source citations provide plenty of opportunity for tracing the evolution of the tales and for seeking out additional variants. Here are women to make us proud; to paraphrase one story's closing line, may their spirits live forever.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
November's Bulletin cover illustration by Trina Schart Hyman
from The Serpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women,
Copyright 2000. Used by permission of Little, Brown and Company

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This page was last updated on November 1, 2000.