Book Review: The Sleeper And The Spindle

Writing: ***** (5 stars)

Illustration: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 10 and up (So long as readers are familiar with the likes of Grimm’s fairy tales and know that things can get ugly.  Previous knowledge of the original Sleeping Beauty/Snow White stories will help.)

The Sleeper and The Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a stunning new fairy-tale picture book for Young Adults.  Or, rather than a picture book, perhaps I’ll call it an illuminated story.  The tale is dark and the pictures more so.  I was thoroughly entranced for the twenty minutes it took me to read Gaiman’s words and examine all the neat little details in Chris Riddell’s pen drawings.  Though the story is simply told, much like Gaiman’s earlier fairy-tale novel Stardust, the traditional style highlights the plot’s unique surprises and occasional shining side-remarks.

The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty.  Names are in sort supply in this telling.

Two kingdoms lie on either sides of an impassable mountain.  They share a border but nobody can get across to visit.  Three dwarfs burrow underneath, though, in order to get their Queen the finest silks in Dorimar.  The Queen is going to be married soon.

It seemed both unlikely and extremely final.  She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman.  It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices.

But the dwarfs don’t come back to Kanselaire with gifts of silk.  They come back with terrifying news: a sleeping sickness is taking over the land and is moving ever-closer to their own realm!  The Queen (who once slept a year under these particular dwarfs’ care and came out of it just fine) postpones her wedding, dons a mail shirt, grabs her sword, and leads the dwarfs on a quest to wake the sleeping princess, up in her tower guarded by thorns.

The way is sometimes dark: they travel underground.  It is sometimes frightening: cobwebby sleepwalkers move through a town like zombies.  And their quest is not quite what it seems.  The Queen kisses the Princess to wake her up, and that’s nothing compared to the real twist that follows.  Neil Gaiman’s description of evil stepmothers and youth-hungry enchantresses is spot on when the Queen confronts that evil fairy (or was she a witch or an enchantress? The folks at the inn can’t quite agree) who used the prick of a spindle to put the whole kingdom to sleep.  The Queen is young and she is brave, but her own past experiences with such cruel sorts makes her adventure in the tower more powerful than a mere rescue attempt.  The Sleeper And The Spindle isn’t a love story. Though it is short the tale followed a path just between familiar archetypes and new visions to feel full and satisfying.

Chris Riddell’s drawings are equal measures disturbing and beautiful.  They’re certainly phenomenal, and must have taken a great deal of work.  Mostly black and white with little highlights of gold, they contain skulls and thorns a’plenty, but also faces that seem delightfully alive even when the figure is fast asleep.  The Queen is lovely with her raven-black hair, and I adored the dwarfs’ innovative hats. If this is the sort of world in which fairy-tales happen, then I can easily understand why beauty, darkness, and grotesque wickedness are so important.  I can’t imagine the story being read without the illustrations, or the pictures without their accompanying tale.  They just fit together so nicely into the sort of book you want to own for centuries.

(Teenagers who enjoy The Sleeper And The Spindle might also like Donna Jo Napoli’s new YA novel Dark Shimmer, which has elements of Snow White and takes place in medieval Italy.  Fearless younger readers should also check out Gaiman’s Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti.)

The Most Loved Book I Got For Christmas: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – Graphic Novel Edition

My sister and I were always given one book apiece on Christmas Eve, ever since we were very small indeed.  After the midnight candle-lit carol service, before racing up to bed, we’d sit by the tree and open up our “first gifts of Christmas.”  I’ve received many a wonderful book in this manner, but the one I loved the most was this graphic novel version of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. (HaperCollins, 1995)

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

all illustrations c Robin Lawrie, 1995

I must have been in third or fourth grade when I got this one; old enough to have already read the Chronicles of Narnia books, but still so young I was more than a little frightened by the nasty creatures Jadis has in her audience at the sacrificial stone table.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995

It’s the first graphic novel I ever read, and is the only one I’ve re-read multiple times.  They aren’t usually my preferred style, but this one captures the pace and spirit of those Narnia books nearly perfectly.  My copy’s pages are torn on the edges and soft like old dollar bills from all the times I turned them, curled up by the fireplace or hidden under the covers at night.  Most of the words come straight from C. S. Lewis’s original novel, just adapted and distilled by Robin Lawrie, who also drew the cinematic illustrations.  She made sure to include a great deal of the dialogue between the siblings, animals, and Aslan without letting the conversations get too cluttered with text.  It got to the point where I had memorized chunks of the real book, just because I could picture what was said and done in this illustrated version as though I had lived it myself.

Lewis’s wonderful descriptions aren’t lost here, either.  Paragraphs from the book that capture his magical balance of winter mystery and hopeful warmth are not left out, including one of my favorites about the first time the Pevensies hear Aslan’s name.

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Robin Lawrie, 1995. Text by C.S. Lewis

“At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump inside.  Edmund felt a mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave. Susan felt as if some delicious smell had floated by.  And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays.”

That’s the feeling that used to define Christmas Eve for me: anticipation and history.  The strange combination of coziness and goosebumps.  I remember reading this book the night it was given to me and feeling like I’d gone straight through the wardrobe with Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.  How horrible it would be to live in a world where it was “always winter, never Christmas.”  And how grand an adventure to go about bringing Christmas back.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

Robin Lawrie, 1995.

I loved the illuminated style of the illustrations: the creative borders with animals, trees, and heraldic symbols characterizing each chapter’s mood.  The pictures are expressive, particularly the characters’ faces and all the movement in exciting scenes of battle or escape.  C.S. Lewis has described Narnia so well in his books that fans of the series can picture certain settings in their mind’s eye like photographs of real places.  The illustrations here can go along hand-in-hand with your own inner Narnia: no artistic liberties veered too far away from my own imaginary constructs, at any rate.  The Beavers’ house, Cair Paravel, even the Professor’s mansion are brought to life in a simple but solid manner. The embellishments of style and extra details get to stand out in the framework and the layout: columns with carved satyrs on either side of the pages in which Mr. Tumnus describes Narnia in the spring, or the twisted roots around the picture where Lucy finally brings her siblings through the wardrobe and into the woods.

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is such a good story.  It has a tint of medieval romance – Lewis was a medievalist as well as a fiction writer and theologian – as well as an enveloping glow of childish goodness that can fight back even the most biting winter miseries.  Robin Lawrie’s adaption is colorful, exciting, serious, and blessedly faithful to the original book.  I loved it as a little kid, back when Christmas Eve was a night of heart-in-your-throat nervous excitement.  I love it now that winter has taken on a more medieval coldness in my older-ish age, because it warms me up: the memory of reading it three, four, five times in one month acting like embers that have not quite died out.

The Chronicles Of Narnia is a delightful series of books, but I think that this graphic novel is even better loved in my memory because it can transport me instantly back to Christmastime in the late 1990s.  I don’t think it’s still in print, which is a terrible shame, because this would be a great way to get more reluctant readers hooked on the vivid fantasy world and larger than life characters of C.S. Lewis’s imagination.  There’s also an adaption of The Magician’s Nephew, which is almost as good.  (A tragically under-appreciated book in the series, I say.)  If you can find a copy of either at the library or a used bookshop, do give it to someone this holiday.  It can turn Christmas Eve into something extra magical, where any danger lurking in the cold darkness outside can be dispelled by bravery and the assistance of a majestic lion.  (Lion not included.)