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Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen

Retold by Vera Southgate
Illutrations: Robert Lumely
Publisher: Ladybird Books ltd, 1968

I am a huge fan of Ladybird books, as, I imagine, are most children's literature fans of my generation (I had many books from the 1960s, which would have been 'nostalgic' for my own parents). Now here I am trying to share these books with my own children, to mixed effect. Some titles just haven't worked, so for example, my favourite, 'Snow White and Rose Red', the children just won't tolerate, 'it's too long and too weird' seven year old Alf says. (I can't argue with that, I also agree, only I liked that it was long and rather than weird, I found it thrilling because it was darn right scary). I'll try again when they're older.

However, this title, from the Well-loved Tales Ladybird series, 'The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen', the children do like, in fact they really get on board when this is our chosen book at bedtime. The illustrations are incredibly detailed compared to the illustrations they are used to and familiar with today. The fine lines and detail of the pictures muster a sort of realism, that the children are just not used to. This contrasts with the story itself which turns the fox into a caricature, he is sly, he is cunning and he desperately wants to eat the little red hen. The hen looks silly, flapping around, getting put in a sack, but she's clever, and in a brutal way (putting stones in the sack so when the foxes put the 'hen' in the boiling pot of water, the heavy and big stones cause the boiling water to spill out and scold the foxes to death) she kills the foxes. Understandably this version of the fairytale has more sanitised ending these days, but the shock and victorious ending for the little red hen in this version, with foxes dead not just walking away distantly in the woods, rouses cheers with the children. It's the same fear- filled curiosity feeling I think I had as a child when reading these books, the same fear- enjoyment binary that enabled me to remember 'Snow White and Rose Red' so well.

I also like that my children refer to this book as an 'olden days book' . The yellowy look of the book and feel of the pages interests Bert (5) , but mainly it's because the book is tattered and torn, has a lighter palette of colours than their modern story books. The storytelling itself in The Sly Red Fox', with roughly three lines a page, still works so well. I wonder how far removed the next generation will find these books, or whether in some respects, thanks to their newfound place in marketplaces such as EBay as 'retro, vintage and chic' they will remain timeless. 

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