Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky ReviewDutton, Oct., 1997.
Hardcover, 48 pages.
Reading Level: Ages 4-8.
What a book! The kind of book that makes one want to reach out and absorb its' richness. The kind of book that reaches out and takes one in to explore its' delights. The Caldecott is awarded to the best illustrated children's book each year. Paul Zelinsky, another author/illustrator I have had the immense pleasure of listening to, watching draw, and talking with truly deserves the Caldecott Medal for Rapunzel. The amount of research he put into both the art and story history is incredible. Most of us are familiar with the rather harsh Brothers Grimm version of the tale where the cruel witch punishes the husband for stealing greens from her garden to satisfy his pregnant wife's cravings by taking their newborn child. Rapunzel is usually portrayed living a lonely and miserable life in a barren tower in a foreboding and deserted part of the world until she meets the prince. The witch catches the pair and pitches the prince out of the tower causing him to become blind and doomed to wander about the wilderness until Rapunzel escapes the evil witch's clutches and saves the prince with her tears of joy.
Well, toss that version out of the closest tower. Rapunzel has her earliest roots in seventeenth century Italy as Petrosinella. Then she appeared as Persinette in the French writer La Force's Tale of Tales. The first German translation was included in a 1790 collection, Kleinen Romane, written by Joachim Schulz. The Grimm brothers, however, attributed Rapunzel to an oral tale in their first collection published in 1812. Mr. Zelinsky tells us in his epilogue that he tried to combine the most moving aspects of the story with the most satisfying structure and the three countries of its' origin in its' illustrations. I think he succeeded admirably. In his retelling of the story, there is still a man and wife who finally conceive a child. The wife develops a craving for some rapunzel from the garden of the sorceress who lives beside them. The husband braves the sorceress to steal some rapunzel from her garden. On his second attempt, the man is caught. When the sorceress finds out why he needs the rapunzel she allows the husband to take as much as he wants but he must allow her to take the child when it is born. In order to save his beloved wife he accedes to the sorceress's request.
As promised, the sorceress appears at the birth of the baby girl, names her Rapunzel and leaves cradling her gently in her arms with a look of profound love on her face. The sorceress is kind to Rapunzel, and we are shown a picture of a happy, dancing little girl being lovingly watched over by the sorceress. When Rapunzel reaches the age of twelve, she is then led by the sorceress to an elegant tower in lush woods yet no entrance so the sorceress can keep Rapunzel for herself.
Years pass and one day a king's son wanders by and hears Rapunzel singing. He learns the trick of getting into the tower by means of Rapunzel's long hair. (I was relieved to see that Mr. Zelinsky devised a hook to wind her hair around before anyone climbed on it. That always bothered me as a child.) They fall in love, but unlike in the Brothers Grimm version, they marry. The sorceress finds out about the deception when Rapunzel asks for help fastening her dress that no longer fits because she is with child. The sorceress is enraged and profoundly disappointed. She cuts off Rapunzel's hair, with a look of sorrow and banishes her to the wilderness where Rapunzel gives birth to twins.
The sorceress fastens Rapunzel's hair to the hook so when the prince comes for his nightly visit she can confront him. If she can't have Rapunzel, then nobody can. He is so struck with grief at the news of Rapunzel's disappearance, he lets go and falls instead of being pushed by a cruel witch as in the Grimms' story. He is blinded with grief and stumbles through the same wilderness as Rapunzel and the twins. Finally, one day he hears Rapunzel's voice. Her tears of joy cure his blindness. He not only gets to gaze upon his twins for the first time, but he also sees that they are near his kingdom where they go to live a long and happy life.
Although Mr. Zelinsky says he felt humbled by the experience of attempting Italian Renaissance painting, every time I turned a page I felt as though I were back in Art History class seeing the works of Raphael, Titian, Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. In fact, Rapunzel herself reminds me of Botticelli's Venus.
Zelinsky's use of lush colors in rich, jewel tones; his minute detail in each illustration; his contrast of dark and light; his use of architectural images (note the sorceress's garden); the glowing luminescence of skin tones all accurately reflect the style of Italian and French Renaissance art. Rapunzel's tower is an intricate magical puzzle looking small on the outside but with spacious rooms on the inside.
Leonardo once said that the highest aim of painting is to depict the intention of man's soul. Once again, I think Mr. Zelinsky has achieved this for his characters' facial expressions are stunning. In one of the most beautiful illustrations where Rapunzel and the prince are marrying both faces truly show all of the love that each feels for the other. In another dazzling painting, we see in the sorceress's face the fear of losing Rapunzel combined with her feelings of failure at keeping her beloved adopted daughter away from the world.
Paul Zelinsky's Rapunzel is an illustrating and storytelling tour de force where the illustrations mesh with and enhance the narrative to combine as one marvelous work of art. To quote Mr. Zelinsky, “It would please me if my pictures served in some measure to spur an interest in the magnificent art form from which I have drawn. My great hope, of course, is that this book may give pleasure to readers in and of itself.” Mr. Zelinsky, congratulations. You have done it.
- Nancy Littlejohn
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