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Award-winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan delivers a darkly stylized noir Snow White set against the backdrop of Depression-era Manhattan.
The scene: New York City. The dazzling lights cast shadows that grow ever darker as the glitzy prosperity of the Roaring Twenties screeches to a halt. Enter a cast of familiar characters: a young girl, Samantha White, returning after being sent away by her cruel stepmother, the Queen of the Follies, years earlier; her father, the King of Wall Street, who survives the stock market crash only to suffer a strange and sudden death; seven street urchins, brave protectors for a girl as pure as snow; and a mysterious stock ticker that holds the stepmother in its thrall, churning out ticker tape imprinted with the wicked words "Another . . . More Beautiful . . . KILL." In a moody, cinematic new telling of a beloved fairy tale, extraordinary graphic novelist Matt Phelan captures the essence of classic film noir on the page--and draws a striking distinction between good and evil.
Matt Phelan is the author-illustrator of three previous graphic novels: the Scott O'Dell Award-winning The Storm in the Barn, Around the World, and Bluffton, which was nominated for three Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, including Best Graphic Album. He is the author-illustrator of Druthers and the illustrator of many books for young readers, including Marilyn's Monster by Michelle Knudsen and The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, winner of the Newbery Medal. Matt Phelan lives in Pennsylvania.
Publisher's Weekly Review
Phelan (Bluffton) delivers a spectacular 20th-century update of "Snow White," transplanting the story to Jazz Age and Depression-era New York City, where themes of jealousy, beauty, and power find a comfortable home. Years after tuberculosis has claimed the life of Samantha "Snow" White's mother, her father, "the King of Wall Street," finds a regal match in the "Queen of the Follies," whose Louise Brooks bob is as sharp as her glare. She soon dispatches her husband, only to learn that Snow stands to inherit his wealth; one of many exquisite touches is Phelan's use of a stock ticker as the magic mirror, rattling away like Poe's tell-tale heart as Snow's stepmother's ambitions shift into madness. Moody gray and sepia panels carry the story forward, punctuated by splashes of lurid red-for an animal heart, procured at a butcher's shop, or an apple tainted with a syringe. Snow's affectionate relationship with "the Seven," a group of street children, is among this adaptation's most potent elements. The boys are hesitant to tell Snow their names, but readers will want tissues on hand when they finally do. Ages 10-up. Agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Sept.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
New York Review of Books Review
AS A CHILD, I thought the Grimm fairy tales were written, whole cloth, by a bunch of creepy brothers with dark imaginations. It seemed likely that they lived deep in a forest, and more than likely that they had long, untidy beards. They were probably hoarders, and what they hoarded was probably bones. With a name like Grimm, and stories like that, what else could you expect? But I was confusing the Grimms with the tales. Untidy beards? Far from it: In contemporary portraits, these men were clean shaven, with the loose, wavy hair of the Romantic era they embodied. Highly educated (though poor), Jacob and his younger brother Wilhelm had a mission: to define Germany - then fractured into principalities and under Napoleon's odious rule - to itself. They accomplished this by compiling a German dictionary and collecting a trove of oral-tradition fairy and folk tales, gathered with the help of family friends, many of them young women. (Wilhelm later married one of his story gatherers, the charmingly named Dorothea Wild.) These brothers weren't hoarders - they were heroes. Because the Grimms wanted to celebrate German culture, they made changes - over the course of seven editions - to weed out foreign influences and reflect their own moral values. The tales have never ceased evolving, interpreted again and again by writers and artists who saw something - perhaps worrisome, perhaps delightful - that they wanted to explore. Two new books, "The Singing Bones," by the Australian author and illustrator Shaun Tan ("The Arrival," "Rules of Summer"), and "Snow White," by the American graphic novelist Matt Phelan ("Bluffton," "The Storm in the Barn"), take unexpected approaches to the tales and come up with something new for readers past the age for picture books. Much of what we know about the Grimms comes from the work of the fairy tale scholar and translator Jack Zipes. In an introduction to "The Singing Bones," Zipes writes that if it if hadn't been for illustrations, the tales would never have become popular. When the Grimms first published them without pictures in 1812, sales were sluggish; it was only when they saw a successful English translation with drawings by the satirist George Cruikshank that they realized illustrations would allow them to reach a wider readership. "The Singing Bones" definitely tips the balance of art-to-text toward illustration: Tan gives his readers only a few sentences from each of 75 stories, accompanied by a full-page photograph of his starkly lit sculptures. The best of these, often in the red, black and white palette we associate with the tales, have a look reminiscent of Inuit art; they appear simplified and smoothed by many hands. Their scale is hard to gauge. They seem simultaneously monumental and small enough to tuck in a pocket, like Japanese netsuke. As the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman puts it in his introduction, Tan "makes me want to pick them up, inspect them from unusual angles, feel the heft and weight of them. He makes me wonder what damage I could do with them, how badly I could hurt someone if I hit them with a story." Gaiman (whose clever, feminist reworking of "Sleeping Beauty" was illustrated in a quite literal style by Chris Riddell) makes a strong case for Tan's approach: The sculptures "are, in themselves, stories: not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be. These are something new, something deeper." "The Singing Bones" is recommended for children ages 12 and up, and some children and teenagers, no longer charmed by beautiful picture books, will be intrigued by Tan's suggestive, shadowy forms. His sculptures can be funny: Rumpelstiltskin looks like a red Mayan sun, dancing sideways with his long tongue pointing in one direction and his long nose in another. They can also be frightening. In "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About Fear," a figure sits reading, oblivious to a row of hanged bodies next to him. In "The Old Man and His Grandson," a child peers into a monster's gaping maw, from which huge hands and crooked teeth protrude. Though terror is a crucial component of fairy tales, Tan's tableaus are presented in isolation, not within a story structured to come around to a happy ending. Perhaps children who are drawn to the images will be interested enough to seek out the complete stories in some other volume. But the readers who will get the most from "The Singing Bones" are Grimm specialists - like Zipes and Gaiman - who've read even the more obscure stories and can focus on Tan's artistry. MATT PHELAN SETS his graphic retelling of "Snow White" in 1920s New York, with both its Ziegfeld Follies glamour and its impoverished Dead End Kids. Arranging the story in wide horizontal panels, Phelan sets aside the pastel colors of his earlier graphic novels and, using what appears to be pencil and ink, adapts his palette to the Grimms' description of his heroine, "who was as white as snow, as red as blood," with "hair as black as ebony." This gives it the look of a black-and-white movie, a genre Phelan loves: "Bluffton" was, in part, about the young Buster Keaton. As with Tan's book, familiarity with the original tale will help readers enjoy Phelan's innovations. The Grimms' softhearted hunter becomes the stony-faced hit man Mr. Hunt; Snow White's father is no longer royal, but he is "King of Wall Street." Her stepmother is as evil as ever, with Louise Brooks's haircut and the deep cleavage of a showgirl on the make. The big surprise is the dwarves: They're a scruffy, diverse band of boys so toughened by life on the streets that they won't even tell Snow their names, identifying themselves only as "The Seven." Though Phelan does incorporate some dialogue, he has a cinematographer's gift for telling emotional stories without words. While I admire that skill, it's hard not to miss the incantatory language of the Grimms' "Snow White" - one of the best written of the tales - especially when it comes to the stepmother's conversations with her mirror. It's fun for children to recite the repeated rhymes of "Mirror, mirror, on the wall...." Here, she gets her information from a ticker tape, which spits out disjointed, monosyllabic messages in between stock prices. But rather than hoping that every new version of the Grimm tales will contain all that is valuable in the originals, perhaps it's wise to remember that they were told and retold by the hearth in centuries past because they offered something for everyone gathered there, of varied ages and experience. Bruno Bettelheim called the tales a "magic mirror," capable of reflecting a range of deep fears and desires: for gingerbread and poison, kisses and cruelty, death and "happily ever after." Each reader discovers a different story, and each new interpreter borrows what inspires him and leaves the rest for the next to fall under their spell. SARAH HARRISON SMITH, a former editor at The Times, teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Horn Book Review
Phelan has visited the 1930s Dust Bowl in The Storm in the Barn (rev. 11/09), early-1900s vaudevillian Buster Keaton in Bluffton (rev. 11/13), and late-nineteenth-century explorers in Around the World (rev. 11/11). Here he heads off to glittery, preDepression era New York City to re-vision the Grimms fairy tale. The book opens in 1928 with a stern-looking man asking a street urchin, Whats the story here? as the NYPD cordons off what seems to be the dead body of a woman in a store-window holiday display. The rest of the book leads up to the answer. In a flashback to 1918, we see happy little Samantha Snow White playing with her mother in Central Park. Ten years later, Mama dead of tuberculosis, a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl easily ensnares and marries Samanthas wealthy older father. After sending the girl away to school and poisoning her husband, Samanthas stepmother, furious upon learning that the dead man left the bulk of his estate to his daughter, decides that Samantha is next. The girl, now a young woman, flees to a Hooverville shantytown, where she is rescued by seven street boys, and the story takes its classic course. Pencil, ink, and watercolor images (in mostly sepia tones, with occasional spots of color: red for the poisoned apple, for example) move readers eyes across each page, providing an appropriately cinematic noir sensibility. This cinematic effect is further enhanced by the feel of constant movement, the varied panel sizes, and a judicious use of text. Some scenes are wordless; for others, Phelan uses varied fonts to enhance the drama. By the final wordless all-color sequence (spoiler: there is a happy ending), it is clear that this is an original and darkly beautiful take on the classic tale. monica edinger (c) Copyright 2016. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.