A small girl child comes up to you. She wants a fairy tale. You are the librarian she is asking a book from. You are entirely on your own. A couple options open themselves up to you. If the word “princess” spills from this child’s lips then you may have a problem. Those insidious Disney Princesses are probably what this girl is referring to and you’re going to have a heckuva time convincing her that there is any other kind of princess in the world. Sometimes, though, you get a girl child that doesn’t care what kind of princess book you find, just so long as she’s pretty. At that point, you have a couple options. You could locate Sneed’s version of Thumbelina and McClintok’s version of Cinderella. You could even try your hand at a little Trina Schart Hyman or Nancy Ekholm Burkert (if you’re feeling brave). There’s even Paul Zelinsky’s “Rapunzel” and “Rumplestiltskin” for flavor. Of course, these princess stories have one thing in common with Snow White and it’s not her penchant for apples. A good librarian mixes it up a little. There will be a little “The Girl Who Spun Gold” and “Sukey and the Mermaid” slipped in amongst the tales. Add to all of these Patricia Strace’s new retelling of Rapunzel, “Sugar Cane”. Illustrated by the frighteningly talented Raul Colon, Strace’s first picture book for children takes all the wonder of the original tale, then spices it up without descending into stereotype or parody. If you’re looking for a retelling of a classic, this little book may well have your number.
For you see, there once was a fisherman and his wife. One day the wife became pregnant, and the man was overjoyed for her. Unfortunately, that was when the cravings began. The wife begged and pleaded with the husband to fetch her some sugar cane for the baby. Not able to travel all the way across the island to the sugar farms, the man instead found a hidden garden and house in the midst of the forest. Thinking himself unobserved he fetched the sugar cane for his wife. When he attempted the same trick a second time, however, Madame Fate the sorceress caught him and told him that she would have his child in return. Sure enough, by the time little Sugar Cane’s first birthday rolled around, the woman stole her away (to her parents’ tears). Sugar Cane grew up musically inclined with conjured educators from the past to teach her. It is in this state, as a young woman, that the son of a fisherman named King found her and the two struck up a friendship. Of course, none of this pleases the sorceress particularly when she made aware of the state of things. What follows is a tale of Sugar Cane’s sense of self-preservation, perseverance, and intelligence. The happy ending just happens to be a nice plus.
Now, let’s just make clear right now that this is an original story and NOT a different version of Rapunzel that you would find it in the Caribbean. Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood have alternate versions found in different nations, but that’s not the same thing as taking a story like Rapunzel and adapting it to a different cultural setting. Clear? Good. Because the book is worth checking out on its own merits alone. Storace made some interesting choices with this title. For example, Sugar Cane is attended by a little green monkey named Callaloo. Normally, small animal companions in fairy tales smack of Disneyfication, but Storace is careful with her characters. The monkey serves a purpose in the story and wouldn’t have appeared here otherwise. I was pleased with the education of Sugar Cane and also the slow growth of her relationship with King. Storace eschews the whole pregnancy part of the original story which some people might find that jarring, but in a way Callaloo stands in for the children Sugar Cane doesn’t have. Best of all, the setting doesn’t degrade into familiarity. Storace takes the taste of the Caribbean landscape without simplifying it into a list of stereotypes. The language of the book reads beautifully too. You’d never guess that this was her first book for children.
For a story of this length (a surprising 48 pages) you need an illustrator who isn’t afraid of going in for the long haul. Someone who can retain an audience’s interest for pages at a time. You have this with Raul Colon. Ever beautiful, ever clever, he knows how to sell a tale. As always Colon’s illustrations are just as impressive in their scope and opulence as they are when it comes to little tiny details. For example, the interior of the fisherman’s home shows the briefest glimpse of a black and white family portrait hanging on the wall in the background. In another scene, the expression on the fisherman’s face as he, his wife, and their baby bathe is that kind of beatific happiness difficult to capture in any medium. Because this tale is relatively long for a picture book, Colon had to continually break up the text during some of the more lengthy passages. When the book comments on the different teachers conjured up for Sugar Cane, brief snatches of their faces (some familiar) dot the page. And then there’s the style of art itself. As far as I can determine (and the advanced reader’s copy of the book I read was a bit unclear on this point) Colon appears to be using some kind of a scratchboard technique. As a result, the book is full of waves. The waves of Sugar Cane’s hair. The waves of the sea. The curl of the clouds and the flow of the fabric on shirts and skirts. And you might easily miss how the wavy hair on the front of the book reaches and curls around the image of King playing his guitar on the book’s back.