For the reviewer that reviews for pleasure, every book that sits on your lap has to prove itself to some extent. Even the world’s shortest picture book is an exercise in retaining both a child’s and an adult’s interest. Let us pinpoint, then, the precise moment when I found myself interested in “The Bearskinner”. The author’s name certainly didn’t hurt. Those of you familiar with the myriad works of Laura Amy Schlitz will understand my instantaneous interest. The illustrations by a Mr. Max Grafe were also a lure (being that they were done in mixed media on paper). Yet if I were to select one tiny element to impress friends and colleagues with at cocktail parties, maybe I’d mention only this. On the publication page it says in the tiniest of lettering, “This book was typeset in Golden Cockerell Roman”. Very cool. A book is more than the sum of its fonts, and a fairy tale more than the point of its origin. Fortunately, Laura Amy Schlitz has taken what could arguably be called the grittiest and grimiest of Brothers Grimm tales and, with the help of Mr. Grafe, constructed a story that offers hope, heart, and justice to a modern audience with a classic feel.
The devil comes to a poor soldier with an offer he can’t refuse. If the man wears the skin of a bear for seven years without washing, bathing, or praying to God, then he will be rich beyond his wildest dreams. Better still, during that time he will have all the money he desires. The man accepts the deal, but soon finds it hard to handle. His body disgusts him and society abhors him (though not, of course, his money). Yet when the man starts giving his money away to the poor, he finds that their prayers carry him through the worst of his trials. One day he helps a gambler and the man promises the solider one of his three daughters. The middle daughter looks deep into his eyes and promises to marry him whenever he returns. Three years later his time is up and he triumphantly puts the devil in his place, cleans up, and returns to the gambler’s home. There, the daughter waits for him, he reveals himself to her, and they live happily ever after (except perhaps for the devil, but that’s only to be expected).
You tell someone that you’re going to read a kid a Brothers Grimm tale and, if they are unfamiliar with some of the Brothers’ nastier conjurings, that person might think it natural that the book be kid-friendly and interesting. Ladies and gentlemen, I am telling you here and now that this is most certainly not the case. Interesting Brothers Grimm stories are most certainly NOT the rule. Adapting one into a readable text takes time and effort and an ear for a cutting turn of phrase. Ms. Schlitz, to the infinite relief of any reader, shows her prestigious skill in such matters by not merely rendering “The Bearskinner” into something palatable for the youth of America, but also something worth reading again and again. Check out this opening: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story. A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.”
What is it about this tale that sucks us in so completely? On the bookflap, illustrator Max Grafe describes being drawn to this story due to the tale’s visceral qualities. “The grit, the grime, and the quintessential antagonist, the devil . . . combine for an exciting yet challenging story to bring to life on the printed page.” I think he’s right about that part of the book. The idea of a guy not bathing or doing any kind of bodily maintenance for years and years at a time is an instant lure. Schlitz plays this up too with sentences like, “Lice gnawed at his flesh, and he raked himself until he was covered with scabs,” or, “his bearskin crawled with maggots, and he reeked.” That’s the more obvious hook to this book. Schlitz explains too, though, that there is much more to be taken away from “The Bearskinner” than just the disgusting qualities. “I went in search of a story that would tell students that no matter how bad things get, you hold on.” And that, of course, is the key to the tale. On an initial reading a person might wonder why the devil stipulates that the Bearskinner is never to pray to God during his 7 year trials, as it seems a little random as a request. Yet thinking about it, prayer gives people hope. The Bearskinner finds a way around this requirement by asking the poor to pray in his stead, and it is that fact that saves him in the end. Ms. Schlitz not only recognizes the intriguing premise, but the true heart behind the story. She then plies both with magnificent wordplay.
It’s a pity that the cover image of this book is as subtle and restrained as it is, considering how cool the work of Max Grafe becoming in the course of the tale. I mean, look at these endpapers. The darkened almost colorless shapes of the trees with the merest flicker of natural light gives you a full understanding of what’s to come. Grafe uses color, but selectively. Most of this book consists of deep browns, sepias, and dusky grays. Then, odd points of color crop up from time to time. The devil wears a green velvet coat, coloring the book. It’s almost as if his very image stains the pages about him with the green of his clothing. Later, when the soldier finds himself surrounded by the prayers of the people he has helped, butterflies with only the most delicate of tones and hues flutter about his body. Finally, the reveal by the soldier that he is the man promised to the middle daughter is against a warm glowing golden brown with a light fixed firmly somewhere behind the happy couple.
What technique Mr. Grafe has used is not entirely clear. The term “mixed media” is too vague for my tastes. At times, the thickness of the paints informs the images. Maybe a sponge of some sort was used. Other times, hands, details, or silhouettes are merely carved into the image using a kind of scratchboard technique. What remains clear, though, is that Grafe has taken a significant amount of time and care to give this book the illustrations it so desperately deserves. Even the first image in this book is mimicked by the last, which is fun.
The first few sentences caught my eye and the image of the soldier and the middle daughter looking at one another for the first time sealed the deal. I don’t know how well fairy tales sell on the open market. I don’t know how many library systems appreciate them fully, or how many families know how important they are to a child’s development and growth, both emotionally and socially. What I do know is that “The Bearskinner” as written by Laura Amy Schlitz and as illustrated by Max Grafe is a piece of fine art. A book that deserves love, attention, and more. Worth seeking out, to say the least.