I think that there might be a point at which a children’s book becomes so physically lovely that its beauty becomes a kind of liability. Some parents are already afraid of children’s books on some level. They buy their kids cheapo paperbacks and Clifford titles because they feel that a kid would "ruin" anything nice with their sticky little fingers. And so when a book as truly gorgeous as Trick of the Tale appears before them, they can’t imagine subjecting an object d’art as delicate, detailed, and purely lovely as this to the violent love and adoration of their children. This is more than a bit of a pity, though, since Trick of the Tale: A Collection of Trickster Tales is positively made for kids to paw through. With stories by John and Caitlin Matthews that can suck in any reader and pictures by Tomislav Tomic that will sink in their hooks and not let go, this is exactly the kind of book children will go through on their own, over and over again. Let’s just hope that their parents trust them enough to do so.
Did I ever tell you the Cossack story of how the Cat and the Fox teamed up to get themselves a fine meal? Or the tale of the Rat, Crab, and Octopus from the islands of Micronesia? How about the time the Tibetan frog escaped a crow’s beak through trickery? In this collection of tales tricksters are clever and sly so as to meet their own ends. Sometimes their motivations are based entirely on self-preservation, but often they prove to simply get what they want through coercion and sly intelligence. Twenty-one tales from all around the globe explain at least one thing. When it comes to human storytelling, we’ve an unaccountable love of tricking others and of being tricked.
The trickster tales appeal to us perhaps because the trickster is subject to all the moral frailties of a human without being resigned to a human shape. In their Introduction the Matthews describe it this way, "Whatever its size, each trickster animal draws upon its own intelligence, abilities, and cunning resilience to bluff, cheat, dodge, or decoy – and so to escape from present danger and gain its freedom. Whether you are a clever fox or an underdog, these tales show you how to value life’s gifts to the fullest." Which is not to say that all the tricksters in this collection are heroes. Many act in a manner that could be considered abhorrent or immoral. "Lion and Unicorn" for example describes a story where a lion acts weak in front of his enemy to gain his pity and, ultimately, to use that quality against him. "Partners" from the Finnish contains a particularly self-centered fox. And "The Coldest Night" does not even read like a trickster tale for most of the story, until you reach the end and realize that the trickster character has been playing on the protagonist’s weaknesses all along.
Like other trickster collections this book takes a sampling of tales from all around the globe. To explain where each has come from every story is preceded by a line like, "This is a story about getting even, from the Uintah Ute people of North America." Unfortunately the book is utterly bereft of backmatter. Did John and Caitlin pluck these tales from thin air or did they have sources? The world may never know. I for one would have appreciated getting a sense of how the authors did their research but even their brief bio on the bookflap remains mum on the subject.
You can get a lot of trickster collections out there, so what sets this collection apart from the others? Two words: Tomislav Tomic. This Croatian artist (one site calls him, "a traditional drawing based illustrator") has an ability to balance beauty with just the right kind of playful spirit. His pen-and-inks invoke fur. Fur can be hard. Don’t knock fur. And between his textures, expressions, personalities, and landscapes Mr. Tomic is so clearly an artist to watch. His style also happens to suit this kind of book particularly well.
Another note on the illustrations. There’s detail and then there’s detail. I’m not sure who made the executive decision to make "How Ananse Stole All the Stories" the last tale in this collection, but as a way of rounding out the collection it makes perfect sense. I get the feeling Tomic was also aware of where this tale would be placed, particularly when I look at the large picture that accompanies the first page of the tale. There sits the Sky God and behind him is a web of all the world’s stories. If you didn’t look very closely they might resemble just a random series of images, but on closer inspection it is evident that the tales we have already read have been woven into the fabric of this web. There to the Sky God’s right is the raven holding the crayfish in its mouth mere moments before being tricked into opening its beak. There too is Goll the half blind Salmon of Assaroe from the tale "The Coldest Night". And there are some creatures that will appear in Ananse’s own tale like Onini the Python and Mmoatia the Tree Spirit. And so it is that Tomic wraps his stories up together with a single image, just as the Matthews tie together their stories with a tale.
In a strange way, these trickster tales would pair beautifully in a children’s literary graduate course with the collection of young adult short stories about tricksters called The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales. In this book you find stories appropriate for kids. In the other, the tricksters grow up. So if you should find that your library, be it personal or public, is lacking in the trickster category, or even simply in need of an update, then Trick of the Tale proves to be your remedy, exactly. Just make sure you don’t worry about the children and their gummy digits. A book this pretty is bound to be well loved anyway. Enjoy it as it stands.
On shelves now.