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Review of the Day: Robin Hood by David Calcutt

Robin Hood
By David Calcutt
Illustrated by Grahame Baker-Smith
Barefoot Books
ISBN 978-1-84686-799-6
Ages 6 and up
On shelves October 1st

Robin Hood has, for years now, been the bane of my existence. And yes, I’m well aware that this statement makes me sound like nothing so much as the Sheriff of Nottingham. That doesn’t make it any less true. There I’d be, sitting merrily at my reference desk in the children’s room of the library when someone, adult or child, would wander up and ask “Where’s your Robin Hood?”. Then I’d be stuck. Stuck explaining that unless you wanted some long extended version by Howard Pyle you were pretty much up a tree. Robin Hood related picture books, easy readers, or early chapter books are, were, and evermore shall be in short supply. Into this gaping lack comes one of the finest editions ever to grace a library’s shelves. With slam bang writing, all the Robin Hood related hits (The Friar! Maid Marian! Little John!) are included and I think it safe to say that any library or literary collection worth its salt would be well advised to grab this ultimate Robin Hood tome forthwith if not sooner. At long last we’ve a RH we can all enjoy.

You say you think you know the story of Robin Hood? Sure you may have some vague particulars in mind, but sit ye back and hear the tale of a man who fought the odds. Targeted by the Sheriff of Nottingham’s corrupt foresters, the bloke known as Robin Hood quickly became an outlaw, living in the woods, recruiting like-minded fellows to be part of his band. Chapter by chapter we learn of his adventures with Little John, Friar Tuck, Alan-a-Dale, and even Maid Marian. Tales like “Robin and the Widow” and “The Golden Arrow” lead to a climax with the King’s men. Robin and friends escape but “Robin’s Last Battle” shows how the hero of the woodland met his final end. Backmatter includes a note on research and a complete Bibliography with many useful websites.

As I mentioned earlier, for all his cultural cache why is the man in green as elusive in children’s literature as, say, King Arthur (a different rant for a different day)? The trick may lie in the source material. Which is to say, there isn’t any. When parents would ask me for “the original Robin Hood” book for their kids, I am without resources. The closest thing I can come up with would be an edition illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. Part of the problem lies in the story itself. To make an ultimate Robin Hood book you’d have to do a crazy amount of research into old sources. That’s where Calcutt really shines. Explaining that the first Robin Hood ballads weren’t even collected until the 19th century, Calcutt explains in the Research and Bibliography section of the book that his stories come from an amalgamation of several sources. Combining them expertly alongside ballads translated into modern English the final product feels like a Robin Hood designed to please purists and those of us raised on Hollywood’s vision of the man alike.

That’s the upside. There is a downside to faithful renditions, though. After all, it’s not as if the original stories were written or told with young readers in mind. As such there are some distinctly amoral moments here and there in old Robin Hood’s wanderings. The book itself begins with a story called “Robin Hood Becomes an Outlaw” where Robin’s surefire shooting skills systematically pick off and kill a whole slew of men from a tree. Similarly later in the book we learn that the Merry Men are in trouble with the law because they found some dozing members of the king’s guard and kinda sorta slaughtered them in their sleep to get their clothes. There’s something oddly refreshing about a story for kids that isn’t sanitized within an inch of its life, but readers would be well-advised to know beforehand that there’s a fair share of corpses strewn about the pages before you get to the end. I had the distinct impression as I read this book that Calcutt was doing his darndest to play it both ways too. For example, a storyline where Robin and his men decide to rob an abbot on some pretty shaky grounds is quickly justified by going into the abbot’s head and showing that he’s a greedy guts who has it coming. Parents may raise an eyebrow on some of the morality here but kids won’t notice a thing.

Granted the book is not a picture book, so itty bitties trying to get their Robin Hood fixes may be out of luck. On the other hand, it’s not as if this edition lacks for illustrations. Artist Grahame Baker-Smith’s style incorporates a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Says the book, “The artwork was painted in acrylic, painted in watercolor, and drawn in pen and ink, then combined, blended and composed in Photoshop.”. The end result is a book with art on almost every page. It’s full and lush and green with the occasional double page spread for a big scene, like the fight between Robin and Little John. There is a mild CGI flavor to the proceedings but it doesn’t overwhelm the senses.

If it’s any additional incentive, it can’t hurt matters any that the World Wide Robin Hood Society placed their own seal of approval on this book saying, “A twenty-first-century classic where author and artist have woven their individual magic to breathe new life into the popular story of the world’s most famous outlaw.” Interestingly, though the king is mentioned in the book we never hear his name. So while this is undoubtedly the most complete Robin Hood you’ll encounter, there will still be the occasional naysayer. Fortunately for all of us they’ll be few and far between. Calcutt and Baker-Smith have met a need and a gap in library collections nation, nay, worldwide. A lovely object, a rip-roaring adventure tale, and fun to its core. A necessary purchase.

On shelves October 1st.

Source: Advanced readers galley sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus.

Misc: Get a glimpse behind-the-scenes into the book and the art with this Barefoot Books blog post.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.