Jim Henson’s The Storyteller

Storyteller_HC_Cover__41547.1319472071.1280.1280Like the illustrated prose book of the same title published in 1991 and written by Anthony Minghella, author of the nine episodes of the 1988 television program of the same name, Archaia’s lush anthology, contains nine adaptations of folktales and fables from around the world. And, like the prose collection, one of these stories, “The Witch Baby,” is written by Anthony Minghella, based on an unproduced teleplay for the televised series. In his introduction to the prose collection, Minghella states “I have taken liberties, invented what I have forgotten, and changed what I have remembered. At the same time, I have tried not to impose my own judgement on the material” (vii). This principle holds true for the latest incarnation of the beloved series as well.

This is an attractive package with mottled endpapers — complete with faint dog prints — followed by several introductory pages which place the storyteller in context but also, very successfully, evoke a feeling of timelessness, of nostalgia for listening to stories told by the fire, and the televised recreation of that setting. Nate Cosby has edited the anthology, matching an impressive roster of writers and illustrators to each of the tales. This allows a sense of cohesiveness to the collection while maintaining an aura of individuality and interpretation natural to stories told orally. The contributors are are Roger Langridge and Jordie Bellaire (“Old Nick and the Peddler”), Colleen Coover (“The Milkmaid and Her Pail”), Chris Eliopoulos and Mike Maihack (“An Agreement Between Friends”), Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler (“Old Fire Dragaman”), Marjorie Liu and Jennifer L. Meyer (“Puss in Boots”), Paul Tobin and Evan Shaner (“The Frog Who Became an Emperor”), Katie Cook (“The Crane Wife”), Ron Marz and Craig Rousseau (“Momotaro the Peach Boy”) and Anthony Minghella, Susan Kodieck, and Anne Mountfield. Minghella (“The Witch Baby”). “The Witch Baby” is adapted by Nate Cosby, Roman Cliquet, and Adam Street. Additional illustrations for the book are provided by Patrick Scherberger, Dennis Calero, Mitch Gerads, Janet K. Lee, and David Petersen.

Most of the tales, reflecting the practice established by the television program, are introduced, and told by the storyteller in conversation to his fireside companion, the shaggy dog. The bridge between each of the tales is this setting, encompassing the opening and closing of each one with the storyteller and dog by the fire, all three individualized in each retelling. The majority of the adaptations follow the traditional form of conciseness in folktales without offering much of a back story for the characters or action. In the first story “Old Nick and the Peddler,” for example, the Devil or Old Nick makes reference to previous experiences with the heroine of the tale, Katie Grey, but only those familiar with Swedish tales may recognize the reference to this traditional folkloric witch who, always in human form, embodies malice and cunning so powerful that even the devil fears her. For this reviewer, however, the cartoony illustrative style detracts from the story incorporating the universal motif of the deal with the devil. On the other hand, the second story, “The Milkmaid and her Pail,” extends the traditionally succinct fable, extending the daydreaming with striking pastels. The canine storyteller rationalizes the universal feud between dogs and cats in the next tale, “An Agreement between Friends.” The infamous character of Jack and his numerous tales is introduced in the opening to “Old Fire Dragaman” beside a fire in the woods, rather than at home. Conversational asides by both the storyteller and the dog give the telling a more immediate feel than some of the other adaptations.

The artwork flourishes with colour, action, and personality. A magical and mystical adaptation of “Puss in Boots” is presented in satisfyingly soft swirling images. This is a very appealing rendition of the tale, particularly in light of its rather violent content. ”The Frog who became an Emperor,” is not as successful for me, as the main character does not seem true; the frog is much more brash and demanding than required. The graphics are much more reflective of early American superhero titles than that of the Chinese culture specified in the tale. The colouring of the illustrations in the Japanese tale “The Crane Wife” is much more apt, but too cartoony for the weight of the story. Artistic style and colouring of the second Japanese tale in the collection, “Momotaro the Peach Boy,” is reminiscent of a Japanese scroll, the story is narrated with no panels or speech bubbles outside of the opening and closing dialogues between the book’s storytellers.

“The Witch Baby” is the longest story in the collection and the only one in which the storyteller and the dog are active participants in the action of the story. Utilising tarot cards, the illustrations evoke the sense of despair and horror of this ancient Russian tale. They also suggest that not all folktales end happily ever after, although there is some hope left for the reader at the end.

Background information is given for all of the contributors to the book but unfortunately for practicing storytellers, there are no source notes for the original tales other than a vague reference to the country of origin as part of the individual story titles such as “From a Scandinavian folk tale” (“Old Nick and the Peddler”) and “From a French Fairy Tale” (“Puss in Boots”). To be fair, several references are a bit more helpful: “From an Aesop’s Fable” (“The Milkmaid & Her Pail” and “From an Appalachian Jack Tale” (“Old Fire Dragaman”).

Although the publisher states this is an all ages title, I recommend it for teens rather than children. Teens would have more background to understanding the complexity of the tales and the inherent violence.

Jim Henson’s The Storyteller
by Roger Langridge, Colleen Coover, Chris Eliopoulos, Jeff Parker, Marjorie Lui, Paul Tobin, Katie Cook, Ron Marz, Nate Cosby, Anthony Minghella, Susan Kodieck, Anne Mountfield
Art by Jordie Bellaire, Mike Maihack, Tom Fowler, Jennifer L. Meyer, Evan Shaner, Craig Rousseau, Ronan Cliquet,
ISBN: 9781936393244
Archaia, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: All ages