I bought this beautiful book as a birthday gift for my daughter, but in reality, it was as much for me as it was for her.
I regret that only one book survived my childhood. I don’t know what happened to the others. Or whether in fact I had any, other than library books. The one book that did survive is a fairy tale book – Dean’s Gift Book of Fairy Tales. A beautifully illustrated, non-Disney collection of stories that I read over and over as a child, delighting in the colourful pictures. If only one book from my own daughter’s childhood was to survive, Vasilisa The Wise And Other Tales of Brave Young Women would have to be it.
Vasilisa The Wise is a stunningly illustrated book, written for girls who are on the cusp of womanhood. It is a retelling of lost fairy tales, where the stakes are high, and the girl is always the hero. Faeries in this book are revengeful, powerful, nasty creatures. The stories are dark, as fairy tales were originally intended to be, and in each one, a brave young girl outwits the dark forces with intelligence, determination, and kindness. She is the one who saves the prince, or a best friend, or family member, and you can’t help but feel that if these girls were running the world, we would have nothing to fear.
The author, Kate Forsyth, is a renowned storyteller. Her novels for adults are widely acclaimed and heavily researched, yet the historical details that convincingly plant the reader in another world are so cleverly woven into the story, you don’t notice they’re there. I loved her novel Bitter Greens, which retells the story of Rapunzel. I can’t wait until my daughter is old enough to read this version, having grown up in the era of Disney’s Tangled.
My daughter has always preferred books with a strong visual component. I have fond memories of her all-time favourite, The Little Princess by Tony Ross. It reigned supreme in our house for years. The Little Princess had attitude, and was franchised into a tv series which saved my sanity in those early years. As you can see from the picture below, The Little Princess inspired my daughter’s very first book week costume. With book week coming to an end for her this year (it’s high school next year), I’m hoping she’ll invent a costume inspired by Vasilisa The Wise for her last hurrah.
One of my favourite things about Vasilisa The Wise are the exquisite illustrations by Lorena Carrington. They are made from many separate photographs, montaged together to create each final image. Some of them contain over 70 individual photographs. The young women in the photographs are the illustrator’s and author’s daughters – something which, as a mother, makes my heart melt. The illustrations lend an other-wordly, whimsical and captivating feel to the book – it would not be complete without them. After each story, Lorena tells how she created the images for that particular tale, and if you’re interested, you can read more about Lorena’s process here.
There are seven separate fairytales in the book (Kate believes that seven is mystical, magical fairy number), and each is short enough to be read in its entirety in one sitting – perfect for bed time. The stories are lyrically written, with a touch of rhyme and repetition in chants and spells, and sound lovely read out loud. I was lucky to hear Kate recite the story of The Singing, Springing Lark at the Perth Writers’ Festival, and I have to say, she is a very talented oral storyteller.
In her foreword for the book, Kate Forsyth writes:
For many young women, the only fairy tales they know are the ones that have been retold by Walt Disney Studios. Singing teapots, dancing mice and heroines with wasp-thin waists and sweet voices abound. And if they have encountered other fairy tales apart from the Disney collection, they are almost certainly stories that have been told by men. Charles Perrault. The Brothers Grimm. Hans Christian Anderson. The result has been that many wonderful old tales have been drained of their feminine power.
Against a backdrop of dark forests, ogres and faeries, witches and wizards, and kingdoms and castles, Kate and Lorena give young girls back their power, inspiring wonder and imagination in the next generation of women.
Vasilisa The Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women is a truly beautiful book, and a clever collaboration between two very talented artists. It was released in December 2017, and is published by boutique publisher, Serenity Press. I bought my own copy at the Perth Writers’ Festival, where it sold out – but you can purchase a copy from the publisher through this link.