When I was a kid I was given by some unknown relative an anthology of folk tales from the 1960’s. I don’t remember if they were from any specific culture, or even which tales were included, but I’ve always remembered the illustrations. They were awash in earth-tones, with grotesque-cute characters and villains that were on the legitimately scary side. The moral lessons therein had terrible consequences, not the slaps on the wrist so common in the Disney-fied landscape of modern fairy tales. I’ve searched for similar books in used book stores for years, but have not managed to track down any that are quite right…
Yesterday I received a book in the mail, and when I opened the envelope I was brought back, finally.
Here were the earth-tones. Here were the adorably awful characters and the frightening bad guys. Here were the moral lessons that carry with them real consequences for the characters.
Briony May Smith’s Imelda and the Goblin King is a brilliant evocation of the golden age of the folk tale, somewhere between the gruesome stories dreamed up by The Brothers Grimm, and the saccharine nonsense peddled dressed in glitter-specked book jackets today. (But certainly owing more to the Grimm tradition.)
Imelda, a human girl, lives alongside a forest populated by fairies, with whom she has a close bond. One day the forest is taken over by a goblin, who appoints himself the King of the Forest; The Fairy Queen, not able to understand one so angry, posits that, should they lay before him a feast of great lavishness, he might lighten up and treat them with kindness. Of course, he does not; he proves himself selfish and mean, and locks up The Fairy Queen. Imelda comes up with a plan to test The Goblin King, which will either free him from himself or do away with him for good.
There is nothing about this book I dislike. It’s a simple story, very well told, with illustrations that match the content perfectly and also capture the spirit of those books I remember from my childhood. (This book even smells like those.) There is great humour in both the text and the pictures, and the lesson is clear without being heavy-handed.
Smith packs so much wonerful detail into every spread, it’s almost overwhelming. Hours could be spend poring over each page, examining every fairy and creature. Indeed, my daughter and I spend a good amount of time choosing our favorite characters on each page, and then our favorite for the whole book. (We agreed on the fairy riding the rabbit…)
Flying Eye Books, increasingly one of the finest purveyors of children’s books of the planet, is the perfect publisher for a book such as this. They have shown time and again that they understand that the form of the book must work in conjunction with the content, and here they nail that marriage. Even the end papers are gourgeous. Perfection.
Briony May Smith is a major talent, and Imelda and the Goblin King is a clear statement of intent from an author-illustrator from whom I eagerly await more.
A serious contender for Best Book of the Year.
Kinderlit requested and received a copy of Imelda and the Goblin King in exchange for an honest review. Read about our Review Policy HERE.