Saturday, January 23, 2010

THISTLE by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Thistle is a 1983 children’s novel by Walter Wangerin, Jr. I am reviewing the original version, which features illustrations by Marcia Sewall (the 1995 version, which is easier to find, has illustrations by Bryna Waldman). Here, Thistle, the youngest and plainest of her family, must somehow save them all from a ravenous potato monster.

Wangerin has created a very competent fairy tale here. Thistle prominently features the age-old fairy tale meme of repetition that we’re all familiar with from stories like “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” Wangerin has a somewhat lyrical, vaguely poetic writing style, and it serves him well here. The story, structured as it is, isn’t going to keep anybody guessing, but it’s well told, and it’s intense enough (that is, enough people get eaten) that small children may find it a little scary.

Sewall’s simple, folksy, sometimes angular pencil sketches create a fitting ambience for the book. Her attention to body language and facial expression is impressive. In my mind, her illustrations are superior to Waldman’s new version, where everyone looks like tree elves.

Wangerin is known as a Christian author, and Thistle certainly isn’t short on positive morals: it doesn’t matter how you look, it doesn’t matter if you’re prone to crying, and in the end, what matters most is how much you love.

Thistle’s never going to be enshrined in the fairy tale pantheon, but it is a quality positive children’s book.