Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 29 Oct 2015

Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

It is a very long time since I read this story, originally told by Hans Christian Anderson and I had forgotten its overall strangeness and cruelty. I remain haunted by the mysterious wild female hare creature who first entrances the widowed King and soon becomes his new wife. She then bewitches his sons by turning them into swans and later punishes his beautiful daughter, Eliza, by making her appear to be monstrous to her father so that he rejects her totally. Before this, the heartbroken lonely princess, always accompanied by her loyal dog Shadow, tries to find a way to undo the swanlike transformation of her brothers by consulting with Morgana, Queen of the Faery Folk. In true fairy tale tradition, she is presented with the ghastly task of knitting eleven magical jerkins from twine gathered from nettles that she has trampled with her bare feet. She is also forbidden to utter any sound during the time it takes to complete the onerous task as otherwise her brothers will die. As an accomplished knitter herself, Jackie Morris draws wonderfully detailed pictures including this delicate garment.


The rationale for the King choosing to hide his eleven sons and daughter with servants deep in the forest away from his new Queen remains puzzling, but then I suppose that this is what happens in fairy tale convention. Morris is a meticulous storyteller who uses words and pictures in her dark interpretation of this traditional story like a spell - it is impossible to read her books quickly because you have to stop and marvel at every stage. I hadn't fully appreciated how the finely crafted words are as important as the illustrations in her work.


This is a beautiful book like all the others before it because of this exquisite balance. It is paired with her previous book: East of the Sun, West of the Moon. The gorgeous gold details, the sumptuous colours of the pre Raphaelite princess are delightful to the eye. The careful fine drawing and colouring of the various woodland animals with attention to detail in their natural landscapes reveal her well known love of nature. She has clearly closely studied her subjects in a Beatrix Potter like way but then added richness and decorative style as another distinctive layer. 


The illustrations vary from delicate details inset into the written text to full double page fresco style spreads that deserve full attention to appreciate the craftsmanship. I also love the relatively small size and squarish shape of the book - it is very aesthetically pleasing to hold and to read.


Karen Argent

27th October 2015