Author: Manasi Subramaniam
Illustrated by Culpeo S. Fox
Ages: 6 +
You have to stop and take notice when Kirkus Reviews dubs a picture book ‘Aesop noir’ . Really now, Aesop’s fables ? Those pithy, cheery yarns featuring talking animals and unambiguous moral lessons, told and retold so often in every language under the sun, as to be instantly recognizable across the world at mere mention? What could possibly be ‘noir’ about vain crows and feisty mice, and foxes with an inexplicable craving for grapes?
Well, one look at The Fox and the Crow, Karadi Tales’ gorgeous new addition to the dense forest that is Aesop retold, is all it takes to answer your questions. It is dark, brooding and breathtakingly beautiful , and toys inventively with the original narrative. It plays with picture book convention as well, switching from portrait to landscape formats at will, now zooming in for loving close ups of its two protagonists, now swooping out to show us the story from the viewpoint of a silent feathered observer. It also adds a subtle feminist flourish to Aesop’s original – the fox here is a vixen.
This is a book that places its art firmly at centre – Manasi Subramaniam’s tightly worded narrative seems happy playing second fiddle to Culpeo S. Fox’s luscious water colour spreads (though I can see a few parental feathers ruffling over words like ‘temptress’) . The text is pared down to the barest minimum; sometimes no more than a single word a spread. And yet, each time I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking this should have been a wordless book a la the gorgeous “The Lion and the Mouse”, by Jerry Pinkney .
If you were intrigued by the coincidence – a fox drawn by a Fox – you are not alone. Culpeo S. Fox is the pseudonym of a German artist (also known as Raven S. Fox) , whose fascination with foxes makes them a recurring subject in her art. ( Incidentally, the culpeo fox isn’t really a fox at all, but a species of wild dog found in South America. It does, however, share many similarities with the red fox, the species depicted in this book. Just saying.)
Something about the book - all that velvety ‘noir’ness, the greedy gleam in Mr. Crow’s eyes, the cadence of the text - had me expecting a different ending to the one Aesop bestowed on it. And let’s face it, wouldn’t you like a version where cunning ISN’T rewarded, and the foolish get a chance to redeem themselves without going hungry? Sadly, no surprises here – the ending stays the same, though without any moralizing. I also wished there were more pages – but Culpeo Fox’s art being what it is, I’d probably say that even if this were a 500-page tome.
An electronic version of this book was sent to me by the publisher for review; all views expressed, however, are my own.