Fuse #8

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Review of the Day: Carmine

I tried to check this blog on my husband's Mac yesterday and found that none of my newer posts showed up. I'm not certain if anyone else is having this difficulty. If so, I apologize. In any case, here is the promised daily review:

Little Red Riding Hood. There is probably more psychological baggage and scintillating undertones associated with this little tale than any other story in the Grimm repertoire. Accordingly, with every year more and more alternate versions and retellings hit the market full force. From James Marshall's classic version to Ed Young's stylized Chinese retelling ("Lon Po Po", in case you're interested), there are more little girls in red hoods out there than you can shake a fist at. "Carmine" is one of the most recent additions to the fold, and it makes for a lovely little read. Bringing together such disparate elements as the alphabet, gradations in color, a heightened sense of tension, and even a recipe at its conclusion, "Carmine" is not the most accessible of Little Red tales out there, but it's certainly one of the most pleasant to thumb through. You're not going to get the straight dope on Little Red with this version, but for the modern kid Sweet's interpretation of the events involving one girl in a hood, one granny, and one wolf makes for a perfectly nice and perfectly new story of its own.

Each plot twist in this book begins with a letter of the alphabet. So the first step in the story comes with the word "Alphabet". Carmine loved going over to her granny's for a little alphabet soup. "Beware". There was a wolf about and Carmine was warned to go straight to granny's and not to dilly-dally. Unfortunately, Carmine is a world class dilly-dallier. There are few dallys she hasn't dillied (or, alternately, dillies she hasn't dallied). Since Carmine is a fan of painting she spots some poppies on her route and decides that granny deserves a picture of them. "It may seem farfetched to think that any painting can be improved by adding a little more red, but Carmine believes it to be true". Unfortunately, the wolf is most certainly about. After a quick conversation with Carmine's terror stricken dog, it heads straight for granny's and catches her unawares. Fortunately for everyone involved, the soup bones by granny's pot strike the carnivore as more enticing than her old creaky ones. Carmine learns her lesson, granny loves her painting, and a fine bowls of alphabet soup are had by all.

The essential conceit of beginning each new thought with a letter of the alphabet is all well and good but there isn't much rhyme or reason to Sweet's choices. All the same, I was a little amazed at how effectively the author cranks up the suspense when the wolf has visited granny and her cry for help has been foreshortened. Adults familiar with the original granny-in-the-belly-of-the-beast versions of this tale will be as relieved as their offspring to learn of her safety. The story itself does, I should add, make the reader think for a moment that the wolf has returned home to its young with its arms full of granny's bones. But however bleak that image, it is quickly remedied by a simple extraction of the old lady from her own closet.

Prior to reading "Carmine", my only other association with Melissa Sweet came with her lovely illustration work done on Catherine Thimmesh's fabulous, "The Sky's the Limit". In that book Sweet conjured up a very satisfying selection of mixed media. "Carmine", similarly, draws upon a variety of different elements. Open the book up and immediately the first thing you see is a collection of color swatches. Each shade of red is spelled out with alphabet soup letters and they have everything from Sienna and Vermillion to Crimson and Magenta. The rest of the book is a combination of cartoon and illustration. Sweet makes continual oblique references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes throughout the story too. For example, the wolf creeps by Little Boy Blue asleep on a haystack and The Three Little Pigs make a brief appearance in a small cartoon panel. What could have come across as haphazard or messy in the hands of another artist merely takes on a rather vibrant and exciting feel under Sweet's direction.

The version of this story that "Carmine" seems the closest to (at least in spirit) would probably be Lisa Campbell Ernst's, "Little Red Riding Hood: A Newfangled Prairie Tale". Both books feature the heroine on a bike on the cover. Both are updated retellings and both end happily for the wolves involved. Both even have recipes for the foods mentioned (muffins in Ernst's, alphabet soup in Sweet's). But while "Carmine" is a far more stylized retelling with a very real sense of tension to it, Ernst's tale makes for a much better readaloud, especially when you take into consideration its homey southern drawl. All the same, "Carmine: A Little More Red" is a lovely modern take on a old story and one that I'm sure many a child (particularly those enamored of the many shades of rouge) will find themselves enjoying.


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