Tales from a Tall Forest (Shaun Micallef, illus by Jonathan Bentley, Hardie Grant Egmont)
Shaun Micallef’s first book for children takes a large dose of fairytale ingredients, flavours them with a dash of nursery rhyme and a pinch of Greek mythology, and bakes them into an odd but vaguely familiar cake, iced with fittingly dark and fantastical images from author-illustrator Jonathan Bentley. From ‘Once upon a time’ to an almost-traditional ending, Micallef amasses wicked royalty, enterprising peasants, goblins, dwarves, talking animals and more, tangling together countless well-known narratives with new and often funny outcomes. He abandons traditional fairytale moralising while retaining grisly elements and a sense of the storyteller addressing the reader. The result is an entertaining kingdom and surrounding forest peopled with amusing but not-terribly-nice individuals. While the stories are simple, language and vocabulary are often complex, and confident readers in middle to upper primary will enjoy the sneaky means of achieving hearts’ desires, as well as the fairly random downfall of ‘evil’ (and sometimes good) characters. As an adult reader though, I have mixed feelings about the light-hearted absence of direct consequences. The humour is suitably silly for the age group, yet rather restrained; it’s not Micallef’s adult absurdism. Bentley’s twisting, dancing, expressive and detailed black-and-white illustrations with red highlights capture the tone very well, blending the ridiculous with genuinely creepy undertones of the genre.
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg is an editor, writer and bookseller at the Hobart Bookshop