A demon short on devil-may-care attitude, two lovesick shoes and an over-ambitious potato that dreams of becoming a French fry…
These are just some of the wickedly eccentric fairy tales which have been winning the hearts and imaginations of French children (and their parents) for over 45 years, and are now set to work their magic on a new generation of English-speaking youngsters.
Funny, farcical and charmingly Gallic, they are the work of the late French-Greek author Pierre Gripari who was one of the most successful writers for children in 20th century France and is still a firm favourite among the country’s current crop of seven to 10-year-olds.
But Gripari, who died in 1990 aged 65, was not a uniquely French phenomenon with his book of fairy tales translated into 17 other languages, including Mandarin Chinese, and now English, courtesy of publishers Pushkin Press and a wonderfully sympathetic translation by Sophie Lewis.
Pushkin Press was founded in 1997 and specialises in European works including novels, essays, memoirs, children’s books and everything from well-loved classics to the strikingly contemporary.
Gripari, or Monsieur Pierre as he called himself, was a colourful character whose enchanting stories were born from weekly story-telling sessions with a group of children at a boulevard café near his Paris home.
When Monsieur Pierre ran out of the traditional stories he had grown up with, he and the children made up some brand-new ones, many of them surprisingly poetic, dramatic and bold, and starring everything from giants and witches to mermaids, barbarians, frogs and that ‘hard-boiled’ potato.
These witty, essentially gentle and reassuring stories all feature adventures entirely lacking in cruelty. Kindness to others is always the prime value which will get you out of trouble, with the good rewarded and the evil punished.
The Good Little Devil and Other Tales, which are brought to life by the playful, charismatic illustrations of Puig Rosado, are essentially absurd fairy tales… but all very sensibly told.
Take that good little devil… instead of doing bad things like playing tricks on his teachers, he keeps trying to be good. He does all his homework and, amazingly, he sometimes enjoys it! He is never rude and he even encourages sinners to say sorry.
His parents are at their wits’ end so the little devil strikes out on his own and on his quest to learn to be good, he meets all kinds of people, from priests to police and from the Pope in Rome to Little Jesus himself. But will the angels let a red devil with black horns into Heaven?
Elsewhere in this collection of thirteen stories, a naughty little pig swallows the North Star, a man battles a hairy frog, a fairy who lives in a tap hands out some venomous gifts and a headstrong prince falls madly in love with a mermaid.
The theme throughout is the clever and constructive ways in which young people overcome greedy kings, wicked witches, unlucky spells and even silly names. And, of course, there is a big dash of magic to help them on their way.
A timeless collection of fun and funky stories for children in every corner of the world…
(Pushkin Children’s Books, hardback, £14.99)