The five stars are for the artwork. Ms. Craft's work is brilliant and, as always, I find no fault with it. The style in this book reminds me of flemish tapestries, though some paintings seem to have a very strong Renaissance feel to them. Also noteworthy are the illuminated letters that introduce each page of text. They rival those of Medieval times. They employ a labyrinthine quality and I enjoyed gazing on these letters repeatedly, as I did the large paintings.
In addition to technical achievement with her lush details, Ms. Craft demonstrates a strong ability to tell a story with pictures in this volume. I very much admire this aspect to her work and I think she uses extraneous details wisely. Ms. Craft's details always enhance the narrative. They add something without giving the sense of simply being tacked into the works. For example, a mermaid child on the fountain goes through the enchantment with Beauty and leaves a little something to wonder about. This character is shown on a fountain in a painting in the opening where Beauty is playing a 12-stringed instrument. You wonder if the child is real or a statue. Later, you can the watery little thing sleeping peacefully inside the fountain when the prince arrives. I found this element to add a bit of mystery and a sense of old fashioned enchantment that has ancient, classical roots.
Another character that lives in the paintings is the German Shepard Dog that you can see clearly sleeping at Beauty's side by her bed. He's introduced earlier, at the side of the fairy, when she flies in with her dragons. There, he's hardly noticeable, but evidently, this handsome dog is left behind to guard the princess. He's even seen in the last full page painting, adding a symbolic element of domesticity and safety, as he sits there and calmly gazes at the reader from his corner. I found him charmingly reminiscent of flemish Renaissance paintings.
I think that Mahlon Craft tried to do the same thing with his ancient frog. This frog swims with Beauty's mother, and to repay her for her songs, he fortells the birth of Beauty. I think I missed the frog's real meaning, if there was one. I found him distracting, creating a slow start for the book. The frog only seemed to be added in for the sake of stretching Mr. Kinuko's narrative, of giving the reader the prophecy in the space of a page, not a paragraph.
Another strange element that didn't seem to mesh tightly into the rest of Mr. Craft's narrative was the negligence of Beauty's parents on her 16th birthday. They leave her alone as they've gone out to buy her a very special gift. How does that make any sense? They are characterized as having feelings for their daughter and they had been warned that she would be afflicted on this day. How could they have been so callous to have left her? They learned their lesson about ignoring the 13th fairy right away, you'd think that they would take these things more seriously! This is the one place in Mahlon's story that I thought showed a weakness and could have been more thoroughly developed.
I have read published reviews of other collaborations done by the Crafts in which Mahlon Craft's writing was characterized as a bit bland and not matching his wife's work for artistic merit. I have agreed at least in part with that assesment until I collected this latest book and got past the strange, bumpy opening. In all fairness, I think that Mahlon's star is rising with the remainder of this text. The strange little frog and the neglect of the King and Queen aside, Mr. Craft creates a lovely narrative that sounds elegant when read aloud. His use of language is soft, gentle and evocative, at times an almost perfect match for the sleepy tapestry of paintings Ms. Craft provides.
I was most pleased with how Mr. Craft's story is a love story, and most of the versions of Sleeping Beauty that I have encountered don't exercise this emotion in the narrative. The other stories seem to focus almost exclusively on magic and retribution- the prince is merely an agent of change and offers little else to the narrative. In this book, however, there is an element of love that gives the story much of its meaning.
Only one prince, her soul mate, could awaken Beauty, for example. He isn't some fellow who comes along at the right time, he's special! His special quality is why he gets through the brambles: the other princes only "disappear" (and don't die in vain, as they do in other stories.) The value of being true to your heart, of waiting as long as necessary to choose the right love to live your life with is strongly affirmed. Mahlon's Beauty gazes on her prince with "tender glances" and informs him that, "These many long years only you have filled my dreams, for none other could awaken me from my spell. Now in love's sweet name at last our hearts will together be eternally bound."
This is sweet stuff, more poetic than others of Mr. Craft's I think, and where his cleverness shines most brightly.
In sum, I see two stories being told. One is in paint. It is enchanting, the brainchild of a true master who excels at her craft. The other story is told in the text. It is not bad, by any means, and is fairly pretty. It sounds pretty and makes sense most of the way through. It is the work of someone who has gotten better but is still outshone by others in his field and by the glorious paintings that they seem to have been written to support but not equal in beauty. A truly extraordinary book would be the one where the text matches the paintings, but with Kinuko Craft this may be too great a challenge for the children's book industry's wordsmiths. In my opinion, few modern works ever come close to happy marriage of beautiful text and beautiful pictures, as we see in the example of past masters, such as Howard Pyle. I do hope the Crafts keep up the effort- we are in need of some new timeless classics for this generation of readers and readers in the future.