These Books Deliver Fables to Live By Today

Fables give us archetypes to live by in nutshell form. Need a reason to press on against overwhelming odds? Just see how persistence paid off for Aesop’s slow but steady tortoise. Feeling a tad smug? Consider the comeuppance that awaited that same fable’s haughty hare. While Aesop did not work his magic expressly with young audiences in mind, the pithy, visually arresting narrative mode he left his indelible mark on has proved a good match for the children’s picture book, a genre that likewise thrives on brevity and the wish to reveal the essences of things in their clearest possible form.

Oliver Jeffers does a fine job of filling the ancient taleteller’s big sandals in THE FATE OF FAUSTO: A Painted Fable (Philomel, 96 pp., $24.99; ages 4 to 8). As the title suggests, Jeffers has drawn inspiration as well from the German Faust legend, in which a quintessentially arrogant man sells his soul to the Devil’s emissary in return for the chance to realize his wildest dreams. In Jeffers’s pared-down version, Mephistopheles has been dropped from the cast and only monomaniacal Fausto remains, depicted here as a well-dressed older gent who bestrides a world he sees as basically a nonstop series of occasions for personal conquest.

It is never enough for this man to savor the scent of a flower or the graceful bend of a tree, or to take in the majesty of a mountain. A field, a forest, a lake: Fausto must own them all. With each turn of the page, and with echoes too perhaps of the Grimm tale “The Fisherman’s Wife” and Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” the breathtaking scope of his rapaciousness ticks up another notch. In fables, archetypes point to inevitable consequences. We soon understand that Fausto is in for a great fall and find ourselves rooting for it.

Jeffers paints Fausto and the objects of his desire with the nonchalant finesse he is known for and in the richly saturated colors he generally favors. More surprising is the decision to let blank space predominate on nearly every page, a strategy that symbolically isolates Fausto within his world and makes visible the emptiness of his relationship to it. The narrative is spare and firmly voiced and, as is customary in fables, Jeffers delivers swift justice in a few concluding words that make for an ending that satisfies for being both fair-minded and irrevocable.

Archetypes clarify while stereotypes diminish, often in hurtful ways. The title character of MEPHISTO (Minedition, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 5 to 7), written by the French writer and film director Bernard Villiot and illustrated by Antoine Guilloppé, is a black cat who has suffered grievously from the superstition-induced fears of others. In contrast to the emblematic cutout characters of fables, flesh-and-blood Mephisto cannot stop talking. If Edgar Allan Poe had taken time out from inventing Gothic horror fiction and the detective story to write a book suited for precocious 5-year-olds, the result might well have sounded a lot like this deliciously strange and lugubrious monologue.

The defiant cat starts by detailing his ostracism at the hands of the city folk who recoiled from him as a bad omen. He soliloquizes: “As far as people were concerned I was worthless. … You might say that I was free. But what good is that if nobody wants you?” He then recounts his time in self-imposed exile on a sort of quest of self-discovery. Finally, he describes his triumphant return to the city, having found renewed strength while away and resolved to reclaim his old home, to have “neither a master nor a castle,” and to “meow and purr when I want.”

Placed beside “Mephisto,” Judith Viorst’s classic child-centered picture book about ostracism, irritability and anger, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” would suddenly seem a bit tame. But are the more extreme emotional gyrations of “Mephisto” really for children? Not for all, certainly; but feeling misunderstood is a common childhood predicament, and those who feel it most acutely have a new kindred spirit to consult in Villiot’s uncompromising cat. Guilloppé sets the stage for the encounter in intriguing black-and-white shadow-play scenes — a kinetic mix of silhouettes and perspective drawings — that read like puzzle pictures of a world where tangled emotions can sometimes be the biggest puzzle of all.

Traditional origin tales probe at essences by attempting to explain how familiar phenomena came to be: why seawater is salty, why mosquitoes buzz in our ears. But do such stories really tell us all we need to know? THE PLAYGROUNDS OF BABEL (Groundwood, 32 pp., $18.98; ages 5 to 9), written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Piet Grobler, treats a famous example of the genre — the biblical story about the tower whose destruction signaled the start of much confusion in the world — as a work in progress that has landed in the hands of two inquisitive young children.

While playing outdoors, the boys overhear a woman speaking in a language that is foreign to one of them. When the uncomprehending child expresses bewilderment, his friend, a natural storyteller, explains by launching into a cockeyed account of the Tower of Babel fiasco and its aftermath. Hold on though! If that old story is true, how can it also be that the two boys are able to converse with each other now? With the storyteller-friend taking the lead, the children proceed to hammer out an ingenious Babel sequel that makes sense to them both.

In Grobler’s sketchbook-style mixed-media collage/drawings, the boys debate questions of language, foreignness and the need for human connection in speech balloons placed against the backdrop of a modern-day Babel of smudgy, overcast industrial blacks and grays. Offsetting this grimness are the boys’ spirited speculations, which Grobler represents in childlike full-color drawings that he casually integrates within each scene to show that the two friends’ ideas have already begun to enrich their reality. This absorbing picture book confirms the wisdom of Italo Calvino’s belief in the living nature of the stories that have come down to us: “The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.”

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