Reading Rapunzel

RapunzelToday I’m going to demonstrate a close reading of one version of a classic fairy tale. My favorite book to use in demonstrating the illustrative power of a picture book is the Caldecott-award winning Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky. I wish I could include some images in this post to show all our dear readers specific examples of the marvelous detail, expressions and color choices that Mr. Zelinsky uses so powerfully in interpreting the story, but I don’t want to risk copyright infringement.

Tell you what, I’ll go brew a cup of tea while you go to the bookshelf, library or bookstore and pick up a copy so you can pore over the pictures yourself (better yet, share them snuggling on the couch) and I’ll be here waiting when you get back. Okay? (You can also support our site by ordering through Amazon below and return to this post when it arrives.) This book is worth holding in your hands again and again!

All right, I have a lovely cup of tea beside me. Got the book? Ready? Good.

This book exemplifies how an ordinary fairy tale can be beautifully well done. I love the Renaissance style of the artwork: rustic Italian countryside setting, peacocks, arched windows, finely colored oil paintings with rich details. Zelinsky’s composition includes things like still-life arrangements, architecture, sculpture, period fabrics and jewelry. His characters show genuine emotion as if they are on stage. (Have I mentioned that this book is extraordinary?!)

On the first page we find a portrait of a couple who are expecting their first child. The pregnant wife has a craving for the rapunzel (also called rampion, which for research purposes Zelinsky planted and ate in salads), that grows in the garden next door. Unfortunately, her neighbor is a sorceress, and doesn’t have a booth at the farmer’s market. Reluctantly, her husband climbs over the wall in order to gratify his wife’s desire.

(Note the color of the rapunzel flowers and how the color is used throughout the book.)

When the wife’s craving returns, her husband again risks his life. This time his theft is discovered by the sorceress, whose cape billows dramatically above him. She has mercy on him only after he promises that he will give her the child that is to be born.

Here is where Zelinsky’s interpretation of the story takes a turn, in a wordless two-page spread.

Turn the page. The wife has given birth, the husband is with her, and the sorceress carries away the baby with an unexpectedly tender expression on her face.

What? Can a sorceress show maternal affection? What kind of mother is she? There is actually no evidence of magic in the story. The reader’s assumptions are challenged, and hasty judgment towards a neighbor might be reconsidered.

On the next page, the sorceress embroiders while affectionately watching her adopted daughter dance happily. Note Rapunzel’s purple dresses (the color of the rapunzel flowers) and the kitten growing into a cat as the girl matures. We are not told why the sorceress takes Rapunzel to the tower, but the lovely maiden waits there until she is discovered by the Prince who arrives on a white charger.

Skipping ahead a few pages (because most of our readers don’t really want to read a thesis), I must not fail to mention that in this version, the Prince and Rapunzel hold a private marriage ceremony in the tower, sanctifying Rapunzel’s next problem of her own expanding waistline. The sorceress, discovering that her intentions have failed, looks so devastated that any parent could sympathize.

Rapunzel and her prince both suffer. She is exiled to the wilderness, where she gives birth to twins. The prince is blinded in his fall from the tower, and wanders in the wilderness seeking his beloved. Highly redemptive theme as they are finally reunited as a family.

“The prince led his family out of the wilderness toward his kingdom, where they were received with great joy.” Is this not the theme of Revelation?!

There is one more lovely renaissance-style family portrait on the last page, a masterpiece, in which they are living happily ever after.

What do you think? Have you read this book and enjoyed the pictures? What other books can you think of that benefit from closer reading, studying the illustrations, and finding new interpretations of a favorite story?

For another great example of closely reading a picture book, see Betsy’s post on Tony Buzzeo’s Caldecott honor winning book, One Cool Friend.

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One Response to Reading Rapunzel

  1. Betsy November 21, 2013 at 7:58 am #

    Beautifully written, Megan! I loved reading your reading of this favorite of ours. A fun contrast to Zelinsky’s gorgeous fairy tale retellings are James Marshall’s. His are fun to read closely for humor and the little Texas details he manages to sneak in now and then (since he’s from Texas).

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