Welcome to the third post in our mini-series here on Playing by the book – Stories in tune – all about picture books inspired by classical music. This month we listened to Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird.
Stravinsky’s Firebird draws on several Russian folk tales, though there is no single folk tale which exactly mirrors the story told by Stravinsky. One consequence of this is that whilst there are many picture books featuring the firebird from Russian folk tales, the stories told in them are not necessarily identical (or even similar) to that of the ballet. Here is a clear synopsis of the ballet from the Greater Buffalo Youth Ballet, whilst here, at SurLaLune is “the Firebird tale most familiar to most English speakers, Tsarevitch Ivan, the Fire Bird and the Gray Wolf“. M, J and I read a mixture of books closely based on the ballet, and others more loosely based on other Firebird tales.
This retelling of the Firebird story, which closely resembles the version told in the ballet, is beautifully written – it feels like an original story, rather than an adaptation or plot summary. Unfortunately the text is accompanied by only a few illustrations, and whilst these are quite detailed and pretty (indeed Barrett’s illustrations have been described as ‘on the Rackham and Shepard level,’ though I don’t think that comes across so clearly in this volume), both my girls and I wish there had been many more of them. Get hold of this version if you want a great text and a collection of other ballet stories (additionally included in this volume are the tales of Swan Lake, Coppelia, Gisele, Cinderella, La Sylphide, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Petrouchka and The Sleeping Beauty).
This version of the Firebird is again pretty faithful to the version of the original ballet, but the retelling is quite plain, even pedestrian. It feels more like a plot synopsis than an enthralling fairy tale, especially in comparison to the retelling by Geraldine McCaughrean. The illustrations are colourful but not ones that inspired M or me, and again their are only a few scattered through the story (though because the retelling is shorter than in The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet the text to picture ratio is better). The simplicity of this version may make it a better bet for readers slightly younger than those who would most enjoy the richer vocabulary of Geraldine McCaughrean’s retelling, but the paucity of illustrations meant that I found it almost impossible to hold J’s attention whilst reading this story.
This Firebird bears no resemblance whatsoever to the story as told by Stravinsky’s music, nor the version described on SurLaLune, but instead tells the story of Dmitri and the Horse of Power. Having proved his skill and bravery by capturing the firebird for Tsar Ivan, Dmitri is sent on a series of quests all related to the Tsar’s daughter Vassilissa. After several struggles and tests of courage he wins the hand of the princess, and the tsar is vanquished. Despite the title of this book, the firebird barely appears in this story. Nevertheless I’m so glad we discovered this book as the story is full of excitement and the illustrations are sumptuous and stunning. The pictures are full of detailed patterns and the extensive use of red and gold (several pages have an entirely gold background, rather than the usual white) make this book feel very special to hold – indeed like a treasure from a tsar’s palace. Both girls enjoyed listening to this story – the illustrations ensured that J lapped it up as well as her older sister who appreciated the quests within the story much more. The only slightly odd aspect of this book is that to my (admittedly completely untrained eye) the patterns and imagery, whilst utterly beautiful, seemed often to bear more resemblance to Celtic rather than Russian iconography.
As the author and illustrator of this visual feast of a book notes, this version of the firebird story is an adaptation of three different Russian fairy tales, Ivan Tsarevitch and the Gray Wolf, Baba Yaga and Koshchei the immortal, and thus if you want a picture book to tell the story of Stravinsky’s ballet, this is not the book for you. However, when I found a copy I could not resist bringing it home because the illustrations are so detailed and beautiful I should like to have each one on my wall. Although, according to the endnotes, watercolours were used to create the illustrations, the main images remind me of old oil paintings – perhaps partly because of the subdued tones used throughout that give this book a feeling of some age (a dusty leather cover would suit it better than the shiny dust jacket it comes with!) whilst the borders around the text look like often look like tapestries you might expect to find in a stately home.
To sum up, if you want a retelling of The Firebird which closely follows the story of the ballet, I’d suggest The Orchard Book of Stories from the Ballet. If you want a great picture book that younger listeners will enjoy too, that happens to have a firebird amongst it’s characters, then go for Demi’s Firebird, and if you want to treat yourself or an older child then The Tale of the Firebird by Gennady Spirin is the one to go for.
next post I’ll this next post I describe the various activities we got up to listening to Stravinsky’s music, in addition to reading and enjoying these books – but in the mean time if you have any suggestions of retellings of the ballet The Firebird (perhaps in other ballet story collections you have), I’d really love to know about them!