Well, OK then. The fact that the child is not wearing a red hood already differentiates one story from the other. And there’s the bear. Not a wolf, mind you, but a big, white bear. As the rosy-cheeked girl in Alessandra Lecis and Linda Wolfsgruber’s new book I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood is so keen to remind us, her story has nothing to do with the Grimm (or Perrault, depending on the translation) fairy tale. Yes, she has a red scarf, and she takes a basket into the woods, but that is the end of it. This is her story.
It begins with a quest to fill her basket with the softest snow, but upon encountering the white bear, the girl is neither afraid nor easily fooled (unlike a certain red-hooded character.) She is, however, judiciously cautious, and reacts to the sudden appearance of the bear with cool repose, as if the incredible is commonplace in her world. The bear questions her about the basket, and she replies that she is collecting snow.
“Impossible. You can play and dance in the snow, but you can’t take it with you.”
To find the ‘whiter than milk’ snow the girl desires, the bear directs her to a place where the moon sleeps. Astride his back, she promptly falls asleep in the bear’s warm fur. When they arrive, he invites her to dance, and dance they do, with an exuberance matched only by the swirling flakes of snow. The girl wonders at the bear’s strangeness and his unwillingness to speak of home, but like her initial acceptance of his very presence in the wood, she does not question the bear further, handing him her red scarf at the conclusion of their journey. In window of her house, a small stuffed bear…with a red scarf. In I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood, more questions are posed than answered, but as the bear says, and as the girl comes to believe, it is enough to play and dance in the snow.
I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood reads like a native folktale: animist, spare, and at times, magical. Indeed, my first impression, based on the beautiful cover illustration, was that this is a story of a polar bear, but the lilt of the writing and the metaphysical nature of the story plucks it from a presumed Arctic locale and places it (in my imagination) on the north-west coast of Canada. The white spirit bear, or Kermode Bear, holds a prominent place in the traditional oral tales of the Canadian First Nations people. Considering the author and illustrator are European, it seems unlikely that I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood was drawn from Aboriginal storytelling traditions, but this snow-dusted tale of a confident girl and a soulful bear could easily stand alongside other First Nations stories.
Vienna-based illustrator Linda Wolfsgruber creates a fantastical landscape of dotted snowflakes and barren trees awash in the muted blue-blacks of a winter’s eve. The strongest colour is the red scarf, but even that is dwarfed by the bear; a behemoth of pencil marks sketched and erased, softened with watercolour; a cut-out, placed in the landscape, as opposed to being part of it. With few details online, it is difficult to say how these illustrations came to be, but it is enough to say the artist employs a variety of methods to realize her visionary imagery. What is removed, via eraser or sponge, is as important as what is retained. Perhaps it is meant to be like a dream; a collage of fractured imagery in a not-quite defined locale. I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood is an unusual book, with an unusual visual presentation. It is playful, and deeply evocative. A book about moments. About beauty. About playing in the snow.
Linda Wolfsgruber was born in Bruneck, South Tyrol, in Italy. She has worked as typesetter and graphic designer, and since 1984 as a freelance illustrator. Among her many awards, Wolfsgruber is the recipient of the Austrian Prize for Children’s and Teen Literature for illustration. She is the illustrator and/or author of over 30 picture books for children. In 2011, she published A Daisy is a Daisy is a Daisy (Groundwood Books), which is my first introduction to this incredibly talented artist.
Alessandro Lecis was born in Milan, Italy. Along with fellow Italian artist, Alexandra Panzeri, they founded the studio Ale+Ale, and their design images have appeared in such magazines as Rolling Stone and Elle.
I Am Not Little Red Riding Hood by Alessandro Lecis, with illustrations by Linda Wolfsgruber. Sky Pony Press, 2013
More Little Red Riding Hood stories that are not Little Red Riding Hood? Try Little Red Hood byMarjolaine Leray.