April’s classic of the month

Madonna, Chelsea Clinton, Frank Lampard, Cara Delevingne, David Walliams, Jamie Lee Curtis… It has to irk the pros that every other celebrity seems convinced they have a children’s book in them, but when it’s someone who actually happens to be a writer – albeit a long dead one equally famous for his off-the-page exploits – it’s worth paying attention.

Oscar Wilde, say.

Jacket‘The Happy Prince’ belongs to a sextet of fairy stories that Wilde published in 1888. The collection features a selfish giant who drives away springtime, a hoity-toity rocket that gets its comeuppance when it fails to ignite, and – listen up – a sumptuous statue of a contented royal stood on a pedestal.

In a plot that calls to mind sacrifice-themed classics like The Giving Tree*, a migrating swallow lands on the prince for a rest and discovers that he’s far from happy. From his lofty vantage point, the prince surveys a city riven with hardship. He feels the people’s suffering acutely but is powerless to act. Despite winter’s nearness, the swallow is in turn moved by the prince’s plight and agrees to help – at great cost to them both, though transcendence will be theirs by the story’s close. Wilde’s bold depiction of big themes like loss, consumerism and friendship is enmeshed with an unfashionable religiosity, but if this story is clearly from another era, it also manages to feel eerily timeless.

Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and Other Tales for his own sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, a detail that conjures up a domestic life largely eclipsed by the very public drama that overtook him less than a decade later – hard labour in Reading gaol, bankruptcy, exile. There’s a nice piece by Jeannette Winterson who believes that having children ‘regenerated’ Wilde as a writer. In academic circles, his fairy tales have tended to be regarded as ‘a minor bit of sentimentalism scribbled off by an iconoclast during a temporary bout of babymania’, but in fact they’re ‘splendid’, she says.

In the years since it was first published, ‘The Happy Prince’ has weathered a curious array of adaptations, including recordings and animations featuring the voices of Bing Crosby and Cyndi Lauper, an operetta, and numerous musicals.

Now, award-winning illustrator Maisie Paradise Shearring has restored some of the original’s splendour – and mystery and magic – in a new edition from Thames & Hudson. The book’s pictures are delicious, alternately panoramic and intimate, and full of the kind of detail that keen little eyes love. A rich, sophisticated palette compliments a style that’s at once free and intricate.

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“Why are you weeping?” the Swallow asked. “I thought you were a Happy Prince”.

Here’s what Shearring had to tell me about her process:

I use mixed media. For The Happy Prince I used watercolour, a bit of acrylic, ink, pencil crayon and some collage. I map out draft images in pencil in a mock up version of the book and then for the final artwork I go straight into colour and don’t draw out the images so as to try and keep the energy in the illustrations.

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“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, far away on the other side of the city, I can see a young man in his attic […] He dreams of being a writer but is very cold and cannot afford wood for the fire”.

The book is pitched at readers of 5+ but that plus should be interpreted generously – it would be a hard-hearted adult who wasn’t charmed by the combination of Wilde’s transporting words and Shearring’s memorable images.

The Happy Prince: A Tale by Oscar Wilde illustrated and adapted by Maisie Paradise Shearring is published by Thames & Hudson (hardback, £10.95). 

*I’m beginning to realise that like poetry, a lot of children’s literature is unexpectedly regional. So while most of my American friends grew up with Shel Silverstein’s classic, as a Brit – albeit one raised on the likes of Frog and Toad and Treehorn – I didn’t encounter The Giving Tree until adulthood. And let me tell you, it’s one weird tale to hear précised for the first time. So weird, it’s going to get a post of its own… Eventually.

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