Saturday, September 24, 2011

Say My Name!--a review of RUMPLESTILTSKIN by Paul O. Zelinsky

After her foolish father brags to a greedy king, a poor miller’s daughter, alone and afraid, is forced to turn straw into gold.  Unable to accomplish the impossible, she fears for her life until a mysterious, tiny man comes to her rescue in exchange for her most precious belongings.  Her fortune changes when she is made queen, but her troubles soon return when the little man appears, demanding she make good on her final promise—her firstborn son.  Unless she can guess his name in three days’ time, the queen will find herself desolate once more.  Who will come to her rescue now?  Will she guess the little man’s name and save her son?

Rumplestiltskin, from the German of the Brothers Grimm. Retold & Illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Zelinsky’s goal was to create a “text best suited for a picture book.”  This is not as easy as it seems, as Rumplestiltskin is a fairy tale from the oral tradition which was written down by the Brothers Grimm over 200 years ago.  Zelinsky manages to capture the universal spirit of the traditional story by remaining true to some critical elements of the tale.  He maintains the conventional plot, which is the final triumph of the humble miller’s daughter over her oppressors, in a straightforward re-telling that sees her suffering first at the hands of her boasting father, then the avaricious king, and finally a scary little man who seeks to rob her of all that she holds dear.   Zelinsky has also remained true to the rule of threes.  There are three male oppressors.  In return for three nights of spinning gold—whir! whir! whir!—she gives away a necklace, a ring, and her firstborn.  In three nights of guessing his name, Zelinsky offers three of Mistress Miller’s guesses.  Of course, her third guess on the third night is correct.  Finally, Zelinsky preserves the presence of the mystical, which is probably the most crucial element of all fairy tales, in the wizened little form of Rumplestiltskin.  Where does he come from?  What is so important about his name?  How does he turn straw into gold?  We don’t know, and Zelinsky doesn’t try to tell us, choosing to let us wonder, just as children have for centuries.

Zelinsky’s oil paintings lend this picture book a classic feel, well suited to the re-telling. His choice of red and blue hues, beautiful ivory skin tones, his use of gold to illuminate, and his landscape and portrait techniques pay tribute to the high artists of the Northern Italian Renaissance. The castle setting and the clothing add to the classical appeal. Zelinsky is visually clever in moving the plot forward through the pictures. There are two spreads which encapsulate more than one story sequence in one painting, which reflect his straight-forward plot. As with classic artists, he is also masterful in his use of line and perspective to draw the viewer’s eye across the paintings, which also moves the story forward visually. Zelinsky makes his mark through subtle, and sometimes, not so subtle, humor, especially in characterizing the title character. The triumph over Rumplestiltskin is wrought with wit, reflected in the eyes of the queen, her maid and the baby, as they watch a furious and frustrated little man throw a tantrum before riding off on his cooking spoon. Perhaps even more than in his text, Zelinsky’s art offers a satisfying encounter between the known and unknown worlds, which is exactly what fairy tales should do.

Honors, Awards and Reviews

Randolph Caldecott Medal, 1987, Honor Book
Redbook Children’s Picturebook Award, 1986
Society of Illustrators and AIGA Certificates of Merit
Bratislava Biennale Selection
ALA Notable Book
SLJ Best Book
Parents' Choice Award, 1986, 2003

Best Books
Children’s Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001—H.W. Wilson
Children’s Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006—H.W. Wilson

“For all their elegance, the illustrations are comprehensible, dynamic, compelling, and unforgettable, imbued with human—and humorous touches. . . . This book is truly a tour de force.”—Burns, Mary, Horn Book, 62 (November/December 1986): p. 751.

“Zelinsky’s smooth retelling and glowing pictures cast the story in a new and beautiful light.”—Patron, Susan H., School Library Journal, 33 (October 1986).

“The story is plainly and gracefully told, unmarred by cuteness or stylistic tics that might obscure the power of the original Grimm. Children—one need hardly say—love the story for its mystery, and its familiarity. Adults will find that, like most classic fairy tales, this one rewards periodic rethinking.”—Prose, Francine, New York Times Book Review (November 9, 1986): p. 57.

“Rumplestiltskin is a tour de force by an immensely talented artist. Zelinsky is that rare practitioner who can create sophisticated work that adults will marvel at, and that children will joyfully embrace.”—Publisher’s Weekly, 1986

Lesson Extensions
An excellent lesson plan created by Deborah Hallen for teaching the elements of a fairy tale in Rumplestiltskin can be found here.
AP Extensions
There is enough substance and research about fairy tales to legitimately use them as material in both Advanced Placement Literature and Composition and Language and Composition courses as studies on theme, rhetorical devices and comparative literature.

One idea would be to introduce students to annotated texts using examples from sources such as Sur La Lune. Students could then be assigned their own annotations on another text.

Sur La Lune also has a fantastic list of “Tales Similar to Rumplestiltskin” which would be a worthwhile option to use with older students who are capable to making complex comparisons of different versions.  Students could create their own graphic organizer to compare variants.
You could also use a study in fairy tales as a springboard to database research.  Students could research articles related to Rumplestiltskin or other fairy tales, creating Annotated Bibliographies of their findings.

Hallen, Deborah (n.d.) “Rumplestiltskin.” Paul O. (accessed September 24, 2011 from
Heiner, Heidi Ann. (1999; updated 2007) SurLaLune Fairy Tales (accessed September 24, 2011 from
Zelinsky, Paul O. (1986). Rumplestiltskin. New York: Puffin. ISBN 978-0758701404.


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