Koshka's Tales, by James Mayhew

Let’s do the seeming impossible and get this imaginary library back on the road (as it were).

When Old Father Frost is doing the rounds and days are short, it’s always a good idea to have some folk or fairy tales laid by for nourishment. In their deceptively compact dimensions is compressed all the necessities of a culture: hope, love, strangeness, good humour, and the triumph of good over wickedness. Winter is a particularly good time for a Russian folk tale: in Koshka’s Tales, written and illustrated by James Mayhew, you will shiver at an encounter the Snowmaiden, blink at the Firebird’s gleaming light, and if you get a whiff of the panful of sauce bubbling in that cottage, deep in the forest, beware – that sauce is meant for you.

I’m always pleased when I see energy deployed in bringing these stories to younger readers. They are every child’s inheritance, and reading them aloud is a tried and trusted method of bringing reader and listener into the same, shared space of the story. I love the versions of (some of) these stories by Arthur Ransome, and Mayhew’s versions have the same spirit, whilst moving slightly faster.

Moreover, Mayhew’s illustrations are irresistible to the eye, full of lustre, movement and evocative detail (harpies painted on a crib, Russian script on St Nicolai’s halo, exquisite patterning on the gown of the Princess of Inexhaustible Loneliness, bones knotted in the hair of Baba Yaga). They have a Chagallesque quality, suggesting not only these stories’ folk context but also their fable-ousness and sense of flight, and they carry us through these stories like the rushing waters of the Volkhov (a character in these stories itself).

There is theatre in these stories – people you will want to boo and hiss, or cheer and applaud. It wasn’t till I reached the end of the book that I realised how fully appropriate this book was for Mayhew (originally published in 1993, now back and looking gorgeous in a new edition from Graffeg). His name is synonymous now with the bestselling Katie and Ella Bella Ballerina books, inviting children to explore the worlds of painters or composers, but he is also well known as a concert presenter, bringing to life the images of Rimsky-Korsakov or Saint-Saens live on his easel. Some of these stories have become ballets and operas, but they are also filled with music, dance and song.

But who is Koshka? Drawn from a Pushkin poem (presumably lured by Mayhew with the promise of fresh fish) this charming black cat is woven cleverly into a wider frame of a story about lovers, mothers and fathers, some very bad aunts and storytelling itself, giving the whole collection a satisfying unity. I loved the constant references to stories as inherently magical and powerful, full of rare secrets that you would be justified in sailing “beyond thrice-nine realms and over the seven seas” in search of. Thankfully, readers and listeners (and lovers of illustration) only need open this magic box to be immediately transported.

If you weren’t given a copy for Christmas (thanks, Mum) you can get yourself a copy of Koshka’s Tales through Graffeg’s website, via Waterstones or via your local bookshop (use them or lose them!).

What other collections of folk or fairy tales for children should I know about?

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