Tom Gauld’s The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess, a children’s book, and Mari Ahokoivu’s Oksi, a not really children’s book, deserve to be discussed in relation to one another because they’re both rooted in folktales. What is the difference between folktales and fairytales? Not much, from what I remember. Some people think that fairytales are a bit more bowdlerized, a bit gentler and more suited for children than the older, rougher, oral-tradition folktales, but folklorists generally refer to them as the same thing or use the term Märchen (“wonder tale”). Neither of these books is an existing folktale. Both authors have created their own, which might seem easy but, given the vast corpus that already exists, is actually quite hard, at least according to anyone who’s had to spin one on demand at bedtime for a demanding small audience. That’s where Gauld got his idea, which he then polished and refined, like a rough stone in a rock tumbler turning into a beautiful glassy smoothness.
Gauld’s gift has always been brevity. Like Ernie Bushmiller, he knows how to communicate an idea with just a smidge more than minimalism, and his book is a speedy 32 pages. Is it a comic book or a picture book? And what, exactly, is the difference? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. There are no word balloons here, only typeset text in boxes that narrates the story of a pair of siblings: one a little wooden robot (as you likely guessed from the title) and the other a little girl who transforms from a log into a living being when someone speaks the magic words “Awake, little log, awake.” There is not much conflict in the story. The siblings don’t fight over their parents’ attention or the kingdom. They are unremittingly sweet and kind to each other, and when the log princess, having turned back into a log when she sleeps, is pitched out a window by a maid, there is no question that her brother will set off on a quest to recover her and return her home. The rhythms of the thing call to mind William Steig’s children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which no one would refer to as a comic book but is another example of soft tragedy. There is a hint of real distress when the robot runs down and the princess falls asleep, only to turn back into a log, just as Sylvester the donkey’s parents experience real grief when their darling son disappears because he has been turned into a rock and can’t wish himself back into an animate creature with the magic pebble. But not to worry. In both cases, deus swoops in ex machina and sets everything back in neat form. This is how we’re used to thinking of Märchen, but it’s not how Oksi works.
Where The Little Wooden Robot is clean and bright and organized, with even a family of beetles nicely accounted for and rewarded in the end, Oksi is a different beast. Informed by Finnish folklore, it follows the odd one out in a family of bears as she and her family move through the forest. The plot is hard to describe because it’s not so clear where it’s going. Ahokoivu’s art, too, is more slippery than Gauld’s. Not for her a set of intricate endpapers populated with eggs, mice, apples, mushrooms, pixies reading books, magic mirrors, pears, diamonds and so on, each image evoking its own story. Oksi tells its story in washy watercolors, mostly blacks and grays, with flashes of fire or the Northern Lights. Color, in its rare appearances, is beautiful, drawing us toward it through its difference, but it is also dangerous. Ahokoivu doesn’t bother with a narrator either. She doesn’t want us to see the path in the dark. Although she and Gauld both ask for our trust, he does so in the fashion of a bedtime story, where it’s clear everything will turn out fine, and she does so in a way that’s a bit more like someone luring you to an unmarked van with the promise of candy. This is an older fairytale, where things might not turn out okay, and there is a lot of violence to come. Watercolor, with its gradations and sense of being difficult to control, is a good choice for that kind of story because it suggests instability; Gauld’s ruler-straight lines, efficient color palette, and tight, dainty crosshatching are an equally good choice for his kind of story.
Both authors, surprisingly, are interested in suggesting things without spelling them out. Gauld’s story features a couple of montage-esque pages that sum up adventures had by his title characters (“The Magic Pudding,” “The Old Lady in a Bottle,” “The Haunted Well,” “The Mischievous Pixies”) with only a title and a single image for each. Ahokoivu tosses us into her dimly lit pool and lets us figure out for ourselves what the hell is going on. Or not, at times. She uses minimal dialogue to tell her story, and although her images are simple they are often emotionally rich. White eyes, rendered through negative space, go from asleep to abruptly awoken and confused to quick realization to determination to extreme worry in the space of a page with no words to communicate those transitions. Oksi’s world is mostly populated by non-human animals and spiritual beings, and it can be unclear where the line between the two is. If I had to sum up this book in a real brief sentence, it would be, “things are not as they appear.” The largeness and shlumpiness of her figures can at times call to mind Eleanor Davis’s early work, mostly torso and powerful thighs, with tiny, undefined feet and hands.
Like a lot of folktales, Oksi is about parents and children, whether that relationship is between Poorling and her bear mother, sky goddess Emuu and her daughter Mana, primitive humans and their mother Mana, and so on, but while most folktales seem to be told from the perspective of the children, this one is informed by that of the grown folks. As a parent, children are us and not-us at the same time. What do we do when they disappoint us? When they do something terrible? How do we give them enough freedom to forge their own skills to deal with the world capably without them falling prey to dangerous influences? There’s something Promethean at work here, with humans receiving the gift of fire only to turn it to violence, and Ahokoivu renders that flickering, fascinating substance repeatedly with an awareness of its transformative power. It might as well be the life force of the critters we create, who will build a new world that we didn’t anticipate. The book keeps slipping through my mental fingers when I try to grab it tightly and look at its pieces, but I think that’s a strength and not a weakness. Its ability to create an atmosphere and strong emotional ripples that stay with us is impressive, reminiscent of Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions and Brecht Evens’s Panther.
One of these books is a story about the world as we would like it to be, told by a parent to a child. The other is a story about the world as it likely is, the one parents keep from their children as long as possible. Both are worth reading, well crafted, and beautifully done in the service of their goals. One will make your heart beat faster with anxiety, and the other will calm you back down. Both belong in your library.