Review of the Day: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
You ever get that feeling where a book comes out and your immediate reaction is, “WELL, IT’S ABOUT BLOODY TIME!”? I tend to get this feeling only about books that it never would have occurred to me to hope for. A kid-friendly version of “Sleepy Hollow”? It seems self-evident when you say it like that, but I don’t prowl the stacks of my library looking for classics to freshen up. I leave that sort of thing to the professionals. Professionals going by pseudonyms like, “Gris Grimly” and the like. What we have here in our possession is a tidy little item with a certain panache and flair. Faithful to the original text (albeit with judicious cutting and abridgement here and there) Grimly brings Irving’s story to macabre life right before our eyes. Any book that has the wherewithal to introduce a classic tale to kids in a manner that they will not only understand but also seek out voluntarily should be considered in full. In Mr. Grimly we’ve real kid-sensibilities alongside some good old-fashioned storytelling horrors. Mr. Irving would be so pleased.
At the risk of sounding trite, you all know the story of “Sleepy Hollow” do you not? No, not the Tim Burton movie, sillies. This is the tale of the schoolteacher Ichabod Crane who, in spite of his innate goofiness and gall, was apparently the most desirable schoolteacher this side of the Mississippi. Sure, he looked like a “scarecrow eloped from a cornfield,” but in a town as small as Sleepy Hollow, any fellow with even a scant bit of intellectualism about him is worth checking out. But Ichabod doesn’t set his sights on just anyone. Oh no. He’s impressed with only the richest girl in the county, Katrina Van Tassel. Unfortunately for him, she is currently being wooed by the local county swain Brom Van Brunt a.k.a. Brom Bones. Ichabod is keen for the challenge however, and after being invited to a dance at the Van Tassel manor it looks as if all his hopes and dreams might come true. After a possible rejection, however, the naturally superstitious teacher finds himself going home, alone, from the party. It is then that he runs across the notorious supernatural figure that all the county discusses: The Headless Horseman. Whether the horseman truly does spirit away the teacher or whether Ichabod merely flees Sleepy Hollow for good is not known. What people do know, though, is that all that remains is his hat and a shattered pumpkin along the side of a brook.
As a kid, I was always mildly baffled that Ichabod was not supposed to be the hero of his own story. If you’ve watched the Disney version of the tale (and I’ll get to that later) then Brom Bones comes off as a bit of a jerk. This feeling isn’t alleviated any by Grimly’s adaptation, but it makes for an interesting change of pace from those other tales of rivals in love. In terms of the story itself, there is much here that a kid will incline towards. It’s rare to find a title for kids where the protagonist is A) human and B) and adult. Nigh unto impossible, almost. Still, Ichabod with all his flaws and greed is a quintessentially American figure. I’m a little shocked no one’s ever updated him into a contemporary book or movie. Talk about ripe pickings.
Some will write off the book as just another graphic novel, which is not entirely unwarranted, but also not entirely fair. I mean, what is it about this book that strikes you as comic booky? There aren’t any word balloons or snatches of dialogue. There are panels, however, and often they will display action sequences in a linear fashion. Just the same, I think that it’s safe to say that this book falls squarely into the category of “indefinable entity”. It’s maybe best described merely as an “illustrated novel”, and nothing more.
But really, the art is what makes it more than just a visual adaptation. On examining this book closer I found that often the lines on a character’s mouth would often extend far beyond the limits of their own face. If Ichabod smiles, for example, them the line of his smile carries on long after the flesh has ceased. At first I mistook this for some kind of moustache or facial hair, but then I found that everyone (except possibly Katrina) suffers the same technique. It’s interesting to consider. Does it indicate an extreme emotion or does it merely give one character or another a bit of visual pizzazz? Gris Grimly isn’t known for his sexy females (though Bella of the book “Boris and Bella comes close) so it’s interesting to see him work his magic on the character of Katrina. She’s all delicately lowered eyelids and curves. Grimly’s style in this book is restrained, it seems, and it plumbs the inner recesses of the “Sleepy Hollow” tale for all the humor it’s worth. It’s not a bad idea, really. When Ichabod cuts a rug you’ve never seen a more ridiculous sight. For finding the funny in both the implied and the obvious, Grimly pairs nicely with Irving’s fabulous text.
Let’s admit something together right now. A certain strain of American has probably seen the Disney version of the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at least once in their lives. As such, certain images and phrases from this book have a hard time separating themselves from that oddly faithful (just our luck) adaptation of the tale. Certain sentences in this book float through our mental ears to the sonorous tones of Bing Crosby. For the most part, Grimly does what he can to separate himself from Disney’s version, and as far as I can tell he only comes close to a direct reference once. That would be the moment where, in the midst of trying to escape the headless horseman, Ichabod briefly finds himself doing the running with his horse sitting on his back. Classic slapstick stuff, sure. Maybe too classic
Flaw: I read a few pages of this book then proceeded to stare at the cover intently for a good fifteen to thirty seconds sans blinking. I did this because I was convinced that the word “Abridged” was lurking somewhere in plain sight and I was just too thick to see it. Bemused by my inability to find it, I flipped to the title page. Nothing. The back bookflap? Nada. The front bookflap. Nothing a thi . . . . wait! Wait wait, I spoke too soon! What’s that teensy tiny itty bitty l’il nuthin’ of a sentence down there? That little snippet lurking beneath the description of the story? (removes magnifying glass from purse and peers closely) Ah. I see now. It says, “Be forewarned: The text has been slightly condensed for maximum fright.” Knowing, as we do, the frequency with which such bookflaps get lost, perhaps the book beneath the jacket says the same thing. Yeah, no such luck. So basically, you’re going to get a lot of confused parents who don’t know their Washington Irving very well and will be more than happy to think that this is the complete story. Or, more likely, you’ll end up with a lot of fast-moving teenagers who have been told to read the tale for their autumnal English class and can’t see why this book isn’t the original story since even the publication page is absent of any warnings or notations. BAD, Atheneum, BAD! You did a killer job on the bookjacket (I’m loving the faux binding peering out along the spine and the buckled “leather”) but when your author abridges something you need to let us know with big flashy lights. Seriously, now.
I anticipate so many kids falling under the thrall of this book that their parents seek out Irving’s original tale just to slake their headless horseman thirst for more. And anything that gets the kiddies reading real honest-to-goodness Washington Irving will have to be seen, even by the most jaded critics, as a good thing. Putting aside the question of whether or not the book should have been more forthcoming in the whole “is it abridged?” area of affairs, this is a great title and one that deserves a place in every library far and wide. Classy and keen. A keeper, if ever there was one.
Notes on the Cover: The muted palate of orange and sepia hues calls to mind a very different graphic novel out this year with very similar packaging. I doubt that many would think to pair “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” with Shaun Tan’s, “The Arrival”, but it’s truly amusing to compare the packaging on the two books and think about how the reaction to each title differs. I like it, though.
Misc: Check out the Gris Grimly website.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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