Reviews /

Creeping Beauty

Authored by Joseph Coelho
Illustrated by Freya Hartas
Published by Walker Books

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Creeping Beauty is the third in the Fairy Tales Gone Bad series, written by Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho and illustrated by Freya Hartas. Following Zombierella (2020) and Frankenstiltskin (2021), Creeping Beauty picks up the theme where…

‘…unloved books
are changing,
rusting, deteriorating
and yet becoming
something frightful,
something wonderfully gory
and new.’

In this twist on the classic fairy tale, the narrative focuses on Eshe, one of the fairy godmothers and whose name means ‘life’, rather than the ‘sleeping beauty’ character, Princess Rose. Eshe is cursed with a Cassandra-like ability to foresee the future but never to be believed. She knows that disaster will fall upon the kingdom should the christening of Princess Rose take place and tries to prevent the destruction of the kingdom by consulting Aunty, the wise woman of the woods. Of course, Eshe’s warning is not heeded and the christening goes ahead with the fairy godmothers (thirteen, rather than seven) offering their gifts to the child. With twelve gifts bestowed, and Eshe about to speak, proceedings are interrupted by Aunty who seems to resemble more of a mythical harpy than a wise woman. The winged creature curses Princess Rose so that she will die after having pricked her finger, and it is Eshe’s role to soften the curse so that the princess sleeps rather than dies.

Up to this point, the events of the narrative are not so far removed from more well-known versions of Sleeping Beauty (such as Perrault’s 1697 rendering), but then as the kingdom is covered with thorny rose tendrils, Eshe tries to put everything right, rather than waiting for a prince to come to the rescue. In this way, with a nod to The Frog Prince along the way, Joseph Coelho brings the agency of women to the fore as he recasts this classic tale. As a poet, it should be no surprise that Coelho’s style seamlessly shifts from narrative prose to the poetic, and the page layout is often exploited to poetic ends. This is a story about cooperation, positive change and the power of language. Freya Hartas’ black and white illustrations appear across most two-page spreads, bringing life to the characters. Attention should certainly be drawn to the coloured end papers, and how they summarise aspects of the narrative).

While Joseph Coelho’s language begs to be read aloud, the visual aspects of this text (including layout) are vital in its appreciation. On that basis, I would suggest it as a KS2 class reader or guided reading text, with opportunities to explore Coelho’s use of poetic devices as well as consider how layout affects reading. In addition to being poetic, the language is rich and includes challenging vocabulary Creeping Beauty would be an ideal way to explore aspects of critical literacy and in particular representation of women and the visibility of people of colour (in this version of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the fairy godmothers are women of colour). It would be interesting, however, to explore the perspectives of boy readers as (although the author is male) the only male characters prove to be either inadequate or (literally) wooden.