For the past two months, my daughter's and my main bedtime reading has been The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, a modern folktale written by Charles de Lint and illustrated by Charles Vess, a power duo if ever there was one. This is a story set on an American prairie farm sometime in the 20th century, about Lillian, a kind-hearted girl who sets out saucers of milk for the wild cats, scatters grain for the songbirds, and leaves a biscuit by the oldest, most gnarled apple tree in the orchard for the Apple Tree Man. And it's because of her good heart and her wild spirit that the cats of Tanglewood Forest defy the king of cats, and work cat-magic to rescue her when she is bitten by a snake and brought near to death. Now she has been reborn as a kitten, and she must find out how she can once again become a girl.
The book is lavishly illustrated with Charlie Vess's amazing art nouveau paintings (you may recognize these from his frequent collaborations with Neil Gaiman, such as the beautiful picture book Blueberry Girl). The paintings — which appear as full pages, but are also worked into the margins, endpapers, and jacket — are a wonderful and gripping accompaniment to the story. Although this story is too sophisticated for my six-year-old to have read to herself, the combination of the illustrations and my reading it aloud made it absolutely accessible to her. And these paintings are so gorgeous that she was more than happy to sit and thumb through the book, enjoying them on their own.
De Lint is truly one of fantasy's great storytellers (I've been a fan of his since I was 12, and I have photographic proof). For decade after decade, book after book, de Lint has shown himself to be a gifted spinner of yarns that have the timeless feeling of great legends. Tanglewood Forest has a weird and daring story arc — partway through, a Possum Witch turns Lillian back into a girl, but this is a tragedy, and after months of sorrow, she must try to become a kitten again — that works so beautifully.
And the story is brought to such a satisfying and provocative conclusion that it's given Poesy and I lots to talk about for the past week, as she things through all the story's implications. This is a book that is both beautiful and beautifully told, thanks to two talented Charleses.
(Thanks to Aaron Ximm for recommending this!)