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one fairy tale, two versions: the red shoes


The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Anderson (translated by Anthea Bell), illustrated by Chihiro Iwasaki


This one is a strange fairy tale, as we know. Dark and dripping with remorse. But its progeny alone is iconic! The Red Shoes film. Dorothy’s ruby slippers! (Kate Bush had her Red Shoes too.)


(And lucky for us, Look At These Gems recently posted loads of pictures from the film!)


(click image(s) to enlarge)

I’ve always thought of this story as about the dangers of desire and vanity. How it can control us.

But in rereading this version, I was struck by how the main character, Karen, wore her first pair of red shoes on the day of her mother’s funeral. Then they were taken away, and when she had the chance again for new shoes, she chose red ones again. They’re the red of a princess’s shoes, so yes, they’re luxurious. But might it also be that Karen’s trying to recreate a memory of her mother? Don’t we all have something from childhood we still long for because it connects us to an important time?



Iwasaki’s watercolors almost resemble cut paper, their shifting weights and tones are so pronounced. They’re mesmerizing and this book really is about those illustrations. Sad and evocative, some spare, some blooming over a whole page. Delicate but bursting.

Aren’t they wonderful?




p.s. There’s an art museum in Tokyo dedicated to Chihiro Iwasaki and since I’ll be there in April, I just might have to visit and report back!!


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The Red Shoes illustrated by Sun Young Yoo and written by Gloria Fowler (2008).



This is a retelling . There’s still a girl, Karen. And there are still red shoes.

Other original elements appear as well—a princess, an executioner—but they’ve been weaved to tell a different tale. Not one that curses Karen (Fowler omits all of Anderson’s religious themes), but one that celebrates creativity and beauty and self-reliance. 




In Fowler’s rendering, Karen’s mother is a shoemaker who’s secretly making the girl lovely red shoes.  She makes the connection of the girl to her mother, through the shoes, the heart of the story.

That connection allows Karen to make shoes for a princess after her mother dies, and more shoes after that. She even opens her own shop: “The Red Shoes.” In this version, Karen is a creative entrepreneur! She uses needle and thread to stitch her true calling.




The illustrations are pen and ink, black and white. We must imagine that pop of red, just as Karen imagines her future.


Images via AMMO Books





You  may be interested in my post on two different picture book versions of Hansel & Gretel as well.