Yolen, Jane. THE FIREBIRD. Ill by Vladimir Vagin. Hong Kong: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002. ISBN: 006028539-7.
Prolific folk author Jane Yolen teams with Russian Illustrator Vladimir Vagin to explore both the classical and folk elements of this well-known Russian fantasy. When Prince Ivan looses his way in a forest outside the evil Kostchei’s castle, his luck is improved by the appearance of a beautiful red bird—the Firebird. She and the maidens fair, who are trapped in the Deathess wizard Kostchei’s castle, know how to defeat Kostchei. Prince Ivan follows the beautiful red bird to the castle, and is able to defeat the wizard with the Firebird’s help. His reward is to marry the most beautiful of the captured princesses. Illustrations of both the ballet and the children’s story are provided on each page.
Using an impressively recounted array of folktale retellings and her own memories of the Russian Ballet of the Firebird’s stories, Yolen recreates a classic innocent hero, and a predictable storyline, leaving the reader with a sense of inevitability. The characters in the narrative are flat stock characters, with few liberties taken even in the illustrations. Traditional Russian outfits worn by the characters link the storyline displayed in the central illustrations with the ballet portrayed on the bottom fourth of each page.
Yolen’s expert use of understatement makes delightful reading, with the picture of the lost and hungry hunter painted in a few words. “He had been…seeking the brutish boar, the shadowy elk, the fleet deer…. But he had found nothing, for in Kostchei’s forest nothing lived.” Much like the bard’s epic tale, this is a story more appreciated by a listener than by a reader. The illustrations, while true to the traditional Russian roots of the tale, do not spark the imagination nor add to the story’s telling.
Jane Yolen’s note from the author at the conclusion of the book is of much greater interest, recounting her own connection with the ballet and the Firebird herself. In a few well-chosen words, Yolen also uses this opportunity to discribe her sources for the tale. Additional information about Kostchei the Deathless provided in this addendum spark the imagination, and encourage a deeper understanding of the FIREBIRD retelling as only a small chapter in the folklore of oppositional forces and traditional characters. Innocent and Evil, Teacher and Apprentice, Magic and Myth, Hero and Helper—all appear in the strong voice of the narrator on the pages of this international children’s book.
School Library Journal: “Not to be confused with two stunningly illustrated titles of different folktales, Demi's The Firebird (Holt, 1994; o.p.) and Ruth Sanderson's The Golden Mare, the Firebird, and the Magic Ring (Little, Brown, 2001), Yolen's Firebird will be most appreciated as an introduction to the ballet.”
Booklist: “Yolen offers a dramatic story in language that's spare, immediate, and sprinkled with folksy phrases. It's Vagin's sparkling, gem-colored illustrations that really show the story's two traditions together in split spreads of a fairy-tale world above and ballet scenes drawn below. The result is effective and thought-provoking.”
==> Use Yolen’s Author’s Note about the many stories of Firebird and Kostchei the Deathless as a jumping-off point for children to write their own “folktale.”
==> Discuss the folk-story beginnings of many other famous ballets, love stories, and cartoon movies. Explore the messages these stories provide, and why they are still relevant so many hundred years after these stories were first told.
==> Read TALES FROM THE BALLET by Louis Untermeyer, 1968, and discuss the differences in voice, illustration, and story, as portrayed in these two retellings of the same Firebird episode.
==> This story could also be a great starting point to encourage appreciation of classical music, and the stories that make them come to life. Did you know that real cannons were fired in the concert hall when Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was first performed?!