The selfish giant by Oscar Wilde

cover image

Ill. by Ritva Voutila. Allen and Unwin, 2012. ISBN 978 1 74237 650 9.
(Age 8+) Highly recommended. Picture book. Fairy tale. Redemption. Some books are simply a pleasure to pick up and hold, and this is one. Beautifully bound, the cover illustration is redolent of the northern European landscape, cold and dull, sun part hidden by the shadowy clouds, the castle lacking any warmth. But one tree is covered in blossom, standing out from the others which are bare in the winter cold. And Voutila's illustrations capture the eye for the rest of the book.
Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, published in 1888, contained five tales, including The happy prince, the most well known of the group. Each has a moral basis, and this one is no exception. Reading it again, I was surprised at the Christian element as I had not remembered that at all, but the story of a selfish man finally giving over his garden to the children of the town is certainly one of forgiveness and redemption.
The children gather each day in the giant's garden as it is full of life. But the giant returns after a seven year absence, and puts a no trespassing sign on his gate, forbidding all to enter. Cold sets in and spring, summer and autumn never come to the garden again. The giant is bereft, not understanding why the garden never changes, until one day he helps a small boy with marks on his hand, climb a tree. This encourages the other children to return and so the giant is happy, offering his garden to all to visit. When he next sees the small boy with the marks on his hands, he asks what they are. And the boy replies they are the marks of love, and tells the giant he will live with him in his garden in Paradise. And so the giant dies.
This lovely story will bring tears to the eyes of its readers, as they absorb the selfishness of the man, and how this is repaid with the cold until he relents and allows the children into his garden and his life.
The beautiful illustrations are breathtaking, spreading across each double page, bringing the art tradition and landscapes of northern Europe into the classroom. The sepia tones hold the attention of all who look inside the covers, the myriad of detail intriguing all who read the story, the motifs repeated, insisting that the reader thinks more closely about what is being represented. When the giant relents, colour returns to the pages, and even in the cold of the day he dies, there is life in the tree above him.
For classes looking at various fairy tales this is an exceptional book to use, the text and illustrations dovetailing together. For secondary classes this would be an entirely engrossing book to use to allow older students to marvel at the link between text and illustrations, or simply look at some fabulous illustrations and the imagery presented.
Fran Knight