Seeing as it is April 1, also known as All Fools’ Day, I find it only fitting to share a book about one who is labeled as the Fool of the World. The story was originally published in 1916 as part of Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome. Illustrator Uri Shulevitz has taken the story and given it beautiful illustrations which won him the Caldecott medal in 1969. So let’s celebrate an old Russian Tale and learn that perhaps a fool really isn’t what we think he is. This is The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship by Arthur Ransome, pictures by Uri Shulevtiz, 1968.
The boy, known only as the Fool of the World, is the youngest of three sons in a peasant family and has terrible parents. We are told that he is always forgotten “unless they happened to be looking at him, and sometimes even then.” But according to the tale we shall see that, “God loves simple folk, and turns things to their advantage in the end.”
So the story goes that one day the Czar of the country sends out a message that he will give his daughter in marriage to anyone who can bring him a flying ship. The Fool’s brothers declare their intentions to try their cleverness at the problem and they set out never to be heard from again, for this isn’t their story.
The Fool also wants to go and despite his parents’ lack of encouragement or help, he sets out with a merry, singing heart. Along the way he meets an ancient old man whom he greets politely and offers his meager sack of crusty, old food for a picnic. This act of kindness is noteworthy and we readers should also recognize that the old man isn’t all he seems to be.
With a few odd instructions, the old man leaves the young one and since the Fool is very simple, he follows the instructions carefully. His reward is the coveted flying ship with wings! Not prone to stop and think, he jumps in and sets sail, in the air of course.
On his way to the palace, he encounters some very odd fellows; but continuing to follow the ancient old man’s instructions, he invites them each along. Every passenger has a unique quirk about them, like the one who is insatiably hungry, the one with a pile of “special sticks,” or the one with one of his feet tied around his neck. Nevertheless, the Fool befriends them and they are a merry singing crew.
When they arrive at the palace, the Czar is angry that such a band of peasants should hope to win his daughter. So he tasks the Fool with several seemingly impossible feats. Again and again, the Fool is disheartened, but his kindness towards the odd strangers is repeatedly rewarded as their quirks come in quite handy.
In the end, the Fool becomes a better husband than any princess could hope for and “became so clever that all the court repeated everything he said.” Isn’t that just lovely? Not only is this story incredibly fun to read and attempt to figure out; but there are so many great nuggets of lessons buried in it. I find it perfect for those moments when you find yourself “mislabeled” by others, or you are perplexed about events in your life and the eventual reason for their existence. There’s also a subtle note about kindness and not assuming the worst of someone – shown about the Fool, but also about those he encounters, trusts and eventually owes everything to.
I don’t know much about Arthur Ransome, except that he had an excellent mustache and I very much enjoy his writing style. I love the interesting phrases and statements in this story. I do always like to warn when books are long, and this one certainly falls into that category. There is a lot of text and it would be quite taxing when read aloud; but the pacing is good and I think the story is quite intriguing enough that when given a chance, you’ll not notice the length.
Illustrator Uri Shulevitz is one of my dearest inspirations. I listed his book, Snow, in my 2013 winter books, and that is still probably my favorite of his, but his other works never disappoint. He has a very unique and recognizable style. I always think that there is a hint of European look to his characters, which would make sense considering Shulevitz’s background. His color palette here is full of many earthy colors: browns, greens, deep reds, and yellows. I never cease to be inspired by how Shulevitz approaches the entire page for his illustrations. Even with a large amount of text as in this story, each illustration works with the text, often framing it or sidling up to it, instead of being interrupted by it. And the man knows how to handle white space. His pages always feel like they can breathe, no matter the size of the illustration or the blocks of text.
I hope you are not considered a Fool today; I for one have already fallen for an email trick or two. Even if you are, pick up a book like this and be comforted that a fool who is simple, is often the most clever in the end.