Books Picture Book Challenge 2012 Picture Books

How to Save a Prince: Tam Lin as retold by Susan Cooper

When I looked for possible picture books that would show case girl power themes, this was one of the highly recommended reading material:

Tam Lin

The narrative versions of Tam Lin are said to be based on an old Scottish ballad. This particular one that I found in our library is retold by award-winning Susan Cooper and illustrated by Warwick Hutton. For a picture book, it is text-heavy and is best read aloud to very young children.

I was drawn to the character of Margaret, a princess, who was unlike all the other ladies in the castle who happen to be content doing ladylike tasks such as sewing, rubbing their skin with cucumber for softness, and waiting for a man to marry them. She loved defying orders and went as far as Carterhays, the forbidden area, where an Elfin knight is said to haunt young ladies:

“If once you saw him it would be the end of you,” the old nurse said sharply. “No man would marry you then.”

Initially, I had trouble figuring out how this particular story shows female empowerment as it seems to have all the ingredients of the traditional fairy tale. As the story progressed, however, the reader gets to see how this impetuous, staunchly-disobedient young girl was able to chart her own path and meticulously follow a set of enchanted rules (which includes putting out her hand to a fire-breathing white horse and recognizing her man no matter how horrible the shapes he would magically assume) – to save the day and be the heroine in the story.

Margaret reached for Tam Lin’s ungloved right hand, and he jumped down from his saddle – and then suddenly she was holding not the hand of a man but a handful of the thick fur of a huge snarling wolf. Its great head lunged at her, snapping sharp yellow teeth, blowing hot foul breath, but Margaret ducked, leaned away, and held fast.

While the tasks have a taste of enchantment and the magical, it could also prove to be a powerful metaphor for young adults or older readers who would be able to sense underlying themes depending on where they are in their lives. And yes, it takes enormous strength of character for a woman to witness the various transformations of her chosen partner and still glean the concealed individual beneath all those snarling, leaping, and howling layers – and save him from the enchantment of the Elfin Queen on the side. 🙂

Margaret on the left side of the page while the Elfin Queen could be found on the right side.

Resources. As I have mentioned, this is only one of the many versions of Tam Lin. This incisive and scholarly post by Ginger Mullen entitled Transformations of “Tam Lin”: An Analysis of Folktale Picture Books talks about illustrative techniques, traditional motifs, and accuracy of cultural images across two versions of Tam Lin: this book written by Susan Cooper and another by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak.

This website on the other hand has a great deal of links to anything that is Tam Lin related – including music links (recall that this is originally a Scottish ballad), a link to related tales for closer examination of myths, information about Scotland and so much more.

About the Author/Illustrator (as taken from the jacket flap of the book).

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

With consummate artistry, Susan Cooper, a Newbery Award winner known internationally for her fantasy sequence The Dark is Rising, has made a lyric prose retelling, based on several versions of an old Scottish ballad, rich in dark mysticism, romance, and terror-filled adventure.

Warwick Hutton, whose outstanding artistry has been widely recognized and confirmed by such awards as that given by the Boston Globe/Horn Book and inclusion three times on the New York Times Ten Best Illustrated Books of the Year list, matches the many moods of Tam Lin with beauty and intensity (Unfortunately I couldn’t find a photo of Hutton from the web).

This is the third of the author’s and artist’s Celtic trilogy, a distinguished companion to their earlier books The Silver Cow (Welsh) and The Selkie Girl (Irish).

Tam Lin as retold by Susan Cooper. Illustrated by Warwick Hutton. Margaret K. McElderry Books, New York, 1991. Book borrowed from the community library. Book photos taken by me.

Picture Book Challenge Update: of 49 of 120

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

6 comments on “How to Save a Prince: Tam Lin as retold by Susan Cooper

  1. I’ve continued to recommend Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series as something to be loved as much as Harry Potter, but they have not been so popular, students wanting more of the fun and magical toys that Rowling introduced, I think. I will look for this book to see if we have it, Myra. It would be fun to read to older students for a discussion of challenges & doing ‘hard’ things.


    • Hi Linda, I own a copy of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising but have not had the chance to read through it yet. I know, though, how well-loved it is in certain circles. Yes, it would be good to see how older kids would enjoy this picture book. Do let me know how the discussion went.


  2. I think I would like to read this with older elementary kids, Myra.. i think they would get a lot out of Tam Lin’s defiant strength. The Dark Rising is a series I too love but wasn’t aware Susan Cooper had written for a younger audience.


    • Hi Joanna, I think a lot of older kids would enjoy the narrative but might not find the illistrations that inviting/enticing. Youre right about Susan Cooper. The Tam Lin version I was hoping to find was the Jane Yolen one. So this was a treat.


  3. Pingback: List of Girl Power Themed Books and Poems: Picture Books, YA, Adult Lit, and Poetry «

  4. Pingback: [Monday Reading] Elfin Queen, Princes on a Quest, and Enchanted Woods |

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