Rubber-neckers better watch out for the carnage of "Fairy Tale Road Rage" - a story set as a board game that takes familiar plots and characters and puts them at the mercy of the reader. It forces some tough choices: Do you take the safe turn to the Goldilox Pawn Shop or do you risk going through a tornado to get to the Rumpled StiltSkin convenience store?
An off-ramp to the twilight zone of kid lit, "Road Rage" is one of several fractured fairy tales re-set as comics in a new collection of stories titled "Little Lit." Seventeen illustrators lend their visions to a picture book that has come within striking distance of Harry Potter on the New York Times best seller list.
The brainchild of Pulitzer-Prize winning "Maus" illustrator Art Spiegelman, a patriarch of the alternative comics industry, and his wife, co-editor Francoise Mouly, these irreverent renderings represent a second coming for an industry that nearly fell apart 40 years ago.
"Comics were a dominant part of children's culture in the '50s, then they were cut off at the knees - leading to the censorship of comics," says Spiegelman. "Ever since then the industry has been reeling, competing with television and the stringent code of publishing, with the result that the only comics that really flourished were superhero comic books."
"Kids who grew up to become juvenile delinquents became cartoonists like me, who wanted to do comics for comics' sake," says Spiegelman, who co-founded RAW, an acclaimed magazine of avant-garde comix and graphics, and where "Maus" debuted in serialized form. The award of the Pulitzer in 1992 coincided with a plum assignment at the New Yorker, where Spiegelman continues to be a contributing editor and cover artist. Always close by, his wife Mouly is the New Yorker's art director. Their partnership has also resulted in two children, 13-year-old Nadja and 8-year-old Dashiell.
"My kids grew up with comics," says Spiegelman, "But when their friends came over, they looked at them like they landed from some other planet. But inherently I think kids are attracted to comic books."
With the comic book format, he says, "You get a story in more textured details, get an overview of a story while you're going through it, and very often it emerges as a complex narrative. If research was done, it'd confirm what I know is true - comic books are a perfect tool to teach reading. It comes naturally with decoding the pictures on a page through the 10-15 words of text in each bubble."
As a result, he says, "It's generated a love for books that's lasted all my life."
He's hoping they have the same effect on modern youngsters. "It's a selfish motive, but without kids reading comics now, we won't have adults reading comics 30 years from now."
For now, Spiegelman can breathe a sigh of relief.
"Little Lit" made it onto the best seller list of children's chapter books soon after its October release. They didn't know which category to put it in, he says. "With `Maus' they moved it from fiction to non-fiction after a great debate," he says. "To me, putting `Little Lit' where it is speaks to the level of sophistication they perceived the book to be at. It's directed at all ages."
Adding to the prestige of the book are two contributors who are veterans of children's books, William Joyce and David Macaulay, each of whom currently has his own best seller on the New York Times list. Up and coming talent is also on the roster: Chris Ware, a cartoonist with a flair for originality. In a twist on the choose-your-own-ending device, Ware creates "Fairy Tale Road Rage" to "trace a literary path to your own moral conclusion!" The game in the front of the book asks readers to punch out playing pieces and help the Princess, the Wolf, Grandma and the Frog reach their respective destinations. At the back is another game that expands upon the same idea. All are in pursuit of alternate realities, the core principle upon which fractured fairy tales rest.
"Fairy tales and folklore are market-tested stories," asserts Spiegelman. "Now arguably a part of nursery kid culture, they were once the culture - the movies of their time, a meeting ground between child and adult."
In a genre parodied ad infinitum, one of the most prolific artists is storyteller Jon Scieszka's partner in the twisted, Lane Smith. Although asked to contribute to "Little Lit," Smith declined the invitation, having been there and done that in "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales."
"Fairy tales were parodied a lot in comic books and animation, which were a real inspiration to me," says Smith, adding that comics were what first interested him in drawing.
He hasn't seen the collection yet but is enthusiastic about contributor Ware. "He's the man now," says Smith. "He's the guy to watch in the next five to 10 years."