Drawn in by Carll Cneut’s glorious artwork and the prospect of a ‘deliciously dark European picture book’, I backed this book on Kickstarter earlier this year. It was released this month by Book Island.
The Golden Cage is a wonderfully unique picture book. First, its size: At 340 x 260 mm, it is larger than most picture books I have read. It is also longer, comprising 56 pages, rather than the standard 32. Like all Book Island titles, it is beautifully produced, from the magnificent hardback cover to the thick cream-coloured paper, gold leafing, and beautifully hand-lettered text.
And yes, the story is dark, darker than a lot of picture books out there, which may take some readers out of their comfort zone. Not me! Or my daughters, ages 5 and 7, who often ask for The Golden Cage for their bedtime story. This book takes me back to my childhood where I was captivated by the – often gory and gruesome – fairy tales retold by the Brothers Grimm. In The Golden Cage, woe betide the palace servants who are unable to bring Valentina, the emperor’s daughter, the rare birds she orders for her collection. It’s off with their heads! Note that we don’t see the actual head chopping in the illustrations, or any blood for that matter, although there is the occasional skull or two.
Carll Cneut’s artwork, predominantly in gold, grey and white, is magnificent. Valentina and the servants involved in executing her impossible demands are sensitively and thoughtfully rendered, their emotions clearly visible. And their unusual dress – especially those hats – transports the reader to a different time and place. But for me, the birds are the real highlight: Exotic birds with exquisite plumage, colour and detail, set against lush backdrops, that wow the reader with every page turn.
One illustration in particular stands apart from the rest, for a different reason. It depicts a talking bird that speaks sweetly to Valentina in her dreams one night. The style is childlike, as if Valentina herself had drawn the image, and it marks an important moment in the story. There is something very sad about Valentina’s desperation to get hold of this rare talking bird for her golden cage. She may appear spoilt and merciless, but it seems that she is yearning for something to keep her company in her loneliness and isolation. Valentina shows uncharacteristic patience as she waits for the egg of this mysterious talking bird to hatch in the final pages of the story. Does it hatch? Maybe, and then again maybe not. For the ending of this wonderfully unique picture book is also a beginning . . .
The Golden Cage by Anna Castagnoli, illustrated by Carll Cneut, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson (Book Island, 2019)
Anna Castagnoli is an author/illustrator of children’s books. She was born in France to Italian parents and spent her early years travelling in France, the US and Italy. She expresses her passion for literature, history of art and psychoanalysis through her picture books. Her work has been published in many European countries.
Carll Cneut is a multi-award-winning Flemish illustrator who has illustrated more than 20 children’s books. His work has been published in almost 40 countries and his paintings have also been exhibited around the world. He teaches illustration at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium.
Laura Watkinson is a British literary translator, who translates from Dutch, German and Italian into English. Her work spans children’s books, comics and adult literature. She lives in a very tall, thin house in Amsterdam.
Note: This is a lightly edited version of the post first published on the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative blog on 22 September 2019. It is one in a series of posts celebrating world kid lit month.