If you made a bargain with Death, would you try to cheat him? And what would happen if you did? A fisherman demands total honesty from others but proves untrustworthy himself in this stunningly illustrated folktale retelling for older readers.
When a poor fisherman goes looking for an honest godfather for his newborn son, he ends up making a strange choice. But who is fairer or more predictable than Death? He treats everyone equally and cannot be bribed.
At the baby’s Christening, Death gives the fisherman a bottle of coloured water – a charlatan’s prop that, with Death’s help, will propel him to a more prosperous future. When Death stands at the foot of the bed, the patient will recover, and the fisherman can charge a fortune for his miracle cure. But when Death stands at the patient’s head, nothing can be done for them and Death must be allowed to claim his prize.
All goes well until the King falls sick. Death is standing at his head, and by rights, his life is over. But the fisherman falls prey to temptation, and turns the bed around. Death has been cheated – or has he? In a dramatic and truly chilling ending, Death catches up with the fisherman to extract his recompense.
Originally collected by the Brothers Grimm, this haunting folktale has been reimagined for the twenty-first century with insight, verve and style. Sally Nicholls’ beautifully crafted short story is arranged over eight chapters and provides just the right amount of detail and context for newly confident readers, who will appreciate its immediacy, pace and accessible vocabulary. With their focus on shared dilemmas and morality, folktales have always captured the interest of adults as well as children, and Godfather Death follows tradition in this respect: older readers will also find it engaging and compelling.
Tradition is evident in Julia Sarda’s striking and extraordinary artwork, too. Echoes of woodblock printing, medieval manuscripts and folk art abound, but her illustrations also have an arresting novelty and wicked sense of humour about them: trumpet-toting cherubs give way to speeding bats, alarmed ravens scatter teardrop feathers and red-capped candles gather like hungry imps. Freehand borders restrain but don’t contain the images: playful marginalia erupt into clean, white space, and backgrounds crowd into the foreground with an immediacy that draws us in and propels us on.
Some of Sarda’s visual inspiration, like the original folktale itself, comes from a time when death was ever-present and people were perhaps more used to the gruesome or macabre. Godfather Death treads a careful path in this respect, though: there are some shivery moments, but visually they are stylized, and for most audiences this will be a gripping and exhilarating read, but not a scary one.