The Sleeper and the Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is a picture book inspired by Sleeping Beauty and some other fairy tales. But don’t let the picture book format make you think this isn’t a wonderful book for older readers. In fact, I think it’s probably best for older readers, including adults.
I don’t want to give away much of the plot because the experience of putting the pieces together is lovely. It’s a quest with a queen in the lead. It hearkens back to some of the darker fairy tales that Disney didn’t bring into our cultural consciousness, with some tropes of modern horror/suspense stories. It’s probably not a good choice as bedtime reading for those inclined toward creepy nightmares! As a fan of fairy tales, though, I absolutely loved it. It’s a gorgeous and wholly unique telling with familiar characters and bits of familiar stories. I highly recommend reading the hard copy book, rather than ebook, to enjoy the full impact of the design and art.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The illustrations and many aspects of the story are really creepy. There’s an Edward Gorey vibe to the black and white illustrations. Personally, I found it delightfully creepy and I have a relatively low tolerance for creepy—but parts of it might have been haunting to me if I read it as a kid.
A magical sleep is creeping across the country, and the civilians are absolutely terrified. The magical sleep causes instant sleep wherever people are, and it turns some of the villagers into zombie-like characters. At one point they all turn toward the queen and whisper, “Mama. It’s my birthday.” *shiver*
The sleepers are covered with cobwebs, because only the spiders are still awake. A spider has made a web in the pot-girl’s cleavage.
Violence and Death
Many ways to die are mentioned in passing, such as dying in childbirth or getting the bloody flux. The one person who stayed awake—like, no sleep at all for many decades—has been killing sleeping animals to stay alive. She learned the hard way that large animals like horses rot if you don’t eat them quickly enough. A rotten fish is crawling with maggots.
A sleeping man grabs the ankle of the queen. One of her companions cuts off his hand, and the queen removes his severed hand from around her ankle.
Onscreen death occurs toward the end, though it’s of an evil character.
There’s a good bit of psychological violence that was done by the evil character, but we mostly see the repercussions rather than the violence itself.
A man in a pub is totally soused as a way to deal with the terror that’s creeping across the country. He is consciously drinking himself into a stupor as a coping mechanism.
Stomping on Stereotypes
The queen is our main character, a strong and independent character trying to figure out what she should do. She’s engaged to a prince who is more anxious for the wedding than she is.
The queen goes on a quest to try to save her kingdom. Kissing an enchanted sleeper is part of the requirements, so she does it.
Let’s just say that few things are what they seem or what you might assume them to be.
I love this book. My 16 year old daughter loves this book. It’s beautiful and thought provoking and haunting. I loved the puzzle of figuring out how things fit together. The illustrations absolutely add to the story. It ‘s creepy both in the story and the illustrations and it has a lot of text, so it’s better for somewhat older readers rather than the usual audience for picture books. It’s perfect for reading with your newly independent reader if you miss curling up with a picture book with them, so probably ages 8 and up unless some of these things will be nightmare triggers for your child.
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell
Published in 2015 by HarperCollins Children’s Books
Read my personal hard copy