When I was a child, I loved a small book published in 1946 called The Seven Ravens, illustrated with color photographs of dolls. I treasured the tale because, although it featured seven strong boys, the girl was in fact its bold heroine. I especially liked the illustration in which the girl leaves home, crossing the threshold into adventure, carrying her jug, her loaf of bread, and her small chair. She finds herself in a forest where,like Snow White, she must seek her way all alone with only animals and a few mushrooms to keep her company.

     Many years later, while talking about fairy tales with my editor, I had a memory flash of The Seven Ravens and searched through my shelves until I found it. The book was so well worn it had all but lost its binding. Still later, I went back to the original Grimm Brothers, and read translations by Margaret Hunt, Jack Zipes, and Ralph Manheim. In each, the plot remained basically the same. The beleaguered father loses his temper and lets fly the curse that transforms his male children into birds. In each, the girl encounters the sun, the moon, and the stars in her quest for reunion. In each, her powers of courage, faith in forgiveness, and love are tested to the limit. I decided to retell The Seven Ravens as I would if I were reading it aloud to my own children. It seemed to me there should be some possession of the girl’s that goes with the brothers in their flight. So I added the baby rattle, making it the eldest brother’s talisman and the first thing the girl sees when she enters the Glass Mountain. 

     It seemed right that, in the end, the eldest raven brother should shake the rattle, dispelling the evil influence of that long ago paternal curse and heralding a new time when the family could come together again, close and whole. If the raven brothers kept something of the girl’s, it seemed only natural that she take something of theirs too—something that would lead her to them, protect her, and tie her to their shared past. That thought, in combination with my memory of another Grimm tale, The Twelve Brothers, resulted in the seven embroidered shirts making their way into the story.

    The girl, wearing the shirts one on top of the other, sets out into the wide world. That is, she starts her quest (as many of us do) swaddled in layers of family history. The seven shirts took on more and more importance as I went along until they became the device by which the ravens change back into boys.

     The Seven Ravens is one of the more cheerful of the Grimm tales, although in the original, the girl must sacrifice one of her fingers to gain entry into the Glass Mountain, an event I eliminated. I chose to emphasize instead the psychological sacrifice of growing up in a household that harbored so shadowy a secret.

     The illustrator, Ed Gazsi, was drawn to the story because it offers a moral framework. A father of four himself, he liked a tale in which the father could lose his temper, suffer terrible seemingly irreparable consequences (“What’s done is done”),  but finally be forgiven. The story offered him unlimited opportunity for flights of fancy but was, at the same time, grounded in a world in which the order of things is restored, reinforcing the love between brother and sister, brother and brother, and parent and child. 

     The process of re-telling a story I loved as a child told me a lot about myself as an adult. I hope children reading this book will love The Seven Ravens as much as I did when I first came across it. Perhaps some of them will be inspired years from now to retell it yet again to their own children.  —LGB

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