Instructions: Safely traverse enchanted lands

children's fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman Instructionschildren's fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman InstructionsInstructions by Neil Gaiman

As one might expect from Neil Gaiman, Instructions is an unusual little book, and despite technically being a picture book, isn’t necessarily something you would give to a child. Not that the content is objectionable — just a tad incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t well versed in the rules and patterns of fairytales. With that in mind, a child might be the perfect audience! I think what I’m trying to say is thatInstructions is a story for those who love stories, and the more familiar you are with the tales upon which it’s based, the better you will enjoy it.

First published in A Wolf at the Door, an anthology of retold fairytales edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, Instructions centers on a Puss-in-Boots figure who traverses a fairytale world replete with familiar characters and species, guided by the words of the narrator whose wisdom comes from almost every fairytale ever told. Puss opens the wooden gate in the wall and passes through woods and castles, visiting foxes, wolves, giants, devils and witches, joined by a young cat that he helps along the way, whilst the accompanying text gives us such anecdotes as “do not be jealous of your sister,” “remember your name” and “do not look back.” It all rings a distant bell in the mind of the reader as they recall those ancient tenets of folklore and fairytale that have been around from time immemorial.

Charles Vess provides the illustrations (you may recall his style from Susanna Clarke‘s The Ladies of Grace Adieu), creating a visually simplistic but vivid world of the fairytale, in which imps crawl in the branches of treetops, princesses call from tower windows and glass slippers lie abandoned by the roadside. I think my favorite picture is the one where Puss passes over a log-bridge that spans a crevasse, his arms stretched out for balance, completely unaware that a troll lurks beneath his feet. The illustrations are detailed yet uncluttered; it is almost as if a talented child has painted them.

Altogether, Instructions is a difficult book to pin down. It’s simple yet thought-provoking, short yet engrossing. Reading much like a poem, with its own tempo and rhythm, this is a picture book that demands more than one read. The only problem, I felt, was the title. It should have been called Advice.

~Rebecca Fisher

children's fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman InstructionsI am a sucker for illustrated children’s books. I get quite attached to specific editions and consider it a tragedy when some of my favorite tales are reillustrated. It’s the cinematic equivalent of colorizing Casablanca. Imagine my joy to discover that Neil Gaiman, who I love, had paired up with Charles Vess on children’s books.

The two geniuses came together to create Instructions, a short tale for a reader of any age who wants to safely traverse enchanted lands. Like a fairy tale version of Where’s Waldo?, the story and illustrations cover at least three dozen fairy tales and other stories. Every time you go back to this book, the illustrations will reveal another hidden figure tucked away in the branch of a tree, or peeking out from behind a building. I had the fancy upon reading this that Cimorene from THE ENCHANTED FOREST CHRONICLES by Patricia Wrede would have kept this in a pocket to safely guide her through her journeys.

I would recommend Instructions for anyone who loves fairy and folk tales. The more you have read, the more you will get out of this book, which makes me feel perfectly justified in keeping it on my bookshelf as an adult.

~Ruth Arnell

Instructions — (2010) Ages 4-8. Publisher: Trust Dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story. A renowned storyteller whose words have transported readers to magical realms and an acclaimed illustrator of lushly imagined fairy-tale landscapes guide a traveler safely through lands unknown and yet strangely familiar… and home again.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

View all posts by Rebecca Fisher


  1. I love this poem. I think I first read it in one of those Datlow/Windling anthologies, though darned if I can remember which one.

  2. Oooh, this sounds great. I wonder if my almost-4-year-old would be ready for this.

  3. I don’t think there would be anything I wouldn’t show a 4yo, IIRC–but he or she might not catch all the references. ;)

  4. I think your four year old will love it for the artwork. I agree with Kelly about not getting all the references, but I think it would be great to read this with a small child, and then read the other stories to them as well and watch the get the references later.

  5. I think this book should be on the shelf with the rest of the graduation gift books. It works on a lot of different levels.

    The illustrations are wonderful.

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