BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, retold by Mary Pope Osborne; illustrated by Winslow Pinney Pels (Scholastic: $13.95, 40 pp.; all ages). In the late 1700s a teacher named Madame de Beaumont published a periodical called Magasin des infants , using many of her own stories in what was to be a forerunner for children's magazines. One of her stories, originally written for the wealthier classes, has become a classic French fairy tale: "Beauty and the Beast," about, of course, a girl whose love releases a prince from a spell that had turned him into a hideous beast.
Through the years, interpretations have varied little. Like Cinderella, Beauty is mistreated by older sisters and finds romance through a transformation. In the castle she reads from "a library that contained all the books ever written," she plays music and shares intellectual banter with her host, the beast; definitely good form for an upper-class daughter. Her inner beauty and capacity for love is what ultimately wins her a happy life. After all these years the moral is sound. However, this edition promotes an irritating stereotype: Beauty is blond and fair.
Granted, this is a traditional European fairy tale, but wouldn't it be good for our children to see a heroine who is other than lily-white perfect? Young listeners will imagine the characters in their own minds, probably unaware of race or color. But in a picture book,listeners become readers; they see race and color. The illustrator unwittingly sends messages that do nothing to help the self-esteem of nonwhite children.
This is not a criticism of Pels' artwork, for it really is quite lovely. But the story's meaning could easily remain intact if Beauty were drawn as a Hispanic, Oriental, black or Indian. Now that would be beauty.