A Dark Dark Tale: Ruth Brown’s charming gothic picture book as an artistic tribute to the beauty of an autumn night

Reading stories aloud with our children builds their social skills and vocabulary. Moreover, shared empathy for a protagonist who must survive trials and tribulations prompts kids to discuss what they’ve read.

In the spirit of autumn, October and Halloween, one treasured picture book you’ll enjoy reading with toddlers is Ruth Brown’s A Dark, Dark Tale (Picture Puffins) (Public Library, 1992).

The  lavishly illustrated picture book is not particularly long, and as is the case with many picture books, the text is quite minimal and interdependent upon the images.
At first this simplicity is deceptive.

“Once upon a time there was dark, dark moor. On the moor there was a dark, dark wood. In the wood there was a dark, dark house”. ..

From ancient folktale tradition, and Randolph Caldecott’s adaptation of The House that Jack Built up through work such as Brown’s A Dark Dark Tale, mnemonic “repeat and add” or cumulative tales have been perennial favorites for children and teachers alike as young pronunciation and reading skills develop.
Aside from being an incredibly entertaining choice for toddler story time or for children to read aloud, it’s safe to say that readers just love a good old fashioned spooky story. Perfect for Halloween, or any time of the year, kids will especially love the way in which suspense builds as they make their way to that scary room up the old stairs at the end of the dark dark hall.


Ultimately the work is an artistic tribute to the darkness of an autumn night and the stillness of the archetypal, unknown mansion.

Brown’s depiction of  darkness is actually quite lovely…yes, there are a few semi-sinister portraits, long hallways and the fear of what’s around each corner…(as well as a suspenseful buildup to a comical guest at the end) but it’s the depiction of  beautiful shadows that interests me…and Brown’s muted pallet of mole grey, owl brown and the weathered sepias of the countryside’s moor and woods.

Lovingly graced by Browns‘ evocative acrylic paintings which are color separated and reproduced, one can appreciate the lovely, symphonic balance between tone, color and mood. There is a palpable  sense of loneliness and beauty which promise to stay with a reader for far longer than temporal curiosity about what’s behind the last upstairs door.




Compliment A Dark Dark Tale with other fall favorites such as The Little Old Lady Who was not Afraid of Anything by Linda D. Williams, or, for slightly older children, Teeny Tiny and the Witch Woman, Barbara K. Walker’s memorable homage to Baba Yaga.

In each situation, whether one’s fear is real or imagined, the journey is lovingly rendered by an illustrator whose quiet presence accompanies both the parent and child with the turn of each page. Brown’s picture book is a visual tribute to an autumn night which is sure to become a permanent addition to your budding reader’s library.

ruthbrown4944-1Ruth Brown was born in Devon, England in 1942. The first five years of her life were spent playing and exploring the surrounding countryside, and as she describes it “The cottage, the garden and surrounding country were one big fascinating playground which has stayed with me always.” This sentiment is palpable in the majority of her books with their focus on nature, feral animals, and domestic scenery.

In 1947, her family moved to post WWII Germany when her father got a job with the Control Commission. Brown states that “It was an early childhood of extreme contrasts – the freedom of my first five years in the country and then the contrast of post-war Germany.” Perhaps her early exposure to the aftermath of war equipped her with an inclination to include scary elements in so many of her picture books.

She studied at the Bournemouth College of Art, the Birmingham College of Art, and the Royal College of Art, after which she began work as a freelance illustrator. Later, her friend and fellow writer Pat Hutchins piqued her interest in writing her own books and in 1979 her first of many works was published: Crazy Charlie.

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