Special Review: Instructions, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Instructions
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Charles Vess
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 40 pages
Genre: children’s – fairy tale
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 5 stars

I finally treated myself to this book, and I’m so glad I did. “Instructions” is one of my all-time favourite poems, and it’s among my favourite things that Neil Gaiman has ever written. Charles Vess always does such fine work, such detailed and quirky illustrations, and so I knew the marriage of the two would be brilliant.

The poem itself is beyond charming. In it, Gaiman gives advice on how to survive if you find yourself plunked down inside a fairy tale. The advice is part tradition, part instinct, all heart. The poem isn’t very long (which makes it perfect for adapting to a fairy tale), but I’ll resist the temptation to post the whole thing here — it’s freely available on the Internet, for anyone who wants it. My favourite bit is this:

Remember your name.
Do not lose hope — what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have helped
to help you in their turn.
Trust dreams.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.

Vess brings delightful whimsy and colourful atmosphere to Gaiman’s words. His protagonist, a gender-inspecific feline creature, marches confidently through the tale. Vess’s images are touching, haunting, and brilliant, almost breath-catching in places. The accompanying images to riding the eagle, the fish, and the wolf are some of my favourites. The real fun of the book, though, is the marginalia, all the details of Faerie that Vess includes. The detritus of a hundred tales graces the pages, references to the stories that must have inspired Gaiman to write the poem in the first place, but which aren’t directly part of the narrative.

I recommend this book to just about anyone. It’s a children’s book, but it doesn’t have to be. The advice is timeless, and will likely push nostalgia buttons for adult readers. The art is quality no matter what age you are. And the idea of believing in yourself and in your story is something you’re never too old to need reminding of.

I generally don’t like book trailers, but this one’s different — it shows off Vess’s art while it was still in-progress, and Gaiman himself is doing the voiceover. So I can recommend that you enjoy this one:

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