““Are you ok little horsie?” June asked. “Can’t you fly?” He shook his head. “I can help you,” said June. “We just have to make your fur shake and your tail flutter.”” (Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, Frances Lincoln, 2019)
The unicorn is often portrayed as the ultimate fantasy ‘pet’ of any young girl, with its colourful horse’s mane, magical (sometimes sparkly) horn spiralling out of its forehead, and its ability to protect from acts of evil. The generally accepted origins of its mythology, however, are somewhat the opposite, with the youthful girl playing the part of a temptress to capture the unicorn, ultimately leading to its death.
In actual fact, it is thought that the 7th century Greek description of a unicorn came from a fantasised reflection on the wilds of India – in particular the one-horned Indian rhino, which couldn’t be further from the beautiful image of the small colourful horse that appears in fairy tales today.
The Greek translation of this creature evolved to depict either a horse, goat, or ass, with a single, long, spiral horn in its forehead, a creature that was extremely fierce and almost impossible to capture, unless a virgin girl should stand in its path, at which point the unicorn would submit to her, laying its head on her chest. Its capture would normally end in a gruesome death, as the unicorn horn was valued for its ability to render any poison harmless.
Some tales tell of the guilt of the young girl for her part in the capture of the unicorn, and perhaps this is where we start to see the start of stories that depict the reverse – the girl that saves the unicorn and the girl that befriends the unicorn.
Once Upon a Unicorn Horn is one of those stories – the girl as saviour. June’s favourite past-time is to make-up stories about the woods near her home; whether it is exploring hidden castles or discovering magic wands, June knows that the woods hold secrets that only true believers in fairy tales can see. Until one day, she falls upon a herd of small horses learning how to fly – all but one.
June sets about trying to find ways to help the small horse fly just like the others in its family, but failure sets her on a different path, one which suggests that perhaps just doing something that would make the little creature happy would be enough to release its magic. One fortunate accident later, and the little unicorn has a horn (in fact an upside down ice-cream cone) and can fly. The horn, from that day forward, is a reminder of the kindness of that one little girl.
The concept is an interesting one; the horn is not part of the horse’s anatomy, but more of an accessory used as a symbol of the species origins. The idea that magic doesn’t have to be potions and the flicking of wands, but acts of kindness is also an important message for young readers; it grounds the fantasy in some form of reality and suggests that every young person has the power to do something magical for someone else.
One of the elements that is particularly appealing about this reimagining of the unicorn’s origins, is the fact that when failure strikes, June doesn’t stumble upon an answer, which is so often the case with these stories, but looks to her parents for guidance.
The parents in question, don’t give her the answer on a plate, but involve her in an imaginative and creative process that allows her to think of the answer herself. So often parents in children’s books are either absent, useless, or a hindrance, so it makes for a refreshing change that the parents here are sensible and treat the child’s concerns seriously, yet with a sprinkling of fun to engage the child’s imagination.
This is the first picture book from artist, illustrator, and animator, Beatrice Blue, and it is supported by her original drawings, which gives the book a very personal feel. The family unit that she depicts here, is one that she says she experienced herself as a child growing up in Spain, with creative parents and a younger sister that she would engage in all of her imaginative play.
It is an exciting literary start for this artist, and one that continues into her second outing, Once Upon a Dragon’s Fire, where she reimagines how dragons gained the ability to breathe fire. It is pleasing to see that the illustrations through her second book are more multicultural than her first, but nevertheless, Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, is sure to appeal to the imaginative abilities of any young female reader and to any girl that has dreamt of a unicorn for a friend.
Once Upon a Unicorn Horn, by Beatrice Blue, published by Frances Lincoln, 2019.
Recommended for readers aged between four and seven.