I’ve been wanting to write this up for a long time but my poor tired brain has been slow as a troll in direct sunlight and I’m focusing all intellectual space on the Changeling. But said Changeling and I just finished reading one book that heavily features a troll (The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente, you absolutely must read it but start with the first book first, I’ve told you this before, but you never listen, I know you, so just go for the full boxed set and find it out) and I’ve noticed myself thinking “I bet there’s a troll hidden there” every time I see an illustration of a bridge, or, well… Any bridge in real life, honestly. Or in illustrations. Bridges and trolls go together like waterfalls and bears in canoes full of blueberries. They just fit. I was singing this to the Spriggan, and couldn’t stop thinking: “I bet there’s a troll just to the left, I know it.”
And when my kids started playing “troll under the bridge” over and under the little slide, I knew the time was right. And when I saw the preorder campaign… But I’m ahead of myself. What is the book? The Three Billy Goats Gruff retold by Mac Barnett (he did the words) and Jon Klassen (he did the art). When does it come out? October 18? How on earth did you get to see it early, Deborah? Well, I’m chopped troll food compared to my super cool daughter, who has been sending Mac Barnett letters and even occasionally copies of her awesome newspaper, The Weekly Animal Post. Mac Barnett, if I speak plainly, is simply one of our family heroes, and Jon Klassen no less so. But Mac Barnett more so at the moment because he, very kindly and equally unexpectedly, sent an advance copy of The Three Billy Goats Gruff signed and personalized to the Changeling. I may have gasped and flailed in excitement. She, cool and calm, said, in an nutshell, “Oh how lovely. I’ll have to send him a thank you note and a few more newspapers. I should write another joke for him, too.” But this exchange enabled me to get a look and give the book a trial run as what it needs to be: an active read aloud.
That should be said three times: once small, then more clearly and firmly, and then GIGANTICALLY UNDERLINED.
This book will seem nice in the hand, but it is only truly to be fully enjoyed when read aloud.
I’m going to digress briefly. [Ed.: Your digression, dear author, was not brief.] I have a long-held, deep and rich, profound and passionate love for hardback picture book retellings of fairy tales and folklore. Just take one story, rooted in some form of tradition going back centuries or, perhaps, millennia, and tell it over 30-odd pages with fabulous art… I will always take a look, and probably buy it. My curated collection of these goes back to my first babysitting gig in my early teens. I was paid, and I went to the book shop and had to choose between Paul O. Zelinsky’s Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin. (I wasn’t unionized and didn’t have enough for both.) I don’t remember which I got first because I changed my mind ten times in a minute but I do remember I got the other one the next time. My collection has grown and altered and curated itself until it’s quite a beautiful set. I do not keep every book because while I have strong opinions about any fairy tale retelling you can name, my standards for a fairy tale or folk tale in picture book form with full art, and I really think endpapers, borders, and design count, ok?, are extremely high and extremely refined and extremely hard to get across succinctly. [Ed.: I’m noticing that last word. Rethink “briefly” above.]
Let’s talk about the process of getting this particular form right, shall we? The story, first of all, is not yours, as the author. At least, not initially. You have to live with it enough to make it yours. Twisted fairy tales are a way of doing this in a faster fashion: you can take a story, mull it over, and give it a tweak right there that’s personal and amusing (and can really work or really flop) and suddenly the story belongs to you. I’ve done this, and it’s very fun. A straight retelling is even harder, in my view. At least, I’ve never been happy with a single attempt I’ve made, not enough to even show it to a friend, and I’ve only given up in frustration. Those who have done it well, Joseph Jacobs being one of the best in my not at all humble opinion, have a strong but flexible voice. Here, I’m not talking of picture books. I’m speaking of any folk or fairy tale. So if you look at Jacobs’s English Fairy Tales, for example, if a story calls for a more narrative, literary style, he can do that. If it’s lighter in atmosphere and heavier on dialogue, he excels at that, as well. But the point is that his voice, while distinctive, serves the needs of the original story. He is not appropriating it; he is telling it faithfully. There are brilliant authors, truly fantastic storytellers in their own right, who are utterly incapable of good retellings of fairy tales because they do not own or serve the existing, independent narrative, and they just end up as a dull sequence of events rather than a lively and captivating retelling.
Side note of an academic nature: the process of retelling is old, old, old. I believe it to be harder to accomplish now that we have a more sacred view of authorship. My first surprise as a medievalist was seeing how cheerfully stories were taken and retold. NB: Mac Barnett, who retold The Three Billy Goats Gruff which I will review before this post is through, was a medievalist before he was a children’s book author. I can’t help but sometimes think how he’d have enjoyed getting a whack at adding a tale or two to the Roman de renart… (I’m not dropping hints, that would be crass.)
Fine, so you’ve got your medievalist retelling a story with the correct balance of absolute reverence and complete independence, using their personal voice in service of a story they acknowledge is not theirs at all, no big issue there, and then, after all that, you have another problem. Almost all of these stories are accustomed to being told or read aloud. To return to Jacobs, of whom I spoke above– when I mentioned his voice, I wasn’t just thinking of it in literary terms; I have been known to read those stories to myself in an undertone because they do strongly desire to be spoken. I clearly recall that once upon a time I referenced the story of Mr. Fox to a friend, who said she didn’t know it. I didn’t have the book to hand, but I could still tell her the story as Joseph Jacobs had written it, not word-perfect, and not because I’d memorized it, but because his narrative was so perfect that I was able to entirely call his retelling to mind. (I think that would make a great picture book.) Now, is your fairy tale or folk tale going to be a picture book? The need to be a good read aloud has gone from “necessary” to “compulsory.” But you’re still not done.
You have retold the story with an eye to spreading it across 30-odd pages, it is ready for art, and all of the needs of a picture book in terms of the integral relationship between art and text remain. I’m not pushing this one farther; we all know how hard that is. Of course, the process will depend on whether you’re the artist as well as author, in which case your brain is exploding by this point because you know your job and realize that you’ve created a scenario where even though you don’t like drawing structures, you have to draw a bridge on every page, or you, the author doing that perfect retelling described above, are handing over your carefully written, rewritten, edited, read-aloud-to-check-it-works narrative to an artist and have to have faith they’ll take it to the next level. The artist, you or someone else, has the simple task of representing the text with accuracy, but not replicating it in extreme detail, which is to say: all the artist has to do is make sure they represent the narrative without exactly reproducing the words boringly; the text, I forgot to mention above, has to have left room for the art and the art has to seize on that and go beyond the text. Without either impinging on the ground of the other. Easy. The two are halves of more than a whole. But, beyond the needs of the usual picture book, in folk and fairy tales the need is both narrative (stories in fairy tales tend to be real arcs) and psychological and emotional (these stories are likewise deep and powerful and live on for a reason). So the art has to work with that.
All of this has to be inconspicuous and seamless and come across with smooth delight.
And I wish publishers used better paper for these sorts of books since the slick, lightweight shiny stuff normally used just doesn’t suit a book of that caliber. They should have hefty, creamy paper that takes the colour and print to the next level.
Also I want a cottage in the woods on hens’ legs, while we’re at it, and whatever story Mac Barnett would add to the Roman de renart. (I’m just joking, I’m not really asking you to write that story!) (But wouldn’t you enjoy it?)
Look, there’s a real reason I don’t often review these sorts of books. First, not many are being produced now. Second, when they are, they rarely meet my exacting standards (and I bet you, reading this, are thinking “those poor people, Deborah is viciously picky” and, thank you, yes, I am– I just checked and I’m at over 1700 words and haven’t gotten to the book; I’m not only stupidly picky and obsessive, I’m proud of it). Third, when a book is that good it can be hard to review.
But [Ed. This is where the “brief” digression ends, you can come back now.] I’m doing it for this because, first of all, to my delight The Three Billy Goats Gruff went beyond everything I described and is faithful and original, funny and tender, slightly creepy and incredibly robust, beautiful and gruesome, all while smoothly retelling the old story. Being a world away from the usual fairy tale book retellings (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc) it has room to develop itself without contending with endless predecessory– and being very short in most collections, being given room to breathe across several pages reveals its enormous narrative potential.
It is, in a word, a new type of old retelling.
I do not wish to suggest that Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen– and both names have to be given in tandem, you can see how they work as a team– are in any way ignoring prior work; on the contrary, they really pay attention to patterning a story across page turns, for example, with equivalent attention to earlier masters of the form: Paul O. Zelinsky, for sure, but also Trina Schart Hyman, Marianna Mayer, and so on. The Three Billy Goats Gruff is in many ways very, very traditional. While the voice is uncompromisingly Mac Barnett Telling a Story, he doesn’t twist the story, it’s not “set” in any time or place, and it has the combination of specificity (you can reach through the words and images to touch the core) and universality (it’s in fairy tale time and space, which is “always and forever”) of any old, true story.
But it’s not the kind of story I’m used to adding to my folk and fairy tale shelf. It’s the story they chose that is so distinctive. Think about the stories I’ve collected in perfect editions: Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dear As Salt, Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, The Twelve Dancing Princesses… Most of these are more fairy than folk tale. Most of these are beautiful and get exquisite, intricate borders, and glowing colours. Most of these have genteel humour and subtle horror. Most of these are also for older readers.
I love them. I truly believe they made me an academic. I will always love them. I would not be who I am without them.
And I am just crazy with joy to see an equally attentive, traditionally perfect retelling of an old story with faith and trust in the actual narrative, perfect artistic pairing, and perfect editing including brilliant endpapers that will make younger kids laugh at the distinctive narrative voice telling them a story from years gone by. This retelling is fun to read with a kid bouncing on your knee. I’m desperate for a chance to read it to a crowd: are you a kindergarten or Grade 1 teacher? This is for you. A librarian? For you. A grandparent or parent with (grand)kids of the younger age and some who claim to be too old but will inevitably be drawn in? Welcome, here’s a book for you!
The story has a tinge of the creepy and spooky and a heaping dose of gruesome as the troll fantasizes about goatish meals– please recall that Hallowe’en is around the corner. Jon Klassen’s gloriously dingy art highlights the danger and gruesome nature of the story while unexpectedly adding tenderness as the largest goat shelters the smaller brothers at the end (did I mention this is the art for the poster that Scholastic is giving away with preorders?). And because the humour of the telling is never made evident in the art, the straightforwardness of the art simply highlights the exaggerated absurdity of the story as the troll disappears.
The very oddest bit to me, though, is that I retain that twinge of sympathy for the hungry troll. I would never wish harm on those billy goats! But farewell, troll. Until I read your story again.
I want more of this.
Oh, I will always want new editions of my beloved Beauty and the Beast (though it’s hard to beat Marianna Meyer), Snow White (though who could do better than Trina Schart Hyman?), and so on. But imagine a Mr. Fox or a King of the Cats in picture book form! Why not? I want more of this, I want more stories that mine the richness of the old and bring them into a full hardback form with perfect art. I hope that Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen are at the leading edge of a trend. This is an area with so much to offer.
I’m greedy as a troll: I want more of this.