Something Old, Something New; Something Borrowed, Something True: Refreshing a Classic by Andrea Spooner
I’ve had the pleasure of working on many folktale and fairy tale retellings in my nearly twenty-five year career, and some of the most rewarding experiences have been working on Jerry Pinkney’s tales The Lion & The Mouse (the 2010 Randolph Caldecott Medal) and his upcoming The Three Billy Goats Gruff (coming May 2017), as well as his highly acclaimed books The Ugly Duckling, Noah’s Ark, The Tortoise & the Hare, The Grasshopper & the Ants, and several other favorites.
(Am I the luckiest picture book editor on the planet or what?)
So, what makes a classic story ripe for retelling? Sure, we try to focus on stories that haven’t been retold in a similar style for a while, but more importantly, we’re looking for an artistic challenge that’s going to push Jerry to raise the bar on his own work. The “holy grail” is when there’s a personal connection to the story for the artist, and a timely relevance in theme that’s going to give the retelling real heart and meaning.
“Slow and steady wins the race” in The Tortoise & The Hare, for example, is a message that resonates more than ever in an lightning-fast era where kids are pushed to “Race to the Top”, sometimes at a great cost. Jerry’s struggle with dyslexia in his youth made reading and learning a painfully slow process for him, and so this story was one he especially wanted to share.
Jerry honed in on the upcoming The Three Billy Goats Gruff when he realized that it was essentially a story about bullying. Since bullying has become a major topic in elementary schools, it’s a perfect conversation starter in the classroom, in addition to being a tremendously fun read-aloud.
But there was one problem…
The end. (Behold, above, Marcia Brown’s version of the story: Yep, that’s a picture of a dismembered troll.) Some versions of the story have the troll drowning, or turning to stone, or even being crushed to pieces. At worst it’s horrifying and at best this approach seems abrupt and outdated in its gory schadenfreude.
Sure, we all like to see the bully get what’s coming to him, but he didn’t even have a chance to learn his lesson. Could Jerry figure out a way to offer a more thoughtful end, without being boringly euphemistic or terribly didactic? One that does justice to what children love in the story, like the refrains…
and the “devil getting his due” so to speak…
…But that also gives us a little more to discuss at the end? For years, Jerry wasn’t sure. The story remained in suspended animation in his mind for years he continued to work on other retellings while he wondered how to “crack that nut.” Cracking the nut is what gets him going, though; it’s the sand in the oyster that generates the pearl. What would be the key to unlocking this tale? How many metaphors can I mix in here? Well, here’s another one…
A great classic refresh has something old, something new; something borrowed, something… true.
We don’t retell classics just because there’s a built-in familiarity that might make them more saleable. We retell them because they tap into something true about humanity today. Back around the turn of the millennium, for example, we picked Noah’s Ark not just because Jerry paints with watercolor like nobody’s business and this book is flooded with WATER; but also, let’s be honest: apocalyptic notions (remember Y2K?) were very much in the “ether” and, as the threat of climate change started dawning on us, flooding was on a lot of minds, too.
There is something true about The Grasshopper and the Ants, too. Sure, we all know the moral “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today,” but what Jerry explores in his art digs deeper into the ethical dilemma of the tale. A sequence of panels draws out the indecision of the community of ants, safe in their warm and protected shelter underground, debating whether or not to open their home to the grasshopper, who is about to freeze to death outside.
While the ants reject the grasshopper at first, their kind queen unilaterally reverses their vote and invites the shivering creature to tea. This scene that Jerry chose to explore echoes what’s true today more than ever about The Three Billy Goats Gruff: It’s a story of refugees, of immigration, of an insurmountable barrier to a land of plenty and a greedy gatekeeper who won’t let those hungry goats enter the place he considers to be his own.
Sound familiar? This is our world. And with a looming future sure to be defined by rising sea levels and devastating drought, growing tensions over limited resources, and an increased dependency on the kindness of neighbors, this is a story that is going to be more and more resonant.
But how were we to ensure this wasn’t just a revenge tale? The troll didn’t need to die, of course—but should he make amends with the goats? Jerry tried versions where the troll, originally depicted in his dummy as a farmer of the lush landscape, gives a bale of hay to the goats as a peace offering after accepting defeat.
But given the short time horizon in a picture book, it was hard to believably convey the conversion of the troll’s fury to regret and sudden generosity. It didn’t feel emotionally true. (You can see my note to self in the sketch above: Has time passed?, plus my speculation that we might need a transitional line like “The next day…”—but ultimately we decided that was a real groaner!) And so Jerry came up with a different, more subtle solution, one that indicates that there is a story beyond the story—the sense that these two warring parties may somehow try to find a way, over time, to coexist peacefully.
I know you’re waiting for me to show you the final spreads, but the book is months away from publication, and I can’t give away all of the best parts! You must see and interpret it for yourself. Another one of the best parts not shown here is the new climax to the story—one of the invented aspects of Jerry’s version. Imagine that—something to top even the big billy goat head-butting the troll off the bridge!
When shaping these retellings we try to honor the tradition of the story and what makes them favorites, and so we are not afraid to borrow elements from public domain versions that have been passed down from generation to generation. But spinning something new into them from the perspective of the storyteller—whether it’s visual or textual—is not only a major part of the fun, it’s a big responsibility… whether it’s using people of color as protagonists and supporting characters—
—or creating a paradigm shift, like the addition of a surprise twist to a classic.
As much as we need fractured tales—humorous, inventive versions that gleefully turn the old stories on their heads—we do also need versions like Jerry’s that are “true” to what’s primal and timeless about these classics, while enhancing them with new perspectives. Like when the fast and flashy hare accepts the slow and steady tortoise’s hard-earned triumph, and passes along the winner’s banner…
It’s a win-win situation.