March 29


Reconsidering Red Riding Hood by Eli Brown

When did I first scratch my head about Little Red Riding Hood? Kids are experts at shrugging at the imperfect world. They believe us when we tell them how Wednesday is spelled and then they move on to more important matters. After all, there are bugs to poke.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about folktales, and Red Riding Hood is on my mind again. I am grateful for masterful and inspiring reclamations like Olga Broumas’ poem “Little Red Riding Hood” and Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf.” However, when I told my six-year-old daughter the story recently, I was struck again by the glaring omissions in the basic plot.

Perhaps there were cookies in the basket, perhaps sandwiches. It hardly matters unless we’re very hungry. But there is no doubt about what the girl wore: an item of clothing so important that it serves as her name: Le Petit Chaperon Rouge; Rotkäppchen. No matter the language, the girl’s identity seems less important than that admirable cloak.

In a story which involves disguise, bloody acts, and a villain worth hiding from, the unmistakable riding hood is left, astonishingly, unused. It didn’t even shelter the girl from a hard rain.

Anton Chekhov famously suggested that a writer should not mention a gun unless it will be used later in the story. If Jack had pocketed the magic beans, never to use them, we would have asked a few questions. If Rapunzel had shaved her head, if Dorothy’s coveted slippers only padded her feet, we, a self-respecting audience, would not have stood for it.

What then of our Riding Hood? Was there ever such a violation of the rules of storytelling, such a promise unfulfilled? Faced with this narrative sinkhole, I have begun to cast a suspicious eye on other aspects of the tale.

Why, for example, did the Wolf, having learned of the location of the grandmother’s house, not simply eat the girl right there on the trail? What stopped him? After eating Little Red and the contents of the basket, he could have sauntered at his own pace to grandmother’s house and spared himself the trouble of squeezing into an old lady’s clothes. Instead, he resorted to desperate and demeaning theatrics.

I’m frustrated that the Wolf seems to know something I don’t. It is almost as if an important element of the story has been gobbled up.

The writer in me wants to fill in the cracks. Was the Wolf afraid? Did he know that the only way to defeat Red Riding Hood was to take her completely unawares?

The father in me wants to provide my daughter with more than warnings. I want her to have the tools she needs. I do not want her to rely on the axes of woodsmen.

It occurs to me that this story, handed down generation after generation, belongs to us. If it is flawed, we might still mend it. In fact, we’re obligated to.

Let us say, then, that the Red Riding Hood was a magical object. Enchanted. Ensorcelled. Such a thing would hardly be a surprise in a tale like this. The Wolf knew it, and now we do too.

What wonderous effects would make the Wolf cower? Help me imagine it: heavy, rust-colored wool, the seams edged with a steady, onion-yellow stitch. It smells comfortingly of lanolin. What was the name of the girl who wore it? What was Little Red Riding Hood capable of?


Eli Brown’s debut middle-grade novel, ODDITY, is a gritty alternate historical fantasy. It features a Pistol that cannot miss, a Tea Pot containing an ocean of chamomile, and a thirteen-year-old surgeon’s daughter in search of dangerous family secrets. Brown’s culinary pirate novel, CINNAMON AND GUNPOWDER, was a finalist for the California Book Award and an NPR Book Review Staff Pick. He lives with his family in Northern California where the squirrels bury acorns in his garden and cats bury worse