A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Retelling classic stories appears to be a very modern preoccupation. If it’s not another bloomin’ adaptation of Austen, it’s ancient myths being brought up to date. I’m not entirely sure how this fashion came about, or whether it’s the literary equivalent of the cover version, but from my limited experience of them, I think it takes an awfully good writer to pull it off.
It’s not just books for adults either. Mo Willems – perhaps best known for his popular picture book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! – has taken on the classic tale of Goldilocks in a picture book aimed at pre-school children. Everyone knows the story of Goldilocks. In Willems’ retelling Goldilocks barges into a “strange, enormous house” to find three bowls of chocolate pudding “at varying temperatures”, three chairs that are all too big, and is about to tackle the three very large beds when she is disturbed by the waiting, slavering dinosaurs who adore “delicious chocolate-filled-little-girl bonbons”… especially when they’re rested. She escapes through the back door, realising that she is in the wrong story. The dinosaurs realise that they should have locked the back door. On the face of it, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs has everything going for it: a well-known and well-loved story; bright, engaging illustrations; dinosaurs. Everyone loves dinosaurs, right? I know I do. So why do I have such mixed feelings about it?
Well, to be honest, I don’t feel like the humour and tone are pitched quite right. The (many) jokes are really there for the adult reading the book, and while I do appreciate children’s authors throwing a little something in for the grown-up reading it for the bazillionth time, I also think that the story should also appeal strongly to the child. Example:
“Sure enough, five minutes later a poorly supervised little girl named Goldilocks came traipsing along. Just then the forest boomed with what could have been a Dinosaur yelling ‘GOTCHA!’ but I’m pretty sure that was just the wind.
The loud noise was immediately followed by another loud noise that sounded kind of like ‘BE PATIENT PAPA DINOSAUR! THE TRAP IS NOT YET SPRUNG!”
But that could have been a rock falling. Or a squirrel.”
So, I like it. I find it funny. And I think the 7/8/9 years olds I know would find it funny. But I don’t think my daughter (2 and a half) does. Which leaves me wondering who the book’s intended audience is: the pre-schooler or the parent? I just think it slightly misses the mark and seems to be all parent and not young child.
In its favour, though, are the illustration, which my daughter absolutely loves. Whenever we read it – which is often – she spends much more time pointing at the pictures, talking about the dinosaurs, and telling me that Goldilocks looks like a ballet dancer. (She has a bit of a thing about ballet dancers at the moment, and everything has the potential to look like one. Even me, apparently.) I think that’s a big reason why she keeps coming back to it time and again, and in that sense the book has succeeded wonderfully. I just have my reservations about the level of the story itself.
For what it’s worth, I love the Pigeon books. I think they are much more successful at being funny for both parent and young child, and there’s a greater element of interactivity involving shouting “STOP!” at the pigeon as it attempts to drive a bus. And maybe I’m overthinking things with this one… but I just can’t get away from a sense that it might be trying a little bit too hard.
Mo Willems: Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (London: Walker Books, 2013). ISBN 9781406355321, RRP £6.99