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Jerry Pinkney: Making the classics kinder

In addition to the dozens of books Jerry Pinkney (1939-2021) has illustrated for others, he has also retold a number of tales from Aesop’s Fables, Hans Christian Andersen, and Rudyard Kipling. While loyal to these classics, he always adds in his own spin, which is often kinder than the original.

This gentler take comes out in his illustrations too, where his use of watercolor makes his pictures bright, but soft. He loved drawing animals with people’s facial quirks and often packed his pages with detail.

What follows is a summary review of his most popular picture books.

Recommended

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
1997 / 48 pages
This is a gorgeous treatment of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a lost mongoose taken in by an English family in India. But he’s not simply a pet – mongooses are snake killers, and there are three snakes in the family garden that he has to fight, one by one. The story is scary in parts, but each fight is quickly told, which might make this a great book to introduce young readers to a bit of tension. Pinkney’s watercolor paintings add enormously to the story.

The Ugly Duckling
1999 / 40 pages
Everyone seems a little bit nicer (or maybe a little less mean) to the ugly duckling in Pinkney’s version, though he does still get picked on for looking so different from the other ducklings. It’s only when he discovers he is a swan, not a duck, that he finds his place in the world. The moral to this story is one that parents can shape to a degree: is it about finding the right peer group – one that will accept you for who you are – or is what’s important finding out who God intends you to be?

Aesop’s Fables
2000 / 96 pages
This is a fabulous collection of more than 60 of Aesop’s fables. Even if you aren’t familiar with the ancient Greek author Aesop, you’ve certainly heard at least a few of his fables, ones like The Ant and the Grasshopper, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Lion and the Mouse. In this collection the stories are at their shortest, just half a page to maybe two, which means you can read a handful at a time to your children. There is a moral to each story, again, and while most of them are insightful and foster common sense, these are not inspired. We found some of them are disputable, or right in one situation and may be wrong in another. That makes them all the more fun to read together, because examining the moral spurs on the discussion. That might be a reason parents would want to read this one with their kids, and not simply hand it off to them. None of the morals taught are all that horrible, so it isn’t a dangerous book: just a limited one, that gets some things only partly right, which means, also partly wrong.

The Little Red Hen
2006 / 32 pages
A red hen asks her barnyard companions if any of them will help her plant, harvest, carry, or bake her grain, and the pig, dog, rat, and goat all answer in turn, “Not I!” So, when it comes to the eating of the bread, the hen decides that they won’t have any part in that either. This is a tale about justice, so it is worth reminding kids that we shouldn’t be so quick to deliver justice to others, as Jesus satisfied the just judgment coming our way so that we would instead receive mercy.

Little Red Riding Hood
2007 / 40 pages
I love the little details Pinkney adds: in this one, he offers a reason as to why the wolf didn’t just gobble Little Red Riding Hood when he first met her in the forest – “he heard the chop, chop of woodcutters working nearby.” The wolf then gets ahead of Little Red by suggesting she stop to collect some kindling for a fire to warm her grandmother. Parents can point out that while this might seem a nice idea, it’s actually disobeying Red’s mother, who told her to head straight there with no delay. I was surprised when not only grandma but Red herself gets swallowed up. But, of course, the woodcutter does come to the rescue.

The Lion and the Mouse
2009 / 40 pages
When a tiny mouse disturbs the rest of the King of the Beasts, the King seems intent on having a quick snack. But instead, after some back and forth with the tiny petitioner, the lion lets the mouse go. Why? Readers already familiar with this Aesop Tale will remember that the mouse has pledged to help the king if ever he is in trouble. But in Pinkney’s almost entirely wordless version – there are only a few squeaks, one owl screech, and a lion’s roar – it isn’t as clear. But no worries, we can follow along well enough. Then when hunters trap the mighty lion in a net, it is the mouse that comes to the rescue, chewing through the rope to set the lion free. The moral of the story? Even the strongest will need help.

Three Little Kittens
2010 / 40 pages
Three little kittens lose their mittens, and consequently, lose their chance to eat their mother’s pie. Pinkney has extended but only lightly altered this classic tale, and paired it with page after page of adorable kitty pictures that any child will love to look at.

The Tortoise and the Hare
2013 / 40 pages
In this nearly wordless retelling (just 27 in all) we get treated to a double-page spread of the hare stretched out galloping with everything he’s got. In some versions of the story, the rabbit succumbs to ego and flattery, falling behind when he does stunts to impress the fans (particularly the girl fans) but Pinkney gives him a less obnoxious flaw, distracting him instead with a plump lettuce garden, where he overindulges and falls asleep. And that’s when the slow but steady turtle can make his move. The story concludes with the hare being a good sport and celebrating the turtle’s victory.

The Grasshopper & the Ants
2015 / 40 pages
In this version the grasshopper is a one-man band, singing his encouragements to the ants to forgo their work for play. Of course, when winter comes, we see the (unstated) moral to the story play out: that we should not put off until tomorrow what we can do today. But Pinkney’s ending, with the ants offering the grasshopper a place to winter, leaves us wondering if the grasshopper learned that lesson.

Three Billy Goats Gruff
2017 / 40 pages
This is the best version of this classic tale you will find, with wonderful artwork paired with an updated and improved version of the story. The three goats come, one by one, the smallest first, to cross a bridge to get to some delicious grassland. A troll pops up to devour the first goat, but this little one promises that his bigger, tastier brother is coming, and the troll should really wait for him. When the second comes, he says the same about his even bigger brother, and the troll lets him pass too. But when the biggest Billy Goat Gruff comes, he knocks the troll right off the bridge. That’s usually the end of the story, but Pinkney has the troll land in a river where a giant fish tries to devour him! After his narrow escape, the question is, has the troll learned his lesson? This is a story parents could maybe use to talk about bullying, but they would have to note that even though the troll got what he deserved here, that doesn’t mean we have to do to others as they were going to do to us.

Take it or leave it

Noah’s Ark
2002 / 40 pages
I’m leery of biblical adaptations in large part because those that do them are often casual about how closely their summaries line up with what the Bible says, and the visual dimension will add details that weren’t in the biblical text. However, Pinkney is quite careful, with his most notable departure the omission that, in addition to the pairs of creatures two by two, seven of each clean animals were also taken (or, likely, seven pairs of each clean animal – Gen. 7:2-3).

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
2011 / 30 pages
A chipmunk stars in this retelling of the classic bedtime nursery rhyme, and early on he is finding “little stars” everywhere, from a dandelion fluff floating in the sky, to water droplets glistening on a spider’s web. But then, suddenly, he’s in a boat sailing to the moon. Clearly, he must be dreaming here, but the transition from the waking world is abrupt and I think most children (and many an adult) will be mystified as to what just happened.

Don’t bother

The Little Match Girl
1999 / 32 pages
I have to say I’ve never liked the original version of this Hans Christian Andersen tale, and nothing has changed with Jerry Pinkney’s update. It is well done, but such a sad tale. And while it is important for adults to know of the needy, I don’t know that I have to confront my Grade 1 child with these difficulties.

The Nightingale
2002 / 40 pages
An African adaptation of an odd and lesser-known Hans Christian Andersen tale. It features death as a creepy character which is why I’m content to have it remain a lesser-known tale.

Puss in Boots
2012 / 40 pages

A beautiful version of a less than heroic tale about a clever but deceitful cat who tricks everyone into believing his master is a Count.

The Little Mermaid
2020 / 48 pages
In his version, the Little Mermaid doesn’t fall in love at first sight, doesn’t give up her life underwater for a man who doesn’t even know she exists, and doesn’t trade her tail for legs that constantly feel like she’s walking on blades. So, an improvement on the original? Maybe. But Pinkney’s version has a witch that looks like Satan himself, all red and horned, and a tack-on “girl-power” ending with the Little Mermaid suddenly able to beat all the bad guys all by herself for reasons that remain elusive. There’s no reason to get this one.

Conclusion

In the many articles prompted by Pinkney’s passing late last year, mention was made of how this prolific author struggled with reading in his youth. It was only decades later that he discovered he had dyslexia. Pinkney credited his parents’ positive outlook with enabling him to persist, and while he had struggles in one area, he found out that he was gifted in another: right from the start, he had a talent for art.

These obituaries also spoke of his advocacy for African Americans. He grew up in a tumultuous time. He was almost the same age as Emmett Till, a young black boy who was famously murdered for simply flirting with a white woman. It wasn’t until Pinkney started having children himself that black children started being depicted in picture books. He’s made a point of including them frequently in his own work – for example, he has a black Red Riding Hood – though the inclusion is done naturally, without any particular note made. Even his advocacy is gentle.

What never seemed to be mentioned was anything about Pinkney’s relationship with his Maker. The closest was a passing reference to his wife being a minister, which would have us suspect he was a liberal Christian. If so, his love for the old classics seems to have kept him from pushing any such liberalism in his books. He is an author that Christian parents will love to share with their little ones, particularly because he so often put a new spin on familiar fare.


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Articles, Book Reviews, Children’s picture books

Jan Brett: picture books' peak

What sets Jan Brett (1949- ) apart as a picture book illustrator is how much she packs into every page. There’s always lots going on right there in the middle of her double-page pictures, and then there's even more to see toward the edges – Brett’s trademark is to use the side and bottom borders to give hints to the attentive child of what might be coming next. So, for example, in The Mitten, the small picture on the right-hand border of every two-page spread gives us our first glimpse of the next animal to try to squeeze into the already crowded mitten. What sets Brett apart as an author is the creative twists she brings to otherwise familiar fairytales. Goldilocks, the Gingerbread Man, Cinderella, and the Big Bad Wolf are all taken to new settings, with the most unusual reimagining being Cinderella as told with chickens. RECOMMENDED All of her books are 32 pages, and all are aimed at the pre-school to Grade 2 age group (though older children will certainly enjoy revisiting them for years to come). But which Brett should you begin with? And which would make ideal gifts for the kids or grandkids, or purchases for the school library? With more than 40 books so far, there’s certainly lots to enjoy. What follows are my recommendations grouped by theme. TWO SETS OF MITTENS I couldn’t track down which is Brett’s most popular book, but in that she’s written three sequels to it, I’d think Brett’s favorite has to be The Mitten. The Mitten: a Ukrainian folktale (1989) After his grandmother knits him some snow-white mittens, Nicki loses one in the forest. But one boy’s loss is a mole’s gain, who finds it just the perfect size to crawl into and stay cozy and warm. A passing rabbit has the same thought, and, despite there really being no room, joins the mole, only to have a hedgehog, owl, and more squeeze in. The charming story has a fun twist at the end when Nicki recovers his lost mitten. The Hat (1997) Hedgie gets a woolen sock stuck to her head, and the other animals use the rest of the drying laundry to fashion their own hats. The Umbrella (2002) This retelling of The Mitten takes place in the jungle and begins with a little frog trying to find refuge in a little boy’s lost umbrella. But it isn’t too long before he has a lot of very close neighbors. Cozy (2020) An Alaskan Muskox named Cozy becomes a refuge for cold animals seeking shelter. It starts with some lemmings, then a snowshoe rabbit, and so on. The attentive young reader will notice that this is another retelling of The Mitten but with its own creative twists. HEDGIE’S BOOKS Hedgie the hedgehog makes frequent appearances in Brett’s books, showing up in at least twenty of them. Most often it’s somewhere in the background (he’s carved into a bedpost in Goldilocks and the Three Bears) but in The Hat above, and in the books below, he has a bigger role. Trouble with Trolls (1994) A little girl, Treva, has to contend with some troublesome trolls who really want her pet dog for their own. Though she outsmarts them in the end, children might feel a little sorry for the trolls, who just wanted a pet. But the observant child will notice that, though they don’t deserve it, by story’s end, the trolls do end up with a wonderful pet. Guess who it is!  Hedgie’s Surprise (2002) Hedgie helps a hen stop a thieving Tomten (a Danish gremlin) from taking her eggs so that she can have a family. The borders are done as needlepoint for added charm. The Snowy Nap (2018) Hedgie puts off hibernation long enough to see the farm in wintertime. FAIRYTALES WELL (RE)TOLD There is a reason the same fairytales we heard as kids are still being told – they are classics for a reason. But Brett’s taken on the challenge of improving on them, and in these four her success is obvious. The first three here are all versions of Goldilocks and there’s something to love about each one. Goldilocks and the Three Bears (1987) What sets this faithful retelling apart is the detailed, gorgeous pictures - there is so much to see! And the author also explains (which few other versions do) how the Papa and Mama bears could tell Goldilocks had been on their chairs and beds.  The Three Snow Bears (2007) An Inuit girl, Aloo-ki, ends up at the igloo house of a family of polar bears. She’s less destructive than in the original, and the bears are more forgiving. The arctic landscape brings added charm. The Mermaid (2017) This time Goldilocks is a mermaid visiting the home of the three octopuses. The ending is a little happier than it usually is – the little one gets a gift from “Goldilocks.” Beauty and the Beast (1989) To save her father, a girl agrees to live with a beast and his animal servants. That’s always made this my least favorite fairytale – what sort of loving father would let his daughter sacrifice herself for him? But while Brett’s version still includes this troublesome opening, the artwork makes it special. An observant child will notice the paintings shown on the castle hallway walls reveal what the animal servants used to look like back when they were human. Town Mouse · Country Mouse (1994) When a pair of country mice switch places with two city mice, they both learn that there’s no place like home. An added element to this version: a city cat and a country owl both intent on getting dinner.  Gingerbread baby (1997) While the title character is full of sass, this is a kinder, gentler twist on the classic Gingerbread Man tale. The 3 little Dassies (2010) Brett has taken The Three Little Pigs to Africa, swapping in dassies (gopher-like creatures) as the architects, and an eagle as the windbag. It’s a little scarier than its source material because the eagle actually catches the first two dassies, But never fear – in the picture borders we can watch as they are rescued by a friendly lizard even as the eagle makes his unsuccessful attempt at Dassie #3. THE REST OF THE BEST Among this potpourri are original stories from Jan Brett, as well as folktales from other countries. Annie and the Wild animals (1985) When a little girl’s pet cat goes missing, she tries to find a new pet from among the wild animals in the forest. What she discovers is that none of them are a good fit. Fortunately, her cat comes back...and she brings some surprises with her.  Fritz and the beautiful horses (1987) A scruffy pony wishes that someone would ride him but all anyone does is laugh at how he looks. But when the town’s bridge breaks, the sure-footed Fritz is able to do something the beautiful horses won’t – he can bring the town’s children through the river back to their parents. Hurray for Fritz! Berlioz the Bear (1991) A bear and his band of musicians are stuck on their way to the gala – their donkey won’t budge. Can the rooster, cat, goat, or ox get him to move? No, but children will enjoy seeing how something much smaller can change the stubborn beast’s mind! Daisy comes home (2002) Set in China, this is the tale of a quiet meek chicken who gets picked on by other chickens. But on an unexpected journey, she has to fight a monkey, a dog, and more, and her courage helps her stand up to the chicken bullies when she gets back home. Honey.. honey... Lion! (2005) The honeyguide bird and honey badger normally work together, with the little bird showing the badger where to find honey, and the badger breaking things open so they can both feast. But one day, when honey badger decides not to share, honeyguide knows exactly how to teach him a lesson. The Turnip (2015) Based on an old Russian folktale, the badger family can’t pull their giant turnip out of the ground, no matter how much help they get. But when a rooster tries it on his own, and, unnoticed to all, he gets some help from below - bears pushing the turnip up out of their den – the turnip finally comes out. TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT Armadillo Rodeo A near-sighted armadillo befriends a pair of red cowboy boots and follows wherever their owner takes them. It’s fine, but just not as interesting as Brett’s best. Hedgie Blasts Off Hedgie goes to space to unplug a planet that shoots sparkles, much to the alien tourists’ delight. There’s nothing all that wrong with it (aside maybe from the aliens, because aliens don’t actually exist… but, of course, talking animals don’t either). However, its simpler format (no border pictures) and science fiction elements make it different and just not as enjoyable as Brett’s usual fare. Gingerbread Friends In this sequel to Gingerbread Baby, the baby goes on a journey in search of friends only to find out that other baked goods can’t talk or dance. But when he returns home to find that his friend has baked him a whole bunch of gingerbread friends. Kids will probably appreciate this sequel, but parents will find it less creative than the first. Mossy A unique turtle – she has a mossy garden growing on her back – is put on display in a museum. But Mossy pines to be back with the new friend (and budding romantic partner?) Scooty. To help the lonely turtle, the museum director releases her back into the wild. This is a gorgeous book, but its message about creature care is in line with environmentalism’s general “hands off” approach which stands in opposition to the “hands on” role God has assigned us as stewards. While this will go over kids’ heads I’m noting it because Brett is pointedly preaching here – there is a message to this book – and she’s directing that point to young impressionable readers. While I’d have no problem reading this with my children, it is one I would want to read with them. I’d tell them that, yes, it is important to address Mossy’s loneliness, but returning her to Nature wasn’t the only option – Scooty could also have been brought indoors. Cinders, a chicken Cinderella This is both a bizarre but enjoyable take on Cinderella, with chickens playing the principal parts. The only downside to this book is from a school library perspective: it has a double-page foldout in the middle, that’ll quickly get crumpled up. The Tale of the Tiger Slippers Tiger tries to throw out his old raggedy shoes that served him well as he worked his way to wealth, but no matter what he tries, they end up coming back. The story doesn’t have the usual Jan Brett spark, and because the tigers are dressed as people their clothing doesn’t allow Brett’s art to capture the real beauty of these animals. DON’T BOTHER Of the twelve books listed below, 8 have Christmas in the title, one is about Easter, and the other about Noah’s Ark. The problem here is not so much with anything in the individual titles but in what’s missing from all of them: God. His complete absence is so conspicuous it’s even noticeable to unbelievers – Publisher’s Weekly, in their review of On Noah’s Ark, noted how Brett: "omits the biblical framework…. There's no mention of God or his relationship to Noah, nor any reason given for the Flood.” If you read one of her Christmas books God’s absence won’t be as conspicuous since many a Christmas story skips over the real reason for the season, so that she does too doesn’t seem so glaring. But when an author writes eight books about Christmas and Christ never comes up, we have to wonder, what’s going on? In The Twelve Days of Christmas, Brett follows the song with “A Brief History” of the Twelve Days. She writes that: “The Twelve Days of Christmas are the days linking Christmas on December 25 and the Epiphany on January 6, when the three Magi offered the first Christmas presents – gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Gifts to Who? The Magi get a nod, but Jesus is still ignored? Individually, Brett’s Christmas books are simply fluffy fun, but collectively they are a studious avoidance of any mention of the God who became Man. So, why bother with them? Christmas Trolls – Young girl teaches trolls that Christmas is about generosity. The Easter Egg – An Easter Rabbit becomes the focus of the season. On Noah’s ark - The boat itself is far smaller than the Bible describes and, contrary to Scripture, it says the mountaintops were not covered. The Wild Christmas Reindeer – Elf learns that reindeer respond better to kindness than bullying. Gingerbread Christmas - The Gingerbread baby and his band celebrate Christmas… with no mention of Christ. The night before Christmas - The classic poem, with Jan Brett’s art. The Twelve Days of Christmas - Brett notes that though the song is “named for this religious holiday” it “is actually quite pagan in tone.” The Animal’s Santa – A rabbit discovers that Santa is “truly, truly true.” Sigh. Home for Christmas - A young troll eventually learns there is no place like home. The Christmas in the title has no relevance in the story. Who’s that knocking on Christmas Eve? – A boy and his giant ice bear scare trolls away from a Christmas feast. Two others also worth giving a miss: Comet’s nine lives - On an island where dogs are people, but cats are just cats, we follow along as a cat (rather gently) dies eight times. The first dog – A cave boy turns a helpful wolf into his pet and names him “dog.” There’s a touch of evolution here in her presumption that this occurred 12,000-55,000 years ago. CONCLUSION If your kids are into picture books, then they’ll love Jan Brett – it’s as simple as that. Her detailed full-page illustrations are genius, wonderfully capturing the beauty of the many different animals she’s featured. There’s no one better. You can watch below as Jan Brett reads her book "The Mitten." ...


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