Little Red Riding Hood Retold by Beatrix Potter and Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Beatrix Potter understood very well the power of hunger.  The fox and wolf she cast as villains in her two versions of Little Red Riding Hood are wily rascals whose bellies ache.  While they may be cleverer than their prey, it is not a foregone conclusion that they will get what they want.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck (1908) was clearly inspired by the familiar fairy tale.  The heroine, dressed in a blue bonnet and pink patterned shawl meets a friendly gentleman with black prick ears and sandy-colored whiskers while she looks for a safe nesting place. She confides in him her secret plan to hatch eggs outside the farm and he graciously offers a convenient space cozy with feathers where she can sit on them afternoons. Luckily she also confesses where she has been going to Kep the collie dog, who immediately sees through foxy gentleman’s courtesies, recruits the fox-hound puppies as allies, and saves her silly neck—but not the eggs.

Four years later Potter retold Perrault, this time following the text very closely, adding only the woodcutters from Grimm and an original work song.   She started planning the illustrations, because photographs of a model dressed in a cape and sketches of the girl and wolf meeting on the path survive. Perhaps she set it aside during the production of The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912) with its disagreeable characters the badger Tommy Brock and the fox, barely recognizable as Jemima’s gentleman.  After Potter decided against inserting this story into The Fairy Caravan (1929), the manuscript lay unpublished until Leslie Linder transcribed it in A History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).  In 2019 Warne issued it with splendid illustrations by Helen Oxenbury that are perfectly in tune with Potter’s words.

Oxenbury, like Potter, doesn’t shy away from frightening elements in the story, believing that “Children like a little darkness.”  Drawing the wolf she found a very attractive assignment, feeling like an actor landing a juicy part of nasty customer after playing a series of ordinary characters.  The first picture of him shows the belt of his plus-fours pulled so tight after a three-days’ fast that there are pleats all the waist. He is watching behind a fence the movements of woodmen, whose presence prevent him from going home when Red Riding Hood unexpectedly pulls the gate open.  Not daring to attack her, he strikes up a conversation.  No wiser than Jemima, she answers his questions without realizing she has just shown him how easily she might be caught.  He proposes they take different ways to granny’s and see who gets there first. He runs all the way there, sneaks through the garden to the door,  gains entrance under false pretenses and gets right down to what he came for.  Decisive, energetic, and thorough, that’s a starving carnivore.

Far quieter are the pictures where the main figure is Red Riding Hood. Oxenbury is alive to humous elements in Potter’s text, but keeps her illustrations a little sharp underneath the prettiness, as in the one where Red Riding Hood’s mother and gran fuss over the little girl: “Her mother was fair silly about her and her granny was sillier still.” Red Riding Hood’s walk through the fields and forest to her grandmother’s capture the beauties of an English summer day, the light, the leafy trees, the long grasses, and nodding flowers. When the little girl dawdles along the way, gathering a posy for her granny, picking nuts and strawberries, time seems to stop.  The next opening, where the sun is so low that she looks behind her nervously as it someone might be following her, even though she has seen no one since she left her mother’s house except for the wolf, is a reminder that the story will play out as it must. Even when Red Riding Hood sees her “granny” sit up in bed, inspecting her as coldly as the fox did Jemima, she can’t put two and two together.  So she continues to sit beside him in her grandmother’s clothes, asking questions about the surprising change in her appearance–arms and ears, which have sprouted coarse, bristly hairs, eyes, which look jaundiced, and big, strong, sharp white teeth.  Well, that is the end of her.

Oxenbury had the last laugh when she sets up a plausible final confrontation between the woodmen and the wolf, now so bloated from gorging that his unbuttoned trousers are pulled up to his arm pits.  He has just heard the woodmen’s shouts in the distance as they pursue him.  Beating them to his door seems a long shot when his ankles are so swollen above his two-tone Oxfords.  And that’s there the illustrator leaves it, offering comfort for the sensitive and rough justice for bloody-minded.  Even though she didn’t write it, Potter would have appreciated this marvelous ending.

Neither version of Little Red Riding Hood would be so satisfying if Potter had changed the natural dynamics between the predators and the prey  because the implicit violence might be too much for her readers.   But even city kids know that real foxes and dogs will and do eat other animals, so why not ducks and their eggs?  Kep rescued Jemima because it was his job as the farm dog, but some children may grasp that the chance to destroy his enemy the fox was probably just as strong motive.  Many children see that the wolf was not looking for a little girl to eat, but when one crossed his path and talked to him, she became fair game.  Of course, there will always be extremely sensitive children who are better shielded from stories like this until they can handle them, if and when the time comes. In the best twice-told tales, the story teller keeps alive in the reader a scrap of hope that somehow this time the victim will escape. The predators here would have to change their natures and stop hunting for that to happen.  Potter and Oxenbury quietly demonstrate why that this cannot be, but suggest that stranger things do occasionally happen.

Pandemic Picture Books Offer Crash Courses in Social Distancing

An obvious advantage of self-publication is a quick turnaround time: a writer can respond to rapidly shifting social currents faster than with a trade publisher, who may be reluctant to move quickly on a subject whose relevance may wilt within weeks or months.  A full-service self-publishing outfit like Zuri Book Pros, for example, offers an author plenty of options for the book’s look and feel.  Depending upon the desired illustration style, the $40-60 per page charge includes layout, unlimited changes, and no royalty fees.   A flurry of picture books explaining the concept and practice of social distancing, the necessity of wearing masks, and the challenges of on-line learning entered the marketplace of ideas in May via self-publication and they can be identified on the final page with the colophon “Made in the U.S.A.” with the date of printing in Middletown, Delaware (most often), which may indicate printing on demand at an Amazon facility.

Another reason many authors like self-publication is greater control of self-promotion on an Amazon store,  YouTube channel, and social media accounts, on top of the more traditional methods of an illustrated series list or author bio prominently placed within the book.  Several of these timely titles are the latest additions to well-established series featuring signature characters like  Little Spot, who helpfully reminds little distance learners about one of the most important things to do before an on-line class in the pamphlet on dos and don’ts of distance learning. The early childhood educator, Shondra M. Quarles (@eyeheartteaching), lists her award from the National Celebrity Educators and being selected as a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Indie Author Award competition.  Artist and proud mom of two, Diane Albers tries to increase the instructional value of her “Inspire to Create a Better You” series by offering free “printables” and worksheets on her website on the final page of advertisements.  The slickest of the three is the MyDragonBooks.com. The creator Steve Herman reveals nothing about himself beyond a self-characterization as  “passionate about teaching children valuable social and emotional life lessons through his cute, fun, and relatable dragon children’s books.”   The merch has been thought through carefully: stickers, soft toys, audio and activity books, and art prints (no artists credited) plus bulk shipping for orders over $25.  Any visitor to the site can download for free a high-res coloring sheet, which the author encourages customers to return to him filled in with crayons.

The two most successful of this group of pandemic picture books—and by “successful” I mean are good reads and have a fair chance of  influencing children’s behavior for the better–are the most lively and life-affirming. Shondra M. Quarles’ No, Calvin! could only have been written by a teacher.  The twenty-five word text is brought to life by the Turkish illustrator Hatice Bayramogul ‘s pictures of Calvin forgetting all the rules his teacher is trying to drill into him.  He’s an energetic, exasperating little sweetie and when the mask finally goes on the right way, Calvin and his teacher flash heart-hands and she tells him that she loves him. Katie Sedmak recognizes the difficulty of teaching children to push down their natural desire to express affection by squeezing, kissing, and bouncing.  Her If You Can’t Bear Hug, Air Hug! is an adorable illustrated poem that models how to communicate friendship through laughter, listening, gift-giving, and smiling acted out by jolly,  even boisterous, animals.  The lion recommends, “If you can’t share snoring / Share roars,/ Chests puffed, manes fluffed, / We see who growls the loudest.”   The tough reality of social distancing is acknowledged with a light touch, while presenting the alternatives as proof of people’s capacity to adapt and to enjoy  it. 

School is Different this Year and That’s Okay co-authored by Susan Leininger and Julie Bair tries hard to normalize the extraordinary with reassurances that different solutions for different families and different reactions by different kids to the same circumstances is perfectly normal, which is true.  The happy  community of  birds and beasts are quick to see the upside of a year that promises to be anything but business-as-usual.  On-line shopping sure beats dragging the kids from store to the store for non-existent packs of toilet paper.   The mice mask, the giraffes do not, and it’s all cool.   Unfortunately, the authors’ depiction of a complete and easy-going tolerance within the community hits a false note when over the summer we have all learned how quickly the act of mask-wearing could be politicized and used as a divisive symbol of political affiliation.   

Steve Herman, the creator of the My Dragon Books series, takes a stricter approach to training children the way they should go, as demonstrated by his young dragon whisperer Drew.  His hapless pet Diggory Doo looks like a cross between a rhinoceros and some species of dinosaur, not a miniature menacing Smaug sleeping on a mountain of glittering ill-gotten gains.  Diggory is a creature to whom Drew can quite sharply order not to torch his mask accidentally, finger sternly raised.. (Herman failed to take it into consideration that Diggory’s compliance with Drew’s prohibition would require the fire-breathing pet to hold its breath the entire time it was masked.) Poor old Diggory gets in more trouble for coveting his friend’s  smart face-covering so much that he suggests a swop (a complete non-starter) and for giving Drew a mighty snap in the face with a mask cum sling-shot.   Eventually  the miserable beast confesses how much he hates wearing a mask and tearfully concedes that he will try to be a good sport and wear it because Drew tells him to, but  he still doesn’t understand why.  After Drew patiently explains it all to Diggory. he realizes that by wearing the mask, he is nothing less than a public health superpower and is inspired to contribute to the cause of containing COVID-19.

Lucy’s Mask by Lisa Sirkis Thompson builds to the same realization, but tries to engage the little reader’s moral sense through the main character’s imaginative flight about all the exciting things she can be as soon as her mother finishes making her a mask.   It takes just a few words from her mother to convince Lucy that she will be playing a much more important role than an ordinary superhero when she wears a mask that covers her mouth instead of her eyes.   Off they go in their masks to visit Grandmother while keeping them all safe.  That is a kind of everyday heroism we can all  emulate…