Rewriting Aesop: From Beatrix Potter to Jerry Pinkney

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Francis Barlow’s famous frontispiece of the hunchbacked slave Aesop surrounded by his characters for the 1687 London edition of Aesop’s Fables.

Some stories are so good that they are reimagined every generation. As a kind of twice-told tale, the fable can be quite difficult to make one’s own: the plot unfolds rapidly in very few words and realizing the action in more than one illustration is not always an option. But writers and illustrators have risen to the challenge of retelling Aesopian fables in strikingly different ways, sometimes changing quite radically the traditional themes and characterizations.

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Beatrix Potter as a young woman.

Beatrix Potter’s fable retellings are among the best in English literature, but due to complicated circumstances, only The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse (1917) was published during her lifetime. In 1919 Potter proposed to her publisher Fruing Warne that she work up a series of connected fables begun years before. Fruing did not mince words about the draft of The Tale of the Birds and Mr. Tod : “It is not Miss Potter, it is Aesop.” The firm’s commercial travelers wanted something new by Potter, so naturally his concern was sales, not supporting an author who wanted to strike out in a new direction. Even if Potter had not been frustrated by Fruing’s lack of enthusiasm, her eyes were no longer sharp enough to draw all the illustrations. No one’s heart was in it, so the volume was abandoned. The drafts and preliminary illustrations were published posthumously by Leslie Linder in The History of the Writings of Beatrix Potter (1971).

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Jemima earnestly conversing with the foxy gentleman. Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck (1908).

Fruing did wish her retelling of ‘The Fox and the Crow” long enough to fill a little book. Potter had brought back the foxy whiskered gentleman (aka Mr. Tod) who almost succeeded in making dinners of the foolish Jemima Puddleduck, her nest of eggs, and the careless Flopsy Bunnies at different times.

Looking for his next meal, he spies Miss Jenny Crow perched in a tree, trying to manage the large chunk of cheese she stole from a farm boy’s dinner basket. Seeing an easy opportunity for dinner, Mr. Tod appeals to Jenny’s vanity, calling her an “adorable smutty Venus,” “a beautiful black lady bird elegant as a newly tarred railing” whose grace outshines the black swans of Tasmania. His extravagant compliments make Jenny so nervous that she sidles up and down the branch, but without loosening her grip on the cheese. Of course the fox wears her down. When he exclaims that her voice must be “as sweet as a nightingale’s,” she croaks and he realizes she is weakening. He calls out, “She sings, she sings, louder, sweet sky lark” and Jenny drops her guard, opens her bill to caw, and drops the cheese into the foxy gentleman’s mouth. He laughs until he cries and takes “no further notice of poor silly Miss Crow. He had got what he wanted.”

Perhaps Potter as a woman should have been less tolerant of Mr. Tod’s wiles… But she is hardly the only female reteller of “The Fox and Crow” who won’t take the crow’s side. Lisbeth Zwerger draws the picture from the crow’s point of view, but the fox’s mock-serious gesture down on the ground expresses more amusement than disapproval in his hypocrisy. There is no doubt who is going to triumph.

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From “The Fox and the Crow,” Aesop’s Fables Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. (New York/London: NorthSouth Books, 2006), p. 21.

Barbara McClintock ‘s lady crow, on the other hand, wears a dainty blue gown, red shawl, poke bonnet, and slippers, which makes her look even more ridiculous when she throws a tantrum after losing out to the leering fox… Maybe vanity rather than gender is the fable’s point–so why couldn’t the roles be reassigned so that a foxy lady outwits a preening lad?

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From “The Fox and the Crow.” Animal Fables from Aesop Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara McClintock (Boston: David Godine, 2012), p. 5.

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From “The Fox and the Crow.” Animal Fables Adapted and Illustrated by Barbara McClintock, p. 6.

Potter titled her version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” “Grasshopper Belle and Susan Emmet.” As tough-minded as La Fontaine’s “Le cigale et la formi,” “Grasshopper Belle” is one of the most powerful stories Potter wrote. The main character is the industrious ant Susan in a rusty black gown and black net cap, a “notable good housekeeper” like Mrs. Tittlemouse with “cupboards of spotless linen” and fully furnished storerooms with sacks and bags floor to ceiling.

A miserly soul, Susan works incessantly through the sunny summer months and has to go back and forth by the merry grasshoppers. Grasshopper Belle all “in green satin with pink sleeves and gauzy wings” has the lightest foot of all and dances to the gentlemen fiddling “Sing leader, needle, treadle, wheedle, wheadle, sudle, chirr, whirr, whirr, oh, who is so fine, in silver gossamer as Grasshopper Belle?” Loaded down with a heavy sack, Susan hisses at them, “Vanity of vanity, disgusting idleness,” but they invite her to dance a turn to their music anyway. Not that she does. Nor will she stop when Belle offers to lull her to sleep–no, Susan must get home before the rain, to which Belle trills, “Home, my home is in the barley grass, no cellars for me, come upon the grass stalk and watch the sun slip behind a cloud.”

Susan does get home just as the thunderstorm breaks. At dawn the driving rain begins, turning to sleet by evening. Susan sits contentedly by the fire sewing, ignoring the rattling latch and cries of “Susan Emmet, Susan Emmet, let me in.” When the voice begs, “Let me in, let me in, I am dying, Susan Emmett,” the ant decides it is nothing more than the bitter cold wind. While the ant is eating dinner, the latch rattles yet again and the voice calls out weakly to her. Susan clears the table, thinking to herself, “She has had her lesson, I suppose I must let her in; she can sleep on the door mat.” When she opens the door and looks out into the dark, “Grasshopper Belle lay dead on the doorstep.”

Would many American parents would consider reading Potter’s dark, but heartbreaking retelling of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” to their children? Two recent picture book versions, in which the fable has been recast as a tribute to the power of music, is probably much more in tune with the today’s sensibilities (and in line with recommendations of educators and social psychologists). The father-daughter team of Rebecca and Ed Emberley imagine the ant anxiously pushing a slice of watermelon back to the nest on a hot, hot summer day.

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Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley, The Ant and the Grasshopper (New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2012), p. 31.

The Emberleys not only allow the grasshopper to live, they erase the object lesson of the dangers of having no plan for tomorrow. Instead the happy-go-lucky grasshopper teaches the weary, dispirited ant how music makes burdens lighter.

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Let the good times roll! Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley, The Ant and the Grasshopper, p. 28.

In Jerry Pinkney’s retelling of the same fable, the banjo-playing grasshopper is also a joyful character. Below he tries to convince the ants that they ought to stop and enjoy the beauties of the summer season.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants (New York: Little Brown, 2015), p. 8.

When winter comes and the miserable grasshopper shows up on the ant colony’s doorstep, they can’t find it in their hearts to lock him out. He is welcomed in and offered the best of everything.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants, p. 18.

The Queen Ant sits down to tea with the grasshopper, as if to say the love of music and of nature can bring us together, if we allow it to happen. Both insects are right in their own way, but no one loses in the end.

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Jerry Pinkney, The Grasshopper and the Ants, p. 36.

Who can argue with messages like these in confusing, competitive, and cruel times? But is it necessary to obscure the pragmatic worldview of the Aesopian fable in order to protect young readers? Some children will embrace the happy ending where the ants and grasshopper party, others will remember Susan Emmet peering out into the dark, with the beautiful grasshopper Belle lifeless at her feet. The good news is that we don’t have to choose among them–any version can be worth a look. The open-endedness of the twice-told tale is, after all, is one of its enduring pleasures.

See more Beatrix Potter and bugs at Cotsen’s virtual exhibitions page!

Scholastic and Dav Pilkey Send Ook and Gluk Packing: A Post-Mortem

Dav Pilkey signing books for fans.

Dyslexic and disruptive as a boy, Dav Pilkey has great sympathy for children who find learning to read overwhelming.  He prefers a visual format like the graphic novel because the disaffected and discouraged are more likely to be engaged.  Allowing children to read what they want with minimal adult interference strikes him as better in the long run than not reading at all. If that means the classics are not starting point, so be it.  Giving those kids wild stories flush with potty humor and phonetically spelled dialogue supposedly written by bad boys George Beard, who is Black and his white best friend Harold Hutchins, has made Pilkey a best-selling author.

Pilkey drawing his most famous character, Captain Underpants

How he tells the stories he invents is as controversial in some circles as they are beloved in others.  His most famous series of graphic novels, Captain Underpants, has made the American Library Association’s banned book list several times.  But none of Pilkey’s forty-odd books have been withdrawn until this spring when The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Kung-fu Cavemen of the Future was challenged. Many of the accounts in the media presented similar versions of the story without raising questions or adding new information, even though the issues were more complicated than they reported.  Links to most of my sources are inserted in the text.

This spring Billy Kim’s two children, both huge Pilkey fans, brought home from the public library The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, which was originally published by Scholastic in 2010. The story tells how best friends Ook and Gluk stop a predatory twenty-first-century corporation from stripping  the prehistoric world of its natural resources, thanks to learning kung-fu from Master Wong in 2222 A. D.   As a Korean-American, Kim was offended by the portrayal of Asians in the book and when his attempts to air those objections with Scholastic seemed to be going nowhere, on March 22, 2021 he wrote a Change.org petition, “Scholastic Needs to Apologize for Publishing a  Children’s Book Full of Racist Imagery,” signed with his initials.  The problems were the portrayal of  Asian characters with dashes for eyes and the proverb-spouting Master Wong character.  Kim’s description of Wong is correct but doesn’t take mention that  Master Wong  saves the friends from capture by Goppernopper operatives or that he is the only one who can explain why the world will be saved when J. P. Goppernopper obliterates his ancient ancestor Chief Goppernopper.

Kim called on the author and publisher to take the following steps.  1. Make public apologies taking full responsibility for failing to address the racist content.  2. Scholastic should alert librarians and educators about the book’s problems so informed decisions can be made about its future circulation.  3. Donations should be made to organizations whose missions are to combat racism and promote diversity.  Taking all three steps would not, in his opinion, reserve the harm already caused by Ook and Gluk:  “Every child who has read this book has been conditioned to accept this racist image as okay or funny.  It is this type of passive racism that has contributed to the continued hate and prejudice experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis.”  It is surely no coincidence that Kim took action in the wake of  March 16th’, when a twenty-one-year-old white man killed eight people, six of them Asian-Americans, in three Atlanta-area spas.

He reached out again to the publisher on late on March 22 and when he did not receive an immediate response, assumed he was being ignored.  Dav Pilkey and Scholastic agreed immediately after learning about the petition to halt the book’s distribution, according to Pilkey’s wife and business partner Sayuri. An  undated notice on Scholastic’s News Room page announced that as of March 22 domestic and international orders for Ook and Gluk would no longer be fulfilled, the existing inventory recalled, and references deleted from the website.

Pilkey quickly invited Kim to a Facetime meeting on the 25th  Immediately after their conversation, he wrote and posted an apology on his You Tube channel.  He explained that his intention had been to “showcase diversity, equality and nonviolent conflict” (Ook is white, Gluk Black). He now realized the plot depended upon “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery.”  Pledging to do better, he announced that he and his wife would donate the equivalent of the advance, the previous ten years’ worth of royalties, and future royalties to organizations that “provide free books, art supplies, and theater for children in underserved communities; organizations that promote diversity in children’s books and publishing; and organizations designed to stop violence and hatred against Asians.”

After his meetings with the publisher and author, Kim updated the petition with information about outcome. By waiting to do this, Kim allowed the impression to stand that Pilkey was uncooperative, which Sayuri Pilkey states was untrue and unfair.  She defended her husband as acting out of the desire to make the incident a teaching moment and having a long-standing commitment to supporting groups serving minority children.  She also pointed out that he demurred from mentioning the involvement of Asian editors on the project,  receiving positive feedback from her and Elaine Oh, director of “We Need Diverse Books,”, or that Kim’s was the first complaint in eleven years.

The major points in contention addressed by March 29th,  due partly to Pilkey’s acceptance of constructive criticism and Scholastic’s quick actions, a potential public relations disaster was averted with greater sensitivity than had objections swirling around  Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016), Emily Jenkin’s A Fine Dessert (2015), and Arthur C. Gackley’s (aka Robert Staake), Bad Little Children’s Books (2016).  An undated statement, “We Stand in Solidarity with the AAPI Community,” was inserted at the head of the Scholastic splash page.  The Ook and Gluk Wikipedia page was updated by someone with the information about Scholastic halting distribution, but by then the news cycle had already moved on.

Some traces of the cavemen have yet to be sent back through the time portal.   Scholastic has taken down the Ook and Gluk page and related curriculum but as of today visitors can find out about the story on the Kids Book Clubs  or download a maze puzzle with Master Wong.   Want to learn how to talk like caveman?  Download the primer of Cavemonics and annoy every grown-up in ear shot.   Pilkey’s official site still features an Ook and Gluk “Adventures Never End when You Read” coloring sheet in the “Fun Stuff” section.  By far the web source with the most material is the Captain Underpants “The Epic Tales Encyclopedia” Wiki, operated by Fandom.com.  “Characters” can be searched for “Ook” or “Gluk”  Articles come up, with all the links live, which is the only way to access information about Master Wong, Chief and J. P. Goppernopper, who do not have their own articles.   As of today the wiki makes no reference to the recent incident.The media missed one important angle worth considering.  The Adventures of Ook and Gluk was on the best-sellers’ list for 33 weeks, Kim’s petition stated, which was probably intended to show that the book reached a wide audience and had considerable potential to shape attitudes and values.  The uncontextualized statistic is somewhat misleading without the back story.  In 2010 Ook and Gluk was slated as the second spin-off mini-series from Captain Underpants, The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby preceding it in 2002.  It was supposed to be the first of a four-volume deal.  The print run was set at a million copies.  Its first week, Ook and Gluk was second on the New York Times hardcover graphic novel best-sellers list and  first place for the next six.   For the remaining 26 weeks it made the list, it was presumably not in the top two slots.  While the sequel, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk Jr. Cave-Kids in Outer Space, was announced on page 170 of the first book, it seems to have languished in “development hell” for years until quietly cancelled, without notifying the fan base.  It sounds as if Ook and Gluk had not performed well enough to go forward, being the only Pilkey concept for a series–Captain Underpants, Dog Man, Dragon Tales, Dumb Bunnies, Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot, and Super Diaper Baby—that did not go into multiple titles.  From this perspective, it was a bit of good luck that Ook and Gluk was challenged: if Scholastic had to sacrifice any title to protect the Pilkey brand, this was the one.

And the public?  Not that many expressed support for or outrage against the author, if these two unscientifically selected samples are at all typical.  Of the 289 people signing Kim’s petition, eleven left comments, all but two with Asian last names.  “Boo” razzed Meng Cheng. “It’s self-explanatory,” said Alan Lee.   Abbie Rindfuss commented, “I teach 2nd graders and the more educated I become on these issues the more we can ensure these kids grow up Anti racist, more compassionate and empathic adults. I stand against Asian hate and all groups that have been marginalized.”  The contributors to the thread  on Technodrome Forums, a discussion group for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans, had different takes.   Goldmutant was not a huge Pilkey fan: “A lot of books are off-the-walls, satirical, and low-brow. It’s his style.”  IndigoErth mused, “I wish the info was clear what the actual misstep is in the book. Esp if it was a guy of Korean heritage, not Chinese, that found issue with it. Maybe there are stereotypes they didn’t want to repeat in the article (?), but not saying directly what the issue is just lets people go into a rage over another book being “canceled” and not knowing what the real issue is. Because only mentioning that the characters meet a martial arts instructor who teaches them kung fu and about Chinese Philosophy doesn’t sound like the actual problem.”  Jester thought Kim sounded like “a male Karen” and seem to have doubts whether a petition signed by than 300 signatories should have had the power to suppress a book.

Why, who, and how many are enough sway the publisher of an author who is no stranger to controversy to take a title off the market?   That’s a problem that deserves far more careful consideration as the trend to challenge children’s books develops in the future.

Pilkey with his fans.