You can appreciate a person’s craft and talent without ever really appreciating their style. I mean, no one is ever going to say that Jerry Pinkney isn’t one of the most talented artists working in the field of picture books today. No one. Still, I’ve always enjoyed the man’s ideas far more than his actual products. I eventually decided that this was because my eyes prefer thick bold lines in children’s books, whereas Mr. Pinkney more of the soft sketchy lines and details type. Due to the prolific nature of his work, as a children’s librarian I’ve recommended and run into a fair amount of Pinkney titles without ever really finding one I could call my favorite. Maybe “Sam and the Tigers” (an alternative version of “Little Black Sambo”) but even that seemed a better idea than final product. Then I ran across his “Little Red Riding Hood”. I can’t really pinpoint why I like this book so much more than his previous works. It’s not as if his style has changed a whit. He hasn’t done anything significantly different with this tale. The story is the classic version we’ve all learned at some point, but set against an entirely new season and including some of the original tale’s darker elements. Squeamish parents beware. Jerry Pinkney is not afraid to go to original source material if he has to.
You know the drill. There was once a little girl whose mother made her a brilliant red cloak, giving her the titular nickname we’ve all grown to know and love. One winter’s day her grandmother comes down with a cold, so Little Red is sent off to take her some warm food. On the way she meets a charming wolf that persuades her to ignore her mother’s advice and gather some firewood for her granny. Then the wolf eats the grandmother, does the standard “what big eyes you have bit”, and swallows up Little Red to boot. Fortunately a hunter hears the wolf’s acoustically impressive snores, kills the furry creature, frees the two women from its stomach, and a happy ending is had by all. The end.
I had a woman in my library the other day looking for good versions of The Three Little Pigs. When I pulled four or five different styles, she was horrified to find that in many of these books the pigs either get eaten or end up eating the wolf at the end. So too will a certain strain of parent be shocked at the story found in this fairy tale. Wait… the wolf actually EATS Little Red and her grandmother? And a woodsman cuts them out of the stomach? In a children’s book??? But of course they are. In fact, if you want to make a case for this book to the easily shocked (and fairy tale ignorant) parents who encounter it, mention that Pinkney has actually softened the tale a little. He could have included the detail where the grandmother sews stones into the wolf’s belly and it crawls away to starve to death. Instead, this version simply has the woodcutter kill the wolf and free the people in its belly. The illustrations, for their part, display these scenes without going into gory details. The picture accompanying the wolf’s demise is just the shadow of the woodcutter against a wall, his axe raised wildly above his head. In contrast, the devouring of Little Red is a dramatic two-page spread of the wolf leaping out of granny’s bed directly at you, the reader. There can be no doubt that at that particular moment, you have become the heroine at the story’s most frightening moment. And THAT is good storytelling, my friends.
Pinkney once said that drawing snow was far more difficult for him than drawing much of anything else. The lack of color is what kills him. When you view his magnificently detailed wildernesses and sprawling landscapes, you understand his concern. Sometimes nothing is harder to draw than something. What sets “Little Red Riding Hood” apart from the pack is this same snow, though. I mean, when you think of fairy tales you think of summer settings. Only stories like “The Snow Queen” or “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and their ilk take into account months when the trees aren’t green and lush. Pinkney is certainly the first person that I know of to set this tale in a wintry setting. That means, of course, that he had to adjust the story’s elements a little. Instead of being told by the wolf to pick flowers, Little Red is encouraged to collect firewood. Other factors make more sense. People tend to grow ill in the winter months, so it makes perfect sense for Little Red’s mother to send her daughter off with hot soup and raisin muffins.