I think the lesson of the day here is that I haven’t been giving Lucy Cousins enough credit. While you may not be immediately familiar with her name, you’ve probably run into Cousins’s most famous creation, Maisy, at some point in your travels. Maisy is a mouse. Maisy is cute. Maisy is beloved by the 0-4 set. You haven’t lived until you’ve worked a reference desk where desperate two-year-olds come up to you like knee high zombies demanding, in their too high voices, your entire section of Maisy-related literature. Now because Maisy is so cute and non-threatening I was not initially impressed when I first heard about Yummy. Ms. Cousins wants to try her hand at fairy tales? Fine. It’ll probably be something along the lines of that Mary Engelbreit Nursery Tales collection. An early child introduction to fairy tales but without any of the original violent aspects. A watered down version, I’m sure. Well slap me upside the head and call me Charlie because I could not have been more wrong. Yummy is, if anything, the veritable antithesis to Engelbreit. With a good-natured, downright jovial tone of voice, Lucy Cousins takes old-fashioned stories and makes them as gruesome and funny as she is able.
In this collection of fairy tales, Lucy Cousins has identified tales where eating is either enabled or denied depending on the worthiness of the hunger. Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Enormous Turnip, Henny Penny, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Little Red Hen, The Three Little Pigs, and The Musicians of Bremen are all covered. With her characteristic style and upbeat humor, Cousins retells each and every tale in as few words as possible, never leaving out any pertinent details. The result is a gorgeous collection big enough to be seen during storytime, but not so unwieldy that its readers will need any new arm muscles.
Each story has been broken down into its most essential parts. Words are big and bold, but never so simple that they don’t tell the full story. At 11.6” x 10.6” the book is comparable to a picture book in terms of size, but stands at about 121 pages rather than the standard 32. It’s the pictures, however, that really reinforce its child-friendly status. As with her Maisy books, Cousins employs thick black lines for all the images, and within those lines are bright, eye-popping colors. Yellows and blues and reds and greens, these primary colors get a workout under Cousins’ hand. She also has an interesting technique where she’ll write something in thick ink, blowing it up so that the words are much larger and messier than the neat typewritten text below. The gulp! of granny going down the wolf’s gullet is so big that a kid across a crowded storytime room could see it without difficulty.
At no point does Cousins give in to the modern adult desire to sugarcoat these stories either. I can’t tell you how frustrating I find it when a new version of The Little Red Hen will end with the hen sharing her bread with the no good lazy dog, cat, and pig. After reading through these tales once or twice it occurred to me that Cousins has also carefully avoided any and all princess tales. This isn’t too surprising. There’s a certain understanding amongst authors that for the youngest set stories of love and romance will be better appreciated when the kids are a bit older. It also means that when I get a squeamish six-year-old who wants pretty pretty princess tales, I won’t be alarming that same kid by handing them a book that also contains a decapitation or two. Mind you, the child might end up with the original stories associated with tales like Snow White or Cinderella (red hot shoes, anyone?) and that will be a whole new bucket of worms to contend with.
Lucy Cousins is British, but I did not expect these tales to vary much from their American incarnations. And yet a couple changes did make their way in just the same. “Chicken Little” was the most obvious. I was with her for Henny Penny, Turkey Lurkey, and Cocky Locky. Then she broke out the weirdo names. Ducky Duddles? Okay, that’s a little odd but I can go for it. Goosey Poosey? Hm. Normally that’s Goosey Loosey, but again, no biggie. But under no circumstances can I acquiesce to Foxy Woxy. Here in the States we call him Foxy Loxy. Whence the “L” I wonder? Which came first? And why does Goldilocks say that one bowl of porridge is too hot while the other is “too salty”? The book doesn’t exactly credit the author’s source material, so we are left to wonder about these cultural gaps.
Oh. I will have parents in my library complain. It is inevitable. There is a certain breed of parent that wishes that all fairy tale collections for kids could be penned by a certain Mr. Disney. They eschew the violence of the original stories and give their children good clean wholesome stories that don’t dip into any of this icky head-chopping, bird-eating nonsense. Even the James Marshall versions of these tales turn them off. And I can see their point, I guess. Perhaps they think that if they read such stories to their kids, their kids will think that violence is okay. But people, let us remember that these stories weren’t written just yesterday. Kids have been told the chopped up wolf version of Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs for hundreds of years. And anyway, its Cousins’ style that renders even the scariest tale kid-friendly. Sure the wolf may sometimes have red outlines to his teeth, but he’s essentially a comedic character. Both the tone and the look of the book will make sure that kids see these as amusing rather than disturbing stories. After all, what does the text say after the wolf falls in a pot of the pig’s boiling water? “Bye-bye, Wolf.” It’s just so merry, it’s hard not to find funny.
Going back to the choice of tales, Yummy makes a lot of sense when you consider that hunger is one feeling all kids can relate to. Love they sort of get, though hopefully they have enough of it that they never feel the lack. Sleep they get too, but how interesting is a sleep-based fairy tale (droopy spindle prone princesses aside)? But hunger? There’s not a child alive who hasn’t felt the need to feed. So collecting stories where characters want to eat is instantaneously recognizable to the small fry. Half the battle is won right there. Clever of Cousins to realize it.
Here’s the deal. If you are, or know, a parent who wants red-cheeked cherubs waltzing merrily through an innocent candyland of neutered fairy tales for the young, the aforementioned Mary Engelbreit Nursery Tales is the book for you. If, on the other hand, you want a funny introductory book to the real stories in all their raucous, scary, eclectic glory, Yummy is your best bet. Lucy Cousins has gone out of her way to give us an early reader collection of tales that will amuse parents as much, if not more, than kids. It’s not for everyone, so be warned of that now. But for those of you that appreciate it, your kids will be thoroughly, almost wrongly amused, even as you, the adult, cower away from it in fear.
On shelves now.
Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly (starred review)