Word Play: Fairy tales retold

A hungry Fox spotted some grapes dangling plump and ripe from a vine overhead. Though he stood on his hind legs and stretched forth his long muzzle, he still could not reach them. As he slunk away he was heard to remark: 'Those grapes are probably sour anyway.'

-- The Fables of Aesop

"Here's the plan," explained Fox. "Bear stands -- here. Beaver stands -- there. You stand on Beaver's tail. I stand on you. And on the count of three -- Bear boosts as Beaver oomphs, while you scooch, which brings me -- there -- and voilà! Grapes!"

-- "Lousy, Rotten, Stinkin' Grapes"

So many ways to tell a tale! We tell and retell stories, and never tire of the familiar. There is something comforting about knowing where a story is going, and something thrilling about realizing it's taking a new direction.

As small children, we want to have the same story told over and over again, knowing the ending will be the same. The game of peek-a-boo is a small story: "Where is Daddy? Oh, Daddy's behind the napkin! There's Daddy!" We know Daddy will reappear, but what if he doesn't? What if it's suddenly someone else? What if it's . . . a monster? If Daddy gets too clever with peek-a-boo and emerges with a funny face, it's scary. We want the same face to reappear; it's familiar.

Then, suddenly, peek-a-boo is dull. Daddy again. Big deal. We're ready for a bigger story. Tell me the story of the Three Bears. Tell it again. Tell it again. Tell it again. No, that's not the way it goes! When Father Bear comes home, he says, "Someone's been eating my porridge!" NOT "Where is my yummy porridge with raisins and brown sugar!" Tell it right, Daddy!

Eventually, we learn to tolerate variations, and -- voilà! -- culture.

At the moment, our popular culture seems to be nothing but variations on the familiar. Perhaps it is comfort for scary times. Is it just me, or does all pop music sound familiar? Where have I heard that riff before? How many films can you describe as "a Cinderella story"? The new Miyazaki film? It's "The Little Mermaid." And you might think of "Transformers" and "G.I. Joe" as big, noisy, violent action movies, but really, they're stories about . . . our childhood toys. It gives you a warm feeling underneath the thrill: Peek-a-boo all over again.

Families who know and love the gentle stories of Maisy the mouse and her friends may be surprised to see the bite Lucy Cousins puts into her retelling of eight fairy tales. The title of the book puts the reader on notice right away: "Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales," (Candlewick: $18.99, ages 3 and up). In the cover illustration, the Big Bad Wolf avidly reaches for a tiny Red Riding Hood; although he wears a classic Lucy Cousins outfit of cute red-and-yellow striped trousers, he's also ravenous, with a jagged zigzag of red teeth. And why not? Everyone knows that eating -- or being eaten -- is a big part of fairy tales: Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel. Even eating porridge can be an offense! "Yummy" is, in fact, a brilliant title for a collection of fairy tales; it gets, in an innocent way that is underlined by Cousins' playful illustrations, at the bloodthirstiness inherent in the stories.

Cousins' text doesn't embellish a great deal on the basic stories, but even a straightforward retelling makes choices. In her "Three Little Pigs," children may notice an unaccustomed rhythm to the proceedings. "Hey, that's not right!" one of my young listeners observed. "The story goes build, build, build, blow, blow, blow." Indeed, Cousins has one pig build a house, which the wolf then blows down -- eating its occupant -- before moving on to the next pig and his choice of building materials. This may seem a slight difference, but in many retellings, after the three houses are built, the embattled pig can flee to a brother's house to escape being eaten.

Separating each brother's story leaves each little pig alone to his fate, while the last little pig can save only himself. He's clever enough to cook up wolf stew -- no wolf running off into the forest in THIS tale! -- but his "happily ever after" is definitely a solitary affair.

As the quote at the start of this piece indicates, "Lousy Rotten Stinkin' Grapes" by Margie Palatini, illustrated by Barry Moser (Simon & Schuster: $15.99, ages 4 to 7) embellishes a great deal on the original fable of Aesop commonly known as "Sour Grapes." A single scene of Fox's plan to reach a bunch of grapes takes as long to tell as the entire original fable. His complicated scheme, outlined with military precision in a series of carefully engineered drawings (labeled as plans Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo in Moser's hilarious illustrations) takes into account wind velocity, angles of force and many other complex equations, and relies on other animals to be part of a precarious tower.

Although it seems obvious to the others that there are easier ways to get the job done, Fox will have none of it: "Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, Porcupine, my little friend, let us not get all prickly. You just . . . leave the ideas to me. After all, I'm the fox. Sly. Clever. Smart. I know how to get grapes." When the Fox finally stomps off in disgust, the others enjoy the feast together -- a celebration of team spirit never suggested in the original.

Our age of pious cooperation taught in preschool has also introduced interesting variations on "The Little Red Hen," the story in which the other animals' selfishness always prompts the hen to say: "Very well, then, I'll do it myself!" The favorite retelling in our household is "The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza" by Philemon Sturges, illustrated by Amy Walrod (Puffin Books: $6.99 paperback) (1999). Besides the detailed list of pizza ingredients, the aversion to anchovies and the wonderful collage illustrations, what tickles us is the introduction of chores: The Little Red Hen's friends may not be induced to help cook, but they cheerfully do the clean-up afterward.

The tale of Henny Penny, who sets off a panic by shouting that the sky is falling, ends -- classically -- in Lucy Cousins' book with the fox eating the hysterical animals. That's one way to teach the lesson of not freaking out. "The Terrible Plop" by Ursula Dubosarsky, pictures by Andrew Joyner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $15.95, ages 3-6) takes a more contemporary approach and marries a terrific story with a principle of early-childhood education: Children need to learn ways to calm themselves down. In rhymes worthy of Dr. Seuss, the smallest rabbit discovers the source of the Terrible Plop -- an apple falling in the lake -- and concludes: "All this running / Should really stop . . . / Who's afraid / Of a silly old PLOP?"

In retelling the same story, "Chicken Little" by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley (Roaring Brook: $16.95, ages 3 to 7) uses another preschool cliché to humorous effect. "What's your plan?" a teacher may ask a student who is unproductively engaged. The Emberleys emphasize that the apparently falling sky might be better met with a bit of clear thinking: "Lucky Ducky joined in, and off they ran. And still no plan." The marvelously dynamic illustrations, the truest pleasure of this book, more than excuse the namby-pamby ending, in which the eaten don't stay eaten, but emerge in a splendid, two-page foldout sneeze: "A-CHOOO!"

The new "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" by Lauren Child (Hyperion: $16.99, ages 4- to 7) is a feast of design, with meticulously constructed dioramas photographed for the sumptuous illustrations. Although Child's colloquial language makes all her books a pleasure, she has found little new resonance in the story, but added an element that will appeal to the fashion-conscious child: Goldilocks' lovely red shoes, which her mother warns her to keep nice, end up in the possession of Small Bear, who "looked after them very carefully indeed."

The Walt Disney Company has put its own spin on fairy tales, and many of the classics are known better to children in Disney form than in the original. "Walt Disney's Snow White" by Cynthia Rylant (Disney Book Group: $16.99, ages 4 to 8) uses the art created by Gustaf Tenggren as the design for the film; it's interesting to see early versions of sweet Snow White, the goofy dwarfs and the Evil Queen, not to mention details like backgrounds and the bird chorus. "Fairest of All" by Serena Valentino (Disney Book Group: $15.99, ages 12 and up) tells the story for older readers and, taking the point of view of the murderous queen, makes it a fable about the obsessive need to be considered beautiful by others.

So we tell tales over and over again, re-experiencing the familiar and entering new worlds. The 19th-century Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who retold folk tales and made up new stories so well we don't know the difference, said about his art: "In the whole realm of poetry no domain is so boundless as that of the fairy tale. It reaches from the blood-drenched graves of antiquity to the pious legends of a child's picture book; it takes in the poetry of the people and the poetry of the artist."

Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly at