The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Niamh Sharkey
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Beneduce, Ann Keay, ad. Jack in the Beanstalk;illus. by Gennady Spirin. Philomel, 1999. 32p
ISBN 0-399-23118-8   $15.99    5-8 yrs

Napoli, Donna Jo Crazy Jack Delacorte, 1999.134p
ISBN 0-385-32627-0   $15.95   Gr. 9-12

Walker, Richard, ad. Jack in the Beanstalk;illus. by Niamh Sharkey. Barefoot Books, 1999. [40]p
ISBN 1-902283-13-9   $15.95    5-8 yrs

There is an odd gestalt to children's literature. A topic, any topic, sparks multiple creative imaginations simultaneously and before you can say "fee, fi, fo, fum," we have several new titles on the same subject during the same publishing season. This season we have that traditional agrarian hero Jack and his legendary legumes.

Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Gennady Spirin is a stellar example of classic fairy-tale illustration. Spirin's artistic interpretation of Jack's quest features a robust young Jack, "a lively likable lad, but if he had one fault it was his curiosity." Spirin sets the tale in Elizabethan England, then takes full advantage of history to explore fanciful costuming, ornate border designs, and architectural motifs in the intricate watercolor imaginings of his fairy-tale countryside. Jack trades the floridly handsome Milky White to a floridly handsome yeoman for ten multicolored beans. The wicked giant, dressed in a red slashed doublet and sporting striped stockings, is a true glutton, for gold as well as food, and the border surrounding descriptions of his repasts are replete with platters of suckling pig, goblets of wine, boards of cheese, baskets of bread, and cauldrons of soup. This faithful retelling is true to the most familiar traditional versions: Jack returns to the giant three times to retrieve his father's stolen wealth and he avenges his murder by chopping down the beanstalk and slaying the giant. The formal literary style of this retelling suits the old world charm of the illustrations.

Storyteller Richard Walker, on the other hand, stays close to tradition by departing from it. Careening off classic written versions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Walker regales his readers with an energetic, far from literary retelling. He introduces Jack in the conspiratorial voice of the oral storyteller: "I'm not going to start off by saying that Jack was lazy. When there was an adventure in the offing, he was not lazy at all. But most of the time, he just did a little bit of this and a little bit of that." Sharkey's oils depict Jack as a na•ve innocent, all round-eyed and round-mouthed, wearing a jester's cap that suits his role as unintentional but effective trickster. Jack gets his six beans from a strange little man whose open-topped head boils with ideas; the giant is a flat-headed Frankenstein's monster, primarily all-seeing eyes and all-crunching teeth. When Jack's distraught mother throws the beans out the window, "things began to happen. The beans slipped down through the cracks in the ground. Their roots wriggled deep into the earth and shoots pushed upward. They burst through the hard crust of the soil and, twisting and tangling together, they grew high into the sky." Sharkey's oil paintings reinforce the rollicking pace, with off-kilter perspectives and flexible horizon lines giving a sense of the characters racing through other-dimensional space. Walker compresses traditionally tripartite events into singular action and vivid language: "And the last time I went to visit, the harp played jigs and reels, so we all had a merry dance."

Donna Jo Napoli knows traditional folklore, and that is never more evident then when she strips an old tale to bare bones and then adds newly imagined body, heart, and soul. The title character of Crazy Jack has been mourning since his desperate father disappeared up the mountain one foggy night and was never seen again. Jack and his mother have lost nearly everything-farm, land, livestock-and they can barely eke out a living working someone else's property. Jack's beloved, Flora, has decided to accept the proposal of William, a phlegmatic but prosperous farmer, since it appears Jack will never get over his grief and guilt at his father's disappearance. Jack trades the family cow for seven beans in the colors of the rainbow, which grow overnight: "The dark stalk climbs, thick around as a pine sapling. Its tendrils curl into crevices, like fingers. The massive leaves are flat and shiny and heart shaped." And up he climbs, and he finds his father's fate along with his own fortune. Napoli searches deeply for the emotional motivations behind flat archetypes, for the connections between anonymous characters; she names them, rescuing them from the obscurity that is "happily ever after" and turning them into protagonists participating in stories that have depth and substance.

There is precedent for writers and illustrators' finding inspiration in tradition; they use it as sounding bell, whetstone, or catapult for their creativity. The conjunction of three versions of this adventure similar in plot yet unique in execution points to the universal appeal of the folktale. It also reminds us that a good story, no matter how old or how familiar, never really goes out of style.

-- Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
December's Bulletin cover illustration
by Niamh Sharkey from
Jack in the Beanstalk,
Copyright 1999. Used by
permission of Barefoot Books.

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This page was last updated on December 1, 1999.