The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Fred Marcellino, 1998.
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.

Ouch!: a Tale from Grimm ad. by Natalie Babbitt; ;
illus. by Fred Marcellino. di Capua/HarperCollins, 1998. 32p
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-205067-2   $14.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-205066-4   $14.95  4-7 yrs

Not to get too theological, but folklore tradition does excel in combining hell and happy endings in a way that's uncommonly satisfying. And we know from The Devil's Storybook (BCCB 12/74)-may it live forever-that Natalie Babbitt has more than a nodding acquaintance with the prince of darkness in his less princely moments. Now we learn that Fred Marcellino is equally adept at depicting just such moments with graphic aplomb in this adaptation of "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs." It's the story of a lowborn baby boy whom a fortune-teller predicts will marry a princess. Needless to say, said princess' father (the king) is displeased with this news and tries to kill the child, first by putting him in a box and throwing it into the river, then by sending him (sixteen years later) to the queen with a message ordering his execution, and finally by demanding that he fetch three golden hairs from the devil's head. None of these schemes works. The box floats, delivering the baby to a couple who names him Marco and happily raises him to young manhood. Robbers swap the death note for another one instructing the queen to marry the princess to Marco rather than disposing of him. And thank goodness the Devil has a grandmother. She's probably Marco's only hope for mercy, at least in the world of the Brothers Grimm.

With characteristic economy, Babbitt excises two incidents that are in the Grimms' version of Marco's journey to hell, which focuses the story for a stronger pace and ending. Details such as changing the baby's caul to a birthmark shaped like a crown make the tale more accessible, and the scene where the devil's grandmother does her part to help our worthy hero by pulling three golden hairs from her sleeping grandson's head ("Ouch!") is abbreviated to give full play to Marcellino's witty paintings, which feature several double spreads reflecting sly domestic interchange between the two horned tricksters. Marcellino's own tricks of light and shadow, expressive portraiture, full-bodied palette, and varied format make this brilliantly designed book a visually piquant feast as well as a verbally fleet feat.

It is surely no accident that the typeface is as gray-well, taupe-as a grandmother's hair before Clairol came along, because the real hero here is an aging matronly demon in the service of the good guys. Of course, it helps that the boy is handsome, tall, sweet, and confident, but without that old woman's intervention, even a child of fortune would have fallen prey to the forces of evil ("He'd snap your nose off," says Grandmother). In fact, the Grimms' own variant reinforces this notion by doubling the old women: the boy is first saved by another old woman who allows him into the robbers' den and then protects him from their initial inclination to kill him.

What do these old women signify? According to Babbitt's and Marcellino's playful interpretation, old age is good when it gives way to youth with willing grace. Babbitt's king is not giving way-he's as captious and vain as the devil. Babbitt's text tips us off on the first page, when the king reacts to the prophecy about his daughter marrying a poor lad: "What! His princess, who'd just been born herself? He would never let her marry nobody special." Marcellino clarifies the identification of the king and the devil by depicting them with the same long noses. The Devil's grandmother has an identical nose, which just goes to show that it's not your position in life but what you do with it that counts.

Like the fortunate Marco, Babbitt and Marcellino have fun here. The visual humor works subtly, as when the grandmother sits beside a cozy fireplace in the halls of hell, or the gray donkey stands like a yak with sculpted horns, or the king disguises himself in a monk's habit and struggles to smile instead of sneer at the baby boy he's trying to kidnap. Babbitt's verbal humor, too, is evinced more through rhythmic, often alliterative understatement than overt parries. "I'll take you," says the ferryman to the young lad who wishes to cross the river to hell, "but not till you tell me how I can stop this endless backing and forthing. It's boring me to death." Only the Devil knows how, but his grandmother finds out and tells Marco, who tells the ferryman: "To get rid of this job, just hand the pole to someone else." Good advice-perhaps the key to the kingdom. When you get old and bored with endless backing and forthing, just hand the pole to someone else. The results will depend on the heart of the quester. The good-natured lad gets a loving wife, the avaricious king gets stuck with ferrying folks to hell and back.

It's a cliche to say that a good children's book appeals to something different at every age level, but so long as one does, let us give credit where it's due. Youngsters will love the book because they get to inherit the kingdom and enjoy Babbitt's rollicking retelling on the way; elders will recognize the underlying message about the value of using their years to someone else's advantage. So catalogue this under intergenerational values. Read it to everybody you can find. Show them the pictures. Such artistry is a little bit of heaven on earth.

--Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

Big Picture Image
January's Bulletin cover illustration
by Fred Marcellino from
Ouch!: a Tale from Grimm,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Michael di Capua/Harper Collins Publishers

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