Julie Danielson

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“We are all just hearts / beating in the darkness.” In All the Beating Hearts, poet Julie Fogliano and illustrator Cátia Chien take readers on an impressionistic journey through a single day, capturing the interior and exterior worlds of humans. 

Fogliano’s text captures joy, wonder, tedium and sorrow. “Each day starts with the sun / and hopefully something to eat,” Fogliano writes, acknowledging food scarcity. Most of us spend our days on the move, spending our hours on “work / or play / or work AND PLAY.” Some days are filled with love, and “some days we will curl up / and wish to be / any / other / place.” 

When night arrives, we slip into dreams, and our hearts beat with the message that “we are here / and alive / together but apart / the same, but exactly different.” Fogliano repeats that phrase, “the same, but exactly different” toward the end of the book as well, offering a refreshing antidote to the we’re-not-so-different platitudes of seemingly progressive picture books that, in practice, deny differences such as race, gender and disability. 

Chien meets Fogliano’s evocative words with lush, atmospheric illustrations awash with color. In a wordless spread depicting a night of dreams, children float in an abstract cloud rendered in warm shades of rose and yellow, surrounded by scribbled amorphous creatures. In another spread, a child illustrated in full color and backlit by a bright light stands in a crowd of people all drawn in jagged shades of gray. “Everyone is busy being / everywhere and everything else / and all those beating hearts / are still there, but struggling / to be heard above it all.” 

The connections between those hearts, which beat within us “strong and steady and sure,” is the stuff of life, Fogliano seems to be saying. This tender, compassionate picture book invites readers to ponder this notion with wonder—and all of their hearts.  

This tender, compassionate picture book invites readers to ponder how we’re all connected by “our beating hearts / strong and steady and sure.”
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This home-and-back-again adventure tale belongs to Evergreen, a wide-eyed squirrel who lives deep in Buckthorn Forest. Evergreen has a long list of fears, including but not limited to germs, loud noises, heights, swimming and thunderstorms. When her mother asks her to travel through the forest to take soup to Granny Oak, Evergreen responds, “I can’t do it!” But her mother insists (”I know you are afraid, but I believe you can do it”), so Evergreen puts on her shawl and heads out. 

In an era of picture books that often contain sparse text, Evergreen stands out for its lengthy, detailed prose. Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell treats readers to an epic tale in six enumerated parts, filled with lively dialogue and hand-lettered onomatopoeia. “SKREEEE-EEE!” and “GRRROOOAAARRR!” go the forest creatures who frighten Evergreen on her journey. In one remarkably spine-tingling moment, a red-tailed hawk named Ember swoops down toward Evergreen, picks her up “with razor-sharp talons” and soars into the sky. Cordell offers a dramatic, close-up view of the scene as Evergreen and another animal run toward the reader, the hawk just behind them, its majestic wings exceeding the edges of the spread. 

Fortunately, Ember just needs Evergreen’s help to remove some painful thorns after an unlucky encounter with a bramble. “I . . . can do it,” Evergreen whispers, a self-directed pep talk that becomes her refrain throughout the story. With each creature she meets, Evergreen faces one of her fears with courage (and deep breaths and trembling hands), and she prevails every time—even when she meets “the Bear,” whose identity is a gratifying surprise. 

Cordell’s world building is immensely satisfying, and Evergreen is packed with entertaining textual and visual details. Evergreen delivers Mama’s “magic soup” in an empty acorn with a screw-on cap; her tattered shawl is red like another well-known woodland food delivery courier; and earth tone borders that look like tree branches frame many vignettes. Cordell drops a number of hints to a sequel, including a delightful map beneath the dust jacket and another delivery request from Evergreen’s mother toward the story’s conclusion. Readers would be so lucky. 

Caldecott Medalist Matthew Cordell packs entertaining textual and visual details into Evergreen, an epic home-and-back-again adventure about facing your fears.
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Canadian author Kathy Stinson and illustrator Lauren Soloy’s A Tulip in Winter is a vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis from two creators familiar with the Nova Scotian landscape that Lewis called home. 

Although Lewis had a happy childhood, she was also “teased . . . for how she looked, her crooked walk, and how small she was.” Lewis’ hands grew stiff from a condition her doctors could not explain, revealed in the book’s back matter to be severe rheumatoid arthritis. The condition prevented her from playing the piano, so her mother gave her a paintbrush and launched Lewis’ life in art: “Red on white made its own kind of music,” the girl eagerly discovered. 

A Tulip in Winter touches on the many challenges in Lewis’ life: She struggled to find employment, and after her parents’ deaths, she moved in with her aunt, who discouraged her niece’s art. Eventually, Lewis moved into a small, plain house owned by a fish peddler named Everett and soon filled the house with color, painting floral and other natural motifs on the stairs, walls, tea canisters, dustpans and more. “Everett was strong in body. Maud was strong in spirit. They got along the way certain colours do,” Stinson writes. The book’s final spread acknowledges the fame Lewis achieved after her death: “So small was her house that it is now nestled inside the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.” 

Stinson emphasizes that the foundation of Lewis’ distinctive art was her ability to notice things, even when she was unable to leave her home. Her admiration and respect for Lewis permeate every page, while Soloy’s thick-lined, brightly colored illustrations capture the essence of Lewis’ joyous art. Full-bleed spreads bring Lewis’ childhood to life with period details such as horse-drawn carriages and historical clothing, and many spreads are overlaid in white-lined drawings of the things Lewis observes in nature, including flowers, birds, trees, ocean waves and more. The book’s seamless blend of text and art provides a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.” 

This vibrant biography of folk artist Maud Lewis is a superb introduction to the work of a woman who found “beauty in the everyday.”
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This exquisite etiological story, originally published in a wordless format by David Álvarez in Mexico in 2017, blends multiple Mesoamerican tales to tell a story of how the sun came to be. 

“At the start of things, the elders say,” begins award-winning author David Bowles’ text, which was composed for this edition, “the universe was hushed and still.” Teal-gray Rabbit perches atop the moon, which takes the form of a round jug and provides the sky’s only light aside from the minuscule stars. In order to keep the moon “forever a-glow,” Rabbit crosses the world to secure more aguamiel, nectar that “brims in the heart of the first and holy maguey,” an agave plant. 

But clever Opossum wants to taste the aguamiel, so he uses his walking stick to crack open the moon and siphon off some of the nectar. Later, ashamed that the moon has been depleted of the substance that made it glow, Opossum journeys deep into the earth to fill another jug with fire and, in the process, burns the tip of his tail. Afterward, with a “blazing sun” in the sky, Rabbit and Opossum become the “Guardians of Light.” 

Bowles’ spare, evocative text flows like poetry: “Rabbit made her way down the Great Ceiba’s trunk and trekked across the sea-ringed world.” He seamlessly captures the nuances of the traditional tales from which this story draws, which are discussed in a detailed note that closes the book. 

Álvarez’s compositions are sophisticated and uncluttered as he arranges visual elements with elegance and balance. Most of the spreads feature a pitch-black background punctuated by gleaming pinpoint stars. Layered atop are the subdued, earth-toned colors of beautifully crafted, gently stylized figures so remarkably textured that you can almost count the number of hairs on Rabbit’s body. 

Ancient Night is wondrous, sparkling and easily one of the best picture books of 2023. 

This wondrous, sparkling story conveys how Rabbit and Opossum became “Guardians of Light,” providing the moon with its glow and the sun its fire.
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Alison James and Jennifer K. Mann’s inversion of The Giving Tree begins with a nod to Shel Silverstein’s enduring, controversial classic: “Once there was a tree who was very lonely.” Things change when a distressed girl named Rosemary rushes, in tears, across the field to the sugar maple. Children at the nearby school have hurt her feelings, and Maple offers her friendship. Their bond deepens as Rosemary visits daily; she even plants some maple seeds beneath her friend’s branches.

When Rosemary suddenly stops visiting, Maple grieves, but as seasons and years pass, she manages to bloom and grow anyway. The eager saplings shooting up under Maple’s brilliant leaves also mature. Finally, Rosemary returns, now a grown woman, to tell Maple that she’s become a teacher at the school. She hangs a swing from one of Maple’s branches and introduces her students to her old friend. In the end, we see Rosemary as an older woman, her dark hair white with age. She settles next to Maple with a book and, beneath the sheltering leaves, reads aloud to the tree.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship and the promises it entails. James portrays conversations between Rosemary and Maple in straightforward dialogue, as though Maple is actually speaking and Rosemary can understand her. When Rosemary’s visits cease, James writes that Maple “ached with loneliness,” because “once you have a friend, you know what you are missing when they are gone.”

Mann’s artwork seamlessly complements James’ vivid text. When we first meet Rosemary, James describes her from Maple’s perspective as something “raining from its eyes” and moving “bright and fast like a shooting star.” Mann brings the story to the page with lush landscapes filled with greens of every shade. She captures Maple beautifully throughout the seasons, and her occasional use of panels expertly progresses the pacing as needed. “Leaves bloomed, burned, then fell,” we read as Mann depicts pink-tipped buds, then verdant green leaves and finally the fiery reds of autumn.  

This tender story is essential reading for tree-whisperers everywhere.

With touching emotional authenticity, Maple & Rosemary explores the bonds of friendship between a girl and a sugar maple tree over the seasons of their lives.
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Carter Higgins delivers another superb concept book in Some of These Are Snails, a natural companion to her elegant 2021 creation, Circle Under Berry. Higgins invites readers to linger over these pages as they classify, sort and organize simple shapes in bright colors. 

The book opens with a double-page spread dominated by two circles: one green, one yellow, with simple embellishments that transform the green into a turtle, the yellow into a snail. “Turtle is a circle,” we read, then, “circle is a snail.” The next spread features six green and orange circles on the verso, while the recto repeats the images of the turtle and the snail, then introduces a yellow square. “Circle circle square” rests below these three shapes. In the spread that follows, the yellow square becomes an elephant; next to it, a square, now blue, is an owl. 

As we continue to turn the pages, Higgins’ text encourages readers to sort by color and shape, and to ascertain how these classifications overlap. We see nine variously colored circles arranged in a three-by-three square; a square whale; triangle birds and mice; a series of circles grouped by both size and color; and more. Occasionally, Higgins addresses readers directly: “can you sort by color? can you sort by size?” then, striking a playful note, “can you sort by shape or find the animal with eyes?” Perhaps the most sophisticated puzzle of all features six animal shapes and asks, “what is one? what is some? where is all and where is none?”

Though the text includes sparse punctuation and no capitalization, it’s satisfyingly rhythmic and filled with pleasing rhymes, both true and slant. It absolutely begs to be shared aloud. Meanwhile, Higgins renders the shapes and the creatures built from those shapes with vibrant collage illustrations. The figures rest on copious white space and evoke the palette and textures of the work of Eric Carle. It all makes for an utterly delightful, visually rich package that will have readers engaging in the types of classification work that form the basis of math skills and enhance memory and problem-solving abilities, too. Best of all, they’ll learn to see the world and its patterns in eye-opening ways. Some of These Are Snails is a must-have for every young reader’s bookshelf.

Discover how Carter Higgins’ created the ingenious art in ‘Some of These Are Snails.’

This must-have picture book for every young child is an utterly delightful, visually rich creation that invites readers to classify, sort and organize shapes.
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In When You Can Swim, readers explore the joys of swimming in various bodies of water—oceans, ponds, lakes, rivers and more—in a text set primarily in conditional statements (the “when you can swim” of the title), as spoken by a parent to a child. This phrase is a refrain that conveys the abundant possibilities and delights of moving in the water: the “clinking / of waves passing in and out / of a million pebbles,” the ripples on a pond, the whitecaps on a river, “the smoke on the lake” and much more. 

In Jack Wong’s breathtaking watery landscapes, strong currents surge beneath “rushing waterfalls,” and sunlight shimmers on ocean waves and the surface of a river. Text and illustrations merge seamlessly to illuminate the ways in which swimming animates all the senses, and Wong writes with beguiling lyricism and figurative language: “When you can swim, / you’ll reach landscapes as foreign as the moon / no spaceship required / except the craters are squishy and filled with reeds / ready to swallow loose sandals / but like good explorers, we’ll leave only footprints.”

Wong’s playful perspectives are captivating. In one spread, from the perspective of lying on our backs in the water, we see “treetops drift by” and a dragonfly buzz near. In another, we turn the book for a stunning vertically oriented image of two girls who dive down after breaking the surface of a lake. A rich apricot-colored light adorns the top of the spread with darkness below, and Wong describes “tannin-soaked lakes / pitch dark from tree bark / like oversteeped tea.” The book’s ending features the same child in the book’s opening, ready to take swimming lessons at a public pool. 

An appended note from Wong, striking in its tenderness, explains his hesitancy as “an immigrant kid” in Canada to swim at public pools and his desire to tell a story with “differently colored characters” because “representation is power”—a point he makes incisively and beautifully in this splendid picture book. 

The text and illustrations of When You Can Swim merge seamlessly to illuminate the ways in which swimming animates all one’s senses.
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As The Winter Bird opens, author Kate Banks cleverly invites young readers to put their inference skills to work as she describes the change in seasons. “It was the time of year when the sun went to bed early,” she writes. “The big brown bear lumbered off to its winter den. . . . And the birds prepared to fly south.” But a nightingale, a spring bird, remains stranded on the ground by a broken wing. “What will happen to me?” it sings. 

A nearby barn owl tells the nightingale that it will have to stay behind and learn the ways of winter. Over the months that follow, the nightingale sees snow for the first time, a rabbit invites the bird to take shelter in its burrow, and squirrels share their food with the bird. Eventually, the nightingale learns how to keep warm on its own and to forage for its own food. It even survives a blizzard with the other creatures, breaking the storm’s “eerie hush” with a song of “summer’s sweetness” and then an ode to “winter’s wonders.”

Banks’ satisfying prose is evocative and filled with figurative language. Cold creeps “in on icy feet,” and the blizzard covers “the world in a shimmering blanket.” Meanwhile, in full-bleed spreads, illustrator Suzie Mason effectively brings winter to the page. Her color palette grows increasingly dark as the season sets in and the animals retreat. In two spreads, she places readers behind the rabbit and nightingale in the rabbit’s burrow, looking out at the falling snow along with the wide-eyed creatures. As spring arrives, Mason punctuates snowy spreads with vivid greens, and by the final spread, green sings from every inch of the pages. 

The Winter Bird is an earnest anthropomorphized tale. Its creatures support and encourage one another, forming a kind and tightknit community that transforms the nightingale. As Banks reflects, “It was a spring bird, but it had become a winter bird, too.” 

When a nightingale with a broken wing can’t fly south for the winter, a kind and tightknit community of creatures help it survive the season in this earnest tale.
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In So Much Snow, author Kristen Schroeder and illustrator Sarah Jacoby take readers through the days of the week by exploring the joys of a big winter snowfall in the woods. 

“On Monday, it starts to snow,” the book opens as a tiny mouse watches huge three snowflakes fall to the grass. “How high will it go?” More snow falls on Tuesday, and a rabbit pops up from behind a log to delight in the promise of winter weather. Once again, the text asks: “How high will it go?” Schroeder repeats this phrase throughout the book as the snow continues to fall all the way up until Sunday. “The end of the snow. Brilliant blanketing. SO MUCH SNOW!”

Writing with an elegant economy, Schroeder fills the book with punchy, alliterative sentences starring vivid active verbs. Flakes float, hilltops hide, drifts dance and more. Jacoby depicts foxes, wolves and deer in motion—leaping, jumping and sniffing the air as the color palette becomes progressively whiter. By the book’s climax, amid snow drifts and high winds, Jacoby’s compositions become wonders of line and movement. 

In the book’s second half, as readers pause to appreciate the stillness of wintry days, it’s a new week and the animals reappear: “On Monday, the sun starts to show.” Schroeder’s text encourages readers to notice shrinking shapes and thawing things, and to greet the creatures (“Look, it’s Moose. Hello!”).” Rabbit even waves directly at readers while venturing out in the melting snow. By Saturday, it’s “snow’s new low.” Spring seems to have arrived. “NO MORE SNOW!” 

This cozy winter adventure closes with a delightful twist that’s true to its title. So Much Snow is so much joy. 

Readers will wonder just how high the snow will go in this joyful celebration of a big winter snowfall that closes with a delightful twist.
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You only think you know the story of the three billy goats who wanted to cross the bridge and the troll who tried to stop them. In The Three Billy Goats Gruff, acclaimed author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen create a wickedly funny retelling that breathes new life into the classic story. The author and illustrator chatted with BookPage about transforming oral tales into picture books, their many years of collaboration and the interior decorating habits of trolls. 

This is your seventh picture book together. Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with each other. What are your collaborations like? Has the process changed?
Author Mac Barnett: Jon and I have been friends for 13 years now, and we still talk about picture books more than anything else. Like, it’s not even close. When we’re making a book together, it feels like an opportunity to continue that conversation, and in that way our books are documents of friendship and expressions of our mutual love for this art form. 

Illustrator Jon Klassen: I don’t know if it’s changed much in terms of how we talk. We’ve always had this kind of creepy shorthand where we start sentences and the rest is understood. 

Our collaboration does change a fair bit from book to book because we mix up how they come about pretty often. Sometimes we beat out a story together, then Mac writes it and then I draw it, and I go back to him for changes in the text to solve problems we hadn’t thought of initially. For this one, he’d written the text without me specifically in mind, so it was much more about treating the text as almost unchangeable. I think maybe there were one or two tweaks, but it wasn’t as much of a hands-on collaboration. But that’s very enjoyable too. I like constraints, and that’s a big one.

This is the first volume in what will be at least a trilogy of picture books that retell fairy tales. Why did you begin with “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”? 
Barnett: Foremost on my mind was ensuring that the stories work as picture books. I wanted to create entertaining read-alouds that make good use of page turns and set up dynamic relationships between text and image. 

It was a delicate but significant act of adaptation: Fairy tales began as an oral tradition and then were set down as straight prose (sometimes with decorative illustrations, which function way differently from the images in a picture book). Fairy tales are such crowd pleasers. Over countless retellings, these stories evolved to maximize reactions from groups of children sitting and listening. 

“I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws.”

Picture books work differently than any other form of storytelling. And “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” just made so much sense as a picture book—it’s such a visual story, and all about scale. I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws. 

Klassen: This story is a tricky one to tell because a lot of times it’s included in some kind of anthology and it only gets one page and one illustration or something. But Mac understood that the pleasure in the story is in the page-turn reveals, and in drawing it all out and then doubling down over and over again when it gets to the part where the troll gets punished. The pacing of it is perfectly suited to a picture book, and Mac divided it up that way and got maximum impact out of the beats. It was a real pleasure to work over.

Mac, what well-known elements of the story did you want to preserve? Which ones did you want to play around with?
Barnett: In this story, I leave the original plot pretty much intact. I love revisionist storytelling and fractured fairy tales (The Stinky Cheese Man made me want to write picture books), but that’s not really what we’re up to here. This book feels more like how Jon and I would tell this story about a troll and some goats that we remember hearing as kids. That said, every telling of a fairy tale is a retelling, and I think this version feels very much our own. 

In “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the good guys don’t get much stage time. The goats file by, one by one, but we spend most of our time with the villain. So I wanted to give a little more sense of who this troll was and what he wanted, and I probably inevitably ended up sympathizing with him a bit. 

I changed the ending too. Here’s the original text, as set down in the middle of the 19th century (translated from the Norwegian by D.L. Ashliman): “And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade.”

For me, that doesn’t work in a picture book. It’s too violent. Mind you, I’d have no problem telling the story that way—out loud, without pictures—to a group of young kids. It works great without pictures! You can feel the storyteller stoking the crowd, getting squeals and screams, upping the ante. But as soon as you add pictures, it gets too gross. It breaks the spell. A famous Jon Klassen eyeball flying from its socket, a little optic nerve wiggling behind it? No thank you. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the ending—gratuitous, escalating, funny—and I like where we landed very much. 

“Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story?”

Jon, as you set out to illustrate this book, what scene were you most excited to bring to life?
Klassen: I really liked the beginning spread, where we first meet the troll. The illustration only takes up like a fifth of the page space and you barely see him. Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off. Even though, on its own, that first spread doesn’t show very much, it’s got a lot of tension and promise, and I like that a lot. 

What was challenging about illustrating the goats and the troll? What was enjoyable?
Klassen: The goats were very fun because they are the straight men in this story. Their job is to play it cool and look at the troll like he’s ridiculous. From the start they’ve got a solid, coordinated plan to deal with him, and they’re never scared, so they get to be almost like statues of goats that move on- and offstage when the story tells them to, and that’s about it.

The troll took a minute to figure out. My first few stabs were a little too human. The main thing I wanted to keep about him was my impression, from illustrations of trolls when I was growing up, that they almost look like they’re part of the ground they inhabit. It’s not as much about the details or a specific anatomy as it is about them almost being hidden, and then you see their eyes in there somewhere.

Mac, the troll speaks mostly in rhyme, a technique you haven’t often employed. How did you arrive at this? 
Barnett: I love poetry and poetic forms. I studied poetry and for a long time, well into college, I thought I might become a poet. Fairy tales often move from poetry to prose, so I thought it’d be fun to do that here. Jon’s staging of this story is very theatrical, and I think the troll’s poetry feels similarly performative: He’s chewing the scenery and really inhabiting his trollness . . . until it all breaks down.

We spend most of the book in one location: the bridge beneath which the troll lives. Jon, how did you decide what this would look like?
Klassen: When I first took on the book, I bought an old book on bridge design. I was all excited about doing it in this historical way, but then the more I sat with the story, the more it seemed like the right answer was actually a very, very simple bridge that was probably made by hand and maybe wasn’t even used by people anymore. The troll had claimed it long ago, and he’s not much on upkeep. Like the troll, the planks of the bridge almost merge with the ground, and they’ve got grass and vines growing on them. I wanted the wood to feel soft. 

“Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off.”

The troll’s decor started with the skull hanging from the bridge, and then I added some bones around him. The team at Scholastic liked this direction and kept embellishing on what else he’d have down there, so now we have some playing cards and a boot and an old can—just stuff that might’ve floated downriver at some point. I think there’s a lot of downtime under there between potential meals crossing the bridge.

What are your favorite illustrations in the book? 
Klassen: My favorite is the page where all three goats are eating in the meadow near the end. They look safe and satisfied, and it’s just a really strong moment. The story is mainly about justice against this antagonistic force, which is simple enough, but the result ended up hitting me harder than I expected it to. I think it’s one of the better spreads Mac and I have done together in any of our books. 

Barnett: He texted [that spread] to me as soon as he’d finished it, which he only does when he’s really excited about something, and it totally knocked me over. 

One thing we do in this book is make the third goat ridiculously large. Most of the time, the progression of goats in this story goes small, medium, large. Sometimes you get an extra-large goat at the end. But we go small, medium, enormous—absolutely gargantuan, bigger than any goat in the history of picture books. We thought it would be funny. 

Our version, like the original tale, ends with all the goats together, eating on the grassy ridge. And this picture is of three goats, one of whom is just ridiculously huge, enjoying a nice meal at sunset, completely at peace. And while the visual joke is still present, the image is so sweet and peaceful and moving. I cried when I saw it. 

In a lot of our books together, Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story? The answer, often, is the sublime. 

This book contains a litany of ways in which the troll dreams of preparing and eating goat. If you were a troll, what would be your favorite way to eat goat?
Klassen: I don’t think it’s a secret that neither Mac or I give too much thought to the overt lessons our books might teach, but if there is a lesson in here anywhere, it’s that we should probably lay off the goat-eating. 

If you encountered a troll beneath a bridge you needed to cross, what would you do? 
Klassen: I’d probably deliberate on the edge for a little while, then suddenly make a run for it across the bridge, be caught three steps in and eaten immediately.

Barnett: I’d try to sneak across while the troll is eating Jon.

Read our review of ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff.’

Photo of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen courtesy of Carson Ellis.

Two award-winning children’s book creators reveal how they told their story about some goats and a troll under a bridge.
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Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen take on the classic Norwegian fairy tale of comeuppance in The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Their rendition spends a notable amount of time with the tale’s villain, a remarkably creepy troll with spindly legs and pointy, fanglike teeth that protrude from his lower jaw. A skull dangles from the bridge that serves as his shelter, and he holds a fork and spoon, ready to dine. 

Barnett renders much of the troll’s dialogue in rhyme, particularly when the creature describes his appetite: “I am a troll. I live to eat. / I love the sound of hooves and feet / and paws and claws on cobblestones. / For that’s the sound of meat and bones!” Young readers will delight in the antagonist’s grossness, like when he uses a dirty fingernail to scrape a ball of hairy wax from his ears, because all he’s had to eat recently is “a leather boot and some goop he’d found in his belly button.”

Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen reveal how they’d try to outwit a troll.

This troll might be creepy, but he’s also devilishly funny. He compliments himself on outwitting the smallest goat, who has promised that his brothers are coming: “I’m so smart! And fun and handsome.” When he meets the largest of the three brothers, who is so tall that at first readers see only his furry shins, the troll is awestruck. In the wordless spread that follows, Klassen plays effectively with scale, depicting this final goat head-butting the troll, who flies off the verso, his fork trailing through the air behind him. 

The troll’s punishment involves a hilarious waterfall descent, but to say more would spoil the surprise. Until that point, the entire story unfolds at the bridge. A less-skilled illustrator might have hurt the story’s pace, but Klassen consistently adds visual interest through design choices, framing and details in the setting, such as the items scattered around the troll’s abode. 

This wickedly funny take will leave children clamoring for more. Fortunately, it’s the first in a planned series in which Barnett will retell classic fairy tales. If the volumes that follow are this stellar, readers are in good hands.  

Read our Q&A with ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ author Mac Barnett and illustrator Jon Klassen.

In this retelling of the classic Norwegian fairy tale, the antagonist plays a creepy and devilishly funny role.

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