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.”
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.