If every fairy tale must have a moral, then the one in the much-loved, oft-retold Three Billy Goats Gruff would be something about the perils of deferred gratification (and, possibly, the virtuousness of vegetarianism). Get greedy and you might end up going hungry – and quite literally up the creek.
Joining countless iterations of this story, which has its origins in 19th-century Norway, comes this new version by Californian Mac Barnett, who has teamed up again with Canadian illustrator Jon Klassen, best known for his beloved Hat trilogy. (Two of the pair’s previous collaborations, Extra Yarn and Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, were Caldecott Honor books.)
Barnett doesn’t mess with the tale’s simple, rhythmic plot. Rather, the devil (and the delight) of his version is in the details. Our troll lives, as expected, by a river under a bespoke wooden bridge, which is where we first see him, be-bibbed, spoon and fork at the ready. In a nod to the distant modern world, though, he’s surrounded by “rubble and trash.” Two of his most recent meals have been procured (and here kids will revel in the ick factor) from his ears and belly button, so he’s even hungrier than usual.
In his encounters with the first two diminutive goat brothers, who are trying to find their own meal in the grassy field beyond the bridge, the troll indulges in a series of gastronomic fantasies. He imagines “goat rump in honey glaze,” “a goat kale salad (hold the kale),” and “goat Benedict with hollandaise. / Goat jerky, jerk goat, curried goat.”
Ostensibly willing to throw their other brother under the non-proverbial bridge, the Gruffs convince the troll that the biggest and best meal is yet to come.
To the arrival of the third goat, which usually precipitates a boss-level showdown, Barnett and Klassen have added a rather excellent visual joke: this Gruff brother is way bigger than his brethren, so much so that he’s completely and hilariously out of frame. All we – and the troll – initially see are two furry forelegs the size of redwoods. In some versions of the story, the troll gets his eyes gouged out and his bones crushed. Here, though, the goat’s absurd, unfightable size serves as a sly way to reduce the violence quotient. After the troll utters a meekly unconvincing, “I’ll eat you,” he’s smoothly butted into a series of waterfalls that, like the goats themselves, keep increasing exponentially in size.
It’s a simple, funny adaptation – Barnett has hinted he may be doing others – with just the right amount of gentle contemporary twisting.