Once upon a time . . . there was an old sow with three little pigs, and as she had not enough to keep them, she sent them out to seek their fortune. The first that went off met a man with a bundle of straw, and said to him: “Please man, give me that straw to build me a house.” Which the man did, and the little pig built a house with it. Presently came along a wolf, and knocked at the door, and said: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” To which the pig answered: “No, no, by the hair of my chiny chin chin.” . . . “Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in.”
So begins the classic version of “The Three Little Pigs,” a nursery tale that may not prove to be as familiar as you think it is. As the great folklorist Joseph Jacobs told it (in English Folk and Fairy Tales, 1890), it’s just right for small children — lively with action, with repetitive patterns of language and incident and a villain whose fate precisely fits his crime: in the end, the wolf is eaten, by his third intended victim.
Citing Halliwell’s Nursery Rhymes and Tales as his source, Jacobs added that the story has few parallels (in contrast to, say, “Cinderella,” with its thousand variants). However, Jacobs’s pigs have inspired dozens of subsequent versions, with pictures from many excellent illustrators and retellings in as many flavors as an ice-cream shop — traditional or revisionist, comic or didactic, simplified or elaborated, bowdlerized, truncated, popularized, fractured, restructured, or postmodern.
How, then, does the purist’s concern — to respect the “original” — apply? Normally, it’s nice to find a nod to the new version’s source, a note on how it’s been adapted, along with the adapter’s rationale. But with a story as well known as this one, demanding full disclosure may be unnecessarily pedantic. What we really care about is what goes for any picture book: a good story with good illustrations, to which we might add, in this case, some respectful remnants of the story’s original genius, like its pattern, its patter, or its pacing.
The telling matters, too. Many have adapted this perennial favorite, some by simply giving it new illustrations, some by retelling it so creatively that it takes on quite a different flavor. And some, assuming readers’ familiarity with the classic tale, use it as the basis for a whole new, mind-bending scenario. Ranging from simple to complex, from earnest to downright hilarious, none of the books described below will appeal to everyone; yet each is excellent in its own way, a worthy choice for the right child.
Paul Galdone’s 1970 The Three Little Pigs, small and lap-friendly, is close to Jacobs but slightly simplified — a boon for newly independent readers. His deftly sketched piglets are starry-eyed innocents in familiar-looking farmland, his wolf just scary enough to serve the story without provoking nightmares. Cheerful color gives the book a sunny aura and brings out the tale’s humor. For the very youngest, this could be the best choice.
Margot Zemach’s edition, more sophisticated in both language and art, would suit a somewhat older child, perhaps up to second grade. In old-world peasant garb with caps and patches, her mature-looking pigs set energetically to work, evidently inspired by their weeping mama’s advice: “Build good, strong houses . . . and always watch out for the wolf. Now goodbye, my sons, goodbye.” Like the fine storyteller she is, Zemach often rephrases, comfortable in her own voice yet respectful of her source. In her agreeably atmospheric illustrations, the orderly construction and swift obliteration of the straw and stick houses occur amid homely domestic detail. Then, as the scruffy third pig works his wiles on the ingratiating wolf, the pace quickens. Bit by bit, the wolf’s gentlemanly façade unravels until at last he plunges down the chimney, dislodging bricks as he goes.
Barry Moser, Glen Rounds, and James Marshall all retell the tale with notable verve and humor, each in his signature style. Moser’s unclad pigs are rough country folk, toothy and bristled. They look like the kind of kids you don’t want to meet coming home from school — a plus, given that his gaunt wolf disposes of two in short order. Moser’s logic is amusingly sensible: when the wolf fails to blow down the house he has “no breath left . . . so he [sits] down . . . to think”; the pig uses a block and tackle to get into the apple tree. Such wry flourishes are best appreciated by older children, while adults will particularly admire Moser’s masterful composition and watercolor technique.
Also for primary grades and up is Glen Rounds’s Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Rounds takes the story even further into rural America with roughly sketched pigs trotting on all fours and simply burrowing into heaps of straw and sticks they happen to find. His voice is informal, with such clarifications for modern children as an “empty barrel” instead of a butter churn. Broad, craggy pen lines define Rounds’s angular figures, which are elegantly complemented by the bold sans-serif type, to handsome graphic effect. Even the skinny, really ugly Big Bad Wolf contributes to the book’s striking visual harmony.
For pure, lighthearted fun with the essential tale intact, James Marshall’s pigs take the cake. The title page sets the tone: one pig paints the title in as many giddy colors as his own wildly patterned trousers, another sleeps, and the nerdy third is reading through a pince-nez. The old sow issues no warnings; it’s just, “Now be sure to write . . . and remember that I love you,” and off they go, two pigs scantily clad and one dressed like a banker. Later, he talks like one: “Capital idea, my good fellow!” to the man with the bricks, and “Would three o’clock suit you?” to the wolf he plans to evade. Marshall’s narrative bubbles with such diction. His buoyant illustrations are in the same easygoing spirit, from a pig lightly balanced on an airy ridgepole to the dim-looking wolf in red-and-white stripes; from the third pig harvesting turnips (“All you can pick 10 cents”) to his cozy dinner of wolf (served under a lid, the better to hide it from the squeamish).
Marshall’s book stands on its own, though it’s even more fun as a blithe parody. Jon Scieszka’s hilarious The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! (by A. Wolf) assumes prior knowledge of the tale it contradicts: here, the wolf offers his own self-serving account. He was only trying to borrow a cup of sugar to bake his granny a birthday cake, he says, when he sneezed and “that whole darn straw house fell down,” leaving the pig inside “dead as a doornail . . . It seemed like a shame to leave a perfectly good ham dinner lying there.” An unreliable narrator? Probably. What’s certain is that he’s an engaging miscreant, admirably supported by Lane Smith’s comical, surreal art. A Dagwood-high cheeseburger with mouse tails and bunny ears protruding from among pickles and patties; the wolf’s many many tiny pearly teeth; a cameo of Granny Wolf abed (recalling “Red Riding Hood”) — Smith’s illustrations are endlessly droll and inventive.
David Vozar’s Yo, Hungry Wolf! links three wolf stories to make a “Nursery Rap” that begins with the three pigs: “He runs to a shack, pig hiding place of sticks. / He’ll blow it down easy for his pork-chop fix.” Familiar story elements dovetail with nifty wordplay. Meanwhile, with a free hand and a deft pen, Betsy Lewin creates pages as energetic and packed with sly humor as Vozar’s verse: “Pigs celebratin’, / the wolf they’re beratin’. / But he’s got a plan / For house infiltratin’.” This time, that’s not to be; still hungry, the wolf escapes into Red Riding Hood’s story.
In The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Eugene Trivizas reverses roles for a fable on peacemaking. Working together, the gentle wolves build three houses, each sturdier than the last (brick, concrete, an armed fortress), only to have each in turn demolished by Helen Oxenbury’s rogue pig. This scoundrel actually looks a bit less brutish than Moser’s pigs; still, his sledgehammer levels the brick house, then escalates to a jackhammer and finally to dynamite that blows the fortress to smithereens. The wolves’ fourth house, of flowers, wins the pig over, and he and the wolves settle down happily together. Oxenbury’s beguiling wolf cubs and blossom-bedecked landscapes lighten the message somewhat, as does a relatively long text that mentions such innocent pastimes as battledore and shuttlecock.
In his postmodern Caldecott winner The Three Pigs, David Wiesner explores the very idea of story. The wolf blows down the straw house on the first spread; but though the text reads, “and ate the pig up,” Wiesner’s illustrations have already begun another story, one in which all three pigs escape their page-shaped frames for a different scenario. Those beginning frames are illustrated in a flat, traditional style. As they leave them, the pigs are transformed, like Pinocchio becoming a real boy: they grow sturdier, more rounded and detailed. As they celebrate their freedom on new, as-yet-unmarked pages, pages from their old story twist, turn, and blow away. One, folded into an airplane, takes them on to another tale: “Hey diddle diddle,” illustrated in a sentimental, conventional style. Soon they’re leaving that story as well, taking the cat with them; and he, too, becomes more corporeal, like the pigs. Later a dragon, escaping the sword-wielding prince in his story, is also transformed. Finally, back on their original pages, the pigs and their two new friends settle down in the brick house, the disappointed wolf still visible through a window.
Wiesner’s marvelously comical and just plain beautiful book demonstrates how far a good old story can take an artist inspired by its essential spirit. Joan Bodger once said, “The wonder of these types of stories is that the child knows there’s a mystery . . . Children cannot put it into words — there’s no other way to say it except through art or poetry or folk tales — but they pick up on the truth in them.” A child who wants the same story again and again is absorbing such a truth. One newly adopted eight-year-old’s favorite story is “The Three Little Pigs,” which she explored in many editions. Perhaps “The Three Little Pigs” speaks so eloquently to this young veteran of foster care because it’s about finding a secure home. Tales that last for generations have many such resonances; that’s why they endure across cultures, circumstances, and centuries.
That’s why the old tale speaks to us still.
Titles Discussed Above
Paul Galdone The Three Little Pigs; illus. by the author (Clarion, 1970)
James Marshall The Three Little Pigs; illus. by the author (Dial, 1989)
Barry Moser The Three Little Pigs; illus. by the author (Little, 2001)
Glen Rounds Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf; illus. by the author (Holiday, 1992)
Jon Scieszka The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!; illus. by Lane Smith (Viking, 1989)
Eugene Trivizas The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig; illus. by Helen Oxenbury (McElderry 1993)
David Vozar Yo, Hungry Wolf!; illus. by Betsy Lewin (Doubleday, 1993)
David Wiesner The Three Pigs; illus. by the author (Clarion, 2001)
Margot Zemach The Three Little Pigs; illus. by the author (di Capua/Farrar, 1988)
From the March/April 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.