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The Three Billy Goats Gruff

On Tuesday, Patrick Gall reminded us that here at Calling Caldecott this year we’ve looked at several minimalist picture books. That changes today with Jerry Pinkney’s The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

This is the story you knew as a child — up to a certain point. In the book’s closing Artist’s Note, Pinkney writes about having wanted to retell the dramatic story for years but of being “confounded” by the ending of this classic tale.

So, instead of Pinkney’s troll disappearing at story’s end, he gives his version two twists: When the largest billy goat throws the troll off the bridge, a mammoth, toothy fish attempts to gobble him up, though ultimately the troll is “too sour” for him. And, in the very end, the troll has a change of heart and makes a peace offering to the goats. This is communicated on a final illustration on the Artist’s Note page, as well on the closing endpapers. We see the troll in the goats’ territory, building a new home that is not under a bridge. His days of terror over bridge transport — and his appetite for goat meat — have come to an end. Essentially, Pinkney wants the troll to learn his lesson, and that’s the more didactically inclined story he tells here.

Pinkney’s deliciously creepy troll is one of my favorite characters in the world of 2017 picture books. Look closely and note his necklace of fish heads; the fish skeleton that serves as a sort of feather on his hat; and his jacket, made of what is very likely coarse goat hairs. His bristly, unruly eyebrows are a force of nature. He has horns and pointy, hairy ears. His thick, long fingernails are, somehow, the eeriest detail — even more so than his ever-present crow companion. Look also at his back legs: He’s always crouching, poised for pouncing. There’s such power in those bent legs, with his leonine tail flying about.

There’s a lot of action on these busy spreads. A horizontal orientation is the name of the game here, given that the story’s action takes place from one end of a bridge to another. Pinkney notes in his closing statement the challenges this book posed, including the fact that the original tale is such a compact story with all the action taking place on one small bridge. On many spreads, he breaks the story up with illustrations taking up three quarters of the spread, followed by a line that divides that from a smaller illustration, showing a different moment in time.

My favorite spread makes the most of the space given, dividing the art into two wide horizontal panels, the top one showing the smallest billy goat on the far left, about to venture across the bridge, with the lower panel showing the odious troll on the far right, under the bridge and pointing up at the goat. The white space between the panels includes the painted words “Trip, trap! Trip, trap!” Our eyes are drawn diagonally across the page from the goat down to the troll. This stimulating layout suggests the action about to come and propels the page-turn in a dynamic way. It’s a masterfully composed spread, Pinkney’s choices here making the spread significantly less crowded than some of the others. (Occasionally throughout the story we see a goat standing on his two back legs. I wonder if this was a choice having to do with the story’s compactness.)

There’s also a dramatic gatefold spread, the moment during which the biggest billy goat crashes onto the bridge and faces down his enemy, a troll who is now looking decidedly more frightened. In a book filled with playful fonts — a larger, bolder font throughout the book gives a more strident voice to the troll — here we see a painted “CRACK!” and “CRASH!” Even the letters themselves are cracked in two, a detail that communicates more tension and drama.

Another moment I love is on the spread where the troll has fallen into the water, yet the fish has spared his life. We see more painted “Trip, trap!”s across the top of the spread. How can that be when this moment takes place entirely in water with no bridge in sight? Look at the very bottom of the spread to see goats reflected in an inverted manner; many goats (not just the three brothers) are crossing the bridge just above the nearly drowning troll. It’s a wonderful detail, easy to miss if racing through the book.

A couple of details in the book distracted me and pulled me away from the story. When the troll falls in the water, we see a painted “GULP!” But the fish hasn’t even opened his mouth yet; we barely see him in the upper right corner of this vignette. Perhaps Pinkney was suggesting that the water gulped up the troll, but it gave me pause and momentarily threw me off. Also, the back of the book jacket features an illustration that shows the troll sneaking behind the goats, as they stare straight out at the troll’s home under the bridge and the grass they long to eat. Why is the troll behind them on the goats’ side, hiding in the rock as he is? He is not oriented there in the story till the peaceful ending.

What do you think of Pinkney’s re-working of this age-old tale? Do you find the moralizing he adds to the tale — the moment of comeuppance, followed by one of forgiveness — off-putting or welcome? Do you think his changes to the tale support the moral?

Trip, trap!

Read the Horn Book Guide review of The Three Billy Goats Gruff.


Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.



  1. Victoria Stapleton/LBYR says:

    Yes, I am a bit biased in that I love all things Jerry Pinkney. One of the absolute best parts of my job is that he knows my voice on the phone. Which made creating this video for THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF all the more enjoyable. I’ll just leave a linky-poo right here:

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I really enjoyed your analysis here, Jules. This is quite a book. It is genius. But then most of Jerry Pinkney’s work is. The illustrations are always so beautifully colored and so subtlety informative. I have to go back and look at the gulp again. And the troll sneaking up on the goats. I think I missed that.

  3. I quite agree that the troll in this splendid picture book by one of our greatest masters is one of 2017’s most marvelous creations. This is a lively, detailed and rich work that should after a short hiatus put Pinkney back into the thick of it, and have him poised to add to his amazing six Caldecott awards, inclusing the one gold medal for The Lion and the Mouse. (My own favorite Pinkney is his 1989 collaboration with Robert D. San Souci on The Talking Eggs, but all his books are magnificent) I have the book in front of me now as I enter this comment and am investigation the points you made in your next to last paragraphs. In answer to your final query, Julie, I will say I always like when an author/illustrator mixed things up a bit, and veers away from the traditional approah. Hence, Pinkney’s moralizing isn’t a problem, and I do think the comeuppance and subsequent forgiveness will work quite nicely for the kids. His changes support the positive message he is trying to impart. The pencil/watercolor art from the gorgeous cover to the distinguished papers through to the gatefold thread makes this a bonafide contender. Another superlative review!

  4. I think this book is beautifully done. I liked the color palette that was chosen, I don’t have enough of an art background to find the words to express what I mean, but it just had the right “feel” to it. A brighter tone would have looked lurid and out of place for the feel of the story and the mostly natural illustrations.

    I don’t have a problem with the change to the ending at all – it’s not the first time I’ve seen a version end with something other than the troll being swept away. I don’t know that I’m in love with its actual execution, however. There’s the “gulp” that comes before the troll has been eaten, as Julie pointed out (which I suppose could be the river itself gulping him up?), but then there is also the fish not actually eating the troll. We see the fish with his mouth wide open and the troll swimming frantically away while the fish yells about gobbling him up. Then on the next page it says he was “probably too sour and green to make a tasty meal” but I don’t get any sense that the fish spit him out, just that it changed its mind, which is a bit of a disappointment. There are two pictures on that spread showing the troll swimming away. The first is an inset with the troll looking smug as he swims away and the very edge of the fish’s fin just barely visible as it leaves. The second is the troll stopping in resignation as the goats go over the bridge. Neither picture says “just spit out” to me, but perhaps that is a personal reaction. And it’s certainly a personal reaction that I wanted the fish to eat him and spit him out, rather than just deciding he’s “probably” not tasty, but I know a great many children who would have loved to have had the troll eaten and then spit out – just the right level of tables-turned without any lasting damage.

    Is it unrealistic of me to say that the fish is too big for the river when it’s obviously a fantasy story? I thought that when I was looking at the troll/fish double page spread, but then it really bothered me when on a re-read I noticed that in the Gulp! inset you can just barely see the fish’s head as it heads towards the troll from the right, which means it’s coming from the direction of the shore, not from upriver, and I just don’t see how the fish could fit.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    I appreciate the comments about the troll. There is so much I missed when I first looked at the book. Pinkney’s visual imaginings of this character are fantastic! As to the “gulp” I thought the troll was gulping as he realized he was going to sink. (Interesting how much speculation one small word can produce.)

    One question I had was about the illustration on the cover of the book (under the paper cover/dust jacket). I like that it is different than the dust jacket, but I’m not sure why it is green. Since there is a fish in the illustration (nice foreshadowing), it is apparently the river. Why isn’t there blue in the illustration? I’m guessing this is supposed to show water plants, but I would have liked at least touches of blue.

    I did find the “billy goat colored’ letters on the title page whimsical. And I like the fact that Pinkney chose to have a double-page title page. It fits the book so well. As to the ending, I was fine with it. Maybe it’s just me, but I think there are many picture books with an emphasis on harmony and tolerance this year. I think this is admirable and a sign of the times.

  6. Susan, that could be what that “gulp” means, yes.

    I also wondered about the cover illustration. And, yes, I noticed that fish foreshadowing too, though it hadn’t occurred to me those could be water plants. Interesting. There’s definitely a lot of grass there. Maybe that’s a tribute to the resilient goats, who worked so hard to get that grass (though I’ve always thought this one of the oddest traditional tales in that each goat pretty much throws his brother under the bus!).

    Alys, yes, the palette is gorgeous. And so signature Jerry-Pinkney! And I hadn’t even thought about how we do not see the troll attempt to actually eat the fish. Good point.

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