The Billy Goats Gruff

A ‘Verse a Day’ fairy tale told in who knows how many parts…

Do you remember the Billy Goats Gruff, and that fearsome Troll lurking under the bridge they wanted to cross? And that tricky decision to Remain or to Leave to where the grass is always greener. One by one they tried, each asking the Troll to spare them with the promise that a bigger, fatter prize was following behind. How’s that for brotherly love? Perhaps, today, those three brothers might appear something like the Sopranos, some Goateed Peaky Blinders, or the magnificent Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov in The Death of Stalin. The Gruff’s gruff voices in my head sound perfect when read with an accent from somewhere in deepest, darkest Yorkshire…

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In a valley of green, back in Fairy Tale days,
Gangs of billy goats fought over which land to graze,
There were billy goats tough, there were billy goats rough,
But no goats were as bad as the Billy Goats Gruff.

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These three billy goat brothers ate thistles and thorns,
And they butted their rivals with curly, sharp horns,
Growing fat in a field by a fast waterfall,
Where the thistles grew thickest and richest of all…

3
But one dark autumn evening, the Gruffs felt a chill,
Looking over the valley from high on their hill.
“All our kingdom’s grown muddy!” one growled with a shiver.
“The grass looks much greener beyond the Great River.”

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“My brothers! It’s time for us Gruffs to expand!
We must cross that Great River and grab our new land.
But there’s only one bridge, under which lives a troll,
Who will drown any strangers that won’t pay her toll.”

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“Let me cross over first!” bleated Tiny Goat Gruff,
Who was youngest and smallest, but made of tough stuff.
He was tall as a wolf, with a beard of blood red,
And a hat with a crow’s feather perched on his head.

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Tiny rolled out a motorbike, polished and black,
Started up the loud engine and climbed on its back.
And then, dipping his horns, gave his brothers a poke,
Before roaring away in a great cloud of smoke.

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Tiny stopped at the crossing and stroked his red beard.
On the bridge, in the moonlight, a figure appeared.
She was really quite small, dressed in rags and old shoes,
And her bald head was covered with goat’s-head tattoos.

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“Your whole business,” said Tiny, “is one we’ve admired.
But Gruff Brothers Inc. think it’s time you retired.
I’m taking your bridge, cos that grass looks much greener.”
He tried to look mean… but the Troll looked much meaner.

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“My dear Tiny Gruff,” sighed the Troll, “Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
This stone bridge is my castle. This river’s my moat.
And we’re stronger by far than some hillbilly goat!”

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“Take a look,” she went on, “at my inky-blue head,
Each tattoo shows the face of a goat that lies dead.
They all drowned in this river, one hundred all gone,
If you fight me, I’ll make you one hundred and one!”

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Tiny’s hair stood on end, his legs started to shake,
And he bleated: “I think there has been some mistake.
I’m not worth all this bother, I’m just skin and bone.
Please await my big brother and leave me alone!”

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“I will let you cross over my bridge,” hissed the Troll,
“If you leave me your bike and your suit as my toll!”
So, poor Tiny was stripped of his bike, suit and pride,
Before galloping off to the opposite side.

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13
“It is time I set forth,” bleated Curly Goat Gruff,
Who was older than Tiny and smelled rank and rough.
He was big as a bear, with a beard full of curls,
And his horns held a bowler hat covered in pearls.

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Curly entered the barn, through a large, sliding door,
And from inside the building there rose a great roar,
Before Curly drove out in a black limousine,
And cruised off down the hill in the groaning machine.

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Parking close by the bridge, Curly stepped from his car
And called out: “Brother Tiny, point out where you are!”
But instead saw a Troll, who was bald as a coot
And was dressed in what looked like his brother’s best suit.

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“I have come,” Curly growled, “in this general direction,
To sell you some shares in Gruff Brothers Protection.
We’re taking your bridge, now then where is my brother?”
“He’s gone…” trilled the Troll. “He ran off to his mother!”

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“My dear Curly Gruff,” sighed the Troll, “Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
This stone bridge is my castle. This river’s my moat.
And we’re stronger by far than some hillbilly goat!”

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“Take a look,” she went on, “at my inky-blue head.
Each tattoo shows the face of a goat that lies dead.
I have drowned me one hundred and one just like you,
If you fight me, I’ll make you one hundred and two!”

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Curly’s knees started knocking, his face turned quite pasty,
“Hold on now!” he bleated, “No need to be hasty!
I’m sorry to see that my offer offends,
Please await my big brother, and let us be friends!”

20
“Oh, you grizzling, grovelling, grotty goat Gruff,”
Said the Troll, “Did you not think that I’d call your bluff?
Leave the keys to your car, and your pearl-covered hat,
Then cross quick, ‘cos you reek like a rotten old rat!”

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Meanwhile, high in the valley sat Biggy Goat Gruff,
Who was thinking: “I’ve waited up here long enough.”
He was huge as a horse, with a beard of jet black,
And a mane of grey hair down his billy goat back.

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Biggy pulled on a greatcoat of scarlet and gold,
And he growled, “I’ll make sure that troll never grows old!”
Then he pulled back the sheets from a rustbucket lorry,
Jumped in, turned the keys, and drove off in a hurry.

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On reaching the bridge, Biggy searched for the others,
But try as he might found no sign of his brothers.
And there, in the moonlight, a little Troll sat,
Wearing Tiny’s best jacket and Curly’s best hat.

 

Text Copyright © Jason Hook 2020 
Illustrations Copyright © Christa Hook 2020

 

 

 

Turning the World Upside Down

On Valentine’s Day, I’ve treated myself by spending a little time and showing some love for my unpublished children’s book, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream. This excerpt is from the chapter where Pip and Molly Mawtle, trapped in their Great-aunt Isabella’s bewitched house, tumble through a revolving floor, and find their world turned upside down in every conceivable way.

I hope you don’t mind me sharing…

“As the Cursery Rhyme whirled about her ears, Molly’s end of the see-saw soared too high. Molly see-ed up and Pip saw-ed down, and the floor revolved until it stood on end – and then tipped completely over. Their world turned upside-down and Pip and Molly were sent somersaulting into the darkness as, high above them, a fading violin voice whirled…

‘I’ve looked inside your hearts
To see the whats you whish to do!
You’ve dreamed all night, now hold on tight,
We’ll make them all come true…’

Faster they fell, the air rushing cold over their cuckoo-cropped scalps. Down and…

d

o

w

n…

 

faster…

 

fasterfasterfaster…

 

f

a

s

t

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r

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until, at last, a blood-red floor rushed up to meet them. They gritted their teeth. They clenched their fists. Remembering suddenly the wish they had made never to grow old, they thought for the first time of just what that wish might really mean, what double meanings it might hold, and how careful you should be when you whisper the words of your wishes in a witch’s house. And for the first time in their young lives they felt a vague sense that life might not last for ever. They held their breaths and waited a witch’s tick for the coming true of that careless wish: for the thud of young bone on stone, the thump of young skull on floorboards, the thwack, the crack

…the squish!

Pip and Molly hit the floor without thud, thump or thwack. They landed not on hard as rock, but on soft as jelly; not egg on concrete, but rubber ball on space hopper.

They felt themselves sink gently into the softest, the bounciest, the most trampolinest of floors…

‘Balloons!’ Molly cried.

‘Balloons!’ laughed Pip.

And they remembered how in the back of a black carriage an age or so ago they had wished for a house with floors of balloons and ceilings of feathers, so that they might bounce up into the air and then fly back down again.

The first of these they did now, for what goes down must come up. With a squeal, the floor of balloons sank beneath their weight, and then sprang up and launched them into the air. They trampolined towards where they had fallen from, as if the cogs of the morning had been put into reverse. And as they flew back up through the darkness, Pip and Molly peered up towards where they knew a wooden floor to be – a floor that was now a ceiling, and a ceiling, since they were falling upwards, that was also now a floor! Never had their world felt more turned upon its head.

They had wished for balloons and they had got balloons. Now they wished even harder for feathers. And the darkness above sang out to them in a choir of honey-toned hoots. It sounded like an orchestra of bassoons blowing one huge ‘HOOT!’ above them, around them, inside them. They vibrated like reeds in the two ‘Os’ of that hoot, as if they had been sucked into the wind-pipes of a church organ. And as they flew towards the floor that was now a ceiling, the ceiling that was now a floor, they waited for the sharp rap of wood. Instead, they felt the soft wrap of feathers. They flew up into down – beautiful, feathery down – which caught them as softly as a woollen mitten catching two dandelion seeds.

For a moment, Pip and Molly were suspended there, side by side, sensing in the darkness the soft outlines of giant feathers. In silence, they hung there, happy to be neither falling nor rising, glad just to be still there and still.”

Copyright © Jason Hook, 2020 

Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat: the show

IMG_0862When Grandpa Walter opened the door,
he was wearing a green suit that looked
just like his garden. ‘Welcome to my world
of wonderful wallpapers!’ said Walter.
‘I wonder which room will be your favourite…’

When I wrote Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat for V&A Publishing a few years ago, my idea was that a picture book about a magical house in which the wallpapers come alive might in turn bring fresh life to the wallpapers in the V&A collection by inviting young visitors to the museum to look at the patterns and pictures not just with their eyes but with their imaginations. Grandpa Walter was named after Walter Crane, whose wallpaper designs form the backdrops in the book, and the artist Ilaria Demonti breathed life into the characters of Walter, his sleepless grand-daughter Wendy, and the fiddle-playing Wallpaper Cat with her fabulous illustrations.

We published the book, we celebrated, and that might well have been that. But if cats have nine lives, then it seems wallpaper cats have at least two. Last week, I had the thrill of watching Lisa O’Hanlon and Dan Willis perform Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat at the V&A theatre to row upon row of young, wide-eyed, shrieking spectators. Now the wallpapers, and the book itself, really did come to life. Butterflies flitted over Walter’s wallpaper garden; rose petals tumbled from the sky; sea-shells carried the sound of the ocean to a hundred eager ears; a giant orange was bounced from hand to hand; and, wonder of wonderful wonders, children gasped at nothing more, nothing less, than projections of Victorian wallpapers as Wendy dashed from room to room.

When the electric-blue Wallpaper Cat leapt from the walls to play enchanted fiddle music, not just Wendy but all the children in the audience ran through the midnight garden and danced. And so the Wallpaper Cat lives on, summoned from the wall to play for any child struggling to get to sleep.

Many thanks to Lisa and Dan for their wonderful work, to Ilaria, and to everyone at the V&A including Astrid, Harriet and Tom.

“Wendy looked up at the roses on the walls.
When she reached up to touch them,
a red petal fluttered down.”

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“And when at last she caught up with the cat,
he played his fiddle and they danced together
the whole night long.”

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Copyright © Jason Hook 2019

The Dream Weaver

There is something both thrilling and terrifying about that moment when waking slips into sleeping, when watching drifts into dreaming, and when the veil that separates the imagined from the real blows aside so that we suddenly cannot tell one from the other.
If a spider happens to be dropping from the ceiling on a long, black thread of silk at that magical instant, who knows what we might dream…

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The Dream Weaver

Tonight, as you snuggle up warm in your bed
With your eyes nearly closed, cotton wool in your head,
A spider drops down from the ceiling above…
He’s wearing a top hat, striped socks and one glove!  

Crawling over your pillow, the spider creeps near,
And whispers what sounds like a spell in your ear:
‘I am the Dream Weaver, as strange as it seems,
Not spinning my webs now, but weaving your dreams!’

Your blankets grow cobwebs, your bed legs grow roots,
And your curtains sprout mistletoe, thistles and shoots,
As the spider swings by in his gold-buckled shoes,  
Shouting: ‘Quick! Follow me! We have no time to lose!’ 

Your head starts to spin and you slip from your pillow
And fall through the leaves of a sad weeping willow,
Who weeps as his whiskers are hooked on the reel
Of a hunch-backed old toad at an old spinning-wheel.

With whirrs of her wheel, and a nod of her head,
The old toad spins a waterfall wave of white thread,
Which coils like spaghetti on trays held by waiters –
Who look just like beetles in tailcoats and gaiters.

With trays piled high from the white-cotton fountain,
The beetles climb over a tortoise-shell mountain,
To bright-coloured rivers where rainbow trout lie
And chameleons’ tails stir up ponds filled with dye.  

Each beetle dives into the pool of its choosing,
In which a chameleon keeps the dye oozing,
Selecting its pattern by changing its skin
From zig-zags to polka-dots, thick stripes to thin.

In one pool, a rubber-gloved frog feeds a tangle
Of nettles and weeds through the jaws of a mangle,
While crickets with nutcrackers squeeze a French bean,
And the thread turns from snow-white to gooseberry-green.

In the next pool, a hairy-legged bluebottle settles,
And tears up a heap of forget-me-knot petals.
He wrings them together and gives them a chew,
And the thread turns from milk-white to blueberry-blue.

Purple plums dropped like bombs by fat moths in fur capes
Stir a pool where a centipede slowly treads grapes
On a waterwheel turned by his one hundred shoes,
And the thread turns the shade of a freshly made bruise.

The threads are now lifted on dragonflies’ tails,
Silhouetted like bi-planes with long vapour trails.
Into clouds made of dandelion flowers they swoop,
Tying knots in the threads while they’re looping the loop.

Flying up from the dye-ponds, past mushrooms and weeds,
Diving down through a storm cloud of sycamore seeds,
Taking turns through the creepers, the vines and the brambles,
The rainbow-tailed, dragonfly flying squad scrambles…

—Excerpt from The Dream Weaver, unpublished 32-page picture book

Text copyright © Jason Hook 2018
Illustration copyright © Christa Hook 2018

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout…

You never forget the moment you first hear a witch sing a Cursery Rhyme. Not in a letter or from faraway. But up close. In the flesh. So you can smell her liquorice breath as she weaves her spell and tells you all the things she’s going to do to you, and all smuggled into your ears disguised in the old rags of a familiar verse…

“Beneath the causeway, they glimpsed again those strange orphan shadows that had chased them from the awfulage and which had played hide-and-seek among snow and pine trees during their carriage ride. Dark and plump as carp, they drifted now beneath the surface of the blood-red River Mold, diving or drowning among the weed, it was hard to tell which. And as those shadows swam by, Isabella began to sing. Her voice sounded both like the high note of a violin and the low rasp of the bow being scraped across it, and the burbling, bubbling voices of children rose from those diving, drowning shadows to join in the chorus. At the same moment, the handle of the music box around Molly’s neck began to turn, as it played along to the tune of Isabella’s song…

‘Two blind mice! Two blind mice!baba1ef7747dbede4146594decc5d391--arthur-rackham-halloween-decorations
See how they run! See how they run!
Cut out their hearts with a carving knife,
To see all the wishes they wish for life.
Hang up their hats on a thorny tree,
To let all the thoughts in their heads go free.
Cut off their tails for the cooking pot,
Tie them all up in a witch’s knot.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Feed them cheese to make them dream,
Catch their nightmares when they scream.
Tease their ribs with prods and tickles,
Turn their giggles into pickles.
Call them names to make them cry,
Prick the teardrops from their eye.
Made from nephews, brewed from nieces,
Auntie’s little bits and pieces.

Sweet and toffee, trough and snout,
See a tooth and pull it out.
Conker, marble, snout and trough,
See a finger, chop it off!

Boil it in a jammy jar…
Melt it to a sticky tar…
Mix it to an oily ointment…
By a witch’s royal appointment!
Wear it where the wish-bones chime,
Cast it to a Cursery Rhyme.
Spell it right, her name’s a portal:
Isabella, Izzy Mawtle!
Two blind mice! Two blind…

…NICE!’ Isabella whooped.”

 

From Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, © Copyright Jason Hook 2018
Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 

A Shadow-Raven

This week’s excerpt is short and anything but sweet…

“Isabella had squashed and squeezed Pip’s shadow into a feathery shape. She was reaching up now to place it in a brass bird-cage that swung from the ceiling. As she did so, she whined and whinnied the most whicked of Cursery Rhymes:

And now I have your shadow, Pip,
I shall do many wrongs to you.
I’ll cage it, like a raven,
And I’ll teach it to sing songs to you!

 I’ll hold your shadow in my hands,
All feathered, fresh and fine.
And keep it like a pet, because,
Without it… you are MINE!”

tumblr_o39du1pgzz1rp1q8wo1_500hExcerpt from Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream,
Copyright © Jason Hook 2018

Artwork Copyright © Mervyn Peake 

An Invitation From A Witch

003135We all love to receive letters. But there are certain letters that should be left on the doormat where they land. Once touched, there is no untouching them. Once opened, there is no closing them. And once read, there is no turning back. A birthday invitation from a witch is one such letter. You may recognise it in time. The envelope will be pristine white, but the card inside will be yellowed and crumpled, as if it has been sent many times before.

If it contains a gift, beware.

If it contains the following address, be afraid…

Miss Isabella Belladonna Mawtle
THE MILL-ON-THE-MOLD
Ferryman’s Lane
ALLCROSS

And if it contains this rhyme, then we are already too late…

My dearest [please insert name here], my very special friend,
Please find enclosed the birthday past and present that I send.
Another year has gone (but you’ve so many more to spare!),
And so, I send a gift to show you just how much I care.
I offer you the chance to come and share my happy home,
To stay with me eternally, to make my life your own.
To come along where you belong, to share with me your dream,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 I simply won’t allow you to refuse this generous gift,
To have you in my home will give my heart and face a lift.
My hopes are high, but stocks are low, there’s little on the shelf,
I need your help to make it, as it just won’t make itself.
Do bring someone to help you, one is never quite enough,
I seem to need at least the two, these days, to make the stuff.
We’ll work together, tooth and nail, we’ll make up such a team,
And take your parts in making my Immortal Vanishing Cream.

 (If contents break in transit, please return them to the cellar.)

 Ever umbilical cordially yours…

 ISABELLA’

 

Excerpt from ‘Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream’,
Copyright © Jason Hook, 2018