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? One by one they tried, each asking the Troll to spare them with the promise that a bigger, fatter prize was following behind. Perhaps, today, those three brothers might appear something like goateed gangsters, or horned Peaky Blinders, and I hear them speaking in gruff Yorkshire accents as they discuss their search for grass that is greener and thistles that are tastier. This new version of the fairy tale has something to say about both billies and bullies…

(Illustrations by Christa Hook, copyright © 2020)

Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale 1

1
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.

2
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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4
‘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,
And she’ll drown any strangers who won’t pay her toll.’

5
‘Let me cross over first!’ bleated Tiny Goat Gruff,
Who was youngest and smallest, but made of tough stuff.
He was wide as a wolf, with a beard of blood red,
And a hat with a crow’s feather perched on his head.

6
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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7
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.

8
‘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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9
‘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!’

10
‘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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11
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!’

12
‘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 very rough.
He was big as a bear, with a beard full of curls,
And his horns wore a bowler hat covered in pearls.

14
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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15
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.

16
‘I have followed,’ said Curly, ‘this river’s 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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17
‘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!’

18
‘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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19
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 please cross, and cross quick, ’cos you smell like a rat!’

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21
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.

22
Biggy pulled on a greatcoat of scarlet and gold,
And he growled, ‘I’ll make sure that troll never grows old!’
Then he hauled back the sheets from a rusty green lorry,
Jumped in, turned the keys, and drove off in a hurry.

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23
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.

24
‘I have come,’ Biggy rapped, ‘for your bridge and your river.
This message my brothers were meant to deliver.
I’ll butt you, and beat you, and bite you in half.’
But to Biggy’s amazement, he heard the Troll laugh.

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25
‘Oh, my dear Biggy 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!’

26
‘But I see by your size, and the gold of your cuff,
You’re the greatest by far of the Billy Goats Gruff,
So, I’ll give you my bridge, and I’ll bow down my head,
If you’ll just let me keep one small stone for my bed.’

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27
‘Be my guest!’ Biggy roared, growing careless with pride,
‘But beware, as my truck is both heavy and wide!’
So, the Troll gently slid out a stone marked with moss,
Before stepping aside to wave Biggy across.

28
Roaring over the crossing, the truck gave a moan,
As the bridge’s loose stones groaned a terrible groan,
And the Troll wore a grin as her bridge tumbled down,
Dropping Biggy Goat Gruff in the river to drown.

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29
Never knowing their big brother’s fate in this matter,
The two younger Gruff boys grew fatter and fatter.
They grazed their new grass with such monstrous greed,
That they gobbled up every last thistle and weed.

30
‘Little brother,’ said Curly, ‘Our luck has turned bloody!
Once more, it would seem, all our land has grown muddy,
While over the river, there’s green grass and flowers,
We’ll have to return to reclaim what is ours!’

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31
They galloped to where the Troll’s bridge had once been,
But as hard as they hunted, no bridge could be seen,
Just a pile of stones, stacked up neatly enough,
With a sign that read: ‘Here lies poor Biggy Goat Gruff.’

32
On the opposite bank, where a garden had grown,
Stood a little, grey cottage of moss-covered stone.
On the drive, in a limousine, there the Troll sat
In a greatcoat of scarlet and pearl-covered hat.

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33
‘I’m much bigger than last time we met!’ Tiny hissed,
Throwing pebbles and shaking his billy goat fist.
‘All that grass would be ours if we’d thought to remain!’
Grumbled Curly, ‘Now help us cross over again!’

34
‘My dear Billy Goats Gruff,’ called the Troll, ‘Can you float?
Do you fly? Can you swim? Did you bring your own boat?
Your big brother has left you no bridge, just a moat,
Now I’ll never be crossed by some hillbilly goat!’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 34

35
The next morning, with needle and ink of deep blue,
Her friend Fox gave the Troll one more goat’s-head tattoo.
‘Did you really drown one hundred goats?’ old Fox said.
‘Golly, no!’ laughed the Troll, ‘Only Biggy lies dead.’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy tale 36

36
‘Like the pearls on my hat and the stripes on my cuffs,
There are all sorts of ways to beat bullies and Gruffs.
You don’t need to be bigger and badder by far,
But it helps if the bullies all think that you are…’

37
They both sat back and laughed as they heard the Gruffs quarrel,
And Fox said: ‘Your tale has at least one more moral.
You’ll never be happy, and always act meaner,
When grasping and grabbing for grass that is greener.’

Billy Goats Gruff Fairy Tale 38

THE END!

 

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…

 

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a

s

t

e

r

.

.

.

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 

A Verse A Day: 3 Little Pigs

1
A letter arrived at the Pig Pen one day,
From Great-Auntie McPig to her three little nieces.
It warned of a Wolf that was heading their way,
Who would chew them all up into bacon-sized pieces.

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2
“Och, dears!” said that note. “You had better be quick!
I have sent three gold coins that I managed to borrow.
Now build your defences, and build them from brick,
For that Wolf will arrive the day after tomorrow!”

3
“Now mark my words well,” wrote Great-Auntie McPig,
“So that when that Wolf comes you will know him by sight:
He walks up on two legs, like a man only BIG,
While his tail has a twist, and is totally white.”

4
“He has wire-wool whiskers and whiskey-stained teeth,
And his fur is as thick as a blackberry thicket.
One eye has a scar like a star underneath,
And he boarded the train with a second class ticket.”

5
The eldest pig, Ada, reached out a plump trotter,
And took down her bicycle clips from the shelf.
“Let’s ride to the market, that Wolf sounds a rotter!
We’ll each take one coin. Every pig for herself!”

Pigs2

6
Off they rode down the higgledy-piggledy track
Through a forest with piles of logs on the ground,
Past a farmyard with hay in a high, yellow stack
To the tumbledown town where the market was found.

7
At the first stall, the eldest pig, Ada, jumped down,
“I am rich!” she declared, “I can buy what I choose!”
And she spent her gold coin on a leopard-print gown,
A fur coat, a silk hat and a pair of red shoes.

Pigs7

8
“What about your new house?” Ada’s two sisters squealed,
As she stared in the mirror and grinned more and more.
“Don’t you worry,” she oinked, “I’ll ride back to the field,
Where I’ll tear down that haystack and build it from straw!”

9
At the next stall, the middle pig, Bessy, drew near,
“I am rich!” she oink-oinked, “I can choose what I buy!”
And she spent her gold coin on a bucket of beer,
Pickled eggs, cheesy chips and a blueberry pie.

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10
“What about your new house? You can’t build it from chips!”
Squealed her sisters, “That junk food will do you no good!”
“Don’t you fret!” Bessy belched, loudly licking her lips.
“I’ll go back to the forest and build it from wood!”

11
The last to the market, the youngest pig Hilda,
Was tempted by trinkets and trumpets and tricks,
‘Til she came to the stall of an out-of-work builder…
And spent her gold coin on a cartload of bricks.

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12
Hilda hitched up her bike to the front of the cart,
And rode higgledy-piggledy home to her door.
In the wood she passed Bessy, who let out a fart!
In the field, she passed Ada, all covered in straw!

13
It was half past eleven, the following day,
A tall gentleman stepped from the back of the train,
And he asked the conductor: “Please tell me the way
To find Number 3, Higgledy Piggledy Lane.”

Pigs13

14
The conductor was struck by the size of the brute,
By the scar like a star on his whiskery snout,
And the twisted, white tail that hung down from his suit.
But he gave him directions, to help the gent out.

15
Near the station, the stranger arrived at a farm,
Where he saw a small hut built completely from straw.
“Let me in!” the gent whispered, “I mean you no harm!”
And with one furry fist, he knocked hard on the door.

16
When there came no reply, the gent peered through a crack,
And it’s hard to say who suffered most from the shock:
The strange gent with a twisted white tale at his back,
Or the pig in red shoes and a leopard-skin frock!

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17
“What a sight!” drooled the gent, “I believe I smell bacon,
You look like a pig who’d taste good in a stew!”
“You’re the Wolf,” Ada squealed, “If I’m not much mistaken,
Great-Auntie McPig warned me all about you!”

18
After thinking out loud, “I will first marinade her!”
With huff and with puff, the Wolf blew the house down,
Then with jaggedy teeth he tore into poor Ada,
‘Til nothing remained but her leopard-skin gown.

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19
It was one hour later, the stranger was sighted,
His wire-wool whiskers all covered in blood.
He was holding a chainsaw and looking excited,
Approaching a house made of logs, sticks and mud.

20
With a roar of his saw, the gent carved up the place,
And his starry-scarred eye gave a look of surprise,
Because inside sat Bessy, still stuffing her face,
She looked just like her sister, but three times the size.

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21
“You’re the Wolf,” Bessy cried, “With the twisted, white tail!”
“Go away! Can’t you see that I’m eating my brunch?”
“Look at you!” laughed the Wolf, “You’re the size of a whale,
“You will do for my supper, my tea AND my lunch!”

22
Bessy tried to escape, but stuck fast in her chair,
And the Wolf thought out loud: “This is sure to get messy!”
Then, fixing the pig with a terrible stare,
Made a horrible mess… and that mess was poor Bessy.

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23
At just past nine-thirty, the following morning,
A postman reported that he’d seen the stranger
Emerge from a hedgerow while stretching and yawning,
Down by the sharp bend where the road sign reads: ‘Danger!’

24
His neck was wrapped up in a leopard-skin scarf,
And his whiskers were stained with a blueberry stain.
Of the postman, he asked, with a whiskey-fumed laugh,
“Can you point me to Higgledy-Piggledy Lane?”

Pigs24

25
Meanwhile, Hilda was home in her new house of bricks,
With brick walls, a brick roof and a bright-red brick hearth,
She was thinking: “I’m safe from that Wolf’s dirty tricks,”
When she heard the soft pad of large paws on her path.

26
“Let me in!” growled a voice through the sturdy brick walls,
“Go away!” Hilda squealed, when she heard three soft knocks,
And she loaded a pistol with powder and balls,
Before locking her door’s seven shiny, new locks.

Pigs26

27
Filled with fear, Hilda peered through her spy-hole to see
The Wolf’s paw lift a sharp, silver pin from his pocket,
And use it to pick the door’s locks like a key –
But as quick as he picked, Hilda rushed to relock it!

28
The Wolf took a sledgehammer out of his case,
Which he swung at the house like a furry fanatic,
He hammered the bricks until red in the face,
And he huffed and he puffed (for the Wolf was asthmatic!).

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29
“Damned bricks!” wheezed the Wolf, with a baffling look,
Then his whisky-stained teeth formed the thinnest of smiles,
As he took out a rope and a grappling hook,
Which he whirled and he hurled so it gripped the roof’s tiles.

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30
With the rope round his waist, the Wolf muttered and cursed,
And he climbed to the roof, which he crossed at a canter.
On reaching the chimney, he dived in head first…
And burst out of the hearth like a fur-coated Santa.

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31
“Don’t shoot!” cried the Wolf, as he looked up to see
A small pig’s silver pistol aimed straight at his chest.
“I have three things to ask you!” he begged on one knee,
“One last meal, one last whisky, and one last request!”

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32
“Last request?” Hilda squealed. “Yes, I wish to confess!”
Growled the Wolf, seeing Hilda look suddenly shaken,
“A secret accomplice gave me your address,
It was Great-Aunt McPig, just to save her own bacon!”

33
On hearing the news, Hilda felt her heart break,
And she shot at the Wolf with her eyes full of tears.
Hilda aimed at his head, but instead, by mistake,
She succeeded in shooting off one of his ears.

34
Now the Wolf poured a whisky and toasted poor Hilda,
“To one last request, one last drink, one last meal!”
After drinking his whisky, dear reader, he killed her,
And, lighting the grill, toasted Hilda for real.

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35
With a wailing of sirens, and blue lights all blazing,
The stranger was seen being led by a chain,
From the pretty brick house where they said he’d been lazing,
At Number 3 Higgledy-Piggledy Lane.

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36
When they dug up the garden, they found what – when tested –
Turned out to be piggy belongings and bones,
Mr Wolf and Great-Auntie McPig were arrested,
For trial in the courtroom of Judge Piggy Jones.

37
When the trial was over, the judge bashed his hammer,
The courtroom fell silent, the Wolf stood on view.
And pronouncing his sentence with barely a stammer,
The judge cried: “Not guilty! It’s just what wolves do.”

38
When Great-Auntie McPig was brought forward for sentence,
The judge sighed: “Ten years for such beastly betrayal!
And always remember, while seeking repentance,
Beware of a Wolf with a twist in the tail.”

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THE END

Text © copyright Jason Hook 2019
Illustration © copyright Christa Hook 2019

 

Sheep & Wolf

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carlet shivers beneath her summer shawl,
As she strolls to granny’s under sinking sunset skies.

 

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erds of woolly creatures turn to stare at her,
With hooded, heavy-lidded, what big eyes.

 

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ach beast emits an eerie ‘Baa!’, all baaaa one,
A lone and darker one, who, much to her surprise,

 

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dges nearer, growls a little louder,
And appears an exceptional size.

 

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erhaps, she thinks, that is no sheep I see, but a
Bigger, badder sort of beast, in a sheepskin coat disguise.

 

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ho’s that?

 

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h, good!

 

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ittle Red Riding…

 

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ood!

 

 

Copyright © Jason Hook 2019

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

 

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

 

 

The Gossip’s Reward

You should be careful who you gossip about. Gossip about a witch, and she will know. Not only that, she will send you something in return. And if she’s a witch who wishes (as most witches do) for eternal youth, then that something might just be the signs of old age she wishes someone else to wear on her behalf.

That’s the essence of this second Cursery Rhyme from my unpublished children’s story Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream. It tells you quite a lot about Isabella, and why you should keep your gossip to yourself, or at least away from the ears of a witch…

‘I’m a 329-year-old whitch!c0838af53b092ef93ba5bd6f079de0a1--blackbird-singing-crow-art
Not a ‘witch’ but a ‘whhhitch’,
Say it right, if you please.
I’m a whitch, which is why
I don’t witter or warble,
I whhhisper, I whhhheedle,
I whimper and wheeze.
When I spell out my spells,
I spell them out crisp,
I speak them in lines
With a whitchety lisp,
And all those old gossips
Who talk of my shame,
Why, I make them grow old
When they whisper my name.
When they tittle and tattle
And laugh at my tears,
I stamp them with warts
And I brand them with years.
Even now, my old eye-bags
Have packed up their lies
And have gone off to live
On the old miller’s eyes,
Where they puff up like
Pastries and slowly turn sour,
And hang from his face like
Two sackfuls of flour.
And there, my old crow’s-feet
Have found a new life:
See them perched on the face
Of the fat butcher’s wife,
Where they flap at her pig’s-feet
And fly to her moans,
As they peck at the neck
Roll of fat on her bones.
(There is always a debt
To repay on our loans!)
A shade on her chops!
An ache in her joints!
Three fingers point back from
The finger that points!’

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

The Great Golden Pleasury Of Cursery Rhymes

I am about to embark upon the ticklish process of taking the newest incarnation of my children’s novel, Isabella Mawtle’s Immortal Vanishing Cream, and throwing it upon the mercy of potential agents. I thought, at the same time, I might set free to the wider world a few of the spells or ‘Cursery Rhymes’ that the central character scatters throughout the book. Please take care of them.

This is where the witch, Isabella Mawtle, first shows her spell book to her niece and nephew, Pip and Molly, and explains something of its powers:

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“When I was small, I was left on my own,
So, I played with this book like a dog with a bone.
I’d no toys and no friends, and no father or mother,
So read it alone, and from cover to cover,
And took from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It taught me to write, and it taught me to talk.
I had learnt it by heart by the time I could walk.
So, beware of its words, and take care of them well,
For I learned how to speak when I learned how to spell.
And I shook from this book all my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It holds verses of curses, and chapters of charms,
With indexes of hexes and hoodoos and harms,
There are tables of fables, and rituals and runes,
Filled with abras, cadabras and hocus-poked tunes,
It’s the sorcery source of my happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!

It’s a book that can look to the sound of your voice,
It will write you a juju or jinx of your choice,
All its pages will turn to a birthday girl’s sigh,
To her verse, or her curse, or her sweet lullyby!
And she’ll write in this book of her happiest times:
From The Great Golden Pleasury of Cursery Rhymes!”

 

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

 

Bridges Not Walls

On this foreboding day in history, I was heartened by the #bridgesnotwalls campaign that was making itself seen and heard along London’s bridges and across the Twitterscape. Inspired to share in the collective expressions of freedom and inclusion, I immediately wondered what bridges had been built by book illustrators. That is, after all, what this occasional blog is supposed to be about.peter-jacksonThe first bridge that I stumbled across (as it were), which got my juices running, was not from a children’s book but from a remarkable series of London artworks by the wonderful Peter Jackson. Ironically, I found it on the Internet, when all along it was staring me in the face: I have it hanging on my wall. Peter’s extraordinary reconstruction shows London Bridge c.1600, with the ferociously flowing Thames whipping boats towards its pontoons, and the many grandiose Elizabethan buildings piled precariously upon its back. Take your pick from any number of metaphors for our modern world right there. With Peter, you know that what you are seeing is historically correct. He was not only a wonderful illustrator but one of the great historians and collectors of London ephemera. He scoured the city’s markets and second-hand shops to gather up over 25,000 prints. Between 1949 and 1980, Peter drew historical cartoon strips of London for the London Evening News, and he built up an unrivalled knowledge of the city’s history, beautifully conveyed through his work in a number of authoritative and evocative books.

Peter was a friend of my father’s, and his London Bridge led me across to another bridge very close to home. What better than a dragon’s tail for making a bridge when you’re on a dragon hunt and can’t see for looking, as illustrated by Richard Hook in our children’s book Where’s the Dragon? It’s funny how when you start looking, you can find bridges right beneath your nose, within your own four walls.

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6a019103c45ca1970c01b7c7de029e970b-500wiThat dragon-tail bridge carried me back in time to my childhood, as I started thinking about my favourite bridge from a children’s story. Surely, it must be the bridge in the Three Billy-Goats Gruff, with a hungry troll lurking beneath its humped back in wait for delicious goat flesh. The story originates in a Norwegian folk-tale, and has a classic narrative structure of three heroes moving from danger to safety by outwitting a threatening presence. In case you’ve forgotten it, the smallest and medium billy-goats succeed in crossing the bridge by each promising the troll a larger prize coming along behind, with the sumptuous finale of the third and biggest goat being of sufficient size and sharpness of horns to give the troll its just desserts. It’s an idea to make any writer or artist salivate, and I’d offer a bridge to any illustrator who would like to join me in a retelling.

I am instantly transported to my childhood when I see the splendidly realistic cover of the Ladybird version of the story, where both bridge and troll lurk unseen. I also discovered a beautiful early illustration from A Selection From The Norse Tales For The Use Of Children (Edinbugh, 1862) in Barbara Hawes’ excellent British Library blog, which gives a fascinating summary of the history of the tale and how it crossed over into our language.

billygoatsOn a day such as this day, when #bridgesnotwalls lifted me up, it seems appropriate to celebrate three satiric heroes crossing safely over a bridge beneath which a troll will always lurk in the darkness.

Do you have any bridges from children’s literature that you’d like to share with me?

Walter Crane: A Spark Of Inspiration

Elle-Crane

When Walter met Wendy, Elle Decoration, December 2015.

Every story requires a spark of inspiration before it can burst into life. In the case of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat – the children’s picture book I published with V&A Publishing in 2015 – that spark flew from the work of Arts and Crafts polymath Walter Crane. I had seen his wonderful wallpaper designs in the V&A collection, and – knowing Crane to be one of the most popular and influential 19th-century illustrators of fairy tale and fable – was taken with the idea of telling a modern children’s tale in which Crane’s characters and designs step out of their wallpapers into the real world. It was not by accident that I gave Wendy’s grandfather the name Walter.

At Christmas, this connection was highlighted in a splendid article about Walter Crane in the December edition of Elle Decoration. Alongside the wallpaper designs that appear in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, the article celebrates the work of an artist who was a contemporary of William Morris and shared his belief that exceptional art should be found in the homes of rich and poor alike.

“A gloriously whimsical tale that promises to introduce a new generation to Crane’s sumptuous designs.”

Crane was born in Liverpool in 1845. The son of a portrait painter, he was apprenticed as a wood engraver. This afforded him the opportunity to study closely the work of many artists, including Sir John Tenniel who famously illustrated Alice in Wonderland (first published in 1865).

Crane_toybook

The Alphabet Of Old Friends (1874), a Walter Crane toy book.

Throughout his twenties, Crane worked with the printer Edmund Evans developing and improving the standard of ‘toy books’. These were mass market children’s books featuring alphabets, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Crane’s revolutionary work laid the foundations for many aspects of modern picture books that we take for granted. He believed that good illustration and design could help children to read from an early age, and that every feature of the book should engage the reader’s interest: from the cover and endpapers through to the integration between illustration and typography. Crane’s illustrations featured ‘bright, frank colours’, and he understood that children would respond to decorative, symbolic art. He also employed comic visual devices: in The Baby’s Opera (1877), for example, three mice lead the reader through the book with their mischievous antics.

There is a delightful step from Crane’s picture books into the nurseries in which they were read. The square format for his youngest readers, which is still used for alphabet books today, was based on tiles used to decorate nurseries. The nursery rhyme characters of his toy books found their way into his nursery wallpapers, including the ‘Nursery Rhymes’ design from which the feline fiddle player steps in Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat. Crane’s wallpapers were popular at home and abroad, and it is amusing to imagine Mark Twain being inspired by the ‘Miss Mouse At Home’ design he used to decorate his own children’s nursery.

As noted in the back of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat, an article of 1884 said of Crane’s nursery wallpapers: ‘With the aid of a little intelligent and sympathetic talk, nursery walls, covered with these designs, might be made to live within the lives of children.’

Walter Crane became an examiner at the South Kensington Museum, which in turn became known as the Victoria & Albert Museum. Seeing the printed books of Wendy and the Wallpaper Cat decorating – wallpaper fashion – the shelves of the V&A shop alongside gifts based on Crane’s own designs, it feels like the book now has a life of its own. It would be lovely to think that it might return a favour: by breathing new life into the wallpaper designs of the artist who fired that first spark, as they step into the picture book framework he helped to construct, so that they might once again ‘live within the lives of children’.