It’s been a banner week here in the Vistas. I got a shout-out and a link from one of my favorite new blogs, Kindertrauma, in their Traumafessions section, with a sweet video of the Toht melt-face from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
And tonight, when my daughter Mayzie was in charge of picking books for bedtime, she chose one of our all-time favorites: Favorite Tales of Monsters and Trolls, a fantastic little tome from 1977 written by George Jonsen. But it’s not ol’ George’s storytelling that makes it immortal, though the wording is still fun and distinctive (e.g., “Never did anyone see such a scuffling and a flurry!”). No, it’s John O’Brien’s fantastic illustrations that have stuck with me since my Mom bought the little Random House “Pictureback” lo these many decades ago.
There are three total “Favorite Tales,” “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” “The Enormous Pussy Cat,” and “The Stone Cheese.”
The cover here is taken from the center spread of the book, where the trolls in “The Enormous Pussy Cat” come down from the mountain to get their Christmas Dinner. The cool thing about the illustrations here (aside from the nightmarish bug-eyes of the troll under the tree) is that in subsequent pages you can still identify each troll. O’Brien took tremendous care to give each little monster his or her own personality.
This page shows the ugly critters feasting while a polar bear snoozes under Farmer Nels’ kitchen table. The trolls assume it is a “pussy cat,” and when they try to feed it, it goes on a rampage. As it’s a kids’ book, we don’t see any troll mauling.
Elsewhere, the two more familiar stories get a really cool retelling via the illustrations. The three goats, for example, seem to dwell in a world with its own strange fantasy ecosystem. Everywhere around the main characters, little kiwi-like birds, people, and other strange critters cavort like insects on a summer day. This made a huge impression on me (much like Mercer Mayer’s world of Professor Wormbog, which I’ll get into later), in that I came to love the idea of a fantasy world that was crawling with weird critters.
Another thing I like about this version is the same kind of continuity you saw in “The Enormous Pussy Cat:” the little bird on the troll’s hat, for example, is with him in every picture. We also see that his coat forms some kind of demonic face when he climbs onto the bridge. I always wondered if the troll knew the bird or the face–did he speak to them? Did they have a kind of parasitic relationship?
Finally, “The Stone Cheese,” the other story in the book, was one of my Dad’s favorites to read to us, because it gave him the chance to perform as the “meanest, ugliest troll” anyone has ever seen. He has one red eye in the center of his forehead, and calls the three brothers in the story “Floppy Ears,” “Spindly Legs,” and “Flappy Fingers,” much to his and our delight. Here’s that Cyclopean troll:
Note, too, all the little legless, wingless kiwi birds, and the hobbit-like dude chasing a bipedal apple. Far out!
Kathleen Temean has a great feature on John O’Brien in her blog, Writing and Illustrating. The dude is one busy guy, still at it after all these years.
You can still find this great book used everywhere on the web. If you have kids who are into illustrations you can look at time and again, this one’s for them, and for you.