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5.20.2011

Jack and the Beanstalk (1991)

Retold and Illustrated by Steven Kellogg

Colored inks, watercolors and acrylics

15 Point Clearface

Morrow Junior Books

Steven Kellogg is one of my absolute favorites.I believe he is unparalleled when it comes to drawings which are playful, detailed, lively and - most of all - do not merely illustrate, but add significantly to the text, compelling the narrative onwards at a velocity not normally found with a picture book.

According to the jacket for this book, before undertaking this project, he signed up for a summer course on folktales in children's literature at Columbia University. "I chose to undertake Jack and the Beanstalk, recalling my childhood fascination with Jack's sense of adventure and his conquest of the dramatic skyscapes despite the daunting yet intriguing frightfulness of the ogre's Fee-fi-fo-fum."

Meanwhile, in the Author's Note which precedes the tale, he tells us that his version is based on the version written by Joseph Jacobs in 1889. Kellogg wanted to remain faithful to the spirit of the original language, "retaining some now-remote phrases like 'start shop' and words like 'peltered' because of their contribution to the character of the tale."

Open it up to the first page, however, and you may think you're in the wrong story. The most gruesome 'giant' I've ever seen in a Jack story, wearing the fur of a sabertooth, appearing from out of a malestrom and holding a ship full of pirates hostage. Everything about the pirate ship is fully realized, including the table full of gold and other treasures. Surely, with such a time and effort, these pirates must somehow be pivotal characters...

They're gone after the next page, never to appear again. This is one of Kellogg's tricks, to fill in cracks of the tale in throwaway illustrations before the actual story begins. Other narrative clues hidden inside his pictures reveal from whence came the magic man with the magic beans, and a procession of Medieval lords and ladies who won't be seen again until the very end.

Kellogg's Jack is no fool, nor is he lazy. He is good-hearted and willing to work. The magic beans he receives as payment for the family cow - Milky White - are clearly magical from the get-go, tumbling and floating in his hands, glowing brightly.  The beanstalk they produce the following night is an abstract explosion of color and texture, twisting and weaving and sprouting this way and that away, taking Jack to a land not merely in the clouds, but high above the planet Earth. There are snow-capped mountains in the stars, along with an intricate castle, ladled with thousands - perhaps millions - of stairs, leading to the various towers at whose doorstep awaits a towering female ogre, wearing a necklace of tiny skulls.

There is a page in which the giant finally discovers Jack which I had to quickly flip past lest it fill my son with nightmares, so gruesome and ghastly, it seems death will come to Jack and it will come soon and violently.

"Mother! Mother! Bring me an ax!"
Jack's mother rushed out with the ax in her hand, and Jack gave a chop at the beanstalk, cutting it in two.
The ogre fell down and broke his crown and the beanstalk came tumbling after.


Phew A fitting, wordless epilogue shows Jack as an older man, happily married with a few dozen children of his own, happening across the old magic man, who is still in possession of Milky White. But the epilogue doesn't end there. On the back cover appears the enigmatic portrait of what appears to be the giant's wife, arms raised up before the castle, which is enclosed within an orange sphere, surrounded by dark and stormy clouds.

Click here for more versions of Jack and the Beanstalk!

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