A Squash and a Squeeze (1993) is a picture book written by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Sheffler. Donaldson’s great gift is two-fold: weaving old folktale tropes into contemporary stories, and with beautiful, read-aloud prose. This particular story is a retelling of an old Yiddish tale and, to be honest, I wish there were more acknowledgement of this heritage in editions and reviews of A Squash and a Squeeze. Even the tentpole authors are heavily reliant upon a long tradition of storyteller and storytellers.
There are other picture book retellings of this story. Too Much Noise by Ann McGovern, with illustrations by Simms Taback (1967) has fallen into relative obscurity, though I picked up a copy for free when our local library was having a throw out.
Another example is A Big Quiet House by Heather Forest and illustrated by Susan Greenstein (1996).
You’ll find many folktale tropes here: Witches, chimeras, rats, mice, and here: a mentor archetype. Then there’s a trope most often found in fairytales and in picture books: an old woman who lives alone on a simple small plot of land in the country. This woman will probably have a close relationship with her animals (and if she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to, here!) The older Yiddish tales are about a man who lives alone in a house, so Donaldson has inverted the gender. (At first this may look like an act of feminism, but I don’t believe Donaldson is a feminist storyteller.) In the Yiddish tale the man goes to a woman for help; now we have a woman going to a man for help. This is an inversion, not a subversion. (There’s a difference.)
STORY STRUCTURE OF A SQUASH AND A SQUEEZE
There have been various editions of A Squash And A Squeeze in its 20+ year history of reprints.
Here is a slightly more ominous sky:
With the help of an old man and all of her animals, an old lady realises that her house is not as small as she thought it was.
“a bit of a classic … A goat on the bed and a cow on the table tapping out a jig? My readers collapsed in heaps, and then had to have it read again. And again.”Vivian French in The Guardian
The old woman feels her little house is too small for her. The four walls make her feel ‘squashed and squeezed’. Donaldson brings the freshness of onomatopoeic/mimetic language to this revisioning.
She wants a bigger house, we guess.
The Wise Old Man is a secret-ally opponent. He at first seems to be making her situation worse, but there’s method in his madness.
She asks the local Wise Old Man what to do.
The big struggle scenes are slap stick set pieces as the Wise Old Man tells her to bring her farm animals into the house. He starts her off on the smallest farm animals and ends with the cow.
Compared to having a house full of farm animals, a cottage with just her in it no longer seems so small.
The animals live happily in the yard and the old woman lives happily in her cottage, no longer feeling it’s too small.