Jack and the Flumflum Tree is a picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by David Roberts. The title suggests this may be a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk but it’s not really — this is an original tale based on mythic structure with elements of Little Red Riding Hood (the sick grandma) and pirate adventures (the big seas, the small boat). Like many good fairytales, this story makes use of the rule of three.
This is also a carnivalesque story, in which the opponents are friendly, easily distracted, and very happy to join the children in their hi-jinks.
This picturebook has the usual problems found right throughout the kidlit world. This is another story about a white boy. He has two sidekicks. One of the sidekicks is a girl dressed in pink. The other is a black boy. Two boys and one girl consistently comes back in educational research as the ratio at which boys feel comfortable — 1:1 boy-girl teacher attention in the classroom will give boys the impression that girls are dominating. So it is in children’s stories, from Harry Potter to Monster House.
Is this in the illustrator’s wheelhouse? If so, a call to illustrators — why not make Jack the black kid for a change, with a white boy as his sidekick? And to writers: Why not write some more trios of two girls and one boy?
Well, we know why.
How does everyone feel about the phrase ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist?’ which is repeated as a refrain throughout the story?
In this book both the boy and the girl are assumed to be wearing ‘knickers’, but in my dialect of English — and I assume most modern dialects — knickers refer specifically to female underpants. The assumption is therefore that getting (unnecessarily) shitty about something is a specifically feminine trait, and when the instruction is dished out to a male character the effect is to feminise him and strip him of his power. The phrase has always grated with me.
STORY STRUCTURE OF JACK AND THE FLUMFLUM TREE
Jack needs to go on a long journey without adult supervision in order to mature.
He wants to save his granny from her purple spots disease by finding her fruit that grows on the rare and distant Flumflum tree.
Nature is against them — the ocean, mainly, and everything in it: namely sharks, leaks and man overboard.
But nature isn’t a very satisfying opponent. A ‘humanesque’ opponent appears once they get to the island in the form of a mischievous monkey who steals the precious Flumflum fruit.
At each of the three calamities at sea Jack works out a use for each of the items granny provided in the patchwork sack.
Jack turns into a trickster with the monkey, giving him or her some wooden spoons. The monkey can’t resist playing the drums with them on the tom-tom drum, so the children are able to retrieve the stolen Flumflum.
Each of the items in the bag had a use. That’s what the young reader will learn at the end of the story.
As for Jack, he has learned that he is quite capable of saving the day.
Granny is better and Jack is the hero.