Storytelling Tips From Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

Tom's Midnight Garden cover with moon and boy silhouette

A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of The Chronicles of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.

In Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This middle grade novel is an example of low fantasy.


Real World Connection

The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.

The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?

The Mysterious Mansion

The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.


Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.

Secondary World

This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.


The story starts with a case of measles.

Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain.  However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.



Tom Long is the main character.

His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.

The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.


Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.


Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.

Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.


Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.

When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.

Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.

The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:

  • Are they ghosts?
  • Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.


The big struggle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.

I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.


There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.


Tom has closure on the Midnight Garden and will return home satisfied. His uncle and auntie will remain a bit mystified about this slightly odd nephew of theirs.



Food is important in children’s literature. In utopian stories there is never any concern about where the next meal is coming from — it just appears. See for example The Wind In The Willows or Winnie The Pooh.

In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in an ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.

Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.

The Technique of Side Shadowing

For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.

Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.

But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”

She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:

Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’

So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’

Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]

For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.

Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.

Strat and Chatto by Jan Mark and David Hughes

Strat and Chatto is a picture book created by Jan Mark and David Hughes. Jan Mark was a British children’s book author who died about 10 years ago in 2006. She wrote for the picture book and chapter book age range. Her subject matter was mostly ordinary kids in ordinary settings. She also wrote plays and collections of short stories.

strat and chatto cover


David Hughes describes himself as “a graphic designer who happens to illustrate” which sounds suspiciously to me like he’s actively avoiding the condescension experienced by creators of children’s books. The truth is, though, that he hasn’t really illustrated many picture books compared to all the other work he has done. He also writes children’s books.

His background/forte in graphic design shines through on these pages, which are all double page spreads, with the action flowing beautifully across the page. (I haven’t scanned any of the double page spreads — the hard copy is necessary to enjoy those.)

White space is preserved, and busyness minimised, with the technique of filling some objects with colour and leaving others as outlines.

Another standout feature of these illustrations are the disgustingness of the creatures. Hughes achieves this by creating skeletal, long-fingered hands, spiny tails and wavy antennae.


Strat and Chatto is a story set in London, with a strong Cockney influence coming through in the rat. This rat is an animal version of the Rag and Bone man of yesteryear — a white, working class guy who gambles, drinks and plays darts at the pub when he’s not at work.

Like any old city, London is in a state of constant change — out with the old, in with the new. This cycle is emulated at the micro level in this story about the rotation of animals inclined to infest urban dwellings: cockroaches, rats, silverfish and also bats.




Our viewpoint character is the put-upon cat. The cat is presented as somewhat cuter than the other characters, though lacking in drive. This is his downfall.



All Chatto wants is this one rat out of his house.


The original (off-stage) opponent may be the rat throwing lentils onto his head, but this story begins with a far stronger opponent coming along.

See here for why rats are the baddies and mice are the goodies of children’s literature.

Readers do love tricksters, and the rat is an example of that archetype.


We don’t see the rat’s plan for a while, though we’re encouraged to guess.

This part of the story is very similar to Julia Donaldson’s A Squash and a Squeeze, in that a small dwelling becomes unbearably overcrowded with creatures, upsetting the original inhabitant. Donaldson’s story is created more like a modern fable with a message about not complaining about the size of your house, but this is a purely comic tale in which the reader is invited to guess at what the wily rat is up to.

I suspect the illustrator is not a huge fan of Nana Mouskouri.

Possibly the only instance of camel toe I have seen in a children’s book.


The big struggle scene is a busy scene where all the invaders come together.

Then Strat climbed in at the cat flap and yelled, “EVERYBODY OUT!”

And out of the cat flap came the bats and the cockroaches and the silverfish.


We realise the rat’s plan. We’ve been wondering all along why he’s been moving all his friends and acquaintances into the cat’s house — it’s because he wants to move in himself, since his own house is about to be demolished.


We realise now that this is a very clever circular story. The original rat probably weasled his way into the cat’s apartment by similar means.

Notice the tails here, intertwined, but in a stranglehold.

The long, bulbous fingers which have been emphasised throughout the book are framed for attention here. Long fingers indicate a long reach, and we find them creepy. I’m sure that’s why depictions of grey aliens feature similar hands.


Jack And The Beanstalk History and Symbolism

Jack and the Beanstalk is also known as Jack The Giant Killer, which kind of ruins the ending, so no wonder they changed it.

Jack and the Beanstalk nesbit

The first version to appear in print was by a London bookseller called Benjamin Tabart. This was in 1807.

There are hundreds and hundreds of versions of this story, so I’ll stick to the Grimms’ version.


Jack is poor, goes up a beanstalk, finds giant and goose that lays golden eggs, heads back with goose, defeats giant, no longer poor.

If in doubt about story structure, it is always useful to refer to fairy tales for validation — they contain the DNA of almost every story we tell. Take Jack and the Beanstalk:

  1. Down to their last penny, with father dead, Jack’s mother sends him to market to sell Daisy their cow.
  2. On the way to market Jack succumbs to a mysterious stranger who offers to swap the cow for some magic beans.  Jack’s mum is furious and throws the beans out of the window.
  3. Overnight a massive beanstalk grows right up into the sky.

Which part is the inciting incident? If one is forced to highlight one single aspect, then inciting incidents are the invitation to leave home and venture into the forest; to reject the thesis of the first stage for the synthesis of the new world. This is where the journey into the woods (or up the beanstalk) begins.

John Yorke, Into The Woods


Jack is easily duped. He also does not have the respect of his mother.


He wishes to please his mother and provide for them both.


The giant. However, this giant is more properly an ogre.


Illustration from Retold by Edward Holmes, Illustrated by Ronald Embleton

He’ll go to market and sell the cow for lots of money. This plan changes, however, after his mother tells him how stupid he is.

When he sees the beans have grown into a giant stalk reaching up into the sky, now he plans to climb the stalk. He still doesn’t know what’s at the top of this beanstalk. He’s simply ‘curious’.

When he sees he can steal a bag of gold and a chicken who lays golden eggs, he plans to take them for himself. This part of the story is quite drawn out in the Grimms’ version; he is quite happy with the gold and the chicken who lays the golden eggs, but has to go back for more thieving after his mother falls ill. He needs something more in order to save her. So he steals the harp, whose music is so beautiful that the mother is restored to full health.


The chase down the beanstalk. The harp is screaming to the ogre. Jack chops the stalk down with an axe before the giant can touch down. If you ever wondered how the two of them disposed of that gigantic body in the yard, the giant conveniently fell down a cliff that was nearby.


Jack has beaten the giant and is able to provide. Now he can do anything. He is a man.


He lives with his mother in riches for a great number of years and is very happy.

Here is the Froebel-Kan edition of Jack and the Beanstalk that was on our family bookshelf when I was growing up in NZ in the 1980s:

Jack and the Beanstalk forebel kan

The pictures in this creepy book were done by Rose Art Studios, who I find nothing about online these days. The cover is one of those images — we used to call them ‘holograms’ — which changes slightly when you tilt the book. Inside, the illustrations are photographs of a miniature village which has been modelled; the people are made out of fabric and have wool for hair, while the buildings are basically doll houses. What made it so creepy?

Jack Beanstalk cottonwool cloud_800x600

First, the modeller had to decide on Jack’s expression then stick to it, as the same model was photographed throughout. Jack therefore has a creepy and inappropriate smile at every single event.

Second, the publisher couldn’t afford full colour photos on all of the pages, so while some seem saturated, others are black and white, which makes Jack’s eyes look what I’d nowadays describe as ‘like a black-eyed kid’ of the urban legend.

Jack Beanstalk black eyed kid_800x600
Jack Beanstalk black and white image_800x1078

But perhaps even more creepy than those eyes is the image of the feast. I don’t know what they did to make the roast, but that slaughtered animal looks like pure terror.

Jack Beanstalk feast_800x1066
from Wrath of the Titans
from Wrath of the Titans



Because hero tales are narrated from the hero’s point of view, and because he occupies the foreground of the story, the reader is invited to share his values and admire his actions, although many heroes do things which most present-day readers would find questionable if they were presented differently. In the English fairy story ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ the narrative point of view requires the reader to approve, or at least condone, criminal and extremely selfish behaviour on the part of the hero. The 1807 [Benjamin] Tabart version of the story, from which later retellings derive, is an omniscient third-person narrative in which the narrator provides information only as it relates to Jack and in which sections of the story are focalized through Jack himself. We see both home, the world on the ground, and the magical world in the sky from his point of view. He is the initiator of the action; it is his decision to swap the cow for the magic beans; he climbs the beanstalk of his own volition on each occasion; he persuades the giant’s wife to admit him, and he decides to steal the hen, the money bags and the harp. The other characters exist only as actors in his story: the two benevolent assistants, the fairy and the giant’s wife, the monstrous giant whom he must overcome, and his mother who is there to welcome him home and reward him with her approval at the end, are all insignificant compared to Jack. Jack not only steals the giant’s possessions, he manipulates and deceives the giant’s kindly wife, who several times saves his life, and finally he abandons her, perhaps to her death, when he cuts down the beanstalk. It requires conscious critical detachment to focus on the sufferings of the giant’s wife for, while reading the story, we are swept alone by its strong forward momentum and controlled by Jack’s perception of things. So it is his initiative, cleverness and success which are foregrounded. It could be argued, following Jack Zipes’s views about the inherent radicalism of folk tales, that Jack’s destruction of the giant is an imaginative depiction of the possibility of overthrowing unjust authority:

the basic nature of the folk tale was connected to the objective ontological situation and dreams of the narrators and their audiences in all age groups…these narratives, even though marked by bourgeois stylization, all retain hope for improving conditions of life and…the fantastic elements (miracles, magic) function to bring about a real fulfillment of the desires of the protagonists who were often underdogs or victims of social injustice.

Zipes, 1979

But if the story does involve an envisioning of successful revolution the image of the new regime which would replace the brutal injustices of aristocratic power is one of ruthlessly laissez-faire opportunism, a restructured patriarchy in which power passes to enterprising entrepreneurs motivated by self-interest, ready to snatch the money and the hen that lays the golden eggs as soon as an opportunity appears.

Deconstructing The Hero, Marjery Hourihan



  • Fairytales have mostly been considered suitable for children because, like kids, the hero moves from underdog position to powerful.
  • This empowerment generally makes them superior to other human beings.
  • But they normally have helpers with even stronger powers.
  • This is like the child-adult relationship in real life.
  • The heroes are not the slightest bit nuanced — they’re 100% heroic.
  • The stories are not complex.
  • The heroes are not individualized and they all have the same traits: bravery, lack of fear, strength etc.
  • These same sorts of heroes can be seen in modern genre fiction for adults: crime, adventure, thriller, romance.
  • The hero is more fortunate than ourselves in some way.
  • Readers aren’t meant to identify with such heroes. They’re an idealized version of ourselves.


The mother is the other side of Jack. She stays in the home while he goes out on an adventure. She mocks his attempt at being a man; he proves he is a provider. Without a female character as contrast, it is harder for the story to be about a very masculine rite of passage. While Jack is heroic, Jack’s mother stays at home weeping, fearing for his safety all the while he’s gone.

Jack Beanstalk goodbye mother_800x600

Why is Jack’s mother a widow? In Tabart’s version, the fairy at the top of the beanstalk (often the ogre’s ‘wife’, in later versions) tells Jack about his noble and heroic father who nevertheless got killed by a giant when Jack was only three months old. I suppose this explains why she might think she’d lost her son in the same way.


Many illustrators depict the giant as an oversized fool, with a silly and benign grin on his face — even at his enormous size we know he’ll never outwit Jack.

Fairy Tales From Grimm illustrated by Ethel Betts
Fairy Tales From Grimm illustrated by Ethel Betts

He’s often drawn with a bit of armoury on him. Below, Scott Gustafson has played with the lighting to create an ironically homely atmosphere with orange light.

by Scott Gustafson
by Scott Gustafson

The Froebel-Kan ogre/giant isn’t all that huge compared to Jack — he can pass as a very large human.

Jack Beanstalk chase_800x600
Jack Beanstalk hiding_800x600

Arthur Rackham, on the other hand, depicts a giant who finds it difficult to live inside his house.

by Arthur Rackham, 1918
by Arthur Rackham, 1918


The Beanstalk and Pagan Belief

A beanstalk growing sky high, overnight, is an example of fairytale magic, but it’s connected to a real-world system of belief which dates from the time of Pythagoras. At the heart of the Pythagorean cult — a pagan religion — was the concept of metempsychosis. This involved the migration of souls from one body to another. Today people think in terms of ‘reincarnation’. What’s this got to do with beans? Well, according to Marina Warner in No Go the Bogeyman, the bean itself might have been transmitted as an intrinsic element in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk on account of its central role in a magical belief system that adhered above all to a vision of natural phenomena as constantly changing from one thing into another—a belief system that governs the realm of fairy tale, as in the case of Jack.

Go back to Ovid’s famous poem, Metamorphoses, which concludes with ‘All things change, but nothing dies. The spirit wanders hither and thither, taking possession of what limbs it pleases, passing from beasts into human bodies, or again our human spirit passes into beasts, but never at any time does it perish.’

Illustrations of the Beanstalk

Illustrators have varied widely in their decisions about how to depict the beanstalk. Some choose a low angle view, others high angle, and still others face on, as if we, too, are up the beanstalk with Jack.

The illustration below, by an unknown artist, dates from 1917. As is fairly common in later editions, the giant is only just visible via his feet. When part/most of a scary element is left off the page, this increases the tension and drama.

“Favorite Fairy Tales” arranged by Logan Marshall. Unknown illustrator. John C. Winston Co., 1917
“Favorite Fairy Tales” arranged by Logan Marshall. Unknown illustrator. John C. Winston Co., 1917

Below, Margaret Tarrant chooses to create a less scary illustration. It’s not just the blue sky, the fluffy clouds and the bright colours; we see ALL of the giant and Jack doesn’t look all that panicked himself.

Margaret Tarrant Jack and Giant

Illustrator Chris Canga has chosen a high-angle view. This view increases the scare factor by emphasising how far Jack has to fall. When choosing this angle the illustrator is able to depict the height — notice how small the fields look below — Jack is as high as an aeroplane flying over land. It’s impossible to convey the height with any other view. Some picture books make it seem as if the giant’s land is not very far up at all.

“Jack’s Climb” by Chris Canga

Scott Gustafson manages what’s basically a frontal view as well as scenery which alerts us to the terrifying height. This picture reminds me of illustrations from my version of Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree series, which was undoubtedly influenced by Jack and the Beanstalk.

by Scott Gustafson
by Scott Gustafson

This is by Colin Stimpson from his adaptation Jack and the BAKEDbean Stalk (2012). Stimpson has chosen a low angle to emphasise the enormity of the stalk. The beanstalk itself is anthropomorphised — look at how its tendrils clutch the cans as if held in human hands. These tendrils might just as easily catch Jack.

Jack and the Baked Beanstalk low angle view of beanstalk

Artist Nick Ainsworth makes full use of an off-page lighting source to heighten the mood. He has played with scale — without the houses below, this enormous beanstalk might look instead like a large tree, or even like a close up of a fairly small one. The composition is nicely balanced with the addition of Jack and his mule in the foreground, who are presumably about to step off a cutbank, or head down into a valley. By positioning the house inside a valley we see a heightened altitudinal juxtaposition: home and Giant-land as opposites.

Beanstalk by Nick Ainsworth

Most illustrators ignore a detail in an early version of the tale, that the top of the beanstalk is supposed to appear as a desert.


Andrew Carnegie & “Jack and the Beanstalk” from Jerry Griswold

The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs is not only an inversion on the classic tale, but also a subversion of the message. Basically, this is a fable for a rape culture world.

The Three Little Wolves older cover
Here is an earlier edition of this picture book, with a soft yellow background and classic serif font

As you can see from the back cover, this book was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Award.
As you can see from the back cover, this book was highly commended for the Kate Greenaway Award in 1993

Back in 1993, this book was a best seller and did well in a number of big prizes.

Most of the picture books I’ve looked at closely have been written in English, but this one started off in Greek, written by a famous Greek children’s author who is also a sociologist:

Dr Trivizas has published many books on literature, and he is one of Greece’s leading writers for children. He has produced more than a hundred books, all of them currently in print, and he has received more than twenty national and international literary prizes and awards.


The illustrations might remind you a little of the soft English countryside depicted by illustrators such as Beatrix Potter. Helen Oxenbury lives in North London and, like Trivizas, has a long list of books to her name. In 2008 she paired with our own Australian Mem Fox to create Ten Little Fingers And Ten Little Toes. Two  years later she co-created There’s Going To Be A Baby with her husband, John Burningham.



At first glance The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pigs looks easy to take a classic tale and invert the goodies and the baddies. However, nothing interesting comes of this. The author/illustrator have to be just as inventive as anyone creating a tale from scratch. What Trivizas did here was:

He not only swapped the roles of the animals, he inverted the order of the classic story. In the original, it takes the first two silly little pigs quite a while to realise they should be living in a house of bricks rather than of straw or sticks. But Trivizas surprises us early on by having the smart little wolves build their house out of bricks. Where could the story possibly  go from here? As we find out, the ‘big bad pig wasn’t big and bad for nothing’, and as the little wolves build each successive abode more ridiculously strong than the one before (keeping to the rule of three), the big pig makes use of modern technologies (a pneumatic drill) and dynamite to ‘blow’ the house down.  The detail of the pneumatic drill is great — there’s nothing going down a level of specificity to get a laugh.

pneumatic drill


What’s the moral of the story in The Three Little Pigs? There are probably several, but the one I took from the story as a child was that one should always protect oneself from bad characters. The subtext is that bad characters are essentially bad — it is in their nature. Though what I’m about to say is most definitely an adult’s reading of this text, I’m very much reminded of the message that girls, in particular, get as soon as we start to ‘go out into the world’ ourselves: You must protect yourself from bad men. And if you don’t, well that’s your own fault really, isn’t it.

This particular message has been getting a bit of media discussion recently due to the work on domestic violence by Australian of the Year Rosie Batty, and an increasing awareness of what’s now known as Rape Culture, and the victim blaming that happens with domestic assault. (“Why didn’t she just leave?”)

What I love about the message in this book is that we’re telling children the truth about bad characters. No matter what we do to protect ourselves, if someone with bad intentions really wants to harm us, there is nothing we can do to stop them. A rapist intent on raping, for instance, will rape no matter what. If you manage to stay away from that person, he will simply move on to someone else, so broad announcements to baton down the hatches (don’t get drunk, don’t wear skirts etc.) do nothing. And that’s what happens in this children’s book. Instead, the little wolves have to wait for the big, bad pig to come good. If only real life were this simple, however. The big, bad pig comes good due to The Redemptive Power Of Beauty. In picture books, or especially in fairytales, beauty equals goodness.

The other part of the inversion I like is that you can’t tell a baddie from looking at them. Though the big pig is depicted as quite menacing, we are nonetheless conditioned to read pigs as victims and wolves as perpetrators in storybooks.


Oxenbury must be well aware of the typical child’s reaction upon hearing that a mother is throwing her children out of home. What sort of mother would do that, I wondered as a child. (We set a very high bar for mothers in children’s literature, even when those mothers are animals.) In her illustration — if you look very closely — the adult reader, at least, will notice a few details which depict the mother wolf as a bit of a lush. She has rollers in her hair (and tail), she’s painting her nails nonchalantly even as she’s telling her children to get out, and there is a very small bottle of something hidden in the folds of her bed covers, where she is presumably having ‘hair of the dog’.

Three Little Wolves opening page

On the topic of female characters in this story, there’s no reason why the adult reader couldn’t read the three little wolves as female. This is unlikely to happen because there are no feminine markers either, except one of the little wolves is very taken with his/her precious teapot, and my own stereotyping has me casting this wolf as female.

I like that the kangaroo with the wheelbarrow full of bricks is female. She has to be, of course, if the artist is to include the most wonderful thing about kangaroos — the joeys in their pouch. I like to think that the kangaroo construction worker would have been coded female even without the cute little joey in her pouch. Let’s have more of that in picture books!