CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 6. . . . October 13, 2017
While on a family picnic, two youngsters exuberantly keep their dad in line when he playfully and repeatedly attempts to derail ‘classic’ fairy tale structure as he reads aloud a story by interjecting fractured nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The children romp and relish in the unexpected narratives, and their active imaginations, which drive the visuals of the story, place the brother-sister combo into each potential plotline. But ultimately, the young siblings express pleasure and comfort with a familiar and traditional version of what is ‘fairy tale’.
The story behind the making of the book is almost as cute as the book itself. The idea for the book was planted into the thoughts of the aunt-niece co-author team, Jean Little, a celebrated Canadian author multiple times over including the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and Maggie de Vries, an award-winning author for young readers, when the two were told a true story about the fairy tale story-play of a precocious two-year-old by a fellow guest at Northrop Frye’s wedding reception. At once, the book took shape and was honed with the help of, and feedback from, school children during author visits.
The late Phoebe Gilman, most well-known for her “Jillian Jiggs” series, was the brilliant illustrator, bestowing character, charm, and intricacy within the text’s narrative. The style of the illustrations is instantly recognizable as Gilman’s work with comforting resemblances between these child characters and Jillian Jiggs herself. Gilman includes a wholly visual humourous sub-narrative of the family’s puppy devouring the contents of the picnic basket piece by piece. Magic and majesty are subtly infused within the illustrations. For example, a golden apple sits upon the top of each page featuring fairy tale elements, and it is absent in the scenes from the real world. This small marker gives a nod to the title of the book as well as gives visual assistance to readers.
Yet, the multiplicity of this book does not stop with the illustrations. The text also has numerous layers. At its most simple level, it conveys family bonding and enjoyment through storytelling, story-making, and story-reading. At a deeper level, this book encourages literary play and meta-narrative thought within its audience. Young readers confront the concept of what is ‘fairy tale’ structure. Parents and educators can use this book to introduce or to extend the conversation about traditional stories or fractured fairy tales, as well as reading skills such as predicting and comparing to personal background knowledge. Young readers can participate by vocalizing the repetitive ‘No!,’ come up with their own suggestions for fairy tale variants, or engage with the illustrations both through the emphasized fairy tales or the events of the real world family picnic.
For a book that was ahead of its time when it was originally published in the 90’s, it still leads the way. The narrative structure and visual portrayal both resemble the ‘comics’ medium with the use of speech bubbles and panels (and thus the inherent gutters in between panels). Therefore, not only is this book useful for introduction to literary play, but it also familiarizes young readers with storytelling elements of the burgeoning world of comics.
If any book deserves a 25th anniversary edition, it’s this one. The new sturdy landscape-oriented board book format feels so appropriate for this book which can stand up to the rigor of multiple readings by toddlers and young people with ‘energetic’ page-turning skills, that it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t originally released in this format. Parents, educators, librarians and little readers can all find something within the pages of Once Upon a Golden Apple to inspire and to amuse them.
Dorothea Wilson-Scorgie has completed her MA degree in Children’s Literature at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and is currently pursuing an online MLIS degree at the University of Alberta. She is a member of the Victoria Children’s Literature Roundtable steering committee, works at as a teacher-on-call, and resides in Victoria, BC, with her husband and their toddler son.