There’s a lot to like about British illustrator Bethan Woollvin’s debut picture book, Little Red, for which she evidently won the Macmillan Children’s Book Competition while a student at the Cambridge School of Art.
For one thing, it’s hard to make your picture book re-telling of a classic fairy tale stand out on the shelves, because we picture-book readers see a lot of those these days. We also see attempts by authors and illustrators to endow the female protagonists with some agency by giving these traditional tales, in which the women are often passive, a contemporary twist. It’s easy to do this poorly, despite good intentions – or to try altogether too hard and end up with a book whose agenda overshadows the story itself. But Woollvin pulls this off with ease and style, empowering Little Red to save the day without anyone’s help, thanks very much, in a story that entertains.
The story kicks off the same way it has for generations now, though instead of “Little Red Riding Hood,” Woollvin streamlines things a bit by referring to her, just as the title tells you, as “Little Red.” Red’s mother has asked her to take some cake to Grandma, because … you guessed it: She’s under the weather. Little Red sets off through the forest.
On a wooded path, she meets a wolf. He growls at her, asking where she is heading. “Which might have scared some little girls,” writes Woollvin. “But not this little girl.” The story continues just as you expect -- the wolf gobbles up Grandma and then positions himself in her bed, having taken on her persona as best he can -- but instead of Red falling hook, line, and sinker for the wolf’s act, she recognizes him for who he is and devises a plan. In fact, Woollvin writes, “She couldn’t see Grandma, but she could see a badly disguised wolf waiting in Grandma’s bed!” I love it. She even follows that with yet another mention that this “might have scared some little girls. But not this little girl.” This phrasing is repeated throughout the book and works to great effect.
Red even humors the wolf, with an annoyed and resigned look on her face, with the exclamations that appear in the traditional tale: “Oh, Grandma! What big ears you have!” and so on. When the wolf leaps forward, teeth bare, you’d think Red would be scared, but think again. Not this little girl. That’s because, on the previous spread where she peeks in the window of Grandma’s cottage, readers see an ax behind her. In fact, Red is giving it a serious side-glance. We never actually see the woodcutter, as we do in the traditional tale (remember, Red does just fine without any help), but his presence is indicated with this ax, which is stuck in the stump of a tree.
So, when the wolf attacks her, we see she’s gotten her hands on the ax and is ready to use it to defend her own life. Woollvin depicts no violence of any sort, but it’s all implied. On the next spread, we merely see a close-up of Red’s eyes. (I find this to be a very funny moment in all its cryptic glory.) Suddenly, on the following spread, she’s traipsing down the path in a new wolf costume, made out of a certain wolf’s fur. Delicious revenge!
Woollvin brings all of this to readers with minimalistic shapes and assured lines, rendered with gouache (and a digital assist). The palette consists of blacks, whites, and greys with Little Red standing out in a bright red hue. (The color red appears conservatively throughout the rest of the story. There’s a red roof on Grandma’s house, and part of the ax is red, even before the implied carnage.) Woollvin knows where to add subtle, even macabre humor: On the spread where Wolf determines his plan to get into Grandma’s house (it says merely “And he made a plan”), we see his profile. It dominates the spread, and right in the center of his head, his mind’s eye, there’s a dinner plate with Grandma and Little Red on it. Knife and fork are ready and waiting. It’s a clever moment in a smart story. The endpapers (they vary from front to back) are also just right in every way, but I won’t ruin that surprise for you.
This one, refreshing and visually captivating, is a keeper.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
LITTLE RED. Text and illustrations © 2016 by Bethan Woollvin. First United States version published in 2016 by Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.