Three Bears but Countless Stories

Professor Goose Debunks Goldilocks and the Three Bears -written by Paulette Bourgeois, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths
Tundra Books, 2022

Like many folktales, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears seems inexhaustible. With so many different versions, from traditional to whimsical to ironic, it takes courage to introduce a new interpretation of this mysterious story.  Some of my favorites are Feodor Rojankovsky’s classic Golden Book, Valeri Gorbachev’s in which the father plays the violin and the mother wears earrings, Gerda Muller’s lovely and comforting one, and Byron Barton’s beautifully simple board book for the youngest readers. 

Now Paulette Bourgeois and Alex G. Griffiths have truly raised the bar with their combination homage and informational look at the little girl who appears out of nowhere and violates rules, only to disappear. 

If you are skeptical at the premise, how much do you know about bear’s supposed hibernation through the winter? Maybe you need to be reminded about the fight or flight response.  Even if your child doesn’t yet know that bears don’t, in fact, “live in cottages with curtains on the windows,” adding these important facts won’t compromise their enjoyment of the story’s underlying drama.  In fact, children reading or listening to the book will relate to the way in which it bounces back and forth between two kinds of truth: factual and literary.  Expectations are both fulfilled and surprised when Professor Marie Curious Goose, her wings tapping on the laptop keys, gets to work on uncovering the hidden elements.

Bourgeois reassures readers that she is not going to divest the story of its “once upon a time” nature. In fact, the book begins by establishing what everyone knows: “Once upon a time, there was a papa bear, a mama bear and a baby bear who lived in a cottage by the woods.”  The family lives in the forest but they’re dressed for the modern world, with Papa in a plaid shirt and Baby carrying a backpack. Professor Goose is annoyed at the prospect of bears living in cottages; she explains about natural habitats, and bears’ actual eating habits. For children, these interjections are both fascinating and funny. After a few pages, the method begins to make sense.  Watching Mama Bear cook porridge and learning a simple lesson in thermodynamics makes the narrative work on different levels at the same time, which is the way in which they experience their own world.

Goldilocks, as in most versions of the story, is quite small in relation to her environment. That can be scary; no wonder she looks, in succession, awkward, uncoordinated, and then relaxed. Griffiths coordinates busy details and blank space in her pictures.  Instead of the lush images of Central European traditions, there are exaggerated facial expressions, gesturing limbs, and comic proportions.  The strangely open-ended conclusion of the story (for grownups, see Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales,) becomes an upbeat and pragmatic answer to the odd disruption of Goldilocks. Engineering a new chair when a stranger has broken your favorite one makes sense, even if Baby Bear still doesn’t know why a surprised Goldilocks believed that her refuge was uninhabited. Some questions have answers, solutions, but others remain as invitations to dream.

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