How Many Pigs Does It Take to Make a Story?

Too Many Pigs and One Big Bad Wolf – written by Davide Cali, illustrated by Marianna Balducci
Tundra Books, 2022

Children know what makes a good story; in Too Many Pigs and One Big Bad Wolf, Davide Cali and Marianna Balducci provide a funny and clever example of how to create an engaging tale.  The humor is accessible to kids without appealing to the lowest common denominator. The pictures (photos by Balducci and Fabio Gervasoni) are sharp and bright, and the book’s design by Kelly Hill constructs the perfect frame for the whole project. (The artwork is one of the featured at the Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibition of picture book illustration this year.)

The original, and terrifying, fairy tale about the three little pigs existed in many versions, but this one is only incidentally about a predator devouring smaller animals.  In fact, as the author and illustrator make clear, the events of a book alone do not necessarily add up to a good story. Using a wooden toy-like abacus featuring pig-shaped beads, Cali and Balducci calculate what exactly holds our interest as reader’s when we suspend disbelief and enter a fictional world.  If the story seems too abrupt, just adding random events will not work.  If the characters seem a bit similar, maybe giving them crazy names, one beginning with each letter of the alphabet, will improve the pace.  How about having the pigs form an improbably sounding soccer team? Once the laughter dies down, it becomes clear that the story still needs “a beginning and a middle and an end!”  The alternating black and red font highlights the fact that this is a dialogue between reader and creator. Even such fine points as punctuation and conjunctions play a part. Instead of using commas, the repetition of “and” and the exclamation point show that the stakes are high.  Children need the story to captivate and make sense at the same time!

Throwing in a little math and the fascination with leap years, the author tries another experiment. What if the fierce animal timed his attacks to once a month, choosing the weirdest month in the calendar? Each possibility reinforces the idea that mechanical pacing, wild variations, and ridiculous jokes do not add up to a great book. Yes, we all know that there are some highly successful children’s book authors whose careers defy that premise, but when we present young readers with outstanding work, they can discern the difference. 

A bowl of wooden pigs swimming in milk, with all the appeal of junky breakfast cereal, is an unforgettable image, especially with the hungry wolf posed above, spoon in hand, and ready to dive in.  But even this suggestion is not enough to tie the loose ends together, and readers commiserate with the exasperated text: “I can’t take this anymore!”  By the end, the “author” of this experiment has lost all credibility, but the real author, illustrator, and designer, have raised questions about the challenges of creation that children will think about for a long time.

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