Story and pictures by Roberto Innocenti
(Creative Editions, 2012)
After my first read, I knew I would not feature this book as a recommendation. I did not like the ending. Indeed, it was not appropriate. Too dark.
But then I went for coffee and recalled earlier versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”, the story upon which the book is based. In some tellings, the grandmother got locked in a closet, but in others, the wolf ate her. Red Riding Hood often suffered the same demise. Then, the woodsman cut open the wolf, rescued the remarkably unchewed characters and stuffed the villain with rocks, leaving him to die. Happy endings? No nightmares? Maybe this is why night lights were invented.
Here I go. I’ll feature the book and you can decide if it suits you. The story begins with a strange grandmotherly doll plopped in the middle of a table as children gather round to hear a story on a rainy day. The narrator (the doll) tells us:
Our story takes place in a forest.
This forest has few trunks and leaves—it is composed of concrete and bricks instead.
Yes, we’re in a city in modern times. Sophia is “a quiet girl” who lives in a rundown tenement with her mother and younger sister. Since Sophia’s grandmother is unwell and wants company, Sophia sets off for the “other side of the forest,” first putting on a red hoodie as there is a possibility of rain.
Sophia’s mother cautions her to stick to the “main trail” the entire way. Indeed, it’s a grim route, littered with trash, graffiti and a chalk-drawn body behind police tape. A mall proves a distraction and then Sophia does what we’ve all done: she exits through the wrong doors. This leaves her disoriented and vulnerable in an even seedier area.
Taunted by some no-goods, she is “rescued” by a motorcyclist with big teeth. Ultimately, he ditches the girl and gets to nana’s house in advance. An unhappy ending results.
This is a reminder of stranger danger, a tale to warn kiddies to never let down their guard. Still, common sense should have prevailed. It appears to be a long, long journey through the worst parts of the city. I cannot imagine a parent allowing a young child to make the trek alone.
The illustrations portray dark scenes with bursts of color. Roberto Innocenti’s illustrations are the true highlight of the book.
Author Aaron Frisch offers an alternate happy ending after we see the story audience weeping around the doll. After all, we are told, “Stories are magic.” I doubt the book would have been published without this add-on which leads me to wonder if the grimmer work of the Brothers Grimm would reach the marketplace in today’s Disney-fied world. If nothing else, this is a book to begin a discussion on whether grit and darker aspects of reality have a place in children’s picture books. I have featured some darker books (Way Home; Riding the Tiger; Bird) and enthusiastically recommended them. But is scaring children about strangers the way to ensure they are safe? My uneasiness remains, but I welcome your comments.