Is ‘The Gruffalo’ a literary masterpiece?

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Author: Nayana Chakrabarti, Parenting and Education Editor

We often hear about parents asking about how other parents helped their children make the transition from illustrated picture books to chapter books?

It’s a milestone.

But why? By all means, read chapter books, encourage your child to read chapter books. Chapter books are wonderful and introduce young and old to a vast and colorful panoply of characters, landscapes, topics and discussions. Where would we be without Charlotte’s Web? Matilda? Harry Potter?

But, please don’t be in a rush. I want to urge you to slow down, appreciate the world of picture books, I’d like to encourage you to return to them. I’d like to encourage you to coax your older children as well as your younger children to turn to them once in a while.

I promise you that I’m not exaggerating when I write that picture books are literary pathways.

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My Swiss Story: Is ‘The Gruffalo’ a literary masterpiece?

Stay with me.

Picture books introduce fairly sophisticated linguistic and literary concepts to young readers and older ones too. They introduce deeper reading skills commonly known as comprehension skills such as inference and deduction as a result of the text and image relationship.

To illustrate (pun intended) to what I mean, I’m going to use the works of Julia Donaldson to tell you – no, show you – what I mean.

Here, we have five picture books born out of the iconic Axel Sheffler-Julia Donaldson collaboration: The Gruffalo; The Gruffalo’s Child; Stick Man; The Snail and the Whale; Zog. Notably, all five are anthropomorphic in nature whereby humanised animals tell very recognisably human stories . Storytelling – since prehistoric times – has incorporated the use of animals. Storytellers since time immemorial have used them to show how humans tirelessly and ceaselessly struggle against nature.

However, Donaldson being the intuitive master of storytelling that she is turns this on its head. In her stories, the animals themselves strive against nature. Very frequently, they strive against humankind. This is done most movingly and most powerfully in ‘Stick Man’ ‘The Snail and The Whale’. In the rollicking knights-princess-dragon tale (truthfully, dragon-princess-knights’ tale) that is ‘Zog’ both Zog the dragon and Pearl the princess rail against societal expectation.

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My Swiss Story, ‘Is the Gruffalo a Literary Masterpiece’? Image credits: Axel Scheffler, Macmillan

With her retinue of talking animals to help her, Donaldson allows us a sneaky glimpse of another world which we would not be able to see had it not been for their help. In fact, we could argue that all of Donaldson’s characters from the cast above, be it the mouse in ‘The Gruffalo’ or the Gruffalo’s child herself, the Snail and the Whale, Zog and then Stick Man are all surrogates in the story for the child that you are reading the bed time story to. The books are about them. That’s what makes them thrilling.

But won’t older children see through this? Wouldn’t they be better off sticking to chapter books alone?

No. The illustrations by Axel Sheffler are just as important. Higher order thinking skills such as inference and deduction are seamlessly woven into the reading experience due to the text-image relationship. The books are not dumbed down ensuring that not only will the adult bedtime storytellers will enjoy the experience of reading aloud but that older readers will gain from the experience too. Perhaps this is why Julia Donaldson is so popular. The pleasure her books provide through the act of reading in itself invites re-reading making each one of the books above contemporary classics. They offer positive stimulation on all fronts – be it visual, be it aural. This is why these books are everywhere.

Let’s take a closer look at the power of picture books by examining Donaldson’s beloved story, ‘The Gruffalo’.

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The Gruffalo’ is arguably one of the most revisited books of our current times. Did you know that this is actually the retelling of a Chinese story? The original tiger has been substituted for the Gruffalo.

The mouse has to skillfully navigate around a series of predators. This is an allegory for how children themselves must use their wit and their imagination to negotiate their way around the spaces that they inhabit. The message here is all about the vital need to stand up to bullies. But the moralising does not overwhelm the narrative. It’s pacy, tense and thrilling.

The syntax of ‘The Gruffalo’ is also fairly challenging. Opening simply, it then moves onto sophisticated grammatical structures such as prepositional phrases such as “On went the mouse through the deep dark wood”.

There are a lot of repetitive alliteration too (“deep dark wood”) which mean that children are used to those styles of writing too, much before they are taught it in school. They can recognise that it makes for impactful storytelling.

Not only this but the gradual build-up of suspense through the questions (“Why, didn’t you know?”) means that each turn of the page is a little mini-cliffhanger without being scary. Questions also help to make the reading engaging. Even a semi- skilled storyteller can really ham up the questions and invite their audience to engage. Reading becomes a participatory experience and research has shown that it is only when conversations are had between storytellers and their listeners, does reading really do its ‘work’.

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My Swiss Story, ‘Is the Gruffalo a Literary Masterpiece’? Image credits: Axel Scheffler, Macmillan

Furthermore, the character of the Gruffalo is thrilling. He’s clumsy and kind of cute; it is difficult to associate fearfulness with him. He’s a monster who is not monstrous.

Finally, the language is rich. There are words like “astounding” while there’s also a lot of uses of figurative language in the form of similes “quick as the wind he turned and fled”. It’s genius actually. Never does Donaldson write that the Gruffalo was scared of the mouse, the simile does the telling instead together with Axel Sheffler’s drawings. Children infer his fright and lo and behold, they are learning a higher order thinking skill without even being really aware of it.

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My Swiss Story, ‘Is the Gruffalo a Literary Masterpiece’? Image credits: Axel Scheffler, Macmillan

To cut a long story short (once more, pun intended), picture books offer viral paths to learning. Don’t just keep them for bedtime and then look to rehome them once those days are done. Hold on to your favourites, add them to your home library. You never know, you might need them to help your child get their heads around concepts such as rhetorical questions, the Romantic idea of the sublime (yep that’s there too), varied vocabulary, similes and metaphors, characterisation.

But it’s not just academic. It’s also for pleasure. When you read picture books together, you are helping your child to develop reading skills which will carry them through life. We are not expecting miraculous skills overnight but rather a gradual, layered response built up over time.

Happy reading!

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