I was first made aware of a story called The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson (and illustrated by Axel Scheffler) after seeing the Oscar-nominated short “The Gruffalo’s Child” earlier this week. Since The Gruffalo was first published in 1999, you might say I’m a bit behind on this one.
Despite my misgivings (I had an extreme dislike for “The Gruffalo’s Child,”) I started reading The Gruffalo with more than a bit of hope — it seemed, at first, like it might be a story about consent. After all, the predators in the story (a fox, an owl, a snake) invite the primary speaker in the story (a mouse) to dine with them. In my mind, the mouse saying “no” was going to be enough and the predators would respect those boundaries.
Alas, the story does not go as my mental version imagined. Instead, the mouse is clever enough to know that these predators might be lying to him and so conjures up a terrible beast (a gruffalo) in mediocre rhyme to frighten the predators. This works because the mouse thinks of a snack–the gruffalo’s favorite food–that features the predator’s name. As the mouse walks away, he thinks to himself “doesn’t he know there’s no such thing as a gruffalo?”
But! What type of story would it be if that were the end of the story (except for one about using cunning and instinct to escape a potentially dangerous situation)?
The mouse meets a gruffalo, who thinks a mouse would be a particularly tasty snack (this, despite the gruffalo, in the illustration, appearing to have the flat-topped teeth of a herbivore). This gruffalo — which the mouse thought he was making up — has all the anatomical features the mouse described. The mouse is able to talk his way out of being eaten by convincing the gruffalo that he (the mouse) is the most frightening animal in the wood — to prove his point, he asks the gruffalo to follow him. He passes the snake, owl, and fox homes again and the gruffalo sees the animals shy away. The story ends with the mouse unharmed.
Aside from the pretty obvious “the meek shall inherit the earth” message that this book sends — which is really a message about not questioning the status quo (and what adult wants children to question their authority??) — I struggled to see this book as anything but a declaration to children that they should never believe anything adults (predators) say, and that they should in turn lie. There isn’t a shred of honesty in the whole story, by any character. Considering how much emphasis exists on teaching children to tell the truth to authoritarian figures, the messages in this book are a bit outside the mainstream — but not in a way that makes me think perhaps Donaldson is a radical who’s saying “fuck the system.”
Further, the gruffalo is described as having a “poisonous wart” on the end of his nose. This feature is nothing but a callback to children of the “wicked witches” in fairy tales whose noses also have warts. it is nothing but a reminder that “ugly” things are to be feared, or at the very least distrusted.
As a final point, notice my predominate use of the pronoun “he” in this review. That reflects the language of the book, because of course a little boy couldn’t relate to a story where female characters predominated — or at least this is the message this book, like so many others sends. I would love to see a shift in the way we teach reading (and many other things) that doesn’t maintain and reinforce the idea that boys can only relate to stories about boys.
This isn’t a book I would send to my friends with children, or that I would recommend to children in my life.