Flashback Fridays: Then you sing that guten sweeten song again . . .

I’m very, very late with the posts this week–mom duties plus extreme exhaustion have meant every time I try to write I’ve fallen asleep at the keyboard.  So here’s our Friday post more than a little past it’s date!

You’re a girl living with your mother near a jungle.  Your mom warns you not to go into the jungle because the Gunniwolf might get you. Of course, stories being what they are,  you’re going to find yourself in that jungle pretty soon . . .

Do you remember:

The Gunniwolf retold by Wilhelmina Harper, illustrated by William Wiesner (Dutton Juvenile, 1970)

From time to time I like to cover picture books and this is certainly a favorite of mine.  It’s a fairly gentle folk tale of a girl who doesn’t listen to her mother and encounters the rather lion-like Gunniwolf in the jungle.  Clearly said beast has a liking for music, particularly for Little Girl’s singing as he keeps demanding she sing for him.  Little Girl manages to get away from the Gunniwolf  when he falls asleep, but its only by her persistence that she escapes him entirely and makes it home again.

The story is pretty simple and the plot arc predictable.  But it’s the way this book is written that makes it so delightful.  This is the sort of thing that works brilliantly as a read aloud to preschool kids.  Each time Little Girl starts picking flowers, she sings the same song.  When she encounters the Gunniwolf, their interaction is blunt and to the point.  The Gunniwolf demands “Little girl, why for you move?”   and she answers: “I no move.”  to which the Gunniwolf replies “Then you sing that guten sweeten song again.”  The first time I came across this book I was rather put off by the odd spoken bits of dialogue.  But then I heard one of our local storytellers perform the story, word for word and realized the oddness of the phrases works.  Despite the fact that these sentences aren’t “correct” English, there’s no doubt in the child’s mind what’s being communicated.  Since then I’ve read this book aloud hundreds of times and come to love the rather outlandish exchange.

agunn2

This is a little bit like a light-hearted Little Red Riding Hood.  Little Girl’s predicament seems less severe–the Gunniwolf mostly appears to want her to sing to him, and doesn’t appear interested in eating her.  And while the Gunniwolf gives chase to little girl, he never actually follows her out of the jungle.  Librarian and folklorist Wilhelmina Harper didn’t publish much in her life–and this is the only title for kids I’ve found on the shelves–I rather wish she’d put her hand to more stories.  There’s not much information about the author out there that I’ve found so far, but it’s made me want to keep looking.

This is one of those books that’s hopelessly out of print with copies for sale for more than 50 dollars.  I wish they’d bring this story back into print with the original illustrations.  William Wiesner’s art is compelling and exotic but not unfamiliar.  It’s a good example of how less is sometimes more. The limited color palette is awash in green, while our Gunniwolf is bright orange: standing out dramatically against the background.  While there’s little info on our author, I could find no information on this illustrator.  I’d been curious if he’s related to the illustrious David Wiesner, but honestly found no evidence of anything other than his name attached to a few books.

agunn5

With the book out of print I’ve been treating my library’s copy like gold–I’d be heartbroken to lose this as a read-aloud piece or a storytelling piece.  “Not to worry!”  Some of you might say–“there’s an updated version out!”  And true, there is.  The wording is the same so it can be worth picking up for the text.  But this is what happened when they decided to “update” the illustrations:

The illustrations make a huge change in the feel of the story.    With Wiesner’s illustrations, the entire story feels vaguely Asian-cast, set in a different part of the world.  Upton transforms it into a very American tale with a brown-haired protagonist and a huge dog-like Gunniwolf.  Yes, this newer version is certainly warmer and friendlier, with lush colors and a more detailed art style, but it loses the kind of impact the original imparted so effortlessly.  The art isn’t bad, but I honestly don’t believe the original could have been improved upon.

While this blog is about speculative fiction, sometimes its easy to forget that our earliest childhood is full of the stuff–the fantastic pours of the pages in talking animals: kittens and mittens and pigs and houses and bears and porridge.  This is one of those forgotten books that should really be a staple of nursery stories.  And for those librarians and others who like doing storytelling for audiences?  Look this one up and try it–I don’t think you’ll regret it.

So there’s my (very late) flashback.  What forgotten picture book reads did you love?

Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on June 26, 2014, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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