Monday, September 26, 2011

"That'll do, Pig. That'll do."--a review of THE THREE PIGS by David Wiesner

What happens when a big bad wolf huffs and puffs so much that the first little piggy is blown right out of the story? Join the three little pigs in David Wiesner’s version of this familiar tale to find out. The three little heroes gambol and romp outside the confines of their story, meeting up with a curious cat and his fiddle and a rather courtly dragon along the way. When the five adventurers decide to go home, how will they fit in? Will they have to recreate their world? Will the big bad wolf still be waiting for them? Do they live happily ever after?


Fairy tales are very explicit. They have good guys and bad guys, punishment and reward, black and white. Or do they? Lüthi notes that the opening formulas of fairy tales—once upon a time—are intended to lead one from the real into the nonreal world and the closing formulas—happily ever after—from the nonreal back to the real (p. 51). What happens between those two frames is anything but explicit, a strange murky cloud where all is not as it appears.

David Wiesner plays with appearance versus reality, and everything we thought we understood about fairy tales, in his version of The Three Pigs. The story begins traditionally, with soft pastel watercolors, which one might associate with a traditional tale. The “once upon a time” opening illustration is framed by a conventional white border on the page. The text, a traditional serif font. The story progresses this way for three frames until the wolf blows the first little pig from his house of straw right out of the storyboard. The pig is much bolder, much brighter in gouache, and more of an individual once he escapes his traditional role (of being eaten up). This event sets up the sequence for the play of appearance versus reality for the rest of the story. Now, speaking what can only be his true mind in a playful, casual font via text bubble, the pig goes to find his brothers. Which pigs are the real pigs? The pigs in the story or the ones who escape? It’s not even clear that the pigs know the answer to this question. The next few pages see them all stepping out of and in between story frames, playing with them, pushing their old boundaries until all three end up contrasted against a stark white background where they literally take flight from their story, soaring on a folded paper airplane made out of a discarded picture of the big bad wolf.

Soon they land, but their adventure isn’t finished. As the pigs explore high and low, one little pig even senses there is someone spying on them. “I think…someone’s out there,” he says, staring directly at the reader, pulling us in. While that pig has sussed out the reader, the other two have found more stories. Their adventure takes them into a child’s book of nursery rhymes, and they soon turn tail out of that story, which looks like a child’s board book illustration, complete with oversized font and a moon with a friendly face. What’s so real about that? The cat, much too dignified for his former artistic treatment, lets his curiosity get away with him, so he and his fiddle follow the pigs out of that crazy nursery rhyme into a world where they discover many more stories just waiting for them to enter. They lower themselves into the realm of a courtly dragon who happens to be guarding a golden rose, awaiting his destiny, probably to be slain by the king’s eldest son who is on his way to bring back the golden rose. The dragon escapes his rather literal black and white world, stepping out of his story frame into living color. The three pigs, the cat and the dragon examine story after story, until they finally find a frame that looks worthy of entering. It just happens to be a picture of the third pig’s brick house. They decide they should all go home, which requires they reconstruct the story. After the frames are carefully replaced, our heroes once again enter the tale, but the story has now been quite graphically altered, font blowing in every direction off the page. The wolf is shut out of the house, and our five companions sit down to enjoy a big bowl of soup, to live “happily ever aft. …”

My review of this book is not the same as my other book reviews because this book is truly like no other I’ve ever read or enjoyed so thoroughly. Wiesner is brilliant, and I am suffering from a severe case of hero worship. While Scieszka and Lane’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs plays with point of view and the notion of the reliable narrator, it is not nearly as cleverly subversive as Wiesner’s version, perhaps because Wiesner uses every single picturebook element at his disposal to turn this story on its head. He begins his subterfuge on the cover. The illustration is traditional in realistic gouache detail, but there is a hint of mischief already in the eyes of the pigs, who are inviting us into their story on a very personal level. The back cover also hints at what is to come between the pages, as a cat, sans fiddle, stares directly at the viewer from underneath a framed illustration of a brick house. One can count hints of ten different types of children’s literature as the pigs romp throughout the book, including an alphabet book, which hints at the very play of words and text which is to come at the end of the story. Various fonts, artistic mediums and styles, and framing devices all contribute to the play of appearance versus reality.

What I enjoyed the most was the absolute joy of flight I experienced with the pigs as they realized they had shed the traditional confines of their story. The back to back pages of nothing but white at the heart of the story are the spots where the boundaries between appearance and reality no longer exist. There is freedom in that. The humor abounds, and I laughed out loud when the pigs discovered the cat who introduces himself with a “Hey diddle diddle!” His back is defensively arched, and he’s not really sure whether he should be worried or not. On another page, the dragon, still true to his nature in protecting the golden rose, compares another picture of a cat (perhaps Puss in Boots) to his new cat companion, as if to say, “So, there are more than one of these fabulous creatures.” The whole book is just so absolutely delightful, it brought me to tears (I’ve never seen characters in any story treated with such dignity) and nearly defied analysis. Some readers may feel like the flabbergasted wolf, relegated to the outside looking in, not quite sure if what they have experienced is real or not. What is clear is that Wiesner wants readers to feel at home in the pigs’ new story. There is no complete happily ever after, because, after all, the adventures have just begun.

Awards and Reviews
  • Caldecott Medal, 2002
  • ALA Notable Children’s Book, 2002
  • Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, 2001
  • NY Public Library, 100 Titles for Reading, 2001
  • School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2001
  • Capitol Choice Selection, 2001
“Wiesner has created a funny, wildly imagined tale that encourages kids to leap beyond the familiar, to think critically about conventional stories and illustration, and perhaps to flex their imaginations and create wonderfully subversive versions of their own stories.”—Gillian Engberg, Booklist

“Wiesner’s dialogue and illustrations are clever, whimsical and sophisticated….”—Sean Kelly, New York Times Book Review

“Children will delight in the changing perspectives, the effect of the wolf’s folded-paper body, and the whole notion of the interrupted narrative. Wiesner’s luxurious use of white space with the textured pigs zooming in and out of view is fresh and funny. … Witty dialogue and physical comedy abound in this inspired retelling of a familiar favorite.”—Wendy Lukehart, School Library Journal

“This has the advantage over many postmodern reworkings of making a very light reading demand, so kids whose artistic sense is more sophisticated than their verbal perception will appreciate their chance to be in on the joke.”—Deborah Stevenson, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

“Obviously, there’s a lot going on here, but once you get your bearings, this is a fantastic journey told with a light touch. … Wiesner may not be the first to thumb his nose at picture-book design rules and storytelling techniques, but he puts his own distinct print on this ambitious endeavor.”—Kitty Flynn, Horn Book Magazine


Lesson Extensions and Resources

Vicki Blackwell has developed a Literature Pocket for The Three Pigs by David Wiesner available here. It includes PDF bookmarks, a lesson idea about using Kidspiration for students to create story maps of the story, springboard ideas for writing, pig crafts, a reader’s theatre script and much more. has posted “Creative Writing through Wordless Picture Books,” a lesson plan by Laurie A. Henry, which focuses on using wordless picture books, including standards, handouts, interactive story maps, and links to two bibliographies of wordless picture books. Even though Wiesner’s version isn’t entirely wordless, the importance of the illustrations can serve as a foundation for teaching visual literacy and the study of wordless texts.

Teaching Books has an Original Author Program for David Wiesner. It includes a video interview with the author about the picturebook making process, and would be a great start to helping students get excited about creating their own picture books.



Engberg, Jillian. “Pigs on the Loose.” Review of The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner. Booklist 97 (2001): 1761.

Flynn, Kitty. Review of The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner. Horn Book Magazine 77 (2001): 341-342.

Kelly, Sean. Review of The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner. New York Times Book Review 106 (2001): 20.

Lüthi, Max. “Central Themes of Classical Fairy Tales.” In Fairy Tales, edited by Jann Einfeld. 48-57. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Lukeheart, Wendy. Review of The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner. School Library Journal 47 (2001): 126

Scieszka, Jon (1989). The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. Illus. by Lane Smith. New York: Viking. ISBN 0670827592

Stevenson, Deborah. Review of The Three Pigs, by David Wiesner. Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books 54 (2001): 355.

Wisesner, David (2001). The Three Pigs. New York: Clarion. ISBN 0-618-00701-6.


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