Mary Norton,
illustrated by Brian Froud,
Are All the Giants Dead?
(J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975; Magic
Carpet Books/Harcourt Brace, 1997)

At first, I was puzzled that I had never heard of this quirky tale by the author of childhood favorites such as The Borrowers or Bed-Knob & Broomstick. Then I saw that it was originally published in Great Britain, and was only published in the United States in 1997. It's a curious book; it looks like a children's book, but it's definitely aimed at older readers who are more than well-versed in fairy tales. I can see why American publishers might have been a little hesitant to pick it up.

The title comes from an old poem that sounds like a reassuring bedtime ritual: "Are all the giants dead? / And are all the witches fled? / Am I quite safe in bed? / Giants and witches all are fled. / My child, thou art quite safe in bed." The poem, which appears just before the book starts, sets the stage for the story.

The protagonist, a boy named James, wakes up and finds that his room isn't quite as he expected it to be. This is a sign that Mildred is there, the strange lady who takes him on adventures, and sure enough, there she is, writing in her notebook. He rises and goes with her to a palace where he meets three middle-aged ladies. They call themselves Boofy, Pumpkin and Belle, but they are really Beauty, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all living together in Boofy and Beau's (the Beast's) castle. They don't stay long, although they are there long enough for James to befriend Princess Dulcibel, who is playing with a golden ball near the well in the courtyard. She is terrified of losing her ball in the well, because she is cursed with having to marry the toad that lives within if she does. The only thing that would protect her is a legendary female frog with a jewel in its head, but no one knows where it is.

James and Mildred travel through an enchanted wood to Much-Belungen-Under-Bluff where they go to an inn run by two old men: Jack-the-Giant-Killer and Jack-of-the-Beanstalk. Jack-the-Giant-Killer has locks of hair from all the giants he has killed, but he doesn't like to talk about the 13th one.

Mildred is on her way to a royal wedding, but James asks to stay with the Jacks until she gets back. While exploring the forest, James meets up with Dulcibel, who is distraught and who has run away from the castle. It seems that her ball has fallen into the well, and she wants to find the frog with the jewel to protect her. James and Dulcibel learn that the giants are not all dead, and furthermore, the one that's alive still has the frog. They set off to climb the bluff and find the frog, and there they encounter the giant.

Fairy tale images and references abound: red slippers (without feet in them, the reader will be thankful to know) dance in and out to try to deliver news and a reference to "The Goose Girl" should not be taken casually. The idea of fairy tale characters aging is not necessarily new now, but this title was published in 1975, long before the resurgence in retold fairy tales. The tone is subtle, tongue in cheek, and may be lost on readers who are not familiar with the tales.

Brian Froud's delightful black and white illustrations are packed with detail: the retired witch Hecubenna sits in an enormous splintering chair bedecked with a string of garlic and an owl and carved with a heart and initials; James perches in a cave full of hobgoblins, shy creatures with leathery-looking wings which should be frightening but which exude gentle appeal; the giant is properly repulsive.

Magic Carpet Books is an imprint of Harcourt Brace dedicated to preserving significant works of fantasy for children and young adults, and Are All the Giants Dead is a good choice. It's lively and fun and very original. Give this one to the fairy tale fanatic in your household.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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