The Gruffalo

The Gruffalo – Reviewed by Susan Fry


The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson, pictures by Axel Scheffler

I often feel that my children run my life. I’m at their beck and call in the middle of the night, for example, and a tantrum can ruin the most anticipated vacation. And as for settling down with a book of my own? Please.

That’s why I have to remind myself that children, in their day-to-day lives, are largely powerless. They don’t get to decide where they live. They can’t choose their classmates. And they’re only four feet tall in a world of comparative giants.

No wonder my boys so love The Gruffalo. It’s a story of the underdog – or, rather, undermouse – triumphing against far larger creatures. The rhymes are just sing-songy and repetitive enough to appeal to kids’ inner poets, but not too drawn-out to become boring. And the gruffalo himself? He’s a colorful monster who prompts both gasps and giggles.

The story begins as the hero, a mouse, takes ‘“a stroll through the deep dark wood.”’ When a fox, with a sinister smile, invites the mouse for “lunch,” the mouse doesn’t quake with fear. Instead, he replies, ‘“It’s terribly kind of you, Fox, but no – I’m going to have lunch with a gruffalo.”’

The Fox, of course, has never heard of a gruffalo, so the mouse carefully describes him: ‘“He has terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.”’ When the mouse adds, ‘“and his favorite food is roasted fox!”’ the fox flees in fright.

The mouse has a good laugh and lets the reader in on his secret: ‘“Silly old Fox! Doesn’t he know? There’s no such thing as a gruffalo!”’

The clever mouse repeats his trick with an owl and a snake. Each time, he adds some new characteristics to his imaginary beast, from knobbly knees to purple prickles, that hit just the right note of scary-funny.

But just as the mouse thinks he’s safe, what does he encounter in the woods? An actual gruffalo, who also wants to have the mouse for lunch.

Once again, the intrepid mouse finds a way out. “’I’m the scariest creature in the deep dark woods,”’ he bluffs. ‘“Just walk behind me, and soon you’ll see.”

Sure enough, they encounter the same snake, owl, and fox, which all run away at the sight of the gruffalo. The mouse is quick to take advantage of the misunderstanding. ‘“But now,”’ he says, ‘“my tummy is starting to rumble, and my favorite food is . . . . gruffalo crumble!” And it’s the gruffalo’s turn to skedaddle.

I just hope my kids can be just as inventive against playground bullies.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.

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