Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk

Maybe I should give middle-grade level books a bit of a rest for a while.  Sometimes I feel overloaded with a particular age range and have to read something completely different in order to shake everything back into place.

Jack: The True Story of Jack and the Beanstalk is by no means a bad book.  It's a very competent book.  But I didn't feel like it was something extraordinary.

Caveat: I have not read Rump by the same author, but it's been on my radar ever since I saw Liesl Shurtliff on a panel at ALA a few years ago when Rump was a debut.  I still plan on reading it.

Perhaps it's just that I am old and cranky and jaded and prone to complaining about my sciatica (it's true! I yammer about it on Twitter all the time!), but Jack didn't excite me.  I didn't say to myself, "Wow, this is exceedingly clever!"  I just kept checking to see if I was done yet, as if this were a particularly long road trip with periodic interesting stopping points along the way.

Fundamentally, this is a pretty solid book.  However, if you've read other fairy-tale retellings, it's hard not to compare them all.  Jack comes across as being very safe when it comes to a retelling.  Simply making the bad guys into mostly good guys isn't a new idea--in fact, most children's picture book fairy-tale retellings use this strategy.

In this magical kingdom, Jack is a rather irritating rapscallion.  He enjoys pulling pranks but doesn't understand how they can be hurtful.  Personally, I found him to be a jerk and did not sympathize with his litany of excuses.  Probably because I've lived with a brother who also has an excuse for everything as to why it's never his fault.

Jack is rather infamous in his village, so when an elderly woman's squash patch up and disappears, he is, of course, the prime suspect.  A wandering tinker explains that it's the giants who've taken the field, but all of the adults, being stubbornly rational, refuse to believe this.  Until the giants show up and kidnap almost everyone, including Jack's father.

I really did enjoy the relationship between Jack and his dad.  Too often in children's literature, dads are the bad guys or the useless parent.  Jack obviously loves and respects his dad and would do anything to save him.  That's a rare thing to find in a kids' book.

From here, Jack pulls his infamous cow-for-the-beans stunt, and whoomp! There it is!  The huge beanstalk up to the clouds where the giant-land sits.  And this is when everything started to drag for me, when it really should have sped up.

Jack bounces from one situation to the next without any real direction.  First he's "adopted" by a giantess and joins Tom Thumb as her "son."  Then they ride rats.  Then they milk cows.  Then his sister shows up and they end up in a swamp with giant frogs.  Then they go back to the giantess.  Then Jack ends up almost being eaten by the King, King Barf.  Back and forth and back and forth.

The ending was ... fine.  I must have a particularly hard and jaded heart, because this didn't move me at all.  It might be because we (the collective reading consciousness) already understand that Jack (any Jack, in Fairy Tale Land; see also Jack of Fables and A Tale Dark and Grimm) is a rascal.  There's no real change made to his character.  Conversely, Rumpelstiltskin is always seen as a villain, so switching up his story would probably be more interesting.

Shurtliff is a very good writer, but I think the whole thing was a bit hamstrung from the beginning because it still follows the original story rather closely.  She just adds a bunch more magical creatures.


  1. Actually, someone DID retell the Rimpelstiltskin story in an interesting way, in a short story - Jane Yolen, I recall. Her author's note made the very good point that in the fairytLe the only person who kept his word was Rumpelstiltskin.

  2. Sorry for the typos! Anyway, Jane Yolen's story took place in Poland. The "dwarf" is reimagined as. Jewish moneylender who feels sorry for the girl whose father had boasted she could do brilliant tapestries; he arranges to buy some for her to present to her nobleman husband as her own. When his wife not unreasonably asks for the loan to be repaid, the girl screams that the evil Jew wants to take her baby and the poor man is killed.

    1. I'll have to check that one out! That is a very good point about ol' Rump.

      I just remembered The Rumplestilkskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde, too. That one was hysterical.


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