You only think you know the story of the three billy goats who wanted to cross the bridge and the troll who tried to stop them. In The Three Billy Goats Gruff, acclaimed author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen create a wickedly funny retelling that breathes new life into the classic story. The author and illustrator chatted with BookPage about transforming oral tales into picture books, their many years of collaboration and the interior decorating habits of trolls.
This is your seventh picture book together. Typically, picture book authors and illustrators don’t work directly with each other. What are your collaborations like? Has the process changed?
Author Mac Barnett: Jon and I have been friends for 13 years now, and we still talk about picture books more than anything else. Like, it’s not even close. When we’re making a book together, it feels like an opportunity to continue that conversation, and in that way our books are documents of friendship and expressions of our mutual love for this art form.
Illustrator Jon Klassen: I don’t know if it’s changed much in terms of how we talk. We’ve always had this kind of creepy shorthand where we start sentences and the rest is understood.
Our collaboration does change a fair bit from book to book because we mix up how they come about pretty often. Sometimes we beat out a story together, then Mac writes it and then I draw it, and I go back to him for changes in the text to solve problems we hadn’t thought of initially. For this one, he’d written the text without me specifically in mind, so it was much more about treating the text as almost unchangeable. I think maybe there were one or two tweaks, but it wasn’t as much of a hands-on collaboration. But that’s very enjoyable too. I like constraints, and that’s a big one.
This is the first volume in what will be at least a trilogy of picture books that retell fairy tales. Why did you begin with “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”?
Barnett: Foremost on my mind was ensuring that the stories work as picture books. I wanted to create entertaining read-alouds that make good use of page turns and set up dynamic relationships between text and image.
It was a delicate but significant act of adaptation: Fairy tales began as an oral tradition and then were set down as straight prose (sometimes with decorative illustrations, which function way differently from the images in a picture book). Fairy tales are such crowd pleasers. Over countless retellings, these stories evolved to maximize reactions from groups of children sitting and listening.
Picture books work differently than any other form of storytelling. And “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” just made so much sense as a picture book—it’s such a visual story, and all about scale. I hope the adults who read this book to kids feel plugged into a centurieslong tradition of getting big laughs, huge groans and all sorts of yelps, squeals and ewws.
Klassen: This story is a tricky one to tell because a lot of times it’s included in some kind of anthology and it only gets one page and one illustration or something. But Mac understood that the pleasure in the story is in the page-turn reveals, and in drawing it all out and then doubling down over and over again when it gets to the part where the troll gets punished. The pacing of it is perfectly suited to a picture book, and Mac divided it up that way and got maximum impact out of the beats. It was a real pleasure to work over.
Mac, what well-known elements of the story did you want to preserve? Which ones did you want to play around with?
Barnett: In this story, I leave the original plot pretty much intact. I love revisionist storytelling and fractured fairy tales (The Stinky Cheese Man made me want to write picture books), but that’s not really what we’re up to here. This book feels more like how Jon and I would tell this story about a troll and some goats that we remember hearing as kids. That said, every telling of a fairy tale is a retelling, and I think this version feels very much our own.
In “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” the good guys don’t get much stage time. The goats file by, one by one, but we spend most of our time with the villain. So I wanted to give a little more sense of who this troll was and what he wanted, and I probably inevitably ended up sympathizing with him a bit.
I changed the ending too. Here’s the original text, as set down in the middle of the 19th century (translated from the Norwegian by D.L. Ashliman): “And then he flew at the troll, and poked his eyes out with his horns, and crushed him to bits, body and bones, and tossed him out into the cascade.”
For me, that doesn’t work in a picture book. It’s too violent. Mind you, I’d have no problem telling the story that way—out loud, without pictures—to a group of young kids. It works great without pictures! You can feel the storyteller stoking the crowd, getting squeals and screams, upping the ante. But as soon as you add pictures, it gets too gross. It breaks the spell. A famous Jon Klassen eyeball flying from its socket, a little optic nerve wiggling behind it? No thank you. We wanted to preserve the spirit of the ending—gratuitous, escalating, funny—and I like where we landed very much.
Jon, as you set out to illustrate this book, what scene were you most excited to bring to life?
Klassen: I really liked the beginning spread, where we first meet the troll. The illustration only takes up like a fifth of the page space and you barely see him. Book illustrations, for me, aren’t about single spreads and how great they can be; they are about consecutive storytelling and setting something up and hopefully paying it off. Even though, on its own, that first spread doesn’t show very much, it’s got a lot of tension and promise, and I like that a lot.
What was challenging about illustrating the goats and the troll? What was enjoyable?
Klassen: The goats were very fun because they are the straight men in this story. Their job is to play it cool and look at the troll like he’s ridiculous. From the start they’ve got a solid, coordinated plan to deal with him, and they’re never scared, so they get to be almost like statues of goats that move on- and offstage when the story tells them to, and that’s about it.
The troll took a minute to figure out. My first few stabs were a little too human. The main thing I wanted to keep about him was my impression, from illustrations of trolls when I was growing up, that they almost look like they’re part of the ground they inhabit. It’s not as much about the details or a specific anatomy as it is about them almost being hidden, and then you see their eyes in there somewhere.
Mac, the troll speaks mostly in rhyme, a technique you haven’t often employed. How did you arrive at this?
Barnett: I love poetry and poetic forms. I studied poetry and for a long time, well into college, I thought I might become a poet. Fairy tales often move from poetry to prose, so I thought it’d be fun to do that here. Jon’s staging of this story is very theatrical, and I think the troll’s poetry feels similarly performative: He’s chewing the scenery and really inhabiting his trollness . . . until it all breaks down.
We spend most of the book in one location: the bridge beneath which the troll lives. Jon, how did you decide what this would look like?
Klassen: When I first took on the book, I bought an old book on bridge design. I was all excited about doing it in this historical way, but then the more I sat with the story, the more it seemed like the right answer was actually a very, very simple bridge that was probably made by hand and maybe wasn’t even used by people anymore. The troll had claimed it long ago, and he’s not much on upkeep. Like the troll, the planks of the bridge almost merge with the ground, and they’ve got grass and vines growing on them. I wanted the wood to feel soft.
The troll’s decor started with the skull hanging from the bridge, and then I added some bones around him. The team at Scholastic liked this direction and kept embellishing on what else he’d have down there, so now we have some playing cards and a boot and an old can—just stuff that might’ve floated downriver at some point. I think there’s a lot of downtime under there between potential meals crossing the bridge.
What are your favorite illustrations in the book?
Klassen: My favorite is the page where all three goats are eating in the meadow near the end. They look safe and satisfied, and it’s just a really strong moment. The story is mainly about justice against this antagonistic force, which is simple enough, but the result ended up hitting me harder than I expected it to. I think it’s one of the better spreads Mac and I have done together in any of our books.
Barnett: He texted [that spread] to me as soon as he’d finished it, which he only does when he’s really excited about something, and it totally knocked me over.
One thing we do in this book is make the third goat ridiculously large. Most of the time, the progression of goats in this story goes small, medium, large. Sometimes you get an extra-large goat at the end. But we go small, medium, enormous—absolutely gargantuan, bigger than any goat in the history of picture books. We thought it would be funny.
Our version, like the original tale, ends with all the goats together, eating on the grassy ridge. And this picture is of three goats, one of whom is just ridiculously huge, enjoying a nice meal at sunset, completely at peace. And while the visual joke is still present, the image is so sweet and peaceful and moving. I cried when I saw it.
In a lot of our books together, Jon and I like to see what’s on the other side of a running gag. What do you find when you exhaust the joke, but still keep telling the story? The answer, often, is the sublime.
This book contains a litany of ways in which the troll dreams of preparing and eating goat. If you were a troll, what would be your favorite way to eat goat?
Klassen: I don’t think it’s a secret that neither Mac or I give too much thought to the overt lessons our books might teach, but if there is a lesson in here anywhere, it’s that we should probably lay off the goat-eating.
If you encountered a troll beneath a bridge you needed to cross, what would you do?
Klassen: I’d probably deliberate on the edge for a little while, then suddenly make a run for it across the bridge, be caught three steps in and eaten immediately.
Barnett: I’d try to sneak across while the troll is eating Jon.
Photo of Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen courtesy of Carson Ellis.