Matt Tavares Books
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Magpies Magazine review of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK
E. Nesbit, ill. Matt Tavares, Walker Books, 0 7445 5798 4 $24.95 Hb

Printed versions of this old traditional tale have existed since at least 1734. The one probably best known in Australia or retellings of it is that used by Joseph Jacobs in English Fairy Tales as collected in this country about 1860. Here the gullible Jack sells his cow for a handful of beans which when thrown out of the window by his incensed mother germinate overnight into a beanstalk reaching the sky. At the top Jack is hidden by the ogre's wife, listens in to her husband's conversation and is able to steal his gold, his golden hen and his golden harp. It is in this version that the ogre repeats the well-known imprecation, beginning: Fee-fi-fo-fum/ I smell the blood of an Englishman. Jack escapes, chops down the beanstalk, the ogre falls down and breaks his crown, the beanstalk toppling after.
In 1908 Edith Nesbit published a collection of her retellings of fairy tales under the title The Old Nursery Tales. Included was this version of Jack and the Beanstalk. Nesbit added her own homely detail: Jack lives with his mother in a little cottage with dormer windows and green shutters that wouldn't shut because Jack had taken some of them to make a raft with. In many of the old tales Jack is a generic term for every boy. So this Jack is a good-natured fellow who fiddles with things, is a dreamer, is kind and considerate of his mother and is a would-be poet. Nevertheless poverty forces him to set out to sell the cow at market. Nesbit uses the conversational voice of a storyteller and often addresses the reader directly, I don't think I had better tell you what happened when he told his mother what he had done. As in all versions Jack climbs the beanstalk, the Tower of Babel; a world above our world archetype, and enters a realm that demands exploration. As in some ancient versions he encounters there a fairy who acts as a sort of guardian and who relates a tale that makes Jack's stealing of the giant's treasure merely reparation for former wrongdoing and present loutishness toward his wife. Consequently the old woman is more helpful to Jack than in most retellings. Missing is the 'Fee-fo-fum' refrain, to be replaced by a less terrifying Fresh meat today, my dear, I can smell it. But for all the added detail this tale is dramatic, convincing and gripping. It should pose no problem to children familiar with fantasy and speculative fiction.
What puts this publication, in my opinion, far above any other currently available is the beautifully wrought illustrations and the outstanding production. Picture editions such as this are works of art in their own right. Indeed the illustrations tell a parallel story in that Jack's home is not as described in the text but is more like a thatched stone barn; Jack himself is variously more reminiscent of a Tom Sawyer than a Jack the Giant Killer. The giant's wife is a bespectacled old English dame; and as Jack's fortunes increase he is less a peasant and more a dandy, in one frame at least. The astute reader can take delight in the pictorial sub-text. Be that as it may, the artwork is wonderfully designed and toned to create an utterly convincing and satisfying secondary world. This is a book to treasure and one 'for keeps'.
Maurice Saxby

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