Thirty years ago, I bought the First Edition of Heckedy Peg, a children's picture book written by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Don Wood. In those thirty years, thousands of books have come and gone at my house. One constant has been Heckedy Peg. This book is a keeper! In celebration of its 30th anniversary, I'd like to share one of my favorite picture books with you.
Heckedy Peg follows one of the classic fairy tale formats. A stalwart, single mother with seven children raises them to be strong and independent. One day she leaves them to go to town and shop. The mother tells the children that she will buy each of them an item of their choice. The children tell her what they want. Before she leaves, she warns them to keep the door closed and to leave the fire alone.
When their mother is gone, the children play throughout the house. A wicked witch named Heckedy Peg comes to the door. She wants into the house. The children refuse. The witch uses the children's kind impulses to trick her way into the house. Once in, she turns the children into food, packs them into a basket, and takes them to her house.
The mother comes home to an empty house. A little birdie lets her know what happened to the children. Determined to save her children, she sets out for the witch's house. Banging on the door, the mother demands entry, and she tricks her way in. Shown the foods on the table, the witch challenges the mother to identify her children. If she fails to do so correctly, the witch will eat them. The mother rises to the challenge and the witch runs away, chased by mother and children. The witch jumps off of a bridge into a stream and is never seen again.
This is a classic fairy story, so what sets it apart? Audrey Wood's vibrant prose and compelling storytelling makes this more than just another story book. Her dialogue is crisp and believable. The characters are authentic. These children are kids who do what kids do, when adults aren't around. The mother is loving, brave, and determined. Heckedy Peg is a monstrous wicked witch. The narrative paints a picture with words.
The physical pictures by Don Wood, that support the writing, are fine works of art. These paintings of the home are dark, as you would expect in a cottage without electricity. However, the figures are luminous. Don Wood knows how to paint vivid facial expressions on the characters.
Most of the art work is glorious, but I have my favorites. There are three paintings that I want to point out. After the mother leaves to go shopping, the children play in the house. Their faces are full of mischief. Bubbles from the dish-pan fly through the air, and children are hanging out everywhere. The playfulness is tangible. Another gorgeous painting is the double-page spread when the children have burning sticks to light the witch's pipe. The excited intensity on each of the children's faces, as they make light trails with their sticks, is a magical moment in the history of picture books. This painting is so evocative. The children are stunningly happy. On the next illustration they are just stunned. Ghostly, translucent children with horrified expressions are being transformed into items of food.
Any of the full page pictures with the mother, children, or witch are magnificent. The ones that depict the countryside are less so. Perhaps, without the juxtaposition to the full-page pictures, they would be fine, since the art work is good. However, the landscapes suffer in comparison to the pictures of the characters. The pictures of the characters are layered and nuanced, while the landscape pictures seem almost cartoonish. They are good art, but the landscapes would have been more comfortable in another book.
While this book has won numerous awards, that isn't why I adore it. Heckedy Peg will always have a place on my bookshelf. It is a book that has given me pleasure for the 30 years that I have read and re-read it. The melding of Audrey Wood's words and the paintings of Don Wood make a compelling picture book that is a treat for all ages. Young readers love the story and enjoy the pictures of the characters, especially the children. There is a lot going on in each picture, and kids like to discover the nuances. Adults appreciate the carefully crafted writing and the magnificent pictures. Heckedy Peg is everything that a picture book should be, and I recommend it highly.
This Amazon link has a preview, where you can look inside of the book. The preview shows some of the artwork. It can give you an idea of the beauty of this book, although the preview photos of the pages lose some detail and richness that is evident in the book's artwork.
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