Between the two of them, friends and frequent picture book collaborators Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen have a number of Caldecott Medals, Honors, international awards, and bestsellers to their names, both independently and jointly. Now, the duo has teamed up for The Three Billy Goats Gruff, the first in a new collection of fractured fairy tales, set to launch in October from Scholastic’s Orchard Books imprint. PW has the exclusive cover reveal, along with the titles of the next two books in the Fairy Tale series, both retold by Barnett in his signature sly style: Rumpelstiltskin and Hansel & Gretel. We asked Barnett and Klassen to interview each other about the impetus for the series, and their process of transforming this time-honored tale into a picture book.

MAC: hiiiii jon

JON: oh hi Mac! Didn’t see you there!

MAC: It is wonderful to be chatting with you today about our new picture book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, on an undisclosed messaging platform

MAC: (hey Apple, no free shoutouts! sponsor Publishers Weekly!)

JON: Yes.

JON: yes.

MAC: I guess this is also a cover reveal, so… feast your eyes on that cover!

MAC: It really is a nice cover, Jon.

JON: Thank you. I’m fond of it also.

JON: Is it kind of what you pictured when you started on this journey of fairy tale books?

JON: Or is it better.

MAC: Wow it is way better.

JON: Cool.

MAC: It is exciting to see a fairy tale book with my name on the cover.

MAC: And it’s also nice to see your name on the cover, next to mine.

JON: Yeah, not even below it, this time. Right alongside.

MAC: So! A little behind the scenes information for readers:


MAC: I did not originally come up with the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Turns out it’s a fairy tale from Norway that’s hundreds of years old.

JON: But this seems like where it was always headed. This is where the ancient Norwegians hoped it would one day be. With us.

MAC: Yes. I like to picture them in their… longships?… thinking of us.

JON: Sure.

JON: Mac, your skill and breadth as a writer seems like you are perfectly suited to giving us new versions of these classic stories. What is it about the fairy tale that still excites you, and what do you think makes this story particularly suited to the picture book format?

MAC: Wow that question was surprisingly cogent and complimentary.

JON: Thank you.

MAC: I’ve loved fairy tales ever since I was a little kid. I had a bunch of fairy tale treasuries, and they were my favorite bedtime stories. I was also a kid who lived inside his own head, and the imaginative world I made up for myself was mostly fairy tale stuff.

MAC: I’d actually been thinking about doing fairy tale retellings for many years, although I’d never brought the idea to a publisher or anything. I think I was afraid. But then Liza Baker, my editor at Scholastic, took me to lunch one day and asked me if I would ever possibly maybe consider writing some picture book retellings of fairy tales.

MAC: I couldn’t believe it.

MAC: It was like something out of…

JON: yes

MAC: wait for it...

JON: ok

MAC: a fairy tale.

JON: ok.

MAC: Liza and I both got pretty excited, and decided we’d start with three books.



MAC: And so the next step was to spend a few months reading fairy tales and picking which ones to tell. I had a short list of about 12, which I guess is kind of a long list, but ultimately settled on Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, and The Three Billy Goats Gruff.

MAC: I was drawn to each one for different reasons. But it was important to me with this project to really make sure that I was telling all these stories as picture books. And I think it’s important to note that fairy tales weren’t meant to be picture books. They started as an oral tradition, and then were set down as straight prose. I wanted to make sure these new versions took advantage of the picture book’s unique storytelling capabilities: page turns, e.g., and a dynamic relationship between text and image.

MAC: The Three Billy Goats Gruff has such a strong visual premise. Maybe more than any other story I considered, this one begs to be a picture book. The whole thing is about size and scale.

MAC: Small, medium, large.

JON: Right, exactly, that’s why I liked it too!

JON: I’d seen the story before, of course, but the versions I remembered were usually one page in a collection.

JON: So the build-up was always kind of spoiled because you’d only get one or two images.

JON: And you’d get them right away, before you even read anything.

JON: And what you did here, in your text, was say “no this is actually kind of a joke with a punchline, and we can tell it properly this way.”

MAC: Right! By breaking the story across page turns, there’s a satisfaction to watching these goats grow. And by waiting till the end to show the oldest Goat Gruff, there was an opportunity to really milk the punchline for everything it’s worth.

MAC: (btw that was not a goat milk pun)

JON: (gross)

MAC: So not to spoil anything here…

MAC: but I think we can safely say that our version of this story has the largest goat in the history of children’s literature.

JON: I mean, I tried.

JON: The interesting thing about this, thinking about what you said earlier, is that The Three Billy Goats Gruff was actually probably one of the more fun ones to tell in its oral format too, right? The person around the fire pausing for effect, and saying like “and then, the BIGGEST GOAT YOU EVER SAW...”

JON: where it doesn’t work great is the middle format, the one-pager.

MAC: Right, a one-pager with a picture of three goats sitting right next to it.

JON: yeah. And the biggest one only sort of big.

MAC: Our goat is huge.

MAC: In The Three Billy Goats Gruff, as soon as the first goat sets the plan in motion, the audience knows what’s coming. The art is in the telling, rewarding readers' expectations, and, hopefully, upending some of them too.

JON: Right, that was the other hook for me on this job: the extra punishment you give the troll at the end. I think we said at one point that about half the story is just about punishing this troll, and that’s the pleasure of it, and I’ve never seen a version of this story acknowledge that as hard as you do here.

MAC: Yeah, this was a tricky part of this adaptation, but I felt it was important to preserve the spirit of this story’s ending. In the “original version”—set down in the 19th century, fresh from the oral tradition—the troll gets an incredibly violent comeuppance, one that would work beautifully out loud, told around a campfire, where you’re deliberately grossing a bunch of kids out.

MAC: But it wouldn’t fly in a picture book.

JON: I don’t know how to draw that stuff anyway.

MAC: The troll’s eyes pop out.

MAC: He’s “crushed to bit, body and bones.”

MAC: I don’t want to see that.

JON: no.

JON: But you can understand the impulse. You gotta give em something. They’ve been waiting for three whole goats’ worth of time.

MAC: Yes! That was the trick. How can we be as delightfully gratuitous as the original, without making you draw popped-out eyeballs?

JON: I think the delayed gratification was my other attraction to it, illustration-wise. This story does require patience, and the “camera” on the story is not an energetic one.

JON: I like that it’s a set piece. Fairy tales aren’t usually set pieces, they usually go all over the place, but this was one bridge, one gully, and that’s it. I almost didn’t have to show where the goats were headed to (though I did, and that ended up being my favorite spread). Also we did something design-wise, with kind of a rising curtain throughout the book, that goes up as the goats get bigger. The whole Scholastic team really helped me dial that part in and it’s really fun and new, I think.

MAC: While we’re on the subject of your illustrations…

MAC: I really like the way you drew everybody’s fur in this one!

JON: Hahaha oh thanks! Yeah I usually steer clear of fur, but I kind of needed it to show how truly big the big goat was. If everyone was solid, you wouldn’t feel that as much, but with fur on him you’re (hopefully) like “oh he’s pretty big.”

JON: also trolls have hair. They’re gross like that.

MAC: Speaking of the troll, that’s another interesting thing about this story: The protagonists shuffle on and off the stage very quickly. The real star, the character we spend time with, the one we really get to know, is the villain.

JON: Right, and I think you do kind of feel for him because of that, just because you’re there with him. But you’re also really glad to see him get rammed by a goat. We’re full of contradictions, as an audience, on this one.

MAC: I love that about fairy tales. They’re simple stories that go to deep and messy places fast.

JON: Super fast, if the goat that hits you is big enough.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff retold by Mac Barnett, illus. by Jon Klassen. Orchard, $18.99 Oct. 18 ISBN 978-1-338-67384-5