When I was young my sister and I learned a camp song that goes like this:
Once upon a time in a
wee little village
there were three bears—cha, cha.
One was a papa bear and
one was a mama bear and
one was a wee bear—cha, cha.
One day they were walkin’
in the deep woods a-talkin’
when along, along,
along came a little girl
with golden curls
and upon the door she knocked…
Timeless, right? There are other fairy tales about thieves, but the only one that even comes close to getting this much page time is Jack and the Beanstalk, and Jack still can’t compete. So what’s the charm of this tale? Is it that inconsistent porridge? The bears and their chairs? Or simply the idea of getting away with something? Not to mention the repetition and cumulative effect of three trios of bowls, chairs, and beds, or the suspense when the bears come home and go up the stairs. I present to you some of the best renditions of this much-loved story, including several revisionist versions.
Perfect for Preschoolers
The Three Bears by Byron Barton
Barton’s style—both in words and in pictures—is very, very simple. This gives it strong appeal for 3- and 4-year-olds who might otherwise be confused. No surprise that this one is also available as a board book.
Catch the Classics
The Three Bears, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky (1948)
This Little Golden Book is what many parents and grandparents grew up with. Rojankovsky's illustrations easily stand the test of time. His Goldilocks looks like trouble, while his bears manage to look sweet and wild-eyed at the same time. The artwork is simple, surrounded by white backgrounds on most pages, but the strong textures and curves of the lines of furniture, stove, and bears are striking.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Paul Galdone (1972)
The late Paul Galdone and James Marshall are the dynamic duo of folktale illustration. In this book, Galdone’s text is particularly well done and reader-friendly. For example, he incorporates his introduction of each bear into the artwork, and he uses a different font size for each one: small, medium, and large, of course. When he tells us “They each had a chair to sit in,” there’s a wonderful illustration that shows the three bears sitting in a row on rustic chairs made of tree limbs, each one reading a book.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by James Marshall (1988)
James Marshall is good. Very, very good. He starts off: “Once there was a little girl called Goldilocks. ‘What a sweet child,’ said someone new in town. ‘That’s what you think,’ said a neighbor.” Later we get Goldilocks exploring the house in the wood and noticing “a lot of coarse brown fur everywhere. ‘They must have kitties,’ she said.” The illustrations are just as funny. Note that this book won a Caldecott Honor in 1989.
Goldie and the Three Bears by Diane Stanley
This Goldie “knew exactly what she liked.” We see her sitting in a restaurant holding a menu and saying, “I want plain pasta with just butter and no green things, please.” In a wholly fresh choice, Stanley’s baby bear is a girl. The porridge is sandwiches, the bears’ clothes look more 60’s than 1600’s, and a sleeping Goldie “dreams” the bears’ return before waking up completely.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Jan Brett
You’re probably familiar with this illustrator’s intricate style—often, as here, inspired by Scandinavian culture. Brett is particularly well known for her borders. This is the traditional story, beautifully illustrated. (Today’s factoid: Did you know Brett co-founded Reading Rainbow?)
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Caralyn Buehner, illustrated by Mark Buehner
The text is on the lengthy side and has a rhyming element that doesn’t quite work, but the book is a nice enough retelling. I like how Goldilocks carries a jump rope that makes it possible for her to wreak far more havoc.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Emma Chichester Clark
A cheery British version which begins like this: “Once upon a time, there was a family of bears: Mummy Bear, Daddy Bear, and Baby Bear. One morning, Mummy Bear said, “Bother! This porridge is much too hot!” The story has more dialogue than some of the others and the playful pastel illustrations are fresh—especially when Goldie’s (long) hair stands on end in the final pages.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Gennady Spirin
Sometimes it amazes me that this Russian illustrator’s lavish, Renaissance Russia-style artwork succeeds in children’s books, but it does. The lushness of the bears’ costumes and furniture is set off by stark white backgrounds, and Spirin’s text is nicely concise.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, retold by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
McClintock gives Brett a run for her money when it comes to intricacy. And then there’s this illustrator’s preferred nineteenth-century setting. We’re told Goldilocks “sometimes forgot to do things that her mother told her to do,” and this point is raised here and there as the story progresses, concluding as a moral. McClintock’s bears and their young intruder have near-theatrical facial expressions. I especially like the spread that shows the bears tiptoeing up the stairs with obvious trepidation—even big Papa Bear looks anxious.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Valeri Gorbachev
Can I just say I love this book? As our story begins, Father Bear is playing the violin, Mother Bear is reading a book, and Baby Bear is sneaking cookies. These illustrations are homey and appealing, and the text is simple and clear enough to work just fine with the 3-to-5 crowd.
The 3 Bears and Goldilocks by Margaret Willey, illustrated by Heather M. Solomon
Willey and Solomon do interesting things with the story, positing a bears’ house that is closer to what real bears would have in the wild. Instead of being one of those cottages you usually see, this is a rough, dome-shaped home with piles of leaves inside and beetles and grubs in the porridge. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting bears, Goldilocks is a dab hand at sweeping up.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Gerda Muller
European retro is the look in this lovely version by Dutch illustrator Gerda Muller. Apparently Goldilocks lives in a circus caravan and is curious about actual houses. All of the backgrounds in the book are a light brown color, giving it a cozy feel. Many different things in the book come in threes, each set having a big, medium, and small size. Muller also color-codes the bowls, chairs, and beds. Yet these touches do not distract from the story.
Dusty Locks and the Three Bears by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Randy Cecil
I was a little dubious about this one, but turns out it’s a real hoedown of a book. Young Dusty Locks is a dirty, cowboy boot-wearing child living “Once upon a time, way out West” (think Pigpen from Peanuts). And here’s how Lowell describes her bears: “One was a little bitty bear cub, just knee-high to a bumblebee. One was a mild-mannered middle-size mama. And one was a great big humpbacked grizzly, nine feet tall and cross as two sticks.” You’ll find beans in the bowls instead of porridge.
Goldilocks and Just One Bear by Leigh Hodgkinson
A bear gets lost in the big city and takes refuge in Snooty Towers, where he makes himself at home in a fancy apartment and proceeds to follow the Three Bears script. Watch for the visual humor: as the bear tastes the three “bowls of porridge,” we see that the first one is a fishbowl, the second is the food in a dog dish, and the third is toast on a plate. The bear finds the porridge soggy, crunchy, and dry for some reason. The chairs are even better, and wait till you see who lives in this snazzy place.
Goldilocks Returns by Lisa Campbell Ernst
Goldilocks is all grown up and running a lock and home security shop in Ernst’s sequel. Still feeling bad about the bears, Goldi decides to go back and make things right—by installing new locks and redecorating a bit, for example. Still clueless after all these years! There’s a nice twist at the end of the book.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale Moderne by Steven Guarnaccia
The author of The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale gives us modern design furniture in this very hip tale. The house is a split-level and Daddy Bear looks like a beat poet. This kind of book seems to be more for grown-ups than children, but how very cool it is. The furniture in the illustrations is identified by designer on the endpapers. I should mention that the storytelling is traditional; it’s the art that gives it a twist.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the 33 Bears and the Bliim and the Furniture OR The Goldilocks Variations: Who’s Been Snopperink in My Woodootog? by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg
We’re talking nutty, over-the-top British humor. This one’s for 5- to 7-year-olds because it’s fairly complicated and wordy. Also funny, funny, funny. There are seven versions of the story here, including one that’s a play, one in which the furniture talks, and one with space aliens. The book also has moving parts. (Note: This Goldilocks inspired today’s post.)
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems
A nice new spoof of the story. I especially like the way the dinosaurs are being ever so sneaky. It could have used a better last line, I think, but this one’s still a keeper. See my review here (scroll down).
Tackylocks and the Three Bears by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
Tacky the penguin is a unique character, weird and inclined not to get what’s going on, but nevertheless likable. This is partly because he’s pleasant and cheerful, but also because, unlike the rest of us, he’s utterly lacking in self-consciousness and self-doubt. In this story he draws the Goldilocks role out of the casting bowl, which is funny in and of itself. But goofy as Tacky looks in his costume, I was more amused by the way his buddies look in their bear hoods, which have ears on top, of course. A rowdy audience and Tacky’s approach to playing the part—or snoozing, as the case may be—make this deliberately ditzy book an icy delight.
The Three Snow Bears by Jan Brett
Brett told the story in traditional style in 1992, but she reimagined it with polar bears in 2007. This time a little Inuit girl named Aloo-ki loses her sled dogs and finds an igloo. All of the characters are arctic animals except Aloo-ki, all dressed in heavy sweaters. You don’t often see an author tell the same story again (Robin McKinley aside), but this version really is fresh and worthwhile.
I could go on… Ruth Sanderson has a version, Jump at the Sun did an African-American version illustrated by John Kurtz, and Lauren Child did a version with dolls. There’s even one told in Signed English (Harry Bornstein) and a special needs version in which Baby Bear “uses a wheelchair, goes to physical therapy, and ultimately makes friends with Goldilocks” (Rolling Along with Goldilocks and the Three Bears). If you look up the story title on Amazon, you will find 110 pages! I kid you not. There’s just something about the tale of a little blonde housebreaker and three put-upon bears that calls out to storytellers—and to 4- to 6-year-olds, who will want to hear it over and over again.
So how do you decide which one to read to your child? You can’t go wrong with the classics—James Marshall’s and Paul Galdone’s books are both marvelous, though I think Marshall’s bears may be less intimidating for very young readers. My own new favorite for how the bears are depicted is Valeri Gorbachev’s version. For comedy, look to Lowell’s regional retelling, Hodgkinson’s high-rise rendering, Willems’ conniving crew of dinosaurs, James Marshall’s sly take on the tale, and Helen Lester’s penguin theatrics. Of course, if you like complicated British humor, Allan Ahlberg’s your guy.
Challenged to pick just three of these books, I’d go with Marshall’s, Gorbachev’s, and Ahlberg’s versions. But you have so many great choices!
Note: The illustration at the top of the post is by Emma Chichester Clark and the one at the bottom is by Gerda Muller.
Note: The illustration at the top of the post is by Emma Chichester Clark and the one at the bottom is by Gerda Muller.