Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Clever Wife

The Clever Wife
from the collection Three Gay Tales From Grimm
translated and illustrated by Wanda Gag

Oh, how I love Wanda Gag.  I didn't always.  Before the kids were born, during my stint as a the wise children's bookseller - who had incidentally spent very little time reading aloud to children - I found her work to be a bit dull.  Frumpy.  I would call her art quaint, worthy of a tight smile, before passing her over in favor of something flashy and glossy.

But as a mother who has spent thousands of hours reading to my kids, I've altered my opinion.  Wanda Gag is pure gold.  She's not just one of those authors/illustrators kids are supposed to love.  The kids actually do love her.  Genuinely.  We first became acquainted with Gag's work, as I'm sure you did as well, through that funny, old tale Millions of Cats.  We have gone through two copies.  Pippi developed her counting chops on those kitties. 

Then about a week ago, we were in a new-to-me bookstore, Twice Told Tales (what a smorgasbord of oldies!) I came across this little lovely.  Before I found her name at the bottom, I recognized her art and became supremely excited. 

A few nights ago, I pulled the book from a stack and sat down with Pippi and began to read the first story, The Clever Wife.  For those of you who have not heard this particular Grimm tale, here's a brief synopsis.

Before Amelia Bedelia, before even the Peterkin family, there was Kotti, a rather dim wit.  Poor Friedel, her husband.  All he'd like is some grilled meat for his supper after a day of work in the fields. 

But the meat is raw, Friedel! wails young Kotti.  You must cook it, explains Friedel.  Just sprinkle it with salt and pepper, put it in a pan with some butter, then lay it in among the coal, and soon it will be roasted fine and brown.

What does Kotti do?  Well, she salts it, peppers it.  Drops it in the pan.  Then nestles the pan down among the cabbages scratching her head the whole time.  Having heard of the Irish dish, colecannon, a potato and cabbage chowder, I picked up on the humor pretty quickly.  Cole.  Coal. 

Pippi's at that age where she likes making jokes based on dual word meanings, so once she understood that cole was a sort of cabbage she was all kinds of tickled.  Especially when the dog comes along and eats up the meet, and Kotti cries,
A bad business!  Now Friedel won't have anything to eat.  But it's not my fault, that's certain - I did just as he said.
When Kotti relates to Friedel what has happened, Friedel chides her softly.  Oh Kotti, Kotti.  Kotti's response, repeated throughout the story, sounds so much like a pouting child-wife that a wheedling whine came so naturally in the reading.
Yes, Friedel, that I didn't know.  You should have told me not to do those things.
Then the peddlers come.  Friedel has hidden his gold away beneath the manger, forbidding his wife to touch the "yellow chips."  The peddlers display their wares, crockery bowls and pots and juts of red, yellow, brown and green and blue.  Kotti wants to help the poor guys along, so she offers the "yellow chips" in exchange.  But quick to obey her husband, Kotti says
Just go into the barn and dig around under the cow's manger.  There in a crock you'll find the yellow things.  As for me, I'm not allowed to go near them.
Surprise, surprise - the peddlers turn out to be thieves.  They leave the lot of the crockery and make off with the gold.  The kitchen being well stocked with all manner of cups and pots and jugs, Kotti knocks the bottoms out of all the pretty pots and such and sticks them on the fence posts all around the house.

Friedel is not amused.  At Kotti's suggestion, they pack up a supply of food and set off after the thieves hoping to retrieve their gold. 

I'll leave the rest for you to discover.  You must lay hands on a copy of these humorous tales.  If for no other reason than to watch your kids anticipate, with lots of giggles, Kotti's plaintive whine,
Yes, Friedel, that I didn't know.  You should have told me so before.
Pure gold.


  1. Ah, I recognize her name from Millions of Cats!

    The thing I love about reading folktales from around the world with my kiddos is seeing so many parallels among them, even from countries geographically distant from one another.

    BTW, I responded to your comment on my blog, but in case you don't have time to jump back over there, I'll sum up: "You are absolutely right about the impossibility of limiting it to ONE book." There were so so many I didn't include, and I even had to stretch our dinner game so I could vote for two! Hooray for wonderful picture books!

  2. I really identify with your account of how you came to appreciate Wanda Gag. That's exactly what happened to me! I'm very visually oriented and am always drawn to the books with spectacular illustrations. But when my kids would want certain books over and over again, even though the artwork was not Da Vinci, I would start to pay attention. Soon I loved those books for the words and the cadence. Not all books can have Garth-Williams-level artwork, but they can be magical anyway.

    I love your descriptions of your family's nourishing, enriching interactions with books.