It is probably obvious from the title that The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a collection of alternative versions of traditional fairy tales. Author Jon Scieszka offers “Cinderumpelstiltskin”, “The Tortoise and the Hair”, “The Princess and the Bowling Ball” and “Jack’s Bean Problem” to name but a few. “The Stinky Cheese Man” of the title is an alternative to “The Gingerbread Man”, but the cheese man smells so dreadful that nobody wants to chase him.
The title page has the words “Title Page” set in huge letters, and on the next page the dedication is printed upside-down. The reader is clearly in for an off-beat ride. “Chicken Licken” opens the collection of stories, but this time it isn’t the sky that is falling down: it’s the Table of Contents, and it squashes all the characters. “The Really Ugly Duckling” doesn’t grow into a beautiful swan but a really ugly duck; Scieszka tells it like it is. The heroine in “Little Red Running Shorts” arrives at granny’s house before the wolf. When he finally knocks on the door, her response is “My, what slow feet you have.” End of story.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a wonderful, imaginative picture book. Those who like their traditional fairy tales untainted will have to steer clear of this collection. On the other hand, anyone tired of the same old stories that often don’t seem to have much logic to them will welcome Scieszka’s creative twists on children’s tales. Characters from different stories interact with each other and sometimes intrude in each other’s tales. Little Red Hen doesn’t get to eat the bread she has so painstakingly made because the giant from “Jack’s Bean Problem” decides he would like it for himself.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales contains more than the average amount of text for a picture book. An adult reading aloud to a child could of course read just one or two stories at a time rather than the whole collection. The size of the font varies considerably, but it is very clear. One exception is “Jack’s Story,” where the narrative is repeated several times and the font becomes smaller each time. “Giant Story” is a collage of short phrases in a variety of different fonts, but it is extremely short. This is not just a read-aloud book, however; it would be suitable for confident independent readers, possibly up to the age of eleven. If the off-beat humour appeals, a child will lap it up.
Lane Smith’s illustrations for “The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales” are superb. He creates characters that are pure fantasy and totally appropriate for these alternative stories. Expressions are exaggerated while colours are subtle. The illustration accompanying “Giant Story” is itself a collage, with a surreal man emerging from Aladdin’s lamp. The background is made up of a collection of tiny illustrations of characters or images from various traditional tales that children could have great fun trying to identify. Smith’s work may not appeal to the youngest children, but older children and adult readers will more than likely find his illustrations inspiring and highly creative.
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a book that children will probably either love or hate. Four is probably the right age to try it as a read-aloud book; children younger than that are unlikely to understand the humour and would probably rather hear the traditional fairy tales. Families who are looking for an unusual book with original twists on stories they have heard before will find plenty of amusement in this collection. Reluctant readers up to the age of eleven could easily be encouraged by the off-beat humour and the creative illustrations. If it does appeal, it is likely to do so for a number of years, as it is more than just a read-aloud picture book.
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