Donna Jo Napoli,
Crazy Jack
(Delacorte, 1999)

On the surface, Crazy Jack is just a retelling of "Jack & the Beanstalk," with some of the extremities of the story smoothed out and a pleasant rural English atmosphere.

However, the subtleties of this story are incredible -- from the disturbing portrayal of Jack's loving parents as the giant and his mistress in the distorted reality of their house in the clouds, to the myriad delicate touches that truly flesh out the tale. Donna Jo Napoli is excellent at creating a realistic rural environment -- it adeptly avoids being stiffly historical and instead is vibrantly alive. Equally masterful is the theme of the three things necessary to be happy -- food on the table, a roof over their heads and -- the most important one, forgotten by Jack's father -- each other.

The gifts stolen from the giant each time fulfill each in order. Though the hen no longer lays golden eggs, Jack discovers the value of real ones; though the basket is no longer of gold, Jack recognizes the value of stones, and though the harp no longer sings on its own, Jack finds he can learn to play it and win the third part of happiness. The beanstalk becomes a symbol of Jack's grief and guilt towards his father's death, and in the end, Jack must destroy it himself.

Crazy Jack is superficially a children's book, with its small number of pages, but it is the incredibly subtle adult themes running through it that make it a profound and beautiful tale. Napoli's other retellings -- The Magic Circle, Zel, Spinners and Sirena are also recommended.

by Jennifer Mo
31 December 2005

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