Sometimes magnificent little confections appear before me in bookshops. I am powerless to resist, and really, I have no interest in resistance, as my teetering bookshelves can attest. If it’s good, I’ll buy it. Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray is such a book. Modest in size and colour (red, white, black), it is the very embodiment of simplicity, and yet Little Red Hood packs a punch in several unexpected ways.

Little Red Hood Wolf looming over girlThe story of the red-hooded waif and the trickster wolf with the insatiable appetite for little girls and grannies is a familiar one, although the resolution varies greatly between the various translations. In the Perreault version, the grandmother outwits the wolf. In Grimm’s Little Red Cap, the wolf is split open by the huntsman. In Bugs Bunny, Little Red Riding Hood is so obnoxious, Bugs and the wolf conspire to end their misery. And so on. Very rarely does the wolf triumph, but then, neither does the girl, other than having her life spared. She is always (with the exception of Bugs) rescued. In Little Red Hood, the girl is her own hero, outwitting the wolf, thus saving her self from his exceptionally long and toothy snout. Commenting on his bad breath, the girl offers the wolf a sweet, but not just any sweet. Suffice to say, there is no end to this girls’ resourcefulness.

Scribbles in pencil and a few lines in ink belie the complexity of the drawings. Leray knows exactly what she’s doing with her tools; every mark is exquisitely placed. White space dominates, focusing the humour and allowing the cherry-red colour to pop. With an economy of detail, Leray distills the figures of the wolf and the girl to their very essence. The highly expressive wolf is like a shadow of himself, late in the day: elongated, skinny, undefined (except the teeth.) The girl, on the other hand, is a tiny, be-hooded wonder. With no eyes, and a single line for each of her arms and legs, Little Red Hood’s movements are modest and ever so sweet, radiating innocence. Make no mistake. The girl is playing the wolf, and it is he that will pay the price for gullibility.

Little Red Hood in wolf's mouth

Little girls outwitting foes in children’s picture books is subject I have not studied in depth, but have noted in my meandering journeys through the literature. The Paperbag Princess (Munsch) and The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (Saunders/Smith) are superb examples of girls taking matters into their own hands, but few others come to mind. There is a definite gender imbalance in hero stories at this age level, which is why a book like Little Red Hood stands out, but Leray delivers her subtle but unmistakable message with delicious wit and artistry. Like the wolf, we didn’t even see it coming…

Little Red Hood girl sitting downMarjolaine Leray was born in 1984 in a small village in the Loire-Atlantique. She moved to Paris and studied visual communication at the Duperré School of Art and is now a graphic designer.

Little Red Hood by Marjolaine Leray. Published by Phoenix Yard Books, 2013