Ketteman, Helen. 2009. The Three Little Gators. Ill. by Will Terry. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman and Company. ISBN 9780807578247.
2. Plot Summary
In this variant of “The Three Little Pigs,” the reader meets three little gators setting out on their own. Warned to watch out for the “Big-bottomed Boar,” the first gator builds a house of stone, the second a house of sticks, and the third a house of sand. Soon the Big-bottomed Boar finds the third gator and smashes his house, seeking to eat the gator. The gator flees to the second gator’s stick house, but they soon face Big-Bottomed Boar a second time. Safely ensconced in the first gator’s strong stone house, the gators are finally safe from the Big-bottomed Boar, who is unable to bump the stone house down. The first gator then helps the others build stone houses for each of them to dwell in as well.
3. Critical Analysis
Helen Ketteman’s The Three Little Gators is a wonderful story that accurately reflects both the original tale and the East Texas culture in which the story is set. Set in an East Texas swamp, good characters are represented by three alligators, and the evil character is represented as the “Big-bottomed Boar.” These characters remain static throughout the story – the good guys stay good, the bad guys stay bad. While typically good stories demand dynamic characters, the simple nature of tales such as this necessitates boiling characters down into their archetypes and remaining true to that nature. Although few people like to view alligators as the good guys, the adorable illustrations help endear these little gators to readers, causing readers to become emotionally involved in their fate.
The theme of the dangers of laziness is subtly presented in The Three Little Gators, not hitting the reader over the head with its message, but implicitly understood. The stated reason the second and third gators did not originally build a stone house is that “rocks are heavy and too much work” (4) and “way too much work” (5). The third gator would not build out of sticks because “it’s still too hard” (6). Yet through their laziness and reluctance to put in the hard work necessary for a solid house, their houses were easily destroyed by Big-bottomed Boar. The unstated message for readers is that an unwillingness to do hard work will bring disaster to a person’s life.
The story’s excellent diction begs it to be read aloud. Rhyme plays a heavy role in creating the read-aloud quality, as does the frequent onomatopoeia. “Snurf, snurf! Short, snort! ‘Little gators, let me in. I smell three tender gator skins. Chasing you has made me thinner, I need three little gators for my dinner'” (22). Combined with Will Terry’s beautiful illustrations, this story is sure to have readers of ages laughing and cheering on the little gators.
I very much enjoyed that the story does not rely on Texas stereotypes. Having grown up in various parts of East Texas, including some swampy areas, I was pleasantly surprised to see the culture accurately reflected. The illustrations are true to life without being a specific place, and the slang words chosen are used correctly and non-ironically.
4. Review Excerpts
2011 Florida Reading Association Children’s Book Award (nominee)
2011 Washington Children’s Choice Picture Book (nominee)
From Horn Book Guide: “In this ‘Three Little Pigs’ takeoff, a “Big-bottomed Boar” is the bad guy, and three alligators prove that even in the swamp, nothing beats hard work and solid construction.”
From Booklist: “Loaded with plenty of outlandish action from the bug-eyed, cartoonish characters rendered in glimmering colors, this would make a rip-roaring group read-aloud.”
From School Library Journal: “Terry’s illustrations work well with the story. The colors are vibrant yet ominous and swampy. The textures are also wonderful, from the smoothness of gator hide and graininess of the swamp sand to the hairiness of the ugly boar.”
-Read along with a traditional telling of “The Three Little Pigs,” and then have students write their own variant based on where they grew up.
-Read as part of an animal unit
-In an art unit, provide a text-only version of the story; assign one page of text to each student for them to create their own illustrations. After completion, display the completed story around the room.
(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)