Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies

"Even good mothers come to grief over such":
Jane Yolen's Good Griselle

Penny L. Richards
Research Scholar, UCLA Center for the Study of Women
author address
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E-mail: turley2@earthlink.net

Jane Yolen is one of the most prolific and honored American authors in children's literature. With more than 200 books published and many more in progress, it is perhaps inevitable that her works for children include disability themes. Some approach disability directly: The Seeing Stick (1977) features a blind Chinese princess who learns to "grow eyes on the tips of her fingers" with the help of an old wizard; The Mermaid's Three Wisdoms (1978) concerns a deaf girl who rejects sign language until she meets a mermaid who shows her that, underwater, speech is useless, and all the mer-people sign with fluid beauty. The Boy who had Wings (1974) is considered deformed by his herding village, until he saves his father during a snowstorm and becomes a hero. Other Yolen books are subtler in their messages about disability: The Sultan's Perfect Tree (1977) teaches that perfection means the end of growing. Greyling (1991) is about a seal-boy, a selchie, "a strange child with great grey eyes and silvery grey hair" who longs to return to the sea, a boy uniquely equipped to rescue his adoptive father in a storm. Good Griselle (1994) is among the more oblique of Yolen's works relevant to disability.

Yolen's Good Griselle (1994) is an original tale, but its setting "in old Paris, not far from a great cathedral" (3rd spread, right side), its rhythms, and the exceptional watercolor illustrations by David Christiana encourage the reader to experience this picture book as an old story, echoing themes of Job and the Nativity (Teaford 1999). Griselle is a kind and beautiful lacemaker, "neither widow or wife" (5th spread, right side) after her young husband is lost at war. Her habitual, all-weather devotion to stray cats and city birds comforts her through many years, and impresses even the stone angels in the cathedral. Annoyed by the angelic praise, the cathedral's gargoyles devise a bet on Christmas Eve: they will send a gargoyle child to torment Griselle, and challenge her kindness. "Even good mothers come to grief over such," they cackle (9th spread, right side). The stakes are high: If the gargoyles are right, the stone angels agree to squat on the cathedral's ledges, spouting water for a hundred years; if the angels are right, the gargoyle child will join the angels in "singing hosannahs to the heavens for one hundred years" (11th spread, left side).

The child appears naked on Griselle's doorstep on Christmas morning. His incessant "pitiful wail" (13th spread, right side) wakens Griselle, who discovers "the ugliest child she had ever seen. He was so ugly his eyes crossed, and his nose and chin threatened to meet in the middle. His ears stuck out of corn-colored hair like two horns. His teeth were nearly black." (13th spread, right side) Still, he calls her Mama, so she picks him up—and discovers he also smells like spoiled milk and feels "as heavy as a sin."(14th spread, left side) He pulls her hair, hard. Griselle's care is detailed: she combs his hair, wipes his nose, makes him clothing from her own wedding gown, and names him Beau—beautiful. She patiently teaches him to be gentle with animals and fair to other people. "Nothing he did made Griselle love him any less" (16th spread, left side).

Dismayed by their apparent defeat, the gargoyles send another being to Griselle's door. He looks like her handsome lost husband, also called Beau. "I am home, wife," he smiles. (18th spread, left side) This evil "husband" rejects the child. In the story's climax, Griselle rescues little Beau from the dashing stranger's cruelty, crying out, "Go away and leave me with my boy," (21st spread, right side) before closing the door on the soldier. From a sweet, content, humble woman, Griselle is transformed by love, into a fierce, assertive, insightful mother. The child (after Griselle's death) joins the ranks of the sweet, smiling angels in the cathedral, in fulfilment of the wager's terms; but he remains a gargoyle, immortally different in appearance and stature, "with slightly crossed eyes and with teeth almost black" (28th spread, left side).

Does all this skirt dangerously close to the ableist clichés of "God gives special children to special parents" (so mortals need not fear), or the positioning of the disabled child as a lesson to be learned, a trial to bear (Landsman 1998)? Is Beau just a pitiful successor to the birds and cats who were once the beneficiaries of Griselle's saintly charity? Griselle is, after all, "a purposely chosen recipient" (Landsman 1999, 142) and her generous response to Beau is monitored by supernatural beings as a measure of her true character. In lesser hands, the story might point to such trite and destructive conclusions. But in Yolen's hands, Good Griselle is better than this.

My son, Jake, is a little guy with spiky corn-colored hair, and funny ears, and bad teeth. He pulls hair, hard. Some days, I do think he is as heavy as a sin. And, of course, I think he is beautiful; in fact he closely resembles Beau in the illustrations of Good Griselle. In my years as Jake's mother, I have become impatient with simplistic narratives about the parent-child experience with disability. Well-meaning acquaintances press into my hands stories in which the child is miraculously cured by a parent's all-conquering love; or, less often, stories about how the parent does all the changing, while the disabled child remains inert, unaffected. In Good Griselle, Jane Yolen instead plots subtle mutual transformations that seem more like life: Griselle is a good woman before, and continues to grow in virtue, late in life; Beau can learn and respond to love without becoming a wholly different being. There is no magic healing, no Pinocchio or Scrooge moment, no false note. It is, at heart, the story of two socially marginal beings—a poor widow and an ugly child—finding a happy life together, confidently rejecting norms of appearance, behavior, and family structure (see Richards, forthcoming, on other "poor widow" stories about disability). For a simple tale that rests on the negotiations of cathedral angels and gargoyles, Good Griselle is remarkably real and complex in its emotional truths about beauty, love, motherhood, and disability.


Landsman, Gail H. 1998. "Reconstructing Motherhood in an Age of 'Perfect' Babies: Mothers of Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities," Signs 24(1): 69-99.

Landsman, Gail H. 1999. "Does God Give Special Kids to Special Parents? Personhood and the Child with Disabilities as Gift and Giver," in Transformative Motherhood: On Giving and Getting in a Consumer Culture, Linda L. Layne, ed. (NYU Press).

Richards, Penny L. Forthcoming. "'Beside her Sat her Idiot Child': Families and Developmental Disability in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," in Perpetual Children, Steven Noll and James Trent, eds., (NYU Press).

Teaford, Judy. A. 1999. "The Earthly and the Sacred United: Good versus Evil in Jane Yolen's Good Griselle," paper presented at the Modern Critical Approaches to Children's Literature Conference (courtesy of the author).

Yolen, Jane. 1994. Good Griselle. Harcourt Brace & Co.

----. 1991. Greyling. Philomel Books/Scholastic.

----. 1977. The Seeing Stick. T. Y. Crowell.

----. 1978. The Mermaid's Three Wisdoms. Philomel Books.

----. 1974. The Boy Who Had Wings. T. Y. Crowell.

----. 1977. The Sultan's Perfect Tree. Parents Magazine Press.

Biographical note:

Penny L. Richards is a Research Scholar with UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. She holds a PhD in Education (Social Foundations) from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and did postdoctoral work in the history of special education, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Her current research interests include the history of developmental disability, nineteenth-century immigration and family caregiving, and antebellum geographic education for girls.