The Importance of Ophelia

As a Picture Book Month Ambassador I was invited to write an essay explaining why picture books are important to me –and how they can change the lives of child readers.

I chose to talk about my favorite book from childhood

The Story of Ophelia by Mary Gibbons and Evaline Ness. The straightforward prose is long by today’s standards, but tells the story clearly. What I found most thrilling were the pictures of the one-eyed, ravening fox. Those really scared me, and seeing Ophelia survive his attack and prevail were very satisfying to good little  girl me.

Please enjoy my essay and tune in every day during PiBoMo this November to read the essays by the other ambassadors.


Once upon a time I was a good little girl and picture books helped me express my inner, rather blood thirsty heroine.

Whenever I hear an editor or art director caution “ You can’t say/show this or that—that’ll give children the wrong idea. They’ll want to try it themselves,” my favorite childhood  book: The Story of Ophelia, by Mary Gibbons and illustrated by Evaline Ness, comes to mind.

As a child I identified completely with Ophelia: a skinny, rebellious little lamb, with six, fat, goody-two-shoes lamb siblings and a wise, tolerant sheep of a mother.



When cautioned not to, Ophelia disobeys, enters the dark woods, is chased by the hungry fox, and with the help of the friends she made outside of the sheep paddock, escapes the fox. He is killed by a big bird right there on the page—a thing that never happens anymore in picture books. And surprise-she is not scolded for being naughty. Instead, she is rewarded with 4 new, red socks and a reputation as a fox killer!


Adults devour thrillers and adventure stories, and, if I was typical, so do little children. I craved that large, heroic, adventurous life that was nothing like my own, and, at various ages, I found it in stories as varied as Blueberries for Sal, Puss in Boots, and The Little Red Lighthouse and the Big Gray Bridge.


Picture books give young children a safe taste of other worlds: travel to distant lands, peeks into the past, or future, and the satisfaction being able to find their heroic self in a book. Through Ophelia, a human/animal character, or as I call her a ‘humanal,” I had a vicarious adventure that was far more exciting and life threatening than anything I’d ever experienced.


Please comment and tell me the book that most influenced YOU as a child.

If you enjoyed this post, please  follow me here: Ashley Wolff Art on Facebook, my webpage , my Etsy shop, or Instagram. You can follow the blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at the top of the sidebar. 

7 thoughts on “The Importance of Ophelia

  1. Katharine says:

    Hi, Ashley. Your story reminds me of the struggle Maurice Sendak fought with his editors: apparently, finishing up ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ with the phrase, “… and it was still hot,” was too violent. His dang dinner was supposed to be warm after all the adventures and teeth-gnashing he’d experienced. I love the wrath and frustration Max expresses and experiences, and Sendak knew that too. Just like your friend sheep wanted to rip that wretched fox to pieces. That’s how little kids and the rest of us human beings think sometimes. (I’ll refrain from retelling my current personal frustrations and leave it there.) Thanks for sharing. 8) KVN


    • I’m sure I am not the only one who has experienced this kind of subtle and overt editing–so much so that now I fear I internalize it nearly subconsciously. I’m glad it resonated for you.


  2. Rose Hale says:

    In my mid 60’s. My grandmother was in and out of sanatoriums for the mentally ill when I was a child and had attempted suicide several times. My mother used to visit her several times a week. On a few rare occasions my mother would bring small gifts back to me from my grandmother. As I was only 4 or 5 I imagined she was in a nice hotel type setting with a huge store where she could pick out special gifts for me One of the few gifts I received was this very memorable book. Without a doubt my favorite childhood book. I took it outside with me to sit on the front stoop to read, I placed it in bed with me in the event I woke up I would have my precious book, and if I rode in the car, OPHELIA was by my side. We moved a few years later and somehow my book was missing. (I suspect my mother read the book and took it away though I’m not sure thuugh I DID start receiving children’s books in the mail written by some Doctor or another (attempt at humour) ).
    I HAVE looked for a copy of my sweet book but to no avail, especially all that I could remember of the title was OPHELIA. I was delighted to see your thoughts on the book.
    Now my next task is to actually find the book and purchase a copy to cherish with other memories.
    Rose Hale


    • Dear Rose,
      Wow, you are the 1st person I’ve met who had heard of this book! I guess at least 2 little girls were marked for life. I am 61 and I still have my copy, but I suspect it’ll be hard to find. At least you now have the author and illustrator. Thanks for your story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s