“Duffy and the Devil ” was a popular nineteenth-century play in Cornwall, performed by groups of young people who went from house to house during Christmas. The Zemachs have interpreted the folk tale dramatized in the play, which is recognizably a version of the popular Rumpelstiltskin story. Although the themes are familiar, the character and details of this picture book are entirely Cornish, as robust and distinct as the higgledy-piggledy, cliff-hanging villages that dot England’s southwestern coast from Penzance to Land’s End.
The Christmas players’ language was a rich blend of local English dialect and Old Cornish (similar to Welsh and Gaelic), and some of this flavor is preserved in Harve Zemach’s retelling. Margot Zemach’s pen-and-wash illustrations surpass her previous achievements by combining a refined sense of comedy with telling observation of character, felicitous drawing with decorative richness. Duffy and the Devil were named a Notable Children’s Book of the Year and Outstanding Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review in 1973, a National Book Award Finalist for Children’s Books in 1974, and the winner of the 1974 Caldecott Medal.”