Wally the Wordworm
The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus
How to Catch a Crocodile
How the Whale Became
Tom and Tabby
Elisabeth the Cow Ghost
The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn
The King Who Loved Candy
Meeting with a Stranger
The Takula Tree
Children of Africa
The Letter on the Tree
A Day Without Wind
Harriet the Spy
I Go by Sea, I Go by Land
Save the Khan
The Burning of Njal
The Book of Three
To Catch a Spy
“Damn them!” wrote Lamb to Coleridge in 1802. “I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.” Lamb was in a temper because, having gone to Newbery’s bookshop to buy “the old classics of the nursery,” he had been fobbed off with “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense”; and he was sure that the “knowledge insignificant and vapid” that they conveyed would only serve to give a child an absurd conceit of himself—
when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such-like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men.
Coleridge was just as down on the improvers:
Give me the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which I used to watch till the sun shining on the bookcase approached it, and glowing full upon it gave me courage to take it from the shelf. I heard of no little Billies, and sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men.
Lamb and Coleridge had good reason to be so cross. Mrs. Barbauld and the other improvers—John Day and Mrs. Trimmer in England, Samuel Goodrich in New England—were intolerably prosy as well as moral. “Happy would it be for the animal creation,” so Mrs. Trimmer spells out the message of her History of the Robins, “if every human being, like the good Mrs. Benson, consulted the welfare of inferior creatures.” Worse still, the Barbauld crew actively campaigned against everything that (in retrospect, at least) had lit up Lamb’s and Coleridge’s imaginations in childhood. They condemned fairy-tales as “useless” or “prejudicial nonsense,” smelt corruption even in Robinson Crusoe, and judged the most harmless of old-wives tales to be a potential “engine of mischief.” Yet where did their passion for instruction lead? To harmless enough books like Crusts in Soak for Children to Peck, but also to appalling books by early Victorian Strangeloves, like The Art of Making Fireworks, Detonating Balls etc. “containing Plain and Easy Directions for Mixing and Preparing the Ingredients and Making and Finishing the most simple Devices in the Ingenious Art; by Christopher Grotz, Real Engineer.” Better trolls and hobgoblins than such explosive knowledge!
Today we think better of fairytales and old wives’ fables. Yet the Mrs. Barbaulds are still hard at it. They go to work more slyly than their originals; morals are implied, not rammed home; instruction is given a livelier disguise. They cast their net wider, eager now to condition the reader’s feelings as well as his behavior, to implant healthy social attitudes as well as correct morals. In their view, children must learn about ants and computers, how a President is elected and how the United Nations works; but they must also learn how to like a Sudanese camel-boy and a Yugoslav ballet-dancer, what to do when their mother remarries or their parents separate. (Bring them together with a grizzly bear is one answer supplied this year, very sensible in its context but beyond the resource of all but a few children.)
So the wise reader should approach each new book warily, sniff it, and ask himself: What is the writer up to? Does he want to amuse or delight me—and maybe amuse himself too? Does he want to make me something—a good student, a good son or daughter, a good camper, a good sport? Does he pretend to amuse while really he is getting at me—about cleanliness, or manners, or patriotism? Children, be on your guard!
Surveying the more than 250 books that have come my way, I report some general impressions. Straightforwardly instructional books form the largest single group; they range from the simplifications of picture-book knowledge (as in Colette Portal’s Life of the Queen, where the sympathies of the tinies are engaged by putting the ant-queen into human surroundings) to accounts which could be pleasurably read by any reader, like Louis Brennan’s Buried Treasure of Archaeology. The tone of most of these books is that of a good teacher—brisk and serious, and no talking-down—though some of the authors of junior biographies sound more like a copywriter trying to whip up interest. ” ‘Have you seen Elinor White’s young man?’ ” one college girl asked another. ” ‘He thinks he’s a poet!’ “—thus opens a chapter in Doris Faber’s Robert Frost: America’s Poet.
Visually, standards are pretty high, particularly in the picture books proper, but the black-and-white drawings to illustrate the books for older readers are—with shining exceptions, like Edward Ardizzone’s for The Alley—less generally successful. Again, the junior biographies supply some bizarre examples: a drawing captioned “Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry Thoreau edited the Dial” does not do justice to the sensible text of a life of Emerson, Trust Thyself. The pictures in books of traditional fairy tales tend to be artistic and cute, rather than mysterious and magical.
But whether in pictures or text, the mysterious and magical are altogether in fairly short supply; there is markedly less poetry than science, to use Lamb’s antithesis. And though the books are full of simple confrontations of good and bad, there is little horror or sadness. To balance the healthy, antiseptic diet offered by the story-books for older children, there are the reprints of adult classics now offered by publishers as children’s books. With Dickens in Great Expectations, with Kipling in The Mark of the Beast, the child can enter a world which has horror in it as well as victory, dark mystery as well as happiness, where he can extend his feelings as well as his intelligence.
The simple wish to amuse and delight is most in evidence in the books written for the very young, particularly in those by authors well established in the grown-up line who seem to be, for the moment, at play. Clifton Fadiman happily fools about with words in Wally the Wordworm (drawings by Arnold Roth). Wally ate words, voraciously, and when he’d eaten the headlines of the paper and six Good Humor wrappers, he slithered into a dictionary and started near the back with Sesquipedalian, which went down nicely, and Paradichlorobenzene, which tasted pretty bad; then he started a Palindrome hunt and bagged Madam and Deified, and went on to round up the Auk, the Centaur, the Chimera, the Roc, the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Cheshire Cat. Wally’s conclusion:
So—down with the books that treat me like a baby!
Chuck ‘em out the window, and I don’t mean maybe!
I’ll tell you the conclusion I have come to. It is that
I am tired of the cat who is sitting on the mat!
The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus (illustrated by Walter Lorraine)—he helped George Washington to cross the Delaware, for one—allow Ogden Nash to caper agreeably in couplets where for once the rhymes are almost conventional. Robert Pack also lopes along in couplets to describe How to Catch a Crocodile (illustrated by Nola Langner); the method is to go off to the Nile with a matchbox, a tweezer, and a pair of binoculars, so that when you’ve reduced the crocodile by looking at it through the wrong end, you can pick it up and pop it in the matchbox. More lightheartedly than in his poems, Ted Hughes is at play with animals in the prose tales of How the Whale Became (drawings by Rick Schreiter). All the creatures are newmade; some know what they want to become, others have to find out the hard way, like the Tortoise. He was created on a day so hot that God had to wear a sun-hat and keep calling for iced drinks. The tortoise’s coat was consequently thin as thin. Nobody cared for a practically skinless animal, so he was given a protective covering which changed him from the lightest and swiftest of creatures to the slowest and clumsiest. I could detect no moral to be drawn from this, except at God’s expense. Also malevolently at play in his own line is Stephen Potter with Squawky, who is the Parrot as Lifeman (drawings by George Him).
A cat who smokes a clay pipe, wears a cloth cap and caretakes for a school on a Welsh mountain, is the hero of John Symonds’s Tom and Tabby (illustrated by André François). Tabby goes to London with the boy Tom, who fetches up in a Lost Boys’ Home run by cats (picture of Dame Tomkins, Our Foundress, a cat in a large straw hat pushing a pram with two urchins, and under it the legend—“Two More Saved!”). A cow who in life was so sweet and gentle that she has to return after death to prove herself at heart fierce and fiery, is the heroine of William Pène du Bois’ Elisabeth the Cow Ghost—a tale told with formal charm, which he illustrates himself. Situations and conversations are repeated with a different twist at the end, the tension is wound tighter and tighter, and released in a huge laugh. The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn (story and pictures by Eric von Schmidt) was Jeremy Sneeze, who lived in Massachussetts, long before there were Hershey Bars or Howard Johnson’s. He madep oems and pictures and put birds’ nests back in the trees, shocked Isaac Husk and Elihu Doom by his slack and shiftless ways, till a witch cast a spell and a crow hoed his corn and all was merry in the town of Diligence. There was nothing puritanical about the palace of Peter Hughes’s The King Who Loved Candy (pictures by Gerald Rose). It was made of barley-sugar pillars and chocolate walls, and topped off with six domes of the finest whipped cream—for it was in Asia Minor, though it also recalls George IV’s Pavilion at Brighton, which I have often wanted to nibble. The palace was defended by an army of Jellybabies, so that when the King inspected the troops, he could always take a lick at a soldier. It is a literally mouth-watering book, and Gerald Rose deserves a chocolate medal for the best end-papers of any child’s book this year. All the foregoing are proper picture books, in that the story is as dependent on the illustrations as on the text.
Tales about children of other countries tend to be written from the highest motives In Duane Bradley’s Meeting with a Stranger, Teffera the Ethiopian lad learns the best modern way with sheep, from Mr. Sam Jones the American; Daniel, of Elizabeth P. Fleming’s The Takula Tree, lives in an African colony tactfully not called Portuguese (though the white villains are named Quadros and Henriquez), and is left to work secretly for Independence after his American missionary friends have been expelled. From these books, and from Louis A. Stinetorf’s twelve stories of Children of Africa, a child can pleasantly learn much about Africa. The tone is high-minded, the values are liberal, but the plots seem to be manipulated to provide an ending which the author had in mind from the beginning.