Most children’s books are bought by adults just before Christmas—which is like sending children downtown to the Saturday sales to get their mother a new dress. It might fit, and then again it might not; but it would probably reflect pretty accurately what they thought mothers should look like.
Parents manage fairly well when they’ve been told beforehand exactly what book is wanted: “another funny science-fiction story” or “a book that tells you how to take care of mice.” A relative or friend of the family, not shopping under orders, is more likely to be influenced by nostalgic visions of himself as a child, or of the kind of child he always wanted to have. That’s perhaps why the large, elegantly illustrated book that his aunt thought would teach your eight-year-old the French words for 100 common objects has turned into the roof of a garage.
But when shopping for children too young to read to themselves, you should consult no one’s taste but your own. For you, or his mother or father, will probably have to read the words slowly aloud, and look at the pictures, twenty or thirty times during the next five years. (This is a conservative estimate assuming that the book will be read only once every two or three months, to only one child; and that by his eighth birthday he will be reading to himself, or at least will prefer to hear Charlotte’s Web and Tom Sawyer.) So make a point of staying away from all sorts of cuteness, moralizing, bad jokes, and bad verse, which presently you will know by heart like advertising slogans, only more so.
Isn’t this being selfish? Shouldn’t good parent be willing to read his child whatever he likes, over and over again, no matter how illiterate and silly it is? Of course not. What your child really wants is to lean cozily against you on the sofa every evening, while you speak to him exclusively in a soft voice for fifteen or twenty minutes. Anything else is secondary.
Here are some titles chosen from this year’s list, with the help of a group of experts aged five to twelve, including their comments on a few books that an unwary shopper might be attracted to owing to the fame of their authors. Not that well-known writers always fall on their faces when they try children’s books—John Buchan’s The Magic Walking-Stick and John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk are excellent evidence to the contrary, and A. A. Milne himself was a sentimental dramatist—but sometimes they do.
Three to seven years
Topsy & Turvys by Peter Newell (Macmillan, 72 pp., paperback, $1.00). Consumers up to twelve loved this tricky book, first published over sixty years ago by the author of The Hole Book and now finally reprinted. When each of the 74 drawings with a caption underneath is turned upside down, another picture appears and a rhymed couplet is completed. An elephant turns into an ostrich, Uncle Ike into Auntie Jane, and a dog into a cat; which proves that Gombrich was right in Art and Illusion.
Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 49 pp., $4.25). Since Caldecott and Lesley Brooke, nobody has illustrated nursery rhymes this well. These wonderfully funny, charming, slightly scary colored drawings are just as good as those Mr. Sendak did for Where the Wild Things Are—which should go on your list too, if you don’t have it already.
Lullabies and Night Songs music by Alec Wilder, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, edited by William Engvick (Harper & Row, 78 pp., $6.95.) Here the lyrics and music range from brilliant to fairly dim, but the illustrations, again by Mr. Sendak, are all wonderful. If you are the sort of generous and gifted parent who plays the piano and sings to your children, by all means get this book—or if the price is no obstacle, you can buy it just to look at.
Babar Comes to America by Laurent de Brunhoff (Random House, 84 pp., $3.95). This latest addition to the series begun by Jean de Brunhoff and now continued by his son isn’t really a story, but, as my oldest son says, “more of a funny travelogue.” Babar tours America, following, I suspect, much the same route as his biographer’s family took on a recent visit. It’s a pretty upper-middle-class tour: Hilton hotels, a weekend in Scarsdale, the Harvard-Yale game, and a party at a film-director’s house in Beverly Hills; Babar has lunch with the President and visits the Lampoon building in Cambridge. But Chicago, New York, Washington, Disneyland, and the Grand Canyon are included too: the pictures are lively and colorful, and it’s a fine book to read aloud to children who like Babar and have been to some of these places.
The Good Tiger by Elizabeth Bowen, illustrated by M. Nebel (Knopf, 28 pp., $3.25). It would be a pleasure to read this one aloud, but you won’t want to: the elegant succinctness of its style is no compensation for having to explain the inconsistencies of plot. This story about a little girl who invites a tiger home to tea seems to have been invented in the very same kind of thoughtless haste that Miss Bowen has criticized so often and so well in her books for grownups. Example: page 16, “If a tiger could cry, he would have cried.” Page 25.: “The tiger started to cry.” Try explaining that to a five-year-old, or answering questions like “But how did the boy get the cage open?” However, the book should fascinate scholars of Elizabeth Bowen’s work—it reads exactly like a transcription of one of her dreams. The illustrations are sketchy, mediocre, and sometimes inaccurate; also—one more inconsistency—very American, whereas the text is obviously English.
The Boat that Mooed by Christopher Fry, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard (Macmillan, 32 pp., $3.50). A little boy in a rowboat, fog on the river, a white swan, tugboats, etc. As a member of the consumer panel said, “It’s a lot like a lot of other books for little kids—sort of stupid.” Another comment, from a younger critic: “Do we have to read this book? You see, I like it all right, but I’m getting a little tired of it.”
Eight to twelve years
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson (Walck, 192 pp., $3.00). This is the first of the series. Moomin is a plump, saucer-eyed troll who looks like a baby hippopotamus drawn by Thurber. He lives with his parents in happy domesticity, but surrounded by surprises and dangers: storms; hobgoblins; the Gronk, a sort of large moving gray stone with teeth, who freezes everything for yards around her; Moomin’s rescue of the beautiful Snork maiden (exactly like him, but with curly bangs); and the invasion of hordes of poor relations who are mostly hands and eyes.
Alberic the Wise and Other Journeys by Norton Juster, illustrated by Domenico Gnoli (Pantheon, 69 pp., $3.50). The author of The Phantom Tollbooth has written three moral fairy tales which invite, and support, comparison with Wilde’s The Happy Prince. Alberic, who spends his life traveling through the world and failing at one trade after another, finally becomes famous for his wisdom; Claude enters a painting of a sad princess in a museum and defeats her enemies; and a rich and a poor king learn something when they visit each other’s countries. The fantastically detailed illustrations, which look like Renaissance engravings, are excellent; and the stories are told with style and seriousness, except for what one reader complained were “awfully vague endings.”
The Alligator Case by William Pene du Bois (Harper, 64 pp., $3.50). A short funny, slightly improbable mystery story about a traveling circus, three sinister strangers, and a young amateur detective who disguises himself as everything from an old sea-captain to a railway porter to solve the crime. Delightfully illustrated in color by the author, some of whose many earlier books—for instance The 21 Balloons, The Giant, and Otto—are excellent.
Alvin Steadfast on Vernacular Island by Frank Jacobs, illustrated by Edward Gorey Dial, 64 pp, $3.50). This book is rather like Norton Juster’s famous The Phantom Tollbooth, only shorter and more sketchily written, like most imitations of a first-rate idea. Its great asset is the many marvelous drawings by Edward Gorey of such creatures as the Glowing Report, the Ill Omen (pale wispy gray, limply sick in a hammock), and the Appropriate Gesture. These entities, along with many others, help or hinder the ten-year-old hero as he tries to save Dr. Cranshaw, the famous explorer, from the wicked Doubt. For literary or at least literate children ten and over.
A Child’s Calendar by John Updike, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert (Harper, 24, pp., $3.25). The elegant, delicate, slightly sentimental magic realism of the illustrations is a perfect match for these twelve short poems, one for each month. But, as one reader said, “he has a sort of an old-time suburban view of kids’ life,” and both pictures and verse are really addressed to nostalgic grownups, not children. (From “August”: “The playground grass/Is worn to dust./The weary swings/Creak, creak with rust.”) If you like Updike, get this book, certainly—for yourself.
Fairy Tales by E. E. Cummings, illustrated by John Eaton (Harcourt, Brace & World, 39 pp., $4.50). A lot of educated people are going to give their children, grandchildren, nieces, etc., this book for Christmas, but the children, who never heard of Cummings, aren’t going to like it much. Reading these four stories about stars, “faeries,” lonely butterflies, and little old men who say “Why” is like crawling through a pink fog made of melted candy, or of Cummings’s worst lines. It was the only one of the lot rejected by all members of the consumer panel. (Typical comment: “It’s just kind of meaningless. I guess people who keep on saying ‘Why, why?’ bother me.”) Irritatingly cranky punctuation, pastel Dufy-like illustrations.
There seems to be a big market now in what are called “teenage novels” for “young adults”—especially girls. No fantasy here: these stories deal, usually in a tone of strained optimism, with “real people and real problems.” And they mean real: here are some examples, with quotations from ads:
The Wind Dies at Sunrise by Lois Santalo (Bobbs-Merrill): “When her best friend is turned away from a hotel because she is Jewish, Del Kingsley is shocked into a sense of responsibility.”
Camilla by Madeline L’Engel (Coward McCann): “The story of a 15-year-old girl whose parents’ marriage begins to disintegrate.”
Young Mother by Josephine Kamm (Duell, Sloan, & Pearce): “Librarians, school counselors, and parents have long felt the need to talk openly with teenagers about the implications of unwed motherhood…”
Maybe they have, but if you know a teenager with these kinds of problems, what I think she really needs is Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and An American Tragedy.
December 9, 1965