“And what did Uncle Robert give you?” we ask, as the children open their presents Christmas morning. “A book? Oh, that’s nice.” We mean it in all the dictionary definitions: not only “amiable, kind”—it is also “pleasing, agreeable,” and what’s more, it is “suitable, proper, refined.”
A book is small, compact, and easily stored even in a city apartment. It cannot possibly damage furniture or people, and there are no small pieces to get lost. It is noiseless, and will not cause indigestion or cavities. Above all, it has an aura of intellect, culture, and non-violence.
Assuming, then, that any book you choose to give the children on your list will please their parents, here are some that the kids might like to settle down with too, after they have broken the new phonograph, colored the baby with Craypas, and lost the special screwdriver for the Erector set.
Three to six years
Tickle the pig by Dorothy Kunhardt (Golden Press, 18 pp., $1.95) is a worthy successor to the same author’s famous Pat the Bunny, or Norman O. Brown for toddlers. Stuck to every other page is a pneumatic cutout animal made of foam plastic, suitably colored a pleasing shade of deep pink. “Timmy rubs the elephant’s wonderful long trunk. Now you rub the elephant. See, he loves his goodnight rub. Rub rub rub.” Highly recommended, of course. Older children, who have reached a later psychosexual stage of development, may prefer The Girl and the Rabbit by Maurice Sendak, one of the most attractive (and emotionally most explicit) accounts of an erotic episode I have seen anywhere.
Oscar Otter by Nathaniel Benchley (Harper & Row, 64 pp., $1.95) and Tom and the Two Handles by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (Harper & Row, 64 pp., $1.95). The triumph of wit and ingenuity over a severely limited vocabulary in books like Danny and the Dinosaur and Green Eggs and Ham is echoed, if not repeated, in these latest “I-Can-Read” books. Unfortunately, a new moralistic, suburban, almost Dick-and-Jane tone also seems to be creeping in. Oscar Otter builds a huge ice slide and escapes his enemies; but learns in the end, like so many other little others, bears, whales, and trains you have already met, that it is safest and best to stay home.
Tom and the Two Handles is a more complicated case: an almost perfect allegory of the current world situation as seen by the well-meaning liberal Republican mind. Tom gets into a fist fight with his friend Kenny, and is beaten. He complains to his father, who is full of wise sayings and good advice (“Every problem has two handles,” “You can’t win them all,” “It’s time to call a spade a spade.”), but each time he goes back to Kenny’s house and tries to apply the advice, they begin to quarrel and Kenny beats him up again. Finally Tom gets a punching bag; practices on it, and goes and beats Kenny up; then they are friends again. The story has everything—the idea that coexistence is only possible between military equals; the lack of any real reason for conflict; and the inane political platitudes and bad advice of elderly statesmen. Most striking of all, though the book is full of pictures, none of them show Tom and Kenny actually fighting. The five battles described in the text take place invisibly; as it were, on another continent.
ONE OF THE ODDEST PHENOMENA in the childrens’ book field is that the best illustrators are so often assigned to trivial or second-rate texts, and vice versa. John Alcorn, who can make almost any book seem elegant, bright, and lively, fails with an expensive collection of carelessly written, drearily cute verses about clocks by Phyllis McGinley (Wonderful Time, Lippincott, 47 pp., $3.50). Tomi Ungerer can make almost anything look funny and original; but his skill is wasted on Warwick’s 3 Bottles, by André Hodeir (Grove, 32 pp., $3.95). As you might expect of the first children’s book ever published by Grove Press, this lumbering tongue-in-cheek tale of two alligators named Beowulf and Cromwell is both overpriced and consciously naughty. The characters spend most of their time playing poker and scheming to get a drink of something coyly called “Scotch broth.”
Six to ten years
For a grade-A aura of culture and intellect, you can hardly do better than the new “Harlin Quist” books. All are beautifully illustrated, elegantly printed and bound, and written by absolutly grade-A authors. Even the publisher’s name has the right ring. (Suppose he were called Hyman Zist.) The stories, as you might expect, are a little odd, but very well written, and fascinating from a literary-biography point of view.
In Shirley Jackson’s Famous Sally, illustrated by Chas. B. Slackman (Harlin Quist, 42 pp., $3.50), the heroine is cross because no one in the world knows her name. So she goes from place to place announcing it, always in appropriate style. She flies it on a kite for Tall City, paints it on a turtle’s back for Slow City, etc.—just as successfully as Famous Shirley herself did by similarly diversifying her output for a varied audience: producing gothic romances, women’s-magazine family humor, and sophisticated existentialist fables. An entertaining story, with especially striking, semi-Pop illustrations.
No one who has read Robert Graves will be surprised to hear that in his Two Wise Children, illustrated by Ralph Pinto (Harlin Quist, 28 pp., $2.75), the girl is the wiser. A juvenile White Goddess, Avis can do anything; while Bill only knows everything and has already lost his gift when the book begins by using it commercially. Hoping to obtain powers such as Avis has, he tries to fight a (Minotaur-type?) bull, but only makes a fool of himself and is nearly killed. Avis saves him. For girls only, and only certain sorts of girls at that.
Gertrude’s Child by Richard Hughes, illustrated by Rick Schreiter (Harlin Quist, 42 pp., $2.95), is the best of the lot. With considerable subtlety and wit, it explores the logical possibilities of a world in which children belong to toys. Hughes’s dolls and stuffed animals are just as amoral and unconsciously callous as the protagonists of A High Wind in Jamaica; it is the same story really. When the doll Gertrude gets Annie, she cuts off all her hair, pulls off her clothes, and forgets to feed her; the friends who come to Gertrude’s tea party are even worse. “‘I think I would like some more ice cream,’ said the rocking horse. ‘If Annie is being eaten by a lion there’s no use saving any for her.”‘) But Gertrude, like some children you know, is a doll on the edge of human adolescence; conscience and empathy win out in the end. A memorable, if rather frightening, moral tale.
The Mummy Market by Nancy Brelis, illustrated by Ben Schechter (Harper & Row, 145 pp., $3.95). Another really good idea, well carried out through most of the book. Three parentless children discover a market (near Central Square in Cambridge, apparently) where you can get all sorts of mothers on approval. They trade in their chilly, strict housekeeper, The Gloom, and try a series of mothers, including “Mom,” a strenuous outdoor type who gets them up at six to go hiking, rain or shine; “Babs,” who arrives with a library of books on child psychology and a diagnostic doll’s house (“‘That’s right, Harry. Express your aggressions.’ Harry burst into tears.”); and “Mumsie,” who brings a Home Sweet Home sampler and a vase of plastic gladioli, and turns out to be worst of all. (“Cave eos qui gladiolos amant—watch out for people who like gladioli,” wisely remarks the neighbor who has put them onto the Mummy Market.) Unfortunately, the book collapses at the end, which is vague and rather sentimental. It is also seriously marred by very bad illustrations—both clumsily drawn and inaccurate to the text.
Emily’s Voyage by Emma Smith, illustrated by Irene Haas (Harcourt, Brace & World, 111 pp., $2.95). I’ve always wondered what became of Emma Smith, whose remarkable journal of a year on a barge in wartime England, Maidens’ Trip, was one of the minor classics of the 1940s. (Now that Denton Welch and Rex Warner have been rediscovered, it should be her turn next.) There are no clues on the jacket as to whether this is the same writer, but a good many in the book. Emily, the sensible, intrepid guinea pig who proves a better sailor on her first ocean voyage than the silly rabbits of the ship’s crew or the pompous Captain Hare, even looks rather like Miss Smith. She shows the same tolerance for the follies of others, the same Crusoe-like resourcefulness, and the same loving fascination with the details of life on shipboard.
The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl, illustrated by William Pène du Bois (Harper & Row, 41 pp., $2.50). An eight-year-old female conservationist puts the Magic Finger on a duck-hunting neighbor family and the next morning they all wake up duck-sized, with wings instead of arms. When they take a trial flight out the bedroom window, four man-sized wild ducks, with arms instead of wings, move into their house. You can guess the rest of the story, moral and all. For younger children than Dahl’s previous books, and not quite as good as James and the Giant Peach. Still, it is well told, and wonderfully illustrated; partisans of the animal kingdom, especially girls, should love it.
Prince Rabbit by A. A. Milne, illustrated by Mary Shepard (Dutton, 72 pp., $3.95). Another minor work by a major children’s author reissued. How come you never heard of it before? Because it is not all that good, obviously. Two traditional fairy tales, retold rather lengthily and somewhat updated. One is about a princess who never laughs; the other and better tells of a rabbit who enters and wins a competition for another princess’s hand and kingdom. Amusing enough, but a far cry from Pooh.
Ten to twelve years
Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 99 pp., $4.50). It is not (as some authors seem to think) easier to write well for children than for adults, but harder; so for even someone as famous as I.B. Singer this book is a triumph. These seven tales, based on European Jewish folklore, take place in a half-legendary rural world where it snows for days on end and “the Devil and his wife, riding on her hoop” are always somewhere around the corner of the field. Not all the stories are fantastic. In “Fool’s Paradise,” for instance, a lazy young man decides to die in order to go to heaven, where nobody works, so he gets into bed and refuses to budge. He is cured by a doctor who organizes the household to fool Atzel into thinking he is already in paradise—which turns out to be a place of luxurious but appalling monotony. (“As soon as the servants saw that Atzel was awake, they brought in exactly the same meal as the day before…’Don’t you have any milk, coffee, fresh rolls, and butter?’ ‘No, my lord. In paradise one always eats the same food.’ Atzel again ate…but his appetite was not as good as it had been.”) The marvelous drawings by Maurice Sendak, which combine mystery and a subtly comic realism, match the text perfectly. If you have no older children on your list, buy this book for yourself.
The Little Man by Erich Kästner, translated by James Kirkup, illustrated by Rick Shreiter (Knopf, 184 pp., $3.95). It would be nice to report that the author of the classic Emil and the Detectives has done it again; but this book about the life and adventures of a two-inch magician’s assistant who sleeps in a matchbox is merely a moderately entertaining, modernized Life of Tom Thumb. The over-elaborate plot and the language larded with exclamation points, obscure references, and elaborate puns, seem apt to discourage most readers under ten. Moreover, some episodes, like the hero’s dream of being eight feet tall, and his unsuccessful search for a wife his size, are positively depressing.
The Bayeux Tapestry: The Story of the Norman Conquest 1066 by Norman Denny and Josephine Filmer-Sankey (Atheneum, 68 pp., $6.95). The comicstrip book of the year, maybe even the decade. Remember that smudgy little gray sample of the Bayeux Tapestry in your English history or lit text? Well, forget it. Here is the real thing, all of it, magnificently reproduced in fifty-two large full-color plates, and explained historically picture by picture. More attractive, and far easier to follow than the Phaidon Press’s adult version, and it costs only about half as much—which is still expensive, but well worth it for a child who likes knights, castles, and history.
December 15, 1966