Mrs. Goose’s Baby

Mrs. Goose’s Baby by Charlotte Voake

1989

Illustrated by Charlotte Voake

The book begins, “One day Mrs. Goose found an egg…”.  In retrospect, we understand the significance of that seemingly innocuous chicken, pecking in the background.  When hatched, the baby is fluffy and yellow rather than white and smooth, prefers pecking seeds to eating grass, refuses to swim in the pond when invited by the mother, and says “cheep” instead of “honk”.  Mrs Goose is the loving and protective mother.  “HONK!”, she says when welcoming her newly hatched baby, and two pink hearts float above her greeting.  In this fanciful story of maternal love, Mrs. Goose remains sweetly oblivious that her baby is a chicken.

What keeps this tale sweet but never cloying is the comedy of the illustrations.  There are the visual clues to the baby’s identity that are apparent to the reader but unnoticed by the goose.  There are the speech balloons, containing only the monosyllabic HONK! or Cheep!, borrowed from comics.  There is the humor of the baby’s transformation, given that chickens are intrinsically funny with their tiny heads, drumstick thighs, and pointy toes.  There is the final spread showing the mother goose and young chicken walking together through the forest, the former serene and oblivious, the latter highstrung and jittery, communicating in their two languages, “HONK”, “Cluck!”, while a girl, a boy, and a cat look on from the side of the path.mrs. goose's baby

Charlotte Voake creates airy pen and watercolor illustrations that convey humor and emotion with an economy of line.  Witness the expressiveness of the faces despite often having only dots for eyes.  She is delightfully adept at cats, dogs, chickens, and little girls, all of whom make frequent appearances in her work.  Ginger, her best-known book, features an orange tabby who is disgruntled by the appearance of a playful kitten who eats from his food bowl and invades the sanctity of his basket.  In Here Comes the Train, Voake depicts a family (her own) riding their bicycles to the footbridge that spans the tracks.  She gets it just right; the quiet waiting, the camaraderie, the gathering anticipation.  When the train whooshes underneath, we see the sparks flying from the locomotive’s wheels, hear the horn and the children’s screams, feel the rattle of the footbridge and the wind in the hair.  This must be the most visceral rendition of a train in children’s literature.  In addition to her own books, Voake has illustrated nursery rhymes (Over the Moon), classic fairy tales (The Three Little Pigs and Other Favorite Nursery Stories), Eleanor Farjeon’s Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, and the 16th century story, Gammer Gurton’s Needle – all of which are treats for those who love her whimsical visual style.

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gorky rises

Gorky Rises

Gorky Rises by William Steig

1980

Illustrated by William Steig

The story begins with Gorky, a green frog, concocting a magic potion at the kitchen sink.  After decanting it into a glass-stoppered bottle, he says an incantation (“Auga-looga, onga-ouga”), communes with nature, and falls asleep in a meadow.  “Whatever had kept him fastened to the earth let go its hold, and Gorky’s slumbering body rose in the air, like a bubble rising in water, and moved off in an easterly direction.”  Floating high above the earth, he encounters two fearsome kites, a hot air balloon, migrating geese, a lightning storm.  He performs aerial acrobatics for the earthbound creatures who gawk up at him in amazement.  “What the doodad was keeping him up there?” they wonder.  Night falls and he ponders the imponderables, realizes his loneliness.  As dawn breaks, he pours out his potion drop by drop and descends jerkily to earth.  His distraught parents are overjoyed to see him again.gorky rises

William Steig was intrigued by transformation and by journeys of self-discovery, and it should come as no surprise that Pinocchio was his favorite children’s book.  In Steig’s Caldecott Medal winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a young donkey is transformed by a magic red pebble into a boulder.  He is locked in his isolation, through the changing of the seasons, until he is able to undo the charm.  The book ends, as most Steig books do, with a joyous reunion with family.  In Abel’s Island, a beautifully crafted chapter book, a newlywed mouse is separated from his beloved Amanda by a freak storm which deposits him upon an island.  He spends a year in solitude, devising methods of escape, battling his nemesis – the resident owl, and discovering his talent as a sculptor.

Steig grew up in a tenement neighborhood in the Bronx, son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, in a household bubbling with creative intent.  His parents, a housepainter and a seamstress, were Socialists and their politics gave him a sympathy for the underdog that never faded.  His art and his children’s books portray his belief in the fundamental goodness of people along with a kind of pragmatic optimism.  His characters are free spirits who approach the world with an innocent sense of wonder and a delight in the strangeness of it all.  They marvel at the beauty of the universe, whether it be Gorky reveling in the scent of roses or Shrek infatuated with his stunningly ugly princess.

Steig was a patient and disciple of Wilhelm Reich, the radical Austrian psychoanalyst whose practice revolved around orgone, the universal energy source.  Viewed by some as a visionary and by others as a charlatan, Reich ultimately died in a penitentiary on a charge involving interstate commerce of his orgone energy accumulators.  Steig never lost his belief, and he spent a daily half hour in his orgone box for fifty some years.  If this contributed to the unique sophistication, beauty, and joy of his books, it was time well spent.