A Number of Animals

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A Number of Animals by Christopher Wormell and Kate Green

1993

Illustrated by Christopher Wormell

Of the thousands of alphabet and counting books, we should be grateful for the good ones, for the process of learning the ABC’s and the numbers requires repetition, and the mediocre ones quickly become tedious.

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Christopher Wormell’s first contribution to this genre was An Alphabet of Animals, a book that was awarded the Graphics Prize at the Bologna International Children’s Book Fair. The format was one that he has used repeatedly. Text is on the left page, in this case simply the letter and the animal name (Qq, Quetzal, Ss, Swan, Tt, Tiger, Zz, Zebra).   Image is on the right. The animals, outlined in bold black lines, are depicted in striking linoleum block prints. The backdrops are minimal – at most there might be a tree with windfall apples for the pig, two pyramids behind the hooded cobra, or a skeleton beneath the hunched vulture. Most often there is a luminous yellow foreground and a luminous blue sky above – never a cloud to mar the purity. It is the beautiful stippled shading of sky (lighter, more golden, at the horizon, as though the sun were always about to rise) that gives the illustrations their radiance.

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For his first counting book, A Number of Animals, Wormell collaborated with Kate Green, who provided a narrative. The text begins, “One little chick, lost and alone.” A solitary yellow chick, in search of its mother, asks for help from the horses, cows, turkeys, goats, geese, sheep, ducks, and pigs he encounters, in sequentially increasing numbers. In each illustration, the tiny chick is dwarfed by the large animals – part of the pleasure for a child is being able to spot the plucky little thing. The text is written with an ear to cadence and poetry, but each page is distinctive – not the repetitive sing-song that characterizes so many children’s books.

Three slow cows sunning in the meadow.

“Have you seen my mother?”

But all they do is moo.

Five shaggy goats grazing in the field.

Their beards are hairy. Their horns are sharp.

“Baa-aa,” they bleat. “No hens here!”

Wormell’s lino-cut prints are always striking, but it is the marriage of text and visuals that makes this book interesting, even when read many, many, many times.

Like Robert Lawson, Christopher Wormell cut his artistic teeth making Christmas cards. He was taught the art of making linoleum block prints by his father and every December the household was transformed as the children contributed to the cottage industry of handmade holiday cards.

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Big Red Barn

 

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Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown

1956

Illustrated by Felicia Bond

Big Red Barn is one of Margaret Wise Brown’s best. Nothing much happens. We meet the animals leading their daytime lives on a farm. Then dusk falls and the animals walk up the hill to the big red barn and go to sleep. Little happens, yet young children love this book because of the addictive language that was Brown’s particular genius. The lulling musicality, the cadenced repetitions, the off-kilter rhyming are hypnotic, calming, and achingly beautiful. The illustrations, created by Felicia Bond for the 1989 reissue do justice to the text. The bright reds and greens of the vibrant sunlit world metamorphose into the whispering shadows of night.

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Margaret Wise Brown began her writing career while a teacher-in-training at the Bank St. Experimental School in Greenwich Village. Her style was strongly influenced by the “here-and-now” philosophy espoused by Bank Street founder and early education revolutionary Lucy Sprague Mitchell, which proposed that young children would rather read stories about the real world of their own lives than fantasies and fairy tales. Brown’s short literary career (truncated by her untimely death) was characterized by a whirlwind of productivity: she had over 100 children’s stories in print during her lifetime and new books continue to be published posthumously, even half a century later.

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Strikingly beautiful, green-eyed and blond (one of her several pseudonyms, Timothy Hay, referred to her hair), Margaret Wise Brown led a colorful life. She divided her time between her island retreat in Maine (called The Only House) and a tiny house in Manhattan (called Cobble Court). The latter was a wooden farm cottage built in the early 1800’s that lay hidden behind row houses in the Upper East Side. Brownie, as she was known by her many friends, was never married and had no children. She had a prolonged affair with an older woman (Blanche Oelrichs, an actress, author, socialite, and ex-wife of John Barrymore), and was affianced at the time of her death to a younger man (James “Pebble” Stillman Rockefeller, Jr.). She lived with flare and style: with her first royalty check, she purchased all the flowers from a street vender’s cart and threw a party at her Greenwich Village apartment.

Aside: Cobble Court was slated for demolition in the1960’s. Fortunately, it was saved and can now be seen – diminutive, idiosyncratic, and charming – at the corner of Greenwich and Charles Streets in the West Village.

 

The Story of Little Black Sambo

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The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

1899

Illustrated by Helen Bannerman

Of the 100’s or 1000’s of picture books that a child is read in childhood, few make a permanent imprint. Enjoyed in the moment, they disappear like an Etch-a-Sketch picture when the book is closed. Every once in a while there is one that creates an indelible image and The Story of Little Black Sambo is one of these few. Read at the age of 3 or 5, many adults remember decades later the surreal scene of the tigers joined mouth to tail, whirling around the palm tree so fast that their bodies blur and they melt into butter. It is this remarkable scene that anchors the story in memory.

Helen Bannerman grew up in Madeira where she was home schooled, along with her six siblings, by her father, a minister who was more interested in the natural history of mollusks (his passion) than in his parishioners. After her marriage, she spent 30 years in India where her husband, a physician, devoted himself to combating bubonic plague. She wrote and illustrated The Story of Little Black Sambo for the amusement of her two young daughters, never imagining it for publication. Alice Boyd, a friend who was going on home leave, persuaded Bannerman to relinquish her manuscript. Unfortunately, Mrs. Boyd sold the copyright to a publisher for 5 pounds, contrary to Bannerman’s instructions, thus robbing the author of considerable financial rewards as well as control over subsequent editions.

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The book was an immediate success in 1899 and continues to fascinate children a century later. The hero is a joyous character who combines bravery with artless ingenuity when confronted with four fierce tigers who are ultimately brought low by hubris. Bannerman wrote and drew with effortless simplicity, a quality that she applied to ten subsequent books. Her first remains her masterpiece.

The Story of Little Black Sambo is set in India and has Indian characters, but the illustrators of the many unauthorized editions often relocated the story to the American South or to Africa, sometimes with offensive caricatures in the picaninny or golliwog style. Accusations of racism in the 1960’s and 1970’s resulted in the book being banned from many libraries. Revised and rewritten editions appeared with renamed characters, altered locales, and self-consciously respectful images. Although these books were perhaps motivated by good intentions, they are singularly lacking. For the magic, seek out the original.

There is a certain randomness to outrage and censorship: take a look at Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo or Jean de Brunhoff’s The Travels of Babar, both of which remain on library shelves with nary a whisper.

 

 

Madeline

 

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Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

1939

Illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans

The city of New York is home to a hidden trove of murals, prominent among which are those of the Carlyle Hotel, a particularly beautiful art deco landmark. Wander into the Café Carlyle, the cabaret that has been home to Bobby Short, Eartha Kitt, and Woody Allen, and admire the 1950’s pastoral airy cirque-themed walls by Marcel Vertes. For a quieter cocktail, try Bemelmans Bar with its whimsical scenes of Central Park, complete with an ice-skating elephant, roller-skating rabbit, and elegant giraffes, all with delightful hats or bow ties. Along one wall are twelve little girls in two straight lines: the eponymous muralist, who accepted accommodation in lieu of payment, was none other than the author/illustrator of the Madeline books.

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Bemelmans Bar, NYC Murals by Ludwig Bemelmans

Ludwig Bemelmans claimed, in his acceptance speech for the Caldecott Medal (awarded for Madeline’s Rescue), “I have repeatedly said two things that no one takes seriously, and they are that I am not a writer but a painter, and secondly that I have no imagination.” No false humility here. At least for the former, he was right. Witness the bizarre and awkward meter of his rhyming couplet – “And soon after Dr. Cohn/ came, he rushed out to the phone.” Nonetheless, he succeeded in creating one of the most lasting characters in children’s literature, and a story as fresh today as when it first appeared in 1939.

img_1963What is it about Madeline? Start with the opening. “In an old house in Paris/ that was covered with vines/ lived twelve little girls in two straight lines./…..the smallest one was Madeline.” Madeline emerges from the anonymous dozen in a defiant stance, posed like a statue on a dressmaker’s chair (the dressmaker on her knees) – clearly an individual. She distinguishes herself by being spirited and mischievous and fearless and independent, one in a rich canon of plucky heroines (going back to Jo in Little Women and Anne in Anne of Green Gables). Yet there is the reassuring predictability that attaches to being paimg_1968rt of an identically dressed group, the comfort of daily identical routines, the safety provided by the watchful, albeit somewhat inept, care of Miss Clavel at a Paris boarding school, and the love conferred long-distance by a generous Papa.

But it is really the illustrations, deceptively simple watercolor and ink, that make the story sing. There is an energy, created by a diagonal upward slant, that makes for an exultant dynamism. Admire the hospital nun with a white winged cornette, surely the inspiration for the Sydney Opera House, who looks like she is about to levitate. Who could give greater sense of urgency to Miss Clavel as she flies, almost horizontal, to her charges in img_1970the night? There is a spirited joie de vivre that characterizes Bemelmans’ art, whether it be the iconic Parisian scenes that form the backdrop of the Madeline story or the humorous covers for the New Yorker or Town & Country. One has the sense of a life lived quickly and fully without slavery to detail. That Bemelmans once miscounted the dozen in his paintings or was not consistent with Madeline’s hair (which is variously blond, curly red, and black) adds to the charm.

Bemelmans wrote six Madeline books, of which Madeline and Madeline’s Rescue are the stars. There are others created by his grandson, but these do not compare with the originals.

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The Journey

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The Journey by Sarah Stewart

2001

Illustrated by David Small

A beautifully rendered collaboration by a writer/illustrator couple, The Journey transports us into the world of the Amish. The journey begins with the cover illustration; in a circle of lantern light, a bonneted girl with a thin suitcase says farewell to a stolid aproned woman, while a white-bearded moustache-less man holds the waiting horse and buggy at the door of the barn. The next four pages of illustrations show the departure from the farm, the swiftly moving horse and buggy passing through a grove of trees, the transfer to a Chicago-bound bus in the main street of a rural town as dawn breaks, and the arrival at a hotel in the bustling city complete with the El, pigeons, and gawking passersby – all this before the words begin.

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Sarah Stewart’s epistolary text consists of the seven brief diary entries that Hannah writes during her stay in Chicago. Wide-eyed with excitement and wonder, Hannah visits a skyscraper, aquarium, cathedral, art museum, hot dog stand. But this is not a travelogue of the windy city so much as a reflection about her simpler life back home. Through the subtly worded text and alternating illustrations of urban Chicago and rural Amish worlds, we find that Amish children are still educated in one-room schoolhouses, men and women (separately) worship in simple homes, the craft of quilt-making is a communal activity, and dinner consists of vegetables harvested from the garden and fish caught in the lake.

In David Small’s wonderfully intelligent and nuanced paintings, we see the contrasting worlds of the “Plain people” and the “English”. In a department store, a good-natured saleswoman (with spiked heels and bulge-defining dress) holds up a frilly polka-dot trifle for Hannah to consider while her mother and friend laugh in the background. On the following page, we see Hannah holding up the simple blue frock that the ever-competent Aunt Clara, barefoot, has made for her on a treadle sewing machine.   A visit to the Amish reminds us that in this twenty first century material world, a group of people has consciously chosen to live a simple life style modeled upon that of their forebears.

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Sarah Stewart and David Small have produced six children’s books jointly and theirs is a complementary marriage of talents. The Gardener (winner of a Caldecott Honor Award) is particularly worth exploring.

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Over in the Meadow

 

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Over in the Meadow by John Langstaff

1957

Illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky

Over in the Meadow is a traditional counting song that has many iterations. In this version, one turtle, two foxes, three robins, four chipmunks, five honeybees, six beavers, seven frogs, eight owls, nine spiders, and ten bunnies are enjoined by their mothers to do what they are meant to do – dig, run, sing, play, hum, build, swim, work, spin, and hop. John Langstaff, a Julliard trained concert baritone and founder of the Christmas Revels, included the musical score at the end of the text. Even without knowing the tune, it would be difficult to read the words without singing them.

A number of artists have illustrated this song, including Ezra Jack Keats (the Caldecott Medal winner for The Snowy Day), but Feodor Rojankovsky was particularly well-suited. A Russian émigré who fled to New York from Paris at the time of the German occupation, he was a prolific artist who illustrated over 100 children’s books, including The Tall Book of Mother Goose and more than 20 Golden Books. A childhood visit to a zoo which coincided with a gift of crayons inspired a love of drawing animals, and he became known for his realistic depictions of furry beasts. He was a master of the bunny, and many of his books include his signature stretched rabbit, seemingly suspended in air in elongate animation. In Over in the Meadow, using grainy crayon over pen and ink lines, he perfectly captures the soft fuzziness of bunnies and owlets and foxes.

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Rojankovsky was catholic in his range of styles (during the 1920’s and 1930’s in Paris, he illustrated erotic fiction, in addition to jobs with fashion magazines, advertising agencies, and film studios) and this versatility is evident in Over in the Meadow. The cover illustration intersperses his soft furry mammals with stylized creatures in primary colors – a rooster, a robin, a butterfly – all intertwined with leafy tendrils, evocative of Russian folk art or a Ukrainian Easter egg. Rojankovsky created colorful and cheerful illustrations, but his art was not sentimental. Witness the final two-page spread which depicts the natural world at dusk. Many picture books for children end with soothing scenes of bedtime, but Rojankovsky shows the nocturnal world of predator and prey, the yellow-eyed owl swooping down over the fleeing rabbit. His artistic intelligence was honored by the award of a Caldecott Medal in 1956 for Frog Went A-Courtin’, also by John Langstaff.

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

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Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin, Jr.

1967

Illustrated by Eric Carle

Bill Martin, Jr. was on a train heading for New York City when the line “brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” came into his mind. By the time he pulled into Grand Central Station fifteen minutes later, the book was complete, jotted on the margins of his newspaper. He chanced upon an ad portraying a bright red lobster and he hunted down the artist and invited him to collaborate. Eric Carle had no experience as a book illustrator but over a weekend he created the painted tissue paper collages. The resultant book has remained a bestseller for over forty years. Perhaps the spontaneity of its creation ensured its enduring freshness.

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Of the 300 books that Bill Martin, Jr. wrote, there are two that stand out. The first begins, “Brown Bear,/ Brown Bear,/ What do you see?/ I see a red bird looking at me.” Using this template, in the ensuing pages, we meet a yellow duck, a blue horse, a green frog, a purple cat, a white dog, a black sheep, and a goldfish. The second book begins, “A told B,/ and B told C,/ I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree” – this from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, co-written by John Archambault. The key to both is the cadence of the rhythm, in the latter case finger snapping and jazzy. Listen to Bill Martin, Jr. sing Brown Bear with his slightly cracked and off-key voice – it is hard to read the words without giving them a tune. There are a myriad of books that teach the colors, animals, and alphabet, but children return to these two repeatedly because of the melody behind the words.

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Martin was raised in Hiawatha, Kansas in a house without books. He had difficulty with reading until he went to teacher’s college where memorization of poems by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman helped him decipher the written word. In response to a professor’s encouragement, he read a whole book for the first time. Because of his own dyslexia, he wrote books that children could hear. His rhythmic language has greater affinity to song lyrics than to either poetry or prose.

 

 

Madlenka

 

 

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Madlenka by Peter Sis

2000

Illustrated by Peter Sis

East of Tribeca and west of the Brooklyn Bridge, there is a city block ringed with apartment buildings, in one of which lives a young girl named Madlenka. She has a loose tooth, which news she is anxious to share with Mr. Gaston, the French baker. What follows are several pages of all things French, from his greeting (“Bonjours, Madeleine”) to patisserie cuisine (croissants, financiers, madeleines) to French icons (Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomph, Puss ‘n Boots, the Little Prince, the original Madeleine). A square cut-out creates a window into the mysterious bakery from one side and out to Madlenka on the sidewalk from the other. She proceeds to circumnavigate the block announcing her news to Mr. Singh in his newsstand, Mr. Ciao the Italian ice cream vendor, Ms. Grimm the German opera diva, and more. We see elephants and turbans, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Pinocchio, and the Bremer Town Musicians and a Wagnerian Brunnhilde (double dots over the u). There is a density and complexity of visual information that defies a single perusal, beginning with Sis’s detailed cross-hatched rendition of the city block, drawn from a dizzying Escheresque perspective – it is at once a bird’s eye view of the buildings ringing a central garden and a pedestrian’s view of the facades as seen from the sidewalk. Another visual legerdemain is seen in a wolf’s mouth in which the white teeth are also the lit windows of an old-fashioned passenger train.DSC03454

Madlenka is a hymn to the richness of a New York City childhood and the cultural odyssey afforded by a walk around the block. Sis captures the joy and imagination of a child who is known and loved by her exotic immigrant neighbors – easy to do, perhaps, since the girl is based on his own daughter. This is one of Sis’s most accessible books and one that can be read repeatedly without wearing thin

DSC03456Peter Sis (rhymes with peace) penned several loftier books, among them Starry Messenger, which tells the story of Galileo, and The Tree of Life, a biography of Darwin. These are the kind of beautiful books that might be given by a sophisticated aunt to spark a young mind to tackle The Voyage of the Beagle or to develop a passion for astronomy. These are wonderful books for a long winter’s read in front of the fireplace with plenty of time to wonder at the intricate drawings and digress into the footnotes.

It makes sense that Sis should be drawn to non-conformists – visionaries who demonstrated rare courage in challenging conventional wisdom. Sis grew up in Czechoslovakia, as he describes in the graphic memoir, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Corrupted by rock and roll, he rebelled against the repression of the Communist state, and eventually defected to the United States. Initially a film-maker, Sis became a children’s book illustrator and writer, encouraged along the way by Maurice Sendak, but he has also created a NYC subway mural, a stage set for the Joffrey Ballet, and over 1,000 illustrations for the NY Times Book Review. For his myriad accomplishments, he received a MacArthur “genius” Award, one of only a handful of children’s writers or illustrators to be so honored.DSC03457

The Owl and the Pussycat

61BzZrdo1KL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

1871

Illustrated by Jan Brett

“Amiable lunacy.” This was George Orwell’s perfect description of Edward Lear’s poetry. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Lear single-handedly invented the nonsense genre. He began with absurdist limericks, illustrated with his own simple, sometimes surreal, line drawings, and graduated to his longer story poems, of which The Owl and the Pussycat is the best known.

Along the way, Lear invented bizarre characters, imaginary lands, and made-up words. A great traveler himself, Lear sent his characters sailing off to the great Gromboolian plain or the hills of the Chankly Bore or the land where the bong-tree grows – place names that embody the exotic. Of his many neologisms, runcible appeared to be his favorite: he used it repeatedly, as in runcible cat, runcible raven, runcible wall, runcible hat, runcible goose. The owl and the pussycat use a runcible spoon to eat their mince and quince, a utensil that made its way into the dictionary as a pronged spoon (though Lear’s illustration shows it as a ladle).DSC03487

Lear suffered from melancholia, a tone that suffuses some of his poems, especially those that describe lost love, such as The Dong With a Luminous Nose or The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo. But this is not the case for The Owl and the Pussycat, a lively voyage of courtship between an unlikely pair. Nor is it the case for another of the greats, The Jumblies, a journey poem to an earthly paradise and back. For richness of whimsy, fantasy, language, and rhythm in the nonsense realm, Lear had no equal.

Lear’s pen drawings may appear naïve, but he was actually an accomplished artist. He published a highly acclaimed folio of parrots when he was only 19 and later became known for his landscapes depicting distant lands. It was on the basis of his natural history and landscape paintings that Queen Victoria sought him out for drawing lessons. For contemporary illustrations, seek out the edition by Jan Brett. Her detailed colorful paintings are set in the Caribbean and are lush with tropical flowers and fish.DSC03488

Aside: Far and few, far and few,

Are the lands where the Jumblies live;

Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,

And they went to sea in a Sieve.

The Little Engine That Could


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The Little Engine That Could retold by Watty Piper

Illustrated by George and Doris Hauman

1930

“I think I can” became such a standard in American vernacular that the phrase, along with the book title “The Little Engine That Could”, were actually trademarked by Platt and Munk.

Published in 1930 at the onset of the Great Depression, the book appeals to all but the most cynical because of its spirit of can-do optimism. A happy little train chugs along with a jolly load of good things (dolls, toys, stuffed animals, lollypops) for the good little boys and girls on the other side of the mountain. When her engine breaks down, the toys, led by an animated clown, flag down a succession of engines (all male) that refuse to help. Along comes a little blue engine who utters her trademarked phrase, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can,” and manages to pull the load over the mountain just in time to avoid disappointing the waiting children (“I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.”) (Perhaps there is just a bit too much sugary goodness here.)

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The original illustrations were by Lois Lenski, but new illustrations were commissioned from George and Doris Hauman in 1954 and these are the ones with which we are familiar. The little blue engine’s bright open face appears on her smokestack, the gold band on the top giving her something of a Nefertiti look (the engine design was also trademarked.) The toys from the train appear toylike and so does everything else – the trees, including one with a candy cane trunk, are set on little stands, the bottles of milk march along on elfin feet, the apples and oranges have happy faces, and there is an unlikely toylike windmill in the background. There is much to engage and delight.

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And what of the author? Who would have a name like Watty Piper? No one, as it turns out. Despite putative biosketches that have appeared in some books, Watty Piper was the house pseudonym for Platt and Munk – used since the 1920’s for a series of beloved large-format anthologies with names like The Road to Storyland and Stories That Never Grow Old. When The Little Engine That Could first appeared, it acknowledged a predecessor called Pony Engine that was published in 1916. In fact, the story, complete with famous “I think I can” phrase, appeared as early as 1906 in a Sunday school tract of unattributed authorship, and there were many other versions that followed. In 1955, faced with a lawsuit, Platt and Munk offered a $1,000 reward to the person who could prove authorship and it is telling that the prize was divided between three claimants, certainly none of whom were the real McCoy. Not many stories have had as many writers claiming paternity as this one.

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