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 Children of Green Knowe

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The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston

1954

Illustrated by Peter Boston

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

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So begins The Children of Green Knowe. And already we are witness to a rare exquisite prose and a gift for conveying character, describing nature, and creating mood. Lucy Boston penned this, her first manuscript, at the age of 62, and she proceeded to write six volumes of the Green Knowe chronicles, inspired by the 12th century Norman house that was her home.

Tolly is en route from his lonely boarding school existence to spend the Christmas holidays with his great grandmother in the ancient castle of Green Knowe. Mrs Oldknow provides the kindness, wisdom, and solace that is lacking in his life, his father and step-mother being off in remote Burma. She shares with him the stories of three children who lived at Green Knowe in the 17th century, and gradually Toby, Alexander, and Linnet come to people Tolly’s world. Lucy Boston is able to convey perfectly the palpable richness that accompanies the spirit children, even when they are invisible and silent, contrasted with the flat emptiness when they are absent.

The beautiful blend of reality and fantasy that is introduced in The Children of Green Knowe is continued in The Treasure of Green Knowe, every bit as good as the first. This time “the others”, who come from the turn of the 19th century, are Susan, a young girl blind from birth, and Jacob, a slave boy from Barbados brought to England to be her eyes. The Green Knowe chronicles, with their breathtaking writing, are a treasure of children’s literature, and it is a shame that they are so little known.

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Box:   “At one side there was a beautiful old rocking horse – not a “safety” rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.”

Box: “At school he was learning to ride real horses. They were not, alas, at all like Feste, Toby’s horse. Their coats were not shining silk but rough like railway upholstery, and when one patted them, clouds of dust came out.”

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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.

 

 

Black Beauty

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Black Beauty: The Autobiography of a Horse by Anna Sewell

1887

Black Beauty chronicles the life of a horse in Victorian England, from birth to final home. Born into the world of the landed gentry, he works as a riding and carriage horse until a drunken coachman recklessly gallops him to a fall, thus irrevocably damaging his knees. In an inexorable downward spiral, he is sold from one owner to the next until he ends up as a London cab horse, whipped by a cruel driver who pushes him past the limits of endurance until he drops in his traces. By a fortuitous twist, he is sold to someone who perceives his good blood lines and he ends up not far from his ancestral home, cared for by a coachman who had looked after him when they were both young.

Written in 1887, Anna Sewell intended her book “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”. She wrote it as an instructional treatise for those who worked with horses, rather than a children’s book. After working on it for six years while a housebound invalid, she sold it to a publisher for 20 pounds and it had an initial run of 100 books. It has since sold over 50 million copies and has never been out of print, a run-away success that was wholly unanticipated. Sewell, unfortunately, never witnessed her success, since she died only a few months after publication. Her aims were certainly realized, however, since Black Beauty was instrumental in effecting improvements in the treatment of horses and in the abolition of the use of bearing reins, a cruel practice in vogue at the time which forced carriage horses to keep their heads high.

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Black Beauty was written as a first-person (or rather first-horse) narrative and it is a tribute to Anna Sewell’s knowledge and sensitivity that she so realistically and empathetically captures both the pleasures and tribulations of a horse. Every reader can feel Black Beauty’s distress when the cold bit is forced into his mouth when he is broken in, or Ginger’s angry desperation at having her head pulled back tight by the bearing reins. It is this getting inside the experience of a horse that is the book’s real strength. And Anna Sewell’s earnest sermonizing (her Quaker background and anti-temperance activities are much in evidence) is interspersed with enough exciting adventures (the broken flooded bridge over which Black Beauty refuses to take his master, the fire in the stable, the midnight ride for the doctor, the lady on a runaway horse) to keep children enthralled.

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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My Side of the Mountain

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My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

1959

Illustrated by Jean Craighead George

My Side of the Mountain is the first of a trilogy, written over a 40 year period, that includes On the Far Side of the Mountain and Frightful’s Mountain. Young Sam Gribley, with the blessing of his parents, runs away from their home in New York City and settles on his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskills, taking with him a penknife, ball of cord, ax, flint and steel, and $40. Over the course of a year, he learns the skills necessary to lead a self-sufficient life in the forest. He creates a snug home in the core of an old-growth hemlock tree. He fashions deerskin clothes from road kill or animals abandoned by hunters. He spends most of his time, as hunter gatherers invariably do, finding food for subsistence. His menu is remarkably varied – dogtooth violet bulb and dandelion greens salad, fresh water mussels, hickory nuts, crow eggs, baked cattail roots, turtles, trout, mushrooms, venison jerky, sassafras and pennyroyal tea, wild strawberries, and May apples. Seeing a peregrine falcon soaring above, Sam is inspired to become a falconer to ensure a consistent meat supply. He plucks a chick from its cliff-side scrape and, with guidance from library books in the closest town, sets out to train her. Frightful becomes a magnificent bird and an accomplished hunter, and Sam has soon added rabbit and pheasant to his standard diet as well as the loyal companionship of a wild raptor.DSC03064

The two subsequent books in the series have a bit more rise and fall in the way of plot, aided by the appearance of bone fide villains, two scurrilous bird poachers. But it is remarkable that a book in which the greatest suspense comes from the uncertainty of whether Frightful will continue to brood her eggs in the face of bridge repairs could be so captivating. Jean Craighead George has devoted her writing career to exploring the interface between humans and nature and she grapples with all its messy complexity. She writes about a real world in which predators kill prey, humans sometimes act with venal intent, political decisions have unanticipated destructive consequences. At the same time, people and wild animals have mutually dependent relationships of deep affection, children are able to effect positive change, and endangered species are brought back from the brink through environmental activism. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in his forward to the third volume, cites My Side of the Mountain as the formative book leading to his fascination with falconry and career as an environmental lawyer, and he is not alone in having found inspiration in this book while an impressionable child.

DSC03059Jean Craighead George was raised in a family of adventurous naturalists and she knew her material firsthand. Her entomologist father taught his three children how to survive in the wilderness and all three became accomplished falconers as adolescents. Her books, and especially her illustrations, provide a how-to manual for any child who wants to follow in Sam’s footsteps. Some years after launching her Sam Gribley series, George spent a summer studying wolves in the tundra of Barrow, Alaska, and she was inspired to write her second noteworthy trilogy, beginning with the Newberry Medal winning Julie of the Wolves.DSC03060