Top 10 Underappreciated Children’s Books, 3/3June 4, 2011
These are the top three, and I’ve put them in an order, but it’s not an important order. These are some of my favorite books, and I love them too much to be able to judge which I love the most. I have no idea how I managed to write anything about them, or why I thought I could in the first place. If you asked me about any of these three books in person, I would gape like a fish and flail a little bit. This is not speculation; it is a thing I’ve done.
A note on illustrations: All three of these books have illustrations that are inextricably bound up with the experience of reading the books. These aren’t after-the-fact illustrations: Ruth Gannett’s were done by her stepmother. Russell Hoban’s were done by his wife. Jean Merrill gave Ronni Solbert a cameo in the book. So if you decide to go looking for any of these books (do!), make sure you get the original illustrations.
3. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett. Illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.
My Father’s Dragon is the story of Elmer Elevator. He meets a stray cat one day, and she tells him about Wild Island, where a baby dragon is used as a ferry by the other animals — he’s tied to a tree with a rope just long enough to let him fly back and forth across the river that almost splits the island in half. The cat promises that the dragon, if freed, will be so grateful that it will fly Elmer anywhere he wants to go, so Elmer packs a backpack full of odds and ends — including six magnifying glasses, a toothbrush, and an empty sack bearing the word “Cranberry” — and stows away on a ship headed for the island of Tangerina. He crosses over to Wild Island via a long string of rocks, and almost immediately begins to encounter the cranky, gossipy, and intensely human animals who live there.
Elmer is pretty great, but the animals are somehow the much more vivid characters. Some are bored; some are self-conscious. There’s a mouse that speaks in spoonerisms. Animals act like people in children’s books all the time, but it’s somehow different here, and better: the animals speak to each other and to Elmer, they chew gum and put up signposts, and they have thoughts and feelings and problems that come with self-awareness. But there’s no nonsense about wearing clothes or living in houses, or all the animals acting as if they’re one species. The lion is worried that his mother will stop his allowance, but he still wants to eat Elmer, and so do the crocodiles.
There’s also something sort of wonderfully atmospheric about My Father’s Dragon. Part of it is the narration, which consistently refers to Elmer as “my father.” It makes the story seem less fantastical somehow, and as if it happened a long time ago, but I think it’s just as much due to the gorgeous illustrations, which aren’t quite like anything else I’ve seen. Elmer and the various wild animals have a very cool, distinctive look, but really it’s the foliage that gets me, for some reason. It’s interesting and exotic and it really manages to evoke Wild Island as a separate, distinctive place. But it’s not just those things. It’s everything, coming together pretty much perfectly.
2. The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban.
Russell Hoban is a hard author to categorize. On one hand, you’ve got things like Bread and Jam for Frances, which is a picture book, and nice, but not particularly exciting. On the other, there’s his adult fiction, which is difficult to categorize, but contains elements of science fiction and magical realism, and which has earned him a small but rabid following. I’ve only read a few of his books. I want his oeuvre to last me a long time.
Anyway, The Mouse and his Child falls right in the middle of Hoban’s range. It’s an incredibly intelligent book, but not in a condescending way, philosophical and direct, oblique but not obscure.
This is the story of two wind-up mice, a father and son who hold hands and dance in a circle. They’re bought, brought out to play with on several Christmases, and eventually smashed, at which point they’re rescued by a tramp who puts them (mostly) back together. They find themselves in a junkyard, the domain of Manny Rat. One of Manny’s business ventures is a squad of broken-down wind-ups that forage for him, so he presses the mice into service. They soon escape, and Manny Rat makes it his mission to track them down and smash them. Can they elude him? Will they be reunited with the elephant and seal wind-ups they met in the toy store? Will they acquire their own territory? Will they become self-winding? Well, of course they will. But a lot of animals are going to get eaten along the way.
I love the world Russell Hoban has created here, part Borrowers, part Wind in the Willows, with added satire and existentialism. The mouse father and son start out completely clueless, but they learn from every experience, and each one is particularly attracted to different sets of ideas. It’s hard to pinpoint the moment where they stop being wide-eyed onlookers, and become a force to be reckoned with, and that’s part of what makes it great — the change is so gradual that it doesn’t ever feel contrived. And even Manny Rat gets a change at redemption.
Everything in this book feels important, somehow. When you try to dissect it, there’s nothing all that significant happening, but when you just let the story happen, it seems profound. I always find myself with weird phrases stuck in my head when I’ve been reading it — “a dog shall rise; a rat shall fall,” “the last visible dog,” “out among the dots” — most of which sort of have to do with canned dog food, and also the concept of infinity. Outside of The Mouse and His Child they don’t really mean anything, but inside it, they have the effect of making the book seem both wide-ranging and complete in itself. And terribly significant. I think Russell Hoban could probably start a religion if he tried.
1. The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill. Illustrated by Ronni Solbert.
The Pushcart War is a history of events that have yet to take place — specifically, an epic battle for the streets of New York City. And that probably sounds a little bit weird, but none of it ever seems particularly weird in the book. It was originally published in the ’60s, and I read somewhere that new editions of the book change the dates mentioned so that it still takes place in the future. And that makes sense, because it still seems like it could.
Basically, trucks have gotten too big, with predictable results for traffic. The Three — truck company owners Moe Mammoth, Louie Livergreen, and Walter Sweet — think that the solution to this problem is to get every other kind of vehicle off the street, starting with the pushcarts. But the pushcart peddlers aren’t going down without a fight. And as that fight gets underway, all sorts of people are pulled into the conflict, from failed mayoral candidate Archie Love to movie star Wenda Gambling. And then there’s Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King. I love most of the characters in this book, and especially the various peddlers, but Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King…I don’t even know what to say about him, except that just typing his name (and title) makes me feel overwhelmingly joyful. When you read about the capture of the bulletproof Italian car, you’ll understand.
I’m a sucker for fake histories, and I love the invented shorthand notes and interviews and phone book excerpts. And I love that it’s about New York — that it’s not just set here, that it feels like the city I grew up in. And I love the large cast of supporting characters, and the idea of ordinary people all over the city banding together to fight the selfish trucking companies. And I think this is one of the best children’s books ever written, but I can’t really be objective about it because it’s so full of the things I like best. On the other hand, it’s possible that these are the things I like best because of this book. I don’t remember when I first read The Pushcart War. I feel like I’ve loved it all my life.
But no, I take that back. This book is just so, so good. It’s funny and smart and it probably satirizes even more things than I’m picking up on. And it’s a book for fairly young readers, but it’s not just for kids. There’s just so much stuff, and I think the older you are the more of it you’ll pick up on. I always have trouble deciding whether the things I love really are good, or if I just think they are because I love them so much. But you know what? This book — these three books — are genuinely, objectively wonderful. Just like Maxie Hammerman, the Pushcart King.