Last week, I accepted a generous invitation from my friend K for an afternoon of coffee and children’s books. K’s sister, Zacha, is transitioning from her duties as a first-grade teacher to the music classroom and is looking for new homes for her classroom books. So K and I spent a few hours sorting and skimming. Reading textbooks from the 1970s. Primary school biographies of Christopher Columbus. Fables and poetry collections.
There were some familiar titles. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. Seriously, who doesn’t love If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? The stand-out spines of Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy and the single-color illustrations of Dick-and-Jane style easy readers. A worn but still beautiful copy of The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats, author of the better-known Snowy Day. Others were new to me, but their strangeness reminded me of the ways children’s literature crystallizes in striking and sometimes quirky ways the cultural tenor of a particular moment. A version of Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, published in 1979 with artwork by an illustrator named Phil Smith. The yellows and blues, the stylized silhouettes of the wicked stepmother and her foil, the fairy grandmother, remind me a little of Aubrey Beardsley, with perhaps a hint of late-70s Saturday morning cartoons.
And one of the treasures of the day: The Monkey in the Rocket by Jean Bethell and pictures by Sergio Leone, published in 1962. It recounts, according to the introduction, “the launching of our first monkey into space.” (Our first monkey? Surely apes existed before the sixties.) But never fear, grammarians. The story of Sam the monkey “is a subject of high interest to today’s youngsters, and lends itself to dramatization and the discussion of space exploration.” Kids who encounter The Monkey in the Rocket in their formative years might end up engineering students in my composition course, where I will teach them to avoid such blatant passive voice.
As K and I worked through the cardboard boxes piled against the wall, I began to appreciate the way certain illustrations in childhood books bury themselves deep in your brain, waiting to be re-animated by a chance encounter in a library or bookstore. When those images rattle back to life, decades later, they can activate an entire portrait of your life as a young reader. The inked pictures in Munro Leaf’sFerdinand do that for me every time. And anything by Leo Leonni. I remember sitting at a kindergarten desk carefully designing, in my six-year-old way, a collage seascape inspired by Swimmy. Those small squares of colored tissue paper always get a bit smeary and drippy and slidey under the influence of a sticky bottle of Elmer’s, but I was an ar-TEEST.
I felt that quick flash of the familiar when, during my afternoon with K, I happened upon Robins and Rabbits by John Hawkinson. I never owned this book as a child, but the watercolor illustrations on each page generated a surge of recognition. The brush-stroke animals are subtle and comforting.
And maybe it’s the temperatures outside or that heady feeling of school dismissed, but the book reminds me of the strange freedom of out-of-classroom reading. Those afternoons when it was too hot to circle the cul-de-sac on my bike, newly free of its training wheels, or too rainy to head to the public pool for Marco Polo and ice cream sandwiches and the excruciating stretch of time known as adult swim. I remember sprawling on the carpet of the family room, my forearms stinging a little from yesterday’s sunburn, lazily leafing through the pages of a picture book I had outgrown two or three years ago. If I had owned a copy, I’m sure Hawkinson’s book would have been a favorite those days.
And there’s something more I appreciate about these illustrations. I like children’s book illustrations that let animals be animals. Sure, I have an appreciation for Paddington, and Mr. Toad is one of my favorite literary personalities. (One can’t help but fall for an amphibian whose motor-car speeds through the woods with a simultaneously funny and charming poop-poop.) But the squirrels and rabbits and bullfrogs in Hawkinson’s book are wonderful in their candidness. They care nothing for you and your trappings of humanness. I can imagine encountering that bullfrog there by a creek in my childhood town of Franklin, Tennessee.
It’s easy to whine about the status quo of throw-away, Disneyfied children’s literature when presented with such a trove of long forgotten but still beautiful illustrations. But work like this is still out there. And someday, the children of my family and friends — Andrew and Andy and Jude and Caroline and Baby Sang — might stumble upon an old copy of a picture book by Gregory Manchess and feel that strange ache of excitement and nostalgia.