Thursday, March 23, 2006

Some Classic Children's Books

Ypsi~dixit linked to a great Flickr entry yesterday: a comparison of Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever in 1963 and 1991, highlighting the publisher's subtle editorial changes in both artwork and language over the years from my childhood through early adulthood. Scarry was an interesting guy, as I read in an entertaining (and well illustrated) online "rotten" biography, which also touches on some of the ethnic and sexual stereotypes in Scarry's work.

It got me thinking about all of our classic children's books. My parents (and my in-laws) saved quite a few of my favorites (and my husband's), which our kids now enjoy. Re-discovering these stories thirty years or so later has been an unexpected parenting bonus. Some of the books are undeniably dated, but interestingly so. I love the fiercely mustached firemen (not "firefighters"!) and policemen in A Fish Out of Water, which my daughter demanded several times a day the summer before last. The telephones and bathtubs and even the toothpaste tubes are notably antique, and since I had the words pretty much memorized after the twentieth reading, I had plenty of time to analyze the pictures.

"A boy has fed his fish too much? We will come at once!"

It amazes me how well some of these books hold up today. There were a few (Disney ones, actually) with such crude stereotypes that I had to hide them up on the top shelf of an adult bookcase, but most of the picture books are just as enjoyable for my kids as they were for me. Some of our favorites include: P.D. Eastman's Big Dog, Little Dog, Are You My Mother?, Go, Dog, Go, and Sam and the Firefly.

Then there's Ole Risom's wonderful portrayal of the seasons in I Am a Bunny (illustrated by Richard Scarry), The Bunny Book, by Patricia Scarry (again illustrated by Richard Scarry), The Golden Egg Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, the ecologically prescient The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton, The King, the Mice, and the Cheese, by Nancy and Eric Gurney, and Harry the Dirty Dog, by Gene Zion (illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham).

I haven't even mentioned Dr. Suess, or his alter ego Theo Le Sieg. Sure, you know A Cat in the Hat and Fox in Socks and maybe even The Lorax, but have you checked out Come Over to My House, In a People House, or Hooper Humperdink? - Not Him! ?

One of my favorite authors and illustrators, however, is Wesley Dennis. His Flip books are out of print, but fortunately not too expensive in online stores specializing in used books. (Hurray for the internet! Would I have been able to get these so easily even 15 years ago?).

If the illustrations look familiar, it may be because Wesley Dennis also illustrated Marguerite Henry's popular horse books, like Misty of Chincoteague. I'll bet there's more than a few female readers that devoured Misty, Stormy, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, King of the Wind, and more (all beautifully illustrated by Wesley Dennis) in their horse-frenzied preteen years.

Anyway, I love the Flip books because Dennis' horses and other animals are so realistic. They convey an amazing range of expressions without becoming overly humanized like Scarry's endearing but sometimes irritating animals-standing-in-for-people. The stories are simple but timeless: Flip dreams of having wings and soaring over the farm and being big enough to jump the creek like his mother; Flip overcomes his fear of cows; Flip wakes up before everyone else and annoys them.

I hope these books are still in our family in another thirty years. If my kids ever have kids, it would make me a happy grandmother.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I read In a People House as a kid, found it in a thrift store in Dec. & got it for my son. Also The Berenstain's B book (which is not very good but my sisters and I loved it). Have you read Little Gorilla? Another great one. But from the 70s, not so old.

Why don't more people read your blog? I like it. Nice to hear from you again : )

Sandy said...

I haven't read Little Gorilla, but I think I've seen it at friend's houses. I'll keep my eyes out at my library's used book sale.

A fair number of people read here, but not too many comment. Plus, I post a bit erratically - not everyday, like some bloggers. Thanks for your comment, though.

portuguesa nova said...

I loved the Richard Scary comparison post...had no idea he was still around!

tomama said...

Wonderful post. My daughter is still at the board books stage and your writing brought back wonderful memories for me.

Ypsi said...

I was a Marguerite Henry junkie back in my own preteen horse-obsessed days, and I am hoping desperately that Emily will share at least some of that obsession.

I wish we had some of our old Richard Scarry books around -- I remember them being more of my sister's books than mine (I was older) but they were so cool. I liked how they all looked so calm, and how they were all dressed in lederhosen and felt hats.

firstimpressionist said...

I have always adored reading and have taken my love of childrens books into my adulthood. As a result I became a children's book dealer. I can't imagine a more perfect profession.