Magic Casements

Books for Kids That Stand the Test of Time

By Terri Schmitz

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of reading Eleanor Farjeon's entrancing introduction to her short story collection The Little Bookroom (1955). She described growing up in a house filled with reading material, where "it would have been more natural to live without clothes than without books." Although there were books in every room, the little bookroom was given over to them completely, crammed floor to ceiling with haphazardly arranged titles, "much trash, and more treasure." Every visit the young Eleanor made to the bookroom was an expedition of discovery, every book examined had the potential to be a lifelong friend. I desperately longed for just such a room, to experience what Farjeon so enticingly described: "That dusty bookroom, whose windows were never opened, through whose panes the summer sun struck a dingy shaft where gold specks danced and shimmered, opened magic casements for me through which I looked out on other worlds and times than those I lived in: worlds filled with poetry and prose and fact and fantasy."

The child Eleanor, born in 1881, grew up to be an accomplished writer best known for her lyrical poems and stories for children. Sadly and undeservedly, most of her work is now out of print, with just the odd poem occasionally appearing in one anthology or another. Several years ago I was delighted to see Candlewick publish two different editions of her lighter-than-air story "Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep." And now, the New York Review of Books, which is just embarking on a program to reprint children's classics, has chosen The Little Bookroom as one of its inaugural offerings.

The Little Bookroom is an immensely satisfying collection of Farjeon's own favorite stories, easy to get lost in, and lingering in the mind long after the book is closed. Her delight in language and mastery of form draw the reader in immediately: "One night the King's Daughter looked out of her window, and wanted the Moon"; "There was in the village a simpleton who was not the ordinary type of village idiot, by any means"; "Did you ever hear the tale of the Six Princesses who lived for the sake of their hair alone?" The stories defy categorization, mixing fact and fantasy, sense and nonsense. There's nothing cloying or sentimental about them, shot through as they are with wisdom and longing, taking unexpected plot twists just when you think you know where the story is headed. The black-and-white crosshatch illustrations by Edward Ardizzone elaborate on the stories without overwhelming them.

Several of the stories could easily stand alone as excellent picture books. I particularly liked "The Little Dressmaker," in which the unselfish nature of a young seamstress, who is forced to sew dresses to make other girls look beautiful, is rewarded in the end, but not quite the way we expect. "The Seventh Princess" relates how a wise, regretful queen makes sure that her beloved daughter's life is happier than her own. A little boy's touching devotion to his very ordinary father is protected by a compassionate teacher in "The Connemara Donkey." And the relationship between 10-year-old Griselda and her 110-year-old great-grandmother is almost unbearably poignant in the unforgettable "And I Dance Mine Own Child." Like the magic casements of her childhood, Farjeon opens windows for us into worlds both mysterious and reassuringly familiar.

Another welcome reissue from the New York Review Children's Collection is Esther Averill's Jenny and the Cat Club (1973), a collection of five of the 13 stories Averill wrote about Jenny Linsky, a plucky little black cat whose bright red scarf gives her courage. Jenny is an orphaned cat, living in Greenwich Village with her rescuer Captain Tinker. Her dearest wish is to become a member of the Cat Club, a group of neighborhood cats who meet every night in the captain's garden, but she feels too shy and untalented to ever be accepted by the others. The first story deals with how she screws up her courage, develops a special talent, and is welcomed into the Club. In subsequent adventures she goes to her first cat dance, loses her scarf, and gains two adopted brothers. With endearingly simple illustrations by Averill herself (nothing could be loopier than the picture of Jenny teaching the other cats to do the sailor's hornpipe), the stories can be easily read by second-graders and enjoyed by children as young as four. When this title arrived in my bookstore just before the holidays, it fairly flew off the shelf. I was amazed at the number of customers who remembered these stories fondly and couldn't wait to share them with their children.

Mention should be made of the two other titles in the New York Review Children's Collection, which unfortunately demonstrate that out of print is not always a bad thing. The Crane (1970), written and illustrated by the Polish author Renier Zimnik, is allegedly a parable of war and peace in which an unnamed crane operator becomes one with his machine and stays at his post through good times and bad. The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily (1946), written and illustrated by Dino Buzzati, is an even odder tale of a race of bears who descend from the mountains of Sicily, conquer the cities of Men, and then return to the mountains when their leader realizes that they have been corrupted by aping the ways of humans. I must confess that both titles left me puzzled and not a little irritated. They seem to be curiosities directed at adults, destined for a place in college bookstores where earnest undergraduates can debate the deeper meanings behind the simple texts.

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In sharp contrast, Eleanor Estes's The Alley (1964), reprinted by Harcourt, is perfectly attuned to the concerns and thought processes of real children. Estes, author of the beloved Moffat family stories, gives us a window into a tightly knit Brooklyn neighborhood, providing a meticulous look at the hierarchies inherent in any group of children. Ten-year-old Connie Ives is the central figure in the large cast of characters, and the events, such as they are, revolve around the thrilling episode of a burglary in the neighborhood and the attempts of the Alley children to solve the crime. However, the unhurried pace and the spot-on child's-eye-view of events make this far less a mystery than a skillful depiction of the fluctuating loyalties and animosities that bind the band of children together. In 1972 Estes produced a sequel, The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, but I'm sorry to report that in the time that elapsed between the two books she seems to have completely lost her ability to inhabit a child's mind. Told in the first person by Nicholas, the story centers on his belief that there is an undiscovered tunnel running beneath the Alley. The narration is endless, the slang unreadable, the situations unbelievable. Altogether it's a mess of a book that would have been better left in deserved obscurity. Both books have appealing new covers by Peter Reynolds, with the original black-and-white interior art by Edward Ardizzone.

Like Eleanor Estes, Virginia Sorensen excelled at giving us a glimpse of family life. Well-known for her adult novels featuring Mormon characters, she also wrote several highly regarded children's books, including Plain Girl (1955) and the Newbery award-winning Miracles on Maple Hill (1956). These two titles have just been reissued by Harcourt with new cover art by Kevin Hawkes and the original interior art by Charles Geer (Plain Girl) and Beth and Joe Krush (Miracles). As a child, I was fascinated by Plain Girl with its sympathetic and appealing portrait of Esther, an Amish girl being sent to public school—and the wider world—for the first time, against the wishes of her father. Miracles on Maple Hill was also a revelation to me. Marly's father, a decorated World War II veteran, has returned from the war with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. I had never before read about an imperfect father, one who was angry and withdrawn and liable to lash out unpredictably at his wife and children. The story itself is a little too tidy, dealing with the healing power the family experiences at the mother's old farm, but Marly is a complicated, interesting child, and her conflicted feelings about her father are honestly drawn.

Often the books that influence us the most show us views that are painful to confront. I will never forget the shock I felt in the mid-sixties when I stumbled across Lorenz Graham's South Town (1958) and North Town (1965). Growing up in a small town in southern Minnesota, I was only vaguely aware of the civil rights movement roiling the southern states. Graham's novels about an ordinary African-American family confronting implacable racism brought the struggle vividly to life. Graham, a pioneering African-American writer for children, chronicles the fortunes of David Williams and his family. In South Town it becomes increasingly impossible for them to live "normal" lives in the segregated South, so they make the difficult decision to move north. North Town details the whole new set of problems that emerges after they move. David is determined to become a doctor, and two further novels, Whose Town? (1969) and Return to South Town (1976), continue the story of his education and return to the South to set up his medical practice. What was and is still so extraordinary about these books is their honest portrayal of hard-working people up against attitudes and actions beyond their control, and the feelings of anger and helplessness they fight to overcome. Re-reading the books, I was struck by how powerful they remain, even though similar stories have since been written by many other talented writers. There is definitely an instructional flavor to much of the writing, but it's impossible not to care about David Williams's fate. Boyds Mills Press, which republished Graham's magnificent How God Fix Jonah in 2000, deserves thanks for reissuing these important novels. Rudine Sims Bishop provides an insightful foreword (reprinted in each book) putting the stories into their historical context.

An equally shameful episode in American history is chronicled in Joyce Rockwood's To Spoil the Sun (1976). This meticulously researched novel tells the story of Rain Dove, a 16th-century Cherokee girl, and the devastating effect smallpox, brought by European colonists, had on her clan. Much of the book is an affecting look at the customs and way of life of the Cherokee, as Rain Dove comes of age and starts a family, making even more tragic the swift and inescapable progression of the epidemic.

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Two engaging fantasies round out the season's reissued novels. Terry Pratchett's The Bromeliad Trilogy (HarperCollins) is a wickedly funny compilation of three novels he wrote about a race of four-inch tall "nomes" inhabiting a department store: Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990). The imminent closure of "Arnold Bros (est. 1905)," the store that has been their home from time immemorial (nomes have very short life and attention spans), forces them to flee out into the wider world they have only known about through ancient nomic myths. In the process, they learn to drive a truck, operate earth-moving equipment, and pilot a plane, eventually discovering the astonishing secret of where nomes originated. It's a fast, funny, and thoroughly entertaining fantasy for both children and adults, satirizing anything and everything in our world as seen through the eyes of the nomes. The other cheerful offering, from Random House, is a new edition of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964), the rollicking story of the Potts family and their magical car (license plate: GEN II). It's a great family read-aloud, with plenty of action: narrow escapes, bands of international smugglers to be outwitted, and a car that knows her own mind and isn't shy about ordering the Potts family around. Unaccountably, the original illustrations by John Burningham have been replaced by the rather flat art of Ian Cunliffe. It's a pity that every chapter has the same opening picture of the family flying in the car—nothing like ruining the suspense of finding out just what makes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang so unusual.

Several new editions of classics are worth mentioning. Houghton Mifflin has an appealing 100th anniversary edition of Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), with old-fashioned color plates by Barbara McClintock that perfectly suit the story. Harcourt's 50th anniversary edition of The Borrowers (1952) by Mary Norton is a lovely gift edition with Diana Stanley's illustrations from the original British version, a letter, and drawing by Mary Norton, and an informative foreword by critic and historian Leonard S. Marcus. We've been without any new editions of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (1883) for some time; now there are two. Helen Rossendale and Graham Philpot have abridged and retold the original story in The Adventures of Pinocchio from Dial Books, with brightly colored illustrations by Philpot of a swaggering blond Pinocchio. Candlewick's slipcased edition of Pinocchio is the complete text, translated by Emma Rose and illustrated with quirky collages by Sara Fanelli. Both are a far cry from the familiar Disney version most parents are looking for. I had certainly forgotten that early in the original story an irritated Pinocchio squashes the talking cricket flat. So much for Jiminy Cricket.

Glimpses of other times and places can be seen in several notable collections now making their reappearance. Adèle Geras's captivating My Grandmother's Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folk Tales (1990) from Knopf has been exuberantly illustrated by Anita Lobel. A little girl describes things in her grandmother's apartment that prompt her grandmother to recount wondrous stories: cutting up apples for a strudel leads to "Bavsi's Feast," the story of a man who learns the true meaning of hunger; a tapestry on the wall reminds her of "A Tangle of Wools," in which a young woman wins over the parents of the man she loves; the grandmother's complaining friends inspire "The Market of Miseries," where a kvetching woman learns that it's better to keep one's familiar troubles than to go shopping for new ones. The stories are clever and wise; the relationship between the girl and her grandmother is deep and affectionate.

The American folklorist Richard Chase compiled two stellar collections of Appalachian folktales: The Jack Tales (1943) and Grandfather Tales (1948). Houghton Mifflin has published new editions of these robust tales—European folktales with an unmistakable American backwoods flavor. The Jack Tales features the brash Jack in adventures such as "Jack and the Bean Tree," "Jack and the Varmints," and "Fill, Bowl! Fill!" Chase also came across other tales, which, published as Grandfather Tales, are also transmuted European folktales, such as "Ashpet," or Cinderella; Robin Hood in "The Outlaw Boy," and Hansel and Gretel transformed into "The Two Lost Babes." They are all told in colorful Appalachian dialect, and the scholarly notes appended are useful for students of folklore as well as storytellers.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has reissued a handsome new one-volume edition of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm (1973), translated by Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell, with haunting illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Originally published in a slipcased two-volume edition, this collection contains 27 of the 210 Grimm fairy tales, from standards such as "Rapunzel" and "Snow-White" to unfamiliar tales such as "Godfather Death" and "Frederick and His Katelizabeth."

There was a surprising dearth of worthwhile picture book reissues this season, but a few can be welcomed back with open arms. Internationally acclaimed artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari's glorious alphabet book Bruno Munari's ABC (1960) has been republished by Editions de Seuil in collaboration with Chronicle Books. The crisp, clean lines make this a visual treat even for the very young (watch for the meandering fly that escapes from the F pages). It's also a pleasure to become reacquainted with Mercer Mayer's series of wordless books about the adventure of a boy and a rambunctious frog. Starting with A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog (1967), the series continued with Frog, Where Are You? (1969), A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend (1971), Frog on His Own (1973), Frog Goes to Dinner (1974), and One Frog Too Many (1975). Each is a tiny masterpiece of storytelling, with expressive characters and easy-to-follow action. I'm relieved and grateful to Dial Books that no attempt was made to change the cozy trim size, colorize the artwork, or—heaven forbid—add words. They're perfectly satisfying as they stand. Felicia Bond's irrepressible pig Poinsettia is back in Poinsettia and the Firefighters (1984). Getting a room of her own is unexpectedly unnerving and insomnia-inducing to the usually self-possessed Poinsettia. ("‘Oh, no!' Poinsettia whispered, ‘I am the only one awake.'") After her wakefulness alerts the family to a nearby fire, she meets the fire department's night watchman, who tells her that it's his job to stay awake all night. Reassured, Poinsettia finally falls asleep. Farrar is publishing new paper editions of Uri Shulevitz's The Moon in My Room (1963), a quiet evocation of a child's universe ("This is the little boy. This is his little room. In his little room there is a whole world."), and the splendid One Monday Morning (1967), in which a king and his ever-increasing retinue try unsuccessfully through the week to visit a little boy, who is always out doing other things. The colorful parade of royal retainers stands out sharply against the boy's drab, rain-soaked New York neighborhood. At last, on Sunday morning, the much-anticipated visit takes place in this charming tribute to the power of a child's imagination.

In 1986 Arnold Lobel illustrated The Random House Book of Mother Goose, a volume fairly bursting at the seams with 306 classic rhymes. Now rightfully called The Arnold Loebel Book of Mother Goose, this oversized collection pulsates with color and life, with some of the illustrations so hard to contain that the book has to be turned on its side to accommodate them. The extensive compilation of both well-known and obscure rhymes makes this new edition an essential collection for every baby's bookshelf.

"Poetry and prose and fact and fantasy"—the best of this season's reissues open for us the ever-widening vistas Eleanor Farjeon so eloquently described. Even though I have not yet achieved my own Little Bookroom (although owning a bookstore is pretty close), I will be forever grateful to her for articulating what we who love books all instinctively know: There is no limit to the worlds we can inhabit when we look through the magic casement of a book.


Terri Schmitz is owner of the Children's Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., and a regular contributor to The Horn Book Magazine. This article originally appreared in the March/April 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine and is reprinted with permission.


Titles Reviewed Above

Esther Averill, Jenny and the Cat Club: A Collection of Favorite Stories about Jenny Linsky; illus. by the author. New York Review Books. ISBN 1-59017-047-4. $16.95.

Felicia Bond, Poinsettia and the Firefighters; illus. by the author. Geringer/HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-053509-1. $14.99. Library edition ISBN 0-06-053510-5. $14.89.

Dino Buzzati, The Bears' Famous Invasion of Sicily; illus. by the author; trans. by Frances Lobb. New York Review Books. ISBN 1-5907-076-8. $18.95.

Richard Chase, selector-editor, Grandfather Tales; illus. by Berkeley Williams Jr. Houghton. ISBN 0-618-34691-0. $17.00.

Richard Chase, editor, The Jack Tales; illus. by Berkley Williams Jr. Houghton ISBN 0-168-34693-7. $17.00. Paper edition ISBN 0-618-34692-9. $7.95.

Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio; retold by Helen Rosendale and Graham Philpot; illus. by Graham Philpot. Dial ISBN 0-0837-2919-7. $19.99.

Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio; illus. by Sara Fanelli; trans. by Emma Rose. Candlewick ISBN 0-7636-2261-3. $18.99.

Eleanor Estes, The Alley; illus. by Edward Ardizzone. Odyssey/Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-204917-7. $17.00. Paper edition ISBN 0-15-29-04918-5. $5.95.

Eleanor Farjeort, The Little Bookroom: Eleanor Farjeon's Short Stories for Children Chosen by Herself; illus. by Edward Ardizzone. New York Review Books. ISBN 1-59017-048-2. $18.95.

Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Random ISBN 0-375-82591-6. $15.95. Library edition ISBN 0-375-92591-0. $17.99.

Adèle Geras, My Grandmother's Stories: A Collection of Jewish Folk Tales; illus. by Anita Lobel. Knopf ISBN 0-375-82285-2. $19.95. Library edition ISBN 0-375-92285-7. $21.99.

Lorenz Graham, North Town. Boyds Mills ISBN 1-59078-162-7. $16.95.

Lorenz Graham, Return to South Town. Boyds Mills ISBN 1-59078-164. $16.95.

Lorenz Graham, South Town. Boyds Mills ISBN 1-59078-164-3. $16.95.

Lorenz Graham, Whose Town? Boyds Mills ISBN 1-59078-163-5. $16.95.

Arnold Lobel, selector, The Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose; illus. by the selector. Knopf ISBN 0-679-88736-9. $19.95. Library edition ISBN 0-679-98736-3. $21.99.

Mercer Mayer, A Boy, a Dog, and a Frog; illus. by the author. Dial ISBN 0-8037-2880-8. $5.99.

Mercer Mayer, Frog Goes to Dinner; illus. by the author. Dial ISBN 0-8037-2884-0. $5.99.

Mercer Mayer, Frog Where are You?; illus. by the author. Dial ISBN 0-8037-2881-6. $5.99.

Mercer Mayer and Marianna Mayer, A Boy, a Dog, a Frog, and a Friend; illus. by Mercer Mayer. Dial ISBN 0-8037-2882-4. $5.99.

Mercer Mayer and Marianna Mayer, One Frog Too Many; illus. by Mercer Mayer. Dial ISBN 0-8037-2885-9. $5.99.

Bruno Munari, Bruno Munari's ABC; illus. by the author. Seiul/Chronicle ISBN 2-02-061075-2. $15.95.

Mary Norton, The Borrrowers; illus. by Diana Stanley. Harcourt ISBN 0-15-204928-2. $19.95.

Terry Pratchett, The Bromeliad Trilogy. HarperCollins ISBN 0-06-00949301. $17.90. Library edition ISBN 0-06-054855-X. $18.89.

Joyce Rockwood, To Spoil the Sun. Holt ISBN 0-8050-7372-8. $16.95.

Lore Segal, selector-translator, The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm; selected and illus. by Maurice Sendak. Farrar ISBN 0-374-33971-6. $30.00.

Uri Shuylevitz, The Moon in My Room; illus. by the author. Farrar paper edition ISBN 0-374-45314-4. $5.95.

Uri Shuylevitz, One Monday Morning; illus. by the author. Farrar paper edition ISBN 0-374-45648-8. $6.95.

Virginia Sorensen, Miracles on Maple Hill; illus. by Beth and Joe Krush. Odyssey/Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-204719-0. $17.00. Paper edition ISBN 0-15-2047189-2. $5.95.

Virginia Sorensen, Plain Girl; illus. by Charles Greer. Odyssey/Harcourt. ISBN 0-15-204724-7. $17.00. Paper edition ISBN 0-15-204725-5. $5.95.

Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm; illus by Barbara McClintock. Houghton ISBN 0-618-34694-5. $20.00.

Reiner Zimnik, The Crane; illus. by the author; trans. by Nina Ignatowicz and F.N. Monjo. New York Review Books ISBN 1-59017-075-X. $16.95.

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