Unlike adults, children have no easy access to literary guides. What they read is usually random. If lucky, they'll be given a few of the classics of children's literature as birthday and Christmas presents. They may bump up against a few others in school. A handful they may see transformed into videos.
But there are many wonderful minor classics and even some major ones they are apt to miss altogether—unless a teacher or a parent or an uncle or a godmother steps in. This article is designed to assist steppers-in with three short essays, each about a wonderful but little-known book for children. Little-known to children, I mean, and also to most parents, godparents, etc. Some are very well known to children's book editors and librarians, and to people who work in the children's sections of good bookstores.
Having had first two children of my own and later four stepchildren to read to, and having read aloud for two or three thousand nights so far; having had a mother who wrote books for children, and later a wife who wrote even better books for children; having taught American literature at Dartmouth College; and having, of course, once been a child myself, and one addicted to reading, I have had virtually a whole lifetime in which to learn about marvelous books written for the young. So, many years ago, when the Washington Post invited me to write a column, "Rediscoveries for Children" on little-known classics, I felt ready. This article—and my book, which is titled A Child's Delight—are based on that column.
Looking at the whole range of children's literature, I have obviously chosen books that I admire and that my children and stepchildren loved. I have also followed a simple rule. I checked each group of books with a group of students, often my own American literature students at Dartmouth. If more than 10 or 20 percent had read it, it did not get in. The Narnia books, for example, didn't have a prayer, nor did Little Women, the Little House books, Kipling's Jungle Book, or Winnie-the-Pooh.
There is just one more thing to be said. In no sense have I systematically covered children's literature. My selections tilt toward the 20th century, partly because it really was the golden age of children's literature, but partly because I feel uneasy with the insistent moralizing of many of the earlier classics, like Charles Kingsley's Water Babies and John Ruskin's The King of the Golden River. (I don't like the quite different moralizing tone of some modern stuff, either, and you will find none of that in here.)
But now it's time to turn to the actual books.
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, 1928
Once there was a little girl named Wanda. She was the eldest child of an artist named Anton Gág and his wife Lissi. Along with her five younger sisters and her one brother, Wanda grew up in a small town in Minnesota.
All seven of the children were artistically gifted, and all "began to draw as soon as they could hold a pencil." (I'm quoting Rebecca Keirn in a book called Three Women Artists.)
But the children didn't just draw. They also made music, told stories, decorated eggs, loved to write. Let's look in on a typical evening, say in the year 1905. Wanda is 12. The whole family is gathered in the living room, which is unlike any other living room in New Ulm, Minn.—and unlike 99.99 percent of living rooms in the U.S. Among his many artistic activities, Anton paints murals, and he has completely covered the ceiling with cherubs and clouds.
Down below, on the mortal earth (or, more precisely, on the floor of the living room), the whole family is grouped around the piano. Lissi plays, and they all sing. Another evening it might be perfectly quiet in the house, because everyone except the baby is busy drawing. A third evening, one of the children might be reading a story aloud, usually one she had written herself. Poor kids, what else could they do with their evenings? They grew up not only pre-television, but pre-radio.
Though Anton and Lissi probably wouldn't have had a TV set anyway. Being Bohemians, they would have scorned to. Anton in fact was a double bohemian. Bohemian with a capital B because he grew up in that part of the Austro-Hungarian empire called Bohemia, where his father had been a woodcarver. He only came to the U.S. in 1873. Bohemian with a small b, as was Lissi, because he was unconventional, non-bourgeois, what was then called a free spirit. I'm not just thinking of the cherub-covered ceiling and the row of little girls busy making sketches. Anton was determined to make his living from art, whether that was a practical idea or not, and in New Ulm, Minn., at the turn of the century, it was a resoundingly impractical one. As Rebecca Keirn temperately puts it, Anton was "an exceptionally competent easel painter in an area where the market for such work was limited." That's your true bohemian: a starving artist.
But it's one thing to starve alone in a garret, and quite another to have seven hungry little faces looking at you down the table. So Anton found a new art. The average American at the turn of the century may not have cared greatly about easel painting or cherubs, but he would buy a photograph, so Anton and Lissi opened a photographer's studio, and they scraped by. Later, Anton even got an occasional commission for a mural in a courthouse or a church.
But bohemians, lower-case, are often physically frail; artists often die young. When Wanda was 14, her father fell ill, and when she was 15 he died. The last words he spoke were to her, whom he considered the most talented of all his children. She must be the successful artist, he told her, that he himself had never quite managed to be.
Wanda was in ninth grade when her father died. She had a few things to do before she could become a major artist, like finish high school and help her grieving mother raise the younger children. They had almost no money. Anton's yearlong illness had been costly, and health insurance was far in the future, like TV.
Wanda helped a lot—was even a second mother—and her financial contribution came entirely through art. As a high school student, she designed and sold greeting cards. She gave drawing lessons. Best of all, she began to sell both drawings and stories to the children's section of a Minneapolis newspaper. (Poor Minneapolis kids: no TV.) In one two-year period she sold 35 pictures, 14 stories (10 of which she also illustrated), and four poems.
After graduation she briefly lapsed into prudence and spent one non-artistic year teaching school. She was 19. Then she got scholarships: first to an art school in St. Paul and eventually to the Art Students League in New York. She never finished the course. Soon after she got to New York, her mother died, which left it to her to finish raising the younger children. She dropped out of the League, moved those children still at home to New York, and supported them all by doing commercial art. In the variety of artistic schemes to make money that she thought of, she showed herself to be her father's true daughter. She painted lamp shades. She did fashion illustrations. She designed interesting toys. And—my favorite—in 1925 she began syndicating a series of picture puzzles that she called Wanda's Wonderland. She was now 32. She had raised the children, she was enjoying a bohemian life in New York City, she had become financially successful. But she had done no major work yet, nothing to fulfill a deathbed promise.
Then, three years later, the miracle occurred. Wanda published her first book, a picture book for small children. It's called Millions of Cats, and it has stayed in print from that moment to this.
It is a very simple book with a very simple story. An old man and an old woman live in a "nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was." What perfect phrasing those last five words are—exactly how a child would see it or say it.
But the old couple are lonesome. "'If only we had a cat,' sighed the very old woman." So the old man sets off to find her one.
What he finds is like the Gág family, only more so. In the famous refrain that runs through the book, he comes on a hill and sees:
Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
He selects one cat to take home. But then he sees another so appealing that he picks that one, too. Then a third, a fourth, and finally he picks the whole several trillion. They all accompany him, and they are like a force of nature. They come to a pond, they all take a drink—and the pond is dry. Now they are hungry. Each cat eats one bite of grass (this is not sound natural history, like Watership Down), and the hills are bare.
The old woman is much startled when the procession arrives: "'My dear!' she cried, ‘What are you doing? I asked for one little cat, and what do I see?'" Then she speaks the refrain. After that she adds, "We can never feed them all."
The ending of the book is actually quite bloody. The old woman asks the cats (they are talking cats) to select the prettiest one of all, for her to keep. The ensuing brawl is so violent that she and the old man run into the house (which may possibly have cherubs on the ceiling) to avoid the noise. Both of them are gentle and peace-loving.
When it's finally quiet again, and they come out, only one kitten is left; the rest have performed the anatomical impossibility of all eating each other. The old couple is happy with the one kitten left.
The ending doesn't feel bloody, though, and that's because it's obvious to a child from the very first wonderful drawing that these are not flesh-and-blood cats, or people, either. Everything is stylized, symmetrical, incantatory—and almost perfectly timeless. Millions of Cats is one of those rare books that feels on publication day as if it had been part of our literature for a couple of centuries. It was seen as an instant classic in 1928, and it remains as pure a delight today as it was then. To those who know the history of the author's family, there is a little extra pleasure in being aware that there is one touch of collaboration. Wanda wrote all the words, and drew all the pictures. But she didn't do the very pretty hand lettering in which the story is told. That's the work of another of the seven talented Gágs, her younger brother Joseph.
One doesn't repeat a success as nearly perfect as this one. Though like both parents she died early, Wanda had time to produce half a dozen other books. All are worth looking at for their art, and the one called Nothing at All is also worth reading for the story, provided you and the child you are reading to have a tolerance for a slightly mechanical plot structure. But only Millions of Cats is up there in the empyrean, safe among the cherubs and clouds. Anton would have been proud.
Mistress Masham's Repose, by T. H. White, 1946
When people get really caught up in a book, they often find themselves reluctant to reach the end. They wonder what the characters would be doing if the author had only let them have a few more chapters. If writers themselves, they may go beyond wondering. They may take over the characters, and give them space in their own books. They may even take over the plot, and write an actual sequel.
T. H. White, the distinguished author of The Once and Future King, was devoted to both practices. As a very young man, he tried continuing Jane Austen in a special Whiteish way. Like most of us, he loved Pride and Prejudice. So he wrote ... not a novel about the married life of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as it would have occurred between 1797 and about 1840, but a 20th century murder mystery, set partly on Darcy's estate. Many of the characters are descendents of Elizabeth and Darcy. That book is called Darkness at Pemberley.
A few years later, he introduced two characters from a Robert Surtees novel into a hunting novel of his own. Since Surtees wrote between 1838 and 1864, his characters would now be quite elderly. No problem. White has them holed up in a sort of large wine cellar. It's the wine that keeps them going.
White also did a bit of rescue work on Robert Louis Stevenson, and at one time he considered bringing Don Quixote into the 20th century. (Graham Greene later had the same thought, and wrote Father Quixote.)
But the best continuation White ever did was in a children's book. He continued Gulliver's Travels. He does not pick up where Swift left off, he merely picks up one of Swift's hints.
Readers of Gulliver may remember that when the intrepid mariner leaves Lilliput, he takes with him a pocketful of Lilliputian farm animals. He's got a little flock of three-inch-long sheep and half a dozen cows the size of chipmunks. These he shows to the captain of the ship that rescues him—in fact, he gives Captain Biddel one of each.
At this point White takes over. In Swift, Captain Biddel now fades from view. In White he steps forward, a look of greed on his face. A shrewd businessman, Captain Biddel realizes there's big money to be made out of tiny farm animals, and even bigger money to be made out of tiny human beings. The first chance he gets, he sails back to the latitude where he picked up Gulliver. He cruises around until he finds Blefescu and Lilliput. He then kidnaps 13 people, plus as many sheep, cows, and thumb-sized sheepdogs as he can grab, and sails home to England. Here, he exhibits his captives in a sort of miniature traveling zoo.
After much suffering, the Lilliputians escape with their animals. They manage to get to a small island in a lake on a country estate, where they hide. Two hundred years later, their descendents are still living on that island, nearly a thousand of them by now: the nation of Lilliput in Exile. How have they escaped detection, right up to the year 1946? Partly by taking extraordinary care, partly through good fortune. It is their good luck that the estate, a ducal one, is both vast and neglected. The lake is choked with water weeds, the island overgrown with briars. No full-sized human being has set foot there in many years.
All that is background. The story White tells begins when a full-sized person does come. She is the heroine of the book and the heiress to the estate, a 10-year-old girl named Maria. Do not imagine some privileged little future duchess. Yes, Maria will be a great lady some day. Right now she is an orphan, left in the guardianship of the local vicar, an odious man. This cleric, the Rev. Mr. Hater, has appointed a remote cousin of Maria's, a Miss Brown, to be her governess. Miss Brown is worse than odious, she is cruel. She and the vicar keep Maria rigidly suppressed; they also siphon off most of what little money still comes in so that the great house of Malplaquet gradually continues to crumble. Maria's only friends are the one servant left from her parents' time, who is the cook, and a remarkably eccentric professor who occupies a gamekeeper's cottage elsewhere on the estate.
Maria, having no parents to love or be loved by, not allowed even to keep a pet, is naturally thrilled when she discovers Lilliput in Exile—and her first act is to steal a baby that she finds asleep in a two-inch cradle. She intends to take it home and keep it (well hidden from Miss Brown) as something to play with and to lavish affection on. When the mother attempts to prevent this, Maria takes her, too. Then she is both puzzled and angry that mother and baby are not grateful at being carried back to the palace of Malplaquet and offered bits of a strawberry. She would have been so nice to them!
Part of the action of the book turns on Maria's discovery that ownership and love do not go well together. Suppose, the Professor says to Maria, you become the patroness of Lilliput in Exile, their Superwoman, their strong protector: "You would be a Big Bug then, however kind you were, and they would be little bugs, without the capitals. They would come to depend on you; you would come to boss them. They would get servile, and you would get lordly." We who live in a Big Bug nation should recognize that description. And maybe wince a little when we think of all the Lilliputs we currently boss—and expect to be loved by.
Maria does learn her lesson, and does become friends with the Lilliputians on an equal basis. They then open their hidden city to her, and share their lives. The best chapters of the book result, as Maria gets to see how these tiny people operate in a world where a robin on the grass can look them in the eye, a domestic cat looms larger than ever a saber-toothed tiger did to the cave people, a swooping owl means instant death. My very favorite describes the fishing expedition she gets to watch. The People keep a square-rigged sailing ship in a secret harbor on the far side of the island, and at night they sail out to hunt pike rather the way Nantucketers used to sail out to hunt whales.
But eventually Miss Brown catches Maria sneaking out to go visit the island—and worse, she then finds several tiny presents the People have given her. Maria refuses to explain where she got these things. When Miss Brown locks Maria in her room, planning to starve her into submission, the People eventually come in force, about 500 of them, to bring her food. (Three whole roasted bullocks, 48 loaves of grass-seed bread.)
The worst possible thing then happens. Miss Brown catches a Lilliputian. She and the Vicar realize, far more clearly and ruthlessly than Captain Biddel did in the 18th century, that the owner of a lot of miniature human beings can get very rich indeed. A thrilling struggle ensues, with Maria, the People, the Cook, and the Professor on one side, and the Vicar and Miss Brown on the other. The People eventually win.
T. H. White was a good and possibly a great writer. Like most such, he was prepared to take almost infinite pains. Mistress Masham's Repose went through four radically different versions between the time White began to write it in 1942 and its publication in 1946. In the first version, for example, the Vicar and Miss Brown speak in Elizabethan blank verse.
But even the fourth version, the one that finally got printed, is not quite as good as it might have been. White was in deep grief at the time he finished it, almost incapacitated. "I lost the only living creature I loved on the 25th of last November," he wrote sadly in 1945, "and I know that I shall call out her name when I die." Polishing the manuscript with a cool head seemed out of the question. So he sent it to his best friend, the novelist David Garnett, with instructions to edit it freely: "You may leave out whole chapters, if you like, for I trust your taste implicitly and my own not at all."
Garnett cut no chapters, but he did write T H. White a memorable letter. It is part gasp of pleasure and part solemn warning.
"You have stumbled upon a most beautiful subject which you will never get again & you have the opportunity to write a masterpiece," Garnett said. Some of that masterpiece is already present, he went on, but much of the book is spoiled by facetious and tiresome jokes, by "a lot of twaddle about Miss Pribble [as Miss Brown then was] and the Vicar," and so on. Plus an overindulgence in capital letters when the Lilliputians are talking, I'd add.
"It is a real tragedy," Garnett concluded, "for you are on the edge of a book which will make you immortal." He begged White to delay publication and to revise still more.
White listened to what his friend said, and he did make extensive new changes. They are not extensive enough. It was The Once and Future King that would make White immortal, not Mistress Masham's Repose.
And yet, as finally issued, it is a masterpiece, though a flawed one. I can think of few greater pleasures in reading aloud to a bookish child than to read that child first Gulliver's Travels and then Mistress Masham right after. If the child happens to be especially observant, he or she may notice that Swift uses the Lilliputians (and the Brobdignagians and the Yahoos) to belittle human nature, but White uses them to magnify it. It is a stunning book for a child to know.
Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun, by Rhoda Blumberg, 1985
Four ships are approaching a foreign coast. They are not expected and not welcome. Especially since two of them appear to be breathing fire. More Europeans to bother the King of the Jolliginki? No, this is Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy, coming to bother the Japanese. President Millard Fillmore has sent him to open Japan, which has been closed to foreign visitors since the year 1636. It is now 1853.
Hundreds of American whaling ships, like Melville's Pequod, are cruising the Pacific, and with some frequency one or another of them gets caught in a typhoon and wrecked on the coast of Japan. Surviving crew members wind up in Japanese jails. The first aim of Perry's mission is to put a stop to that. Second: Promote trade. Third: Get in ahead of the British, French, and Russians, all of whom are itching to open closed doors.
There are plenty of books about Perry in Japan, including Perry's own Narrative of the Expedition, various journals kept by his officers and men, and many accounts by 20th century historians. But Rhoda Blumberg has done something special, and has produced a really fine book for older children. For those whose taste runs to the exotic, an irresistible book. And it's all true.
Two things distinguish Ms. Blumberg's book from the many others. One is that she knows and tells both sides: how the Japanese looked to the Americans, but also how the Americans looked to the Japanese. This she does both in her text and in the illustrations, of which there are about 60.
In the text, for example, you get to sample the reports made to the shogun's government by a man named Manjiro, who knows more about Americans than anyone else in Japan. Reason: His fishing boat was wrecked in a typhoon when he was 14, and he was rescued by a homeward bound American whaler. He lived for 10 years in Fairhaven, Mass., and then in California, before he slipped back into Japan.
Manjiro has all sorts of things to tell the government, many of them not in the least related to Perry's ships or mission. For example, in America, Manjiro reports, "it is customary to read books in the toilet." It is also customary to have a dinky little wedding, followed by that extraordinary thing, a honeymoon: "For their wedding ceremony, the Americans merely make a proclamation to the gods, and become married, after which they usually go on a sightseeing trip to the mountains. They are lewd by nature, but otherwise well-behaved."
The illustrations are more interesting yet. About one-third of them are done by Americans, mostly by the two official artists who accompanied the expedition. Some are just stunning, like a painting of the augmented squadron that Perry brought for his second visit in 1854. Nine warships under full sail, a sight of heartrending beauty.
But it's the two-thirds by Japanese artists that give one to think. Many are sketches of Americans: of Perry himself, of Captain Joel Abbott of the U.S.S. Macedonian, of common sailors on shore leave. Without exception, we have long sharp noses and too much hair. We look fierce, barbaric. One reason this book is for big children and not small ones is that the Japanese portrait of Commodore Perry on page 23 could easily give a person nightmares. What might give a person a fit of laughter, on the other hand, is the illustrated chart that instructs Japanese men how to dress like Westerners. The Japanese artist didn't intend it as a joke; he is quite serious with his cravats and top hats and heraldically crossed black umbrellas. But to think that our ancestors deliberately chose to dress like that, and that the silly 19th-century Japanese wanted to copy them, how could it fail to tickle a jeans-clad 12-year-old? Ms. Blumberg's second great strength is the richness of context she provides. It's remarkable. I have read a fair amount of Japanese history, and have spent time in Japan besides. I thought I knew most things about Perry's expedition and its context. I was wrong. To take just one example, the traffic across the Pacific in that remote era was far greater than I had realized. Consider the spring of 1854. While Perry and the nine ships he had brought for the second visit were still anchored in the northern port of Hakodate, what should come sailing in but one of those American whalers? The Eliza Mason, 21 months out of New Bedford. No fear of jail now, with the great guns of the Powhatan and the Macedonian trained on the port.
The whaling captain and his wife and young son are on shore in a flash. The wife, Abigail Jernegan, is the first Western woman to set foot in Japan in about 240 years. She happily spends the night on shore, and when she goes back to the Eliza Mason the next day, she is soon followed by a messenger carrying a beautifully wrapped package. Inside is something she forgot on shore: an ordinary pin.
Fifteen days after the squadron left, the first tourist ship arrived. It was actually a private yacht, the Lady Pierce, owned by a Connecticut millionaire named Silas Burrows. He had no idea that the Japanese had just signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, thus reopening the country to visitors. He had made his own arrangements for slipping through the closed door: He had brought another Japanese castaway along to be his excuse for stopping. A man of imagination, he had also had some special gold coins minted in San Francisco, to give as presents. He gave them out, all right, but very soon he got them back. Like official American coinage then and now, his special coins had the word "liberty" stamped on them. Liberty was not a thing the shogunal government altogether approved of. The coins were collected from the recipients and returned to Mr. Burrows.
American children are said to be notoriously weak in history and geography. Books like this seem to me to be an ideal strengthener. There is no dumbing down. There is just such richness of detail that the child is apt to forget all about TV, and go right on reading.
Oh, one last thing. Who said he would get kissed if only they'd sign the treaty? That was Commodore Perry, age 59. He has just been entertaining five Japanese commissioners and their retinues aboard the Powhatan. He has served a great deal of liquor. One of the commissioners is a bit drunk. As he leaves, "He hugged the Commodore so hard that Perry's new epaulettes were crushed. Perry did not mind the hug. 'Oh,' he said to his officers, 'if they will only sign the Treaty, he may kiss me.'"
Didn't know dignified commodores could joke like that, did you?
Noel Perrin (1927–2004) was professor of English, emeritus and adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College. This article is excerpted from A Child's Delight, by Noel Perrin and reprinted with permission of both the Trustees of Dartmouth College and the University Press of New England, Hanover, N.H. © 1997.