Monday, August 25, 2008

Fiddling Away the Summer

On the same day that I purchased the aforementioned cookbook, I picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's wonderful kid's book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, illustrated by Dave McKean. There's something charming about these post-David Carson illustrated books, with their grungy disregard for the former proprieties of children's illustrations. We can lay some blame for this--if that's what's required--at the feet of Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, and others who taught us that collage is a legitimate art form, and on David Carson and April Greiman, among others, who taught us that we didn't have to take type at face value. We can, in fact, mess with it.

As much as I love all the artful tomfoolery that gave us Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpiller (or, as my children used to call it, The Vey Hungey D-r-r-r-r), I still remember fondly Walter Crane and his many imitators, and their engaging drawings in books I inherited from my mother, and even my grandmothers. So when, in the process of sorting through decades worth of accumulated miscellanea (as part of the guest-room conversion project), I came upon some of these books, I decided to share them here.

The first is The Story of Silky, by Jasmine Stone van Dresser, with pictures by Clarence Biers and Joan Harman (originally published by Rand McNally in 1924; mine is the 1938 edition, so I don't know who it originally belonged to). The story is a bit silly, but both "Silky" and another story, "The Kitty With the Black Nose," contain lessons about diversity, of all things. The pictures are derivative, as are most from the '20s, of Aubrey Beardsley and Walter Crane, but are not without their own charm.

The second, in what looks from the cover background to be from the same series of Rand McNally books as "Silky," is called Loraine and the Little People of Summer, by Elizabeth Gordon and illustrated by James McCracken (originally published in 1920, but reprinted in 1936). It's inscribed to my mother from her mother (Mummy would have been about 10). I was especially fond of fairy stories when I was little, so I can see why this would have been one of my favorites. Again, the pictures owe a great deal to the Art Nouveau sensibilities still making the rounds. Gordon, according to my research, wrote another Loraine book, involving the Little People of the Ocean.

Finally, my favorite of all: John Rae's Grasshopper Green and the Meadow-Mice, published by P. F. Volland Company whose wonderful logo can just be seen on the back cover, in 1922 (mine is the 16th edition). The front cover appears at the beginning of this post. The story is a marvelous riff on the Aesop fable about the grasshopper who fiddled away the summer and was then turned away by industrious ants. "Now you've probably wondered, just as I used to, whatever finally became of that Grasshopper," says Rae. And off he goes. It turns out to be a story of redemption and friendship--and once again about diversity. Who'd have thought? To top it all off, the whole book, complete with illustrations, is available through the link, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

I was apparently still reading the book when I was in high school, because I recorded my grades in the back. That tells me two things. First, I was rather careless about where I wrote things (it's really an odd place to be writing down Freshman grades), and second, that it might well have belonged to my Uncle Art, since it would have been at Grandma Clarice's that I first read it.

The archaeology of childhood can be extremely revealing. I associate all of these books with places--the first two in Oregon, the last in the Owens Valley--which surprises me little. But they also reflect something about where my values come from: concepts of community, experiences of friendship, and even my aesthetic sensibilities.

I don't have any grandchildren on the horizon. But I do have friends with young children, and when they come to visit, I'll make sure that Grasshopper Green and the Meadow Mice is every bit as accessible as The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish.


A World Away said...

A couple of lovely finds. I love your comment about playing with type and collage. Joseph Cornell and his DaDa buddies did a lot to legitimize collage.
Have you come accross Canadian Nick Bantock and the Griffin & Sabine Series? Stephen

Owlfarmer said...

Bantock's something of a favorite. A few years ago, one of my students gave a presentation on him in my post-1945 class, and created a wonderful book-in-a-box inspired by him as a project. After that, I instituted a "Collage After Cubism" option for the seminar project in the class.

His best work, better even than the Griffin and Sabine cycle, may be The Forgetting Room, which is a mystery story about learning to paint. It's a treasure. Bantock himself has inspired a collage industry, with his influence clearly apparent in mags like those in the Somerset Studios stable. I wouldn't be surprised if he were instrumental in founding the new(ish) scrapbooking craze.

Prairie Gothic said...

I love those graphics and illustrations!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

What a perfectly enchanting blog! I am tickled beyond words to have found you and am adding you to my list of Splendid Locales this very moment!

Best from both of us!

Owlfarmer said...

Why thank you! Now I'll have to spend some time on yours--it looks like we must have our new friend "Worlds Away" to thank. I'm looking forward to seeing what someone who likes my blog has to add to the conversation.

Owlfarmer said...

Oops! Sorry, Stephen: "A World Away"--sometimes I just think a bit too plurally (is that even a word?).

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

I found you through Pamela (and Edward of course) and am so glad I did- this is a lovely collection of writing. I'm going to have lots of fun backpedaling my way through some archives :)