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The Three Owls’ Notebook

By Anne Carroll MooreThree Owls

Christmas began for me with the arrival of Puss in Boots, the gayest and loveliest of picture books in a format that is an artist’s dream of a publisher’s interest in every detail of production.

Not only has Marcia Brown revealed fresh creative power in the freedom of her drawing and the use of color in Puss in Boots, A Free Translation from Charles Perrault (Scribner $2.00), the artist’s intentions have been completely understood and carried out with such distinction on title page and type page as to render it in my judgment the most distinguished book of the year.

Marcia Brown has had sympathetic treatment and appreciation from her editor from the time of The Little Carousel. Alice Dalgliesh has well understood her simplicity of approach to a subject, her direct appeal to children and her capabilities for growth in her art and has given her entire freedom for development on her own terms. Marcia Brown has never repeated herself. Each of her books has integrity, a direct appeal to children born of her own familiar relation to children, and Puss in Boots is I think her masterpiece. I like everything about it from her fine, free and unpretentious translation from Perrault to the colorful pages I delight to dwell upon as I turn them again and again. Since I live in a one-room apartment, my choice of books to live with is limited to those of which I never tire. Puss in Boots is one of them.

Beatrix Potter’s Toto Le Minet (Warne $1.00) is not just Tom Kitten in French. It seems to me, as it did to her when she received the first copies of her books in another language than her own, “a fresh discovery.”

It is the sense of freshness and harmony that children feel even more sensitively than any book-loving adult when they untie the Christmas ribbons. “Oh, it’s a lovely book; it looks and feels just right for Christmas!” I’ve never forgotten those words of a young grandniece and they have served me well in making a selection for Christmas for various ages and tastes for I am always reluctant to make a gift of a book which has not appealed to me as having something special about it.

Jenny’s Adopted Brothers, written and illustrated by Esther Averill (Harper $1.50), has a universal quality that touches the heart and gives the familiar small black cat a new dimension akin I think to Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats. Since I am no cat lover I often find stories of cats and adult speculation about them very trying to read. There has to be something special. I find it in Jenny’s Adopted Brothers and I wish I might share this little book with Leslie Brooke and Beatrix Potter whose critical comments were an inspiration during the holiday seasons of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Christmas packages for them were always chosen with care and some trepidation, yet from Beatrix Potter came unforgettable comments in favor of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and the beauty of Hendrik Van Loon’s Christmas Carols, and from Leslie Brooke the finest appreciation of the work of Thomas Handforth in Mei Li and of James Daugherty for Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

This year, if it were possible, I should send Leslie Brooke Curious George Rides a Bike, by H. A. Rey (Houghton $2.75) and his The Stars, A New Way to See Them (Houghton $4.00), an amazing book which I have felt incompetent to review but which holds the secret of Mr. Rey’s books for children. “It is the ways of childhood that are the essential folkways,” says Alistair Cooke in One Man’s America.

In reaching for the stars Mr. Rey has not forgotten the folkways or the kind of personalities children delight in. To have watched him drawing for an audience of children was to feel reassurance about the picture books of the future.

There are many more on which I would like to comment, notably New World for Nellie (Harcourt $2.00) by Rowland Emett, which I touched upon in the October Horn Book. It is a brilliant piece of inspired nonsense which has been given an order and clarity on the page that should be an inspiration to other artists and publishers. New World for Nellie is not a book for a review; it is a book to live with as I have done and propose to keep on doing, finding something new every time I turn to one of those lovely wash drawings so perfect in reproduction as to give the feeling I was seeing an original. Precision and clarity are the essence of nonsense Mr. Emett seems to say.

From picture books I step into real trouble and I may as well confess that I find E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, illustrated by Garth Williams (Harper $2.50), hard to take from so masterly a hand. There is no one whose writing I more deeply regard in the adult field. Stuart Little disappointed me but thousands of people liked it. Stuart Little was a dream story. Charlotte’s Web is born of real life in the wonderful countryside of my own childhood. I grew up on a large farm in Maine. There are chapters of great beauty and rare understanding of the life of farm animals in Charlotte’s Web. They moved me very deeply as I read them without Garth Williams’ fine pictorial interpretation, but as a children’s book it never came clear from the preoccupation of an adult who had not spent a childhood on a farm. The story got off to a fine start. Fern was as living a girl as one could wish when she rescued the runt pig from her father’s ax, but no such country child would have spent day after day beside the manure pile to which the pig was consigned and repeated afterward to as dumb a mother as a parent’s page ever invoked what the animals told her in their language. Fern, the real center of the book, is never developed. The animals never talk. They speculate. As to Charlotte, her magic and mystery require a different technique to create that lasting interest in spiders which controls childish impulse to do away with them.

I became involved again when I tackled The Valley of Song by Elizabeth Goudge, illustrated by Richard Floethe (Coward $3.00). I opened the book with pleasure, remembering The Little White Horse with C. Walter Hodges’ memorable interpretive illustrations, published in 1947. I had liked it very much and said so. I lost my way in The Valley of Song, after the first few pages as I think Elizabeth Goudge has lost hers in writing for children. I was simply inundated by all she presents to be carried along while reading. Time has come to call a halt on what happened a hundred years ago anywhere unless the author can ring a bell for children of today as Rachel Field did in Hitty with Dorothy Lathrop by her side to give character and reality in the pictures.

In the midst of my perplexities came Mary Poppins in the Park, illustrated by Mary Shepard (Harcourt $2.50), and I settled down to such an evening of fine pleasure as I have not known for a very long time. Mary Poppins was needed at this crisis to show a lot of writers how to talk when they decide to put talk into a book for children. The children above all needed her for her understanding of them and her intolerance of all the fuss which is being made about them and their responsibilities in a world they have not yet had a chance to discover for themselves. Pamela Travers has something important to convey to all the organizers of movements to draft the children, and so I think has Ruth Sawyer Durand in Maggie Rose, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Harper $2.00). This is a sensitive picture of a real little girl in a community needing warmth and color and understanding of character. Ruth Sawyer has told it more in the period of The Birds’ Christmas Carol than of the 1950’s, but its essentials ring true and the background of the book is authentic Maine. All the berry picking and clam digging are very real. The format is exactly right and reveals a very sensitive artist behind it.

I am reluctant to close this review without mention of the pleasure I’ve had from Red Sails to Capri, illustrated by C. B. Falls (Viking $2.50). In this lovely book the characters really talk from start to finish and leave one with a sense of vivid companionship in a fresh discovery of the famous Blue Grotto.

Tales of Faraway Folk by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with pictures by Irena Lorentowicz (Harper $2.25), has also given me great pleasure for its wit and wisdom and happy choice of the right words. Ten unfamiliar stories with Asiatic backgrounds are here retold so simply and beautifully one forgets the translators are creative artists. Miss Lorentowicz has given this book just what it needed to convey its singing quality.

I have dipped deeply into the books of 1952 and I have read many which do honor to their creators and publishers. I shall have more to say of my findings in the New Year.


From the December 1952 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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