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Different Drums: New and Strange, Once

The Horn Book Magazine asked Susan Marston, “What’s the strangest children’s book you’ve ever enjoyed?”

In a field that celebrates the works of Maurice Sendak, William Steig, and Jon Scieszka, and in which anthropomorphic animals are regularly clothed only from the waist up, “weird” is difficult to define.

In 1994, I had worked at Junior Library Guild for three years, helping to decide whether the K–5 titles I read seemed fresh simply because they were different or if they were in fact good. When our company was sold and longtime editorial director Marjorie Jones retired, suddenly that assessment was up to me.

On a train to Connecticut to meet with my new supervisors, I read proofs of Dinner at Magritte’s by Michael Garland. It is a fictional story about historical figures, something I’d been taught to be skeptical of — and it wasn’t perfect. Both the dialogue and paintings were a little stiff. But I loved how Garland turned the ordinary happenings described in the text — a boy named Pierre and his neighbors René and Georgette Magritte walk, play croquet, and dine together — into homages to the surrealist’s dreamlike works. For example, as Pierre and friends walk through the woods, their arms and legs weave in and out of the background (as in Magritte’s Carte Blanche), and Magritte attends dinner in a bowler hat, with an apple suspended in front of his face (à la The Son of Man). I felt sure kids would enjoy these weird images, but as a whole was the book better than all the ones I hadn’t yet seen or read that season?

After the fact, when books that cause me anxiety during the decision-making process (kids in a televised fight to the death, bears that eat hat-stealing rabbits) have become established on our list, their innovations become familiar, their existence seems inevitable, and it’s hard to remember that once, like Dinner at Magritte’s, they were new and strange.

From the March/April 2013 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Susan Marston About Susan Marston

Susan Marston is editorial director of Junior Library Guild.

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