Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Wonderful Wordless Discoveries

In my explorations of used book stores, resale shops, Goodwills and library sales, I seek out--and often find-- rather odd vintage books.  More often than not, these are books that fascinate me and no one else.

But once in a great while I stumble across something truly splendid.

This is one of those great whiles.

"What Whiskers Did". Ruth Carroll. The Macmillan Company. 1937.

I found this book amid the vintage clearance books at Half Price Books.  The bold block letters on the bright orange spine  caught my eye and inspired me to slide it off the shelf.

 I readily recognized Ruth Carroll's name as an illustrator  (usually in collaboration with her husband, author Latrobe Carroll) that steadily created and published children's books from the 1930's until the mid 1970's. (10) What really excited me was that this was an unusually early  wordless children's picture book.  

Wordless picture books for children may seem completely unremarkable now, but once upon a time the books that were published specifically for children always had words to accompany the illustrations.  

There is, of course, a vast swath of human history devoted to using visual images to communicate.  These include everything from cave paintings and hieroglyphics to wall hangings and stained glass windows. (11).

There are but a handful of surviving examples of early wordless books--most from Europe--of these around half were not intended for children. (11).

Which brings us to "What Whiskers Did".   In my used book store bumblings, it seems I had stumbled upon a 1937 copy of the first wordless children's book published in the United States.

"What Whiskers Did" first edition was printed on July 19th, 1932. (12)  It went through a number of reprints until Ruth Carroll updated it and reissued a second edition in 1965. (3, 8)

But before we get into various editions, let's take a peek at the original.

The original edition of "What Whiskers Did" makes sure to point out the absence of words right on the title page--a fairly clear indicator of the unusual nature of such a book at the time.

Whiskers is a bouncy scottie dog enjoying a walk on his leash with his human--a young boy.

Suddenly he spots some tracks...

Snaps his leash...

and takes off only to find himself on the receiving end of the hungry attentions of a wolf.

Whiskers escapes the wolf by ducking into a rabbit's hole, where he joins the resident rabbit family for dinner and games.

Afterwards Whiskers returns to reassure his crying owner that he was not lost--just having a little adventure.

Caryn Schafer points out in her children's book blog "Three Books a Night" the delightful way Ruth Carroll pushes the illustration out of the frame--interrupting the story just as the tracks in the snow interrupted Whisker's walk. (3).   Carroll continues using this style throughout the story, allowing the fluffy rabbit tails, backs of chairs and bouncing baby bunnies escape the stiff lines of the frame.

I was also struck by Carroll's skillful use of white space to bring dramatic focus on the action in the story.  The clear black details surrounded by white makes it easy to focus on the facial expressions of the animals and progress of the action.

I loved everything about this book,  so it was with a little concern that I discovered that Ruth Carroll updated it in the mid 1960's. (3, 6).

While the story seems to remain the same (I have not yet been able to acquire a copy of the updated edition to compare), the illustrations underwent a noticeable change.


Most importantly, Carroll changed the breed of dog from what seemed to be an adult scottie dog to a poodle puppy.   Both dogs are adorable, and beautifully detailed and probably equally believable as bunny defenders.

But I couldn't help but feel a bit let down by the loss of the scottie dog.   The original Whiskers seemed to bristle with personality, his trademark scottie whiskers even lending him a kind of gentlemanly dignity.


Another change that rather alarmed me was the much more realistic look to the chase between the rabbit, wolf (in the new edition depicted as a fox) and Whiskers.

If we compare the updated version and the original,  the updated version is much more frightening,with the sharp teeth and snarling mouth of the fox front and center, and Whiskers seemingly much more frightened and threatened.

It is perhaps my love of original versions and vintage books that biases me against the 1965 update of "What Whiskers Did".  However there is one thing that remains the same.   "What Whiskers Did" stands out as one of the proud forerunners of the multitude of amazing, artistic and powerful wordless books created today, and even better, a story that, in relying on a child's imagination to tell the tale, has stood the test of time quite well indeed.














1 comment:

  1. Hi Christina

    Like you, I found Ruth Carroll's book at a used bookstore and was immediately intrigued. A few months ago, my partner and I found "The Witch Kitten", wrote a story and created piano tunes with it. The link is here:


    Doris and Colin