Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Booklouse Recommendations: Kyle Lukoff Meets Frog and Toad

It has been a mightily long time since I've been able to do some decent booklousing, and for this I am truly sorry.  Bits of life rose and fell, preventing me from spending hours digging into the murky histories of vintage books...but these bits now seem frivolous compared to the fact that our planet is in the middle of a pandemic.

As it turns out, it is quite the challenge to find vintage books when one is quarantined in the house.  Who would've known, eh?

So this morning I woke up feeling decidedly booklousy, I was ready to ignore it as I have had to do for many months now, when I realized something so obvious, so simple.

I'm not the only booklouse out there.
Surely I'm not.

There must be others.
They may not even know that they are booklouses.

So I sat down with my coffee in hand and opened Twitter and immediately saw author/librarian/sourdough queen/amazing person/friend & colleague Betsy Bird's tweet about her latest posting on her School Library Journal blog A Fuse-8 Production (
She had invited a guest blogger to step in, and whoo-whee he surely did.  His name is Kyle Lukoff.  He's an amazing school librarian and author who, as he lays it out on his website     (, "[writes] about transgender kids, collective nouns, poetry, and queer lives."
And in this particular guest blog post, Kyle wrote about his very accidental discovery of a  Bed and Breakfast in Provincetown with a most amazing connection to the beloved 1970's early reader "Frog and Toad" books by Arnold Lobel.

But this story is not mine to tell.  It's Kyle's story to tell.  So I'll exercise some self control in my musings about how incredibly fascinated and deeply moved I was by Kyle's story.  The "Frog and Toad" books were first published in 1970. I was 4 years old in 1970 and remember reading them as a young child.  They were among the first books my own two children (now 21 and 23) learned to read, using the same "Frog and Toad" books that once belonged to my husband when he was a child. 

At  their core the "Frog and Toad" stories are about love and friendship.  I understood this as a 4 year old child and I understand this even more deeply and widely now, thanks to Kyle.

Ready to dig in?  Click the link below.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"Old Hundred": Down the Cookbook Rabbit Hole

I was in Half-Price Books perusing the "Old and Interesting" shelves when my eye caught on this book:  "Recipies from Old Hundred".

There was no logical reason for me to feel drawn towards this book.  I'm from California, not New England.  I wasn't even looking for a cookbook.  Nevertheless I picked it up and opened it to a random page in which was tucked a carefully folded long, narrow strip of paper.

A child's spelling paper with the name "David Nelson" written in shaky cursive at the top and dated March 12, 1954.

On the other side was something I recognized instantly--a parent's list scrawled on whatever paper was handy (in this case David's spelling paper).  The list consisted of page numbers and names of about 40 recipes from the very book that I held in my hand. 

I wondered for a few seconds about how many spelling papers like Davids had been grabbed over the years by distracted, busy, tired parents--often mothers--flipped over and used as scrap paper for a quick grocery list or a phone message. 

I saw the spelling list as a random sign that I should buy this book.  So I did.

So let's dig in at the beginning.  The title of the book is taken from the Old Hundred Inn, which was located in the town  of Southbury in Connecticut.  In its heyday it was open March through November for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. (1)

According to Richard Cox in his book "New England Pie: History Under A Crust", Nellie Brown realized that there was a yearning nestling in the souls of her fellow New Englanders: they wanted to eat dishes that hearkened back to an idealized past, such as those described by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1869  book "Old Town Folks":

"In winter's doldrums, chicken pies became a respite from the numbing similitude of preserved meats, baked beans, and brown bread suppers.  The fresh cheer that chicken pies brought to the winter dark and their rekindling of holiday celebrations cemented their place in our regional cuisine" (3) 

So in 1933 Nellie Brown turned her family's summer  home into the Old Hundred Inn and restaurant, leaning hard into "old-time New England food" as the selling point. (3)  Their specialty?  Nellie's modernized version of the chicken pie that sandwiched pieces of chicken and gravy between 2 pie crusts. (3) In short, what we would recognize as a chicken pot pie.

But Nellie didn't stop there!  After World War II she teamed up with Roy Fulton and Samuel Green to create Old Hundred Ice Cream--which was eventually purchased by the bigger brand Baskin Robbins (3). By the early 1980's the Southbury, Connecticut Baskin-Robbins ice cream factory--housed in the same building once used by Fulton, Green and Nellie Brown-- was its most  advanced facility. (4)

But not for long. 

In 1998 Baskin-Robbins shut down its Southbury CT factory, leaving over 50 people job less and adding the Baskin-Robbins name to the list of companies that  had, one by one, closed down their operations in Southbury and surrounding areas leaving people angry, jobless and struggling. (2)

And so here we are, with Nellie Brown and Old Hundred rising from history only to fall back into it. 

There is a tragic kind of connection from  the dark winters and chicken pies described by Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Nellie Brown adapting those chicken pies to being the signature dish of her  inn and restaurant, to Nellie's foray from into ice cream, to  Nellies ice cream company  eventually becoming a part of Baskin-Robbins.  And finally the Baskin-Robbins company that would close it's factory out from beneath a community, sending them into their own dark winter, both literally and figuratively. 

Perhaps then the best way to remember Nellie Brown and her delicious ambitions is with her words, oh so gently borrowed from Michelangelo:

"Trifles make perfection but Perfection is no trifle"


1. Brown, Nellie I. Recipies From Old Hundred. American Book--Stratford Press Inc. 1939.

2. Andrew, Julien. "Old Ice Cream Factory Melting Into History". Hartford Courant. Oct. 29, 1998.

3. Cox, Robert S. New England Pie: History Under a Crust. Arcadia Publishing. 2015. 


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Mysterious, Mellifluous Opal

Opal Irene Whiteley (14)

In introducing Opal Irene Whiteley, I'd like to  propose that people--all of us--are complex.

We have--as Shrek the Ogre emphatically stated--layers.  Yes, like an onion.

We have our public selves and our private selves.  Our younger selves and our adult selves.  Our strong selves and our vulnerable selves.

With this in mind, let's consider the controversial Opal Whiteley.

Opal and her sisters. (6)

Opal (1)
Opal was born on December 11, 1897 in Washington state. (5)  Her father worked in the lumber mills of the Pacific Northwest--a hard, back-breaking and seasonal job that required he and his family to move when the layoffs inevitably occurred. (5).

Opal (the oldest of five children) (4)  and her family moved to Oregon in 1902, and thus the heart of her story begins.

The story goes that at the age of six Opal began writing her thoughts down on scraps of paper.  Her verses--a combination of invented spelling and her own creative voice-- gradually grew into a diary.

The diary was filled with descriptions of the people and events in Opal's small, young life.  And running through every aspect of her writings was her fascination with nature.   Trees, flowers, birds, insects, stars--all of it delighted her and she collected innumerable specimens to explore and study (4).   As she grew older her natural affinity for nature was bolstered by her rumored photographic memory and her reading of numerous books about  nature and science.

Opal became somewhat of a local celebrity--the poor but brilliant young girl with the  photographic memory and encyclopedic knowledge of natural science.  Newspaper reporters seized upon the idea of Opal being a kind of fairy-like genius in the rough.  She began giving nature lectures and eventually found her way into attending the University of Oregon. (5)

And here is where Opal's story begins to take on a kind of strange Alice in Wonderland feel.

One of Opal's staged photos. (10)
It is also where my heart goes out to her.

From the University of Oregon, Opal set out for Los Angeles, CA, in hopes of becoming a movie actress.  She even went so far as to stage promotional photos--perhaps an early form of today's "head shots"--which she brought with her to show  movie studio executives.

When her efforts at becoming a movie star failed, she turned back to giving nature lectures and  writing  in her efforts to not only support herself, but to also try to find a direction for her life. (4)

It was during these years that various sources point to the accelerating decline of Opal's mental health. (8)

Opal brought her work to Ellery Sedgewick at the Atlantic. (5)   Sedgewick was more interested in her chance mentioning of her childhood diary than in her current work.  Believing he had a potential blockbuster on his hands, Sedgewick sponsored Opal in exchange for her to put back together the pieces of her diary (which she claimed had been ripped to pieces by her younger sister).

The transformation of her diary into a published book highlighted some interesting--or perhaps disturbing--facts.

Opal's diary not only contained charming tales of her childhood and nature, but also snippets of French--a language she could not speak and had never studied--and an underlying suggestion that she was not just a young girl from the lumber camps of Oregon, but actually the daughter of French aristocrat Henri d'Orleans, sent forth for her own safety after her royal French family had been deposed. (4)

And thus began the whispers that Opal's diary was nothing more than a desperate creation to save her floundering writing career.   Hints that perhaps she was suffering from a mental collapse.

The public became divided into two camps when it came to Opal and her story:  either they believed her with frantic devotion, or they decried her a charlatan.

In the face of all the tumult and controversy, Opal tried to defend herself, spinning even more fantastic tales about international intrigue, kidnapping, and finally her adoption into a poor family in Oregon. (5)

She finally fled to India and onward to London, where she continued to wrestle with failing mental health.  Various theories have been raised as to the nature of her illness, but there is general agreement that it must have been some form of schizophrenia (5, 8), although how far back into her life her mental illness stretched is not known.   Researchers far more wise and proficient than I point to evidence that Opal suffered a mental breakdown in early adulthood, and point to the possibility that her mother also suffered from delusions not unlike Opal's claims to be the daughter of a French aristocrat. (8)

Still other researchers  believe that Opal may have had Autism or Asperger's Syndrome (12),  both of which I believe would've been treated at the time in the same way as schizophrenia--with the sufferer committed to a mental institution.

Opal, found starving and living in squalor in London, eventually was admitted to the Napsbury Mental Hospital in 1948. (13)

She spent the next 50 years of her life within the walls of that mental institution until her death in 1992. (13)

And so here we are.

Still asking questions about the little girl with the muddy feet who sang hymns to worms, collected butterflies and named the trees.

Was she real?
Did she really write a diary?

Who was Opal Whiteley really?

Most of us, in our sage wisdom and skeptical 21st century self-assurance would decry Opal a charlatan at worst, and a pitiable spinner of tales at best--a woman suffering from life-long mental illness that led to delusions and finally a tragic death within the walls of a mental asylum.

But I have to ask:  must we pigeonhole Opal Whiteley into either of these prisons?

Whether or not Opal's childhood diary is real matters less to me than the charming story it told about a fanciful, imaginative, wise-beyond-her years child for whom the world was both magical and cruel.  Whether Opal wrote it at the age of six or the age of twenty pales against the fact that Opal gave us a unique and charming world into which we could disappear.

And I take Opal's story as a heartbreaking warning:  she lived in a world that understood mental illness even less than we do today--and this is not saying much.  Today people still harbor prejudice against those who suffer from mental illness.  People still reduce mental illness into either a joke or criminality.  Our health care and health insurance  system still, for the most part,  punishes those least able to defend themselves.

When I read Opal's words, I wonder what other incredible stories  she might have been able to give us if she had received proper treatment for her mental challenges.  If she had been guided towards the beauty of creating stories that did not have to be real to be real to the reader.

I don't have to believe that "Opal: The Journey of an Understanding Heart" is a true story for me to
offer Opal my own understanding heart.

She left behind a beautiful gift and legacy.

Her story.










9. "Opal-The Journal of an Understanding Heart" by Oapl Whiteley, Adapted by Jane Boulton. Tioga Publishing Company, Palo Alto. CA. 1984.






Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Once upon a time our planetary neighbors--and the rest of the cosmos--were still a huge, imagination-tweaking mystery.  We had not yet landed on the moon.  Sputnik 1 was still a few years away.

We only knew what we could see and what we could imagine.

And as so often happens with humans, our imaginings, fears and guesses became muddled up with bits of science and a lot of theory and boom--you have books like these written by hopeful people yearning for that GREAT CONNECTION.

I discovered this treasure where I discover so many of my vintage book treasures--at a Half Price Books Store.

You'l find no sketches of space people here.  No faux luxurious binding.  Just a simple book, inexpensively printed, documenting a collection of quasi-scientific, undoubtedly earnest explorations into the existence of intelligent  extraterrestrial life.

Enter the authors.

Chicago born George Hunt Williamson began his fascination with mystic phenomena as a teenager, shifting it into the field of archaeology as an adult (2).   He studied archaeology at the University of Arizona, centering his interest on Native American  history (2).   In "The Saucers Speak!" he delves into  Native American folklore and tales across a variety of tribes that describe  "flying boats" and  "little wise people". George was convinced that these tales served as a  kind of  proof of early extraterrestrial visits (3).

George's fascination with extraterrestrial life, mysticism and the occult grew rather than diminished.   He became a devotee of cult leaders William Dudley Pelley and George Adamski, using supposed telepathic communication via a homemade Ouija board to contact what they came to call the "space brothers"--an interplanetary group of space beings who evidently had learned enough English to engage in telepathic chats. (2,3)

(1) George H. Williamson (left)

Unlike George Hunt Williamson, Alfred C. Bailey was a bit more difficult to research.   George seems to have been the front man in this extraterrestrial-searching duo, with Railroad conductor Alfred Bailey (as well as his wife)  serving as George's main partner in Ouija-informed communications (2,3).

It should come as no surprise then that "The Saucers Speak!" is a "documentary" primarily relying on George and Alfred's copious Ouija-board sessions detailing repeated and at times lengthy "conversations" with "space intelligences" from our neighboring planets  as well as from  distant planets (Andromeda, Planet 15 of Solar System 22, the Toresoton Solar System, among many others*). (3)  Tucked in here and there amid the Ouija-based findings are tales of interstellar contact made by  ham radio operators, space being visitations made to remote  areas, often at night, and  reports of saucer sightings from around the globe.

However it is the transcripts of the Ouija-style "contacts" that are the most engaging--and there are plenty of them.

"Good and evil forces are working now.  Organization is important for the salvation of your world.  Contact us as soon as you can."  (Message from Masar (Mars) to Saras (Earth))  (Pg. 44)(3)

"'To apples we salt, we return.'  You may not understand this strange saying now, but someday you will.  It is from one of our old prophecy legends." (From Zo on Neptune to Earth. Pg. 50)(3)

"Kadar Lacu, my brothers.  I am several hundred years old.  A mere youth.  The time has come to reveal these things to you. If man would only realize that he should love his brother." (Pg. 75)(3)

Here and there George and Alfred also share various radio contacts made with our space brethren, mostly comprised of strings of numbers or letters with jumbled messages tossed in the middle:


So what exactly is "The Saucers Speak!"?  A documentary as the authors claim?  A sci-fi spoof like "War of the Worlds"?  The obsessed fantasies of grown dreamers who are convinced that correlation really is causation?

I don't know.

As I read this book I realized how easily intelligent, well-meaning people can be led astray--led astray by a charismatic leader, or an engaging idea, or by their own minds.   Even now, over 60 years after this book was first published, we have a sizable swath of people who view scientific fact as optional--people who believe that   climate change is a hoax and that evolution is a theory.

Now, I'm not saying that I believe we are entirely alone in the universe with our big brains and opposable thumbs.   I think it is only a matter of time before SETI stumbles upon something mind-blowingly real that will put us in our place.

However I highly doubt that life forms living in distant galaxies would choose to communicate with us via Ouija board or  ham radio.

But you know what?  I may be wrong.

And that's the beauty of the unknown--you never know.

*Don't bother looking up the names of these distant planets.  They resided exclusively in the head of George H. Williamson, Alfred C. Bailey and all their fellow Ouija-board loving interstellar enthusiasts. 


3. "The Saucers Speak!" by George H. Williamson and Alfred C. Bailey. New Age Publishing Co. 1954. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

ぞうのホートンひとだすけ (Horton Hears a Who)


Last week I was once again huddled on the floor in the vintage books  corner of "Half Price Books".

My eye caught sight of a familiar orange-spined children's book.   The corners of the front and back cover were predictably soft and rounded.  Inside on the front end paper a name was printed in bold, decidedly adult handwriting and a large, faint ball point "X" had been scrawled across the smiling elephant face on the front cover.  I got a strong, happy vibe that this may have once been a teacher's book.

Aside from these signs of age, the book was in very good condition.  I levered myself off the floor and sat in a chair, "Horton Hears a Who" gently cradled in my arm.

"Horton Hears a Who!", written and illustrated  by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)  is just one of Dr. Seuss'  many iconic, instantly-recognizable and, indeed, universally beloved creations.  Dr. Seuss' works have been translated into over 20 languages (2) including, of course, Japanese.

And yes, there is a reason I am fixating on Japanese.

I looked at the copyright date inside the front page--the year "1954" hovered  near the bottom. Not quite trusting that I was holding a first edition book, I pulled out my iphone and after about 15 minutes of poking at the tiny screen, I ascertained I was indeed holding perhaps a 1965  or 1966 edition, based on the back cover details and the fact that the list  Other Books by Dr. Seuss in the front of the book ended with two books published in 1965: "I had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew" and "Fox in Socks" (10).

 As a student I must have read this book--or had it read to me--countless times.  As a Early Childhood/Kindergarten teacher I must have read it aloud to students a hundred times more--at least--over my 25 years as a teacher.  I recognized each picture. I recalled each turn of phrase.

But there was one thing I did not recall noticing.  Not once.

The dedication.

"For My Great Friend,
Mitsugi Nakamura
of Kyoto,

How was it that I had never noticed this before?  I lived for coincidences like this.  I had lived in Japan for 8 1/2 years--5 of those years in Kyoto.  And here was a detail in a beloved children's book just screaming coincidence.  Even more perplexing was the fact that I always, ALWAYS pointed out the dedications in the books I read aloud to my students.  Doing so not only brought us closer to seeing the author as a real person, but sometimes also planted a tiny seed in many students about who THEY would dedicate a book to, if THEY were to write a book.

So how did I miss THIS dedication?

Before I could try to discover the identity of Mitsugi Nakamura I had to step back a bit, before "Horton Hears a Who!" was written, back to World War II. Back to the years 1940 to 1948, when Theodor Geisel was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM. (4)

Throughout World War II Theodor Geisel turned his talents, not to writing and illustrating whimsical tales of cats and elephants, but to creating scathing political cartoons and newsreels  that caricatured and demonized those people and countries against whom the United States was fighting in the war--namely Germany and Japan.(5)   While many sources I could find described Geisel as a supporter of civil rights, women's issues and labor unions (5, 6), at the same time he was creating anti-German and anti-Japanese political cartoons which he considered to be part of the defense of his country in wartime. (4)  He, like so many other Americans, felt it was his patriotic duty to stand against Germany and Japan--a duty carried out as much through  his art  as through his 1943 enlistment in the Army as part of Frank Capra's Signal Corps unit.(4,8,11)

So if Theodor Geisel was so anti-Japanese, how is it that he dedicated  "Horton Hears a Who!"  to his "...Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura, of Kyoto, Japan"(1)?

Simple.  He went to Japan.

On March 23rd 1953 Theodor Geisel visited Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe Japan (4,7,8).    He went there on assignment by the Ford Foundation to investigate the effects of World War II upon children and to ascertain the effects of the American occupation. (8) Geisel's friend from Dartmouth, Professor Donald Bartlett, arranged for him to meet with teachers in each city, who then had their students draw pictures to give Geisel of what they hoped to become in the future. (8)

I don't think it is too much of an exaggeration to say that his trip to Japan was life changing.

It is as true now as it always has been:  it is much harder to demonize people once you get to know them. Once you see the world through their eyes.

It was during that trip that Professor Bartlett  introduced Geisel to  Mitsugi Nakamura, who was then Dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto. (8)

According to sources I could find, a close and lasting friendship grew between Geisel and Nakamura-san, with multiple trips made to visit each other over the years and Nakamura-san's daughter even being sponsored by Geisel and his wife to attend college in California. (8)

Geisel's trip to Japan ultimately fueled his desire to write "Horton Hears a Who!"--a book that
has been interpreted to represent Geisel's desire to offer protection and guidance to Japan as they tried to heal from the war, and more specifically, from the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (12)  Across all the articles I read, there was a general consensus that "Horton Hears a Who!" was written as both an apology of sorts for Geisel's earlier, war-tainted views against the Japanese people, as well as a cautionary tale for all of us, countries, governments and individuals alike.

In the course of researching for this post, I came across many academic papers, opinion pieces and blogs that asked multiple versions of the same questions:  How can we reconcile that Dr. Seuss, creator of so many powerful, beloved children's books, was the same man who once drew such painful, racist and dangerous political cartoons? And can we forgive him?

This is perhaps a question wrongly put.

It is not for us to forgive.   Theodor Geisel chose to re-evaluate his beliefs rather than allow himself to stagnate in his former fear and hatred of former enemies.  He kept growing, not towards perfection (a human impossibility), but towards greater understanding.

"Horton Hears a Who!" may have been partly written as an apology. However as I re-read it now, it seems instead to  reflect Geisel's attempt to share the lessons he learned, perhaps with an eye towards building a better future.

The question  is not "Can we forgive him?" but rather "What can we learn from him?"

As it turns out, we can learn perhaps a great deal, and not just through his words and pictures.




3. "Horton Hears a Who"  Dr. Seuss.  Random House. New  York.  1955.










Saturday, July 2, 2016

Troubling Tales of Children of Other Lands

And lo last week  I found myself at one of my  favorite bookstores, "Bookends and Beginnings" in Evanston, Illinois.

So of course I bought some books, including this intriguing tome--"Children of Other Lands".

This was no pristine collectors item...which only intrigued me more.  Published in 1933, this copy of "Children of Other Lands" had clearly been a hands-on book.  Nearly every page includes what seem to be determined graffiti by a child--from the pencil scribbles on  the cover to the random additions of orange crayon on nearly every illustration.   Pages are ripped and the once sturdy red binding is feathering.

 I didn't have to look far to find the identity of the child.  He proudly wrote his name 3 separate times on the end papers:  Herbert Benjamin Nechin.

At first I wasn't sure how I felt about little Herbert embellishing such a lovely book--did the book bore him and he felt he had no alternative but to turn it into a coloring book?  Or did he love the book so much that it was his go-to resource for artistic inspiration?

Hard to say.

After reading this book, however, I found myself hoping that Herbert was expressing his distaste for the text, rather than sharing his approval.

The book is divided into twelve separate stories that tell the tales of representative children from lands around the globe.

Each story gives an overview of the specific country including geography, transportation, boats, customs and a smattering of history.  Individual children from that country are then described in terms of dress, food, entertainment and personality.

I can't put my finger on what precisely makes my skin crawl about these descriptions.    While I can forgive some of the ignorance of global cultures indicative of the 1920's and 1930's, I'm not sure I can so easily let go of the patronizing comments and rhetorical questions, such as in the second story about Japan, where the author points out about the Japanese people "Their skin is not white like yours, but light yellow.  Like the Chinese, they belong to the Yellow Race. Their eyes do not open as widely as yours, which makes them appear to be slanting."  And at the end of the story "How hard it is to say sayonara, which means good-bye in Japanese, to such an interesting country as Japan and to such pleasant little companions as slant-eyed Togo and Yuki-san!".

Nearly all of the twelve stories contain at least one shudder-worthy description.

Which brings us to the author--Watty Piper.   Who was this Watty Piper?

Well, Watty Piper did not exist.

"Watty Piper" was the pen name of Arnold Munk (yes, the "Munk" of the publishers Platt & Munk.) (2)     Arnold Munk/Watty Piper is perhaps best known for writing "The Little Engine That Could". (2)

Arnold Munk (3) 

I wasn't able to find much satisfying information about Arnold Munk, aside from his daughter's apparent disapproval of his pen name. (3)    I found this curious, since Arnold Munk/Watty Piper authored several well-known children's books that have stood the test of time (although "Children of Other Lands" is not necessarily one of them).

The illustrators, however, were another story.

Lucille Webster Holling and Holling Clancy Holling were a husband and wife illustrating team who met while attending the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois. (5)


Holling C. Holling was an avid naturalist and science-lover as well as an amateur ethnographer. (5) Lucille shared many of his interests (5) which leads me to wonder how much of the text of "Children of Other Lands" was influenced by Lucille and Holling.

The illustrations in "Children of Other Lands" are rich and detailed.  The elaborate watercolor pictures are thought to be Lucille's work, while the black and white ink drawings are believed to be those of Holling. (5)


It pains me to see such beautiful--although at times stereotypical--illustrations paired with text that includes  such cringingly dated and even ignorant descriptions of world cultures.

Which is why I find I must step back from this book in order to view it as a time capsule rather than a resource.

"Children of Other  Lands" gives us a peek into how people in the early 1900's viewed the world and the people around them.  While this book does contain interesting factual information, at the same time it is replete with dated, superficial stereotypes about people and cultures.

The sad thing is that I cannot say with certainty that we have left all of these stereotypes behind--
which makes this  book is a poignant reminder that many times beauty, truth and ignorance are often intertwined and can fool us unless we take a closer look.


1. "Children of Other Lands"  by Watty Piper, Illustrated by Lucille W. and H.C. Holling.  The Platt & Munk Co. Inc. 1933. 





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.