Tantrums and Unicorns

The picture book which I should most like to discuss in this review is, alas, unavailable to me—it will probably remain unavailable to most of the population, owing to its list price of $350—and I mention it merely as Lord Melbourne mentioned the Institutes of Justinian to the young Queen Victoria. “It is sufficient that Your Majesty know that they exist.” The object of my desire is the portfolio of illustrations to Alice in Wonderland by Salvador Dali. The project strikes me as a splendid idea, and I cannot think that Sir John Tenniel, iu whatever smoke-filled parliamentary paradise he inhabits, will object to making a place for so eminent a colleague. I could even suggest that Señor Dali add a few more works to his list of possible subjects for a portfolio. Eight Cousins, The Daisy Chain, Tom Swift, might acquire an entirely new flavor if treated to such decorations. But since I cannot lay hands on a copy of Senor Dali’s work at this time, I must restrict my comments to what are, in Jane Austen’s phrase, more come-at-able works.
The Temper Tantrum Book by Edna Mitchell Preston, illustrated by Rainey Bennett (Viking Press) , fills a very real need. It presents a solid rationale for the temper tantrum—each tantrum is illustrated by a young animal in a justifiable fury. “I HATE IT,” says the pigling, “when you give him a bigger piece than me. I should get the most because I like it the most.” “I HATE IT,” shrieks the lionet, “when you comb my hair when it has tangles in it.” The drawings are funny, and the text—a set of easygoing jingles— might well have the effect of soothing the savage breast.
Harper & Row has issued a little book called Stevie by a young American artist, John Steptoe. Mr. Steptoe is, according to the jacket on his book, nineteen years old and has command of a vivid and forceful palette and a style which immediately reminds me of the work of Rouault—a Rouault painting his way through Harlem. The text in this case merely serves to connect a series of household and street scenes —a little boy, Robert, finds himself host to a tiresome visitor, Stevie, who pulls his toys about and invades bis privacy. Nevertheless, when Stevie finally leaves, Robert finds that he misses him. The work would be negligible without the pictures, which could stand by themselves— however, I suppose a picture book requires a text.
Dance in the Desert by Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, is a fantasy on the theme of the Flight into Egypt, with illustrations by Symeon Shimin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The Christ Child and his parents make their way through the desert, and the great beasts of Africa dance and adore. The text has a gentle charm, although I could wish that it had been written in the form of a ballad. Verse convinces where prose has a tendency merely to assert. The pictures, however, brilliantly adorn and support the statement. They are magical. The Lord Jesus is a little Lion of Judah in harmony with a magnificent creation when the morning stars in the shape of great cats, dragons, pelicans, and wild asses dance together to honor Him.
In the last few years we have seen the rise of a singular form of problem novel pointed primarily at people in their mid-teens, although this year the age level seems to have been slightly lowered. I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (a contender for the longest title award if nothing else) by John Donovan (Harper & Row) has a hero who is a scant thirteen. The novel celebrates the child’s homosexual encounter with a schoolfellow. Davy Ross has multiple problems: his parents are divorced, his mother is alcoholic, his grandmother dies, and his dog is killed by a car. He tells it all in the language of The Catcher in the Rye, and the book is craftsmanlike and competent. But its purpose and execution pose a number of questions. The loss of innocence is an adult’s subject. Once we have put it behind us, there is no return to the world or the speech of childhood. The language of children is inadequate to it, and the application of grammar school jargon to corruption and passion is neither natural nor comforting. A young person who has experienced a romantic encounter of the sort described by Davy Ross is probably best served by David Copperfield or even The Magic Mountain, in which such relationships are seen in the context of a larger life. I am also inclined to think that a book focused on a love affair between schoolfellows might have just the opposite effect on this age group from that which the author intended. It would not meet the needs of the initiated and might arouse in the unconcerned unnecessary interest or alarm or both.
Claudia, Where are You? by Hila Coman (Morrow) tells in alternating chapters of the agonies suffered by a runaway daughter—she makes the scene in Greenwich Village since home in the suburbs is too middle class and uptight to be endured bv sensitive sixteen—and a slick magazine-writer mother who has sacrificed true values for the status symbols which the child rejects. The generation gap yawns between the two, and the decision of the parents —to let the girl leave school and establish herself in a Village pad seems more a defeat for all parties than a solution for anyone. The real trouble with this volume is that although it is smooth and professional, there was nothing to write a book about. Adolescence is agony, and the sooner adolescents start to realize this the better. There is nothing so unbearable as generous, understanding parents who want nothing so much as their children’s happiness. No wonder poor Claudia is unhappy. She should have been shaken until her teeth rattled, and then locked in her charmingly appointed bedroom until she came to her senses. But even had she done so—and she is none too bright—it would have been hard to care, because Claudia is basically undistinguished and humorless and has no real problems, only a clutch of grievances. She is never shown in perspective, and since we must take lier with the same deadly seriousness with which she takes herself, we cannot sympathize with her and can only deplore the lack of judgment with which her parents indulge her in her fancy for the squalor of the Village as they have previously—obviously—indulged her in everything else.
Our Cup Is Broken by Florence Crannell Means (Houghton Mifflin) is another “problem” novel, and here I am puzzled about why it has been classified as a “juvenile” or “young adult” book. It tells the story of an Indian girl of the Hopi tribe, caught between two cultures, the white and the Indian, and it tells it well. Sarah, after a long interval spent among whites and a failed love affair, returns to her people, almost as a stranger, and is raped by a member of the tribe. She bears a blind daughter, but cannot marry her assailant because he belongs to her own clan, and such a union would in the eyes of the tribe be incest. Her miseries are almost entirely unrelieved, although she does finally marry a decent and honorable husband, and the novel ends on a ray of hope—slight enough for Sarah and Bennie but gleaming faintly for their children. Alan Paton wrote of the conflict between the pastoral and the industrialized man in Cry, the Beloved Country, and it is fair to say that his book has had great appeal for young people as well as older ones; so by the same token one could expect a similar response for this one, although it has none of the grandeur of the South African novel. But Our Cup Is Broken is honest and poignant; the author appears to know her subjects well and to understand the Indian condition.
It was with relief after reading these books that I came to another story by Madeleine L’Engle, The Young Unicorns (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) . It would be unfair to disclose the plot so I shall refrain from giving any synopsis of this thrilling book. The setting is the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, and there are affectionate references to extant clergy, but the clerical characters in the book are for the most part as fictional as the classicists, scientists, and musicians who populate the book along with the Austin family and Canon Tallis, whose adventures are continued herein. Mrs. L’Engle does not kowtow to mindless prejudice against the higher culture. Her characters live lives of danger and romance in an atmosphere of nameless evil. They read Latin, play Bach, and work with laser beams, all at the risk of their lives, and her New York is dark and perilous and enchanted —as New York is.
The publishers refer to The Black Stallion, the creation of Walter Earley, as “the most famous horse in America.” Since I had never heard of him I thought it high time that I did. He shows his paces through nineteen volumes bearing his name, The Black Stallion’s Ghost (Random House) being this year’s offering. I am overwhelmingly prejudiced in favor of horseflesh, and I must admit to enjoving the book immensely. It opens with a stunning description of an exhibition of dressage and proceeds through a series of genuinely horrifying adventures in the Everglades involving a fetish called the Kovi. The Black Stallion is clever, brave, and good-looking, and as far as I can judge, honest, reverent, and clean; and in every way he makes better reading than Claudia and her troubles. You wouldn’t catch him dead in a pad—either in HaightAshbury or on the Left Bank—and in his artless horsey way he seems to me to carry on in the satisfactory tradition of Black Beauty. A horse must have something to justify nineteen volumes, and I am prepared to put $2.95 on the Black Stallion, win, place, or show.
Looking Glass Library, distributed by Random House, has reissued two “classics”—both books of such a high order that every child who doesn’t own them should find them under the Christmas tree forthwith.
E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It and George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie are works of genius. These are books which one reads as a child and later when one has grown up, with another set of eyes and ears, and they meet the challenge superbly. Five Children and It is one of the funniest of all fairy tales. It is the story of the Psammead (Greek for Sand Fairy) that grants wishes by blowing itself up like a balloon. Instant gratification is not without its consequences, as the five children learn—if you are as beautiful as the day, your own family doesn’t recognize you and sends you hungry away from your own home. Sudden wealth brings the policeall this with E. Nesbit’s comments rippling through the story. It is as fresh today as it was in 1900, and custom cannot stale this author’s infinite variety.
The Princess and Curdie is the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin. It is an austere story of great beauty which brings the miner’s son Curdie through an ordeal of evil to a final redemption. These books have a strong effect no matter what the age of the reader. When I return to them after an interval of years, they seem to have changed and grown up with me. They are full of unexpected sights and sounds which as a child I scarcely realized, but which reveal themselves to me now that I am older. It is just this quality, I suppose, which separates the enduring work from the ephemeral one, and which carries a book from generation to generation untouched by time or fashion.
I cannot conclude this report without recommending the handsome cycle of Lloyd Alexander of which the fifth and last volume, The High King (Holt, Rinehart & Winston) , is the winner of the John Newbery medal for 1969. This is a work of heroic fantasy, set in a kind of mythical extension of Wales, full of mist and magic and exalted adventure.
I must also commend WhenShlemiel Went to Warsaw by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), a collection of tales in the Jewish folk tradition. They are funny and touching and amusingly illustrated by Margot Zemach. For those who like space fiction—and most people do—Encounter Near Venus by Leonard Wibberley (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is an imaginative space fairy story with four believable children whose dull summer holiday leads to a journey to the outer reaches of the solar system. It is, of course, inhabited by a variety of creatures.
And finally for a lullaby—Papillot, Clignot et Dodo by Francis Steegmuller and Norbert Guterman (Ariel) , with pictures by Barbara Cooney. Wynken, Blynken, and Nod sail softly into the French language and cast their nets for the stars under a Gallic moon. The little poem does not fade in the capable hands of its translators but turns into something rich and strange—' “le chant des pays merveilleux . .”