Thursday, May 22, 2008

Robert McCloskey: New England Dreamin' (for Mom)

As the weather gets more hospitable in the middle region of the country, I know that our days in Indiana are numbered. After this warm, breezy May, Indiana will hand us a sticky and oppressive June. But I'm ready for it, because I've got Central Air and Robert McCloskey's classic picture books: rural and urban New England in the 1950s, all around me, and a carton of blueberries chilling in the fridge. It may just be a coincidence (my mother and our heroine share the same name), but my mother's favorite of these is Blueberries for Sal, the story of little berry-eating Sal and her mother, who find a thrill out berry-picking on Blueberry Hill. The thrill is a mother bear and her cub, also out for berries, and what ensues is a sweet little comedy, McCloskey-style.

How different for the Twenty-First Century Adult Reader, who, if she did not grow up with the McCloskey world, is mentally preparing herself for a bloodbath a la "Grizzly Man." When did surprising a mother bear and cub become a cute adventure? Back in the 50s, when bears didn't wander around half-cocked on behalf of their cubs, and the humans weren't so crazy either. I guess that's what it was like. I have Robert McCloskey to tell me so, and the message is reinforced in other books too, like in my favorite, One Morning in Maine, when young Sal has grown a few inches and now has acquired a little sister named Jane. Sal loses a tooth while out digging clams with her father and has a discussion about teeth and baby teeth; she meets a seal and a loon, and rows to Buck's Harbor with her father and Jane to refill the milk bottles and get the boat engine fixed. Why is this charming? Boat repair and a tooth lost in the mud?

The soul of each story is McCloskey's illustrations.
Blueberries for Sal has a color palate of dull yellow and rich blueberry ink, and the page-by-page illustrations in pencil/charcoal give the feel of constant movement. McCloskey draws wind, and the sea ripples where a seal has just submerged his head, with such immediacy, so beautifully, that the pictures enhance the story but never steal it. This is especially true in the way-famous Make Way for Ducklings. Make Way is set on a little island in the Charles River and in Boston's Public Garden, and follows two anxious Mallard parents on their quest for the best spot to build a nest. What follows is the birth and raising of the Mallard ducklings in busy downtown Boston; the title is taken from the genial policeman who halts traffic for the queue of ducklings following their mother.
Lord love a duck, how I love New England, Central Air, clams, berries, and Mr. McCloskey, too.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

If the Name is (Barbro) Lindgren, the Books Will Be Fabulous

One thing I love about the old book hunt is the way a long-forgotten illustration or character will re-emerge, leaving me absolutely baffled. "Baffled" is not an expression that looks good on me, so when it happens I start with Amazon, move on to Abe, and have gone as far as Google's image finder. Recently I'd been having trouble with the tale of the bad baby, a title that should belong to Beatrix Potter. I searched everywhere; all I remembered was a disobedient, highly mobile baby falling into a toilet and beating up on the dog. You'd be surprised (I mean, really) at the crap "bad baby" turns up on Google. Or maybe you wouldn't. Here it is, the fruit of my searching...The Wild Baby by Barbro Lindgren, illustrated by Eva Eriksson. There are several other titles, The Wild Baby Goes to Sea and The Wild Baby Gets a Puppy**For those interested in collecting, the Wild Baby series is out of print and the title book is currently going for high prices in online sales.

Barbro Lindgren and Eva Eriksson also did a "Sam" series, still in print, with titles including Sam's Cookie, Sam's Potty, Sam's Ball, Sam's Bath, Sam's Teddy Bear. Sam is tres cute and has the same line-drawn, watercolored artwork as the Wild Baby, and if the names were the same we might assume Sam is the wild one grown into toddler-hood. If you have any of these books, hold on to them. Yawn.