16 November 2016

The Night The Old Nostalgia Burned Down, Again

Last month I wrote about books I dug up recently  because I remembered them from my childhood.  I ended by saying "Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid."  But instead I talked about my non-conversation with a taxi driver.  So here we go.

If you are familiar with Crockett Johnson it is probably because of his wonderful books about Harold and the Purple Crayon which have inspired children's imagination (and the occasional wall-scribble spanking) for many years. Bill Watterson, the creator of the marvelous Calvin and Hobbes comic strip,  also said that Harold was all he knew of Johnson.

The reason he was asked about Johnson is that Calvin bears a certain resemblance to Ellen's Lion.  Both feature a young kid (Ellen is a preschooler, a bit younger than Calvin) whose best friend is  a stuffed animal.  In both cases the beastie has a completely different personality than the kid, but the animal can't speak if the kid's mouth is covered.  (And now that I think about it, it sounds like both artists were describing a child having a psychotic break.  But put that out of your mind.  Sorry I brought it up.)

What I like best about Johnson's stories is that the imaginary friend, so to speak, is the realist in the pair.  When Ellen asks the Lion about his life before they met she wants to hear about steaming hot jungles, but all he remembers is a department store.

By the way, Johnson also created one of the most brilliant comic strips of all time. Barnaby ran during the early forties and featured another preschooler who, in the first episode, wishes for a fairy godmother.  Due to wartime shortages he was instead assigned Jackeen J. O'Malley, a three-foot-tall fairy godfather with a grubby raincoat, magenta wings, and a malfunctioning magic cigar.  Mr. O'Malley introduces Barnaby to such characters as Atlas, a three-foot-tall giant (he's a mental giant), some Republican ghosts, and a talking dog who will not shut up.

The other book I hunted down for my kiddo has nothing to do with Crockett Johnson but does mention Atlas.  The original one.

d'Auliares' Book of Greek Myths, written and illustrated by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, started me on my lifelong love of mythology.  Not only are the pictures unforgettable but the writing is very well done.

One thing I love about it is how cleverly they slip around, well, the naughty bits that you might not want to explain to an eight-year-old.  In the chapter on Theseus they explain that Poseidon, god of the sea, sent a white bull to the island of Crete, which King Minos was supposed to sacrifice to him:

But Queen Pasiphaë was so taken by the beauty of the white bull that she persuaded the king to let it live.  She admired the bull so much that she ordered Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow, so she could hide inside it and enjoy the beauty of the bull at close range....

To punish the king and queen, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë to give birth to a monster, the Minotaur.  He was half man, half bull…

Every adult, I imagine, understands exactly what the dAulaires said that the Greeks were saying about Pasiphaë, but it goes right over a kid's head.  (Did mine, anyway.)

The book is still in print.  Unfortunately the binding is not as long-lasting as the text and pictures.  I have had to replace it about once a decade.

Ah well, no mysteries this week, unless you count the mystery religions.  Or Mr. O'Malley's encounter with the fur coat thieves...


  1. Great to learn about Crockett Johnson's comic strip, and also to know someone else got hooked on the Greek myths early. Our one room schoolhouse had a small bookcase for a library and one of the few books was Bullfinch's Mythology. I love it to this day.

  2. We're big fans of Harold--but I didn't know about Ellen's Lion! Ordering now....

  3. Art, the sequel is THE LION'S OWN STORY. ONe thing i didn't make clear is that Ellen is a bright, imaginative, ACTIVE little girl, awfully rare for a 1959 children's book.

  4. A couple of other writers in the late 50s, early 60s who wrote wonderful bright, imaginative, active little girls is Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, and the Austin Family series) and Andre Norton (I remember her Witch World series with great fondness). Also Cordwainer Smith and his Underpeople, specifically C'Mell (a humanoid descended from cats), in his fictional universe (Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, and The Ballad of Lost C'Mell) - who are active, important, but (especially appropriate to a child) have no civil rights, and thus are fighting against overwhelming odds.

  5. My knowledge of greek mythology is shamefully deficient. I'm wondering if d'Auliare's Book of Greek Myths might be a good start in getting me up to speed, even without the naughty bits.

    One thing's certain: the books we read as children have a lasting impact. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Yeah, I remember Harold and the Purple Crayon very well & purple is my favorite color. I love that Barnaby comic strip!

    For little kids, I recommend the books by Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon and The Color Kittens. I had to buy a second copy of that one because my daughter tore it up. Not to be a bad girl, I think she was just being exuberant. And for children in third grade or above, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It's about a very smart, independent little rich girl in New York City who is left to her own devices & entertains herself by finding things out about people. Do not waste your time on the movie.

  7. Oh, I love these books! Back in High School I read our library's bound back-issues of Life Magazine and one issue had a full page spread of "Barnaby!" A lot of readers thought W.C. Fields (Still alive at the time!) would be perfect to play Mr. O'Malley in a movie!

  8. Good gosh! I just remembered! Have you read "Half Magic" by Edward Eagar? (Or "Eager?" I don't have the book handy!)

  9. As you say, clever wording about the faux cow. My parents had a way of looking at one another that we took as a naughty-bits signal, which sometimes we figured out and sometimes we didn’t.

    Speaking of scribbling on the wall… My grandmother’s house was built with a telephone alcove complete with a built-in bench and phone shelf… not a hot features these days but nice for its time. My youngest brother Ray tried out his art skills on the alcove’s wall and got a serious whomping as a result. But a funny thing… When my grandmother had her house repainted, she didn’t repaint that wall.

  10. Sometime in the early '60s, one of the remaining TV drama anthologies (I want to say G.E. Theatre, but I'm not sure after all these years) adapted Barnaby into a half-hour "special".
    Barnaby was played by Ronny Howard, then just getting known on The Andy Griffith Show.
    And as Mr. O'Malley - Bert Lahr, who never did much television, but I definitely remember him in this.
    I was just a kid myself back then (no more than 10 or 11), and I knew nothing about the original comic strip; I suppose I was hoping that this was a pilot, but there was no follow-up.
    Oddly, one of the Chicago papers actually started running the old Barnaby strips about a year after this TV show aired; that didn't last long either.

    Years afterward, the early Barnaby strips began coming out as mass-market paperbacks.
    I was an adult (?) by then, but I bought them all, hoping for a complete reissue; this didn't happen either.

    And now, in my 60s, I'm getting the hardcover collections, and loving Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley all over again.
    I have to say that the explanatory notes in the back of the books are wonderful, explaining topical references that I wouldn't have gotten as a '60s kid anyway ...



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