From Pooh to Salinger
EACH YEAR THE KIDDIES , known in the publishing business as "the under sixes," have barrowfuls of fresh and forgettable picture epics to choose from. Average price: $2.25; average reader interest: one perusal shortly after Christmas. Teenagers, unless they have been permanently crippled by early years with Dick and Jane, can begin to forage for their literary fare cheek by jowl with their parents. But how does one bridge the gap between, say, Pooh and Salinger?
Hours of Osmosis. One ploy for hard-pressed parents at Christmas is to buy manuals. Not the kind pasteurized for little minds by juvenile editors, but the real thing, bristling with figures, blueprints, diagrams and small type, on such topics as U.S. military planes, small-boat modeling, horsemanship, classic cars and medieval armor. Over such tomes a young reader is likely to brood for hours, days, even years, absorbing apparently by osmosis those massive supplies of totally useless facts that are the groundwork of all future intellectual curiosity. In days gone by Jane's Fighting Ships was the greatest example going. A new book out this year may also prove hard to beat. It is uncompromisingly entitled German Aircraft of the First World War (Putnam; $14.95). Another candidate, less austere but likely to appeal to a broader range of readers is Eric Sloane's ABC Book of Early Americana (Doubleday; $2.95). With detailed sketches depicting all manner of colonial artifacts from a niddy noddy (fancy thread winder) to a stone boat, it is done with an understanding —rare enough nowadays—that a book should be a thing to pore over, not to leaf through.
More difficult is the yearly search for new fiction fit to place on the juvenile bookshelf alongside the likes of Munro Leaf's Ferdinand and Grahame's Wind in the Willows. In recent years the only vaguely acceptable candidate was Norton Luster's Phantom Tollbooth (1961). But this year can boast one genuine small masterpiece. It is called The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Doubleday; $2.95). Written, as any child's book should be, with obvious fond delight by Poet Conrad Aiken's daughter Joan, the book tells about two very small girls in a very big English country house almost entirely surrounded by dangers.
Gothic Governess. "Snow lay piled on the dark road across Willoughby Wold," Miss Aiken begins. "But from dawn men had been clearing it with brooms and shovels. There were hundreds of them at work, wrapped in sacking because of the bitter cold and keeping together in groups for fear of the wolves, grown savage and reckless from hunger."
Besides those wolves, the book's two young heroines come with a complete set of Victorian manners: one of them almost starves to death in a train compartment because her Aunt Jane has told her never to eat in the presence of strangers. Recounting their gothic torments at the hands of a cruel governess called Miss Slighcarp and a harpy schoolmistress named Mrs. Brisket, the author sometimes pirouettes on the filigreed edge of outrageous literary parody without ever undermining the suspense of a story suitable for anyone from seven to 70. Wolves, in fact, is almost a copybook lesson in those virtues that a classic children's book must possess; charm, a style of its own, the skill and authority to create a small world without writing down to small readers.
Not in a class with Wolves but nevertheless notable beyond customary levels of bland competence are two other volumes, one crazy, one compassionate.
Roosevelt Grady by Louisa R. Shotwell (World; $2.95) is remarkable not merely because it is a good story that creates its own world—the life of a small Negro boy with his migrant crop-picking parents—but because it could so easily have been a tract on today's worthy Topic A. Grady is bright but is kept from progressing in school because the beans, or the strawberries, or whatever his parents are working on at the time always run out and the family has to climb into its rattly truck and move on. Time is measured not in months but in crops. Grady took sick in onions. His baby sister Princess Anne was born in tomatoes. Life has anguish, too, all the more effective because the author and the characters take it as much for granted as beans, onions and drawing breath. "You be the welfare lady," one girl says to another. "Pretend like to knock on the door. Then come in all snoopy and la-di-da and ask a lot of questions."
Lafcadio, The Lion Who Shot Back by Shel Silverstein (Harper & Row; $2.95). Using the name Uncle Shelby and the title Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book, Silverstein last year produced a children's book of unparalleled vulgarity. And Lafcadio sometimes sounds like a bedtime story as it might be overheard at the Blue Angel. But children as well as adults are likely to find Silverstein's rueful lion drawings and shambling style hard to resist—especially in an age so clearly ripe for a parable about a big cat who learns to like elevator rides and toasted marshmallows only to find that sophistication has rendered him unfit for the jungle.