That our favorite picture books can awaken in us something like the association of smells from many years ago would seem to preclude any objective consideration of their merits. It’s personal, maybe even cellular, when you have been living with a book since before you were able to make any sense of it. This isn’t strictly metaphorical, either. Can anyone please tell me about that little “old lady whispering ‘hush’” in Goodnight Moon? No, not what she signifies. I mean, really, who is she?
And yet millions of children today are somehow comforted by the abstraction of that bunny-lady, as millions of their parents were before them, and we are rarely inclined to wonder very much about that “goodnight mush.” (Um, dinner? Dessert? Did someone remember to brush their teeth after?) This is by now institutional in the case of Goodnight Moon, but it needed to derive from some pretty curious inspiration to ever get there.
Can we imagine this sort of evolution today? The feeding and care of something just a little bit demented until it has grown so singularly embedded in our consciousness there is really no mistaking it twenty or thirty years later when we stumble upon it again?
Well, maybe. But it seems to me a book needs to hang around a little while to transcend whatever timeliness – in substance or style – results in a splash with no ripples. This isn’t a complaint. Today we are blessed with many, many choices, where fifty years ago the children’s picture book section of your average public library was probably a cubby, still this means we are ever less likely to arrive at any consensus of what it requires to become a classic – or something even worth stocking for more than a couple of months – unless there is some kind of a medal glimmering amid all of the acreage.
Maybe we were lucky, and we picked up a copy when we could, and maybe in twenty years it will continue to mean something to us, or to our children, even if they have to grab someone by the collar to make its case. Sorry. I promise I’ll pay for the dry cleaning. But listen:
“I had a new horn and a paper hat.
And I went for a walk in the forest.”
Can you hear it? The magic in that couplet? No? Okay: so the little boy with the hat goes wandering alone through charcoal drawings of some woods, intermittently tooting his horn, and encountering a lion obsessed with his hair, and two baby elephants bathing (one who gets dressed in a sweater, the other in shoes), bears counting peanuts, drumming kangaroos, one stork, a couple of monkeys playing ball and sporting Ottoman leisure suits, plus a skeptical looking rabbit, all of them continuing together in a parade, a picnic, and games (Drop-the-Handkerchief, anyone?) until dad shows up during hide-and-seek in a jacket and tie:
“Whom were you talking to?” he asks, very properly, though he does end up furnishing a ride out of the forest on his shoulders, the boy all the while waving his horn.
This book was originally published in 1944, it’s still kicking around in at least a couple of different covers (mine is sort of tan, the one listed here is strikingly not), but the black-and-white pages between them continue to resonate across the thousands of subsequent picture books I have read, with something like the clarity of all of those other stories reduced to their elements.
Of animals. Adventure. Imagination. And just that little bit of loneliness too which we do not need to live near a forest to experience, or grow up without siblings or neighbors or innumerable play dates - no, just the kind of ordinary, accessible loneliness which is probably essential to want to tell, or listen to, stories. And probably want to remember them when they are done.
More than twenty years after In the Forest was conceived, Marie Hall Ets actually did collect one of those medals for Just Me, which probably accounts for its continuing widespread availability. This book is also every bit the classic in appearance: similar charcoal drawings tell about a similarly solitary boy imitating a rooster, a pig, a snake, a cow – if not always successfully - across a farm, some woods, a cornfield, until also running into his dad (this one dressed casually; it’s the Sixties, baby) hitching his boat to a dock in a pond.
It’s a great little book, maybe better than Ets’s others, though missing for me is some lunacy – darkness? – or maybe just monkeys in fezes.
Just Me came out one year after I was born, when I cannot imagine there was anything very spectacularly vying for shelf space. (Okay – Seuss.) In the Forest was first published when my mother was three. (Our copy is officially hers). Pearl Harbor was still digging itself out. Dick and Jane were still throwing that damn ball to Spot. Really, Ets couldn’t have been very hard to miss in all the desolation.
Now, only because I went sniffing, my family are also the proud owners of her Gilberto and the Wind – whether classic or curiosity I really can’t say. In it, a little boy (this time dark-skinned; what a blast that must have been in 1963) follows the sound of the wind out to play with his balloon, and when that runs away, imagines billowing umbrellas and invisible opponents racing him through the tall grass. He contemplates sailing a little boat in a puddle, and bubbles, and pinwheels and uncooperative fallen leaves.
“You-ou-ou,” invites the wind through a door. Maybe my kids will pass this on to their own. That would be amazing! But really. Does it need to be? We are One Potato.