I’ve written here before about the sort of celestial anomalies which make all of this searching and peering into the highest, deepest, and most inaccessible places feel mostly worthwhile. Because I’d like to share these wonders finally, or anyway change a couple of minds about the surprising and frequently underrated potential of children’s books - though often, if I am honest, I feel a wave of disappointment at discovering some obscurity has anywhere landed in the mainstream.
And yet I would never have personally stumbled on something like, say, Garmann’s Summer, were it not for whatever clerical bungling conveyed this little masterpiece from Norway - across oceans of bewilderment and furrowing brows, and maybe some good old-fashioned priggishness - to a shelf at Barnes & Noble, where I snapped up both copies, and whence some of the inspiration for this entrepreneurial madness derived.
Which is equally a calling and a burden, particularly when I am worrying about my (or anyone’s) ability to communicate these discoveries, and particularly when everything about these discoveries is telling me to keep them to myself. This was admittedly the case with The Strange Appearance of Howard Cranebill which I was shocked to unearth in a second hand store (Oh, what is this pink and yellow monstrosity? Sweet Jesus, by Henrik Drescher?! Of McFig and McFly and Hubert the Pudge infamy?!! From 1982?!!!) then only to discover there were twenty other copies elsewhere on display tables, and also several blocks away, and probably many other venues besides that.
Not being an insider in these things, I have no idea who or what nefarious corporate entities authorized this revival, but I hope it went poorly. And I think they’ve moved on, so whew, let’s keep this our little secret, okay? Because that is where this author belongs. Even Drescher’s friendlier stories look completely out of place when they are stocked too prominently, in volume, which sometimes freakishly occurs before they are forever vaporized from distribution. This happened a couple of years ago with Hubert The Pudge: A Vegetarian Tale, about the particular member of a species who escapes from his veal-like internment, grows in the wild to enormous proportions, and many years later returns to wreak havoc on the Pudge farm, meanwhile converting Farmer Joe to a life of tofu and yoga.
So yeah, you’ll probably have some explaining to do here – about Pudge squeals canned for car alarm uses, Pudge tails steaming for dinner - still at the heart of this fable is a sort of righteousness not altogether removed from certain mainstreams anymore, and surely worth a stone’s-throw toward our larger cultural attention. Drescher’s hairy-looking artwork and casual menace (young Hubert appears already apportioned into chops on the cover) presumably succeeded in discouraging all but the readiest converts; likewise his McFig & McFly which is, after all, subtitled A Tale of Jealousy, Revenge and Death (with a Happy Ending). I mean, you cannot claim to be shocked exactly about what goes down between the covers here - unless, perhaps, the possibility of dying from endless nature show reruns on television strikes you as an unnecessarily gruesome way to go.
If there are happy, funny endings to be gained from each of these blood-lettings, then the case for redemption is a little bit harder to prove with Howard Cranebill. He does appear strangely - in a basket at the Cranebills’ front door - and with his unusually long and pointy nose, never comfortably fits in. The author uses doughnuts, and unlikely entanglements, and scratchy crayon drawings to raise the stakes; by the time young Howard is climbing the pear tree, and lunching with storks, and refusing to come down, no, it doesn’t take a trip to the therapist to arrive at any deeper meaning, and Howard is well on his way to metamorphosis. One evening he flutters south:
“Mr. and Mrs. Cranebill were sad to say goodbye to their son Howard, but they knew he would return the following spring, to build his nest in the tall pear tree in the backyard.”
I’m not even sure what this is about, to be honest; the background’s so threadbare and little Howard so unambivalent, if there is any larger story here, it seems to come back to his parents: their determination to make things right for him, their acceptance when they cannot. Or something like that, though it would be hard, and it would be disingenuous, to try to make the case that this is a great or anyway significant book outside of the fact there is almost no one who can tell me it is not.
My family could tell me. They don’t. Maybe they are being kind, but this book comes out of the shelf pretty often – because it is striking, pink, a little bit ugly, still unfathomable. Similarly The Boy Who Ate Words, which is red and white, urgently illustrated, and large enough you’re tempted to grab onto it with both hands before it has a chance to slip away.
And then there’s its hero:
“Ideas crossed each other in Gabby’s head. As he was speaking of one thing, the idea of another came to him. Ideas that hatched, grew big, and waited at the gates of his lips. All this jumbled together in his mouth. It kicked up a commotion. And, of course, it put him out of commission.”
This book is translated from French apparently, though not always smoothly, and that is only one of its challenges that amount to my owning THE ONLY COPY IN THE WORLD (okay, here are seventeen others available). This is what it has going for it though: you will never completely figure this out. For starters, here is a boy who looks at the world “through a forest of question marks,” but those question marks become overwhelming. Pretty soon he cannot stop talking, and pretty soon this becomes unintelligible. Sep-a-rate, his parents remind him about his syl-la-bles, and take him to the doctor, and put him on a diet – no more gargoyle or tarantula or cabinet-pumpkin, no more repeating the roll call during recess – till finally he completely stops talking:
“What was the good of asking, “How is the weather?” when deep, deep down inside, what one really wanted to know was “How are clouds born? What makes the rain? Why does the sun shine only during the day?”
Gabby makes it back, slowly, tentatively, but not before talking with cats and ants and potted plants and being sent away to a home. Is he brilliant? Autistic? Either way, this is a tortuous journey, and it’s not for everyone – just me, maybe you, couple folks. What we cannot easily express is why there are books – to read and share and discover.
We are One Potato.