The Oscars are upon us! Already. And they’re not going away any time soon. Can you feel it? The excitement of everything brilliant and shocking and unprecedented? And then when it’s over, well, let’s not even think about it, okay? Because our juices are flowing now: we watch, we listen, we even read better when the long and languorous afternoons of the summer are safely behind us, and the kids are back at school, and everybody is learning and earning and wearing scratchy clothing, because enough with the silliness and tank-tops! Up with thoughtfulness! Onward our national dialogue!
Some time soon, probably six or seven very enlightening movies with budgets equal to the gross national product of Malawi will be released in exactly the same week, all of them starring Cate Blanchett, while for months we have had to make do with, oh, Humpday. Of course, the genius that capitalizes upon (and possibly explains) our cultural peaks and valleys is hardly limited to movies, or television, and soon the shelves of your local children’s bookstore will also be sagging under the weight of an industry’s short-term expectations. Some excellent books may appear all at once, and some will vanish forever, though it isn’t always clear if this is in the interest of creating anything new.
Consider. The theater famously finds itself in a similar quandary, too heavily relying on classics, and candy, and even Disney cartoons for their familiarity (um, Shrek has nothing to do with Steig’s book), but music evolves and, yes, so do the movies (oh, Humpday was actually good!) not least because their methods of distribution have changed to suit the demands of just enough people to make a difference. This is also a matter of expense - a girl with her guitar can get famous on My Space, a filmmaker with a really good idea and a couple thousand dollars can produce his rudimentary vision – but not only. Persistence matters. Consumers lavish their affections upon one band, or one moviemaker for an entire lifetime, and while this may seem faddish, and even compulsive to some of us, it does continue to offer those artists an audience and something like the possibility of wider recognition.
How long, as parents and children, do we really remain invested in the glorious artistry of picture books? Yeah, I know. And then it becomes the responsibility of following generations whom we can hardly expect to know better. Because, one, they’re drooling, or two, they haven’t set eyes on a children’s book since they were loading the U-haul for college. Here is a torch that too rarely gets passed, and very little evidence remains, except in those darkest and dustiest of places, or random keystrokes, because nobody blogs about picture books. Jeez.
Anyway. Just a theory. But there are too many books that did better – or more ambitiously – what their successors do only intermittently well to rely on the probability of their natural selection. The stories don’t have to change much. Some hooks and pulleys have remained more or less operational since people in caves were trying to grunt their offspring to sleep, but the difference is in the telling - the tricks and colors and orders of things, the music you can make from, well, grunting - and that is all the difference in the world.
A pretty common story in the history of stories is actually about a story - namely the one that we tell to excuse ourselves, or our absences or lateness, and I have not seen very much improvement of the specifics since Outrageous, Bodacious Boliver Boggs! was published in 1996. A budding cowboy (and performer) is late for school every day, his reasons ranging from rattlesnakes to a bunch of other things I won’t give away, though suffice it to say the illustrations prove equal to his flamboyance. And Boliver’s mea culpa – “You’re plumb right about that, ma’am. What you say is the pure-d truth. But I come up against an exceptional circumstance” - is so right and so rhythmic that I can quote him here without looking, which is lucky, since I would be more likely to get eaten by a bear than to find a copy in its natural environment. You will not stumble upon this rare and beautiful specimen without a map and powerful flashlight.
Also mysteriously hiding are Free Lunch, about a dog, an evil elephant, a dastardly crime, and Mr. Lunch Borrows a Canoe about a dog, a generous elephant, a trip to Venice, both stories so joyfully whimsical, and bursting with geometrical elaborations, and missable, findable detail, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting tired of this, and easier to suppose that somebody would try to do better. They haven’t.
You may sometimes find the unmistakable work of John Burningham squeezed between the paperbacks on some hard-to-squat-to bottom shelf, but you will not likely encounter his Cannonball Simp, except where someone abandoned it to the library, fittingly, as this book remains one of the best and most luminous stories of a plain little Jane who finds her calling and her home.
And The Crocodile Who Wouldn’t be King, which I have written about before, and can’t even remember where I found it, though here it flits in and out of availability. Once in a while everyone will come across such a masterpiece completely by surprise, or they will go looking in one of those dark and dusty places, and come away wondering when and how a particular book stopped being so current - what random forces in this, and previous seasons of renewal, finally amounted to it’s almost-disappearance. Every day a book gets old - fast. I mean, talk about death panels. If we are to have this noisy and interminable season of renewal, then can’t we set aside just a couple of weeks – say, in March, when all of the valedictories have blown over - to celebrate the genius of a second chance?