Growing up, it wasn’t ever sharks I was afraid of when we visited the beach, it was barracudas. For this I can only blame Nathaniel Benchley, who wrote the picture book that first comes to mind when anyone says “picture book,” “children’s book,” or even, sometimes, “book,” as though Google’s little robots were already careening around my mental landscape back in 1970 when The Flying Lesson of Gerald Pelican was originally published, and the search term has become a self-fulfilling prophecy ever since.
Such was also the frequency with which I and my family returned to this wry, vivid and finally indelible fable – because it’s not like the seventies were otherwise such a golden age in picture book history (cheer up: we’re living in that golden age now!), and a dozen or so titles were all we had to last us for several years, between cabbage and porridge and Gilligan’s Island and walking ten miles to school every day in the snow.
When I had children of my own, and picture books began suddenly popping up everywhere like tasty, speckled mushrooms, I may have reflexively compared every one of them to Gerald Pelican. Many held up to the scrutiny (657 at last count), but I anyhow reached across the decades to discover Oscar Otter, also by Benchley, as well as dusting off Red Fox and His Canoe from my seventies rotation, watching it disintegrate after a couple of readings, then ordering a fresh new copy from someplace called Amazon that someone had told me about. And so I got to thinking: If you could find Red Fox this way, then what the heck else did they probably have squirreled away in those warehouses which might once in a while resurface from nothing more reliable than fading childhood memory (Was it a stork? Was it an egret that didn’t know how to fly?) or random monkey keystroke? Now imagine there were a place where all of these oddities could be gathered and presented, and flashlights handed out….
Oh, never mind. You might even stumble across Gerald from a case of mistaken identity: Nathaniel’s son Peter was by far the most famous in his literary family for writing an amazingly bad book called Jaws which was turned into an amazingly good movie by Steven Spielberg only one year later. The name Benchley may nevertheless still ring a bell for anyone who remembers the sight of that book wedged high on a shelf where they could not reach it; the grown-ups read Peter, the children read his father, and I’m pretty sure we got the better of that deal.
Which is only the beginning of the irony: In fact, Gerald and Red Fox – and even, I discovered thirty years later, Oscar – are all about testing a father’s best advice against our youthful belief in the possibilities. In Gerald’s case these seem obvious enough: a bay, a post, and clear, inviting vistas of an ecosystem that contains his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Of course this also ends up containing a catalog of everything that can go wrong, but the surprise turns out that a shark is only one of Gerald’s problems. More memorable to me are Mamoru Funai’s illustrations of a porcupine fish (too prickly), an octopus (unappetizing), a grouper fish (incredulous) and even a smarty-pants dolphin, laughing and somersaulting clear of the carnage that finally arrives in the form of a sword-toothed, red-eyed barracuda. (The shark skulks away, “sucking its teeth and muttering.”)
Gerald’s flying lesson, such as it is, comes courtesy of a riot of variously experienced birds – tern, osprey, chicken hawk, and even an owl who was presumably awakened by all of the ruckus. Each has its own suggestion - “Run!” “Glide!” “Make whooping noises!” “Swoop!” “Don’t panic!” – all of which would probably work better if you weren’t meanwhile inexorably descending toward the merciless embodiment of any father’s worst nightmare. There’s a rescue here finally, though nary a scolding, as if this were a lesson that inevitably needed to be learned from experience if it should ever be passed down. And ignored, and passed down, and ignored, with hopefully a couple of interesting stories to tell along the way.