If you have children, or if you’ve been a child as Ursula Nordstrom once was, you’ve probably had the experience of rediscovering a book you read as a child that you can’t quite believe you ever forgot (unlike U.N., who hadn’t forgotten a thing). My best example of that is The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Kestrel, 1962). Not for all the world would I have remembered that the guy who wrote “Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill/Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall” (1) was the same guy who came up with the brilliantly visceral and revolting conceit of a magic trick that causes one’s fingernails to grow through one’s hand. (Or perhaps it’s not so surprising for someone who surived the Great War.) That Maurice Sendak would illustrate something that may cause adults to shiver but brings a kind of wild glee to a child makes perfect sense, but for the dozens of times I read Where the Wild Things Are as an adult, I never recognized his hand, either.
I saw The Big Green Book in the picture book section when I started my job as a children’s librarian, and a sort of creeping remembrance came over me. It was the first time I thought, as an adult, about the real desire that child readers have to inhabit the books they read. I wanted a magic book like Jack’s, as well as the silly dog, and fields behind my house to wander into. I wanted to be able to draw circles around myself and turn into something that no one would recognize. I always thought I would be a little nicer than Jack, but I suppose the idea is that you would go a little nuts if you suddenly acquired that kind of power, and that you would manage to make things right in the end, as they should be at the end of every easy reader, if not at the end of every book.
An article in The Horn Book a couple of years ago (2) pointed out that The Big Green Book was published as one of a series of readers written by people who normally wrote things for adults, people like, well, Robert Graves. I can’t imagine a similar reader today, say where Henry’s parents gamble away their fortune and their house and Mudge, and become servants for the rest of their lives to a hairy little man they meet in a field. Or maybe where Piggie finally cheats Gerald out of house and home. Conniving little swine.
1. This is from “Recalling War,” which I have in a nice mini edition called Poems of the Great War, 1914-1918 (Penguin, 1998).
(“The endless poetry,” as Squadron Commander Lord Flashheart lamented in Blackadder Goes Fourth.)
2. I tried looking it up, but I don’t have the hard copy anymore and it’s not available in their online archive at http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/default.asp
I think it was from 2008 or 2009.