Twenty and Ten (1952)

Twenty and Ten was republished with minor revisions as The Secret Cave in 1973.

A class of French fifth-graders during the German occupation have been evacuated to the countryside, where a nun runs a school in an old house. The story begins with a stunningly good bit of action: the children are playing make-believe, and this being a Catholic culture and just past Christmas, the flight of Jesus’s family to Egypt is a natural choice. But as soon as they start playing, the children begin to incorporate everyday realities. Mary and Joseph are Displaced Persons. How will they get food? They have no ration cards. And so on.

Then almost immediately, things get real. The teacher calls them into the classroom, where they learn that ten Jewish children need a place to hide. The children agree to take them in and keep this dangerous secret. The stakes get suddenly higher when German soldiers arrive while the teacher is away. Together the children collaborate on a plan: the ten Jewish children hide in a cave, and the twenty Christian children play dumb and refuse to speak to the soldiers. The eventual resolution is both funny and earnest, when the children make fools of the soldiers by claiming that three of them are the Jews: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as they had been playing in their game.

Many, many children’s books have been written about WWII. Some are moralistic. Some are determined to educate children about history. This one stands out of the pack because Bishop herself was French, and she knew the people and the place she was writing about. There are small, telling details, such as that men from the Normandy region were clean-shaven “like Americans” (and we infer that most Frenchmen were not). Bishop even sneaks in a mention of L’Heure Joyeuse, the children’s library that she herself founded in Paris. Though she moved to the U.S. in the 1930’s and made a career at the New York Public Library, she was accutely aware of conditions in her homeland. As the story unfolds, we learn details such as how precious a single square of chocolate was, and how a fresh orange was even more exciting than chocolate. How even children who were basically safe and healthy during the war never quite got enough to eat. Bishop was a Catholic who was a lifelong advocate of religious cooperation and a vocal opponent of anti-semitism within the Catholic church. The book is earnest, even moral, in tone, but it is not santimonious. Futhermore, the story she tells here is based on a real event. The reader doesn’t need to know this, to sense the slightly-not-quite-what-you-expected quality of authorial honesty.

Bishop wrote many other books, some of which are rather a surprise: the classic but now desperately dated The Five Chinese Brothers (1938); and The Man Who Lost His Head (1942), illustrated by Robert McCloskey of Make Way for Ducklings fame, whose distinctive style doesn’t even belong in the same universe as Twenty and Ten. Twenty and Ten itself was illustrated by William Pene Du Bois (author of The Twenty One Balloons).

Understood Betsy (1916)

City-bred Elizabeth Ann (later styled “Besty”) lives with her nervous, overprotective aunts, until circumstances require her to go live with Vermont relatives. The relatives expect her to be capable and self-reliant, and little by little she proves them right.

This could easily be mistaken for a knock-off of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) or Anne of Green Gables (1908), in which a young girl goes to live with stern rural elders and learns valuable lessons of simple living and hard work. But though superficially similar, the underlying world-view is quite different.

Canfield was born in 1879 to an artist/writer mother and a history professor father. She did doctoral work in Paris and earned her PhD at Columbia University, spoke five languages, and was noted in literary circles. She was a radical for her time, championing sexual and racial equality, humanitarian work during the war, educational reform, and life-long learning. Canfield went to Rome and brought back Maria Montessori’s teaching methods to the U.S., and these ideas strongly influence Understood Betsy.

The theme of the story is not, like so many girls’ books of the era, that Betsy needs to knuckle under to someone else’s value system, but that she needs to use her own brain to figure out what ought to be done, and find the backbone to do it.

At the tiny local school, children are not lock-stepped into a particular grade, but instead are given work appropriate to their ability. Betsy is shocked at this casual dismissal of the “right” way to do things in favor of what makes sense. In another episode, Betsy and a smaller child are accidentally left behind at a county fair, and Besty suddenly finds herself in the role of the responsible one. Pushed to thinking for herself, she snags a pick-up job washing dishes at a food booth, and earns enough money for their train fare home.

To be sure, the portrait of the witless city-dwellers, who learn about “modern” child-rearing through correspondence courses and reassure the child that she needn’t be so very frightened of things it hadn’t occurred to her to be frightened of, is unfair; but it’s also kind of hilarious.

Even when she is being didactic, Canfield’s writing is skillful and interesting. Because of her wide and deep literary education, she had more tools in her literary toolbox than most children’s writers of her time, and it shows in the pleasure of reading her on a sentence-by-sentence level.

Canfield took the traditional “child fobbed off on relatives” tale and used it to say something fresh and interesting — not only that, she managed to do some awfully good story-telling.

Finn Family Moomintroll (1948)

What a lovely, sun-drenched, quirky book this is. The Moomins and their extended family (including Sniff, Snufkin, two Snorks, a Hemulin, and a Muskrat) spend an enchanted spring and summer having adventures, complicated by a magician’s hat that changes things into other things.

No description of those adventures could do them justice. I will just tell you that the hat changes river water into raspberry juice, and quote you my favorite line: “They’re walloping the King of California, and he deserves it!” (It’s actually poor Moomintroll, changed so that his friends don’t recognize him.) The story ends when the hat’s owner arrives and grants wishes to all, during a glorious night-time garden party that lights up Moomin Valley and brings summer to a close.

Though this was the first to be translated into English, it was the third Moomin book. The very first, The Little Trolls and the Great Flood, was not available in English until 2005, so for half a century the Anglophone moomin canon began with the second book, Comet in Moominland. After Finn Family Moomintroll came five more, interspersed with picture books and a comic strip. None of these other works ever quite achieve the wonderous joyfulness of Finn Family Moomintroll. The first two are full of delights but also shadows; they feel as if Jansson was getting WWII out of her system. The later books either try too hard to be fun (The Exploits of Moominpappa, Moominsummer Madness), or plunge into existential despair. Moominpapa at Sea is a portrait of a selfish patriarch gone off the rails; Moominvalley in November, written just after Jansson’s own mother’s death, is a heart-breaking meditation on missing Moominmama.

Tove Jansson lived in a Swedish-speaking enclave in Finland and wrote in Swedish. She and Astrid Lindgren both began publishing in 1945, with the end of WWII. (Both had begun their works while the war was still on, Jansson in 1939, Lindgren in ~1943.) Surely they must have read each others’ works, so it’s surprising how little borrowing there is between the two.

. . . Except, perhaps, for this small gem: in Comet in Moominland (1946), Moomintroll dives in the ocean for pearls, and Sniff finds a cave in the cliffside above the ocean, only accessible by a precarious path, where they decide to keep the pearls. In Pippi in the South Seas (1948), the children of Kirrikirridut Island have a cave in the cliffside above the ocean, only accessible by a precarious path, where they keep their pearls. (I live for this kind of thing.)

Some of the Moomin books stray across the border into Nonsense. The Moomins and the Great Flood was Jansson’s first effort at tale-telling, and she set her first two moomins in motion without apparently much of a plan. They wander about seeking Moominpapa, are caught up in a flood, and in the end are fortuitously reunited with him, and the house he built, in its new location where it was swept by the flood. Several of the later books return to the paripatetic, random quality of the first book. Characters roam from place to place, meeting odd creatures and then leaving them behind. Oddness seems to be the point. This may have been where Jansson’s real strengths lay; she was, after all, also a cartoonist, writing brief episodes about moomins to entertain for a moment.

Bill Bergson, Master Detective (1946)

By the author of Pippi Longstocking but in a very different vein, this book shamelessly hits every cliche and yet manages to be one-of-a-kind.

Bill Bergson lives in a safe little village but dreams of catching criminals in the big city. He is steeped in the blood-and-thunder idioms of murder mysteries and gangster movies, and talks like a caricature of Sherlock Holmes when he is imagining his future career as a detective.

Then real live criminals come along — and they’re not just any criminals but jewel thieves. The story treats us to pick-locks, finger-printing of a sleeping suspect, falling-out among thieves, a harrowing escape from underground catacombs, a car-chase, and a shoot-out. Bill Bergsen’s fantasy world becomes reality, but because he is still a vulnerable 13-year-old, he is having the scary thrill-ride of his life.

Adding to the fun, Bill and his friends play games (real childhood play, something unheard-of in modern books about 13 year olds) that are highly entertaining. Particularly interesting is a pretend-feud between two gangs, involving complicated rituals and highly creative sneaking about. This all-in-fun “war” ends up dove-tailing with the main plot in a way that is hilarious and perfect. Leaving aside a few isolated passages of sexism (easily redacted if you are reading aloud), this is a perfect book.

Bill Bergson is sadly long out of print, and used prices are enormous.

The Reluctant Dragon (1898)

The story is a simple one, of a dragon who is a retiring and literary sort, befriended by a boy and then challenged to a fight by Saint George (at the behest of the villagers, who love fights). Between them, the boy, knight, and dragon arrange a staged battle, after which the dragon becomes a popular figure in society.

Reluctant Dragon is one of the first in a now-venerable tradition of retelling fairy-tales with an irreverent twist. (And the story of St. George badly needed it. In the original story the dragon is tamed, after which St. George promises to kill it if everyone will turn Christian. They do, so he does.)

The charm of the book lies in Grahame’s writing. Here, for example, is how he tells us about the boy’s bookishness: “What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy-tales, and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without making any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes one as rather sensible.”

Reluctant Dragon is really a longish short story which originally appeared in Grahame’s story collection Dream Days, many years before his more famous Wind in the Willows. Reluctant Dragon probably also inspired E. Nesbit’s series of dragon stories, published in magazines starting in 1899 and collected in The Book of Dragons.

The “classic” illustrations for Reluctant Dragon are by Ernest Shepard (Winnie-the-Pooh, Wind in the Willows), though they weren’t drawn until forty years after the fact. The first illustrations for Dream Days were by Maxfield Parrish, but were not printed in color (color being the raison d’etre of a Maxfield Parrish painting), and Parrish’s slightly creepy, hyper-realistic style just doesn’t work for this story. Shepard, on the other hand, had the touch for bringing to life the characters of any book which is gentle, light-hearted, and philosophical.

Danny the Champion of the World (1975)

My generation grew up on James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; later generations grew up on Matilda and The Big Friendly Giant. Somewhere in the middle is a forgotten book that is arguably Roald Dahl’s best: Danny the Champion of the World. It tells the story of a boy and his father who live in an old caravan and run a rural filling station and car repair. The father turns out to have a secret love of poaching, and Danny, after his initial shock, becomes an enthusiast too. To take revenge on the awful local land-owner, Danny comes up with an idea for poaching a whole forest full of pheasants in a single night.

One of the pleasures of the book is its well-structured plot (if we forgive that one chapter about Danny’s school), but more important is Danny’s relationship with his father. The father is not tempermentally suited to be a conventional parent, but he gives Danny everything he has of love, knowledge, and a sense of how to live a good life. He tells Danny stories every night, which emerge in a question-and-answer format between father and son, and shows him how to make tiny hot air balloons like floating paper lanterns in the dusk. He delays Danny’s start at school for two years, teaching him first how to take apart a small car engine and put it back together. One night when the father is late returning home from poaching, Danny goes to rescue him, making his way to the woods all alone in the middle of the night, eventually finding him trapped at the bottom of a pit with a broken leg. The father looks up at him and simply says, “Hello my marvelous darling.”

This episode of the rescue is quietly extraordinary. Danny, in the dead of night, takes a small car from the repair shop and drives it down the country road to the woods where his father is. Most authors wouldn’t realize it, but reading about a nine-year-old shifting a car into third gear, alone in the dark without an adult around for miles, makes gripping reading when you’re nine years old yourself. When I read it to my daughter she spent this rather long, uneventful passage mangling the bedcovers and squealing through clenched teeth. It’s the real toad in the imaginary garden.

While Mrs. Coverlet Was Away (1958)

Everyone loves a good story about children who have gotten rid of the grown-ups. With their widowed father out of town, Malcolm, Molly, and Theobold (the Toad) are left alone when the housekeeper, Mrs. Coverlet, must go help her adult daughter who has broken her leg. They lead her to believe they will arrange for the spinster next door and the minister across the street to take care of them while she, Mrs. Coverlet, is away. They don’t.

The children manage their affairs just fine all summer long, even embarking on projects to earn money. One project involves discovering that the Toad’s cat is extremely valuable, and selling it to a rich but sympathetic society lady. This sub-plot turns cleverly on the discovery that the cat, which is tortoiseshell, is a boy, not a girl, and is therefore quite rare. (It overplays how valuable these males are, and mistakenly says that calico males are not rare. This book created a generation of children who thought they were experts on tortoiseshell cats.)

In their biggest project, the children manufacture a rich, glossy, purplish gravy, which they name Heather’s Temptation and sell at the local grocery store, and to which the whole town becomes addicted due to its energizing properties. Though Heather’s Temptation contains a variety of weird ingredients like ketchup and grape jelly, the secret ingredient turns out to be the Vita-Bounce pills of their vitamin-salesman father.

This idea may have come from Vitamin X, the key ingredient in Bita-Vita in Mr. Twigg’s Mistake, 1947 (a rather bad book by Robert Lawson, who is better known for Rabbit Hill and Ben and Me). We will pass quietly over any possible connection between Heather’s Temptation and the quasi-medicinal use of “pep pills,” usually containing amphetamine, in the 1930’s-60’s.

The premise of the book is clearly owing to Chapter VIII of Then There Were Five, the third “Melendy” book by Elizabeth Enright. Mrs. Coverlet is the perfect twin of the Melendy family’s housekeeper-and-mother-substitute Cuffy. Both are summoned by a relative who has broken a bone in a fall, while the children’s father is out of town. Both are comically anguished at how their brood will survive without them, and both have to be bodily prevented from climbing back out of their ride to the train station. It is even perhaps not a coincidence (in the way that random associations can float through an author’s head) that the relative needing help in the Melendy book has the last name of Theobald.

Both books in turn seem to owe something to Winterbound (1936, by Margery Williams Bianco, oddly enough the author of The Velveteen Rabbit), a depression-era novel for teens in which the father is away for work and the mother is called to attend to a sick relative.

Mrs. Coverlet has one flat note, the smug self-importance of Toad (a descendent, perhaps, of Toad of Wind in the Willows), which is never effectively checked by his elders, and which is played for charm and laughs though it is neither charming nor funny.

The sequel, Mrs. Coverlet’s Magicians (1962), is also worth your time, though by the third book, Mrs. Coverlet’s Detectives (1965), the author seems to have used up her best ideas.


The Magic Pawnshop (1927)

Pawnshop-1455bc8Here’s a rare find: an absolutely wonderful book that has fallen into obscurity for no good reason.

Nine-year-old Prinda goes out on the snowy streets of 1920’s New York, on New Years Eve night, to find a miracle for her sick uncle. She discovers a pawnshop, featuring signs saying “A Small Supply of Magic On Hand For Regular Customers” and “Broomsticks Our Specialty,” run by a witch who needs to go gather magic for the new year. She agrees to bring back a miracle if Prinda will watch her shop for the night.

During Prinda’s evening as shop-minder, a young woman pawns her conscience for a ball gown, a young playwright pawns his finished play, a heartless family tries to reclaim the aunt they pawned months ago, and Prinda helps two couples, one young and one old, find happiness, while using up the last of the shop’s remaining bottles of magic — the red one (“Especially effective in cases of heart trouble or seriously impaired affections”), the yellow one (“A sure cure for indifference”) and the vivid green one (“In case of startling events”).

The writing is brisk and witty. Prinda, taking the family broom to the pawnshop in hopes of exchanging it for the miracle, “shouldered the broom like a musket; buttoned her coat so tightly over her heart that it couldn’t possibly jump out, and turned the corner.” The witch, explaining the presence of the aunt in the shop, says “There’s not the same demand for relatives there used to be. It’s these modern apartments, they’re not built for them. Now in a good old-fashioned house you could tuck away a couple of aunts and a few uncles and never notice it.”

Rachel Field is famous for two other books, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929), which won the Newbery Medal, and Calico Bush (1931), which won a Newbery Honor. These two books couldn’t be more different from Pawnshop, both in style and subject. It’s a shame that while they are widely available (though neither has aged particularly well), Pawnshop, still bright and lively, is out-of-print and rare.