Once upon a time, a man named Robert Louis Stevenson seems to have had way too much fun writing books. He wrote two of the great swashbuckling novels of all time–Kidnapped and Treasure Island–adventures immediately assigned to the shelf of immortal children’s literature. With Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he sealed his place in horror fiction (which he might have done anyhow with The Wrong Box). And something might be said of The Black Arrow, or New Arabian Nights, and so on and so forth.
He also wrote poetry. Most notably, he wrote A Child’s Garden of Verses. It contains a number of classics, lines of which have entered into our language. Where would we be without the matter-of-fact child’s-eye view of “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”? Children’s poetry which stays just this side of too cute is rare and valuable, and A Child’s Garden of Verses generally delivers.
The book is so universally known that it spawned a host of spin-offs: A Child’s Garden of Bible Stories, A Child’s Garden of Blessings (AND A Child’s Garden of Curses), A Child’s Garden of Graffiti, A Child’s Garden of Misinformation…it goes on and on. Not bad for a book which was originally called Penny Whistles. I think that after 130 years it is safe to say that A Child’s Garden of Verses is here to stay.
And I get so tired of it.
Understand, please, that I meant everything I said above. A devoted poetry skipper, I can nonetheless appreciate good work, and A Child’s Garden of Verses has deserved its place. Yes, one or two of the poems seem to me to cross the line into “No kid is that cute and lives”, but it is not the verse which bothers me.
It is the endless array of Special Illustrated Editions. Everyone who wanted to do an especially pretty book for children would hire an illustrator and bring out a fancy edition of the Child’s Garden. I am always looking up the values on these, and one in fifty–no, one in a hundred–is actually worth a premium price. And THAT will be the one the little kid colored in.
(I’ve always thought the practice of producing really expensive deluxe editions of books for children is a quaint bit of optimism. Howard Pyle, I think, started it with his deluxe Robin Hood in the 19th century. Yes, I agree that well-brought-up children are taught not to damage books. But to a child, taking watercolor paint and filling in all the black and white pictures ISN’T damaging them: it’s IMPROVING them.)
Take this copy I’ve been given. It has been illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, which makes it one of the potentially valuable editions. The title page is missing, which is a major, major flaw, knocking a big chunk out of the resale value. The hinges are split; along with the general air of wear and tear, this indicates that the child probably read it. A lot.
This child has NOT colored in the pictures, but he, she, or they did connect the dots in the table of contents. It’s one of those tables with entries like “Foreign Lands……..10” and the child has drawn a line–sometimes with loops and sometimes straight but not very much on target, from dot to dot. The child did it in the list of illustrations, too. The lines are in pencil, so they could be erased, but without the title page, you might as well leave them. They become part of the book’s history, part of its charm. If you pick this up at the Book Fair, you can always pretend it was, oh, Allen Ginsburg’s copy, and he doodled these lines as he let his mind wander through the realms of poetry.
I can’t pretend that, so you won’t find it in Collectibles at $750. In fact, the way things go around here, you’re not likely to find any copies of A Child’s Garden of Verses in Collectibles. It’s what happens with the really good children’s books: children READ ‘em.