Looking At Books | Newberry

Looking At Books

If you have missed me (and I have detected no shocking plummet in stock prices indicating that the world was devastated by my time off) I have been in Iowa, sorting and packing books. I have reached a stage at which I simply wouldn’t know what to do with my time otherwise.

I am packing up books my mother stacked around the house, and I have come to the not very surprising conclusion that she never outgrew a taste for good illustrations in children’s books. As a child, of course, she had E.H. Shepard, Lois Lenski, and Dr. Seuss, and so on, but she moved early on to Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak, Richard Scarry, Eloise Wilkin, and many, many more. (I have not turned up a book illustrated by Minnie Moore, but there’s probably one in one of the stacks we haven’t gotten to yet.)

She didn’t COLLECT these things, mind you: she accumulated them. This left her free of book lists and other restrictions. Any book which caught her eye was fair game, whether she’d ever heard of the illustrator or not. “I bought it because I liked the illustrations,” she would explain, when taxed with a silly question like why she had bought what was obviously a lame story about a lazy dog whose laziness saved the day or a sneezing cat whose sneezing saved the day or a muddy pig whose muddiness saved the sty. One had to admit she had a good eye for good illustration, though this freedom from the restrictions of collecting also led her to ignore little details like the duct tape holding the cover together. There was no holding her when she spied a good book.

At some point, she (and my father, who also had a good eye for drawing, though he also kept his eyes out for duct tape or spots of mold) communicated this talent to all her children. It wasn’t something she taught; she just pushed books in front of us (or the Sunday funnies OR books of cartoons) and showed us what SHE thought was cute, or funny, or both. It was contagious: we all have a similar discerning eye now. I don’t know whether to credit Dr. Seuss or William Steig. But there’s always Pierre Probst.

Pierre Probst is not an everyday name, even in our household. It comes up only when we occasionally dig down and ask “Who did that book? You know, the one with Bruno and Inky?” His main public was in France, but his books were translated for publication here, particularly the Golden Treasury of Caroline. Caroline was the (human) leader of a carefree (and adult-free) little band made up of two dogs, two cats, and a bear. They did things. They did LOTS of things (there were more than forty Caroline books in France). In any illustration, Caroline would be busy doing this, Puff would be off to the side doing that, Rusty would be getting into trouble over here, Inky would be annoying Bruno: each illustration was a full story in itself. I recall a few stories in which they had adventures, but the suspense was generally fairly brief. They were all there to make you laugh, and they succeeded almost effortlessly. Books which do this show it, of course. Our copy of the Golden Treasury, which was none too robust to begin with, has a taped spine and a lot of pages ALMOST ready to come loose.

Some dim bulb online wants $1200 for a copy of this book in nice condition, and I see there are others who think it ought to be worth five or six hundred. Either not many children in America bought the book or those who did read their copies to death, leaving the remaining ones rare. You may wish to check to see if you have any Caroline books in your collection. Maybe they’re in really great shape. If so, shame on you.

You obviously missed out on a Golden educational opportunity.

Add new comment