WHENEVER MY MOTHER asks me what I'm doing, I tell her I'm writing a book - because I always am. "A real book, or a kid's book?" she asks. Frequently people, when they find out what I do, ask, "Do you intend to write for adults when you . . ." They are going to say, "when you grow up," but looking at me, a fat, balding 35-year-old, they realize the remark is inappropriate. A few days ago I attended an author's tea - six or seven juvenile authors being entertained by the local librarians. Each of the authors was asked to say a few words. One of them said, "Just to establish my credibility as a writer, I want you to know that I write for adults as well as children."
Well, just to establish my credibility, I want you to know that I don't write for adults. I write and illustrate books for children, and it is the most pleasurable and satisfying work imaginable.
I used to be a "fine artist" - a printmaker, but I got the feeling that too many people were more interested in striking the proper pose while looking - than looking. I don't have this feeling about kids. They like a thing or they don't. For a number of years I taught art classes for kids, and once they realized there were no brownie points to be make by saying the things adults like to hear, they addressed themselves to esthetic matters in an impressively workmanlike and productive way.
My best moment as an art teacher came when a kid said to me, "Pinkwater, are you a real art teacher?"
"What do you think?" I asked him.
"Well, I think you're just the guy who passes out the paints, and then looks at our pictures. I figure you just like pictures."
The kid was perfectly right. That was all I did. It was all I needed to do. Given materials and a place to work without interference, the kids in my classes thrashed out their artistic and emotional concerns with very little active participation from their teacher. Besides, they were all better painters than me.
So, reason number one for my appreciation and enjoyment of my role as a kid's writer/illustrator is that I am able to respect my audience (certainly more than the self-consciously educated types who look at Art). Kids read for pleasure, which is the primary, ultimate, and only legitimate use for fiction.
Another reason I like my work is that there is no such thing as a "children's book world," although some people talk about one. There is such a thing as an "art world," I am slightly acquainted with it - and I assume there is a "literary" world too. I Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., which has more than 20 titles in print.) Then came the dolls, the mother-daughter outfits, the Jerome Kern song, and by the mid-'20s, Johnny Gruelle was a famous, wealthy man. But for all that, he was a man who slipped through the fingers of would-be biographers and is chiefly remembered as a smallish, unassuming man, who liked to fish, play baseball, and draw pictures. "Everyone loved him," said his son, "and he loved everyboyd." That, in a nutshell, describes Raggedy Ann and I challenge you to reject her after skimming through a half-dozen tales, during which Raggedy Ann is given ample opportunity to forfeit her candy heart for an ice cube.
At the hands of various "real for sure people," Raggedy Ann gets washed in a vat of boiling soap and water, tied to the tail of a kite, plopped in a can of oil paint by a workman, flung into the river by a dog, attacked by a rooster, and villified by a pair of snooty dolls new to the nursery. But out of these sow's ear experiences, comes a silk purse every time, for Raggedy Ann's secret weapon in her stuff-abuse, be parcelled out to the birds, and replenished - which is often necessary, and thank heaven that cotton is plentiful!
Every other adventure, she seems to find herself swinging by a clothes pin from the laundry line, while waiting to be restored. It gives her time to think, which often causes her to pop stitches in the back of her head, but she is the only doll in the nursery with this capacity. For this reason, all the other dolls depend upon her, and between them all there is a sort of camraderie, born of compassion not perfection, a lesson that is not lost upon the "real for sure" children listening to the tales.
There are times, in real life, when one is reminded that whatever else makes up the world, innocence is also present, at which realization the heart is pricked to tears and a longing for its possession wells up. Gruelle's Raggedy Ann could, I suppose, be analyzed to a fare-thee-well, and a great many reasons given for the enduring popularity of the tales. But I don't think one could do much better than to say that, above all else, they are characterized by innocence. There is envy, anger, loss, and remose, but the sting is absent, and in some instances, Gruelle's capacity for contained pathos is especially moving, although perhaps children are less affected by it than their parents, who haven't seen a fairy for years.
In one story, "Through the Door," Raggedy Ann, Andy, Uncle Clem, and Beloved Belindy are sitting in the playhouse talking about fairies. Beloved Belindy has never seen one. Evening approaches. Marcella has forgotten to take them inside for the night, and just then a very tired old puppydog approaches, bearing a very tiny puppydog in his mouth.
"Why did you walk so far," asked Beloved Belindy "carrying the little teenyweeny baby puppydog?"
The puppydog answers that he used to live with a little boy but he "grew so tired and thin his mama had to wheel him around in a chair and he couldn't run and play with me at all. I picked up sticks and raced around his chair when he was placed out in the sunshine and he would laugh and whistle to me, but I could see it made him sad because he had to sit in the wheelchair and could not join me in my fun . . . Then when the fairies came and brought me my teeny-weeny baby puppydog, I knew the little boy would be pleased so I carried [him] . . . out in the yard to show him. But do you know, the little boy never came out in the sunshine again. His wheel-chair was on the back porch for a few days, and then it was taken away."
"Ah!" Raggedy Ann said, half to herself.
The dolls all comfort the tired old puppydog, give him tea, and pass their soft rag hands over his tired head. But suddenly "a light, as if hundreds of fireflies were banded together, came across the grass." The dolls look, and what do they see but the little boy running to meet the puppydog. The fairies have brought him, and the tired dog runs to the orchard to meet his little master. The little boy "dropped to his knees and caught the mama puppydog close to his heart and the dolls could hear the puppydog's tail thumping against the little boy's coat." Then the fairy glow gets dimmer and the little boy and his puppy disappear, leaving the little puppy behind.
It is a clean ending, too clean for the scientific mind, but if Gruelle's instincts lie with fairies instead of "real for sure explanations," he has company. There is a time and a place for rag dolls and fairies, and the way I see it, life being like it is, the only thing wrong with fairies is that there aren't enough of them to go around.