Where would publishers be without children's books? Juvenile bestsellers are their bread and butter, maintaining an appeal over decades rather than weeks or months. And we're not just talking about that Johnny-come-lately Harry Potter. Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, which has sold more than 4 million copies since 1985, magically reappears on the bestseller list every Christmas. The Poky Little Puppy has racked up sales of more than 14 million since 1942. Goodnight Moon (1947) is still going strong at 6 million. These are among the books that never seem to date or disappear.
At the same time, we do take them for granted. Many are just part of the decor, like the sad toys in "Toy Story." That's why it's fun when a big anniversary rolls around, prompting a publisher to reissue an old favorite in a fancy new edition and remind us all over again what an American childhood feels like. This year saw a bumper crop. Here are some selections from the best of the lot.
I first came across Ezra Jack Keats's The Snowy Day in the Shirlington public library twenty-plus years ago. The story of a little boy named Peter, who wakes up one winter morning to a world transformed by snow, bowled me over; the vibrant collage illustrations charmed me and my 2-year-old alike. Now it has been collected with nine other stories in Keats's Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury (Viking, $25; all ages).
I wasn't surprised to read that The Snowy Day had won the Caldecott Medal back in 1963. Some years later, though, I was surprised to learn of the controversy it had stirred up at the time, not because anyone disputed its artistic merit, but because it was the first major American picture book to make a black child its central character. Amazingly, Keats (born Jacob Ezra Katz) had drawn fire not just from whites, for a range of contradictory reasons, but also from blacks who thought a Jew of Polish descent had no business writing about or drawing black children.
All such race-based criticism misreads the man. The Snowy Day draws on two utterly non-ideological sources of inspiration: the Brooklyn scenes Keats had observed and drawn since childhood and some photos he'd once seen in an old issue of Life magazine of a child playing. The little boy's color was beside the point; as Keats wrote later, it was "his expressive face, his body attitudes, the very way he wore his clothes" that had captivated him. Peter, in his red snowsuit, was Everychild.
Forty years on, The Snowy Day is still loved for the perfect, joyous tale that it is, and Keats, who died in 1983, is honored for the way his books quietly transcended racial considerations of any stripe. With a sympathetic introduction by Anita Silvey and mini-essays by friends and colleagues from Jerry Pinkney to Eric Carle, the collection is a lovely tribute. However, it doesn't replace the individual books, since the illustrations have been reduced to fit onto fewer pages and the colors have lost their glow in the process.
In Just One Day
This is the 60th birthday of Virginia Lee Burton's Caldecott Medal-winning The Little House. But, as readers know instantly from the title, Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury (Houghton Mifflin, $20; ages 4-8), The Little House isn't the main draw. In 1954, a public librarian in Rochester, N.Y., published a story titled simply "Mike's House," about a boy who gets lost and asks a policeman for directions to "Mike's house" -- the local library, home of the boy's favorite book, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel (1939). That pretty much sums up how kids felt about stout-hearted Mike and his old red steam shovel, Mary Anne, back then -- and how they still feel, although even in 1939 the book portrayed a vanishing world. Few moments in children's literature top the one when Mike and Mary Anne win their bet that they can dig the cellar of Popperville's new town hall "in just one day," showing up that mean selectman Henry B. Swap.
Unless, that is, it's the feat pulled off in Katy and the Big Snow (1943) by the "beautiful red crawler tractor" that plowed out the snowed-in city of Geoppolis, compass point by compass point. (This one is actually my family's favorite Burton.) Katy's here, as is the less well-known Maybelle the Cable Car (1952). All four stories are unabridged and feature the spirited original illustrations. Reading them together like this reminds us of what links them: Burton's acute sensitivity to change and loss and her gentle instinct to preserve.
For diehard fans, Houghton Mifflin is also offering Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art, by Barbara Elleman ($20), a capable and copiously illustrated critical biography.
Nostalgia motivated another classic marking its 60th anniversary this year: The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, by Hildegarde H. Swift and Lynd Ward (Harcourt, $16; ages 3-7), the children's book that helped save a real-life lighthouse from the wrecking ball. Here's the true story: In 1921, a short, fat, red lighthouse was moved from New Jersey to Manhattan's Fort Washington Park, where for the next 11 years its gas-powered lamp and fog bell helped boats and barges navigate the Hudson River. But in 1932, the George Washington Bridge went up, a towering, brightly lit structure that made the lighthouse obsolete. Another decade passed, and Hildegarde Swift published her can-do tale of the jolly little lighthouse that felt "glum and anxious and queer" when the bridge's mighty beacon first outshone its own, but soon realized it still had a job to do.
The book appealed instantly to kids, undoubtedly because they, too, know what it is to feel overshadowed and insecure. It was so popular that in 1951, when plans were made to auction the lighthouse off, public outrage forced the Coast Guard to donate it to the city instead. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, it was fitted with a new lens this year to mark the 60th birthday of the book that helped save it.
The little red lighthouse, Swift wrote, "spoke plainly." She wrote plainly but memorably herself, and it is a pleasure to reread today lines that first lodged in the mind years ago. "Every day [the lighthouse] watched the strange new gray thing beside it grow and grow. Huge towers seemed to touch the sky. Strong loops of steel swept across the river. How big it was! How wonderful! How powerful!"
As a bonus, this anniversary edition also features Lynd Ward's original watercolor illustrations, not the primitive three-color artwork used since the first edition. The pictures are the ones we know (the terrifying fog with its clutching fingers; the little lighthouse, "VERY, VERY SAD," with tears rolling down its fat red sides), but the blues are bluer, the reds more luminous, and the details, which had always seemed curiously milky, more distinct.
Clifford, little Emily Elizabeth's klutzy but amiable giant pet, is one of the world's better-known dogs. In the reissue of Clifford the Big Red Dog, by Norman Bridwell (Scholastic, $14.95); ages 2-6), we learn why that is: "You can keep all your small dogs. You can keep all your black, white, brown, and spotted dogs. I'll keep Clifford. . . . Wouldn't you?" Clifford is also, incredibly, 40 years old. However, the crimson canine seems as spry as ever in this deluxe edition of the story that started the whole Clifford ball rolling (a book series with more than 90 million copies in print, a TV show and oodles of merchandise). *
Elizabeth Ward reviews children's books regularly for Book World.