For years I’ve loved “That Terrible Halloween Night” — it’s one of Stevenson’s many delightful Grandpa stories — and last week I reread it with my own grandchildren. As we began the book, I couldn’t help but remember turning the same pages with their dad, my eldest son, when he was their age. That was — gulp — 30 years ago. This time when I came to the book’s final pages, I discovered that I, too, had become an old man.
Well, not that old and still quite suave and dashing. After all, two beautiful young ladies — ages 1 and 5 — can hardly keep their hands off me. Admittedly, those hands are sticky and grubby, but it’s the thought that counts. What’s more, I’ve still got the muscular strength of a steel-driving John Henry, so long as the train tracks I work on are made by Brio. Every curve and straightaway, though, must be approved by an emotionally volatile railroad magnate who turned 3 this past June 29. As it happens, his “Peapaw” presciently reviewed David Wiesner’s 1992 picture book about gigantic airborne vegetables, “June 29, 1999.”
The old, even the newly old, tend to be retrospective, but the 1980s and ’90s — the years when I wrote a monthly column called Young Bookshelf — really do seem to have been a golden age for children’s literature. Every year I got to praise, sometimes with reservations, works as various as Dr. Seuss’s arms-race fable, “The Butter Battle Book,” Maurice Sendak’s dark AIDS-inflected “We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy” and Roald Dahl’s unsettling masterpieces, “The BFG,” “Matilda” and “The Witches.”
Better still, I was able to welcome books by newcomers who would go on to win Newbery and Caldecott Medals, not to mention vast readerships as in the case of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. I certainly never missed a chance to write about Chris Van Allsburg, William Joyce and Daniel Pinkwater. Van Allsburg’s “Jumanji” took “let’s pretend” to a higher level, “The Polar Express” has rightly become a Christmas classic and “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” is so hauntingly enigmatic that it has inspired dozens of short stories. One of its 14 drawings depicts a strangely small door in the wall of a shadowy basement. On the facing page is the title, “Uninvited Guests,” and the unnerving caption: “His heart was pounding. He was sure he had seen the doorknob turn.” That’s all. But it’s enough.
Over the years I crossed paths with William Joyce several times, so my copies of “Dinosaur Bob,” “Santa Calls” and “A Day With Wilbur Robinson” now bear illustrated inscriptions. Early comic strips, 1930s movie serials, classic toys, World of Tomorrow advertisements — all these pervade Joyce’s fantasies. If I were to pick a picture book to live in, it might well be “A Day With Wilbur Robinson,” which presents a madcap, science-fictional revisioning of the Addams Family.
While Daniel Pinkwater has produced classics for all ages — from that paean to nonconformity, “The Big Orange Splot,” to the Sherlockian pastiche “The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death” — I’m fondest of “Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars.” In it, the two young heroes acquire the Samuel Klugarsh Mind Control System and discover that it really works. Happily, Pinkwater still works, too: Next month Tachyon Books will bring out “Adventures of a Dwergish Girl.”
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Dorling Kindersley issued a slew of wonderful fact-filled Eyewitness Books about nature and science and Joy Hakim created her innovative, multi-volume “The History of US.” Special children’s issues of Book World featured Stephen King on his favorite scary stories, Leo and Diane Dillon discussing the art of book illustration, and foreign-born writers recalling their childhood reading, among them Alberto Manguel (Argentina) and Cathy Young (Russia). I also reviewed a lot of superb nonfiction, notably Russell Freedman’s Newbery-winning “Lincoln: A Photobiography” and Walter Dean Myers’s “Now Is Your Time! The African-American Struggle for Freedom.” A current book in this same vein is Washingtonian Linda Barrett Osborne’s just published and timely “Guardians of Liberty: Freedom of the Press and the Nature of News.”
Since my grandchildren are still quite young, we often share two pre-K gems from those long-ago years: Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury’s “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” and Martin Waddell’s “Owl Babies.” Already, though, I’m looking forward to when the kids will be ready for Beverly Cleary. These younger Dirdas live in Portland, Ore., the former hometown of the now 104-year-old Cleary, whose Henry Huggins stories essentially taught me to read. Not surprisingly, I treasure a copy of her memoir, “My Own Two Feet,” inscribed “Especially for Michael Dirda, Cordially, Beverly Cleary.”
Sigh. I still smile, now somewhat wistfully, when I pick up Tom Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster” and David Macaulay’s “Motel of the Mysteries,” or recall the exuberant award lunches of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, or look through my correspondence with the endlessly inventive Joan Aiken and the plangently melancholy Russell Hoban. When the title character of Hoban’s “The Marzipan Pig” falls behind a sofa and is forgotten, he struggles with despair: “I am growing hard and bitter” yet “there is such sweetness in me.” The great children’s books aren’t just for kids.
Michael Dirda will be away in September.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.