My friend Teri read the post yesterday about Firmin, and asked about its suitability for her eight-year-old.
Uh, probably not. Firmin has intense, child-unfriendly issues in his whiskered, oversized head. But that did set me thinking about great children’s books, and my friends Nicole (who sells them out in Memphis) and Chris (who gets kids excited about checking them out of the library here). We each have books we recommend over and over, so I’m inviting them to leave their comments on this post, or do a guest blog about favorites.
My most beloved childhood book doesn’t seem to make the “hit parade” very often. In fact, looking up pictures to add to this blog, I found its illustrator celebrated on a “forgotten geniuses” site. Hmmph.
Jack Kent was famed for his cute, plump, round-nosed drawings of people and his startling juxtaposition of odd things against calmness: children followed by lions, dragons having pancakes for breakfast. When I was still too young to be able to read, I had a book called There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon, with accompanying record.
I “read” (lip-synced) Dragon over and over; in fact, that’s why my dad gave in and taught me to work my children’s record player–so he wouldn’t have to keep restarting the stupid thing. I think that book taught me to read. It’s the kind that, as Nicole says (quoting somebody famous), you can read at 50 as happily as at 5.
The premise: Billy wakes up to find a dragon about the size of a kitten at the foot of his bed. He tells his parents, “I have a dragon!” and his parents say (firmly, throughout the next 10 pages) that there’s no such thing as a dragon. So the dragon gets bigger and bigger until it takes off with the house on its back and finally the parents admit that the dragon is there–whereupon the dragon shrinks back to kitten size. Billy gets to deliver the final kicker: the dragon kept getting bigger until someone believed in it, because it just wanted to be noticed.
As an infant, toting this book about the house, lisping the word “dwagon” and shouting there was one in my bedroom, I might not have gotten all the intricacies, the symbolism, the plot development. But like any child, I knew what it felt like to be ignored sometimes, and that adults didn’t always understand what they couldn’t see–which was a silly way to live.
Growing older, I still couldn’t have explained that the drawings– the dragon’s tongue sticking out of its mouth, Billy’s cheerful aproned mother, the father’s Fedora hat–contributed to the enjoyment of the story. I couldn’t get my tongue or brain wrapped ’round the vocabulary needed to talk about the 1950s neighborhood where Billy and his dragon-that-wasn’t-there-except-it-was lived.
But I took the book with me when I left home as an adult, and now I can analyze the symbolism of a dragon that keeps getting bigger until someone acknowledges it, the sweetness of the story’s simple-yet-wise plot. The record is long-gone, but I can recite the words without looking as I turn the pages, engrossed in Jack Kent’s illustrations.
Sometimes you can go home again, and it’s the books of childhood that take you there.