F O L K L O R E
C H I L D R E N S' B O O K S
P O E T R Y
Emily Temple on the web site Literary Hub writes that Wanda Gág’s 1928 picture book Millions of Cats is the oldest American picture book still in print. It won the Newbery Award. Not the Caldecott, which seems more logical. The Caldecott Award hadn’t been created yet. The words of Millions of Cats are, of course, unforgettable.
I adored Millions of Cats. I first discovered the vast world of picture books when I was officially too old for them. I was ten, and my father took me, one evening each week, to the main children’s room of the Washington D.C. Central Library. He ordered me not to leave until he returned. The children’s room had long tables made especially for reading picture books, slanted downwards, with a ledge across the bottom to keep them from slipping off. I read my favorites from front to back, and from back to front, asking myself, “How did they ever make this book? What was the process exactly?” Millions of Cats was a favorite, partly because I could see the pen strokes, and the words were hand-lettered. I could aspire to make a book like this.
I don’t know how many weeks I pursued my study of picture books. I recall that no other child ever entered that vast room. It was all mine. From time to time a friendly librarian led me to the books for children my age, but I would just return to my spot at the slanted table. One librarian showed me how to use the card catalog so that I could find all the books by one illustrator.
I read Wanda Gág’s other picture books. I tried to like them but didn’t. Then I discovered her Grimm collections. I wondered why the Grimm stories in her books sounded better in my head than the ones in my Grimms’ Fairy Tales at home. The reason was that she had translated them herself, imbuing them with the same read-aloud magic she brought to Millions of Cats.
This week I received an email from the mother of two boys who love The Great Dictionary Caper. They were so excited, she wrote, to discover palindromes, and began to look for them everywhere.
Here are some palindromes at their family reunion (art by Eric Comstock):
I didn’t have space in The Great Dictionary Caper for the palindrome’s cousin, the semordnilap (yes, it’s very hard to pronounce or type). These are word pairs that are backwards spellings of one another. My favorites are evil/live (plus devil/lived) and stressed/desserts.
And of course there had to be an online semordnilap generator.
It's the 100th birthday of Children's Book Week, sponsored by the Children’s Book Council. Children's Book Week is the longest-running national literacy initiative in the U.S. The Library of Congress celebrates the occasion with an online exhibit of one hundred old and rare children's books. Perri Klass gives a nice overview in her New York Times article. I'm so jealous of the Library of Congress rare books librarians who actually get to hold these books.
I consumed this collection (well, part of it) as if it was a box of chocolates. It's fun to imagine children's first encounters with these books in the days before television, etc.
The titles themselves are fascinating, including outlandishly long ones in early books, like this classic from publisher John Newbery.
A little pretty pocket-book : intended for the instruction and amusement of little Master Tommy, and pretty Miss Polly : with two letters from Jack the giant-killer, as also a ball and pincushion, the use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good boy, and Polly a good girl : to which is added, A little song-book, being a new attempt to teach children the use of the English alphabet, by way of diversion.
The illustrated primer, or, The first book for children : designed for home or parental instruction : embellished with numerous engravings, and pretty stories, which will please the children amazingly!
A reprint of Newbery's A Pretty Little Pocket Book is part of the Library of Congress collection. I've always wanted to read those two letters from Jack the giant-killer, and now I wish I hadn't. Jack the giant-killer became a prudish scold after his adventures were done. And that pincushion? It was designed to keep score of Polly's good and bad behavior.
Publishers appealed to adult book buyers and child readers by hiring the very best illustrators, or by creating novelty formats like Peter Newell's The Rocket Book (1912), which has an actual hole through each page marking the rocket's path upward through an apartment building. (Dr. Seuss was inspired by another of Peter Newell's cut-out capers, The Hole Book, which, like The Rocket Book, was written in rhyme.)
For easier reading, you can download a full replica of any of the books.
I am an author and folklorist based in Portland, Oregon.
Imagine That! How Dr. Seuss Wrote 'The Cat in the Hat"
(Random House, 2017). Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes.
*Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus.
The Great Dictionary Caper, illustrated by Eric Comstock (Paula Wiseman Books, Simon & Schuster, 2018)
**Starred reviews from Publishers' Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist.
Wild About Books, illustrated by Marc Brown. (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2004). New York Times Bestseller, ALA Notable Book, and winner of the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award.