Make Time for the Tales of Toon Tellegen


Alison Morris - October 16, 2009

It is not often that a book is so completely wonderful that I am compelled — nay, FORCED — to continue reading it to the neglect of all items on my to-do list, but today I fell into not one but two such books, and I’m NOT sorry. (Though I may well be by tomorrow when I’m facing no small number of deadlines…) For now, I am indulging in the delight of today’s distractions, as Toon Tellegen‘s The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties and Letters to Anyone and Everyone (Boxer Books, Sept.) are, quite simply, two of the loveliest and most charming collections of stories I have EVER had the pleasure of reading.

Think A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, but a shade quirkier — perfect for anyone old enough to sit and listen, and perfect as family (or coworker) read-alouds. Just ask Lorna Ruby and Lee Van Kirk, the two colleagues who counted themselves lucky enough to be in the same office as me today during the stretches in which I read aloud to them. The three of us giggled and cooed together over the delights to be had in these books, wishing all the while that we could corral small children into our office so they too could get in on the fun.

In The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties, the squirrel has, yes, a birthday party, to which he invites every single animal he can think of. As if writing personalized invitations to each of them isn’t enough, he then bakes a different cake for each them too, thinking that it will only be a "real" birthday if by the end of the day everyone can say, "I’ve had more than enough to eat." Here’s a sampling:

He baked huge honey cakes for the bear and the bumblebee, a grass cake for the hippo, a small red cake for the mosquito, and a dry cake for the dromedary. He baked heavy salt cakes for the shark and the squid, and lowered them on a chain into the river. He baked thin cakes as light as air for the swallow and the wild goose and the oystercatcher, cakes so light they floated high above the trees on strings so they wouldn’t fly away. He baked thick, most cakes that were so heavy they could sink through the ground so the earthworm and the mole could eat them in the dark — which is where those cakes tasted best.

Friendship and communications between all manner of animals provide infinite opportunities for storytelling here, and the creatures that take pleasure in one another’s company aren’t necessarily the ones you’d expect to find communing. In the world of Tellegen’s creation, each animal is, it would seem, the sole member of its species, hence the designation of each as "the dragonfly" or "the bear." As such, a good deal of inter-species communication occurs, and creatures occasionally find they have surprising things in common. To wit, this conversation that begins "Renovating the Snail" (a story that appears in The Squirrel’s Birthday…):

"In the morning, when I wake up," the snail said, "I always have such a pain in my horns."

"Oh really?" said the giraffe. "That’s funny! So do I. It’s as if they’re prickling."

"Yes," said the snail. "As if they’re on fire."

"As if someone is pulling on them," said the giraffe.

"Yes," said the snail. "That’s what the pain is like."

They nodded at each other and felt pleased that they shared a morning complaint.

"Of course," said the giraffe, "I can’t discuss such things with the sparrow."

Accompanying all of these stories are lovely watercolor illustrations by Jessica Ahlberg that perfectly capture their moods and endear you, still further, to the books’ characters. Under the title for "The Costume Party" (a story in The Squirrel’s Birthday) appears a small drawing of a whale wearing tiny ladybug wings on his back. (He has somehow tied a string around his middle to hold the wings in place.) I can’t decide which I love more — the whale dressed as a ladybug, the mole dressed as a lobster, or the walrus dressed as a snail. Each is so wonderfully charming, in part because it is so completely absurd.

It’s the absurdity and dryness of the humor in these stories that saves them from being overly sweet or (God forbid) "cutesy." That, and the fact that the animals, while always entertaining, are not always cheery. The unevenness of their moods and differences in their character is what makes the experiences of these animals so charming, so familiar, so touching, and so human.

I leave you with this excerpt from "The Mole’s Letters", which appears in Letters to Anyone and Everyone. In it, Mole despairs of the fact that he never receives any letters:

And so, in the darkness, deep underground, he wrote himself letters, one after the other.

Dear Mole,
Yours sincerely,
The mole

or

Dear Mole,
I miss you.
The mole

Once he’d finished writing each letter, he hid it somewhere under the mud. Then he would chance upon it a little later and read it. Sometimes the letters brought tears to his eyes.

Thank you very much, Mole, he thought. Or I miss you too, Mole.

Sometimes he threw a party for all the senders of his letters. Then he ran from one side of the other of the darkest of all his tunnels and caverns. He danced too. Am I really happy? he wondered as he danced with himself.

At the end of one of these parties, he went and sat in a corner and wrote a letter to himself with the immortal words,

Dear Mole,
You have to go on a journey.
The Mole.

He nodded and went on a journey. Upwards, toward the mysterious air. He held his breath, saw the light shining down through the earth, and slowly climbed on.

That evening, he paid an unexpected visit to the squirrel. They drank tea and the mole talked about his parties deep under the ground. Large, dark parties without a trace of light. The squirrel shook his head, amazed. The mole stirred his tea and hoped that time would now finally stand still.

I hope you’ll read these books and find they made time stand still for you. As for me, I will now get back to all the items (yikes!) on my to-do list…

1 thought on “Make Time for the Tales of Toon Tellegen

  1. Deborah Freedman

    Ooh, I love, love THE SQUIRREL’S BIRTHDAY – it’s just indescribably delightful. My favorite book of this past year. “The mole stirred his tea and hoped that time would now finally stand still.” And now I can’t wait to get my hands on LETTERS.

    Reply

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