You know those obscure picture books you read as a child over and over again? The ones that delighted or haunted you, that stayed with you over the years, that helped form you as a person—but that no one else has ever heard of? It’s a little weird and a little cool, as though maybe ten copies were ever printed and you were the only person outside the author’s family who managed to find one. Over the years, I’ve managed to save and/or collect most of these books, and occasionally I’ll pull them down from the shelves and enjoy my Proust’s madeleine experience and go back in time.
One of my favorite no-one-else books was Princesses’ Tresses by Luciana Roselli. This book was an early 70′s confection of (three?)-color art in sherbet hues, drawn with a fanciful, sentimental line. The story was simple, about a little girl with very short hair who yearned for long princess hair, oodles and miles and spaghetti swirls of it — until she realized how much of a pain that much hair would actually be, and she settles for trusting that her hair will grow to a pretty, manageable length and will be just fine and dandy, thank you. Why did I love this book so very much? I can’t even begin to tell you. Perhaps it was partly the fact that my mother gave it to me especially because of my very thick, impossible hair, and partly that the little girl’s name was Elisabeth (that elegant variation of my own very common name). I know it had something to do with the images that went with phrases like, ‘It would take seven handmaidens to wash it, seven suns to dry it…’ [paraphrased; I can't find my beloved copy]. I was entranced by the improbably elaborate hairdos necessary to contain all that mass: for instance, hair parted and braided and fashioned into, say, a large garden trellis. The consequences of incredible tresses became increasingly absurd, ending, I think, with a prince or two getting lost in there. (Put Dr. Freud back on the shelf; this book was too sprightly to have engaged in metaphor.)
The writing was actually lyrical, but it was also simple and clear and comfortingly matter-of-fact, like a good fairy tale. I don’t know how and where my mother found that book, and I’m sure she never would have imagined I’d read it almost as often as I read Where the Wild Things Are, but there you are. In all my years of loving and living with books, I’ve never met another person familiar with that one.
Minnie the Mump and Other Stories by Paul Tripp. This 1960 book about health and doctors’ visits and illnesses for kids was published by a drug company, of all things: Ross Laboratories in Columbus, Ohio. Its full title, in fact, is preceded by “The Vi_Daylin® book of….” Turns out that Vi-Daylin® was “the Ross Laboratories brand of vitamin supplement.” What I loved about this book were the illustrations: personified illnesses like CLARA the COLD, CHARLIE CHICKEN POX, HERMAN GERMAN MEASLES, MOLLY MEASLES, SCARLET FEVER (“She is a STREPTOCOCCUS which is not a nice thing to be”). They were suitably nasty creatures, but in a friendly sort of way — not an easy duality to carry off. Do you know it wasn’t until I pulled this one from the shelf tonight that I realized the artist was Trina Hyman (no Schart back then)?! No wonder I loved the illustrations!
I’ve always loved miniature things, so when my mother brought home a book featuring a tiny tiger nestled in flowers, I was enchanted. Tiger Flower, “a tale by Robert Vavra around paintings by Fleur Cowles with a preface by Yehudi Menuhin,” was an odd book that didn’t tell a story so much as present a lot of lovely paintings of a topsy-turvy natural world where mushrooms were the size of trees and lions and tigers balanced on blades of grass, no longer hunting zebras but, rather, flowers for bouquets. I’ve never met anyone else who encountered it as a child, and in fact, it’s the kind of arty, slightly distant book that perhaps has more adult than child appeal. (I’ll bet my mom found it at an art gallery or museum in Phoenix somewhere.) Still, though I didn’t connect strongly to the words, the idea of a miniature tiger—a tiger small enough to run around in the palm of my hand, or to be blanketed by a rose petal—brought me back again and again to the pages of that book.
Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip might have been written just for me: a child who got lost in funny words and skewed ideas and pictures that asked questions. An unorthodox picture book, it was a collection of jokes and wordplay and skits and mini-stories poetry and very-1970s doodly playful rainbow-colored illustrations and hand-lettered text that spiraled around in shapes to follow along the page. The subtitle alone was delicious: A Collection of Connections, Endless Tales, Reiterations, and Other Echolalia. (Try getting THAT past Acquisitions today.) It was the very essence of imaginative art, full of funny little touches and bright spirit. It even sneaked in some philosophy. I can’t tell you the number of hours I spent inside this book, pondering the concepts and poring over the art, the fine lines and miniature drawings and bursts of color. Incidentally, Arm in Arm also gave me my favorite childhood joke: “Ask me if I’m a boat.” “Are you a boat?” “Yes. Now ask me if I’m an airplane.” “Are you an airplane?” “No, silly, I’m a boat.” I still have my old copy, inscribed by my mom in 1973: “…a silly fun book because you are fun to be silly with.” (Inscriptions are practically a lost art, and I miss them.) Although Remy Charlip wasn’t and isn’t an obscure author, I was the only kid I knew who had that book. It was unique in format and freedom, and it was a touchstone for me.
Another no-one-else picture book was The Magic Friend Maker by Gladys Baker Bond, illustrated by Stina Nagel. It’s the story of Beth, a shy “one-girl,”an only child with no best friend. Then she meets Jean, a new girl in the neighborhood who befriends Beth by showing her a special, egg-sized rock. I loved that rock and its mysterious colors: “It looked very old. Its brownness was streaked with one color that looked like rust on old iron, and another color that looked like a policeman’s coat on a smoggy morning.” It turns wonderful colors when submerged in water, “… like melted candy, streaked with red, yellow, and shadowy blue.” Brought together by the stone, two girls become best best best best friends. But all good things must come to an end, and one day, Jean announces she has to move. Beth is despondent, but then a new girl moves in, and Beth — I know this will shock you — befriends her with the rock Jean gave to Beth as she was leaving. “It was just a rock until it was shared. Then it became a magic friend-maker.” I don’t know why I liked this simple story so much. I wasn’t a “one-girl;” I had a sibling and little friends to play with. But man, I loved that rock. I still gather a stone or two when visiting a new place, or going back to an old one, and I know that my habit of rinsing stones to see what they look like wet is due to The Magic Friend Maker.
Recently, my entire understanding of this book was called into question by a friend who facetiously found a wildly lesbian subtext in the friendship; she quoted lines like “Touch it …. My rock gets warm when you hold it,” with an exaggerated leer, making me both laugh hysterically and hate her a teeny bit for forever besmirching my inner five-year-old’s delight at the friendly faces, innocent hand-holding, and happy teeter-totters, wild swings, and cute sparrows in the park. “Want to touch my rock?” It’ll never be the same.
This is why perhaps some of these no-one-else books deserve their place in solo memory, so you can keep your rocks rocks and your cigars cigars. But in case you want to share, I’m really curious: what are YOUR no-one-else books?