Last week I had to head up to my mom’s house to do some cleaning out after a pipe bust in an old bedroom. In the process I brought home several boxes of picture books I’d had as a child. Of course there were timeless old classics like Mike Mulligan, Cat in the Hat, and One Morning in Maine, but also oodles and oodles of books that I’d completely forgotten about as well as a few little gems that I loved, but which are pretty obscure and I bet you have never heard of. So for our reviews today, indulge me in a little time travel. Yes, I generally focus on books published in the past couple years, but looking back at books from the 60s and 70s (I am the youngest, so many of my books were hand-me-downs) just might teach us a few lessons about how much the market has changed!
Title: My Father Can Fix Anything
Author: Mabel Watts
Illustrator: Bonnie and Bill Rutherford
Publisher/Date: Whitman Pub. Co (January 1, 1965)
The “gist”: Charlie Chugwell’s father can fix anything, but if he keeps getting sidetracked, he’ll never fix their car in time to go to Grandma’s!
My favorite part: There’s actually some good educational value here, because with each thing Mr. Chugwell fixes, we learn what tools he is using and there are good illustrations in the endpapers to teach kids about traditional tools.
My response as a reader: It was quite sentimental finding this one, since I have always told people that MY father could fix anything. In fact, in cleaning up at my mom’s house, we found a hockey stick he had made for my brothers, a basketball hoop I remember him restringing, and a soup pot whose handle he had repaired with an old axe handle. Reading about Charlie and his dad when I was young only convinced me that that’s just what fathers did.
My “take-away” as a writer: Let’s just get it out of the way that all of these books are way over the contemporary recommendations for word count. In this case, there are long descriptions of Mr. Chugwell fixing many different things and most of those could be trimmed easily without losing the main idea.
Title: Oscar’s Book
Illustrator: Michael Gross
Publisher/Date: Little Golden Books (1975)
*Note: This book was reissued in 2018 with the cover to the left, so hopefully a new generation may be familiar with it.
The “gist”: Everyone knows the beloved “The Monster at the End of this Book” starring Grover, but no one talks about this one, which is just as fun and involves Oscar trying to get you to close his book and leave him alone!
My favorite part: I love seeing Oscar dressed up as a little girl with corkscrew curls– and how magnificently this deceit backfires!
My response as a reader: My love of meta books that break the 4th wall was well established way back in 1975. It was slightly scary to have Oscar yelling “at you,” but the interactivity always held my attention as a kid.
My “take-away” as a writer: This book is a great lesson in voice– we all know the Grouch, but could you keep up his style for a whole book? Reading this book today I have the Grouch’s voice in my head the whole time. Next time I write, I want to make sure the voice of my on main character is just as firmly planted.
Title: Five Beds for Bitsy
Author: Ian Munn
Illustrator: Elizabeth Webbe
Publisher/Date: Rand McNally; First Edition (January 1, 1950)
The “gist”: When Bobby gets a puppy for his birthday in a little fruit basket, he doesn’t realize Bitsy will go through five beds as she grows.
My favorite part: My son has heard about this book, so he wasn’t unbiased, but it was fun to see his joy, even at a jaded 13 years old, watching Bobby pick up the wiggling birthday package and open it.
My response as a reader: This was a favorite story when I was little. Years later when I was in high school and we got a puppy, we named her Bitsy. Since she ended up sleeping not only in her own bed but in many other spots in the house, we always joked there were more than five beds for our Bitsy!
My “take-away” as a writer: Honestly, this is not much of a story. It’s got the cutest puppy ever, but it’s totally predictable with pretty much zero conflict. I can pretty much guarantee it wouldn’t be published today, but who cares? It’s an adorable piece of my childhood I wouldn’t give up for anything.
Title: Indian Two Feet and His Horse
Author: Margaret Friskey
Illustrator: Michael Gross
Publisher/Date: Scholastic (January 1, 1974)
*Note: This book was originally published in 1959, but was rereleased in 1974 with illustrations by well-known Ezra Jack Keats, author of “The Snowy Day.”
The “gist”: Indian Two Feet is a young Native American boy who has learned many skills, but longs to have a horse. His father tells him “You must think like a horse to find one. Go find one.” Eventually he does find a horse, but it needs his care.
My favorite part: I loved the irony of the fact that even though he finally had his horse, he still had to walk.
My response as a reader: I was a horse freak as a kid and begged my parents for a horse pretty much every chance I got. This story is similar to how Alec gets his horse in “The Black Stallion” (book and movie), but I really appreciate the (Western) Native American culture it includes (even if it is stereotypical…it’s a start?)
My “take-away” as a writer: There is a lovely lyrical feel to this writing. It is sparse and has just enough repetition to feel comfortable, like you’re listening to an expert storyteller. Even if Ms. Friskey is not Native American herself (which I doubt), the writing style is admirable.
Title: Waldo the Jumping Dragon
Author: Dave Detige
Illustrator: Kelly Oeschli
Publisher/Date: Whitman Pub. Co; 0 edition (January 1, 1964)
The “gist”: Waldo is a jumping friendly dragon who never watches where he is going and ends up getting into trouble.
My favorite part: I loved when he surprises the King and Queen who faint, but only after clutching their crowns so they don’t lose them.
My response as a reader: I haven’t read this book in over 40 years, but I have strong memories of the friendly quirky dragon and his playfulness with the knight. Waldo and Pete’s Dragon are probably the reason I don’t see dragons as inherently scary creatures.
My “take-away” as a writer: There’s a great “meta” moment of the dragon jumping off the page at the end– I haven’t done that with any of my manuscripts yet, but need to try it. As we saw with the Oscar book, it’s a great way to add some playfulness!
P.S. Did you notice that the main character in ALL FIVE of these books is male? Misogyny is real and so deeply embedded we don’t even notice it. I bet if I looked through both boxes, there would only be a handful of female characters. (Thank goodness for “Blueberries for Sal” and “One Morning in Maine”!). Although I am the mom of two boys, I am going to think hard about ever writing a story with a male protagonist again.