From the Archives: A Child’s Delight
(Originally posted in September, 2007)
I first heard about this delightful-indeed book from the Deputy Headmistress at The Common Room. A Child’s Delight, by Noel Perrin, is a collection of essays about children’s books that ought not to be missed. The DHM’s review suggested that Perrin’s book ought not to be missed, either, so naturally I took her advice. She is as good as her word.
I loved this little book. Perrin wrote a column on books—”neglected minor masterpieces” is how he described them—for The Washington Post. Not children’s books; that came later. His column, “Rediscoveries,” recommended books Perrin thought everyone should read but which had seemed, for various reasons, to slip under the radar.
Eventually, Perrin shifted his attentions to children’s literature. The Deputy Headmistress elaborates:
Years later he was invited to revisit the topic, only this time, to look at neglected children’s books that deserved greater attention.
He and his editor had some trouble coming up with a list they both agreed on. Perrin came up with a list of 17 books, but the editor rejected eight of them as too well known. The editor, a well read man, didn’t want books that were too famous. The point was to recommend pieces that everybody didn’t
The story of just how Perrin came up with the final list of books, recounted in the introduction to A Child’s Delight and summarized in the DHM’s post, is fascinating reading in itself.
I had read about two thirds of the books Perrin discusses. Our taste seems to run on similar tracks, for many of his most enthusiastic reviews were of books I get pretty excited about myself. I’ve been tracking down and reading the other books on his list, and I owe him (and the DHM) a debt of thanks: these are indeed books not to be missed.
The DHM talks in detail about a little picture book called Johnny Crow’s Garden, by Leslie Brooke, reviewed with joyful rhapsody by Perrin. Their descriptions jogged my memory; I remember reading—and adoring—Johnny Crow when I was a tiny girl. I scored a used copy on Amazon marketplace (it is no longer in print, unbelievably, but you can view the whole book at Project Gutenberg) and had goosebumps when I turned its pages and saw those familiar old animals, the storks, the lion, the dapper Johnny Crow. Beanie quickly claimed the book for herself, and we have shared many a chuckle over it already in these few weeks.
Another Perrin pick is Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag, well known in homeschooling circles because of its inclusion in—hmm. I was going to say its inclusion in Before Five in a Row, but I just checked the booklist, and the other FIAR booklists, and it isn’t there. Another Wanda Gag book, The ABC Bunny, is in BFIAR, so that must be what I was thinking of. But you remember Millions of Cats, the Caldecott Honor Book about the little old man and the little old woman who are all alone, and they want a cat, and the husband goes off to find one and encounters
hundreds of cats,
thousands of cats,
millions and billions and trillions of cats—
who all follow him home, which is when things get grisly. But charmingly so.
Perrin gives a very interesting biographical sketch of Wanda Gag, whose personal story was new to me. I’m even more intrigued by her work now.
Those two are picture books, but most of Perrin’s essays are about middle-grade novels. His taste runs toward fantasy, which suits me fine. Some of his choices surprised me because I wouldn’t have thought they were in fact under the radar. Watership Down is one such novel. You know I agree with Perrin that everyone should read that book, but before that Google search hit popped up on my sitemeter, I might have thought such advice was redundant. Perrin wants to make sure no one misses it, so it lands a place in his book.
As do Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” books: Theater Shoes, Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, and the others. I have probably blogged about those books before. They are enchanting. My girls are in the thick of them now, especially Beanie. I never encountered them as a child; my introduction to Streatfeild came during my first months on the job as an editorial assistant at Random House. My boss was involved in bringing three of the Shoes books back into print. All we had was hard copy, old out-of-print editions from the company archives. Someone needed to type the manuscripts into a Word document—and that someone, as it happens, was I. This was a freelance job, not part of my salaried employment, and I remember sitting up late at night in my little Queens apartment, typing away to earn extra money for the wedding I was planning. Talk about a cushy job. The only drawback was that my fingers couldn’t keep up with my devouring eyes—the books were so good that I kept finding myself drawn in, turning pages when I should have been typing.
Perrin’s quite right; if Streatfeild has slipped under your radar, you should treat yourself to a delightful read. Ballet Shoes is my favorite, I think (though I’ve a fondness for Dancing Shoes, with that insufferable little twit Dulcie Wintle and her maddening “baby dance”). Ballet Shoes is the story of three unrelated orphan girls—Posy, Pauline, and Petrova—who are adopted, one after the other, by an eccentric English explorer who spends most of the book off exploring, leaving his charges in the care of a sweet great-niece. Exploring doesn’t bring in much income, so the niece fills the house with interesting boarders, one of whom just happens to teach ballet…
But I don’t want to reveal too much. One of the things I appreciate most about Perrin’s reviews is that he is careful not to give away plot surprises.
Even so, I didn’t read more than the first few paragraphs of the essays about books I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. Perrin sent me running to the library website to see which titles I could track down. The girls and I are just getting into The Children of Green Knowe, which Perrin praises most enthusiastically, and others on my list include T. H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (I’ve only read White’s The Once and Future King) and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. (I know, I know, I can’t believe I haven’t read it either!)
Perrin’s essays have an E. B. White quality about them: their calm, good-humored simplicity; their elegant prose. I do believe I enjoyed his essay on Diana Wynne Jones’s ripping good tale, Dogsbody, almost as much as I enjoyed the novel itself. Coincidentally, Jane was reading Dogsbody about the same time I was reading A Child’s Delight, and when she finished, she wanted to discuss it, as we are wont to do. It had been probably ten years since I read that book myself, so I had to re-read it for Jane. (“Had to” makes it sound like an obligation, but you know if it’s Wynne Jones, it’s a privilege.) When I finished I really wanted to sit down with Jane and Mr. Perrin over a cup of tea for a nice long confab about Sirius, the luminous being who was banished to earth—in a puppy’s body, no less—for a crime he didn’t commit, with only a dog’s short life span in which to clear his name.
Other gems on Perrin’s list include Margery Sharp’s The Rescuers (much better than the movie), Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, and my favorite Edith Nesbit novel, The Railway Children.