09 December 2006

Someone's Been Sleeping in My Story

W. W. Denslow was L. Frank Baum's partner for Father Goose, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Dot & Tot in Merryland, the first two titles becoming bestsellers. But the pair broke up over royalties and credit for the blockbuster 1902 stage adaptation of Wizard, and over personalities--Denslow was a talented but difficult man.

Baum and Denslow shared the rights to the characters of the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman, and both men started newspaper comic pages about them. (Denslow's has lately been adapted into book form by Hungry Tiger Press.) Both also created several more children's books in the first decade of this century; Baum excelled in novels, Denslow in picture books.

Three of those picture books appear in the
International Children's Digital Library, and they show both Denslow's talent at comic art and design, and his lackluster storytelling. Denslow's Three Bears is a good example. In this version, a little girl named "Golden Hair" stumbles into the forest home of "Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Tiny Bear." She sees three soup bowls of different sizes. A couple of details differ from the tale we know, but it's basically familiar, right?

Then Golden Hair decides what she really wants to do is clean the house. Bears, we must infer, are not very tidy. The bear family comes home, and they're so happy to have free maid service that they invite Golden Hair to share their soup. (The book says nothing about what bowl she uses.)

The bears and Golden Hair have such a good time playing "hi spy" that all four walk off to visit the little girl's grandmother. Then all five characters eat supper, "with tea for the elders and nice sweet milk for Golden Hair and the Tiny Bear." Grandmother and the Bears decide to live together, with Golden Hair apparently doing all the housekeeping, and other children come to play with the jolly bears. The end.

Denslow's drawings for this tale are delightful; I especially like the picture of one bear holding Grandmother's yarn while she knits. But Denslow removed every trace of conflict from his source. He doesn't even acknowledge the potential conflict between what he describes and readers' expectations, as in some subversive takes on traditional tales. Denslow's Three Bears contains nothing but jollity, which means there's really no story at all.

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