16 September 2007

American Fantasies from between the World Wars

Yesterday I promised remarks on some American fantasies for children written in the 1920s and '30s. All of these books have gone out of print, but some had built enough of a following to be brought back.

First, loyalty forces me to mention that there was an Oz novel published every year from 1921 to 1942, first by Ruth Plumly Thompson and then by John R. Neill. A few of those books are even good enough to share with people who've read a Baum Oz book or two but aren't already avid fans, such as Thompson's Speedy in Oz, Ojo of Oz, and The Wishing Horse of Oz.

Another series that went out of print but retained enough fans to return is Walter R. Brooks's Freddy the Pig books, published from 1927 to 1958. Unlike other books about animal communities, such as Rabbit Hill and Charlotte's Web, the premise of the Freddy books is not simply that animals can talk to each other while going about their usual business, but (after book four) they also talk to humans and undertake a lot of human business as well. The books brought Freddy into contact with Santa Claus, robots, and space aliens, raising the fantasy quotient. It's good to have them available again.

Now to the truly forgotten. William Bowen's The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure was one of the very first crop of Newbery Honor books in 1922. I've never seen a copy, but I'm intrigued by this summary from Your Kids Library:

Freddie is warned not to touch the tobacco, which is stored in a porcelain container shaped like the head of a "Chinaman." He puffs away, drifts off into a cloud of smoke, then joins his friends on the quest. They survive a shipwreck, bloodthirsty pirates, leering sailors, boring pedants, and the like before returning home.

If you sat down and got really drunk and tried to come up with a children's book that had absolutely no chance of getting published today, The Old Tobacco Shop would probably be it.
Put that on my list to track down!

Finally, a trio of fantasy books from the 1920s that I've never seen anywhere but on my own shelf. And I didn't inherit those books, or receive them from a dotty relative. As a lad I came across one in a used bookstore for a cheap price and was intrigued, reading it several times. Later I hunted down the other two in the series, but never got around to reading them, probably fearing they'd turn out to be much worse than I remember.

This trio is the Diggeldy Dan series by Edwin P. Norwood. From what I glean on the web, Norwood was a p.r. man for the Ringlings, and he wrote many books about the circus world, such as The Other Side of the Circus (nonfiction) and Davy Winkle in Circusland (shown above). Norwood also seems to have been enough of a hack to write Ford: Men and Methods about the company's River Rouge plant.

Norwood's Diggeldy Dan tales appeared first on the Children's Page of the Christian Science Monitor, and then were printed with fine three-color plates by A. Conway Peyton, which tend to be bunched early in the volumes so they look more numerous. There are three books:
  • The Adventures of Diggeldy Dan (1922)
  • In the Land of Diggeldy Dan (1923, with some stories copyrighted 1920-21)
  • The Friends of Diggeldy Dan (1924)
Each is a collection of interlaced stories, based on the premise that old clown Diggeldy Dan lets the circus animals out of their cages at night for them to have conversations and adventures.

But that doesn't really give a feel for the surreal, sickly sweet nature of these books. So I quote:
And once, when Dan had been a clown for a hundred years and a day, the Pretty Lady with the Blue-Blue Eyes came to him in a dream one night, came on her White-White Horse right out of the skies. And touching Dan with her slim little whip, she told him of a meeting that had been held by all the animals in Jungleland. . . .
The "slim little whip" adds a tang to the scene, doesn't it?

And here's a summary of the one book I've read, In the Land of...:
Kangaroo wins a game of hide-and-seek in the Spangleland circus tent, and gets to visit the whip-wielding lady. She takes him to the Land of Sunset in the clouds, telling him to get around by rolling lest his pointy feet and tail poke through the floor. But the next morning Kangaroo forgetfully hops out of bed and plunges out of the sky onto a sailing ship crewed by twenty other kangaroos, each wearing a fez, and twenty roosters.

This crew is chasing after the path of the Moon on the ocean, figuring that its golden color means there must be treasure on an island at the end. This quest isn't going well. Kangaroo has the bright idea of sailing the other way around the world and catching the Moon from behind. Sure enough, soon the ship reaches the island, which is inhabited by monkeys.

The whole group--kangas, roosters, and monkeys--unearths an iron treasure chest full of candies and plum puddings, packed with a cloud to keep things from cracking or drying out. Kangaroo takes one of the puddings, jumps on the cloud, and floats back up to the Pretty Lady with the Blue-Blue Eyes.

After some minor complications, Kangaroo gets back to the circus. A tug-of-war among the animals the following night causes Little Black Bear to sit on the plum pudding, squashing it. It turns out that pudding is only clay, with a message written on a paper inside:
If the finder will go to the great tree that stands near the windle-well and hang by his tail he shall see what he shall see. Signed: Shadow-Sho.
That message sends Monkey off on an adventure...
And so on. The prose is quite atrocious, but there's a straightforward strangeness to the imagery that makes it stick in my brain like chocolate syrup.

What other American fantasy novels for children do people remember from the 1920s and '30s?


Sarah said...

I love the books of Ethel Cook Eliot, especially "The House on the Edge of Things." Her most popular book was "The Wind Boy" but I thought it was a little too spacy. She wrote several fantasy (of the fairy woods type, more than the battle of good and evil type) from about 1918 to 1930, then became an avid catholic and wrote a series of "merry mysteries for girls".

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sharing the recommendation!

The House on the Edge of Things was published in 1923, so its copyright protection just barely survived under the latest term extension. That means it's not available as readily or cheaply as Eliot's earlier books. I see that it was published by Beacon Press, a Unitarian publisher, which makes her turn to Catholicism more interesting.

Here are links to other Eliot books for folks who want to sample them:
* The House in the Fairy Wood via Google Books, color plates scanned as well as text.
* The Chinaberry catalog's page for The Wind Boy, as well as a print edition of House in the Fairy Wood.

fusenumber8 said...

AH! Freddy the pig! Brilliant. That series IS still read (at least here in New York) and remains quite a favorite amongst some of my patrons. Unfortunately, I don't think they've heard of the other titles. Good call in any case.