05 January 2007

"You have to draw the gopher fairies!"

At various times in his writing, L. Frank Baum described animals fairies who share the shape of the creatures they look after, just as his more traditional fairies did for humans. In John Dough and the Cherub, for example, the heroes escape to the realm of the fairy beavers behind a waterfall.

Although Baum called The Discontented Gopher an "animal fairy tale," no fairies actually appear in his story. The gopher fairies who leave a special gift for Zikky remain off-stage.

However, this new edition's designer, Mark Conahan, told the artist, "You have to draw the gopher fairies!" He could offer such advice not just as the designer but also as the artist's friend and spouse. According to her KOTA radio interview, Carolyn Digby Conahan had been struggling to find the right tone for the art, and drawing those gopher fairies (as shown on her website) provided the magical touch that got the project rolling.

Likewise, Baum never mentions Zikky and his fellow gophers living and dressing like humans, but Conahan takes advantage of picture-book conventions and does some anthropomorphizing. Zikky's wealth is not simply a lifetime's supply of corn. Conahan shows how he's arranged those kernels and ears into a stately sitting room.

In the first half of the book Zikky wears blue overalls, like his down-to-earth brothers. But after he becomes wealthy, he switches to a three-piece suit, like any gentleman of his time (including Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad in The Wind in the Willows). The overalls reappear on the boys who cut off Zikky's tail and on the ordinary gophers he meets at the end.

Some of Conahan's most striking illustrations convey the small gopher's point of view: looking up at a massive plowhorse, for example. Page 25 shows what must be one of the rare illustrations in children's literature of a large, angry rabbit, with little Zikky dwarfed in the background.

Conahan's work transforms Baum's hundred-year-old magazine story into a fine modern picture-storybook, adding new dimensions and appeal.

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