justice_turtle: Robot Jack from Stargate SG-1, captioned "fergit space adventure, we gonna do Shakespeare" (fergit space adventure)
justice_turtle ([personal profile] justice_turtle) wrote in [community profile] readallthenewberys2013-09-05 10:29 am

Mock Newbery: The Funny Thing (Wanda Gág)

I put this on the list because Millions of Cats and ABC Bunny were both on it, and because this is one of those picture books I've read in anthologies but never in the original format. I'll be glad when the Caldecotts start up in 1938 and I don't have to draw comparisons between Wanda Gág picture books and Rachel Field research tours-de-force. (Tour-de-forces? I don't speak French.)

Anyway. To the book! Liveblogging another picture book. *sigh*

* The Funny Thing by Wanda Gág is illustrated in her trademark semi-woodcut-ish pen-and-ink style. The cover picture shows an old man offering a dragon a plate of little balls of, presumably, food. (I know what they are, but when liveblogging something this short, you have to stretch out what suspense there is. *dry grin*)

* ...and the inside jacket flap summarizes the whole story, beginning to end. o_O

* Anyway, the title page shows the dragon holding a rather startled-looking doll. Every tiny line, from the lace on the doll's pillow to the shading on the dragon's tail, is in the perfect place, because this is Wanda Gág and of course it is. I don't know anyone else who does as good pen-and-ink work except Beth and Joe Krush -- about whose awesome you will all hear in due time during the 1950s, when I get to Miracles on Maple Hill and Gone-Away Lake. Pauline Baynes comes close, but she isn't as versatile as the others; I'd put her with Robert Lawson, maybe.

* A-ny-way! The book is entirely hand-lettered; I don't know if Wanda Gág did the lettering herself or if her brother Howard, who lettered The ABC Bunny, did it. The lettering looks similar to that in ABC Bunny, but families often have similar enough handwriting that outsiders can't tell them apart.

* The story opens on "a beautiful day in the mountains", when an old man named Bobo is sitting outside his little cave-house, waiting for the birds and animals of the mountains to come and eat the food he regularly sets out for them.

* There are nut cakes for the squirrels, seed puddings for the birds, cabbage salads for the rabbits, and tiny cheeses the size of cherries for the mice. Of course there are also little pen-and-ink drawings of each kind of animal eating their respective food, because of course there are. ^_^

* Now on this particular day, here comes the Funny Thing - which I've been calling a dragon, although I don't think the term is actually used in the book. "It looked something like a dog and also a little like a giraffe, and from the top of its head to the tip of its curled tail, there was a row of beautiful blue points."

* The Funny Thing is not an "animal" at all, it tells Bobo. It's an "aminal!", italics original.

* And it wants food. Bobo points out the different food he has available - in a pair of wonderful two-page spreads during which the Funny Thing grows more and more disdainful. Wanda Gág does the best time-lapse drawings I have ever, ever seen. :D

* The Funny Thing doesn't want any of the food Bobo has on offer, though. It wants dolls. "And very good they are -- dolls." (Because this is a proper fairytale-ish picture-book by somebody who grew up on Grimm's Fairy Tales in the original German, it has the kind of repeated refrain that many Western fairy tales have, which is repeated several times verbatim and then changes according to circumstances. In this case it's the Funny Thing's "And very good they are" that carries the rhythm of the story.)

* Bobo is shocked that the Funny Thing should eat dolls, and points out that it must make the children very unhappy to have their dolls eaten up. "So it does," said the Funny Thing, smiling pleasantly, "but very good they are -- dolls."

* Bobo asks if the children cry when the Funny Thing takes away their dolls; which indeed they do. The Funny Thing tells Bobo this with a "cheerful grin", and adds - as we are coming to expect - "But very good they are -- dolls."

* Bobo paces up and down and begins to cry from sympathy for all the children who have their dolls eaten by the Funny Thing.

* Then, being a genre-savvy old gentleman, he suggests, "Perhaps you take only naughty children's dolls". I think this is HILARIOUS, because in almost any children's book of the period, that's what would happen - the implied or explicit moral of the story would be that you should Be A Good Child or the blue-spiked dragon will come and eat up your dolls.

(I note as a tangent that it's not implied anywhere in this book that only girl-children have dolls. There are no explicitly female characters, although I'm not sure if the Funny Thing is given a gender - *checks* no, it's referred to as "he" - but there's no explicit gender essentialism at all. O_O Wanda Gág, I take off my hat to you.)

* Anyway, getting back to the story... the Funny Thing does not take dolls only from bad children. It takes them specially from good children. "And very good they are -- good children's dolls!"

* Bobo is now crying copiously into a big spotted handkerchief, while the Funny Thing in this illustration has the wickedest smirk you ever saw on the face of a pen-and-ink drawing. Ever.

* So Bobo walks back and forth, crying, and trying to think of a plan to stop the Funny Thing from taking and eating dolls. Finally he thinks of something.

* Bobo tells the Funny Thing it has a lovely tail... and pretty black eyebrows... (once again we have multiple pages of time-progressed illustrations, this time with the Funny Thing looking more and more flattered and pleased with Bobo's praise)... and that the row of blue points down its back is extremely beautiful.

* "Then Bobo, who was really a wise old man," says he supposes that the Funny Thing is so beautiful because it eats a great many "jum-jills". These, Bobo says, are a type of little cake that makes tails grow longer and blue points more beautiful.

* The Funny Thing has never heard of jum-jills before, but it is very vain and wants a longer tail and bigger, more beautiful blue points, so it begs Bobo to give it a great many jum-jills.

* Bobo makes the Funny Thing sit down under a tree outside the cave and wait for him, while he goes into his house to fetch some jum-jills. Cue a double-page spread of Bobo's neatly-fitted-out little house inside the cave under the mountain. It looks rather like a hobbit-hole eight years early: a long tunnel, starting with a bedroom (with all of Bobo's spare clothes hung neatly on little pegs), then the study (with a desk and a quill-pen and a wall-calendar and a ladderback chair - Wanda Gág is really the predecessor to Richard Scarry as far as detailed double-page spreads that reward close looking go), and finally the kitchen, with an oil-lamp and a woodstove and delft on the cabinet.

* Now Bobo mixes up "seven nut cakes, five seed puddings, two cabbage salads, and fifteen little cheeses" in a big bowl, and rolls the mixture into little round balls. "These little balls were jum-jills."

* (Personally I think I might have left out the cabbage, especially as it doesn't even seem to be shredded or anything, in the picture. Just whole leaves. But as we shall see, Bobo knows what he's doing.)

* Anyway, Bobo brings out the plate of jum-jills to the Funny Thing, who is waiting under the tree.

* The Funny Thing eats one and then another, and after each one he says "And very good they are -- jum-jills." And when he has eaten the whole plate he looks incredibly smug and happy, and says, "And very good they are -- jum-jills", and then he goes away home.

* Next day he comes back for more jum-jills, and because Bobo is amazing, they're ACTUALLY WORKING. His tail is a little longer, his blue points are a little bigger, "and he looked very happy indeed."

* Another wonderful time-lapse double-page spread shows how the Funny Thing comes back to the cave day after day and eats jum-jills, his tail growing longer all the time. But on the twentieth day, his tail has grown so long he has trouble moving around...

* ...so he sits on the top of a "nice big mountain" - very smooth and conical in a rather Dr Seussian way - and coils his tail around it. And Bobo sends birds every day, flying in a long dramatic swirl across the double-page spread, to carry jum-jills to the Funny Thing, and its tail grows longer and longer and longer. "And by and by the only words he ever said were: 'And very good they are -- jum-jills!'"

* The end.

I love this book. :D

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