Thursday, September 22, 2011

Childcraft (1954), vol. 5: "Life in Many Lands"

Hello, hello! I haven't been on vacation again, but rather laboring under the ill effects of one of these no-good, very bad, Advil Cold and Sinus worthy head colds, which makes the very effort of watching the blinking cursor play across the screen itself kind of a burden. However! I am not to be stopped in my sharing with you the contents of MCM and earlier antiquated texts. No, sir. Which is why I've brought for you kiddlings today volume five of Childcraft's 1954 imprint, entitled "Life in Many Lands". If it isn't, as a good children's encyclopedia SHOULD be, lavishly illustrated and sweetly phrased, in most accounts. But don't take my word for it:

So. Many. Things. Are going on in this frontispiece. An Indian brave dancing with a bear! A boy on the leash of a runaway pig! A riverboat! A goose! A hawk in mid-wing! Hopefully, the book that awaits us must be of a similarly epic quality.

Based on the title, I was worried that this 1950's text would veer worrisomely into non PC overtones of a desperate nature, but for the most part, what I found inside were charming midcentury illustrations of the kind with which I'm becoming more and more familiar. I want to dress Bab and myself exactly like the female cousin and brother in the lower picture. Tom (right hand page, at left) is supposed to be fifteen, according to the text. Fifteen! How I would have loved to see such a Richard Egan looking guy sitting a row across from me in 10th grade homeroom.

"Valentine! Valentine's Day! What a beautiful word valentine is! It sounds just like the sky looks!" intones Mexican-Indian boy Juan Santos at the beginning of the second story, set somewhere in the American Southwest. His inital fervor for the novel-to-him holiday is dampened by the prospect of a classwide Valentine's Day card exchange, in which each student is set up to give a Valentine to another. His parents mostly trade for goods, so how can he get a Valentine if it costs money to obtain one? Classmate Jerry Vale will be without-Valentine on Valentine's Day! The shame. Oh, the shame. While pondering this quandry, Juan is sent to tend after a sick neighbor's sheep, when a wolf comes and gets in a terrible clash with the sheep herding dog. How I miss the exciting parts of early grade school reading like this:

Juan subsequently kills the wolf with his stick (plausibility is strained, but ok), and skins him (this ten year old boy just killed and skinned a wolf, which is breezed over like a minor detail), and trades the pelt for a box of valentines and "two dollars besides!" (resolution of dramatic conflict! Yesss!). Did I mention he takes a now orphaned baby wolf into his custody as well? Because that happened. The box of Valentines is mistaken for the box with the wolf cub in it, and Jerry Vale ends up with a wolf cub instead of a paper valentine on the big day in question:

" 'Oh look what I got,' Jerry cried, 'Just look at my valentine! Mine can see and breathe and move! I've got the dandiest valentine in the whole world!' "

Would your reaction to getting a wolf cub for Valentine's Day be similar? I think I have a new item on my wishlist besides animatronic, singing plush animals and Sour Patch Kids candy this next February.

The next story is set in the olden days, when "Grandfather Wib was a boy". We can only conjecture what "Wib" is short for, but, spoiler alert, he has friends named Cousin Ned and Shorty, making for a gang roster that includes Wib, Cousin Ned, and Shorty. Which is hilarious to me, even now as I type. How festive the one kid's plaid one piece is.

Wib's particularly generous mother often helps tramps that come to the back door asking for food or shelter, and she also has a particular penchant for playing tricks. These two circles of behavior overlap when she plays a prank on the boys by dressing up in tramps clothes to be mistaken for one on April Fools' Day. And a ha...ha...ha... I guess... anyway, Wib, Shorty, and Cousin Ned for life!

Several of the stories were set in historic times, even for the 1950's. The illustration below was from a (mostly apocryphal, but still pretty neat) story about the War of 1812, Old Glory, and the creation myth of the American anthem. I miss the "truths of our society" version of historic events you used to get in grade school, as well. I could do without all the conspiracy theories and intricacies of the real event for the American fable of how it was "said to happen".

Also, the girl pictured below holds the peculiar moniker of "Caroline Pickersgill". Keep those wacky names coming, Childcraft.

I skipped the next story, set on Beacon Hill in Boston at the turn of the century, but to note and admire Benjy's stripes and knickerbockers swagger. Get 'em, Benjy.

Below, "Christmas in the Piney Woods" is subtitled "A Story of the Arkansas Hills", which interests me mainly in a topical manner, by virtue of my just having seen 1934's "Spitfire" with Katharine Hepburn on YouTube, thanks to someone's gracious (and probably provisional and temporary) posting of the same. If you want to see the accent of the Ozarks, land of Lil Abner, delivered through the sieve of Hepburn's staunchly blueblooded, clipped diction, in particularly post-modern masterpiece of miscasting, please, do avail yourself to the aforementioned link.

I enjoyed the dialogue in this section, employing cute turns of phrases like "plumb worrisome", "I'll be back directly" and "now look here", and the descriptions of mountain food, like "preserved watermelon rind" and blueberry cobbler; sweet potatoes and black-eyed peas. Once again, a child is left to fend for herself as one or both of the parents take off to do some adult task. It's like a land of the lost here, with kids running the show. I like the little girl's sweet bangs and her father's resemblance to The Misfits era Clark Gable.

Finally! Full color!

For a story about German immigrants in Texas, we're introduced to the oddly named "Herr and Frau Geranium" (somehow, the flower's name doesn't sound very deutsch to me), who protagonist Lucinda is visiting on their farm. In the particularly lovely picture below, Lucinda finds out that the usually "terribly cross" geese can be lulled into docility to the point of dancing
around the arbors in a circle by playing them music on a music box. Nice work, Lucinda! Nice work, illustrators!

"Juan the Yanqui" tells the tale of a Yanqui Indian (from Mexico) who's orphaned and goes to live with a Navajo tribe. Luckily, Dances With Wolves style, there's a Navajo elder who spent five years a captive of the Yanqui, and can speak it enough to communicate with the lost little lamb. The colors here are gorgeous. Also, notice the papoose's Devo hat in the first illustration.

"Young Mountainy Singer'" is another "rustic charm" story, this time set in Appalachia rather than the Ozarks. "Singer" features the kind of dialogue in which the g's at the ends of verbs are dropped and a's are added to the beginning of them 'til everyone's a-singing and a-hollerin' and a-carryin' on (exactly, EXACTLY the way that I roll in sunny Tennessee... no sarcasm what soever). Is the little girl at bottom right not the prettiest thing?

This illustration of a Buick creeping out of a cornfield reminds me of something in a David Lynch scenario, or an Edward Gorey scribble. Framable.

I want to know more about lunch wagons! There's a famous one in Nashville called the Pie Wagon, which is no longer in a "wagon" but a full-sized, building-with-foundation--I learned from their website that "In the 1920s, restaurants that served food out of trolley cars were referred to as “pie wagons”. I guess the simplicity of the idea lives on in the "food truck" concept, which is just starting to take off in my city. At any rate, it looks like fun.

This picture comes from a story about a child fisherman named "Zebedee" (again with the names), which takes place in Nova Scotia. Like many names I assume can't possibly be in the Bible and must have been made up by someone, his name is, in fact, of canonical origin, and the text takes a moment to explain his naming at birth, after a fisherman in the Bible. Well, bust me. Beret, collared blouse, cardigan, skirt, socks, and Mary Janes = my style inspiration for the next blustery day we get in these parts. Way to go, Nova Scotian twins. It interests me that while a girl named Miranda, with a white kitten under her arm, is mentioned in the scene illustrated below, there's no twin nor dolly nor knockout cardigan ensemble mentioned. Minus points, illustrator.

These illustrations are meant to convey the whimsy of a fair in Budapest, the folk costumes of which make we want to move to Hungary pretty much this moment. Right after Kate and her cousin, Jancsi, dance to the gypsy beat, they eat a pair of decorated honeycakes shaped like lace hearts... the traditional Valentines of Hungary, the text bleats. What's with the preoccupation with holidays, Childcraft? I'm not too put out, as what follows is one of the most lackluster Valentine verses I've ever heard: "'Look at this one with a round mirror set into it!' Kate said. 'And a little saying too!' [The saying reads] 'You may be plain, and sometimes silly, but you are the only girl for me!' " I hope this at least rhymes in Hungarian, because otherwise... just get me the plain cake this year. Don't forget my wolf cub, either.

What is NOT to like about a circus scene? Read the barker's description of what's going on under the big top:

The girl without a body?! I can just imagine my nine year old self pondering this studiously over an afternoon crammed between the wall and the back of the sofa (best...tunnel...ever...) with my Childcraft in hand. Kate "impishly" ruins the "girl without a body" illusion by exposing the girls limbs and torso under the table's carefully rigged system. Boooooo, Kate!

But aren't the pictures beautiful?

Nanette in France bears no small resemblance to the ubiquitous "large eyed girl" paintings of the 1960's. These would definitely qualify as over-sized ocular cavities. From this story, I learned that wooden shoes are can be called sabots (sah-BOs) and that you shouldn't touch items when touring medieval French chateaux because you might dang end up in a hidden room with a secret panel for a door and no way out. Poor Nanette! Spoiler alert: she eventually made her way out. Additional spoiler alert: I eventually learned to love her papal hat.

"Ghost of the Lagoon" . Now THAT'S the kind of title I like to see.

Mako lives on the island of Bora Bora-- the only cultural touchstone I have for the place is as Fabienne and Butch's B-plan destination from that one scene in Pulp Fiction ("Well, you do not speak Bora Boran, either"). He learns that the ghost of the title is actually the shark spirit Tupa, whose name is bad luck to even pronounce (there goes my afternoon). He and his dog, Afa, go paddling out into the Polynesian waters off the main land in search of their fill of bananas and other awesome tropical fruit that grows in, natch, tropical lands. Later, however, I am reminded of why I do not want to live in a tropical area by dint of this illustration:

That boy. Is fighting. A SHARK. A ghost shark! Or possibly a real one. Anyway:


So Juan beat a wolf to death with a stick and Mako has now killed a shark armed only with a spear and his own grit. Get 'em! Wow. Things we have learned from the book as a whole? 1950's international kids are way tougher than you would think. And so ends the book.

Hope you enjoyed strolling through this volume of Childcraft! I'll be back next week with something from the real world, not involving cruelty to bloodthirsty animals.

Can you remember any particularly insane stories of child bravery from the folk tales or fairy tales of your youth?

Ciao for now!


  1. Thanks for your comment on my blog! I LOVE your blog; it is my new favorite. Is it appropriate for me to be reading blogs at work and laughing out loud to myself? Certainly everyone around here has gotten used to it by now. I just read the latest and an old post about Homemaking for teens - HILARIOUS!!!

  2. Completely enjoyed this from start to finish! Old Childcraft books are some of my favorite things in the world. The illustrations are the best.

  3. The illustrations in these books are phenomenal! What happened to these compiled children's books? They remind me of the text books of my yesteryear, but so much better!

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Tonight as I was reading a story to my daughter, my thoughts transported me to a story my grandmother used to read to me. All I could think of was the name Nanette, a castle and some shoes. Thanks to Google and your blog, I was able to find "Nanette Visits the Chateau". Time to check to see if my mother still has this book, or else pick it up from a used book seller. Thank you for helping me give words to my vague memories.

  5. ...."Juan kills a wolf with with a stick".....
    Don't underestimate Mexicans

    Donald Trump could claim to build a wall...
    But they can easily fly
    over it.

  6. So when are you going to read "Beacon Hill"? It is a very interesting story too.



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