In this world of bargain-basement, budget-cudgeling, Mark Rothko-inspired non-art that you can buy at Dollar Store in a cheap-ass frame; where book covers are all visual noise or abstract to nth degree that they are useless for inducing anything about what’s inside; where no one wants to use models anymore because some union of bodice-ripper models insists on their people getting paid to stand up and “blue steel” for a few hours; where bizarre fonts are intended to make up for the lack of creativity in design; and finally-yet-nowhere-near-finished, where financially struggling publishers just don’t want to pay artists because artists are flaky and temperamental, the cover illustration on Book 5: Over The Hills subtly asserts itself as the opposite of all that.
It is full of archetypal symbols designed to practically make the preface unnecessary. The old man and the little boy sitting on hill looking out over a panoramic view of wide valley and far-off mountain echoes the painting by Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog. The fact that it’s an old man and a little boy is archetypal in the extreme: Oranos and Kronos, Kronos and Zeus, “Been-there-done-that” and “But-I-have-to-see-for-myself”. The illustration perfectly sets the theme for this volume. Children are of school age and getting interested in how things are made and how they work. They are being faced with challenges in the archetypal forms of giants, impossible tasks, tricks/riddles, and nonconformism.
I remember feeling culture shock when I would read this volume because there was a distinct decrease in the number of European stories and a significant amount of American literature and semi-non-fiction historical works. It felt like the European party was over. Not that it was bad, just a different sensation and I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to express what I felt.
Some of my favorite stories are in this book, though. I loved “Dick Whittington and His Cat”, “The Story of Tom Thumb”, “Why The Sea is Salt”, and “Jack and The Beanstalk.” These stories contained characters who were born into simple pastoral lives but had to go out into the world and face danger and prejudice. They ultimately succeeded – success being defined (rather simplistically) as marrying above one’s class, like Dick Whittington, or achieving wealth like Jack, or …being lifted to a higher station like Tom Thumb who became a knight. Another reason this book is special because it contained a lot of the same stories I was being exposed to at school. We were learning about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I remember reading “Why The Sea is Salt” at school and it held a special connection to me because my dad was working at a hotel on South Padre Island and my brothers and I would swim in the ocean every day when we stayed there. Also, it’s interesting that the brothers who are the main characters are not named. They are simply “the poor one” and “the rich one”. When you’re eight, that makes perfect sense.
I ran into “Jack and The Beanstalk” a lot at school, and there was a wonderful MGM cartoon about Tom Thumb. Interestingly, he came from a single-parent home – dad and no mom. There’s an excerpt from CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E. B. White, an excerpt from HEIDI by Johanna Spyri, as well as de rigeur Christian writings – two prayer/poems on p. 117.
This volume runs heavily into the legends surrounding George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Fulton, the Wright Brothers; even Scottish James Watt. Then it continues introducing legendary characters from American folk songs and tales: Casey Jones, John Henry that steel-drivin’ man, Hiawatha. And the deconstructionists’ favorite whipping boy – Christopher Columbus. So there’s a strong biographical and legend-building theme to Book 5. Does anyone read “Casey Jones” anymore? If not, it’s a shame.
Me being me, there were some smashing frocks in the illustrations.
In the “Tom Thumb” story, I didn’t know what a “pudding” was for the longest time so this image made no sense to me! It’s the little ball of starch the man is holding in his hand with Tom stuck in it.
This one is from the John Hancock Insurance corporate art collection. I can’t put my finger on what it is that I like so much about this style of illustration. It makes me feel young and good – but I don’t know why. The innocence of it, maybe? There’s even a Wyeth illustration in HEIDI!
On the whole, #5 wasn’t my favorite volume back in the day, but it did contain some of my favorite stories and favorite illustrations.
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