1903… it’s an old one, and one that has obviously appealed to reader’s for a very long time. Published over and over again for over 70 years, Johnny Crow’s Garden doesn’t seem to be enjoying quite the popularity it once had. Perhaps now thought to be somewhat archaic (for the style of the drawings?), this awesome little picture book brings back a time of yore, both in style and in sentiment.
Now, I’m obviously a sucker for the drawings (they were the inspiration for my own drawing on this blog’s header). And in my world, they are enough to warrant a big thumbs up, top o’ the list. But I can recognize my own preference for the nostalgic, simple black line and the personification of animals into kindly, two legged beings. What goes beyond the illustrations, however, is an act of pure, indulgent nonsense masking a fairly straight-forward social commentary.
“And they all sat down to dinner in a row, In Johnny Crow’s Garden.” While the nonsense of a lion strutting on two legs in a green and yellow tie would make any kid laugh, we can also imagine him as a stock figure at a dinner party in any Victorian novel: dandy Uncle Charles. Or the poor coat-less bear as hapless (and rather poor) country Cousin David. First published in London in 1903, Johnny Crow’s Garden came out just as the Victorian era ended and the Edwardian began. Now, the Victorian’s strict social rules are not looked upon kindly from our modern vantage point (though we also have a strange, rather unhealthy obsession with it). A web of social nuances governed the time, and to be a successful upper class English person, one had to conform to these very specific behaviors—formulaic if you will. Not only must the host abide by well-defined rules of conduct, including a perpetually bright face and attitude, but the guests must as well.
The Victorian dinner party made its way into plenty of Victorian novels as a scene for satire and criticism– think of Vanity Fair. Its mockery is nothing new. And by the end of the 19th century, neither was the use of a picture book to perform the same function. With new technologies for printing color, the picture book became easily accesible and enjoyed an explosion of popularity among all ages. It was common then to use the picture book in a slightly more sarcastic and humorous way (see my write up on the Legion of Honor’s exhibit of artists such as Williamson and Caldecott for more on this).
So, if you can bring a lion in a tie to life in full color, what better way to mock a proper dinner party than to fill it with a bunch of no-mannered animals? The respected guests of Brooke’s party range from the common cat and goose to a whale and two hippopotami. As each animal caters to the stereotype of a dinner guest, they also cater to his or her own stereotype: the cat is after the mouse, the goose is stupid, the goat wise, the fox crafty, and the crow… well Johnny is the glue that holds them all together. A verifiable zoo brought to harmony through the efforts of the gracious and ameliorative host, releasing his guests from the fox’s stocks, listening to ALL of the whale’s long tale, diverting the cat from the mouse with a saucer of milk, and providing the poor naked bear with a coat. It is an absurd world and one children would adore. Yet, as far as I can tell, despite being the namesake for a number of preschools across the country, this is catered to children only in it’s pure absurdity. But for us big people, wise enough to see both its fun and its humor, it resonates even more deeply.
The master of this sort of trickery and fun deserves a nod, and Brooke does not fail to give it. When the storks give a philosophic talk, the texts they reference are “Confuseus” (nice) and, more poignantly, “Ludovicus Carrolus de Jabberwockibus”. As children, we love Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass for the Mock Turtle, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Cheshire Cat. (Just as we would love a beaver in a bed coat or a whale telling a tale.) And then as adults, it’s all of Carroll’s sneaky references we admire (not that we ever give up our love for the rest of it), like the fight of the Lion and the Unicorn as a reference to the fight between England and Scotland for the crown. In fewer words– and admittedly with fewer nuances– Brooke pulls a Carroll and lets his adult readers have even a little more fun.
To see at least the color pictures (and get a sense for the nonsense of the story) check out this website. Project Gutenburg also gives you the whole text, but no pictures, and the pictures are really the best part…