If you like literature. If you respect the world of literature. If you respect and maybe even adore authors, those dark figures lurking in the shadows, those puppeteers in the world of words. If all of these ifs, and if you also happen to like picture books, could you think of a more compelling object than a picture book written by a someone who doesn’t write for children? A potential gem of a literary endeavor guised in the magical and subtle costume of a children’s story? As if Edward Gorey was ditching the gory but still making picture books just for you? Well, these books do exist, and we’re going to look at them. I warn you: Maurice Sendak got pissed every time someone called him a children’s book author, as if it were a belittling fact. It obviously isn’t. As far as I can tell, “real” authors usually don’t strike gold with the picture book genre. Especially not in comparison to someone like Sendak. Maybe it’s a case of high expectations, but I haven’t found anything grandiosely ground shaking. Not yet. So, starting with the best (that I’ve found so far), here’s Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom.
We all know the famous Brit as the creator of A Brave New World, and in this his first and only known attempt at kid’s lit, he does not abandon that morbid sense of the world we see in his famous dystopia. No, no, no. This little psuedo-fable, written for Huxley’s five year old niece, Olivia, is really quite disturbing.
Written in 1944, The Crows of Pearblossom was neither published nor illustrated (by Barbara Cooney ) until 1967, four years after Huxley’s death. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a little run down: Mrs. Crow comes back from the grocery store every day to find her eggs missing. One day, she happens home early, and finds large Mr. Rattlesnake swallowing her last egg. She throws a screeching fit, and Mr. Rattlesnake shrugs, far from repenting and unlikely not to desist his egg eating habit. When Mr. Crow gets home from work as an assistant manager at a drug store, he gets an earful from his wife: go down after Mr. Rattlesnake! The non-suicidal Mr. Crow instead visits his friend, Old Man Owl. They smoke pipes while Owl shaves before his night shift and discus the situation. Smart Old Man Owl has them make clay eggs, paint them, put them in the nest. When Mr. Rattlesnake comes the next day, he eats the eggs, goes into convulsions, ties himself up in knots, and ends up as Mrs. Crow’s laundry line for her babies’ diapers. It is unclear whether or not the Rattlesnake is dead or alive.
Now, while this is obviously a tale of just retribution, there are certain elements that subtly twist the tale into something… twisted. One: that these animals are really people, mimicking all the traits and habits of their human counterparts, aka, they are “anthropomorphized” (yeah, I can use big words. What.). Two: despite these human-like qualities, all exhibit the “animalistic” traits proper for their places in the food chain. And three: the snake ends up as a clothes line. Period. Imagine you killed someone. It was for a just purpose, sure. But then you used their body as your nursery nightstand. Nasty.
The Crows of Pearblossom is like a fable without the blatant moral, though we leave thinking that the moral is obvious enough: the snake got what’s coming to him, don’t eat other people’s eggs! But even though this tale seems like a fable, Huxley never takes the step to make the moral statement, and maybe with reason. As Mr. Rattlesnake heads off to a breakfast of crow egg, he sings “I cannot fly- I have no wings; I cannot run- I have no legs; But I can creep where the black bird sings And eat her speckled eggs, ha, ha, And eat her speckled eggs.” The snake is limited to his inherent nature. He’s a damn snake, after all. Couple that with what is (at least for me) a horrifying fate, and you get a weird mixed up inclination to both excuse the snake for his animal nature and excuse the crows for enacting the God-given (human) right for vengeance. This might be a story for a kid, but only because it’s about animals dressed in clothes. Really, Huxley bars no holds in his own commentary that there is no moral, that “human nature” can be a thinly guised excuse for nasty and cruel things. Maybe it’s a lesson even a five year old needs. Frankly, I respect an author who actually does as Sendak claims to do: refuses the “cater to the bullshit of innocence” and doesn’t pretend there’s an answer for everything.