Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1970)

“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by William Steig, published by Windmill Books, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1969. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1970. Steig wrote picture books in a comically melodramatic way, which is one way of appealing to the dual audience of children and adult co-readers. Here’s a useful thing about melodrama: The audience can know it’s melodrama but still be moved.

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Animals Riding Other Animals

When I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes I was disturbed for an unlikely reason. It wasn’t the dystopian aspect of a world where humans were no longer top of the food chain. The resonant image for me was when the apes were riding horses.

I immediately checked myself. Why am I slightly repelled by the spectacle of apes riding horses? I mean, humans ride horses and we’re not much different from apes.

Yet humans sort of had to ride horses. If we hadn’t used horses at certain points in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Jared Diamond writes about this in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, about how human evolution has favoured certain geographical groups over others.

THE DOMESTICATION OF WILD HORSES

First he points out that domestic animals including horses didn’t do well in Africa because of climate and disease carried by tsetse flies. For that reason, the horse only became established as far south as the equator, and only on the Western side of the African continent until A.D. 1-200, where they transformed warfare. Yet horses had long since become established in other parts of the world. In Egypt they also transformed warfare, starting around 1800 B.C. As soon as horses make their way into an area, humans use them to fight wars with.

Every domesticated animal has a wild ancestor. The wild ancestor of the horse, the wild horse of southern Russia, is now extinct, though a different subspecies survived in the wild to modern times in Mongolia. (This Mongolian horse is now rare and protected and survives in a protected National Park. But it is no longer ‘wild’.) Sheep, goats and pigs were the first wild animals to be domesticated. The most recent example of domestication is the camel.

Diamond draws a clear distinction between animals which can be tamed (e.g. elephants) versus animals which can be domesticated. ‘Tamed’ simply means to become less dangerous to humans, whereas to be domesticated, a wild animal is ‘selectively bred in captivity and thereby modified from its wild ancestors, for use by humans who control the animal’s breeding and food supply’. Some animals can be domesticated and others cannot. For instance, no one has ever domesticated a zebra. You simply cannot put a saddle on a zebra, and you can be sure people have tried. We know that zebras tend to bite you and not loosen their bite. But horses don’t do that. I know from reading Lonesome Dove that horses can bite you badly in the shoulder and also bite off your toes, but horses don’t keep hold of your flesh like zebras do. Horses can therefore be broken in.

Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied
Dorothy P Lathrop from the book The Three Mulla-Mulgars. “He jumped, he reared, he kicked, he plunged, he wriggled, he whinnied.”

Why can you put a saddle on a horse and not on a zebra (or on elk or eland)? Three factors:

  • Horses aren’t as skittish and nervous. You can keep them in captivity.
  • They are herd animals who don’t mind company
  • Horses first developed a firm social hierarchy between themselves. Humans utilised this natural hierarchy and position themselves at the top. (Normally it’d be the top ranking female horse.)

Domesticated horses have therefore been vital to humans, first in warfare, next in agricultural and in transportation across long distances.

Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
Fairytale book published in 1982 by Vladimir Kovarik, illustrated by Daniela Benesova (27 september 1929, Tsjechië)
'Pinocchio in the Moon' Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
‘Pinocchio in the Moon’ Illustration by Corrado Sarri, 1924
Leonard Leslie Brooke (English, 1862-1940)
Leonard Leslie Brooke (English, 1862-1940). If we could saddle a kangaroo that would be fun. The way they jump is amazing. Pretty sure kangaroos wouldn’t welcome the development, though.

RIDING CREATURES THAT FLY

Sivka-Burka, Russian Folk Tale Illustrator Igor Yershov, 1960s
Sivka-Burka, Russian Folk Tale Illustrator Igor Yershov, 1960s

Since we are used to seeing humans riding horses, it’s no great stretch of the imagination to witness them riding flying horses (pegasuses). Though when a human rides a bird, the human has probably been through some sort of shrinking process. Flight is one of the main wish fulfilment fantasies, especially in children’s literature. The experience of riding a horse is very much like flying, and we use the word ‘fly’ to describe rapid, smooth movement, even across ground.

Harry Rountree,  The Doings of Furrymouse,  1919 chincilla riding crow
Harry Rountree, The Doings of Furrymouse, 1919.

WHERE RIDING GETS WEIRD

The illustration below is clearly a play on the English word ‘to ride piggyback’. The phrase refers to anything riding on the back of something else, metaphorically or literally.

L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried 'Wee, wee, wee! I can't find my way home!'" from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922
L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940)- “This Little Pig cried ‘Wee, wee, wee! I can’t find my way home!'” from “Ring O’ Roses, A Nursery Rhyme Picture Book,” Frederick Warne & Company, Ltd., 1922

The history of this word has nothing to do with pigs:

Piggyback is a corruption of pickaback, which is likely a folk etymology alteration of pick pack (1560s), which perhaps is from pick, a dialectal variant of the verb pitch.

Wikipedia
Frank-Beard-American-1842-1905-Illustrator-and-cartoonist.-22What-may-happen-when-little-boys-play-leap-frog-too-much.22
This slightly uncomfortable Frank Beard illustration comes out of America. “What may happen when little boys play leap frog too much.”
Chinese Firecracker box label man riding fish
Chinese Firecracker box illustration. A man has gone fishing and ends up riding the fish.
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a  magazine cover)
Mermaid Riding a Sea Serpent (Hans Christiansen, 1897, a magazine cover)

THE ‘SIDE SADDLE’ VERSION OF RIDING ANIMALS

Sidesaddle riding is a form of equestrianism that uses a type of saddle which allows a rider (usually female) to sit aside rather than astride an equine. Sitting aside dates back to antiquity and developed in European countries in the Middle Ages as a way for women in skirts to ride a horse in a modest fashion while also wearing fine clothing. It has retained a specialty niche even in the modern world.

Wikipedia

The sidesaddle tradition goes way back and can be seen on Greek vases. It exists because the rubbish concept of virginity exists, in which the hymen must be preserved so men can marry their daughters off well. As they clearly knew even then, a wide variety of normal activities can stretch the hymen (hymens do not break), but they did not then come to the conclusion that the hymen and penetrative sex have little to do with each other. The natural conclusion was that women’s movements must be further restricted.

None of this comes into children’s picture books, of course. Unless we do a count up of girls with their legs closed versus boys with their legs astride; girls being carried to safey, boys more active in their own travel and rescue.

The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
The Wizard Of Oz- 1944 flying monkeys, illustration by Evelyn Copelman
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
One of Harry Clarke’s illustrations for Fairy Tales (1916) by Hans Christen Andersen
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906 riding
The Green Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang with illustrations by H. J. Ford, 1906.

Town Musicians Of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen, John Parr Miller, 1954

“The Town Musicians Of Bremen” is a folktale that goes by various similar names. Its plot structure is so strong that many storytellers writing series for children borrow this story at some point.

The “Town Musicians of Bremen” tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters. Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house. “The Town Musicians of Bremen” is a story of Aarne–Thompson Type 130 (“Outcast animals find a new home”).

Wikipedia

I like the art in the version below, based on the scarier (non-bowdlerised) story collected by the Brothers Grimm.

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Meal One by Cutler and Oxenbury

Meal One by Ivor Cutler

Meal One is a picture book written by Ivor Cutler, Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, first published 1971.

I maintain you can tell if a picture book illustrator has a background in costume or set design. Likewise, you can tell if they have an animation background or a graphic design background. You can tell if they have kids in their lives and you can tell if they are an established ‘humorist’.

Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was a humorist who, like Spike Milligan, created many things for adult enjoyment and sometimes also for kids. Like Julia Donaldson he was a singer and songwriter, though he did not challenge himself with rhyme in this particular story. (There’s often no need.)

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