Last week, thanks to the good people at ABE Books where, I swear, you can find pretty much anything if you just keep checking, I was reunited with a book I had as a child that had long since gone AWOL. "The Princess and the Dragon", by S.H. Hamer, was published in 1908. It's about a little girl named Edith who has a very precious doll she calls the Princess. One day Edith goes for a walk into the forest and while they're sitting beside a tree (a conveniently hollowed-out tree) the Princess is snatched from her. The rest of the book deals with Edith making the rounds of the people in her village in order to get the Princess back.
In the case of this particular book, it wasn't just the story that appealed to me. It was the illustrations, and especially the little sketches within the text (presumably by T. Butler-Stoney, as the colour plates are signed by John Hassall). There was one in particular that used to scare me half to death, so much so that my heart would race whenever I opened the book to it, and you can be sure I opened the book to it a lot. For quite a number of years I used to have a recurring nightmare starring a nasty wolf that looked exactly like this:
Before the book itself disappeared, that page went missing, but the image remained sketched indelibly into my memory, and I've had my eye out for a copy of the book for a long time.
There are a dozen of John Hassall's colour plates in the book, too, and they enhance the text with their simplicity and sense of place. Here's an example:
Perhaps because of recently being involved with a reading/fundraising effort focused on providing kids who might otherwise not have them with books, I have been thinking about how important books were to me as a child. Last week I introduced my 4 year old grandson to "The Princess and the Dragon". He, too, was fascinated by the pictures. I didn't say anything about the one I'd found so scary when I was his age, but it didn't matter; he had a lot of questions when we got to that page.
I also subjected him to a few of the stories in a book that belonged to my mother, one that was brought out every year at this time when I was growing up. "What Happened At Christmas", by Evelyn Sharp, is a delightful, if somewhat dated (no year in the book, but an Internet search suggests 1906 or thereabouts) collection of very short stories that follow Nancy, Pat, Elfie, and Baby as they make their way through the twelve days of Christmas.
The book is illustrated by Charles Robinson ("pictured by Charles Robinson", it says on the title page), and includes beautifully coloured plates like these:
The stories are a page or two at most, like this one:
Whatever value this book might have had was greatly diminished as it appears I went through a stage of wanting to enhance the illustrations in a number of my books by colouring them with crayons. Do NOT try this at home!
In these next two pictures, for example, the nightgowns on the children are supposed to be white.
I did the same sort of thing to "The Wind and the Willows" and "The Golden Pine Cone", and while it may have devalued the books in a monetary sense, I have to confess I feel a real connection to the little girl who coloured those pages.
Christmas 2007 is almost upon us. Here's wishing you a merry one. And thanks for reading.