a list of…five stories about some beloved authors…and a fond farewell to another

Dick King-Smith, 1922-2011

Today’s books each tell a fascinating story about a creator of some of our best-loved children’s books.  One such author, whose name has acquired a sweet familiarity in our household, is Dick King-Smith, who died on January 4th, at the age of 88.

Dick King-Smith is a well-loved name in our house-hold, associated with some of our favorite stories.  We always know that his thinnish volumes pack a smile, a peck of delightful characters, a satisfying story, an imaginative romp.  Sophie — small, but determined.  Babe — the  charming sheep pig.  Daggie Dogfoot — the pig who yearned to fly.  Lady Daisy and Lady Lollipop. So, so many tales.  His gentle spirit and obvious love  for all creatures great and small shone clearly from each of his works.

We were saddened to hear of his passing just this past week, and wanted to add our tribute here at Orange Marmalade to a remarkable, uniquely-gifted author. 

Now, here’s today’s list:

The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey, by Lousie Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond

Did you know Curious George’s original name was Fifi?
That he was “born” in Paris?
That he had to make a perilous journey across land and sea to escape the Nazis?

The remarkable story of H.A. and Margret Rey, creators of Curious George, is told in this fascinating and beautiful book.

Born into Jewish families in Germany, the Reys were two artists who found both love and a congenial working partnership in one another.  Living in Paris at the outbreak of World War II, however, became too dangerous for them, and hours before Paris fell, they were compelled to pack up a most meager collection of belongings and set out for safety on two hastily-contrived bicycles.  Only a small bit of food could be carried.  Only a very few clothes.  Yet tucked safely in a satchel were a number of precious manuscripts they had been working on.  One of them was called The Adventures of Fifi.

Across France they pedaled amidst more than five million people fleeing Paris.  A harrowing journey into Spain, and Portugal followed.  Then a journey by ship to Brazil, and finally one more ship to New York Harbor.  The Reys had traveled four months, protecting their satchel of manuscripts all the way.

Louise Borden has extensively researched the Reys’ story in order to give us her account of their lives and journey, and has written it in an excellent, clear, concise manner.  Dozens of illustrations by Rey as well as historical photos are included.  In addition, Allan Drummond has marvelously illustrated the story in watercolor and ink drawings that dance across the pages, bringing to vivid life the world of 1939 Europe and Rio.  This is a terrific read for ages 7 and up.

The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum, by Kathleen Krull, illustrated byKevin Hawkes

“The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to create, to invent, and therefore to foster civilization.”  L. Frank Baum

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900 — an instant smash-hit.  It was the Harry Potter of 1900.  Everyone, it seemed, wanted to read about this magical emerald world with its simple scarecrow, tin man, cowardly lion and fake wizard.

Though the road to Oz is as simple as following a yellow brick road, the path to writing and publishing it was anything but straightfoward.  This book tells of the circuitous wanderings of L. Frank Baum, who grew up amidst enormous wealth and luxury, then spent more than two decades trying on one career after another, earning money only to rapidly lose it in high-risk ventures.

The common thread through the years was Baum’s great love of writing, and his propensity for children.  The two finally intersected as he became a fantastic storyteller, first for his children, and then for an increasing number of neighborhood children drawn by Baum’s magical tales and yummy treats.  Eventually Baum realized that writing down the stories he was inventing was a good idea.    The world, it seems, agrees!

This is a wonderful account of a man who was not beaten by failure, who was always ready to try something new in his efforts to support his family, whose love of words and imagination were never quelled by setbacks.  Illustrated in brilliant, energetic colors and a continuously happy, upbeat style which nicely reflects the optimism of Baum and adds to the zest of the story. 

Lost Boy: The Story of the Man who Created Peter Pan, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Steve Adams

The boy who vows never to grow up.  Terror of Captain Hook.  Loyal friend of Tiger Lily.  Flight instructor to Wendy, Michael and John.  Leader of the Lost Boys.  Peter Pan is one of fiction’s most famous characters. 

The man who invented Peter was a Scotsman who loved to write and act even as a young boy.  In his school days, James Barrie and a friend gleefully created and acted out pirate escapades which would later find their way into his most famous work.  Barrie worked hard at writing long before Peter Pan first graced the stage, turning out well-received stories about the fictional land of Thrums, as well as theater reviews, magazine articles, and numerous plays.

When he finally began work on Peter Pan, he based the character of Peter on a family of little boys he had grown to love, and Nana the dog on his own beefy St. Bernard, Porthos.  The play was so elaborate with its large cast of characters, flickering fairy lights and flying children, that Barrie was unconvinced it could ever be produced on stage.  Yet from the opening show in December 1904, Peter Pan has been an incredible favorite with audiences for over 100 years.  The copyright, gifted to a London children’s hospital before Barrie’s death, has fittingly provided a vast income for the care of sick children.

Yolen’s biography spans Barrie’s life, moving smoothly and clearly along, capturing key moments and incidents which emerge in his work, and which paint the picture of Barrie’s journey to fame through perseverance and hard work.  Many small quotes from Peter Pan and others of Barrie’s works, are sprinkled in along the way.  Adams has enchantingly illustrated the story with colorful, friendly, imaginative pictures of Barrie’s life, as well as cameos of numerous highlights from the story of Peter Pan.  A selection of Barrie’s works and a listing of some of the famous actresses who have played Peter Pan is included.

Wanda Gag:  The Girl Who Loved to Draw, story and pictures by Deborah Kogan Ray

She gave us Millions of Cats, as well as The Funny Thing, Snippy and Snappy, and the ABC Bunny.  Her bold, black ink drawings of the grassy hills and fairy-tale forests, long-bearded old men and cats here, there, and everywhere, are as iconic as the stylized lettering and story that accompanies them.  Her lilting phrases — hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats — have tripped off just about that many tongues, it seems, over the years.  So, just who was Wanda Gag?

For starters, her name is pronounced “Gog.”  She was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, a sleepy farming community filled with German immigrants.  Her father was an artist, and Wanda grew up with an immense love of drawing in a home whose very air seemed to waft artistic endeavors.

Sadly, Wanda’s father died and her mother was incapacitated, when Wanda was only 15 years old.  As the eldest child in the family, Wanda took on the incredibly difficult task of providing for the six younger children and her mother, determinedly forging ahead with her artwork by selling illustrated bookmarks, holiday cards, and stories for ladies’ magazines.  When there was no money for erasers, she resorted to using breadcrumbs.

When Wanda’s younger sisters were finally old enough to support the family, Wanda was free to accept scholarships to art schools in St. Paul, Minnesota and New York City.  She worked very hard, lived frugally, and in March 1928 held a very successful showing at a private gallery, where a children’s book editor asked Wanda a question:  Have you ever thought of writing a children’s book?

The rest, as they say, is history.  Wanda’s very first book, Millions of Cats, published in 1929, won a Newbery Honor and is the oldest American picture book still in print.  Deborah Kogan Ray has narrated Gag’s interesting life story beautifully, adding snatches of Gag’s own words from diaries.  Her artwork is as warm and colorful as a homemade quilt.  A fascinating, lovely biography of an inspring artist/author.

The Days Before Now:  An Autobiographical Note by Margaret Wise Brown, adapted by Joan W. Blos, illustrated by Thomas B. Allen

“In the great green room…there was a telephone…and a red balloon…”

I could not begin to guess the number of times these words have been read and recited since they were written by Margaret Wise Brown in the 1940s.  Had she any inkling of what she had created?

Beyond Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown was an incredibly prolific writer, turning out about 100 other stories, as well as many poems and other work, before dying at the young age of 43.  The Days Before Now uses Brown’s own words to describe, for the most part, her childhood days, and give just a small peek at her adult life.

Brown tells us her memories of the harbor in New York City in the early 1900s, the beaches on Long Island Sound where she grew up, and the grand menagerie of pets she enjoyed.  She informs us that she wishes she did not have such an extraordinarily long name to sign on the covers of her books, and divulges the kinds of stories she would love to write, and the name of her house in Maine.

Her words are full of tangible, sensory details that demonstrate again her innate knowledge of what interests children.  Allen’s pastel illustrations capture a nostalgia, a sweetness, a peaceful beauty, which correspond ideally with the innocent, wide-eyed, childlike wonder Brown brought to her work.  Lovely.

Here are Amazon links for these books.  (I am an Amazon Associate.  If you make an Amazon purchase by clicking through on my links, I receive a small percentage of the sale.)
The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey
The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum
Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan
Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
The Days Before Now