Caps for Sale! Caps for Sale! Fifty Cents A Cap!
By Sophie Powell
As the mom of a nine-month old, my diet of books, with my life, has changed dramatically. Although my son’s language skills have not yet developed beyond an enthusiastic babble, and he prefers to chew on books more than anything else, this hasn’t prevented me from reading to him as often as possible. Even if I hadn’t read the abundance of research that says reading even from infancy is one of the best possible things you can do for your child, from a selfish viewpoint an excuse to immerse myself in the world of children’s literature was one of the reasons I wanted to become a parent.
What I didn’t realize (der), was that my idea of children’s books ie C.S.Lewis’ The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe (my all-time favorite) would be off the menu for a few years. Durable, cardboard-paged, colorful picture books with minimal writing would be the most entertaining and practical for a pull/bang/rip/eat-everything baby. Reluctantly, I put Narnia away for the time being and unenthusiastically embraced the world of simple picture books. I soon became convinced that the best children’s picture books were as subtle and sophisticated, as wise and illuminating, as the greatest novels.
The “old-fashioned”, time-tested picture books are my favorites – and my son’s too. Whilst picture books incorporating Jane Austen themes and quotes into texts on Opposites and Counting are a fun concept, they don’t leave you with the satisfying fullness of the genius of the great Margaret Wise Brown and her equally genius illustrator Clement Hurd. Their Goodnight Moon becomes more magical and brilliant the more times I read it. As my husband put it, the best children’s stories usually have a distinct “quirky”, even “slightly unsettling”, element to them. And each word in each sentence, each detail in each picture, are as carefully chosen and synchronized as every note and instrument in a Beethoven symphony. Unfortunately, many of the most recently published picture books just don’t possess the sophistication, in my opinion, of wonderful oldies like The Runaway Bunny (also by the Brown-Hurd team) or Each Peach Pear Plum by the gifted Janet and Allan Ahlberg.
I have stumbled on a few new favorites however which are also popular with my son (I get a big smile when I read them to him): Tickle Time! by Sandra Boynton (some of her other books I don’t care for, but this, although admittedly saccharine, is also quirky and very interactive – and genuinely heart-touching: if only adults could resolve their blues so easily with just some “tickle-time”); One Sheep Blue Sheep by Thom Wiley and Ben Mantle (which encourages color and number learning in a very dynamic and original way), and Caps For Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and their Monkey Business both illustrated and written by Esphyr Slobodkina.
Caps for Sale isn’t actually a very new publication, however, it turns out. Slobodkina was born in Siberia in 1908 and emigrated during the Russian revolution to China, where she studied art and architecture, and later moved to the United States where she co-founded the American Abstract Artists group. Caps for Sale has been in print for over fifty years. My husband happened upon this book in the Museum of Fine Arts’ giftshop, not knowing it was a classic, but admiring the striking, stylized illustrations and thinking it looked suitably “quirky”. It has become our household’s all-time favorite (with Goodnight Moon). Each page is a piece of art and the sparse, rhythmic prose lends the perfect music to this charming folktale-based story. With remarkable coincidence, I also learned that Slobodkina was mentored by Margaret Wise Brown and that she illustrated many of her stories (which I am excited to explore). It was she that encouraged Slobodkina to write her own books also. Thank goodness she did.
Sophie Powell grew up in London and on a sheep farm in Wales. She is the author of the novel The Mushroom Man (Putnam Penguin) which received glowing reviews, including one from the New York Times Book Review, and which has been translated into several languages. She has also published short stories, including one in a collection selected by Zadie Smith. With a BA in Classics from Cambridge University and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, she is especially fond of writing that involves myth, magic and fantasy. She has taught Creative Writing at Boston College, New York University, George Washington University and on seminars abroad, as well as in prisons and libraries. For more about Sophie, visit www.meetsophiepowell.com.See other articles by Sophie Powell