There are a few illustrated children’s books I grew up with that left a very deep mark on me. Tomi di Paola’s books, Ashanti to Zulu about the peoples of Africa, dinosaur and paleontology books, Three Trees of the Samurai, Holling C. Holling’s books, and one called Catundra about an overweight cat and how she slims down.
Leo Lionni’s story Frederick was one of these. The book is fifty years old this year, and is a wonderful story about the importance of Odds in societies. The author was Dutch, and did many children’s books, a lot of them about mice, including Frederick. I discovered it as a audio-tape and read-along book Mom and Dad got at the library.
All the other mice are busy gathering seeds and nuts for the winter, except Frederick. He’s wandering off, feeling the sun on his fur, sniffing the summer wind, and listening to the bugs and birds. He is roundly scolded for not helping to gather what the mice will need for winter. Except, it turns out, he is. He’s gathering the summer for the winter, and his words help get the other mice through the cold. “Frederick, you’re a poet,” the others exclaim at the end of the story. I must have listened to that tape at least a dozen times, hidden behind the orange, brown and white couch, laying on the carpet, turning the pages and reading as the narrator spoke. I was eight or nine at the most, because we still lived in the Midwest.
The book got the Caldecott award for best illustrated book. I didn’t care. Something in that book stuck. At the time I didn’t identify with Frederick that much, but I loved the story. As time passed, it faded from memory, until recently, when I was musing about Human Wave books and those of us who write stories that catch the imagination and heart (or try to) and that preserve the best of what people can be, or at the very least entertain our readers enough to pull them out of the every-day. Like Frederick did for the mice.
I”m not Frederick. My stories are not going to save the spirit. I’m new to my craft, and still have a lot of room to grow in my skill. Plus I keep finding new bad habits to fall into (like not giving clear dialogue attributions. Thanks to the folks down state for catching me at that.)
The lesson from Frederick is that we need stories, we need beauty and reminders of better times. We as humans and as western society need to hear about great men and women, to see beauty in art and hear it in music as well as to experience it in nature. We have souls that have to be fed or they wither, growing cold and shivering as they lose hope. A bit like the mice, and Frederick himself.
It’s a lot of weight to put on one small children’s book published fifty years ago. But real stories, true stories, the ones that last, can carry the weight.