We've been rereading Sendak in our house a lot this week too -- a sad loss, and strange to have been writing about him the night before.
As promised, tonight I'm sitting down with one of the children's books I can't live without, the only one on my Top 33 list which I haven't yet written about here.
Margaret Wise Brown's Little Fur Family, illustrated by Garth Williams, is a strange and perfect book. It's so hard for me to write about Brown without just quoting her -- paraphrasing loses all the poetry. Here's the first page:
There was a little fur family
warm as toast
smaller than most
in little fur coats
and they lived in a warm wooden tree.
In Garth Williams's illustrations, the little fur family (father, mother, child) are of indeterminate species -- furry small creatures who act like human beings, each with a different shade of fur, and a fur coat. (Now that I think about it, they're kind of multiracial-looking.) Each wears a fur coat that appears to have come from another animal.
He sneezes, and wakes up his grandpa, and they say "Bless you" to each other, and he goes on to have interactions with other creatures in nature, starting with "a little river full of fish."
These were my favorite pages to read to Eleanor when she was a baby. I would mime reaching into the river for the fish, and reaching into the air to catch the flying bug, looking at each, letting it go. At age one and a little older, Eleanor took great pleasure in catching her own invisible bug and peering at it in her cupped hand. There's something so lovely about this simple observation of creatures other than yourself, the catch and release. Brown is never didactic: there's no sense that she's promoting a message about leaving the wild as you found it, or engaging in empathy. The little fur child doesn't seem to see himself in the creatures he finds -- he is curious about them, he observes them, he puts them back. Even when he comes across "the littlest fur animal in the world" (who looks just like him, but smaller), the fur child isn't tempted to bring it home.
The sun goes down, and the child runs home, to be greeted by his big fur mother and carried to bed by his father, who tuck him into bed together and sing him a song:
Sleep, sleep, our little fur child,
Out of the windiness,
Out of the wild.
Sleep warm in your fur
All night long,
In your little fur family.
This is a song.
It's that last line that slays me: tender, factual, self-evident. We've made up a tune for the words, and this song long ago joined our regular roster of lullabies.