Tales of Tremendous Vegetables


The hero of Jan Le Witt’s The Vegetabull.

Inanimate and oddly shaped edible objects, vegetables star in far fewer stories for children than anything with legs, antennae, feathers or fur.  In honor of the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve dug up a handful of interesting vege-tales, one new, one old and twice retold.  Gratins and buttery purees are not the inevitable ends of a gigantic vegetable, so their stories can be relished by meat-eaters and vegetarians.

“Die Ruebentante” –or Aunty Root–is a story I’ve wanted to feature in a post for a long time.   Its creator, Max Froelich, seems to be unknown except for the work he published in Heim der Jugend: Ein Jahrbuch fuer Kinder und Eltern (1905).  It is a cautionary tale in two frames about a generously proportioned lady turnip of a certain age, who goes for a walk in her slippers on a moonlit night.  In the dark she trips over two potatoes and tumbles down into the mud, unaware that the moon has witnessed the whole ridiculous episode.  The moral? No midnight strolls for root vegetables with spindly legs and tiny feet shod in slippers.


Aunty Root’s luxuriant trailing leaves make a nice contrast to the elaborate border of carrot greens. Max Froehlich, “Die Ruebentante,” on page 285 in Heim der Jugend, edited by Adolf Cronbach and H. H. Ewers. (Berlin: Siegfried Cronbach, 1905) Cotsen 12147.

For a vegetable of stupendous girth and length that inspires shock, awe, and veneration, see Vladimir Radunsky’s The Mighty Asparagus (2004), a picture book for three- to eight-year-olds.   As the recipient of a New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award, the judges must not have thought it very likely that parents would have to fend off questions like,  “Why does a giant asparagus make the little king nervous?”  or “Why does queen hug the asparagus?” or “Why does the princess want to eat the yucky asparagus?”  On the other hand, all the nudge-nudge, wink, winks will be over the children’s heads, but will help keep the adult reader awake.  Likewise the good-natured liberties taken with the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, and several other Renaissance artists …   Here is the fold-out plate showing the full grandeur of the asparagus.


The fold-out plate folded (panels 1 and 4). Vladimir Radunsky, The Mighty Asparagus. (New York: Silver Whistle/ Harcourt, 2004) Promised gift.


Panels 2 and 3.


Panel 4.


Panels 5 and 6, in which the musicians sing the ballad of the asparagus.

The Mighty Asparagus is, of course, a fractured version of the venerable folk tale of the turnip and Brian Alderson’s telling illustrated by Fritz Wegner is one of the most enjoyable  of the many versions.  A poor farmer finds himself the proud cultivator of the most prodigious, round, unblemished specimen ever seen in those parts.  Such a “right champion turnip” can only be fit for a king, so once the farmer and his family manage to pull it out of the ground and heave it onto a wagon, off they go to the castle.  The king is so impressed with this “most champion turnip” that he fills the farmer’s cart full of gold.


Page [15] in Brian Alderson, The Tale of the Turnip. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1999) Cotsen 53048. Inscribed by the author to Lloyd E. Cotsen.

Now when the rich squire gets wind of his neighbor’s good luck, he is so consumed with jealousy that he must take the finest horse in his stable, who is worth more than a thousand turnips, and present it to the king, confident of receiving an even bigger and better reward.  The squire gets his money’s worth in turnips all right, as the new owner of the right champion vegetable.

With badgers in bright Russian folklorist costumes, Jan Brett gives her picture book of “The Turnip” a new twist.  By eliminating the greedy resentful neighbor, she focuses instead on the communal effort of pulling the turnip out of the frozen field.  The successful conclusion of this Herculean labor is celebrated with singing and dancing.


Cover design for Jan Brett, The Turnip. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015). Cotsen in process 7374091.

Taking a hint from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, Mother Badger grabs her griddle and gets down to making a mountain of turnip pancakes to warm everyone up.  It seems unlikely that a savory Chinese or Korean turnip pancake was on the menu, so I like to imagine that she whipped up a kind of latkes, made from half grated potato and half grated turnip, which would taste equally good with butter and syrup or sour cream and smoked fish.  If you are still feeling hungry after Thursday’s overindulgence, there are recipes for either kind of turnip pancake on the Internet.

7374091page30The holiday season is officially declared open!

Marks in Books 6: A Transcription of Baby Talk in The Imperial Alphabet


The front wrapper of The Imperial Alphabet (Cotsen 9108). It looks as if the wrong title label was slapped on.

This week I found a most unusual picture book in the nineteenth-century English pamphlets: The Imperial Alphabet  (London: E. Marshall, not after 1831), which sounds as if it must be full of pictures of soldiers and flags and horses.  What the pamphlet offered its little readers was pretty standard fare: an alphabet of lower-case Roman letters, a rhyming alphabet that begins “A was an Apple.  Pray, have you not seen/  One that was striped with red and with green?” plus the “Numerical pastime,” aka the nursery rhyme “One two,/ Buckle my shoe.”

What makes The Imperial Alphabet  a remarkable survival is that it was used by a mother to record her little boy’s early attempts to talk.   She didn’t use the blank pages as a diary, as is so often the case.  Instead she seems to have showed him the pictures, asked him “What is this?” and recorded the actual pronunciation of his words and translation, when appropriate, on the plates of the book.  The note at the head of the title page “Watling 17th Oct. 1831” suggests when and where the exercise took place, but there are Watling Streets in London, Dublin, and St. Albans, so we can’t be sure where mother and son were living at the time.


Over the frontispiece is written, “My darling child John Archibald’s way of explaining all the pictures,” so she must have been Mrs. Archibald.  The frontispiece is a version of an image of instruction that appeared in countless editions of William Lily’s Latin grammar.  Below the tree of knowledge are little John’s gurglings, “Pitty Tee.  Baw!  Too Baw!”  If his mother hadn’t indicated that “baw” was “boy,” I would have guessed John was referring to the apples on the ground, which look remarkably like balls decorated with letters of the alphabet.   The title page vignette of the bird prompted, “Gake Doodle Doo” or “Great Doodle Doo” which in John-speak meant “Bird.”   It’s a lark, not a rooster, and the cut dates back to the 1750s, where it appeared in the Lilliputian Magazine, the first children’s periodical published by John Newbery.


All the subjects on the plate for Apple to Fish are familiar objects, but some of John’s words for them need interpretation.    “Baa fy” for “butterfly” is easy, but  “daidy” in “Daidy. Apply” is obscure, as is “Bill doo” over “Dog.”  In 1831, “moo-cow milk” suggests that the phrase was well-established as baby talk.  John couldn’t manage the “sh” at the end of “Fish,”  but he identified “Egg” as something he father liked to eat: “Papa Yoig.”


The second plate is a mixture of animals and things and John identified them all. “Goke” for “goat,” “Baa Baa Feep” for “lamb,” and  “moc” for “mouse.”   Could “Poo yay” is an attempt to say the name of a pet rabbit instead of “hare.”  It surely isn’t “Puss,” which was a synonym for a rabbit or hare.  John knew  that the “Ink-Stand” was off limits to him: “Ing no tuss.”  “Kite” seems to have elicited an excited response from him: “Mimi kiye,” which meant “Mikey’s kite.”  Mikey could have been a sibling or a neighbor.


The words on the plate for the letters T through Z seem to have given John some trouble.  For example, he couldn’t pronounce the final “p” in “Top.”   The picture of a traditional head yoke seems to have thrown him for a loop.  The two bows, which go over the heads of the team of oxen, looked like whips (“Fipp”) to him.   Mama was able to construe “Stupid (or striped) Donkey” from “Tupie Nia” but she didn’t seem to know any more than I do what “Tu pa” meant with reference to the picture of the urn.    “Watch” and “Xerxes” were two other things John readily associated with his father.


The final engraved plate had other family associations for John.  “Queen” was of course his mama, while “Nag” had to be her horse (I wonder if he was prompted in some way).   A favorite dish “appa pa” appeared above “Robin,” which he identified as “Datey Ba.”  Only his mother could have known he was trying to say “Jane’s bird.”  Song birds were often kept as pets by girls, so Jane may have been another sibling.vignettepage23a

John knew exactly what the final illustration was: the chicken standing by the edge of the pond was “Doodle doo waa waa.”  Who knew babies in the early nineteenth-century had the same problem saying “water” as babies do now?  (“Moo-cow” is in the Oxford English Dictionary, but not this sense of “waa waa.”)  The ducks he passed over.

Did Mrs. Archibald have any reason to have done this besides being amazed by anything her little man did?  If she took the education of her children seriously, then she probably was familiar with the influential treatise Practical Education (1798) by Maria Edgeworth and her father Richard.  The father-daughter collaborators did indeed have plenty of hands-on experience with children: Richard fathered upon four wives twenty-two children, thirteen of whom survived; Maria, the eldest of his daughters, was intimately involved in bringing up her many half-sisters and brothers.

The Edgeworths recommended that mothers imitate Richard’s first wife Honora, who kept a notebook of “all the trifling things which mark the progress of the mind in childhood” because education as an “experimental science” would progress through observation rather than theory.   The Imperial Alphabet was a kind of register of John’s progress just like Honora Edgeworth’s notebooks.  Maybe Mrs. Archibald used others of John’s books the same way, but it is more likely that the normal demands of motherhood were too great to allow her to continue.  After all, how many baby books are completely filled in, even for the first arrival to the family?  That this copy of The Imperial Alphabet was not discarded as in substandard condition is a tribute to the acuity of the bookseller who offered it to Mr. Cotsen.  They both realized that all the writing inside it was what made it special.