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!

A is for Azbuka: Two Copies of a Russian Primer from the Reign of Mikhail I


Classic pedagogical technique in 1637. (Cotsen 9539 copy 2) frontispiece

Cotsen’s Soviet-era children’s book collection is well known, extensive, and portions even digitally available. Less well known is that our Russian-language material covers an even wider historical range from the 17th century to the present day. We have over 250 titles printed in Russia before the Revolution, and around 60 titles printed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To illustrate this point, I thought I would showcase our earliest Russian book: Bukvarʹ i︠a︡zyka slavenska ([Moscow]: Vasiliĭ Fedorovich Burt︠s︡ov, [1637]).

Titlepage (9539 c.2)

Title page (9539 copy 2)

From the title page, the discerning reading might (or might not) notice that this bukvar (a shared Eastern European word for a grammatical primer) is not actually in Russian. This book is in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, my Church Slavonic is a little too rusty for me to discuss the contents of the book other than the obvious matter of it’s being an introduction to the Slavonic alphabet, basic words, and grammatical training. Lucky for us, however, Cotsen has two splendidly different copies of this affectionately known: Azbuka (alphabet book):

Contemporary calf, elaborate stamped decorations and tooled boarder, clasps complete.

Contemporary calf, elaborate stamped decorations and tooled boarder, clasps complete (9539 copy 2)

Contemporary polished calf, elaborate rolled & stamped decorations, remnants of clasps

Contemporary polished calf, elaborate rolled & stamped decorations, remnants of clasps (9539 copy 1)

Copy 2 is the more complete of the two editions (for reasons explained more below). Though the binding is in arguably rougher shape (except for the the extant clasps), the paper quality is much higher, a hand colored frontispiece is included (pictured above), and the colophon information is more extensive. In fact, the date for this item was obtained from the colophon (Printer’s information typically found at the back of books printed before the end of the 17th Century). The colophon states that the book was printed in twenty fourth year of reign of the first Romanov Czar, Mikhail Fedorovich (elected 1613). As seen in the title page above, this edition is printed in black and red, with red used for initials and important words:

Unnumbered spread (9539 copy 2)

Unnumbered spread (9539 copy 2)

Unnumbered page (9539 copy 2)

Unnumbered page (9539 copy 2)

Speculatively, I would venture to say that copy 1 might be a later edition (alas, if only my Church Slavonic was better). Though it is worse for ware, the paper quality is lower, and it does not feature red ink at all. This relative lack of quality might indicate that the publisher endured less cost while producing a later edition for a book that was already in circulation (though, sometimes it proves to be the exact opposite since the popularity of earlier editions can lead to a less capital conscience publisher). It is, however, typographically unique and very different from copy 2 pictured above:

Unnumbered spread with initials (9539 copy 1)

Unnumbered spread with initials (9539 copy 1)

Copy 1’s most unique features, however, are one of a kind. Not only is this copy extensively annotated:

Unnumbered spread with annotations (9539 copy 1)

Unnumbered spread with annotations (9539 copy 1)

But it lacks around a dozen pages from the original printing. Lucky for us, a contemporary owner (probably the binder who did such a superb job) was kind enough to diligently copy out these missing pages in manuscript:

Manuscript title page (9539 copy 1)

Manuscript title page (9539 copy 1)

Not only that, but copy 1 has a very special hidden bonus. The waste paper used to line the inside front board of the binding is a manuscript leaf (complete with red ink!):


Waste paper on inside front board (9539 copy 1)