Lloyd Alexander’s The Four Donkeys: A Merry Fable about the Advantages of Cooperation

Lloyd Alexander’s first picture book The Four Donkeys appeared in 1972 and has not attracted that much attention, similar to much of his excellent work written after The Prydain Chronicles (1964-1968).  Close study of world literature’s traditional tales frequently inspired the plots he invented, like this one showing how people with common interests are better served by cooperation than going their own ways.   The Four Donkeys is also a good example of his ability to compose prose in short, easy sentences that flows as smoothly on the page as they do read aloud.  His verbs and dialogue do the dramatization rather than the modifiers.

The book was also the debut of RISD graduate Lester Abrams as a book illustrator, best known for the concept and character art for  Tolkien’s The Hobbit produced by Rankin/Bass Studios (Gollum and Bilbo are shown to the left).  Abrams’ pictures in the manner of illuminated manuscript decorations were what made the book in Kirkus reviewer’s opinion. They place the tale squarely in the medievalesque world lacking advanced technology with magic optional, the default setting for a great deal of popular modern imaginative literature for adults and young readers.   Abrams’ drawings of the three tradesmen who might have walked right out of Maxfield Parrish’s magazine covers, creatures like the tailor’s otter assistant, and floral borders do visualize the characters and settings in vivid, comic detail.

The Three Donkeys sounds “timeless” like a folk tale because Alexander seamlessly wove together elements from two well-known fables into a new one about a tailor, baker, and shoemaker going to the fair in town.  While the tradesmen pack up their tools and wares, they daydream about all the money they  will make and how they will lay it out, just like the milkmaid in the classic fable who was so preoccupied with imagining how the day’s proceeds would fund the first step to a more comfortable life that she tripped over a rock and dropped the pot of milk which shattered to pieces.  Alexander’s characters are just as guilty of counting chickens before they are hatched as the milkmaid, but they ought to know better as well-established businessmen competing against one another.  In their eagerness to make a profit that will underwrite the purchase of little luxuries, they forget to be realistic.

The next part of the story is Alexander’s diverting reimagining of the Aesopian fable “The Miller [or old man], his Son, and the Ass.”  Although they hurry to get an early start, there are unanticipated delays.  The shoemaker was going to catch the worm, but stopping for a nap set him back for at least an hour or two. The baker must have the tailor repair his coat before the wagon can be loaded.  The tailor leaves ahead of him, but before he gets very far, his new shoes cripple him with blisters.  The tailor and shoemaker are obliged to beg the baker for a ride and pay for the privilege of crowding into the wagon filled to bursting.

Soon the donkey collapses in the road, igniting a storm of mutual recriminations until it dawns on the three that they can’t stay or go.  The shoemaker’s plan to put the exhausted beast in the cart and pull it themselves to the fair is adopted with some grumbling.  Along the way, they actually stop thinking about their troubles and help each other make the best of a bad business. The shoemaker greases the tailor’s shoes so he can walk in them, the baker provides breakfast for the famished shoemaker, and the tailor agrees to fix the baker’s ruined jacket free of charge.

Of course, they arrive after the fair has closed for the day and have no choice but to turn around and make for home.  Now that they appreciate  how difficult the lot of a donkey really is, they make sure he has oats, a new harness, and a warm blanket before leaving.  Unaccustomed to kind treatment, the donkey rallies and pulls his burden as if it were light as a feather, leading the weary men on foot down the road.  “And so the Tailor, the Baker, and the Shoemaker came home together, a little wiser for having made donkeys of themselves. “ And that’s the end.

Circumstances that day forced them to see the advantages of working together if they were to get to the fair and back, but the last line does not hold out any promise that the experience has changed permanently changed their characters for the better.  Alexander wisely resisted the temptation to craft a happy ending where they shake hands and promise to be best friends for the “benefit” of his young audience.  While his books always express a certain optimism about human nature with all its faults, including the darker historical novels in the Westmark Trilogy, they never go so far as to project the questionable idea that hard lessons are learned the first, or even the fifth time around.

In the Public Domain: Reimagining The Velveteen Rabbit

Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit, or How Toys Become Real (1922) may have been booted off recent lists of 10 and 100 best children’s books by Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny (2004), but the book keeps rolling on. The original version with designs by William Nicholson is now in the public domain and continues to inspire covers in the form of reillustrations, retellings, and repurposings, even though it is not the equivalent of a catchy, accessible pop standard. William’s strange story about the three kinds of “realness” is much closer to an iconotext like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books where the author’s characters are inseparable from the illustrator’s figures to such an extent that future artists struggle to break away from it in their reinterpretations.

New sets of illustrations were commissioned for the picture book’s 100th anniversary and Erin Stead’s are easily the most elegant. She asserts her independence even as she pays homage to Nicholson in her redrawing of the famous first picture of the stuffed rabbit’s head peeking out of the Christmas stocking. Reproduced in three colors from woodblocks and delicately heightened with pencil, her pictures are full of light, perfectly suited to the brief summer idyll. More scenes in Williams’ story take place closed cupboards, sick rooms, and trash bags than the woods or gardens, so Stead put herself at a disadvantage in the scenes where the high notes are sadness and confusion. Her threadbare toy rabbit’s transformation into a living creature falls a little flat because all the pictures are so pretty.Publisher Nosy Crow gave former art director Sarah Massini the wherewithal to create a picture book with a large trim size, full color illustrations, endpapers reproduced from a hand-drawn design, and a lot of silver stamping on the binding and dustjacket. While William’s text is intact, but Massini’s illustrations shift the dynamics between the nameless boy and his stuffed rabbit to something more like parity, pushing the story’s visualization in the direction of a more conventional story about the friendship between child and beloved object. Showing their “splendid games together” bathed in light is a logical way for Massini to put her stamp on the text. Visualizing the pair’s happiness in such detail does make the rabbit’s grief in the trash heap poignant, but Massini’s decision to limit the expressions on the faces of people, the stuffed rabbit, and actual rabbits to the same pleasant half smile robs the story of drama.The popular Japanese illustrator Komako Sakai published her picture book version in 2007, well before the original’s centennial. The abridged text stays surprisingly close to the outline of Williams’ and it strikes me as the truest to its strangeness. The nameless boy appears frequently drawn in profile, from behind, or with closed eyes, a detail in characterization that makes him somehow makes him a little less important his wide-eyed rabbit. Light alternates with dark when the story calls for it, as did Nicholson. Sakai also references Nicholson’s drawing of the Christmas stocking at the story’s nadir, not at the beginning, which demonstrates how little protection becoming real has afforded him..   Sakai was careful to distinguish the real rabbits’ bodies from the soft immobile one of the stuffed one, a strategy that makes the page turn from the fairy to her hands holding a tiny rabbit a simple but brilliant realization of the toy’s transformation.The new Velveteen Rabbits includes one adapted and self-published for “today’s kids” by Rose and John Jimerson, a daughter/father team. Get Real is unusual because it is rare for modernizations of a classic to be simultaneously playful and respectful and let children of color see themselves in what was a very English story. Here’s the Jimersons’ summary from the rear wrapper: “Alberto, the toy rabbit, loves dirt. He also sometimes sleeps on firecrackers. But more than anything else, he wants to become real. The only problem is… He is not sure what “real” is.”   He thinks real rabbits are “stuffed with sawdust, and…made in the Philippines” just like him. A remote control is not essential to the process of being real, according to the old horse on wheels. Legs he does not learn about until a couple of curious rabbits challenge him to a game of bunny tag. When they find out he has front legs, a soft bottom, and no hind legs, they yell. “HORRIBLE!” Then they get in his face and take a good sniff, “He smells funny! He’s not real!”   Alberto is dumped in a plastic trash bag with all the other germy things after the boy’s serious illness and he cries, calling the soulful fairy of toy magic to his rescue. He is not so sure about a fairy that sings the blues instead of talking normally, but she scoops him up anyway for the flight across the night sky. She sets him down among the “fun bunnies” and introduces him as a new friend who needs to be shown the ropes. Positive they will remember he is legless, he nervously scratches his ear…Get Real stands apart from most of the new Velveteen Rabbits trying to create introductory versions of a cherished story now perceived as a little beyond its target audience. Carol Ottolenghi’s retelling has been around since 2009.Her brief version, which retains almost none of Williams’ vocabulary or syntax, shows how “the Velveteen Rabbit learns the value of friendship and the power of love as he encounters toys that tease him and live rabbits in the garden!”  The fairy is not responsible for his transformation despite making a cameo appearance. A bilingual version is currently available in the Bilingual Fairy Tales English/Spanish series published by Rourke Educational Media, which features more folk and fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and The Wizard of Oz. 100 public libraries reported copies to WorldCat, and another hundred college and university libraries have the electronic edition.

Will any of these new versions rise above the rest and become The Velveteen Rabbit for a new generation or two? Even in this small selection of Velveteen Rabbits, the artistic styles vary so much it takes some effort to establish the ways in which they adhere and depart from Williams’ text and how they specifically differ from one another. Presented with two or more of them in a bookstore or online, a book buyer who may not know or have seen the book recently may select one of the new ones on basis of a snap response to the cover design. The wealth of choice may divide readers into little pockets of fans who experience The Velveteen Rabbit through the reinterpretation they purchased without reference to the dark and troubling but stunning Nicholson illustrations.