The astonishingly prolific Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) lived to see the humor in being remembered for a book of light verse he published in 1907, Cautionary Tales for Children. The cautionary tale, with its ghoulish mission to prevent juvenile misbehavior, can, for some children, be the stuff of nightmares. Overkill is its mad method, as the transgression is always imagined in a worst case scenario so that the dire punishment hardly ever fits the crime.
Mr. Belloc’s tongue-in-cheek self-defense of the exaggeration for satiric effect isn’t going to convince anyone without a black sense of humor themselves: ” And is it True? It is not true. / And if it were it wouldn’t do, / For people such as me and you / Who pretty nearly all day long / Are doing something rather wrong. / Because if things were really so, / You would have perished long ago / And I would not have lived to write / The noble lines that meet your sight, / Nor [Edward G.] survived to draw / The nicest things you ever saw.” Maybe Calvin Trillin is right in saying parents find Belloc hillarious; children have to grow up and deal with their own offspring before they can titter at his brand of beastliness.
The late Edward Gorey (can it be that he has been gone for 20 years) was the ideal illustrator for Belloc, as can be seen in the illuminating self-portrait and his cover design for the poems., which shows shows the black forefinger of Fate pointing to the children gambolling across the grass, little thinking they are doomed.
In this second post in honor of Children’s Book Week, Sir Peter Ustinov reads a selection of Belloc’s tales with Gorey’s illustrations scrolling in the background.
And here is the author himself, in a most memorable pose reproduced from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
American children, to the best of my knowledge, are not acquainted with little Rabbit Foo Foo, the most belligerent of bunnies. Beatrix Potter’s fierce bad rabbit can’t begin to compete with him for anti-social behavior, but her anti-hero is at a real disadvantage, not having been given the opportunity to get creative with a motor cycle or a mallet. Thank heavens a frumpy gran-fairy in a woolly jumper is watching over the woods. Even though she is really displeased with Foo Foo, she gives the rotter rabbit three chances to clean up his act (silly fairy). All the bashing of innocent forest creatures is to be chanted to the sort of lilting, anodyne tune associated with the sweetest and stickiest of nursery rhymes, not cautionary tales.I heard it when we lived in England and was so delighted by its unapologetic rudeness that a copy of Michael Rosen’s improved version illustrated by Arthur Robbins was acquired for the family nursery library. It was a major miscalculation because my toddler-daughter refused to have anything to do with it. I am still forbidden to recite it under any circumstances. So here is the author Michael Rosen, the first Children’s Laureate of England, performing it for fans who appreciate its knock-about British humor. And it goes without saying that no one confined to quarters during COVID-19 is allowed to act like Foo Foo, no matter what the provocation.