The Everyday Miracle of the Mail

Samuil Marshak, Pochta. Illustrated by Mikhail Tskekanovskii. 5th edition. (Leningrad: GIZ, 1930). Cover title. Cotsen 35487.

In 1927 Samuil Marshak wrote the poem Pochta to praise the efficiency of modern communications with some droll humor and a little dash of wonder.  The plot is brilliant in its simplicity.

A little boy writes a letter to the children’s book author Boris Zhitkov, but Postman Number 5 delivers it to his Leningrad apartment after Zhitkov has left for London.  The letter is forwarded to London, where it misses him again.  It doesn’t reach him in Berlin and has to be redirected to Brazil.  The letter goes around the world before catching up with Zhitkov in Leningrad.  When he receives the letter, covered with cancelled stamps and addresses crossed through, he is amazed at the remarkable network of postmen in different countries connected by trains, airplanes, and ships it represents.

The letter’s voyage can be tracked on the map to the left.

Pochta is such an inspired collaboration between author and illustrator that it is hard to imagine the text being brought to life anywhere as well by another illustrator.   But the late Vladimir Radunsky, a wildly creative Russian-born American artist, conceived a delightful interpretation all his own that pays tribute to his brilliant predecessors.  Hail to the Mail (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1990) is not a literal translation of Marshak’s poem, but a cleverly expanded version with an American spin by Richard Pevear. Pevear, as you’ll see below, gets top billing on the Radunsky’s title page, with its clever allusions to the design concept of the Soviet one.Here is the first attempted delivery of the letter to one John Peck, which Radunsky dramatizes as an encounter between Postman Tim and an unidentified gentleman who seems to be living in Peck’s New York apartment (his portrait is hanging on the wall to the left).  The letter now travels west across the vast North American plains to Boise, Idaho.

Peck has decamped for Zurich, so the letter flies west across the Pacific and Asia to Switzerland.  Of course he has left for some place else–Brazil.  The letter, safetly stowed in the special cabin in a transatlantic ship, arrives after his return home to New York City.Peck the world traveler is amazed that the letter has followed him from place to place, thanks to the dedicated mailmen.  When Postman Tim finally places it in his hands Peck sings “Glory to them, I saw, and Hail / To their heavy bags that bring the mail.”

It is incredible, Internet or no Internet, and Pevear found the right English words to recreate Marshak’s:

A letter can travel / Without / Any trouble / Take a stamp / And lick it — / No need for a ticket — / Your passenger’s sealed / And ready to whirl / On a few-penny / Journey / All over the world. / And it won’t eat or drink / On the way / and there’s only one thing/ It will say/ As it comes down to land: / Certified.

So with only ten shopping (and shipping) days until Christmas, let us carol “All hail to the mail” and give thanks to those tireless folks at USPS, FEDEX, and UPS who process and deliver the packages that do so much to make the season merry and bright!

Veggie Tales: Mighty Asparagus Spears and Monstrous Turnips

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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 backless slippers.

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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?”   “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.

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

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Panels 2 and 3.

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Panel 4.

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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.

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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.

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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!