When I first saw The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Parties on the shelf one day at work, I pounced on it. Cracking the covers, I was transported back to my childhood - to Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter, Tasha Tudor and the delicate, delicious illustrations that accompanied the engaging, sometimes silly stories of animals in nature. Toon Tellegen and Jessica Ahlberg are definitely heirs to the legacy of AA Milne and Ernest Shepard. Tellegen, as the jacket flap indicates, is one of the Netherlands' most celebrated writers, both a poet, writer and physician and his stories have been translated into 19 different languages. Jessica Ahlberg was the inspiration for many books created by her mother and father, author Allan and artist Janet Ahlberg, best known in the States for their classics, The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Postman's Christmas, two of my all time favorites. It's hard not to compare Jessica's artwork to her mother's, and, while their illustrative styles are somewhat different, they both express a simplicity and playfulness as well as an attention to domestic detail that is absolutely charming and perfectly suited to Tellegen's stories.
Before I say anything else about Tellegen and Ahlberg, I have to talk about the books themselves. Published by Boxer Books, a British based publishing house focused on books for babies and young children. These books are smaller than a traditional chapter book and the hardcover edition has the title and a magnificent gold tree embossed on the book case as well as a golden ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine. Printed in Italy, the pages of the book are thick and cream colored with illustrations on every page. This is a book that you will want to give as a gift, the kind of book an aunite might write something special in and give to a niece or a nephew. If I had been given this book as a child, I would have crawled under the table, read it from cover to cover, then gone outside to make some of the cakes from the book, afterward trying to write and illustrate my own version. Also, I am not sure how difficult it is to translate Dutch into English, but Martin Cleaver, the translator, does a magnificent job, maintaining a delightful vocabulary that includes words like rustle, somber, gleaming and preoccupied.
The Squirrel's Birthday and Other Parties features a forest full of animals, each one with their own unique habits and view of the world. Squirrel, a compulsive note leaver (the illustration of his post-it papered home is perfect) even leaves himself a note that says, "Be cheerful." When Squirrel comes across a note reminding him of his birthday, he spends hours and hours writing invitations to everyone. When he is done, the wind scoops them up and delivers them across the woods. The animals spend the days before the party making gifts for Squirrel, while Squirrel spends the time making cakes for all tastes, shapes and sizes:
He baked huge honey cakes for the bear and the bumblebee, a grass cake for the hippo, a small red cake for the mosquito, and a dry cake for the dromedary. He baked thin cakes as light as air for the swallow and the wild goose and the oystercatcher, cakes so light they floated high above the trees on strings so the wouldn't fly away. He baked thick, moist cakes that were so heavy they could sink through the ground so the earthworm and the mole could eat them in the dark - which is where those cakes tasted best.
After deep thought, Squirrel even bakes a cake for the dragonfly made entirely of water. It is "a strange, gleaming cake and he put it to one side under the twigs of the rosebush." Of course, all the animals are delighted with their cakes, the dragonfly "walked carefully over his cake and sipped a blissful little morsel now and then." Squirrel is delighted with his party. The story ends with Squirrel carrying his many gifts back to his tree and a brief visit from ant, who wants to let him know it was a wonderful party. Then, when Squirrel is finally asleep, the night wanders through the woods, strolling dreamily, whispering to the glowworms and, from time to time, growling, "but not wickedly." This is a fine example of the way that Tellegen's stories wander, peacefully and pleasantly, sometimes without real destination or purpose, much the way a child tells a story.
In Letters to Anyone and Everyone some of the stories are epistolary in form, some have letters as part of the plot, all are as wonderful as those in the first book - inquisitive, sometimes capricious, sometimes somber, always engaging. I have been reading these stories, one at a time, to my 5 year old son at bedtime for the last few months now and he surprises me with what he remembers about the many characters in this world that has "only one forest, one river, one ocean, one oak tree," as the introduction says.
In Letters to Anyone and Everyone the world of the animals remains playful, but is perhaps a bit more complex and philosophical. The carp writes a letter that begins, "Dear Stranger," and may or may not be to the River himself (or herself, we get a glimpse of the recipient from the back, only). He asks for more floods because it is such fun to swim up a tree. In "The Mole's Letters," mole is sad that no one writes to him, so he writes letters to himself and comes across them as he digs through his tunnels. The text for this story is printed on a brown background with illustrations of the mole and his letter filled tunnel swerving and curving around the text.
One of my favorite characters from these books (and really, they are all worthy of being favorites, each one has a unique, usually self-interested perspective) is elephant, perhaps because he reminds me of my 5 year old. Elephant is a rambunctious animal with not much impulse control who is often falling down. In the first story of the book, "Dear Snail," which consists only of elephant's letter and snail's response, elephant asks,
May I invite you to dance with me on top of your house? Just a few steps? That's what I want most of all. I promise I'll dance very delicately, so we won't fall through your roof. but of course, you can never be really sure.
On his way to visit squirrel and have a dance with him, elephant gets lost and winds up in the top of a tree, which he promptly falls out of. When, in the story "Elephant Note," he does finally make it to Squirrel's house, he joyfully swings from the lamp, breaks half the table and admits he is scared he will fall again, since he is falling all the time. Squirrel ponders this predicament then proceeds to write a note on elephant's belly that reads, "Have a nice trip." Squirrel pushes him out the door where the wind sweeps him away and deposits him at home. In the story titled, "You May Not Fall Down," Elephant writes himself a note with this directive, leaves it on the ground then climbs a tree. When Squirrel finds him on the ground a while later, next to his note, he "straightens his bruised and battered trunk" while elephant groans, "I'll never understand anything ever again, Squirrel." The book ends with the story "The Elephant (At Sea)" in which the Elephant sadly sets sail on a raft without masts, along with a chest of sweet beechnuts, in the hopes that he will not encounter anything that will cause him to fall again, not even "one tree standing there accidentally." Squirrel stands atop his house waving a lamp, sure that he will be the last thing Elephant sees as he sails away. Sometime later, a letter with birthday greetings arrives for Squirrel, from Elephant. Squirrel misses him more than anything or anyone and briefly imagines he can see Elephant far away, "beyond the woods, beyond the stars, waving and calling, 'Here I am!' just before he fell."
And, for all of you who wonder what awaits Elephant as he sails the sea, Far Away and Across the Sea is available now, as is the final book in the quartet, A Great and Complicated Adventure.