I think you might have to be a fan of the writer Aldous Huxley, the illustratorSophie Blackall or a collector curious picture books to really appreciate this re-issue of The Crows of Pearblossom, a story Huxley wrote for his niece, Olivia, in 1944. If you are none of these, I have no doubt that Blackall's witty and detailed illustrations will entertain as well as draw you and your listeners into this story even if it does feel a bit curious at times. But, in the end, I think it is the curious bits that make it charming, and Blackall hones in on this, and captures the feel of the era when the story was written.
The story of The Crows of Pearblossom is very straightforward and reminds me of a cross between an Aesop's fable and an very old Looney Toons cartoon - remember the one where Daffy is in court because he disappeared his wife's egg while trying to do a magic trick? A bit like that... Mr Rattlesnake lives a the bottom of a tree and every day, when the crow's away, he slithers up the trunk and eats her egg. When Mrs Crow returns home early from the market (her basket is filled with two lovely eggplants, a box of polenta, a dozen eggs, a baguette and leeks - this is the kind of delightful thought and detail Blackall brings to everything she does) to learn the truth of what is happening to her eggs, she is distraught.
Mrs Crow wants Mr Crow to go down to the snake's hole and kill him then and there, but Mr Crow decides to visit his friend Owl because, "he's a thinker. His ideas are always good."And, sure enough Owl does have an idea that involves a little arts & crafts, having a good meal and listening to the evening concert on the radio, and tricking the snake.
The story ends with a horrid stomach ache for the snake and the Crows victorious. Mrs Crow goes on to hatch "four families of seventeen children each. And she uses the snake as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows' diapers." Beyond this, the fate of the snake is not mentioned. In Ms Blackall's illustrations, he looks like he is resigned to his fate, and she leaves this up to interpreation. In the original illustrations, he looks pretty dead to me...
Speaking of the original, the note at the end of the book from Olivia de Haulleville, niece of Huxley, is almost as interesting as the book itself. Huxley, who was British, and his wife Maria moved to Llano, a desolate town in the Antelope Valley, which is in the Mojave Desert. Maria's sister, followed them, moving her six year old daughter (Olivia) and son Siggy to the nearby town of Pearlblossom. Olivia had many a long walk in the desert with her aunt and uncle during this time. The book was a Christmas gift to Olivia in 1944 and many of the places and people from her life are mentioned in the story. In 1963 Huxley died and in 1967 his house burned down destroying the original story which had been returned to him with the request that he illustrate it. Fortunately, Olivia's neighbors, the Yosts, also had a copy of the story and in 1967 it was published with illustrations by the amazing Barbara Cooney, author and illustrator of Miss Rumphius.
And, while we are speaking of the prolific and marvelous Barbara Cooney, I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite book illustrated by her, Roxaboxen.
Alice McLerran's mother was one of the original inhabitants of Roxaboxen, a magical world that once existed on the southeast corner of Second Avenue and Eighth Street in Yuma, Arizona. Made out of pebbles, desert glass, rocks and sticks, Roxaboxen tells story of the children and the houses they build in their fictional town. There is even a jail, where you are sent if you are speeding in your car, which consists of anything round that can be a steering wheel and two quick feet.
The imagination and ingenuity that the children in this book exhibit is a delight and an inspiration. I guarantee you that, after reading Roxaboxen, you and your kids will be out in the backyard with sticks and stones, or inside with wooden blocks and marbles like my daughter did when she was four, making your own Roxaboxen!