Message in a Bottle
Long May the Jolly Roger Wave

The 2012 Olympics are upon us, so maybe it’s a good time to talk about a potential literary record breaker. Since all great athletic performances require considerable preparation, I’ll follow suit by laying a good bit of groundwork before I get to the finish line.

So: A picture book called Pickle-Chiffon Pie by Roger Bradfield was published a couple of years ago and proved pretty popular at my house. It tells the story of a king in trouble—seems his daughter is so sweet and lovely that she’s besieged by suitors, and she’s so polite that she’s continually inviting all of them to dinner, but there’s never enough dessert to go around. (This is what’s now known as a First World Problem.) The king wants to winnow the crowd at the table, so he sets a competition for the princes. Whoever goes into the forest and brings back “the MOST WONDERFUL THING” will win the hand of the princess. Some fairly impressive specimens, including a three-headed, marshmallow-toasting dragon, are rejected by the contestants in favor of the even more spectacular oddities they eventually capture, but the grand prize is earned by the most unassuming of the princes, who returns with something that proves his kindness and consideration outshine the rest.

It was nice to find a fable that promotes qualities that are husbandworthy in the real world, but it wasn’t the positive message that earned Pickle-Chiffon Pie repeated readings. It’s a pleasantly silly, jokey book with colorful illustrations and a sense of humor that both remind me of the old Fractured Fairy Tales cartoons. When I first brought it home, I wasn’t surprised to find that it dates from the same era—it was originally published in 1967, and the version we have is a recent reprint.

My son’s moved on to chapter books, but my daughter’s just hitting her stride where picture books are concerned, so I was happy to run across a sequel of sorts last week called The Pickle-Chiffon Pie Olympics. In it, the king’s younger daughter, newly home from college, is collecting dinner guests at the same rate her now-married sister did, so a new, multi-stage competition is proposed. Pickle-chiffon pie throwing, ogre jumping, moat swimming…the usual. But this fiery princess has what her mother calls “an independent streak” and her father calls “the stubbornness of two mules.” She’s not going to settle for whichever jock wins the laurels when she already knows she wants to marry Prince Charminger. As the games commence, she runs away, and as the stern Baron Brotwurst takes the lead, the king begins to regret his plan. But Charminger keeps up the pace, and a mysterious Black Knight (is that a tress of long red hair peeking out of that helmet?) surges to the fore. Before it’s all over, happiness prevails; father and daughter are reunited and forgive each other for their pigheadedness; and even the Baron turns out to be a nicer guy than everybody thought.

More corny gags, more bright pictures, and an even stronger girl power message. Another great reprint, I thought, but when I looked more closely, I saw that the copyright date was 2011. A long-lost manuscript finally seeing the light of day? Nope. Turns out that Purple House Press was so eager to publish more Roger Bradfield books that they convinced him to write a new one, despite his misgivings. As he self-deprecatingly puts it, “[C]ould my eighty-five year old brain (that often couldn’t remember where my cane and/or glasses were) still plot a story line?…And could my arthritic right hand put paint to paper in a way that would display a bit of confidence?” The Pickle-Chiffon Pie Olympics says yes.

I loved the idea of an aging author coming off the bench and smacking a pinch-hit homer so much that I dug for more information and discovered that “Jolly” Roger Bradfield has had quite an interesting career. He’s written many other children’s books, several of which have also been reprinted lately, and was a syndicated comic strip artist in the 1970s. Before that he was a widely-influential graphic designer who created the first Keebler elves and the original packaging for Trix cereal. With this latest book, it’s possible that he’s set a record for the longest gap between installments in a series. Dracula, Peter Pan, and Gone with the Wind, among others, have generated follow-up books long after their original artists were dead, but it’s rare for the same writer to return to his old stomping grounds after so much time. John Updike separated the Witches and the Widows of Eastwick by twenty-four years, Isaac Asimov published his fourth Foundation book twenty-nine years after the third, Jean Craighead George wrote On the Far Side of the Mountain thirty-one years after My Side of the Mountain, and Joseph Heller let thirty-three years go by between Catch-22 and Closing Time, but none of those esteemed authors can hold a candle to Bradfield’s forty-four year Pickle-Chiffon Pie-less stretch. Picture books may not be in the same category as adult novels, but it’s nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment. I’m hoping that Bradfield still has it in him to pen another tale or two, perhaps The Pickle-Chiffon Princesses When Their Honeymoons Were Over or Will Babies Eat Pickle-Chiffon Puree?. Maybe they’ll be around long enough for my kids to read them to their kids.

—James

Averting a Nasty Fall

Last week a book made an unexpected jump from the arts and entertainment section to the front page, playing a minor part in an amazing story of survival. William Hickman, a thirteen-year-old boy on a hike with his father, fell into the rushing waters of the Wallace River near Gold Bar, Washington, and was swept toward the 265-foot precipice of Wallace Falls. As he was carried downstream, he remembered advice from a fantasy novel he’d read in which the main character was in a similar predicament: “Go feet first, stay to the side, and kick off the rocks.” That’s exactly what he did as he went over a preliminary ten-foot drop, and he stayed upright and alert enough to grab hold of a ledge on the other side. Clinging to that rock, just a few feet from the main falls, he was subsequently extracted by a helicopter search-and-rescue team.

The book he had in mind was part of the Pendragon series by D.J. MacHale, and when the author heard about the role his fiction had played in the harrowing events, he contacted the recovering Hickman, who described the conversation as “awesome.” Nice to know that teenagers stay teenagers even after something like this. MacHale was of course delighted that everything turned out OK, but also pleased about the positive response from the media"I just had a conversation this past weekend with another author. We were lamenting that we’re given a lot of caution about what we write in books for fear that kids will get hurt. It’s nice that it can work the other way, too." 

It’s true that books for young people are often lambasted for putting dangerous ideas in the heads of their audience, as though no child has ever fallen off a roof without reading about it first. Fiction can be a safe space for kids to encounter dangers that parents hope they’ll never have to face in real life, and there’s a benefit to confronting them that’s often overlooked in these protective times. Plenty has been written about the loss of the necessary free time and open space that allow children to develop physical skills and, more importantly, the ability to make good decisions. Just for starters, there’s The Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv and 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do by Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler. 

We at Island Books were inspired enough by William Hickman’s hopefully-never-to-be-repeated adventure to put together a display of some of our favorite stories of kids and their powerful encounters with the wild. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain trilogy, among others, shared a table under a sign that read “Are Your Kids Ready for Summer?” Not that we expect or hope for trouble—just the opposite—but it’s good to remember that raising them right means eventually turning them loose on the world.

—James

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