Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Vintage Wednesday: The Wonderful Land of Up


Among The Writer's collection of old children's books is an odd book that she values more than anything--The Wonderful Land of Up by Olive Roberts Barton with illustrations by Neely McCoy. It was published by Doran in 1918, the year her mother and stepfather were born.

Olive Roberts Barton was a school teacher in Massachusetts who wrote several children's books (if you happen to find the rare Cloud Stories (1917) with illustrations by Milo Winter, snap it up!) and, in the 1930s, contributed articles to the Fitchburg Sentinel and Lowell Sun on subjects like children of divorce and getting children ready for school after an idle summer.

The Writer's book is orange with a paste-down illustration on the front of a richly-dressed boy and girl watching two balloons sail in the sky. The line-work is delicate, the palette is orange, gray and black with lots of white. Did I mention the gray cat?

So many of these odd, early books are awful, usually too sugary or too simple, but here's the first paragraph of Chapter One, "The Apple Tree Elevator":

Rose, Dick and Jim Dandy had run off, that is, Rose and Dick had run off and Jim Dandy followed. Jim Dandy was a cat, a great grey creature with a tail as large as a fox's, long soft fur that you wanted to rub your cheek against, solemn blue eyes, white whiskers, and a tiny bunch of white hair on his chin (if cats have chins) which made him look more solemn than ever. It may seem queer for a cat to have long hair and blue eyes, but Jim Dandy was a Persian cat, whose real name would almost reach around the world it was so long, at least it would takek kup a line on my typewriter, I'm sure; but as nobody has any time to waste these days he was called Jim Dandy for sure--sometimes just Dandy.

The Writer didn't buy this book. She wasn't sure how she got it, but it came into her hands many years ago. It was the only book owned by her stepfather, the man who raised her and, as she will tell anyone, saved her life. Inside the cover in fine penmanship reads this inscription:

"Howard Lightfoot, from his teacher Lilian W. Millan, as a reward for attendance & scholarship, Legato, May 18, 1928." Turn the page and there is a second inscription: "Samuel Howard Lightfoot, from his teacher Lilian W. Millan as his reward". . . it's obvious that 10-year-old Howard wrote the second inscription, correcting his name, practicing his own penmanship, and reliving words he seldom heard, "as his reward."

Years later at her first secretarial job, The Writer stood in the window of the 15th floor of the Fairfax County government building and watched the old one-room Legato School slowly and carefully brought down the road on a huge flatbed truck to its new site next door. She was glad her stepfather's old school had been saved.

Samuel Howard Lightfoot was a hard-working man with little education. Yet he taught The Writer about birds and trees and wild things and that cats were much more than they appeared. He has been gone more than 20 years now. The Writer is sure he is in The Wonderful Land of Up with all of the old cats they had loved.





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