Monday, October 30

Be Nice to Spiders


by Margaret Bloy Graham
HarperCollins 1967


A boy brings a box to the zoo and leaves it at the gate. A zoo keeper, finding the box, opens it to find a very quick spider, anxious to get out in the world. The zoo keeper thinks nothing more of the spider.

Meanwhile, in the zoo, the animals are plagued by swarms of flies. Suddenly the flies begin to disappear as the spider goes about making webs and feasting. The animals are happy. The zoo keeper is happy. Everyone is happy.

The mayor is set to come to the zoo. The zoo keeper orders his cleaning crew to go around and make the place ship-shape, including the removal of the spider webs throughout the zoo. "I thought spiders were good?" says one of the crew, but no matter, the place must look perfect for the mayor.

After the mayor's visit the zoo returns to it's old self, flies and all. The spider is returned and the boy who left the spider has come to visit. Everyone is happy to note that the spider's new nest now supports an egg sac, promising hundreds more spiders to help keep the zoo fly-free for years to come.

Stumbling onto this book the other day I had this sense of deja vu I couldn't quite place. It had the feel of the kind of book I read growing up and, indeed, the pub date indicates I would have been ripe for this book around the time it was released. But there was more. The illustrations were reminiscent of those Syd Hoff titles, but the predominant color was that shade of peach that characterized a lot of 1960's picture books. Where had I seen that author's name before...?

Harry the Dirty Dog. Margaret Graham was the illustrator and, much to my pleasant surprise, still very much alive as I had a chance to meet her this week. Naturally I discovered this book the day after I met her, and when I finally realized who she was I was a little dumbstruck. Not an unusual situation I find myself in; I've been prone to stammering whenever I feel a little uncomfortable in a social situation, it doesn't have to be anyone famous. Add to the fact that my puny little mind is thinking "Harry just celebrated it's 50th anniversary... I didn't think either of them was still alive!"

Either of them being Ms. Graham or her former husband Gene Zion who created Harry back in the mid 1950's. A little hunting around and I discover that Zion and Graham divorced in 1968, and Zion had died in 1975. Beyond that I can find little.

On the back flap of the dustj acket for Be Nice to Spiders is a black and white photo of Margaret Graham working at her table, possibly on a watercolor for the book at hand. The window in the background diffuses the scene into that soft winter look that sent my dreamy little California head into strange longing. From my flat Southern California vantage point what could be more exciting, more dynamic than a city of high-rise apartments filled with sophisticated artists and writers. These were the people who knew how to have holiday parades, who created the best picture books, who knew how to have urban adventures that involved underground public transit and massive bridges that connected boroughs and were filled with ethnic neighborhoods.

Having grown up (barely, it seems at times) and having relocated to New England I live a more practical world. Public transit is still magic to me, but my adventures are limited to commuting to work or shuttling kids toward their own adventures. In hindsight I have come to value the quiet neighborhoods I grew up in and couldn't imagine the disconnect of living in a high-rise. Parades have long lost their shimmer.

But these books from my childhood -- from the era if not specifically from my personal reading experiences -- they strike an odd nerve in me. They contain an innocence within them that seemed to cocoon my generation in a world of childhood. They didn't shield us so much as they presented the world as a real place within our own imaginations. A boy could leave his spider in a box for the zoo to find and the effect on the zoo would be dramatic. I look at picture books today and they seem to be trying so hard to connect with kids. Writers and illustrators need to take into account various cultural influences, they need to entertain on a level that competes with video games and cable television... or so they may think. Because the classics are still out there, still being bought, and kids are still responding to them.

Maurice Sendak once said, in his book Caldecot & Co. "Books don't go out of fashion with children. They just go out of fashion with adults and publishers".
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