Wednesday, July 11

The Crows of Pearblossom


by Aldous Huxley
illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Random House 1967
Weekly Reader Children's Book Club edition

I have been meaning to write about this for a long time now and finally got the push when I was over at Bottom Shelf Books. The kick in the rear was this line in a review of The Flower by John Light: If Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe teamed up to create a children's book, this would be it.

What if it were Aldous Huxley and Barbara Cooney?

Mr. and Mrs. Crow of Pearblossom are the kind of characters you don't find in children's books; she's the housewife prone to badgering her husband and he's a chauvinist who insults his wife. No, really. Every day (except Sundays) she lays a new egg in her nest, and when she comes back from her shopping she is despondent to find the egg missing. One day she discovers old Mr. Snake who lives in the base of their cottonwood tree has been eating the eggs, and when Mr. Crow finds her crying he wonders if she hasn't been overeating again.

Oh, but it gets better. She suggests that he go down to the base of the tree and kill the snake to which he points out that isn't a good idea. She accuses him of being scared. He replies that he isn't scared, just that he doesn't think her idea was very good. "Your ideas are seldom good, I may add," and with that he's off to visit his friend Owl.

Owl hears the story and hatches a plan. They hop down to the alfalfa field and make a set of eggs out of the clay. After baking them at the top of the chimney they paint them to look like Mrs. Crow's eggs which they then place in the nest and go about their business. "Wait and see," says arrogant Mr. Owl when Mrs. Crow asks what they are for.

Mr. Snake arrives and -- nyum--nyum! -- two eggs to eat. Two eggs that sit in this stomach like the rocks they are, giving him bellyaches so profound that he ties himself in knots, literally. Finally, in his attempt to rid himself of his bellyaches Mr. Snake strangles himself across the branches of the cottonwood tree. Mrs. Crow arrives home, sees the dead snake, and proceeds to lecture his corpse on the wickedness of eating other people's children.

In the short epilogue Mrs. Crow has managed to hatch four families of seventeen children each and she uses the snake as a clothesline for the baby diapers, which is the books final illustration.

The end. Brave New World indeed!

There is a short note explaining that this was Huxley's only children's story and I think we can be grateful for that. He wrote it for his niece Olivia who "spent long periods of time with him and his wife Maria in their desert house" out on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Olivia was five years old when she received this Christmas "gift" from her uncle in 1941.

My copy, the Weekly Reader Children's Book Club edition, was one of a handful of books parceled out over the vacation as part of the club. I remember how there would be the newsprint weekly and then every few weeks a package would come in the mail with a new book from the club. The only other book I remember receiving was Harry the Dirty Dog but I know there were others.

Still, what a book! I know the story has stuck with me all these years because it's just so damn odd. It wasn't until much, much later that I understood the dynamics of the adult behavior in the book. Mrs. Crow's nagging and Mr. Crow's dismissive remarks would never get past an editorial intern today.

Or would it?

If Stephen King were to author a story like this for kids with adult characters who behaved this way would an editor chuckle and give it a green light, knowing they had Stephen King on board to guarantee sales despite the darkness and questionable behaviors?

Wait. Maybe I do want to see what Stephen King could do with a story like this.
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