Tuesday, November 10

The Snow Party

by Beatrice de Regniers
1959 Pantheon edition illustrated
by Reiner Zimnik
1989 Lothrop, Lee & Shepard edition
illustrated by Bernice Myers

Today, a little compare and contrast between two editions of the same book separated by three decades.

Snowed in on and old farmhouse in the Dakotas, a lonely woman begins to fantasize about having a little company. The man, her husband, points out that they don't know a soul and calls her daft for thinking such things. And besides, who'd venture out in the snow for a party even if they did have some friends. That night the storm takes out the electricity and the man decides to bring in 300 baby chick from the barn so they don't freeze. While he is out the back door the first wave of snow-stranded travelers knock on their front door. Happy for the company, the woman starts making some tea while the man welcomes the visitors. Then more stranded folks arrive. Carloads, busloads, whole wedding parties full of people stranded in the snow have made their way to the house. And then a bakery truck is stuck and there's cake and pastries and its a full party. By noon the next day the storm has passed and the stranded travelers move on. leaving the tired farm wife to sleep and dream the party all over again.

The first difference between the two is that the older version of the book is more of a picture storybook while the later edition hews more closely to what we recognize as a picture book today. In hardcover, the 1959 edition is closer in size to a trade paperback, and the illustrations are simple pen and ink drawings that have a folksy charm and seem more like spot illustrations. The pictures have a quirkiness to them, and the couple presented are round and old and very much country. Separate from a beginning reader, but not quite a middle grade book, this was clearly aimed at the emerging reader ready for slightly longer stories and fewer illustrations.

In the more recent edition (and it's odd to think of 20 years ago is "recent") the illustrations are full color and cominate the page in bright watercolors and more cartoon-y illustrations. The man and women here look a little more like aging hippies who were part of the back-to-land movement. They don't seem at all old. And as for its size the book is only slightly more square that the original, not quite as large as contemporary picture books.

Cosmetic difference aside, it's interesting to see how the text was modified for the new version. In 1959 the book opens with the happy couple in front of their farm house with the following text:
There was this little old woman and this little old man and they lived in a little old farmhouse 'way out in Dakota.

Charming, like a folk tale. Jump ahead thirty years and we get the following opening:

There was this woman, and there was this man, and they lived in a little old farmhouse way out in Dakota.

The breaks in the newer version remove some of the cadence of the original, and the word 'old' has been removed as a descriptor. Already I'm struck with wondering why the changes were made. Did it somehow seem irresponsible to put a pair of old people out in the middle of nowhere in a snow storm? Does it seem improbably that old people could want to party? Was this a question of ageism creeping into the revision?

And where the first book opens simply with that one line, the later version continues on for three more short paragraphs with the couple indoors talking. Through the window you see snow but no sense of the scenery you get with the older edition where, cleverly, the title page, the LOC page, and the dedication page all show the farmhouse and a nearby tree going through the seasons from spring through fall, with winter in full effect on that first page. It's setting and place and time and not a word used. It's the book equivalent of a movie's title sequence, or a musical's overture, and it doesn't feel anywhere near as jarring as simply jumping into the story without taking the time to establish itself.

The two books have exactly the same page count, and yet in the older book the second page explains how they lived on a farm with chickens, and in the third it talks about it snowing and snowing before the woman talks about being lonely. In the update the woman talks being "mighty lonely here with just you and the chickens for company" in the second sentence.

I don't think I'm reading into this by suggesting that the original version implies an empty nest couple who suddenly find themselves alone at the end of their days. The passage of time, the seasons, are clearly an indication of time's passage. With the new version we find a couple who don't look old enough to have raised kids and so the woman's longing for a party comes off more as a whim, a fancy, and somehow less serious. Frivolous.

Form here out the changes seem more one of economy – allowing for larger pictures and shortcutting the story where it isn't necessary. When the first guests arrive the woman sccops up some snow to make tea. It's a small detail from the original, not missed in the revision, except it is all the richer for the imagery it provides a story. The reader can try to imagine how much snow would be needed to make enough water for a tea party. It is precisely because the older book isn't a traditional picture book that it includes these details, but by reducing the story to fit the format is looses something.

The newer illustrations, had there never been anything to compare them with, would have been perfectly fine. But in comparison it is hard not to notice that for all their color and vibrancy they lack a depth. They are all surface, flat, stagnant. The older pen and ink drawings might bore younger readers for what they lack, but in return they have a sense of depth and paegentry. At the end, when the baker's truck is unloaded, the Myers illustrations show a sea of heads each holding platters of different pastries. In the Zimnik illustrations the line of helpers unloading the truck is repeated over two pages, which give the story a sense of lots of trips and an abundance of treats. In addition, despite the lack of horizon line, there is depth in the processional with the blank of the page serving as part of the white-out created by the storm.

The conversion of the picture storybook into another format is not new or unique. One of my favorite childhood picture storybooks, Roald Dahl's The Magic Finger, now exists as a rather slim middle grade book with Quintin Blake illustrations that don't have the same warmth and magic as the ones originally provided by William Pene Du Bois. Here, the book was shifted down to a picture book which is the only way it could go because it isn't quite enough for a middle grade reader.

But what is the problem with the book for children that is about the length of a short story? Why do kids have to make this progression from picture books to beginning readers to series books like The Magic Treehouse? I fear the day someone decides (really, its only a question of time isn't it?) that William Stieg's picture storybooks would make better middle grade readers, or become simplified into board books using their original illustrations. I feel sometimes like the adult world is pushing kids to reader faster then they are ready, faster than they want, and to accept longer and longer books out of some need to not leave them behind, educationally. Reading for fun, for the sense of accomplishment, with stories that can be reader and enjoyed and reread in a single sitting... I sometimes sense these are the casualties in the publishing and reading wars.

But let's hear it for the libraries that still carry both editions of The Snow Party so that readers can find the version that suits them best.

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