Litstack Recs: The Tall Book of Make-Believe & The Last Days of New Paris

The Tall Book of Make-Believe
ed. Jane Werner
Illustrated by Garth Williams

Well beyond the age it’s intended for, this collection of stories has stayed with me. This American classic of children’s stories and poems was compiled by Jane Werner in 1950, and from the start this book captured my imagination. By the age of six or so I was able to read it alone, taking pleasure in the privacy of having the stories to savor privately. If I came to an unknown word, I’d skip over it, or study the marvelous illustrations by Garth Williams, an artist whose style is both gentle and exacting and which still summons the mood of that time.

I was a willful child, and always managed to find trouble. That may have been why the story I read most often was “Bad Mousie,” by Martha Ward Dudley (first published in 1947). It tells of a misbehaving mouse whose serial punishments fail to banish him from the house he inhabits.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dannica, who lived with her mother and a little black mouse. Mousie was very bad because no one had ever taught him to be good.

Mousie spills his cocoa, unrolls yards of paper in the bathroom, and in his misguided curiosity cuts the bedspread into paper dolls. Dannica’s mother exacts harsh punishments on Mousie—hooking him to an umbrella and sending him off into the wind, mailing him off in parcel—but each time he comes back. Until one day, returning home he finally remembers to wipe his feet before coming inside. Conscientiousness, it seems, pays off. He’s allowed to stay and his bad habits change. We learn then that Dannica

…helped him pick up his books and put the buttons and the crayons in the boxes.

Then she kissed him to help him get good faster.

As Lemony Snicket understood nearly three decades later, children thrill at reading tales of child-centered darkness and wicked behavior. Reams of stories extolling goodness can’t touch a story like “Bad Mousie” and its portrayal of the unruly acts of an otherwise goodhearted creature because the story expresses things a child at that age cannot.

Even so, a story like “Bad Mousie” would be difficult to publish now. Times change, and for contemporary sensibilities, the mother’s reactions are too harsh, too cruel to be read as they were originally intended. And yet, for those who grew up with this book, Dudley’s tale of the misbehaved, long-suffering mouse is memorable because of its harshness, which even a young reader knows, makes the forgiveness at the end well earned.

There are other fantastic selections here too—selections by Walter de la Mare, Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Katherine Mansfield.

A wonderful remembrance of the book can be found here.

—Lauren Alwan

Pages: 1 2

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