The Search for the Trippiest Children’s Book: Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Color Kittens”

August 7, 2012 § 7 Comments

It’s a great day at the old toy store day job when my love for vintage things, good books, and kooky surreality meet up in an item that costs less than $5. The best thing about The Color Kittens, originally published in 1949: it’s way cheaper than a hit of LSD, and produces similar results.

This gem is part of the Little Golden Treasures series, part of the Golden Books ouvre, published by Random House. The Color Kittens was written in 1949 by Margaret Wise Brown, who is best known for the soothing and poetic Goodnight Moon. The Color Kittens is similarly soothing to read out loud–many lines in the book rhyme, and those parts that don’t are written conversationally and almost nonsensically. Example: “And they wanted green paint, of course*, because nearly every place they liked to go was green.” *italics added for emphasis. The “nearly every place” is vague, but the tone of the sentence, with “of course,” is so certain. This is one way that Margaret Wise Brown engages a child’s confidence in the story, while still introducing a charming non-logic, or at least a hint at the unnecessary nature of logic.

But then, I’m not highlighting this book because it’s a paragon of logic. On the contrary.

I picked up The Color Kittens during a slow afternoon in the store, and found myself completely lost in the pages of what I might assume is a close approximation of an acid trip. The rhythmic and poetic text, the lack of any discernible logic or concrete “world” of the story (we’re told that the Color Kittens create all the colors of the world, yet the colors are already there–and they seem to create them twice? I don’t know, man, everything sort of swam together) coupled with the overwhelming cuteness of the illustrations (WAIT FOR IT) lulled me into a dreamlike state from which I awakened some time later, on the floor of the break room, surrounded by half-chewed Calico Critter rabbit figurines, trying to reach my deceased grandmother on a Fisher Price Chatter Phone.

BASICALLY, here’s how it goes down. These two adorable kitten have buckets and buckets of paint, which they love to use to create new colors.

I’m just going to point out here that we never know which kitten is which, even though the kitten in the purple coveralls is consistently more cautious than the kitten in blue. Note the use of a paintbrush rather than its own paws.

ANYWAY, they are pretty happy little kittens playing with their paint except for one thing: they have no green. Over the next several pages, they attempt to make green by splashing different colors together. It’s a gorgeously written, beautifully creative way of teaching children about primary and secondary colors. Simple and elegant enough.

AND THEN INDEED.

“O wonderful kittens! O Brush! O Hush!” They combine blue and yellow and finally make green. YOU MIGHT THINK that the story would be done. Huzzah, we’ve made green, we’ve learned how to make purple and pink and orange. But no.

The kittens get so excited that they paint everything around them, and in their exponentially expanding excitement at seeing everything around them painted, they knock over all their buckets, inadvertently creating brown.

It’s hipster dream time! Everyone, hold on to your striped hats and call in the owls!

Where did that bear come from? What is it doing?

At this point, let’s just pause to acknowledge that both of the color kittens, Brush and Hush, are having the same dream. They are dreaming in tandem. And there’s a bear wearing a neckerchief.

The dream goes on, and escalates in weirdness. The kittens then wake up, and are “wild with purring and pouncing.” They pounce so much that, once again, they knock over all their paint buckets and “all the colors ran out together. They were all the colors in the world, and the color kittens had made them.”

In a humorous article on the book, Gina Barreca, humorist writer and professor of English literature and  feminist theory, muses on the many possible meanings of this odd book:

If I were writing an academic paper on The Color Kittens…I would say that it was a quest narrative. A sophisticated tale of yearning and desire for the ineffable represented by the color green. I would point out that green is the color of nature. I would argue for its use as a trope for the organic and pre-lapsarian world, the Eden to which, already, no child can return. I would continue my scholarly treatise by claiming that, curiously enough, green acts in this text as the quintessential essence of that-which-can-not-be-represented-in-art. If Id had a few glasses of wine I would even say that perhaps it hinted at a Lacanian pre-oedipal vision of the world where fluid maternal and decidedly feminine modes of creativity could lead to boundary breaking discoveries of the self. But I would probably take that line out the next day.

She goes on to say that what she truly admires about the book, with or without a glass of wine, is its non-condescending nature, and its embrace of the messiness that strews the path to true discovery. Finding what you were after means trying lots of other things first, and the color kittens are models for children–and artists–because they’re unburdened by disappointment. “They don’t regret making purple…they’re delighted,” Barraca says.

I dig it. But I still have one question:

Where did these come from?

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§ 7 Responses to The Search for the Trippiest Children’s Book: Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Color Kittens”

  • OMG the Color Kittens was one of my fav books growing up as a little girl! My mom use to read it to me all the time! I love this book!

  • Christie says:

    And then Gina Barreca would say, “I think I’m reading too much into it.” Or maybe that was me . . . (But that’s part of the fun!)

  • Jonah says:

    Professors of English literature and feminist theory should not be allowed anywhere near children’s books.

  • Ann Schwartz says:

    Fyi, the kitten in the purple painter’s outfit is Brush. “Brush mixed red paint and white paint together…” and you see the kitten in purple doing this in the picture.
    I loved this book as a child and was delighted when my sister bought me the large hardcover reissue.
    I’m glad this edition includes the poem at the end, “Sing Ho for the color of Brush”. I THINK it originally came with notated music, but can’t say for sure. The fourth line sounds a bit like a Buddist koan: “Sing Ho for the color of color.”

  • Jeannie M says:

    This was my favorite book as a child, and I read it to my sons when they were small. I have a new copy on the shelf now, waiting for grandchildren. I’m also plotting my next tattoo from the illustrations…

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