November 8, 2012 § 31 Comments
It should be almost as blasphemous to pinpoint a favorite book as it is to single out a favorite child, especially if you’re a Reader with a Capital R. What will the others think? Will the Grimms become bitter? Will Peter Pan, knowing that he’s loved but not (gasp!) my favorite, develop some deeply-seated childish drive for attention? That is, more than he already has? It’s a risky move, both because someone on the shelf might get offended , and because there’s always the chance–some say–that you might change your mind.
But I won’t change my mind, even if my favorite book has lots of competition.
In my apartment there’s a special shelf, where my Grimms live, all of my Sendak, Barrie, and Trina Schart Hyman. Also, most of the criticism of the aforementioned hang out there as well. It’s the place of honor, away from the YA paperbacks and college poetry textbooks, where my 1st edition of Barrie’s The Little White Bird sits next to Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell’s The Juniper Tree, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, which was given to me by a good friend in a time of book-need. All of Maria Tatar’s Annotated series (Hans Christian Andersen, The Grimms, Peter Pan) are here, along with a copy of War of the Worlds, as illustrated by Edward Gorey, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, as illustrated by the late, beautiful, Trina Schart Hyman. Audrey Niffennegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters, next to both volumes of Tony Kushner’s study of the work of Maurice Sendak.
All of this is not to brag, but to say that it might surprise some of you readers, who’ll have already been exposed to my rants and exultations about many of these titles, that none of these (not even Peter and Wendy, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman!) is my favorite book of all time. In fact, the author of this book is someone whose name has never appeared on this blog before. It’s a book I grew up with without attaching any significance to the name, the way I now do with my hoarded information about authors of books that I love. I love this book not because there’s any thrilling backstory or deep personal turmoil in the making of it. It’s simple, beautiful, and, sadly, out of print.
This, dears, is my favorite book of all time:
Irene Haas, author and illustrator of The Maggie B. and A Summertime Song, published The Little Moon Theater in 1981. I grew up listening to my mother read it to me at bedtime, and I’m not ashamed to say that it had a bigger impact on my personal taste and aesthetics than anything I read in graduate school.
The book is about a trio of performers: Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette (the woman, the dog, and the cat, respectively), who travel the countryside in their wagon, entertaining townsfolk at each stop. The book is a little different from other children’s books with traditional narratives, and also the fairy tales from which many children’s books take their cues, in that Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette don’t have any expressed conflict or goal in the beginning of the story. They’re a traveling theatre troupe, they always have been, and we can probably assume that they will continue to be so after the last page is turned. There’s nothing wrong with their life, nor is anyone trying to convince them that there might be.
The plot, then, is about other people who are not Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette.
For instance, Rose, pictured above, whom the troupe meets in a village as they look for a place to set up for the evening’s show. Rose wishes she could go to the show that night, but her mother has told her she can’t, because Rose insists on making a spectacle of herself by wearing two different colored socks. Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette–being theatre folk and thus endlessly tolerant and open-minded–invite Rose to be a part of the show instead, and through the magic of theatre and story-telling, they convince Rose’s mother that being a little different is really not so terrible after all. The show, of course, is presented as a fairy tale.
Although our main trio of protagonists aren’t necessarily the ones with a quest or conflict (which is a little to the left of traditional), The Little Moon Theater does apply a more traditional pattern to its plot: Rose is the first of 3 people whom the Little Moon troupe helps with a problem. The significance of the three-part plot structure is plucked straight from fairy tales, in which the hero must usually accomplish three tasks, or must try three times to open a certain door or rescue a certain princess. He or she might earn the help of three magical beasts, or might recover three magical objects. 3 is everywhere–3 is important.
In The Little Moon Theater, however, 3 isn’t as important to our protagonists as it is to the strange little woman following them around from town to town. After each performance, as the troupe packs up their show, they’re interrupted by the untimely arrival of a funny little grandmotherish creature, who’s usually caught in a tree or dunked in a lake because of her barely-functioning fairy godmother wings.
You see, every time the troupe grants someone’s wish–Rose with one yellow and one red sock, the boy whose family thinks his pet snake is dangerous when it’s really misunderstood, and (my favorite) the hobo dog who wishes, intensely, for the moon–by bringing them aboard the Little Moon and including them in the show, they’re overriding the wish-granting power of the fairy godmother. She has only has one wish left to grant before she can retire, but she always seems to get to the scene a little too late. The troupe nurse her through the night (she’s a frail thing), and say goodbye the next day, to move on to the next town, and the next show. The godmother is always grateful, but a little annoyed that she’s still one wish away from resting her old bones.
Eventually the troupe has its own wish to be granted. On a frosty night, when their only audience is a family of friendly wolves, they wish to be warm, and finally the fairy grandmother (who crashes into a pile of snow) can have her retirement. Simple, beautiful, out of print.
When I was younger–meaning young enough to have the story read to me–I never questioned the truthfulness, the mere fact, of Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette’s little band as they exist on the page. They are a troupe, they have no backstory. They simply exist, and always have, and of course Jip and Nicolette are fully sentient collaborators, despite their being a cat and dog.
However. When I was in high school, my obsession with this book swelled into something more complicated, thanks (don’t laugh) to the hit teen film She’s All That. The film, which was unremarkable, used a song by the band Sixpence None the Richer, and of course a music video, featuring the two fresh-faced leads from the film, was produced and splattered all over MTV, which I’d watch at a friend’s house. Something about that video, in my teenage years, sparked a memory of this book which I’d loved, and something about the lead singer’s face and hair, her musician/companions, the lights, the whimsy, made me sad and full of book-nostalgia. Yes, the video and the song are truly mediocre, and watching it means looking more than one should ever have to at Freddie Prinze Jr.’s face. But I was a teenager, and there it is.
I took up the book again, and because I was a sullen and very nerdy teenager predisposed to question everything, I began thinking much more about the who and what of Jojo, Jip, and Nicolette, and connecting them symbolically with the pretty singer in the video and her human companions. Suddenly the anthropomorphism was strange, and sad–what if Jojo was a real human girl, and Jip and Nicolette were human too, really, after all? What would they look like in human form? What if they grew up, and grew out of the troupe? Or worse, much worse, what if Jojo was the only human, a girl, and what if the Little Moon Theater was her pretend game? Because I couldn’t get this sad little scenario out of my head, I wrote a play adaptation which ended, after all of the wish-granting and theatrical hijinks, with Jojo the girl, alone in her room, a stuffed cat and dog inert and unmoving tossed next to her on the floor. I was, as I said, very nerdy, and more than a little morose. But The Little Moon Theater became the first children’s book that spoke to me about something irretrievable–what exists and is left behind after growing up starts, and play-acting ends. You know it was there, and it happened, but now you’re different, and there’s no getting it back. There would be many more books that would give me this same feeling, and which had been written most carefully by people who understood that feeling too–Peter Pan, of course, and much of the work of Maurice Sendak. But this was the first. It was, all at once, an overwhelmingly sad and satisfying feeling, which made me cherish the book and also feel a sort of protectiveness about it.
In my trips down memory lane, I run across reviews that somehow made it from their original print sources onto the everlasting archives of the web. A review from The Christian Science Monitor, written when the book was released in 1981, summarized the book thus: “the story, with all the beauty and whimsy of an old-fashioned fairy tale, concerns a little girl who travels around the countryside with her dog and cat.”
I’ve been accused, many times, of over-thinking things, and of relentlessly finding the “sad” and the symbolic in incidents that, to anyone else, would seem trivial at best. But when I read this summary, written by someone who did, after all, like the book in their banal way, I can’t help but feel like they just didn’t get it. And by not getting it, they’re perpetuating those fears that teenage-me worked to confront and banish. They’re not just a dog and cat, I want to say, and they’re certainly not Jojo’s, in the sense that she owns them. They’re real…aren’t they? Maybe it doesn’t matter. I loved this book, and I still do. Because of this book, I have too many polka dots in my closet, and I write plays in which one character, at the very least, is wearing a top hat. I can’t describe my ideal wedding reception without referring to the illustrations in this book. So perhaps the possibility that these characters aren’t as real to others as they were to me, back in my childhood, doesn’t matter.
But then again, I think, as I look at my own dog and cat sleeping on the couch, and I remember how lonely it was to be a child, and how strong the urge to create another world around oneself really was, maybe it does matter. Maybe it matters very much that Jip and Nicolette are never just a dog and cat. It mattered to child-Cate, and for some reason, it still matters to me.