Reviews of quirky kids’ books that are of interest to an adult literary crowd.
~by Dan Pinkerton
The Shrinking of Treehorn, a lime green pocket-sized paperback, can be got for around the price of a value meal from the fine folks at Amazon. The Treehorn of the title is a boy I’d guess to be eight or nine years old. His age is never given, nor do we ever learn whether Treehorn is his first or last name. The mononymous character is something of a staple of children’s literature—consider Madeline, for instance, or Sendak’s Max. Writers want character names that will stick in a young reader’s head, but a single-named character also serves another purpose. He’s not some “other,” with a set of specifics one might find on a passport. He is me; I am Treehorn, or at least could be. Many of these children’s stories share elements of fables or fairy tales where a moral is to be conveyed, and the moral cannot efficiently sink in if the reader fails to place himself in the character’s shoes.
We get our first glimpse of Treehorn on the book’s cover, courtesy of Edward Gorey, who has done the ink drawings. Treehorn stands in an unfurnished room, staring wistfully at something beyond the viewer’s range of vision. At first glance, Gorey’s drawings seem rudimentary, toss-off sketches in the same vein as Shel Silverstein’s: lines bend when they should remain straight; characters’ postures appear stilted. But as I examined the drawings more closely, I was amazed by how gestural they were, how the tilt of Treehorn’s head gave him an expression of longing, or, in another image, how his mother stooped slightly, gazing into the oven as she held a hand to her chin. Hers was a pensive look—not of concern for her son’s wellbeing but rather that the cake wouldn’t fall.
This is one of the underlying tensions of the book, an unconcern for Treehorn’s condition, which, if you haven’t already guessed from the title, is that he is shrinking. His first clue comes when he fails to reach things in his closet he was once able to—namely, his candy stash. Then Treehorn’s “trousers” appear to grow too big. I call attention to the word “trousers” because it is but one example of how the author, Florence Parry Heide, has created (with Gorey’s help) a willfully anachronistic book. The Shrinking of Treehorn was first published in 1971, but certain phrases and behaviors of its characters make it seem at least a decade older, and Gorey’s drawings make it seem older yet.
When, by dinnertime, Treehorn can barely see over the table, his father says, “Do sit up, Treehorn.” The odd formality of the sentence sent me searching to see if Ms. Heide was by chance British, but I found she is in fact a product of Punxsutawney and Kenosha. Treehorn’s father, as rendered by Gorey, has dark hair slicked and combed, with long sideburns and a mustache that stretches to his chin. He wears a striped jacket with plaid pants and appears to be wearing spats. He would not look out of place in a barbershop quartet or riding a penny-farthing bicycle. Treehorn dresses in a turtleneck and some sort of knickers. He has a prominent nose and hair combed straight down over his brow like the bust of a Roman emperor. Gorey, in one of his few nods to the early Seventies era, dresses the characters in wildly conflicting weaves of patterned fabric; even in black and white, the outfits scream loudly from the page.
No discernible reason is ever given for Treehorn’s condition, which worsens as the story progresses, though the response to it never wavers. His mother accuses him of pretending; Treehorn’s father dismisses him out of hand, arguing that “nobody shrinks.” When confronted with the truth, he speculates that perhaps Treehorn is shrinking on purpose, “Just to be different.” Treehorn’s friend remarks that shrinking is a stupid thing to do; his school bus driver denies Treehorn is who he says he is; and his teacher, amusingly, advises him to get things taken care of, as “We don’t shrink in this class.”
Treehorn’s parents eventually consider calling a doctor but the conversation ends indecisively, so Treehorn is left to remedy the dilemma on his own, which he manages to do with the help of a board game he sent away for after it was advertised on the back of a cereal box.
Some stories germinate with a character or setting or plot point, but The Shrinking of Treehorn seems more of a circumstantial story, meaning that characters are given a unique circumstance and the narrative is dictated by their response. In this way it is akin to some speculative fiction or to horror stories like Stephen King’s “The Mist” or Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” but it is also cousin to magic realist stories by contemporary writers like Aimee Bender. As I read The Shrinking of Treehorn, I found myself reminded of Bender’s fantastic story “The End of the Line,” which begins, “The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company.”
Bender’s story, of course, has darker grown-up undertones involving oppression and abuse, while Florence Parry Heide’s has a (somewhat) airier tone. A circumstantial story like Heide’s or Bender’s depends upon its characters’ reactions to the unusual events. How does Bender’s little man respond to his new owner? How does the owner react to having a little man? In Treehorn’s case, how do the other characters react to his shrinking? In both stories there’s a striking contrast in the way characters should behave and the way they actually do. In “The End of the Line,” this discord creates a feeling of unease for the reader, while in The Shrinking of Treehorn, it’s meant to make us laugh.
After all, if none of the adults in the story are capable of taking Treehorn’s shrinking seriously, why should we? Factor in the unexplained origins of his condition and the ease with which it is allayed, and the story assumes a dreamlike quality. Ultimately the success of Heide’s book depends on our willingness to accept Treehorn’s strange affliction at face value.
There’s nothing new about indifferent, uncaring, or—in many cases—absent parents in children’s literature. Look at the two examples cited above: in Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s mother’s sole function is to send him to his room for chasing the dog with a fork, and Madeline is an orphan, as are the Baudelaire children and Harry Potter. Adult figures merely get in the way; kids cannot have suitable adventures unless left to their own devices. Or, as in Treehorn’s case, they must learn to address their own problems. This undoubtedly plays to children’s fantasies of increased independence. They are Aimee Bender’s “little men,” suffering under the tyranny of adults’ unfair rules or lack of imagination (which is perhaps even worse).
The interplay of Gorey’s drawings and Heide’s text makes The Shrinking of Treehorn a fascinating book, but the question remains: will your kids like it? I think it will depend on their imagination and sense of humor. Some will find Treehorn’s circumstances amusing while others may be frustrated by them. My own son is unimpressed by The Shrinking of Treehorn and would prefer reading a book of trivia or world records. He is too firmly rooted in reality for Treehorn’s shrinking to make much sense to him. Like Treehorn’s father, he is content in the knowledge that nobody shrinks. But if you and your children enjoy setting your disbelief aside for a half hour or so, then The Shrinking of Treehorn may be a nice addition to your home library.
Dan Pinkerton lives in Des Moines, Iowa with his wife and two kids, both of whom have strong opinions about what constitutes great literature. His stories and poems have appeared in such places as Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New Orleans Review, Subtropics, Sonora Review, Boston Review, and the Best New American Voices anthology.