Marvelous Medicine: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos

Books for Precocious Kids and Big-hearted Grownups


~by Dan Pinkerton 


Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos, by R.L. LaFevers


Like many households, ours is in the midst of a Sherlock kick.  I tried explaining to my kids that Sherlock Holmes first appeared back in the nineteenth century, but I think it’s still tough for them to envision him without a cell phone and unlimited free texting.  We powered through the current season in a bit of inspired binge viewing and were left afterwards with that pang of emptiness one experiences when forced to bid farewell—even if temporarily—to a beloved TV companion, whether Walter White or the Starks of Winterfell or the rebooted Sherlock Holmes, that “highly-functioning sociopath.”

To fill the void, I suggested we watch the 1985 Barry Levinson film Young Sherlock Holmes, a reimagining of the character as a teenaged student.  Penned by Chris Columbus (who would later adapt Harry Potter for the screen), the script stays true to Doyle’s vision of Sherlock.  Even as a youth, Holmes’s powers of perception are astute, and during the course of the film he acquires his trademark affectations—the violin, the pipe, the funny hat…even Watson.

My parents took me to see Young Sherlock Holmes when I was ten, and it made quite an impression on me, but in the intervening years I hadn’t re-watched it, so I was curious how the movie (and I) had aged.  Inevitably, Young Sherlock Holmes wasn’t as magical as I remembered, but it was still well worth the three-dollar rental fee.  My wife spent parts of the movie toying with her phone and clearing the dinner dishes and my six year-old daughter lost interest midway through, but my eight year-old son remained rapt throughout. Continue reading

Marvelous Medicine: The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip

Books for Precocious Kids and Big-hearted Grownups

by Dan Pinkerton


The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip
by George Saunders

There’s nothing even remotely formulaic about George Saunders. The style and tone of his stories are so distinct they become instantly identifiable, fundamentally Saundersy. Even the author’s lone children’s book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, shares some DNA with his adult stuff. The book has been tamed to achieve a PG rating—no clubbed raccoons dumped into pits, just some squabbling, some light roughhousing, a little sand in the underwear—but the other elements are there: the amusing dialogue; the slangy, pared-down diction; a world similar but not quite like ours; a protagonist who manages to see beyond the limiting factors of her existence. At 84 pages, including some full-page illustrations by Lane Smith (The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, James and the Giant Peach), Gappers even resembles Saunders’ other works in length. One might consider it a starter course in Saunders.

The story is set in Frip, which can scarcely be called a town, lacking anything by way of stores, schools, or other amenities. It’s more like a three family collective wedged between sea and swamp where the families subsist by raising goats. All would be well and good were it not for the gappers: small, round, spiky creatures who crawl from the ocean, attaching themselves in large numbers to every goat they can find. Why? Because Gappers love goats. Encountering one elicits from them high-pitched shrieks of pleasure. For goats, the feeling is not mutual, and the animals stop producing milk, a major concern in a one-industry town. Saunders sets all this up neatly, economically, in the opening pages. Continue reading

Marvelous Medicine: Books for Precocious Kids and Kid-Hearted Grownups

~by Dan Pinkerton

of lamb

Of Lamb, by Matthea Harvey, paintings by Amy Jean Porter
McSweeney’s Books

Many of the classics have an air of weirdness about them, novelty coupled with discomfiture. The art startles, making you more alert, opening you to a new kind of beauty. Think Dalí or Buñuel, Wallace Stevens or William Faulkner, Bladerunner or Charlie Kaufman. Of course there’s bad weird, weirdness for its own sake, genuine insanity. Such weirdness quickly fades. But there’s also good weird, the weird that endures. Of Lamb, a book of poems by Matthea Harvey with paintings by Amy Jean Porter, is assuredly good weird.

The weirdness is there in neon from the start. Porter’s paintings are a hodgepodge of color and line, stencil-style patterns, leaves and limbs and vines spiraling across the page. We get glimpses of everything from Manny Ramirez to Seventies-era split-levels to Washington crossing the Delaware. In one illustration, the book’s protagonist, Lamb, stands on a table gnawing at his back leg, surrounded by cacti, while a large wasp settles on his haunch. In another, Lamb is tightrope walking above an old cabinet-style TV set on which an image of Peter Jennings plays. Continue reading

Marvelous Medicine: Books for Precocious Kids and Big-Hearted Grownups


~by Dan Pinkerton


Slightly irregular cover


Donald Barthelme published only one children’s book in his career, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine OR The Hithering Thithering Djinn.  The title is reminiscent of one of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales, and you get the sense Barthelme probably watched the cartoons and was maybe even diverted by them.  He did after all have a penchant for writing fractured fairy tales of his own, featuring the likes of Sinbad, Bluebeard, Snow White, and King Arthur.  Of course, his inspiration came from sources both older and more esteemed than Saturday morning TV, but even a quotidian tale like “The School” comes to assume an animated quality in Barthelme’s hands, a discourse on love and (mainly) death that ends with a gerbil knocking on the door and entering a classroom.

But back to Fire Engine:  the illustrations were appropriated from nineteenth-century texts, and Barthelme admitted the text was “written to fit” the pictures.  This go-where-the-nineteenth-century-illustration-takes-you approach is undoubtedly a high-flying, free-wheeling way to compose.  Of course, you probably need to be a writer of Barthelme’s considerable gifts to pull it off, otherwise the whole thing comes crashing down in a miasma of meaningless frippery OR egotistical authorial indulgence.  Fire Engine tumbles along like, well, an elephant tumbling down a hill (one of the events depicted in the book), the randomness of incidents merely adding to the fun. Continue reading

Marvelous Medicine: Books for Precocious Kids and Kid-Hearted Grown-ups

Reviews of quirky kids’ books that are of interest to an adult literary crowd.

 ~by Dan Pinkerton


shrinking of treehorn cover

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. Continue reading