A Thimbleful of Thurber

Joyce is the author of "Dinosaur Bob" and "A Day With Wilbur Robinson."

I had forgotten that James Thurber had written any childrens' books. Or rather, I never knew it, or at least I never knew I knew it. I'd read his books as a child but I took no notice of who'd written them. Like most kids, all I cared about was the story. Did the prince save the girl? Did the bad guy get what was coming to him? Did everything work out in the end, and most important, did I enjoy the whole rigamarole?

With Thurber's books the answer was a definite "yes" when I was a child, and that opinion still holds true now that I'm supposedly all grown up and pay attention to authors' names. With the reissue of three of Thurber's books for young people--"Many Moons," "The Wonderful O" and "The Thirteen Clocks"--we now have the fun of rediscovering some of this great man's best work.

The Wonderful O (Donald I Fine: $10.95; 74 pp.), first published in 1957 and reissued now in a fascimile edition, is an allegorical story of the tiny "Island of Ooroo." Poor "Ooroo" is invaded by treasure-seeking pirates whose leader has a bitter dislike for the letter "O" and so bans any and all use of the offending vowel for the duration of his occupation.

This wreaks considerable havoc. Not only is the name of their beloved island reduced to one measly consonant, but there are now "cabins without logs . . , mantels but no clocks . . . , keys without locks, walls without doors, rugs without floors. . . . A fellow named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter and poor Ophelia Oliver now being Phelia Liver can't get a date, and saying 'Hello' at church will get you in trouble." You don't have to be a Rocket Scientist to see where all this is headed. Suffice it to say that everything ends happily; though the plot is a little musty and heavy on the message, there's still great fun in this handsome edition.

Many recent reissues of childrens' classics have been marred by implanting new, more "contemporary" illustrations in an attempt to update the look of the book. This is a shame. Quite often, the "colorization" of these books, with new artwork that reeks of cute, tampers with our memories and, even worse, weakens the appeal of the volume. So hats off to the publishers for retaining Marc Simont's simple, witty illustrations, a worthy accompaniment to Thurber's whirligig prose.

The Thirteen Clocks (Fine: $13.95; 124 pp.), also reissued in its original format with Simont's illustrations, is a fairy-tale romance with a traditional genre story line--a stalwart prince is out to rescue a beautiful princess from the clutches of an evil duke. There are spys, monsters, betrayals, hair's-breadth escapes, spells to be broken and all the usual accouterments, but Thurber gives the proceedings his own particular deadpan spin.

The evil duke is so evil he whiles away his mornings "place-kicking puppies and punting kittens." The ever-handsome prince, bored with his royal trappings, travels foreign lands in rags, looking for the "maiden of his dreams, singing as he goes, learning the life of the lowly, and slaying a dragon here and there." It all makes for a rousing concoction of adventure, humor and satire that defies any conventional classification.

Of the Thurber works being reissued, however, my favorite is Many Moons (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $14.95; 48 pp.), the story of Princess Lenore, who is bedridden from imbibing too many raspberry tarts. "If I can have the moon, I will be well again," she confides to her father the King. The Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician are all urgently consulted, but despite their vast knowledge, none can deliver the much-needed moon. The wily Court Jester is the only one level-headed enough to save the day.

Avoiding the pratfalls of most reissues, this edition with new full-color paintings by Simont has been produced with obvious thought and care. It is a worthy reinterpretation, though it can't eclipse the glories of the 1943 original (which is still in print, and carries Louis Slobodkin's Caldecott Award-winning pictures).

Simont's work brings a pleasing unity to this new deluge of Thurber, and his efforts in "Many Moons" couldn't be better. His watercolors are airy, bold and witty. His Court Jester, a sprawling, gangling youth, is an inspired departure from Slobodkin's serene, more adult counterpart--and he even includes a caricature of Thurber as one of the King's advisers.

So James Thurber has returned to young readers, not only in word but in likeness. His style of rowdy pixilation will exert anew its cheerful influence on readers young and old.

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