“Nonsense” is often used as a perjorative term, yet breaking out of our usual habits to use language and ideas in a fresh, imaginative way is so important for keeping us inwardly alive and creative. Nonsense stories and poems are wonderful to share with children, who love their wacky humor, but adults can benefit from them too — and maybe we need them even more.
Fortunately, some treasures from the past, newly reprinted by Dover Publications, can help us here. Dover is well known for its inexpensive paperback editions, so you might not realize that they also publish hardcovers — one of which is The Girl in the White Hat by W. T. Cummings, a picture book with striking red-and-green illustrations interspersed with black and white spreads. Originally published in 1959, this tale about a girl named Annabelle who discovers a magical hat explores how in our imaginations we can do all sorts of impossible things, from flying to having a birthday party when it isn’t our birthday. Young children will delight in the wish-fulfillment-based narrative, while adults can enjoy the whimsical story and pictures.
Another wonderful book to share with children is Rootabaga Stories. Poet Carl Sandburg created these uniquely American nonsense tales for his own daughters, and they beg to be read aloud, even if it’s only to yourself. Sandburg’s word-music will twist your tongue and make you smile, and his absurd characters and situations are sometimes poetically lyrical, sometimes slyly satirical, but always buoyantly silly. The original illustrations by Maud and Miska Petersham, including a colored frontispiece and plentiful black-and white line drawings, form the perfect complement in this very affordable paperback.
Quite a different variety of nonsense is employed by Anthony Burgess in A Long Trip to Teatime. Burgess is best-known as the author of numerous novels including the dystopian satire A Clockwork Orange, but midway through his distinguished career in 1976 he produced this little gem that hasn’t been reprinted since. He is a linguistic virtuoso who plays with language and logic along the lines of Lewis Carroll, but with a very modern sensibility, in a particular style that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Here is the young protagonist, Edgar, who has escaped from his boring classroom into a weird land of strange characters, talking to a soldier:
“What’s the war all about?”
“Ich verstehe kein deutsch.”
“But it was English I was speaking.”
“So it was, so it was. Well, it doesn’t do to know what it’s all about, for you might not be inclined to fight it, and if you don’t fight wars, where’s your bread and butter going to come from, eh? Not to mention a nice pint mug full of very milky tea with sugar in it.”
The original illustrations, marvelously expressive black and white drawings by Fulvio Testa, form the ideal complement for Burgess’s text.
A more gently nonsensical, conventionally-told tale is Elephi: The Cat with the High IQ by Jean Stafford. This slim, charming story of 1960s New York City can be read with equal pleasure by cat-loving children and adults. The intelligent feline of the title longs for a companion more stimulating than his dull humans, and so embarks on a venture to rescue a car that has been abandoned in the snow outside his Fifth Avenue apartment. The drawings by Erik Blegvad endow both cats and cars with vivid personality.
So take your pick of one or more of these four very different but equally enchanting tales, and share them with a child or an adult you love. You’ll be all the happier for it.
Copies were sent for review consideration by the publisher. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.