Last night, my friend Sergio posted an incredible image from the Luttrell Psalter on my friend Antoinette’s FBook page. This tiny birdman is one of hundreds of wondrous beauties dancing in the margins of an otherwise very unwhimsical compendium of psalms and cracker-like words (or so I’m guessing, since I don’t read Latin). Having never heard of the Luttrell Psalter before, I decided to Google it and found a digitized high-res version of the entire book on the British Library‘s website. I spent the rest of last night whispering “Oh My God!” to my monitor over and over and over again.
The jaw-dropping beauty of the Luttrell Psalter’s assembled grotesques is too vast and sublime for me to tackle here. Suffice it to say, if you aren’t already intimately familiar with this book, you should be.
What I actually wanted to talk about was this pair of men from some lower corner in one of the first 30 or so pages. They are furtively removing each other’s gauzy loincloths. I don’t know who they are or if in fact they’re actually putting each other’s gauzy loincloth back on. Puh-TAY-to. Puh-TAH-to. Either way, they’re looking over each other’s shoulders, legs entwined, and their knot-tying (or untying) is being performed with the utmost delicacy. And this, of course, made me think about James Marshall (the children’s book author/illustrator) and something my friend Antoinette had said earlier in the day about a photo of my dog posed as Chairman Mao.
She’d been joking about what kind of Little Red Book my dog would write, and I told her Ruby’s version would be illustrated and would be much less pedantic than Mao’s. Antoinette said I was wrong and that my dog’s illustrated version of the Little Red Book would definitely be bossy. “They beguile us with cuteness till they have total control.” I realized she was right because this is how all adored pets operate (and because Antoinette is always right). But in describing how any successfully benevolent dictator wins our trust, I realized Antoinette had also provided an excellent definition of how any successfully subversive picture book works. Which brings us to James Marshall.
Three years before Arnold Lobel’s lovably talmudic Frog & Toad first appeared, James Marshall wrote and illustrated an under-sung gem called Speedboat. Published by Xerox Education Publications in 1967. It is the story of two “pals” named Jasper Raisintoast and Jack Tweedy-Jones (two of the best names in the entire history of fiction). Tweedy-Jones is a nervous homebody with monogrammed slippers. Raisintoast is a game adventurer with a speedboat. Few words. Rendered in green, brown and black. Suspiciously Frog and Toad before Frog and Toad…although the amphibians in this case are canines. Their worlds are similarly cozy and profound, but there is one notable difference in how these pairs of pairs relate. One that took me years to notice…or care about. Frog and Toad are friends who live in separate homes. Jasper Raisntoast and Jack Tweedy-Jones are pals who share a bed. Big deal, you say? Well…yes…kind of.
There they snugly are on the opening spread of the book.
And…in case you didn’t notice…here they snugly are on the final spread.
They start and end their day sharing a bed. Two pals. In 1967. How many images of pals sleeping under the same palm-frond duvet can you think of from the late 60’s? In any popular cultural format? Let alone in an early reader chapter book. It’s not a rhetorical question. I was zero years old in 1967 so I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about.
I’ve read Frog and Toad many times over the past four decades and I don’t recall them ever having shared a bed. George and Martha never did either, did they? Maybe this explains why you haven’t heard of Speedboat before? Or why it was published by Xerox Educational Publishing instead of Harper? Or why you never see it in stores?
We’ve come a long way in the six hundred sixty odd years since pals had to furtively contend with each other’s gauzy loincloths in the margins of the Luttrell Psalter, but we still live in a world where too many well-intentioned eyes police what appears on the page and turn so much of what we read into cracker crumbs.