Thursday, March 8, 2018

Fumbling Through Fantasy: The Wonderful Farm by Marcel Aymé, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1951)

Delphine and Marinette live on a farm in France with their stern mother and father and a menagerie of talking animals. In seven chapters, the two sisters have many adventures with their own farm animals as well as those who live in the neighboring forest and pond. These include being fooled by  a sly fox, bringing a wild boar to school, accidentally turning a hen into an elephant, and being held prisoner by swans who mistake them for orphans.

This book was initially appealing to me because it is the first children's book Maurice Sendak ever illustrated. It was so interesting to me to see hints of his future work to come in the figures he drew for this book. I was reminded in particular of his artwork for the Little Bear series, as well as the way the children move in his pictures for The Moon Jumpers. The illustrations are wonderful, and I truly enjoyed them.

The text, though, is a most worthy companion to Sendak's charming illustrations. I read the book aloud to my older two girls (ages 2 and 4) and immediately took a liking to the dialogue, which lends itself so well to performance. (And to character voices, if you're that kind of reader. I'm not, generally, but I tried a few in a couple of chapters and it was fun.) The text is translated from French, but it does not seem to have lost anything in translation to English. The book had a unique flavor to it that made it stand out from other animal books we have read, and it really engaged me and my four-year-old. (The two-year-old did her best to listen, but the chapters are lengthy and she was not my intended audience.)

Speaking of animals, they are used supremely well in this story. A note at the start of the book states that even though the animals may speak, they still behave like animals, and this is absolutely true. Animals in this book are treated as the subjects of humans, and they are put to work, hunted, killed, eaten, lost, etc. The animals are not bitter about this; rather, they seem to understand their role in the natural order. While there is something to be said for books like Charlotte's Web, where animals are saved from their natural fate, there is also something very refreshing about a book that neither humanizes nor romanticizes the animal kingdom. I also liked the book's matter-of-fact handling of death scenes. Some of them are sad, but none of them manipulate the reader into mourning an animal as though it has the same value as a human being.

Each chapter of this book can essentially stand on its own, and each one is a fable of sorts, kind of like a cross between Aesop and Winnie-the-Pooh. The stories can be enjoyed on their surface, but they also have a deeper significance that comes through for older readers even as young children enjoy them only at face value. My four-year-old and I had a wonderful discussion about "tricky people" after reading the chapter about the fox, but there was much more to the fox's trickery that she wouldn't be able to grasp until she is older. I love that the book works on multiple levels and that it will reward children who choose to read it multiple times as they age through childhood.

I am not generally an animal person, and I tend to hate talking animal books. But this lovely gem of a book is a major exception. Beautifully written and by turns poignant and humorous, this is a new favorite, and I will cherish my copy and eagerly read it aloud again in a few years when my littlest ones are ready to appreciate it.

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