Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Iconic Childhood Books: Artie and the Princess

For those of us fortunate enough to have memories of being read to as small children, those books retain a luminously magical aura. Sometimes, alas, they don't stand up well to being re-read as adults. I have no doubt that some of those I treasured would disappoint me greatly. This isn't about them. It's about a book that's as delightful to me today as it was 60 years ago.

Artie and the Princess, by Marjorie Torrey, Howell Soskin,1945.I don't believe my parents actually bought this book. It had a Christmas gift sticker on the flyleaf, now so peeled off as to be illegible, and an inscription from some folks we didn't know. The binding's all but disintegrated and many of the illustrations have been adorned with my own crayon scribbles. but the paper, thick and soft, has worn well.

Marjorie Torrey was a writer and illustrator in the '40s and '50s, with 2 Caldecott awards and several successful mysteries under the pen name Torrey Chanslor. She was born in 1899 and seems to have dropped out of the literary scene some time in the '50s.

Artie is a little dragon who lives with his parents in a forest. There's something missing from his life, "little playmates his own age," as his Mamma puts it. In search of friends, he wanders far off and comes to a beautiful mountain top.

   "Hello," said a soft voice. And from the tall grass, quite near him, rose a little creature with blue eyes and pink cheeks and yellow pig-tails. She had on a red dress and a gold crown. She was exactly as tall as Artie himself (though not the same shape) and the prettiest thing he had ever seen in his life. So of course he knew hat she was.
   "Hello, Princess!" he said.
   The Princess rubbed her eyes. Artie guessed that she had been asleep. He was sure of it when she said:
   "You're really true, aren't you? You're not a dream -- you can speak!"
   "Why of course I can speak. Of course I'm real!" said Artie.
   Then he remembered all the strange things that had happened to him, and he thought, Perhaps I am dreaming!
   He grabbed the tip of his tail and pinched it, hard.
   "Ouch!" he said.
   "See?" he said to the Princess. "Now you pinch me, and you'll be sure." He held out his paw.
   The Princess took it, but she didn't pinch it. She just nodded and smiled.
   "Yes, you're real," she said. "And I like you. My name is Princess Ann. but I'm called Pandy. What is your name, little Dragon?"
   Artie said, "My name is Artemus Peter Edward Adelbert Jehosophat Dragon. But I'm called Artie."
   "Well," said Princess Pandy, "let's play, shall we?"

Looking back, thinking about the tense, lonely child I was, Artie and Pandy were exactly the friends I longed for. I drank in every moment of their play. Of course, all does not run smoothly for our friends. The problems (a rude, vengeful cousin Prince Otto and his equally arrogant father) are countered with gentle strength as Artie (and later his parents), who remember how to fly and to breathe fire in defense of those they love. As an adult, I can throw around terms like empowerment, but for a child, a friend who was not only playful but protective hit all the right emotional notes. Artie may have had the physical might, but it was Pandy's unerring sense of fairness and generosity that taught him how to use his strength wisely.

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