Blasts from the Past: Jean Merrill and Sydney Taylor

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Two children's books I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult) have been republished in attractive new editions. Whether you've read these two books before or not, they are awesome and well worth checking out.

Funny thing, a trollish article titled "Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books" by a person named Ruth Graham was recently published on Slate -- an obvious attempt at clickbait, and clearly the work of a bullying personality similar to that of the mean kid who kept throwing eucalyptus seeds at Mitch and Amy in Beverly Cleary's Mitch and Amy. (But that's another story.) Am I embarrassed to be remembering children's books? Hell no. These are two of the best books I've ever read.

The Pushcart War was the most famous book by a children's author named Jean Merrill. Published in 1964, it's a gentle satire about a protest movement that breaks out in New York City against a greedy oligarchy of trucking companies whose gigantic trucks have made life unliveable in residential neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.

The delight of Pushcart War is in the storytelling, which is perfectly calibrated and delicately naunced. Look, for instance, at the names of the three trucking company executives who are the heavies of the fable: Moe Mammoth of Mighty Mammoth, Walter Sweet of Tiger Trucking, Louie Livergreen of LEMA (Lower Eastside Moving Association). Just on the edge of comedy, but also real enough to grab your attention and hold it.

Then there are the heroes of the book, the pushcart peddlers whose livelihoods are threatened as New Yorkers flee the streets to avoid the unpleasant trucks: Frank the Flower, Harry the Hot Dog, Maxie Hammerman the Pushcart King, Carlos, Mr. Jerusalem, Morris the Florist, Eddie Moroney, Papa Peretz. They decide to fight back by blowing up truck tires with pins blown from pea shooters. This disruptive act (a precursor, of course, to Occupy Wall Street) is eventually successful, and the action that gets us there is so enjoyable that I can't believe a movie of Pushcart War has not been made yet. (And it's too bad they've waited so long; James Gandolfini would have been a great Moe Mammoth).

The favorite character that evolved for me (as I read the book over and over as a kid, and later again as a young writer scouting for technique) was General Anna, seller of apples and pears, a noble, quiet old woman with a primitive pushcart who can't even figure out how to use a pea shooter. Determined to support the movement despite her disability, she blows up truck tires by simply placing pins into tires by hand.

The Pushcart War, appropriately for a book published in the era of Rachel Carson and Marshall McLuhan, touches upon issues of both ecology and mass media. We see how the grassroots movement is suddenly helped by a glamorous movie star named Wenda Gambling who makes an unexpected statement in support of the pushcart peddlers' cause. Then, the book's memorable closing sequence presents another reflective moment of media awareness. After the fighting is all over, and the offensive trucking companies have been chased out of town, we learn that the events described in this book have been commemorated by a statue of General Anna in New York City, emblazoned with the words: By Hand.

By hand. Those words on that statue of General Anna killed me when I was a kid. It's great news that the New York Review of books has republished this wonderful children's novel, and I hope new generations will discover it.

There are five All-of-a-Kind Family Books, and I devoured them all as a kid. They contain stories about a poor Jewish family on New York City's Lower East Side in the years before and during the First World War. They are an "all of a kind family" because Papa and Mama somehow turned out five magnificent girls: Ella, Henny, Sara, Charlotte and Gertie. A baby boy named Charlie eventually joins the crew, and during the course of the five books we follow the oldest children into early adulthood.

I'm not sure whether or not these books were so readily available to me as a kid because they describe my own family heritage (my grandparents were poor Brooklyn Jews, not poor Lower East Side Jews, but everything else about the story is my grandparents's world). Maybe out in the midwest people read Little House on the Prairie and in Boston they read Little Women and in Scandinavia they read Pippi Longstocking. In my house, we read All-of-a-Kind Family.

Sydney Taylor's vignettes were often demonstrations of psychological deftness. Mama was the master psychologist: she would play motivational head games with her daughters, like hiding pennies in various dusty corners of a room to inspire the girls to dust thoroughly enough to find all the pennies. The precise descriptions of the candies and treats they would then run and buy with their pennies and eat one by one while lying in bed remain more vivid to me today than the famous food writing of Proust.

All five All-of-a-Kind Family books will eventually be published in fresh new editions by the awesome new venture Lizzie Skurnick Books. The first one out is More All-Of-A-Kind Family, but I am most looking forward to the first book in the series, which contains my favorite Sydney Taylor story of all.

This is the story of the night that Sara decides she doesn't want to eat her soup.

Sara is the middle child in the family, and the character who most seems to represent the author Sydney Taylor (her real name was Sarah Brenner). Sara is the child the worst things happen to, as when she loses a library book, or when she decides she doesn't want her soup.

Dinner is a big deal in the All-of-a-Kind family dining room. Papa has a stern rule: all food that is served must be eaten. If Sara won't eat her soup, then Sara won't get her next course, or any other course. But she won't eat her soup, for no reason that even she can identify. Stubbornness and hunger and tears ensue. As a little kid, I considered this enigmatic story just about the most brilliant piece of psychological writing of all time.

Years later, I would read about Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, the law clerk who "would prefer not to". I loved Melville's story, but I immediately thought: "right, like Sara and the soup". Ahh, humanity! These wonderful books are full of life, and it's great news that they are being published in bright new editions that will reach future generations of readers.

3 Responses to "Blasts from the Past: Jean Merrill and Sydney Taylor"

by TKG on

Hi Levi,  we were just talking about Pushcart War in March. 

http://www.litkicks.com/HarrietSaga

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Here are a couple other New York City kid's books  I thought were great.

The first,  It's Like This, Cat by Emily  Neville, won the Newberry Medal in 1964. 

It's available at Gutenberg. 

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24921

This is a lovely  book, touching and  depicts a lot of NYC  Coney Island, Staten Island, Manhattan. It has a nice young love sub-plot as well. 

It also has a passage that reminds me of  one in the Summer of the Mets. In fact, with the young love aspect, I realize how much Summer of the Mets and It's Like This, Cat are spiritual kin. Good company to be in. 

We don't have flying cars yet, but being able to get this from Gutenberg as e-Book is living in the future. 

The other is The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier. 

This didn't win the Newberry, it's a whacky fun book set in Greenwhich Village, a caper book and coming of age book whose protagonist is a teenage musician and the villain is a beatnik hippie named Wiggsy who runs the music store where the young hero of the book takes his guitar lessons. 

Interestingly, Collier seems to have won the Newberry later with a later  book.

http://www.amazon.com/Teddy-Bear-habit-Became-Winner/dp/B000NQFRRC

Check out the fantastic cover art. 

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I also will use this opportunity to say I read your interview at The Nervous Breakdown and quite enjoyed it. 

I too used Yahoo at akebono. Yahoo stood for Yet Another Hierarchal Organizing something else that starts with O, I can't remember. 

I will always remember the withdrawal I went through when the Beat-l closed down. I have a fairly long piece of prose i wrote upon and about the demise of the beat-l that I never typed up. I posted the first few paragraphs way back when. The manuscript is in my garage somewhere. I hope it's not lost. 

Happy 20. Amazing how time passes. 

by Levi Asher on

Thank you TKG! Yes, I remember that you're another Pushcart War fan. And thanks for reading the Nervous Breakdown interview. I hope you recognized yourself (and a few others around here) when I mentioned that there were some Litkicks people who'd been participating on the site the whole nearly-20 years, and help make this site great.

by TKG on

I did notice. Thanks for that.

i am really glad I checked the University of Illinois Supercomputer new web site page that day almost 20 years ago and saw this thing called Literary Kicks.

I'm actually curious about that first novel you were trying to sell. You've mentioned it before, but I don't think you ever talked about what it was about. If it was any good. What you think of it now, etc...

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