Today is Thanksgiving, when many extended families gather together at their respective tables. It’s a national pastime, I suppose, to joke about Thanksgivings like the kind Sophie Blackall once depicted—that is, the more painful, dysfunctional gatherings. But I suppose in some places around the country, families aren’t sitting in tension, arguing over politics, refusing to make eye contact, and wishing they were elsewhere. Some families might be having the kind of gathering that the protagonist in Little Boy Brown is lucky enough to experience.
Little Boy Brown’s story was originally published in 1949, and just this month Enchanted Lion Books released the First American Edition. It comes from American author and storyteller Isobel Harris and was illustrated by French graphic designer and illustrator André François, who once studied with Picasso and illustrated many a New Yorker cover.
It’s an exuberant city-mouse/country-mouse tale of sorts, all about a 4 1/2-year-old boy, “Little Brown,” who lives in a big, bustling city. The story is told from his point of view, and it’s the honest, refreshing (but never too precious) voice of a very young child. The boy and his parents live in a hotel right next to where his parents work, and the elevators and subways (“tunnels”) of each building transport them back and forth so that his parents don’t “ever have to go out of doors at all.”
Little Boy Brown, who obviously lives a life of relative privilege, is friends with those people who serve his family: “the elevator men and the doormen and the waiters and, most of all, Hilda, the chambermaid. She is my favorite friend.”
One day he travels to the country with Hilda to visit her family. And it’s here that the story kicks into a joyful overdrive, complete with the boy’s nearly breathless account of all he sees and experiences. This is a house where the front door isn’t locked, which tells us a lot about both the family and the community they live in. It’s a house with actual stairs instead of elevators at every turn (the boy buoyantly walks up and down them eleven times, one of my favorite details in this story), as well as a “fireplace that really burns”; cake with lots of extra frosting; a dog not tethered to a leash, who goes out alone whenever the mood strikes him; and much more. Hilda’s mother even kisses the boy when he arrives “before she even knew who I was!”
Whether the boy’s home life is one of ennui or extremely stilted parenting—one does wonder, since every time his parents go out, they get a cold—doesn’t really matter. Even if his parents happen to be warm and wonderful, one gets the sense he’d still have a blast out in the open air at Hilda’s, sincee it’s a life he simply doesn’t experience on a daily basis. For one, he responds enthusiastically to her large and loving family, something else he doesn’t have in his life, unless you consider his servants to be “family.” Hilda’s family is one that clearly doesn’t bring in as much money as his own, yet he delights in their own particular riches—those of home and hearth and belonging. “They haven’t quite enough of anything,” Little Boy Brown says. “It makes it exciting when a little more comes!”
And, as is the way with young children, it’s the little details that seem to bring him the greatest joy: having a “Policeman” with his tea, since Hilda’s brother is a cop; the fact that the family speaks two languages (“Hilda’s family is smarter than we are”); lots of snow for a snowman they name Mister Snow (when he returns to the big city, after all, the snow is being cleared from the city streets); shaking hands with the bus driver, whom Hilda’s family knows, on his way home.
François’ line drawings, colored in simple shades of brown, are loose and full of life. His busy depictions of city life are particularly fun to pore over. There’s an especially impish depiction of Jack Frost in here, likely to thrill young readers. And François says a lot in what he doesn’t show: When it’s time for the boy to leave, he cannot manage to articulate the sadness he feels. “Oh dear me! … That’s how I felt,” Harris writes. “Hilda thought I was tired, but I was only thinking … Oh dear me! … So I had to say goodbye.” And what do we readers see here? We see Hilda’s family waving goodbye, and in front of them is the spot where the car once had been—with Little Boy Brown inside, of course. He’s not to be seen, since the car has driven off. François accentuates the boy’s loss and inability to express his sorrow over his departure. It’s a lovely, quiet moment.
A story of friendship, family and acceptance, fitting for this day of thanksgiving, Little Boy Brown snuck up on me, tapped me on the shoulder, and charmed me to no end. It’s a treasure, this one.
LITTLE BOY BROWN. First American edition published in 2013 by Enchanted Lion Books. Copyright © 2013 by Enchanted Lion Books for this reprint edition. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.