The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties
By Toon Tellegen
Illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg
Translated by Martin Cleaver
Boxer Books (distributed by Sterling in the U.S.)
On shelves now
My mother likes to say that "cute is a defense mechanism". That there are creatures in this world that need to be cute in order to stay alive. I agree with this, but I’d argue that there are different kinds of cute out there. There’s the saccharine sugary stuff that makes your teeth hurt for a week. There’s the instantaneous cute that is so mesmerizing you’re actually afraid to look away. And then there’s the quiet, understated cute that charms you with its intricacy and delicate wit. How’s that for a segue, eh? Well, how else am I supposed to introduce to you what essentially boils down to one of the strangest and most delightful children’s imports I’ve seen in a long long time? The Dutch have been at it again. This time they’ve conjured up a fellow by the name of Toon Tellegen (why don’t we ever name our kids "Toon"?) who for the last 25 years has written more than 300 stories about a little world full of animals. And so we end up with a book that feels like an old friend the first time you turn one of its pages. Like coming home again.
In The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties, Mr. Tellegen has written nine stories about the animal denizens of his little world and their various parties. In the first and longest of these a squirrel throws himself a birthday party and creates a huge array of delicious cakes for all the guests (a water cake for the dragonfly, an algae cake for the pike, a small moldy willow cake for a woodworm, etc.). Subsequent stories tell of other parties, both big and little. There is "The Set Table" where squirrel and ant stumble across a delicious table set up by a host so shy he won’t reveal himself to his uninvited guests. Or "The Costume Party" where squirrel’s gift for costuming proves to be his downfall, leading to an inspired solution. Each story is accompanied by a multitude of delightful little color illustrations. By the time you end, you’ll sigh and wonder how it is that you no longer have any more stories to enjoy.
Back up, you. I’m going to generalize for a second here. Dutch children’s literature. Now now! I’m not saying anything bad about it! I just want to point out that sometimes Americans don’t… well… don’t exactly get it. Take the case of The Swan’s Child by Dutch Cooper. I liked it and thought it was fun, but Americans got a little weirded out by this tale of a baby who appears on the back of a swan and is raised by a cadre of animals. We wonder why there aren’t more foreign imports gracing our nation’s shelves and the only answer I can give is that sometimes the books coming in have an entirely different flavor from our day-to-day fare. We Americans don’t know how to handle this, so we reject `em en masse. So really, one of the most remarkable things about The Squirrel’s Birthday is that though it feels different from the bulk of the schlock out there, it’s infinitely relatable and lovely. Translator Martin Cleaver has done a stand up job at capturing the flavor of the writing. What could have come off as merely weird now feels like a contemporary successor to Milne’s Pooh tales, more than anything else. Mind you, that won’t stop some people from being confused by it. As a commentor on another blog wrote, " I don’t feel that children will understand night wandering through the woods." A sad thought.
This is a safe world. As the Introduction says of its author, "He created a world where there is only one forest, one river, one ocean, and one oak tree." It’s the kind of world small enough for a child to feel comfortable in. The animals would sooner eat their party hats than one another. Misunderstandings are few and far between, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of stuff going on. It just happens to be on a low-key level. One where the biggest fret in a day will be over whether or not you have made enough gigantic cakes for all your party guests.
For some of you the name "Ahlberg" will elicit sighs of comfort and respect. You may cast your mind back and find yourself thinking of Janet and Allen Ahlberg who brought into this world The Jolly Postman amongst other charming fare. Charm must be genetic then since it has trickled down into this, their daughter, and through her into the illustrations for this book. Ahlberg spots Tellegen’s tales with tiny pen and ink watercolored images. Infinite care is taken so that they enhance each storyline, never overwhelming it or distracting from it. They’re like the chocolate chips in a cookie. Little bursts of sweetness that make you appreciate the final product all the more. You cannot read this book and understand how anyone but Ahlberg could have illustrated it. She is the E.H. Shepard of the 21st century.
In her art, Ahlberg takes as much care in what she does include as in what she doesn’t. Snail’s home (on his back) is akin to Snoopy’s doghouse in those old Peanuts cartoons or Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can. An infinite amount of space in a tiny package. In one story snail decides to renovate his shell with an extra floor and a balcony. The story is pretty silly but straightforward, so it’s interesting to note that Ahlberg makes the executive decision not to show the finished shell at all. Instead she gets immensely coy. You see a branch from a tree next to a handsaw and a tool box. Turn the page and all the animals are at the bottom of the left-hand side while giraffe pokes his head from the right-hand side (presumable while standing on snail’s new second floor off-camera, so to speak). At other times we read about impossible dance partners (a whale and a seagull?), and in each case Ahlberg finds a way to keep you intrigued without ever feeling cheated.
Are Tellegen’s books too sophisticated for children? Rarely. A story about a grasshopper invited to a posh party who purchases a speck of dust "worth a fortune", does this so that he may enter the party and then carelessly brush the dust from his coat. A delicious cake appears, but with a note saying that the only person who eats it must be "someone who doesn’t feel like cake." I hesitate to say that the stories bring to mind The Little Prince because I feel like they’re more child-friendly than that, but there’s certainly a similar mindset about children and the degree to which they can understand a story. I won’t go crazy and say that this book is for all kids, but for some it will be a tiny treasure that some will choose to remember for years to come. The Squirrel’s Birthday and Other Parties is the perfect way to introduce children to this already established author. Here’s hoping we see far more of these books in the English language translated for our amusement. A jewel.
On shelves now.
Copy: ARC sent from publisher.
Misc: Here the the original Dutch cover. As you can see, Ahlberg proves to be a vast improvement.