Too Real or Too Surreal | Newberry

Too Real or Too Surreal

It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t. That’s why the book will cost you five hundred bucks come July.

The year was 1946. There was a young artist, a British expatriate named Garth Williams, whose illustrations for Stuart Little had had phenomenal success. There was an established writer of picture books, Margaret Wise Brown, who had had a hit with The Noisy Book series, and had produced one of her classics, The Runaway Bunny. Why not team them up? A publisher had had a hit with Pat the Bunny, a book children could play with as well as read, and Ursula Nordstrom, the genius who piloted children’s book publishing at Harper’s, decided that the response from Harper’s would be a collaboration between these two artists destined to become legends.

The result was The Little Fur Family, a masterpiece of Margaret Wise Brown’s lyrical sentiment and Garth Williams’s ability to produce appealing fuzzy animals. To answer the tactile appeal of Pat the Bunny, the book was to have a special jacket made of fur. Early product testing was a success, when a small boy, after reading the book, tried to feed it his breakfast. Harper’s had produced a cute, cuddly book worthy of the Christmas shopping season of 1946.

Was it someone at Simon & Schuster, the publishers of Pat the Bunny, who started the rumor that Harper’s was just taking this means of dealing with the mouse problem in the cellar? Was a fur jacket just too luxurious for that first Christmas after the postwar world? Or are the tales of shoppers jumping back in horror when their hands touched fur on the display table a myth? (The book was issued in a cardboard slipcase, since it is, after all, hard to print a title on rabbit fur.) Very few copies of the first edition, in its warm winter jacket, exist today, but is that simply because too MANY kids tried to feed it, and parents threw away the fur jacket once it was matted with milk and festooned with Cheerios?

In any case, someone has given us a copy, without the cardboard slipcase but with the original jacket, and I can foresee several problems right away. We’ll have to put some kind of bookmark in it to help shoppers out. First of all, it isn’t easy to tell which way is rightside up on a book wearing a longhaired jacket. Opening a book on the wrong end too many times is not good for the binding. Second, we are becoming famous for the doodaddery people donate, and which we set out for sale on our Collectibles table. We need to make sure people realize this is a book, and not in the same class as, say, the collectible matchboxes or paperweights over by the miniatures.

And third, we need to make sure everyone knows a mouse isn’t taking a nap next to the lenticular bookmarks.

Secondhand furs are not exactly what we set out to sell at the Newberry, though this is not our first venture along those lines. We did have that pair of fashionable fur jackets (fashionable around, say, 1954) dropped off by the donor of whom we were always vaguely suspicious. We sold one, and had the other made into a teddy bear. We were offered a rather longer coat by a donor who changed her mind. (She had used it for years just as a seat cushion at outdoor music festivals, and felt this made it unworthy of the Newberry. Her exact statement explaining this has been inscribed on a bronze plaque and buried in a time capsule to shock historians in 2119.) And we WERE given another copy of The Little Fur Family, in its cardboard case, which we set aside for online sale, knowing the case wouldn’t make it past the first day of the sale, with customers demanding to open it to fondle the jacket.

It’s a nice book, and well worth reading, though perhaps you’d like a nice, new copy in a paper jacket. Harper’s did create a fine collectible for us to sell at te Book Fair come July. But is that really what they did it fur?

(Drumroll and cut the lights as the blogger gets out of range.)

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