Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Crows of Pearblossom

By Aldous Huxley
Illustrated by Sophie Blackall
$16.95, ages 4-8, 40 pages.

The crows of Pearblossom are back and as snippety as ever, but have a winsome look that makes their squabbles more fun to laugh at.

In this sunny redo of Aldous Huxley's classic, Sophie Blackall lightens the look of the story just enough that the digs between the married crows don't seem as harsh and the ending feels less morose.

The story, about a crow couple who takes revenge on a snake who's been eating their eggs, was published in 1967 as a reader with mostly black-ink illustrations by award-winning Barbara Cooney and returns now as a full-color picture book.

Australian-born Blackall, who also illustrated Annie Barrows' Ivy & Bean series, plays off Huxley's dark humor and pays tribute to Cooney's original art while giving the book a rosier, more playful look.

Skies of lemon yellow, clear-day blue and misty coral warm the pages, and the crows, despite their acerbic tongues, look adorable. Their shiny black button eyes glisten and their armlike wings look like the soft branches of a Victorian feather tree.

Aided by the larger format, Blackall expands upon whimsical touches that made Cooney's version a gem and makes the story seem cheery even at the end -- when the snake dies a slow death from eating clay eggs, then is strung into a clothes line.

She also cleverly draws off Huxley's sense of irony. At one point Mrs. Crow is laying in bed with huge pink rollers on her head and her skinny tongue is frozen in mid rant, while a meek Mr. Crow lashes out at her while hiding behind his friend Owl.

This is a story that you love for the very things that make you uneasy about it. It's blunt and grim, yet in a clever, tongue-in-cheek way, and though you wonder if it would have been published if written by a less famous author, Huxley's audacity is refreshing for a genre that is generally sweet-toned and idealistic.

His humor, though more accessible to adults than children, is its best when he plays up the stereotype of crows being surly and argumentative, and he suggests that not every married couple lives happily ever after. Some couples, he seems to point out, are quite miserable, berating each other for this or that, and yet they're resigned to put up with one another and oddly enough, may even enjoy the acrimony.

Still, there are times when even the most argumentative couples have to work together, and in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, who are as uncivil to each other as we perceive crows to be, chaffing and scolding about, and delivering opinions nonstop, they've got a big problem.

Almost everyday Mrs. Crow lays an egg only to have it mysteriously disappear from its crib while she's at the store shopping. A greedy old rattlesnake with dentures and a pill-calendar dispenser, living at the base of their cottonwood tree, slithers up and dines on their unhatched young. And for a time he's quite successful.

But then one day Mrs. Crow in her polka-dot dress and pearls swoops into her nest with a basket of groceries and finds the snake gulping down her latest egg and shrieks in horror, as the snake smugly slithers away.

When Mr. Crow in plaid pants and fedora returns home from work at the local drug store, he finds his wife in tears, her head dramatically resting on her opposite shoulder and wet hankies draped about the branches of their nest.

Though she's a bit theatrical, Mrs. Crow has every reason to be upset. However, Mr. Crow isn't the least bit tender and callously says in greeting, "What's the matter, Amelia? You look quite ill. You haven't been overeating again, have you?"

You may be tempted to stop reading right there, but then Mrs. Crow snaps back and nags at Mr. Crow for how thoughtless and ungrateful he is for all that she does to lay eggs --  and you find yourself chuckling at how well-suited they are to each other.

Moms and Dads, in particular, will find their lack of civility curiously comical. 

When at last Mr. and Mrs. Crow set aside their petty grumblings to sort out what's happened, Mr. Crow declares, "This is the sort of thing that somebody will have to do something about," intimating that it certainly won't be him.

Then, as if to raise his hackles as much as resolve the situation, Mrs. Crow tells the much shorter Mr. Crow (who is now enjoying a martini garnished with an olive) that he must go into the snake hole and kill the snake.

Mr. Crow, not exactly a snake killer, tells her that that's an awful idea; at which point, Mrs. Crows rides him by suggesting he's scared.

A defensive Mr. Crow snaps back, "All I said was that I didn't think your idea was a very good one. Your ideas are seldom good, I may add."


And with a dismissive air, Mr. Crow tells Mrs. Crow he's going over to his friend Old Man Owl's tree house because he's a thinker. "His ideas are always good."

Squawking back and forth like, well, crows, you see the fun Huxley is having, and know it's purely in jest.

Right away Owl agrees to help Mr. Crow. However, he's smug about it. Owl won't explain to Mr. Crow exactly how they'll solve the problem and makes him wait to find out until it's obvious. He also talks down to Mr. Crow much the way Mr. Crow dismisses Mrs. Crow.

(Adults and older children will find Mr. Crow's desire to go to an owl for help deliciously ironic, for in real life owls hate crows, as they prey on their young. Also, recent studies have shown crows to be highly intelligent, perhaps more so than owls.)

First, Owl leads Mr. Crow to a muddy alfalfa patch to collect clay, then he shows Mr. Crow that he should form the clay into two egg shapes, after which they fly onto Olivia's chimney and drop the eggs inside to bake.

(Huxley originally wrote the story as a Christmas gift for his five-year-old niece Olivia in 1944 and lovingly included her name in the book, though we never meet her in the story.)

After painting the eggs pale green with black specks just like real crows eggs, Mr. Crow and Owl put the eggs in Mrs. Crow's bassinet and wait for the snake to swallow them, which of course he does and over the next few pages dies from the most dreadful stomach ache.

Though the old snake's demise is a bit grim and drawn-out, there's humor here too -- in Cooney's art, but Blackall's especially. We see the snake again stretched between two branches, his head laying low and his tongue hanging out, yet the scene -- set against a sunrise sky -- is curiously joyful.

Blackall, whose art has been described as a gentler, prettier version of Edward Gorey's, smartly chooses to back off from the lifeless snake and show us the full girth of the cottonwood. This lets us see her brood -- 60-some crows hatched out after the snake's death -- filling the branches, and chattering and fluttering about, as tiny yellow blossoms prepare to burst open.

At the center of the big muscly tree, we see Mrs. Crow in her red polka-dot dress draping laundered diapers over the snake and just across from her in a crook of the tree, we see baby crows in their nest, craning their necks toward a crib mobile strung with worms.

It is a fitting ending for a delightful remake, which, though just as quaint as Cooney's, feels more accessible to its young audience. The crows not only look less dowdy and severe, but there are more fun details to amuse children and the art radiates cheerfulness on every page.

Published four years after Huxley's death in 1963, The Crows of Pearlblossom is the only story for young children ever published by the author of the futuristic Brave New World, yet it almost never made it to print. The original transcript perished in a fire at Huxley's home and by chance his neighbors, the Yosts, whose alfalfa patch is mentioned in the book, saved their copy of it.

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