Richard Daybell – Novels, stories and short humor
Two of my favorite childhood writers share birthdays – same day, January 14, twelve years apart, and more than half a century before I entered the scene (not on January 14). Thornton Burgess was born in 1874 ; Hugh Lofting in 1886. My first encounter with the Mother West Wind and Doctor Doolittle books was during my weekly visits to the Children’s Room of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
I read them on my own, so I must have known how to read at the time. A miracle, I’d say, since our first readers were the endearing and always exhilarating Dick and Jane (See Spot. See Spot run. Spot bites Dick.) If this was what reading was all about, why bother? But I wander.
Thornton Burgess was a conservationist and prolific writer of children’s books, producing 170 books between 1910 and 1965 – several titles every year (with an amazing 19 in 1914 alone). His books celebrated nature, featuring the many animals that lived in the Green Meadow and Green Forest.
Mother West Wind “How” Stories was my first, a collection of 16 stories that told me how Lightfoot the Deer learned to jump, how the eyes of Old Mr. Owl became fixed, how Drummer the Woodpecker came by his red cap and so on. Other collections told when, where and why various animal things happened – Wild Kingdom without Marlin Perkins or TV commercials The various forest and meadow creatures that had their own adventure books included Peter Rabbit (borrowed from Beatrix Potter), Jimmy Skunk, Grandfather Frog, Little Joe Otter, Granny Fox, Jerry Muskrat and Digger the Badger(!) to name just a few.
Hugh Lofting, on the other hand, wrote only a dozen books featuring the amazing Doctor Doolittle, a character he first created in letters to his children during his World War I service in the Irish Guards. Yes, Doctor Doolittle could talk to the animals and so much more. He ran a post office, a circus and a zoo, took voyages to exotic places around the world, went to the moon. According to the mussel-man, he was a nacheralist – “a man who knows all about animals and butterflies and plants and rocks an’ all.” Not only could he talk to and understand animals, he had written history books in monkey-talk, poetry in canary language and songs for magpies to sing. And his books teem with animals too – not just pigs, rats, owls, seals (performing) and badgers (again!) but wiff-waffs and pushmi-pullyus as well.
Yes, reading that was fun, books that made you want more. I’m sure Mother West Wind and Doctor Doolittle are not faring well in this age of men in black and avengers, nor I guess is the Children’s Room at the public library.