A very dear friend sent an email regarding favorite childhood picture books, and the following was my response:
As a kid, I tended to ignore the traditional Green Eggs and Ham, The Giving Tree, and so on — those were only for passing time at the doctor’s office where an enormous stack of picture books lay in the waiting room. I wonder if my parents shared a similar feeling towards the more popular books, since the early stories I was given were myths, legends, and fables¹. They were utterly bonkers, and I loved and still love them dearly.
Baba Yaga, Cupid and Psyche, The Straw Ox, Tamlin, The Dancing Princesses.
Looking back, I realize that some of those stories are surprisingly gruesome and blunt, though my younger self wouldn’t have picked up on such nuances. In a book entitled Treasury of Fairy Tales, there’s an illustration of Baba Yaga flying around in a mortar and using a pestle as rowing stick (what even??), and in the paragraph adjacent to it, there is a line that says:
“And, of course, she ATE anyone who strayed close enough to her house.”
But there are also delicate and sweet lines, as in “Proserpina and Pluto” from A Children’s Treasury of Mythology:
“In some places the dripping water mingled with rust-colored lime from the earth, and hardened into all sorts of shapes. It made columns and arches and mounds, or hung like icicles in long, thin pendants from the roofs of Pluto’s many caverns. There were black marble rocks in Erebus, and deep, dark lakes. It would have been a dreary place for an earth child, but Pluto thought his kingdom the most beautiful in the world.”
The companion illustration is a blur between pastel and watercolor. There is a pair of flowing robes in the foreground and, behind, a green hill spotted with white peonies.
I can’t call any particular, single children’s book my favorite. It’s mostly just remembering those innocent nights, tucked in with a new myth or fable, ears perked, eyes glistening with imagination and wonder.
¹ They also gave my sister and I a copy of The Children’s Bible, Illustrated. I think we were traumatized by the frequent gore and vivid descriptions of things bleeding to death or catching on fire (come on, folks, the Bible is rife with mature content. Perhaps offer a lighter version instead, esp. for a children’s book?)