Monday, October 03, 2016

James Herriot Centenary (Review of Herriot's Treasury for Children)

Today is the centenary of James Herriot, the wonderful vet and writer from Yorkshire. Born a hundred years ago today (October 3, 1916) as James Alfred Wight, he took the pen name of Herriot and produced wonderful stories about his life in the Yorkshire dales. I've loved them for many years and have been enjoying much of his writing again lately, during a season in my life when I've needed his kind of humor, beauty, and comfort.

In honor of the day, I went to my archives and pulled together the review I wrote of his Treasury for Children. I originally posted the review on ten years ago, after enjoying the book with my then four year old. She and I read it together for many years following, and she still keeps it on her shelf, even as a teenager. I hope you'll enjoy this old review!

Kittens, Dogs, Horses, and Sheep...and All in the Beautiful English Countryside
A number of years ago I spent some time visiting farms in the beautiful English countryside. Well, okay, I'll be honest -- I've never actually been to England. But I've certainly felt as though I've visited there because of the numerous trips I've taken through beloved books. Whereas some of my favorite English literary landscapes are completely fictional, I've also enjoyed visiting the very real Yorkshire farms of James Herriot's story collections All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful and The Lord God Made Them All. These wonderful collections, beautifully shaped memoir-based narratives of a rural veterinarian, were originally published from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s.

In the mid to late 1980s, I read all four volumes, delighting in the keen observations and clear prose of James Herriot and in the funny and often touching stories he told about animals he'd cared for over the years (as well as their owners)! These stories had such flavor and such narrative shape that it's clear he must have "tweaked" some details here and there, but in general they were autobiographical. James Herriot was the pen name of James Alfred Wright (1916-1995) who served as a vet in the county of Yorkshire for many years, beginning in 1939 upon his graduation from Glasgow Veterinary College.

From 1984 to 1991, a series of children's picture books by James Herriot were published, one each year for a total of eight. These stories were culled from the larger grown-up story collections from the All Creatures Great and Small series. I remember a number of these books from when they appeared, large hardbacks, beautifully illustrated. I bought one of them for myself when I was in high school and I also used to read some of them to my young nieces and nephews, now grown.

In 1992, St. Martin's Press published all eight of the previously released picture books in one volume entitled James Herriot's Treasury for Children. Unlike some "treasuries," this one doesn't edit out anything. All eight stories are here with all their original illustrations, even the ones on the title pages. Basically they simply took all eight books, stitched them together, then added a table of contents and a new cover. I had no idea that one could read all eight of these treasures in one volume so I was completely excited to find it at our local library! Having spent a few pleasurable hours last week reading (and re-reading) some of these gems to my daughter, I have decided I really want to purchase this book for our home collection.

The Stories

Here's what you get in this delightful volume: the complete picture books of Moses the Kitten; Only One Woof; The Christmas Day Kitten; Bonny's Big Day; Blossom Comes Home; The Market Square Dog; Oscar, Cat-About-Town; and Smudge, the Little Lost Lamb.

The first two stories are illustrated by Peter Barrett and the final six by Ruth Brown. Though I prefer the Brown illustrations overall, both illustrators provide fine, detailed paintings that bring the animals, people and rural landscapes of the stories to vibrant life. Brown seems better at capturing more whimsical moments and her people are more realistic looking, especially in their expressions.

Most of the stories are narrated by Herriot, who tells each tale from his perspective as a country vet. Usually the action takes place during one of his visits to a family farm to help an ailing animal, though for the most part the story centers not on the sick animal but on another interesting or unusual animal on the farm.

Moses the Kitten is the story of a bedraggled half-frozen scrap of a kitten brought back to health in the warm stove of a farmer's wife's kitchen. On subsequent visits, Mr. Herriot is astonished to see which barnyard animal has become the kitten's surrogate mother!

Only One Woof is the sweet and funny tale of Gyp and Sweep, sheepdog brothers. Sweep gets sold, but the farmer keeps Gyp who turns out to be hard-working, loyal, and almost completely silent. In all the years they have him, his family only hears him bark one time. Mr. Herriot is on hand for the momentous event and relates it in his poignant style.

And speaking of poignancy, The Christmas Day Kitten tells the story of a stray cat who wanders into the Pickerings' farmhouse for food and momentary warmth by the fireplace, but who refuses to ever stay. One Christmas morning she shows up again, half-dead but carrying a tiny kitten in her mouth. She clearly wants to bequeath her kitten to the household before she dies. Buster grows into a fine looking cat who loves to torment Mrs. Pickering's basset hounds (some of the best illustrations in the entire treasury).

Bonny's Big Day takes us out of the realm of dogs and cats and into the world of cart horses. Bonny is a retired cart horse, and she and another retired horse, Dolly, are much beloved by Farmer John, an eccentric but kind man who recalls his their hard-working years with touching gratitude. When Mr. Herriot suggests that Farmer John enter Bonny in the "family pets" category of the upcoming animal show, Farmer John is skeptical. At least at first...

Blossom Comes Home is one of the funniest stories in the collection. It's really a tribute to the stubbornness and cleverness of a cow named Blossom who simply refuses to acquiesce to the fact that she's been sold!

The Market Square Dog is probably my four year old's favorite. A brown mongrel with pleading eyes and a winning manner can often be found begging at the local farmer's market. One day he's struck by a car and hurt. Mr. Herriot is able to fix his broken leg, but will the sweet little beggar dog ever be able to find a loving home?

Oscar, Cat-About-Town is unusual because it concerns a cat that the Herriot family (James and his wife Joan) actually adopt for a while. They discover, however, that Oscar isn't content to stay at home even though he loves them. Oscar loves to roam about town and to join in group activities like rummage sales and soccer games! This story provides another of my favorite illustrations, of tabby Oscar sitting up and trying to bat the sliding trombone being played in the local brass band.

Finally, there's Smudge, the Little Lost Lamb. This is the only story in the collection told completely in the third person, and though I miss Herriot's first person narration, it's still a very sweet story. Young Harry, Farmer Cobb's son, is given one of the new lambs on the farm as his very own. But one day the curious creature squeezes outside the fence and can't get back in. We follow him on his exciting and sometimes perilous adventures (he even comes face to face with a bull!) until the satisfying conclusion when he makes it home again.


So who are these stories for?

That may seem like an odd question since these are all part of a treasury "for children" but it's worth asking. The subject matter, the simple plots, the warmth and sweetness Herriot brings to each story, and the colorful and detailed illustrations all make these terrific picture books for kids. But they are not "easy reads." They're long, for starters -- each one takes at least ten and sometimes as much as fifteen minutes to read aloud, and there's plenty of text per page. And the vocabulary is challenging for young children; in pulling these stories from his collections for older readers, he did not dumb down the language in any way, bless him. I almost wonder if they've gone through any significant adaptation at all. It's unusual but somehow stimulating to find prose like this in a contemporary book marketed for children:

I had driven through and, streaming-eyed, was about to get back in the car when I noticed something unusual. There was a frozen pond just off the path and among the rime-covered rushes which fringed the dead opacity of the surface a small object stood out, shiny black.

Or this:

He was stepping daintily along the display tables, inspecting the old shoes, books, pictures, ornaments, crockery, and he looked really happy. Now and then he cocked his head on one side when something caught his fancy.

I have a feeling these books were originally marketed for children 4-8 or perhaps 6-10, and even though some of the vocabulary will be over the heads of the younger listeners in that range, the flowing cadence and the winning stories will carry them along. These make marvelous read-alouds and they'll learn words from context. (My four year old listened to some of them while quietly playing or drawing, and that worked really well.) If your child can sit through Beatrix Potter (who uses words like "implore" and "exert" with great gusto!) then she will likely enjoy James Herriot. Meanwhile, there's much here for older children and adults to enjoy. I love them as much if not more than my little girl. So yes, it's a children's treasury, but it's also a family treasury.

If you love animals and enjoy good writing, then you'll no doubt enjoy a trip to Yorkshire with James Herriot as your guide. He paints each anecdote with warmth and shows a tender understanding of the fascinating "personalities" of all kinds of animals, as well as a real regard for the people who love them and take care of them.

And he really makes me want to go to Yorkshire.

Happy traveling!

James Herriot's Treasury for Children
Illustrated by Peter Barrett and Ruth Brown
St. Martin's Press, 1992

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