Who’s the most wonderful illustrator in the glorious history of children’s books? My all-time favorite might be Robert McCloskey. Mom introduced me to him when I was still in nursery school with the Caldecott winner Make Way for Ducklings. I’ve loved reading our kids One Morning in Maine (a slice of life story in rural Maine that includes a loose tooth) and the very famous Blueberries for Sal, both fabulous picture books. McCloskey was most active from the ‘40s till the ‘60s although he lived to 2003.
When I was about nine I discovered his wacky, nostalgiac pair of books about a boy in small town Ohio: Homer Price and Centerburg Tales. Homer has crazy adventures including when the doughnut machine at his uncle’s diner goes haywire and makes thousands of doughnuts. I couldn’t get enough of those, although when I look back and re-read I realize I labored through the text and was enchanted by the pictures.
My grandparents took me to their Irvington Branch library in Indianapolis and I asked a kind librarian for more Robert McCloskey chapter books (although I didn’t know that term “chapter book”). She said there were no more written by him but showed me the Henry Reed books, that he illustrated for Keith Robertson. Henry is a blogger of his day, keeping a very earnest journal about his life. Of the four books, I enjoyed Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service the most. He was pretty unequipped temperamentally to be a babysitter and it was really funny stuff.
But it wasn’t till 2010 I found what I think may be McCloskey’s illustrating masterpiece: Trigger John’s Son . (My heart is accelerating as I write this. I might start a stampede for this obscure book. In the past I’ve fantasized about buying half a dozen copies off Amazon for all my friends I think should read it. Then I reveal to the world its fabulosity after my raves have driven up the cost of the book dramatically.)
Since you ask (please ask!) here’s how I discovered it. I have a copy of Homer Price decommissioned from the Prescott School library. The back of its dust jacket heralds three well-known McCloskey books plus Trigger John’s Son by Tom Robinson. What the heck was this? Multnomah County Library didn’t have it. I used their marvelous interlibrary loan service and got it in a few weeks. Turns out Trigger John was a 1934 novel that McCloskey must have admired. So in 1949 a new edition came out with McCloskey’s own illustrations. The book is profusely illustrated with McCloskey’s incomparable pen and ink drawings.
Where Homer Price and Henry Reed are quirky and entertaining, making a great vehicle for McCloskey pictures, Trigger John’s Son is epic, with this orphan boy coming on the train all the way from Maine to Pennsylvania. He hops off the train and sneaks into town so he can spy on the couple that wants to adopt him before he makes up his mind. And he joins up with the Goosetown gang, which is rough and tumble but feels very innocent from a 2012 perspective. In 1949 Horn Book called it “the best thing of its kind since Tom Sawyer”.
In a just world, it would have won the Newbery award and still be in print and in our consciousness. In fall of 2010 I was overjoyed to find an old library copy for $10.95 at Powell’s City of Books. Trigger John’s Son starts off good and only gets better. Here are the opening lines:
“Trigger John’s son busied himself with searching in his duffel bag for a thing that wasn’t there. He knew it wasn’t there and if it had been he didn’t want to find it.”
The page one picture is the boy digging in his duffel and secretly looking at the train conductor while the old lady behind him spies on him. Trigger John wants to be left alone. He may be an orphan but he’s going to control his own destiny.
Find it, enjoy it, help resuscitate this forgotten book!