The Party That Grew

July 12, 2008 at 7:22 am | Posted in Children's Book, Fiction | Leave a comment

(February 7, 2008)

The Party That Grew, by Molly Brett, was my favorite storybook when I was 4.  For some reason I started thinking about it and trying to track it down.  Nobody can remember, though, what I did with the box of children’s books that followed me until I was about 20, so my own copy is lost somewhere in the mists of time.  A coworker of mine who is into antiques actually tracked the book down for me, and I was able to buy it for $1 plus shipping.  It arrived today, and I had a chance to compare nostalgia with reality.
This was the first book I ever fell in love with.  I loved this book so much that one night I made my mom read it to me four times in a row.  She did it, too, which may be why I’m the obsessive reader of the family.  (My brothers had to cope mostly with me reading to them, and failed to be captivated by my 7- and 8-year-old reading skills).  I opened the book, half afraid that my memories would be destroyed by a critical adult eye.
The moment I pulled the book out of the mailer, a charmed feeling stole over me.  The cover illustration was a gorgeous watercolor of a group of birds – just as fine as I remembered.  I flipped through, and each page was like a blast directly from my early childhood.  I must have pored over these pictures dozens and dozens of times during my early days.  They were burned into my brain.  I could suddenly see how I grew into a birdwatcher; the dozen or so birds that appear are done with Beatrix Potter clarity.
Then I read the story itself.  I remembered the basics:  a little parakeet gets lost and has a picnic in the woods with a group of wild birds.  Then he finds his way home, where a replacement budgie is waiting – a girl one – so he settles down with her and there’s a happy ending.
What I didn’t remember was that the picnic comes first, and it’s actually a birthday party.  The story is somewhat sinister.  The budgie, Beakie, is lonely and asks for a birthday party, and his little girl helps him with the invitations and the prep work.  Mom makes a cake with birdseeds and things.  The little girl drops him off in the woods with the stuff, and then leaves.  Beakie and his four friends are going to have a nice party, but then these party crashers come.  One of them brings an owl.  There’s a stampede for the cake, and the sparrow gets all his feathers pulled out.  The owl tries to eat Beakie.  He flies away and gets lost in the woods, where he encounters a fox.  He survives through the night and builds a nest, determined to make it on his own.  But a cuckoo comes and ruins it.  Finally Beakie flies into a town and is almost caught by the police when he gets scared and accidentally wreaks havoc in a pie shop.  He flies out and stumbles across a “lost bird” poster – he’s just happened to find the right house.
I remembered how scary things can be when you’re a tiny kid.  The picture of the owl pulling Beakie’s tail feathers really upset me, and the picture of the fox seriously freaked me out.  The story is all about loneliness, naivete, bullies, getting lost, running afoul of authority, and the fear of being replaced in the hearts of your loved ones.  Granted, it has a happy ending, but it’s more a matter of luck than anything else.  It’s possible the same story written now (instead of 1976) would have involved Beakie either making friends with the wild birds and animals or teaching them a lesson in some way.  Then he would have found his way home through cleverness and good organization skills.  At least his little girl would have said she missed him, rather than just showing him how quickly another bird took his place.
Of course, the most enduring children’s stories usually have scary elements.  We’ve got child abuse – Cinderella; abandonment and poisoning – Snow White; coma and dragons – Sleeping Beauty; poverty – Jack and the Bean Stalk (and probably most of the others); etc etc.  What is it about our young selves that makes us eat up these stories, as upsetting as they might be?  As an adult who went on to read a great deal of the horror genre, I can speculate on this.  I love knowing that what I’m reading is just a book.  There’s an element of control in being able to say, “It’s only a story.”  You can read it over and over again – as I did with The Party That Grew – and know it will always play out the same way.  There’s also a sense that even the biggest problems can be tackled, that good will triumph in the end.  No matter how creepy the tale, you’re still sitting in relative comfort, perhaps wrapped in a blanket, turning the clean, dry pages.
There was something else, though, and I didn’t realize it as a kid.  The Party That Grew is a British book, different from all the other story books I had as a little girl.  The paintings are all on the right-hand side.  The story, on the left-hand pages, is interspersed with pencil drawings.  But it’s much wordier than most American children’s books for the same age group.  (I can’t remember how my mom pronounced ‘budgerigar,’ but I might have stumbled over that one!)  The pacing of the story is different, and everything about the writing screams of England.  The illustrations, too – the British birds and flowers, Beakie’s house, and of course the pie shop – were entirely different than my American life.  There’s definitely an element of class consciousness in the problem of the rude party crashers:  Beakie the budgie and his friend the Robin versus the raucous starlings and Scruffy the Sparrow.
I think what enchanted me so much as a kid was a certain magic that’s hard to put a finger on.  In spite of the frightening aspects of the story, the illustrations are full of beautiful wildflowers.  The naturalistic birds and animals have a certain dignity.  Though they can talk, they move like real birds and animals would move.  Beakie writes his own party invitations, but he has to hold the pencil in his beak (not his foot or his wing) and turn his head sideways.  None of the critters wear clothes, except for one scene when they put on flowers for hats.  To a four-year-old, it could be real!  The pie shop scene is chaotic – a jam tart falls on a boy’s head and an old lady has to put up her umbrella – but the pies and tarts looked good to eat.  It was possible to imagine a real pie shop with every dessert you could think of.  The buildings were charming and clean; the people were tidy and polite.  The very essence of British ideas of civilization shone through somehow.  Unlike all the stories with castles and unicorns and fairies and magical powers, Beakie’s England seemed like a place a little girl could actually see in real life.  Birds, flowers, and a pie shop – what more would you need?
The biggest surprise when I received The Party That Grew was that Molly Brett wrote and illustrated several other books.  I can’t imagine why that had never occurred to me!  Now I have to decide whether it would be worth it to track down any of the others, or be satisfied that the one I have may be the best of the bunch and leave it at that.

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