How strange to admit that Dave Eggers taught me Eugène Ionesco – Mr. Theatre of the Absurd himself – wrote kiddie stories in addition to his dozens of plays (Rhinoceros, The Chairs, The Bald Soprano, being some of his signature pieces). Eggers founded McSweeney’s which recently debuted McMullens, their new imprint just for children’s titles, which published Stories 1 • 2 • 3 • 4 last month. Being a product of Eggers/McSweeney’s/McMullens’ collective imaginations – and, of course, the source material being Ionescoean (is that a word?) – this is no ordinary kiddie book!
Let’s start with the delightfully ingenious cover: that’s not just a jacket flap to protect the book … it folds out to a spectacular poster (pages 74 and 75, gorgeously magnified) on one side, while the other side captures “Story 3″ around the four edges of the oversized square with the book’s actual front and back cover in the middle. Not quite getting the unique picture? Really, this you need to see – and appreciate, fold by fold – for yourself!
Inside, the four stories follow the winsome adventures of a “thirty-three months old” girl named Josette. In “Story 1,” while Mama rests, Papa tells Josette a story so silly that the maid seems to need to wear a ring bearing the name and image of philosopher/mathematician René Descartes to ward off Papa’s utter nonsense. In “Story 2,” while Mama is out, “Papa teaches Josette the real meaning of words” – the telephone is cheese, cheese is a music box, a music box is a rug … and so on. While Mama bathes, Papa takes Josette on a fabulous flying machine in “Story 3,” without ever leaving his cozy warm bed. In the final “Story 4,” Papa stays behind the safety of the closed bathroom door while he sends adventurous Josette on a search near and far, just until Mama returns.
Artist Etienne Delessert, who has written and illustrated over 80 books (!), matches Ionesco’s stories with irresistible art on every page. From fantastical creatures (a walking fish named Darwin, of course) to clever details (the grocer’s shop in “Story 1″ is named “E. Ionesco I,” while the building’s number “69-09″ seemingly refers to the tale’s original French publication), Delessert colorful efforts superbly enhance Ionesco’s bewitching stories that celebrate the unfettered imagination. Most importantly, in wink-wink homage to Ionesco’s drama, Delessert never lets the rhinoceros wander far from the page …
Readers: Children, Middle Grade
Published: 1969-1976, 2012 (United States)