The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Joey and the Birthday Present: Wonderful Vintage Illustrations from Anne Sexton’s Little-Known 1971 Children’s Book

I have a longstanding soft spot for celebrated authors of “grown-up” literature who also wrote generally little-known and invariably lovely children’s books — gems like Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain, Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as Pig by Carson McCullers, Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, The Cats of Copenhagen by James Joyce, The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley, Nurse Lugton’s Curtain by Virginia Woolf, The Bed Book by Sylvia Plath, and To Do by Gertrude Stein, and The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine by Donald Barthelme.

Among their ranks was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, who collaborated with poet and novelist Maxine Cumin, a Pulitzer recipient herself, on a series of four children’s books in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1971, a decade after their first collaboration, the duo wrote Joey and the Birthday Present (public library), featuring charming vintage illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Evaline Ness. It tells the story of Joey the brown field mouse, who lives with his large family in nests all over an abandoned farmhouse. After people move in for the summer, Joey is surprised to find a little white mouse named Prince in a cage in their son’s bedroom. The two become unlikely friends, learning about each other’s worlds.

There is wonderfully subtle humor, too. When Joey creeps into the boy’s bedroom, he is baffled to see Prince scurrying on the hamster wheel, “as though he were running away from an invisible cat.” Their first exchange is imbued with equal parts absurdism and indignation, perhaps the two most common mechanisms by which we keep ourselves on our own hamster wheel of approval and achievement:

“You poor thing,” Joey said. “Are you in trouble? What are you running away from?”

“In the first place, I’m not a thing,” said the white mouse.

It is a sweet story of friendship, compassion, and perspective, but is also remarkably bittersweet in the context of Sexton’s reality: the book was published shortly before she took her own life a month before her 46th birthday.

But it is Ness’s enchanting four-color illustrations that make the book immeasurably wonderful its message one of optimism and hope, perhaps the kind Sexton tried so tirelessly to summon, by the very act of writing children’s books, despite her tragic pathology.

Complement Joey and the Birthday Present with Sexton’s letter of motherly advice, then revisit her inaugural collaboration with Kumin, the playful Eggs of Things.

Published October 3, 2014




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