The genre: Children’s literature
The gist: A fairy tale story about an unconventional, self-made family.
The background: In elementary school, my library teacher (yes, we had a library class. I can only guess every class was about the Dewey Decimal System?) gave my class a list of all the Newbery Honor books. She encouraged us to read as many as we could by the end of the school year, so sure enough it became something of a competition. The Newbery books were flying off the shelves, and one of the first ones I could get my hands on was a peculiarly small, square book called The Animal Family. From the first page, I loved it. The world was so ethereal and utopic that I never wanted to leave.
And I’ve read it over and over again since. As cheesy as it sounds, it still holds the same kind of magic for me as when I first read it as a kid (though I think books from our childhoods can tend to do that). I’m transported every time. It’s not only one of my favorite childhood books, but one of my favorite books. So here’s its much-deserved review.
The tea: 1965’s The Animal Family is an underrated, little-known gem.
Authored by poet Randall Jarrell with illustrations by iconic children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, this book packs a lot of punch in a small package.
Let’s talk about Mr. Sendak for a second first: Though Sendak is known for his distinctive character designs like in Where the Wild Things Are, among others, the drawings in The Animal Family are all landscapes or embellishments. A cliff, a forest, an ocean, a cave, some decorative vines. The pretty, penciled illustrations show just how wide his range was as an artist, and some of his distinct style shines through in the forest drawings that remind me of the forest-y scenes in Where the Wild Things Are.
The choice not to illustrate any of the characters adds to the magic of the book, so the reader is free to imagine the them however they wish.
Now, the story. The events are simple, but even in prose, Jarrell’s poetic insight lifts the story off the page, and that’s what makes this book truly enchanting.
A hunter lives alone “where the forest runs down to the ocean” and begins hearing a lone mermaid singing from the water. Over time, he befriends her, she decides to live on land, and they soon add members to their makeshift little family one by one, including a bear, a lynx, and a boy. The five-creature family lives happily ever after.
What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in genuine, even wise sweetness. Every time a new member is added to the family, it’s mentioned how they couldn’t believe they used to live without them. Once the hunter has the mermaid in his life, he can’t imagine how he used to live alone. Once the mermaid and hunter have the messy, sweet bear cub in their life, the mermaid remarks, “To think we used to live without a bear!” And when the boy comes into their life, his being found on the beach after a shipwreck fades to less of a truth than the one they tell him: “We’ve had you always.”
It’s a warm hug of a book, without being cloying. It’s a celebration of self-chosen families. Of adoptive families. Of friends. Of the ones you pick to have by your side not out of obligation but because you want and like them there.
Like in fairy tales where you don’t question an enspelled maiden sleeping a hundred years, you don’t question the practicality or realism of a lynx, bear, and human living together, nor the existence of mermaids. But unlike many fairy tales, Jarrell gives the story just enough detail to make the characters real and lovable: in the conversations the hunter and mermaid have learning each other’s language (“Whatever you say has that—that walnut sound,” she says to him); in the specific, thoughtful ways the hunter helps the mermaid adapt, like building a rocking chair for her because the land is so still compared to the ocean.
When I first read this book as a kid, it was, and is, unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It’s novel in every sense of the word—the perfect of example of the art form’s namesake.
The wrap-up: Read this book. Read it alone. Read it to your kids. Give it as a gift. It’s, sadly, out of print, but easy enough to find used for a decent price. And there’s always the library. I’m not promising it’ll blow you away like it did me, but I’m pretty sure it’ll warm your damn heart.
The rating: 5/5
The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy.—Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family