Despite television and the Internet, some books refuse to become extinct. Sure, there's plenty of junk out there, but fine new books and reprints of classics also flourish. This may be pathetic optimism, but it seems there are good signs: the world-wide popularity of Harry Potter, the resurgence of interest in old-fashioned solid stories such as the Freddy the Pig series and now such items as Tuttle Publishing's reprints of the charming books by Peter Newell. Peter Newell was born during the Civil War and died in 1924. Beginning his career with crayon portraits, he wound up illustrating everyone from Mark Twain to Lewis Carroll. His Alice illustrations are absolutely as clever and apt as those of John Tenniell. Several years ago they were the illustrations chosen to adorn Martin Gardner's More Annotated Alice. However, he also wrote a number of amusing and cleverly illustrated books of his own. Critics have trouble finding any influences on Newell, because he was so resolutely independent. Even though he worked during the era of such wonderful illustrators as Howard Pyle and Winslow Homer, his style is very much his own. The three Newell books reprinted by Tuttle are facsimiles of the original books from the early years of the 20th century, and each is priced at $16.95. They are in a handsome uniform format, with black cloth spines and brightly colored covers featuring a signature orange. They make an appealing set. First, Tuttle reprinted The Slant Book, the most outrageous of the three. Because it is the story of what happens when little Bobby's baby carriage goes out of control and rolls downhill, the entire book is printed at an angle. No, the typeface doesn't slant; the book slants. The entire volume is tilted to the right. When you open it, it folds out like butterfly wings. Don't worry that the books depend too much upon the gimmick, like a film with extravagant special effects and no story. Instead, like the creators of, say, the movie Toy Story, Newell builds elaborate and entertaining narratives around the gimmick. For example, the story in The Slant Book has a perfect narrative structure; its rhyming ABCB quatrains begin as the carriage starts moving and end as it crashes into a haystack and the adventure-prone Bobby flies through the air and lands safely in hay. Every scene is filled with action. Just a sampling: the carriage snaps a hydrant, crashes through a tennis net and undermines a ladder. Perhaps the most charming aspect is Bobby's delight in the whole chaotic adventure.
The other two books feature a different structural gimmick: a hole in the middle of the page. The Rocket Book is the story of what happens when Fritz, the janitor's bad kid, finds a fireworks rocket in the basement and lights its fuse. It tears through the ceiling and continues through the rest of the apartment building, emerging through tenants' floors and exiting through their ceilings. The hole appears in the center of the page, throughout the book, foreshortened into an ellipse that Newell cleverly works into every single illustration. In Tuttle's latest reprint, The Hole Book, Newell did the bookish equivalent of a Hollywood sequel. He used the same gimmick again, except the hole is round. Young Tom Potts is playing with a gun when it goes off. The rest of the book follows the bullet's progress through the walls of the apartment building and then to the outdoors. By taking the bullet outside, Newell manages to take a device similar to the preceding book's and make the story just as entertaining and perhaps funnier.
A critic once said that Peter Newell's work was the first appearance of the humor of the absurd that would soon flourish in The New Yorker. Another comparison might be to the blithely unaware W.C. Fields and Marx Brothers, who never seemed to realize they were causing all their own problems, and who responded with a quip and a further adventure. Both Newell's text and his drawings are merely meant to be amusing. He doesn't agonize over the misbehavior of Fritz or Tom Potts. Nor does he have the kind of timid vocabulary that shows contempt for children's intellectual hunger. On that note, let's end with Newell's own words his description of what happens when two boys are standing near a beehive as the bullet goes through it. The startled swarm came streaming outIn temper hot and baneful,And drove the foe in awful rout,With volleys sharp and painful!