Monday, October 10, 2011

Books We Love: “The Day the Cow Sneezed”

Book Review by Jack Silbert
For a long stretch of time there, it seemed like every album I bought—and I buy a lot of albums—had some connection to Irwin Chusid. His name appeared in reissue liner notes for Esquivel (whose 50s/60s “space-age bachelor pad music” helped spawn a 90s revival), the Shaggs (“outsider” late-60s girl group), Raymond Scott (whose 1937 composition “Powerhouse” was utilized in countless Warner Brothers cartoons), and many others. I quickly accepted Chusid—a longtime d.j. on New Jersey’s legendary WFMU—as an ambassador and caretaker of quirky cool from bygone eras.

So it was no surprise when I learned of 1940s/50s album-cover illustrator Jim Flora via a 2004 book authored by Chusid. Flora’s style is deceptively simple: cartoon-y, two-dimensional, with jagged angles and circus-like colors, very evocative of its moment in time. A sense of joy and a sense of humor practically leap off the page.

I feel at this point in the review—I promise, a review is coming—that I must once again make an admission in the interest of full disclosure: Irwin Chusid lives just a few doors down from me. However, I can again assert a total lack of bias. I have had only one conversation with the man, albeit while purchasing from him a print of a Flora Mambo for Cats LP cover for a feline-obsessed friend.

When I learned that Flora had written and illustrated a 1957 children’s book, and that it was being reissued, I knew I had to own it. The silliness inherent in the title—The Day the Cow Sneezed—sealed the deal for me.

And a lovely reissue it is, from the Enchanted Lion publishing house. Here’s a book you can judge by its cover. (A handsome hardcover, at that.) The fun patterns in the zany lettering convey a mad energy. Spot illustrations of a smiling cat, topsy-turvy mouse, above-it-all bird, and of course, a sneezing cow, basically tell the tale of the book: motion, not-too-dangerous danger, and most importantly, whimsy. Also on the cover, we see that Flora is listed as James, not Jim. Well, la-dee-da!

Within, we learn that Chusid is credited as “solicitor and overseer.”(La-dee-da part deux.) Flora’s artwork is reproduced quite crisply on quality paper stock. Color-wise, two decisions struck me immediately: one almost certainly a financial choice (by the original 1957 publishers, Harcourt, Brace & World), and the other I’m not quite sure. Decision 1: Every other two-page spread is black-and-white. While this likely saved some printing bucks, it doesn’t really hurt the book. The eye gets to rest a little on these pages, and the brain can concentrate on fun little details in the art that might be missed in a splash of color. Decision 2 is an interesting color palette: black lines surrounded mostly by pink, light red, and blue-green. Now, I don’t know enough about Flora’s oeuvre to definitively say if he placed this limitation on himself, or if it was placed on him by Harcourt or Brace or maybe even World. But it totally works. The colors jump at you off white backgrounds. Meanwhile, he repeating, pleasing palette eases the transitions from the black-and-white spreads.

Story-wise, the book is pretty straightforward. A cow sneezes, and chain-reaction hilarity ensues. I’m not sure if this was intentional either, but we’re kind of “tricked” by a sizeable block of text on the first page, setting up the plot. But after that, even though there is fun writing throughout—with occasional big-type onomatopoeia—overall it’s the art doing the heavy lifting. As hinted at on the cover, there is a nonstop sense of motion (think Family Circus’s dotted paths, but much more madcap), tracking the “destruction” from page to page, from farm to mountain to city and all points in-between. With many modes of transport, we pass, run over, and/or pick up various people, buildings, trees, and countless critters. And like that smiling cat on the cover, amidst much shock and awe, there’s often one animal wearing a calm grin, taking it all in. It’s as if to say, don’t worry, kids—we’re just having fun here.

I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice to say, Thing 1 and Thing 2 do not show up. Also, the boy whose inattention led to a sneezy cow gets his comeuppance a bit more matter-of-factly than a kid-glove-handled modern character might.

Tempted to say that I’m fawning over Flora. But I’ll try to resist.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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