Friday, June 20, 2008

Prince Bertram the Bad

I love children's books and own way too many. They are currently taking up most of the closet space below the stairs, but a few of the most cherished sit in my studio where I can fawn over them. One of these is Prince Bertram the Bad by Arnold Lobel. Its copyright is 1963 and my older sister's name and an old address and phone number are written on the inside cover, so I assume it was hers first. The back cover was lost at some point, but I repaired it with a stiff piece of cardboard, which was 'decorated' and signed by the child who 'loved' the book after I did. The book, however, remains in my hands, and I treaure it.

Most people are familiar with Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, also copyright 1963, but fewer have heard of Prince Bertram, although the stories and illustrations share many similarities. Both these authors are also the illustrators, and the styles are remarkably similar, right down to their muted color palettes. Both books are about naughty, little boys who experience a magical transformation and return to their families reformed and happy. In Max's case, he dreams that he sails to an island of scary creatures. In Bertram's case, a witch turns him into a dragon.

Sendak's story is really an illustrated poem, and his language is rhythmic, simple and forceful. I can attest, from vast experience, that it is a delight to read out loud. Lines like this never sound dull to the ear, and the tongue rolls over them with pleasure no matter how many times one recites it in a night or that month or that year, "And when he came to the place where the wild things are they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws...." Pure joy.

Lobel's story reads more like a fireside tale with clever details and wonderful adventures. Bertram's naughty antics are really very cute. For example, "The royal cook would not speak to Prince Bertram. He had thrown four spiders into the chicken noodle soup." After being turned into a dragon, he's miserable in the castle so Bertram runs away, and the result is reminiscent of Max's encounter with wild beasts, "There was a big forest near the castle, where many lions and porcupines and other beasts lived. The animals growled and roared at him, and they ate all of his gingersnaps."

Sendak's book, Where the Wild Things Are, enjoys current popularity, and you can find it in bookstores, but I've never seen Lobel's book ,which is equally delightful, in a Barnes & Noble. I have a couple ideas why the difference in popularity, but I'm only guessing. Truly, Lobel's story has greater depth; Prince Bertram does a good deed, which redeems him, but Max just gets lonely and wakes up. Also, Lobel's illustrations have more variety and are as clever as hell. Prince Bertram as a dragon is adorable. Anyway, if you have young children and don't own Where the Wild Things Are, you're a schmuck, but if you want to really be cool, you'll buy Prince Bertram the Bad and read that out loud, as well. Your kids will remember and love you forever.

[I started this blog, thinking I was going to toss up a Winnie the Pooh quote today--Pooh is one of my dearest characters--and look where I ended up!]


Lizz said...

Prince Bertrum popped in my head yesterday. I thought I couldn't remember his name correctly and much to my surprise, I google him and there he is. Then I found your post. I loooooooved that book when as a kid. I'm 34 with no children and am eager to begin my search for a few copies of it. I just wanted to reach out to say, wow, I love it too and was surprised to learn that it's a rare find. It's a genuine classic, I'm gonna find one, no, I'm gonna find a few. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for the post.

Morning Angel said...

Glad to have shared! Thank you for your comment.

Rachel said...

I also just happened upon your blog after searching for Bertram the Bad. I was actually inspired to run the search after seeing the trailer for a film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are (looks fantastic, by the way).

Anyway, Betram was my absolute favorite book as a child. I now have a little girl of my own (only 8 months but an eager audience nonetheless). I still have my hardback copy and it is one of my most treasured possessions. On Amazon and Ebay, a hardback copy starts at $65/pop. Glad I kept mine!

I enjoy Where the Wild Things Are but I do agree with you - Bertram takes the cake.