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Rootabaga Stories / More Rootabaga Stories
Carl Sandburg
(illustrated by Maud and Miska Petersham)
Harcourt, 176 and 158 pages

Kurt Cyrus
Rootabaga Stories
Kurt Cyrus
More Rootabaga Stories
Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), the man who coined "The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking, over harbor and city, on silent haunches, and then moves on," liked to refer to himself as a "hobo." Before becoming known as a poet, he worked as a milkman, an ice harvester, a dishwasher, a salesperson, a firefighter, and a journalist. He was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, first in 1940 for his four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, and again in 1951 for Complete Poems. He is also cited as having won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection of poems entitled Cornhusker. Written for his young daughters at the beginning of his long and distinguished literary career, the Rootabaga stories comprise Rootabaga Stories (1922) and Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), the latter now reprinted under the title More Rootabaga Stories.

Tribute Sites: 1, 2
Sandburg's homes: birthplace, where he died
Biography: 1, 2

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Now let's look up the recipe for Rootabaga Stories: take the whimsy of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, crank it up a notch, maybe two, throw in a pinch of nonsense, add the diction of a poet, mix well. Ah, there we have it... Now you ask, pray tell, what are Rootabaga Stories about? Well they're about the finding of the Zig-Zag railroad, the Pigs with Bibs On, the Circus Clown Ovens, the Village of Liver-and-Onions, and the Village of Cream Puffs, and that only covers the first 30 pages of the first book. Who are the main characters? Well, there's Gimme the Ax, Please Gimme, Ax Me No Questions, The Ticket Agent, Wing Tip the Spick, The Four Uncles, The Rat in a Blizzard, and (of course) The Five Rusty Rats who helped found the Village of Cream Puffs, again all in the first 30 pages. Not to mention the lovely vintage illustrations.

Rootabaga Stories received mixed reviews from my daughters, the 11-year old thought the stories and characters altogether too bizarre, but the younger one, at 6-years old -- and half her soccer team, I might add -- were fascinated. Certainly, the poetic prose lends itself admirably to being read aloud, it has rhythm, it has humor, it has tongue-twisting names, it has nonsensical conversations that somehow make sense, it has lovely images and similes that only a poet could conjure, and certainly it much more than a set of stories for children.

Let me introduce you to the balloon pickers, so as to illustrate the alliteration, the poetry, and the nonsense of the Rootabaga universe, or in this case of the country of the balloon pickers:

    Next they came to the country of the balloon pickers. Hanging down from the sky strung on strings so fine the eye could not see them at first, was the balloon crop of that summer. The sky was thick with balloons. Red, blue, yellow balloons, white, purple and orange balloons -- peach, watermelon and potato balloons -- rye loaf and wheat loaf balloons -- link sausage and pork chop balloons -- they floated and filled the sky.
    The balloon pickers were walking on high stilts picking balloons. Each picker had his own stilts, long or short. For picking balloons near the ground he had short stilts. If he wanted to pick far and high he walked on a far and high pair of stilts.
    Baby pickers on baby stilts were picking baby balloons. When they fell off the stilts the handful of balloons they were holding kept them in the air till they got their feet into the stilts again.
    "Who is that away up there in the sky climbing like a bird in the morning?" Ax Me No Questions asked her father.
    "He was singing too happy," replied the father. "The songs came out of his neck and made him so light the balloons pulled him off his stilts."
    "Will he ever come down again back to his own people?"
    "Yes, his heart will get heavy when his songs are all gone. Then he will drop down to his stilts again."
The original illustrations included in this edition, done by Maud and Miska Petersham, are wonderful, in many cases quite similar in style, if less detailed, than the great artwork of Winsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland -- thematically the innocent whimsy of Little Nemo and of the Rootabaga Country have a great deal in common.

I would hazard to guess that these stories would have greater appeal to youngsters than to the preteen reader. They are books whose poetry should be read aloud to be fully appreciated. As an adult, I must confess to having difficulty in reading more than one or two stories at a time, mainly I think due to the richness of the prose and their somewhat jarring whimsy-on-overdrive (a bit like trying to eat every kind of pastry in a French bakery, in one sitting). Some stories that are fairly straightforward remain nonetheless very powerful -- I defy you to finish "The Two Skyscrapers Who Decided to Have a Child" and not feel just a bit dewy-eyed. Regardless, if my 6-year old daughter's soccer team are any indication, the Rootabaga world can still entertain some 80 years after its inception, and is likely to do so for many years to come.

Copyright © 2003 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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