by Eric von Schmidt (Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, 1964)
Okay. It’s time for a teensy bit of name dropping. I have this cousin who is a brilliant singer and songwriter and he’s racked up a few Grammys as well. (Do you say Grammies? I don’t think so.) If you are into good, old-fashioned bluegrass and Americana, check out Jim Lauderdale. Musicians are such great storytellers, don’t you think? Sometimes I wonder if I can pack the same amount of heart and soul into a 500-word picture book that he can in a 3-minute song.
That’s partly why I was so drawn to this book, The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn. And that was even before I realized that there were all kinds of connections to song. That title begs to be picked and strummed, right?
I purchased this book a while back from Elwood and Eloise on Etsy. The owner, Mallory, also runs an excellent illustration blog, My Vintage Book Collection (in blog form), which is an incredible archive of gorgeous out of print materials. Thank goodness she sells some of her collection, cause I’ve added some sparkle to my own thanks to her shop. (Also, the images in this post are courtesy of her post here.)
This is the story of Jeremy Sneeze. Where he fails as a farmer he succeeds at making children laugh. (Which is to say by wiggling his ears.) He replaces fallen birds nests and makes pictures and poems. And so, of course, the elders of his town denounce his slack and shifless ways. A town meeting. A crow. A spell is cast. A sneeze. A surprise.
This book’s design is reminiscent of a song. Here’s what I mean. That color—washes of analogous color in oranges and yellows and greens, those are the harmonies to the stark black’s melody. It’s steady and rhythmic like the downbeats of an upright bass. Unless they are splashed and chaotic like a mandolin’s intricacies.
On top of stellar bookmaking, the story itself is a sweeping epic wrapped up in the short pages of a picture book. Listen to some of its lines:
Just about then he would get to puzzling about other things like “How high is up?” or “Who plants the dandelions?” or “Where do the stars go during the day?”
And every year all Jeremy had to offer was a big weedy field filled with assorted brambles and unchopped briars, bounded by dirty broken boulders.
Flap-flap, past bats that watched with eyes like razors, past lizards, toads, and laughing spiders, down past rats and rattlesnakes and monkeys dreaming evil dreams of moons.
We have specials today on stars that dance or boiling oceans, and a bargain rate for setting mountains into motion.
He hurled himself at the brambles and flung himself at the weeds with such speed you couldn’t tell which was hoe and which was crow.
True enough he is a sorry farmer. But in his head dwell pictures and in his heart are poems.
The listen-ability, the meter, the storytelling grumble. It’s all here. What a gem.
P.S.—A bit of poking around online still left me slightly confused about the history of this book and the similar-ly titled song. Did the book inspire the song? Did the song know about the book? I think the song inspired the nitty-gritty backstory of the young man who wouldn’t hoe corn. I can’t really tell, so I’ll just be sitting here enjoying both. Hope you are too.