Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak,
The Animal Family
(Random House, 1965; Michael di Capua/HarperCollins, 1996)

Any children's librarian can tell you how brief the lives of many children's books can be, with some titles going out of print in less than a year. But fortunately, some books manage to survive for years, reaching generation after generation of readers. The Animal Family by late poet Randall Jarrell is such a book.

Originally published by Random House, The Animal Family is about a hunter who lived alone "where the forest runs down to the ocean." His parents long dead, the hunter has no one with whom to share the beauty of the world around him, no one for whom he can pick the flowers in the meadow. One day, he hears singing down by the ocean, and there he discovers a mermaid sitting on the rocks. Unlike the rest of her people, she is fascinated by the land, and before long, she joins the hunter in his cottage. They live together happily, eventually adding a bear cub (who didn't stay a cub for long) and a lynx. Eventually, the lynx and bear bring home a boy they found with his dead mother in a lifeboat from a shipwreck and the family is complete.

The simple story is told in lucid, evocative language, as one might expect from a poet such as Jarrell. The characters unfold gradually as their contact with each other deepens and opens up other facets of their personalities. There is no sense of writing specifically for children; the themes of the story are universal: the need for love and family and home.

The book itself it appealing, small and square, with creamy textured pages and a heavy paper dustjacket. Maurice Sendak's decorative illustrations depict the landscape on each chapter heading page, and they enhance the text delicately. This is the kind of book you buy for a good friend because you know that she or he must have it.

Who knows why this title has survived thirty-five years? Maybe its status as a Newbery Honor Book contributed, or perhaps Sendak's decorations or Jarrell's status as a poet was responsible for its longevity. But in the long run, that matters little. The Animal Family tells a simple story and tells it well.

review by
Donna Scanlon


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