Last night, tired, but awake, I grabbed the first book on my shelf, the underappreciated volume by James Thurber, The Wonderful O. Thurber was a marvelous writer and cartoonist for the New Yorker(Dorothy Parker said his drawing looking like half-baked cookies). My siblings and I had our first introduction to him one road trip, where Mom attempted to read to us his short story “The Night the Bed Fell on Grandpa”–but was so hysterical with laughter, she could barely speak.
These days, his most popular books are his memoirs, My Life and Hard Times, and his picture book Many Moons.
But his best children’s book, to my mind, is The Wonderful O. It has everything a children’s book ought to have: adventure, pirates, charming illustrations (by Marc Simont), and great vocabulary (hidden in every-day sentences)–plus a very silly, and yet provoking, premise. Two pirates (Black and Littlejack) come to the Island of Ooroo, looking for buried treasure. Black, who’s mother died in a port-hole accident, has an irrational hatred of the letter “o” and, he banishes it from the entire island, when he finds no treasure.
Thus begins a hilarious, silly, and profound adventure, as the villagers rally against the pirates, and the lawyers argue over semantics, and the island is plunged into chaos. The heroine, Andrea, claims there are 4 “o” words they cannot disregard: valor, love, hope and freedom–and with these four words in their hearts, they fight the pirates.
Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for over 10 years. Claudia Rosett, of WSJ said in 2001:
Teachers, parents, librarians–a crowd that in the aftermath of World War II knew this [book] was something special–have stopped asking for it.
…Perhaps part of the problem is that not everything in this book is politically correct…Nor does Thurber’s delight in language conform to the Pop-Tart pleasures of most modern entertainment. To love this book requires some active, if pleasant, appreciation of true wit (something I think children might still enjoy, given half a chance). So careful was Thurber to get the language and the story exactly right that The New Yorker itself never published “The Wonderful O,” according to Thurber biographer Neil Grauer. Thurber refused to approve the magazine’s abridged version.
In an era in which we censor even the surviving classics among children’s books, dumb literature down in the hope of mass appeal, and too often trade away our own freedoms on the theory that government knows best, “The Wonderful O” is a book worth finding, wherever you can, and reading to whomever you can. Especially, it is worth reading to children.
Indeed, she is right. It will delight your soul! You can purchase the reprinted edition (with original illustrations) right here(from the NYRB Children’s Classic Collection).