Crea­ture dis­com­fort


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Casey Sanchez

Yes, the books’ an­i­mals en­joy play­ing and get­ting into trou­ble like other kids’ book char­ac­ters. But with a re­al­ism we don’t ex­pect in books with talk­ing-an­i­mal char­ac­ters, they must also for­age for food, hunt down prey, and de­fend them­selves and their off­spring from preda­tors.

Bet ween 1943 a nd 1949, t he Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press pub­lished Mesa land—seven smart ly il­lus­trated books that fol­low the re­al­is­tic ad­ven­tures of prairie dogs, road­run­ners, coy­otes, and other re­gional wildlife as they play and sur­vive in t heir na­tive high- desert habi­tat. Once a sta­ple of grade- school li­braries, th­ese books fea­tur­ing Hop-A-Long( rab­bit ), Cocky (road­run­ner), and Quills (por­cu­pine), among oth­ers, have been out of print for decades. Three years ago, how­ever, UNM edi­tors found the orig­i­nal ti­tles lan­guish­ing in their ar­chives. This win­ter, they rere­leased the se­ries as spit­ting-im­age re­pro­duc­tions of the brightly col­ored vol­umes that chil­dren must have clutched in their hands more than a half- cen­tury ago.

“The only thing dif­fer­ent is that the orig­i­nal books came with a pa­per dust jacket,” said UNM Press di­rec­tor John Byram. “It’s been very hard to find th­ese books. We wanted to get copies [sep­a­rate from the UNM ar­chive copies] to make new edi­tions of the orig­i­nal. Un­for­tu­nately, you have to tear the books apart to scan the im­ages at high res­o­lu­tion. We had to re­ally look through used book­stores, li­braries, eBay.”

In the 1940s, Byram said, it was a com­mer­cially risky ven­ture for UNM Press to take on th­ese books. “Univer­si­ties didn’t pub­lish chil­dren’s books back then, es­pe­cially ones that fo­cused on such lo­cal wildlife themes in a re­al­is­tic man­ner.” In other words, while we ex­pect Babar t he Ele­phant to con­vey real-life lessons to kids, we don’t fret about him driv­ing off preda­tory lions or find­ing an ed­i­ble source of tree bark on his daily walk­a­bouts. Not so with Me­sa­land. Yes, the books’ an­i­mals en­joy play­ing and get­ting into trou­ble like other kids’ book char­ac­ters. But with a re­al­ism we don’t ex­pect in books with talk­ing- an­i­mal char­ac­ters, they must also for­age for food, hunt down prey, and de­fend them­selves and their off­spring from preda­tors.

For ex­am­ple, Big Fat, the fifth book in the se­ries, fol­lows the friendly ri­valry be­tween the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a ro­tund, jolly prairie dog, and his pint-sized, trou­ble-seek­ing neme­sis, Lit­tle Ugly. Lit­tle laughs at Big as the lat­ter gets stuck go­ing down a bur­row hole while Big chuck­les as Lit­tle pokes him­self on nopal cac­tus spines.

But the light­heart­ed­ness gives way to con­cern as Big Fat and Mrs. Big Fat have a lit­ter of adorable prairie- dog pup­pies. The pup­pies rove around the mesa, look­ing for green roots to chew, obey­ing t heir par­ents’ edict to come r un­ning back to their den when­ever they hear an adult whis­tle. One puppy ig­nores the whis­tle as a coy­ote, Three Toes — the sub­ject of an­other Me­sa­land book — steps in to pluck off the youngling. (Mim­ick­ing the in­ter­locked life of desert wildlife, the char­ac­ters from one book fre­quently ap­pear in an­other.)

“Blacky will not be back to play with you. ... He didn’t come when he heard the dan­ger whis­tle. Now the Coy­ote has him,” says a somber Big Fat to his chil­dren, be­fore the nar­ra­tive re­sumes, with the prairie- dog fam­ily con­tin­u­ing to live life and find ev­ery­day joy. It’s a star­tling ex­am­ple of how the Me­sa­land books ac­knowl­edge dan­ger and fear in the nat­u­ral world while teach­ing their young read­ers not to suc­cumb to th­ese emo­tions.

Hu­mans ap­pear in the se­ries, but they are of­ten care­less as to how their ac­tions af­fect the lives of an­i­mals. For in­stance, in Dum­bee, two honey-hun­gry young boys smoke out a bee­hive in a cave. The Queen- Mother bee fran­ti­cally strug­gles to evac­u­ate her colony while Dum­bee, a worker bee, is dev­as­tated by the loss. True to the se­ries’ fo­cus on grit and per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion, both Dum­bee and the Queen- Mother re­build the honey pods, find­ing mirth and laugh­ter in later ad­ven­tures, even as the re­morse­less young boys com­plain that bees are too stupid to feel pain.

The books were the col­lec­tive brain­child of Loyd Tire­man, a pi­o­neer­ing bilin­gual ed­u­ca­tor who cre­ated pro­gres­sive com­mu­nity grade schools in Nambé and Al­bu­querque; Ralph Dou­glass, a painter, car­toon­ist and UNM art pro­fes­sor; and Eve­lyn Yris­arri, a chil­dren’s sto­ry­teller.

A chap­ter in the 1991 book Ed­u­ca­tional Re­form in New Mex­ico: Tire­man, San José, and Nambé ex­am­ines the se­ries in light of Tire­man’s ex­per­i­ments in pro­gres­sive bilin­gual education in ru­ral New Mex­ico in the 1930s and the larger cli­mate of World War II, which in­wardly fo­cused many Amer­i­can au­thors and artists on cre­at­ing re­gional lit­er­a­ture. In the early 1940s, Tire­man suc­cess­full de­vel­oped a com­mu­nity grade school in Nambé that cen­tered on con­ser­va­tion education and agri­cul­ture. At the same time, the state game war­den was mak­ing rounds across the state, de­liv­er­ing per­sonal ap­peals to New Mex­ico teach­ers to de­velop a cur­ricu­lum around wildlife con­ser­va­tion.

Lit­tle is known about Tire­man’s story col­lab­o­ra­tor, Eve­lyn Yris­arri, be­yond a bi­o­graph­i­cal men­tion that she was a mem­ber of the Na­tional Sto­ry­teller’s League based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. The books’ il­lus­tra­tor, Ralph Dou­glass, how­ever, was al­ready well known at t he t ime of t he books’ pub­li­ca­tion. A for­mer Chicago news­pa­per political car­toon­ist, he re­lo­cated to Al­bu­querque for health rea­sons, where

he be­came an art pro­fes­sor at UNM and a well­re­garded painter of New Mex­ico land­scapes. His time­less il­lus­tra­tions for the Me­sa­land se­ries mix a pulpy comic-book flair he de­vel­oped as a car­toon­ist with an at­ten­tion to line de­tail and fa­cial and body ex­pres­sions that he must have de­vel­oped as an oil painter. No­tice­ably, each book is il­lus­trated in only black and two other themed col­ors. It pro­duces a strik­ing vis­ual ef­fect but was a con­ces­sion to wartime ra­tioning that greatly re­stricted print­ers’ ac­cess to pa­pers and inks.

At the time of their pub­li­ca­tion, the books re­ceived keen re­views in a num­ber of re­gional and na­tional out­lets in­clud­ing the New York Her­ald Tribune Weekly Book Re­view, Chicago Sun Book Week, Li­brary Jour­nal, and New Mex­ico Mag­a­zine. The New York Her­ald Tribune wrote that it was “es­pe­cially pleased by the ra­pid­ity with which each one [story] reaches a sat­is­fac­tory con­clu­sion” and added that the sto­ries fea­tured “drama that Mother Goose might re­spect.”

But in the decades since, the books not only went out of print but be­came a lost mem­ory to both the pub­lish­ers and the fam­ily de­scen­dants of the books’ cre­ators. In fact, UNM Press only re­dis­cov­ered this chil­dren’s lit­er­ary trea­sure in its ar­chives in 2013, when Dou­glass’ great-nephew, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist who hap­pened to be work­ing at UNM at the time, dis­cov­ered that his rel­a­tive had il­lus­trated Me­sa­land. “He found out his l ate great- un­cle had i l lus­trated th­ese books and wanted to see them,” Byram said. “So in help­ing him out, we found th­ese books in the ar­chive.”

All il­lus­tra­tions by Ralph Dou­glass; cour­tesy Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press

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