MAY 6:

  • Happy birthday Ted Lewin (Peppe the Lamplighter, Stable), Susan Terris (The Latchkey Kids), Giulio Maestro (A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution), and Barbara McClintock (Dahlia).
  • It’s the birth date of Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), The Gingerbread Rabbit, and Judy Delton (1931-2001), Pee Wee Scouts series.
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), founder of the psychoanalytic school of psychiatry was born on this day. Read Sigmund Freud by Kathleen Krull.
  • It’s national No Homework Day. Read No More Homework! No More Tests! by Bruce Lansky, illustrated by Stephen Carpenter, and The Homework Machine by Dan Gutman.

Born on May 6, 1914, Randall Jarrell did not publish his first children’s book until he was fifty. By that time he had established himself as one of America’s premiere poets for adults and was also renowned for his brilliant literary criticism. Michael di Capua, then at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, lured Jarrell into children’s books by requesting that he translate a Grimm fairy tale for children.

Before he died in 1965, Jarrell finished three illustrated books – The Gingerbread Rabbit, with art by Garth Williams, and Fly By Night and The Bat Poet, both illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In 1965 he published The Animal Family, a short novella that contains some of the most beautiful writing for children in the English language.

To understand what a writer can do when he follows that E. B. White precept “simplify, simplify, simplify,” you should pick up The Animal Family. In a timeless landscape, which could have come out of a Grimm tale, a hunter lives alone in a forest near the ocean. Gently, slowly, he begins to befriend the creatures around him and build his own community and family. A mermaid comes to live with him, although she often heads back to her own people and the watery kingdom that she knows. Then the hunter finds and brings home a bear and lynx cub. Finally, the animals locate a boy whose mother has just died, and the infant rounds out this beautiful group that live together because of bonds of love and affection.

So brilliantly, so simply, does Jarrell describe these events, that readers feel as if they have entered a dream and do not necessarily want to leave it. He opens the saga with the words, “Say what you like, but such things do happen—not often, but they do happen.” As a poet, Jarrell works out the cadence of each word, each paragraph. Nothing extraneous has been allowed to intrude on this simple tale.

The book can be used to discuss the nature of family and how we can build community with those around us that we love. But even more important, it reminds us that the best writing for children has been polished and edited and polished again. Enhanced by Maurice Sendak’s decorations and a thoughtful design that gives lots of room for the text on the page, The Animal Family is both beautiful to look at and exquisite to read.

On his birthday, I am grateful for the books Randall Jarrell wrote for children—they set the bar for fine writing for children when they were published and they remain the standard bearers for craft almost fifty years later.

Here’s a passage from The Animal Family:

The bear’s wet nose was cold and shiny, and he stuck it into everything. He had beautiful fur—it was denser and shinier than the bearskin on the bed, even—and it wasn’t black but a soft deep brown. The palms of his paws were as pink as a man’s palms, but fringed with five little gray-blue, steely claws; he had one special log that he liked to sharper them on. The mermaid would feel them and marvel that their pet had such hard sharp claws.


Originally posted May 6, 2012. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Family
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Animal Family
One year ago: Rascal


  1. G. Perry says:

    I get up every morning and head for this site hoping to find a new gem of a book I’ve never heard of, and today, I think I may be about to add a new precious stone to my children’s book treasury.

    It’s coming from the library now. (Hurry up book!)

  2. Bookjeannie says:

    Anita…I will be placing a hold on this lovely sounding book. I love this site, thank you again & again!

  3. Anita says:

    Gordon: I was thinking about you as I posted The Animal Family. Given the discussions we’ve had about animals in our lives, I think this may truly be a new gem for you.

  4. G. Perry says:

    I’ve read this now, and hardly know how to describe the experience.

    I’ve never encountered anything like it.

    It’s more like a sweet dream of kindness and belonging than a book. As one reviewer said, it’s like something you’ve been waiting for, but didn’t know that, until you found it. And you don’t want it to go away. Ever.

    If only childhood could have had some of that life-giving whisper flow of light and heart, but at least it has arrived this way.

  5. Anita says:

    Gordon: Thanks for your comments. I am just always grateful that I can pick up the book and go into this world from time to time.

  6. Anita, I wish I’d caught this entry last May! I’ll be linking for my grad students in my summer class where we are reading The Animal Family next week.

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