It’s a cold, windy, snowy morning just outside Detroit -- perfect weather for a comfort book.
Some call them comfort books, others call them cozy books. Or rainy-day books. Or feel-good books.
Whenever I’m in the mood for one of these books, I reach for Eleanor Estes’ Moffat series. The classic stories of Sylvie, Joey, Jane, and Rufus M. are warm and familiar, yet have a bracingly realistic edge that prevents them from ever becoming oversweet or maudlin. When I was a kid, I read THE MOFFATS, THE MIDDLE MOFFAT and RUFUS M. over and over, along with Estes’ Newbery-winner GINGER PYE. The front of these books always listed the author’s other works -- three of which our library did not own. In fact, no library seemed to have THE SLEEPING GIANT AND OTHER STORIES (1943), THE SUN, THE WIND, AND MR. TODD (1948), or A LITTLE OVEN (1955) and I was long grown before I encountered any of these long-missing titles.
Several years ago, they all came up for sale at the same time -- all from the same bookseller -- so I immediately ordered them. When they arrived I was experiencing a problem with crowded shelves, so slid them under my bed -- and they’ve continued to reside there ever since, along with certain reference books I like to keep close at hand, some Halloween decorations, a warren of breeding dust bunnies, a thermal packet you heat in the microwave then slip inside a faux-hot water bottle bag to keep your feet warm in bed, and a Christmas ornament that plays thirty different carols. (How many times have I stuck my foot under the bed and accidentally turned that thing on...then had to endure THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS...all twelve verses...in the middle of August?) Anyway, today I scrounged around under the bed till I FINALLY found those Estes titles (once a missing book, always a missing book!) I’ll save THE SLEEPING GIANT and MR. TODD for another blog entry, in order to focus on A LITTLE OVEN today. Although it’s not my favorite Estes’ volume, it’s a comfort book that’s dearly loved by many -- and I want to share it with anyone who’s never seen the book before.
THE LITTLE OVEN is a picture book about Helena (which happens to be the name of Estes’ daughter) and her best friend Genevieve, who’s originally from France. The two little girls ride tricycles, turn somersaults, and have silly conversations together (“What’s funny?” they asked each other. “Nothing,” they answered each other. This was so funny they laughed harder and harder.") Every day when when Helena gets tired, her mother picks her up and says, “I guess what you need is a little loving and a little hugging,” to which Helena echoes “A little ‘ovin’ and a little ‘uggin’.” But when Genevieve asks her mother for “A little ‘ovin,” her mother misinterprets and tries to buy her a toy oven from the store. The plot is slim and the prose, unlike most of the author’s books, sometimes tends toward the saccharine. But Estes’ primitive watercolor illustrations have a lot of energy and charm, and clearly this book's message of friendship and maternal love does have great meaning to many readers, as it’s almost impossible to find anywhere.
If you are lucky enough to find this rarity, the book is bound in glossy blue cloth with black print. The dustjacket looks like this:
My copy is price-clipped, so I don’t know the original cost. The copyright information is on the bottom of the title page: “Copyright, 1955, by Eleanor Estes. All rights reserved. First edition. Printed in the United States of America.”
As for my copy, I’m going to put it back under my bed, right beside the faux-hot water bottle and the Christmas ornament that, the next time I accidentally kick it, will no doubt start playing “Oh tidings of comfort and joy” -- the perfect accompaniment for a book that, over the last half century, has clearly brought comfort and joy to so many.