The children's book judges for the 1972 National Book Award had to pick from an exceptional slate of books.
Among that year's ten finalists were titles that had already been hailed by both Newbery (winner MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien and Honor Books THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN by Virginia Hamilton and THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. LeGuin) and Caldecott (Honor Book HILDILID'S NIGHT, written by Cheli Duran Ryan and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.)
The finalists also included a pair of ground-breaking young adult novels (HIS OWN WHERE by June Jordan and WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovan), two well-received picture books (AMOS & BORIS by William Steig; FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES by Wendy and Clyde Watson), a middle-grade novel that had gotten a lot of critical acclaim (THE BEARS' HOUSE by Marilyn Sachs) and a nonfiction book that nobody paid much attention to but, okay whatever, ended up on the list anyway (THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SANDCASTLES by Jan Adkins.)
So which of those titles won the National Book Award?
None of them.
The award went to the tenth title on the list, THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR, THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN by Donald Barthelme.
Donald Barthelme was primarily known as a writer of "postmodernist" short fiction for sophisticated adult readers; much of his work appeared in the NEW YORKER. THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, which he wrote for (some even say "with") his young daughter, was his first and only foray into children's books.
I was about thirteen when THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE won the NBA. Having read and liked most of the other titles on the shortlist, I was very curious to read the unknown book that had somehow bested them. But when a copy turned up in our public library, it was not kept in the children's room. Instead I found this tall, skinny volume -- by all appearances a picture book -- shelved with the adult fiction. I immediately sat down to read it and...didn't like it at all.
Not only that: I didn't understand it either!
The other day I happened upon a new edition, published by The Overlook Press in 2006. I wondered how it would hold up after nearly four decades. So I immediately sat down to read it again and...didn't like it at all.
Not only that: I still don't understand it!
The book concerns young Mathilda, who awakes one morning in 1887 wishing, for unexplained reasons, that she had a fire engine. Instead, she steps outside to discover that a small Chinese house has "grown" in her backyard overnight. Inside the pagoda she meets "two fierce-looking Chinese guards," a rainmaker, a knitting pirate, a djinn, and all manner of strange characters. Nothing much happens: Mathilda hears a story related by the pirate, sits down to a meal of fried lobster and sweet-and-sour ice cream, is offered a souvenier of her "escapade" (souvenier choices include "a barrel of pickles surmounted by a sour and severe citizen" or an anatomical diagram) and then returns home. The next morning she awakes to find the little Chinese house is gone but a bright green fire engine sits in its place.
Do you get it?
It's my understanding that Mr. Barthelme composed this story around the collection of nineteenth-century advertising engravings which serve as the book's illustrations. Although THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE was honored for its "book design" by the American Institue of Graphic Arts, I find the collage-style artwork cold and off-putting. And what to make of the distracting advertising logos that appear on some of the pages, such as this one (you can click on the image to enlarge the picture) which randomly states "SLENDER-WAISTEDNESS / Corseted Divinities with Waspish Affinities / Worrying, Flurrying"? How does that enhance the book?
And look, here's Mathilda, shown for the umpteenth time in an identical pose because the same image of the girl is used repeatedly throughout the book (isn't she tired of holding that hoop?)
Some have compared Mathilde in the Chinese House to Alice in Wonderland...but I don't see it. I just see a succession of random, sterile images accompanied by an absurd and unstructured (The New York Times called it, rather kindly, "loose-jointed") story. I'd say the book is best appreciated by adults...but I'm adult and I don't really appreciate it. But obviously some adults do. After all, it won the National Book Award.
However...it should be noted that THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE didn't win the award unanimously.
Judges Lore Segal and Jean Stafford were mainly adult authors whose work, coincidentally (and insert three very large question marks here!) appeared in the New Yorker alongside Barthelme's. In awarding the prize, they hailed this irregular volume as "a book of originality, wit, and intellectual adventure."
The third judge, then-Horn Book editor Paul Heins, cast a dissenting vote and, in an unprecedented move, publicly voiced his displeasure over the selection.
In retrospect, the NBA won by THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE seems a totally wasted award. Donald Barthelme was a "visitor" to the world of children's books and his famous name seems to have influenced the judges (well, two of the judges) much more than the quality of his odd and offputting book. Ultimately, its "National Book Award" seal did little to increase sales; reports say that many of the copies from the 12,500 first printing ended up being remaindered. Kids didn't embrace it then and I doubt that even today's "postmodernist" kids will find much to like about it.
Looking back at the list of previous NBA children's book winners, THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE will probably always remain the one title that has readers scratching their heads and saying, "Huh. Never heard of that one."