Considering I’ve mentioned this book three times here already, it is appropriate that it is my first “official” book review. Petunia by Roger Duvoisin (pronounced “dyoo-vwah-zah”) was written in 1950 and was Duvoisin’s 14th book as far as I can tell. His career as an author and illustrator is immense. By my count, he wrote and illustrated 42 books and illustrated around 127 by other authors. His first book, A Little Boy Was Drawing, was published in 1932 and didn’t receive much attention. But thankfully, a kind editor encouraged him to continue and we now have a myriad of brilliant books to cherish. He received the Caldecott medal in 1948 for White Snow, Bright Snow and the Caldecott Honor in 1966 for Hide and Seek Fog both of which were written by Alvin Tresselt.
Duvoisin was born in Switzerland, lived in France for a time, and then emigrated to America in 1925 with his wife, Louise Fatio. LouLou, as he affectionately called her, was a children’s book author and in 1950 they began a collaboration which lasted 30 years and resulted in 15 books, including The Happy Lion series. Duvoisin is much beloved for giving readers unforgettable characters like Petunia the goose, Veronica the hippo, Jasmine the cow, and Crocus the crocodile.
The plot: Now for the lovable silly goose, Petunia. The book opens with Petunia wandering the meadow and stumbling upon a book, something she was not accustomed to seeing.
Upon deducing that it is a book, she remembers hearing her farmer tell a boy that books are very precious and those who own and love them are wise. Mistakenly, Petunia decides that all she must do is carry the book under her wing and love it and she would abound in wisdom. The animals of the farmyard soon notice the change in Petunia and judge her to be wise as well. Next comes a series of events with the animals asking Petunia’s advice and Petunia giving them often absurd and very unhelpful “wisdom.”
This results in injury and distress for each animal, until a final piece of dreadful advice causes a major accident. All the animals are more injured and angry with Petunia, who herself has injured her once proud neck. The accident however causes the book to blow open and Petunia discovers the true secret of becoming wise.
The verdict: I find Petunia to be charming in all its 1950 glory. It is a longer book than its current counterparts tend to be, as almost all vintage books are. Children were expected to be able to sit still and fully engage in something of greater depth in times past. And they met those expectations well, as most children will. However, I have read this book aloud on several occasions and have not found it difficult for anyone to bear. Quite the contrary, children love it. The pace works well, especially with the setting of farmlife which is slower itself. The middle section consisting of Petunia’s fouled up advice can become a bit long, but as mentioned before, children love repetition and they also love to know what to expect. Of course silly Petunia will give bad advice, and of course something distressing will occur! Not to mention the spectacular accident which turns the corner for the protagonist. The drawn out middle makes the end, which can appear simple, so much more powerful. I just advise to keep the audience in mind when choosing a book to read.
The vocabulary in Petunia is wonderful. It doesn’t come across pretentious but uses deeper words within good content which helps deduce the meanings. Some of my favorites are “forlorn,” “moaning,” and “downhearted.” Lovely words. Do not be afraid to read books of bigger vocabulary to young children. This is how they learn!
Another delightful thing about Petunia is the amount of characters given voice. I own a marvelous record of the book where the narrator has a unique voice for each animal. What fun! Needless to say, I’ll be practicing my voices for a while before I attempt this book at storytime.
Now, I would be negligent to not point out that there may be some criticism for some of the 1950 content or humor. For example, the rooster references blood in the color of his comb, Petunia injures the dog with fire, and talks of pulling the horse’s teeth out; but all this, in context, adds to the absurdity of her advice. Children are smart. They know the mistakes she is making. And they are thrilled that she is making ones worse than they. Respect that they understand and enjoy the comedy in it all, just be prepared to explain if you have an especially inquisitive child.
Petunia continues to be a classic worth reading. Duvoisin created a series around the lovable goose including Petunia’s Song; Petunia’s Christmas; Petunia Takes a Trip; Petunia Beware; Petunia, I love You; and Petunia’s Treasure. And I must mention a joint book between series called Our Veronica Goes to Petunia’s Farm where the protagonist from his other series, a large hippo named Veronica, mistakenly ends up in the farmyard.
The art: Lastly, I must make note about Duvoisin’s art for Petunia. As can be expected, Duvoisin’s art evolves throughout his illustrious 48 year career. As I tend to be a critical artist, not all of his books are my favorite; but Petunia has delightful art. The art is done in line and color separations which he did by hand. The characters are marvelous, including their faces and their backsides! His use of color is vibrant and striking. There is an overall cartoon feel as comes with the black outline, but it carries a great depth in many of the drawings that make it a beautiful package to be read again and again.