This is a book I picked up at a used bookstore over the Labor Day weekend, Little Boy With A Big Horn, by Jack Bechdolt with pictures by Aurelius Battaglia. I had never seen it before, but the artist name caught my eye, not to mention his gorgeous illustrations. With a musical mayhem, people in lovely period dress, and an eventual saving-the-day moment, it has all the pieces for a fun and charming classic.
The story was originally published in 1950, but this copy is a reprint from 1999. In 1976, it was released as a Little Golden Book & Record set. I love those! There is a children’s song that is very important in the storyline which was probably well-known in the 50s but would no longer be familiar nowadays. The record along with it is a marvelous idea! I’ll be keeping my eye out for that.
The author: Jack Bechdolt, is very unfamiliar to me. I believe he is the journalist and author who lived around the turn of the century, John Ernest Bechdolt; and if that is true, this was originally published a few years before he died in 1954. I’m not able to find a full list of his work, but his most well-known seem to be the Pony Books, The Torch, and The Modern Handy Book for Boys. Apparently quite a few of his stories were made into films.
The style of writing in Little Boy With A Big Horn is very straight-forward and narratory. Bechdolt often talks to the audience and is very proper in language. I find this to be quite charming as the reader tends to walk away feeling a bit more proper themselves. I’ll be interested to check out more of his writings when opportunity presents.
The illustrator: Aurelius Battaglia I am a little more familiar with, mostly for his marvelous children’s book Animal Sounds. He is considered a prolific children’s book illustrator and is known for books like The Fire Engine Book, Captain Kangaroo’s Read-Aloud Book, and The Fireside Book of American Folk Songs. Battaglia illustrated for many magazines and also worked for Walt Disney Studios from 1937 – 1941. He is known for his work on Dumbo, Fantasia, & Pinocchio. His time with Disney coincided with another masterful illustrator, Mary Blair, and the similarities of their styles is definitely notable. To see more of Aurelius Battaglia’s beautiful illustrations check out Today’s Inspiration’s posts Love, Lust, and Heartbreak; a Young Nation’s Growing Pains; African American Heritage; and Singing Battaglia’s Praises.
The plot: Little Boy With a Big Horn opens by introducing us to a small boy named Ollie who was learning to play a big bass horn.
He only knew one song, “Asleep in the Deep” which the narrator questions if the reader knows too and then shares the lyrics. I couldn’t stand not knowing this song, so of course, I googled it. Ignore the text on the video and behold a marvelous YouTube version:
The part of the song that is referenced throughout the book begins at 1:10 of the video.
Now, with a familiarity to the song in our heads, let us proceed. Ollie is learning to play this song, but his mother cannot handle it in the house so he moves to the backyard.
This disrupts the entire town which causes a town meeting to ensue where they attempt to decide what to do about the awful loud playing. Ollie has a moment of brilliance and decides to play off in the fields where no one will be bothered. Unfortunately, it bothers a herd of cows and their farmer who shoos Ollie away.
Eventually, Ollie rows way out from shore to play in the middle of the ocean near a bell buoy that tolls to warn incoming vessels of dangerous rocks near the harbor. But when Ollie reaches the spot, the buoy is not to be found. As a thick fog rolls in, Ollie frets about a steamship which typically arrives around this time of day.
So Ollie decides to play and be the warning. Ironically, the only tune he knows is “Asleep in the Deep.” Ollie faithfully plays and in the end he saves the ship and the tourists aboard. The Captain praises Ollie and the passengers cheer.
Another town meeting occurs and Ollie is awarded for bravery. The people decide to send him to music school where he can play as much as he likes and never disturb anyone.
The verdict: This is a fun and unique book. It feels very out of place in today’s culture, but should be celebrated for such. Ollie is an incredibly polite and respectable young boy with a wonderful drive to learn music well. I love that he problem solves throughout and is one of those completely surprising heroes. With his beanie cap, ascot tie and pressed shorts, he does not look the part of a hero, but using his manners, his kind heart, and his questionable “talent,” he becomes one. This is a fun book to read with a very properly handled near-disaster. Definitely read this one and discuss the fun clothes, impeccable manners, and unknown features such as a bell buoy. Perhaps we can revive the lively “Asleep in the Deep” to the next generation!
The art: Allow me to continue to sing the praises of Aurelius Battaglia. His characters are marvelously “animated” and his use of color is masterful. I particularly love how you can feel movement with the lines and limbs of the figures. This is such a fun book to admire. My particular copy is not my favorite as the cover quality and color saturation is unfortunate. However, the internal pages are quite excellent in their reproduction. And I’m thrilled that this version is larger than a typical Golden Book for better viewing of the images. Battaglia has a beautiful attention to detail with patterns and texture. I’m glad this book remains in some sort of circulation.
Interesting to note is Golden Books new version of this in 2008 with illustrations by Dan Yaccarino. Most likely they intended to modernize the images. While I have nothing against Yaccarino and his illustrations, I cannot imagine redoing a Battaglia. If I come across his version, I’ll give it a read, especially as I’m curious if they updated the text at all. But I have no doubt which will remain my preference.