September 22, 2016


Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. By Paul T. Gilbert. Pictures by Minnie H. Rousseff and Barbara Maynard. Pomegranate Kids. $24.95.

     Books do not have to be monumentally consequential to be absolutely delightful entertainments for kids. In fact, it helps if at least some of them, instead of dutifully reflecting gigantic real-world issues and disputes, exist in their own unreal, generally pleasant world, as escapes from some of the rigors and tremors of everyday life. This may have been better understood in 1937, when Paul T. Gilbert's Bertram and His Fabulous Animals was first published, than it is today, when books with social or sociopolitical messages are all the rage, the operative word indeed often being “rage.”

     There is a modicum of anger in Bertram’s world, but only a touch here and there. It is usually directed at highly imaginative Bertram himself, or directed by Bertram at the many and varied creatures he encounters in and around his home. Bertram is fortunate to live in a town where all sorts of animals, real and fanciful, turn up at the drop of a hat – all of them able to communicate with him, his friends and his family. He is also fortunate to live near Omaha, since that is the place from which his father inevitably returns from doing business in order to set things right when, equally inevitably, they go wrong.

     Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is a sequel to Bertram and His Funny Animals, which appeared three years earlier and had Bertram interacting with real-world animals that were drawn with some realism by Minnie H. Rousseff and that behaved in some ways like real animals (except for the facts that they talked, turned up on local streets and in local yards, and so forth). These tales are not exactly a prototype of the Calvin and Hobbes situation, since Hobbes was only a stuffed animal to everyone except Calvin, while the animals with which Bertram interacts are quite real not only to him but also to all those around him. And that includes the animals that are distinctly unreal, which are the ones in Bertram and His Fabulous Animals. This is more of a “lessons learned” book than its predecessor, since in several cases here, Bertram wishes he had a fantasy animal because he wants or does not want to do something – but when he gets the animal, he gets his comeuppance. In the 1930s, homes were still heated by coal, which was heavy, messy and difficult to shovel, so of course Bertram resents having to stoke the furnace all the time and wishes he had a fire-breathing dragon. The thing is, when he gets one, it turns out that Bertram has to stoke the dragon with coal so it can breathe enough fire to keep the house warm. And after he wishes that his little brother, Baby Sam, were a mermaid, because then mermaid Sam could bait Bertram’s fishing hook with worms and Bertram would not have to push Sam in the buggy, Bertram actually meets a mermaid – who does help with fishing but also smells tremendously of fish, so the town cats follow her and Bertram constantly, and on top of that, the mermaid insists on being pushed in the buggy even more than Bertram ever had to push Baby Sam in it.

     Bertram’s father is quite good at sorting things out eventually, even when those things involve fabulous animals of which readers will never have heard. Those animals – as described by Gilbert and pictured by Rousseff and Barbara Maynard – are among the big attractions here, creating a kind of surrealistic weirdness in the chapters in which they appear. One is a “Squeazle-Weasel,” which looks a bit like a four-limbed spider walking upright and which has extremely picky eating habits – teaching Bertram that he should stop being so fussy about food. Another is an “Anting-Anting,” a 17-legged caterpillar-like creature the size of a dachshund, whose diet turns out to consist of all the clothing in Bertram’s house except for the corduroys that Bertram had been refusing to wear but for which he is eventually grateful. And a third is a “Miki-Miki,” who is “perfectly round and green, and he looked like a big gooseberry on ducks’ legs” – and who is quite generous with his food, which consists entirely of sweets, until eventually Bertram has had enough of all the candies and such that he had previously demanded constantly. Yes, a lot of Bertram and His Fabulous Animals revolves around food, but not all of it. Bertram also encounters a griffin, unicorn, baby dinosaur, roc and winged horse here, and in every chapter comes out a bit worse for wear but a bit better-behaved and perhaps a touch more self-aware. Still, this is a book of amusing fantasy, not one intended to instruct, much less lecture; and it is therefore an anodyne for all the painfully message-heavy books for young readers that have become de rigueur among contemporary authors. There is nothing really contemporary about Bertram’s adventures and Gilbert’s recounting of them. Bertram and His Fabulous Animals is simply a book of naïveté and unassuming charm, two characteristics that are in distinctly short supply in more-recent books for children.

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