Monday, October 20, 2008

The Funny Thing

guest blogger Thingummery

The Funny Thing
Wanda Gág ~ Coward-McCann, 1928

Wanda Gág was some kind of crazy genius, there is no doubt about it. Some people take issue with the dark undertones of her stories — witness the cannibalistic feline massacre in Millions of Cats or the existential crisis of the invisible puppy in Nothing at All — but I beg to differ. My favorite children’s stories serve up whimsy and charm with a healthy undercurrent of menace (hello, Brothers Grimm, which Gág illustrated in a beauteous 1947 edition). I’m dying to read a biography because she was clearly a pretty interesting lady (gee, I think there’s been one on my Amazon wish list for a while…). I haven’t read all of her books yet — I don’t like to order them, I like to find them at used book stores and estate sales, the thrill of the hunt, you know — but it’s hard to imagine any of them top The Funny Thing.

A kindly little mountain gentleman named Bobo devotes his life to feeding squirrels, birds, rabbits and mice. One day he encounters a beast who seems to be part dragon part dog and part giraffe — a vain, ill-mannered, preening creature who points out that he is NOT an “animal” but an “aminal.” Ever cordial Bobo offers him a meal, but the Funny Thing turns up his nose at all the nut cakes, fine seed puddings, little cheeses and cabbage salads. The frustrated host finally asks his rude guest what he would like to eat and is horrified at the answer: dolls.

“But it is not kind to eat up little children’s dolls,” said Bobo. “I should think it would make them very unhappy.”

“So it does,” said the Funny Thing, smiling pleasantly “but very good they are — dolls.”

This throws Bobo into a tizzy, and he wracks his brain till he comes up with a plan: flattery. He fawns over the Funny Thing’s “lovely tail,” “pretty black eyebrows” and the “row of blue points” down its back. As the creature writhes with pleasure, Bobo asks him if his beauty secret is the “jum-jills” in his diet and of course, the Funny Thing takes the bait.

“Jum-jills?” he asked eagerly. “What is a jum-jill — is it a kind of doll?”

“Oh no,” said Bobo. “Jum-jills are funny little cakes which make blue points more beautiful and little tails grow into big ones.”

(On a side note, it was amusing to find out that when my husband and I would read this book to our daughter, we were both channeling Charles Nelson Reilly for the Funny Thing’s voice.)

Of course the Funny Thing demands some of those tail-enhancing cakes, so Bobo whips up a batch of nutcake-seedcake-cabbage-balls and pronounces them jum-jills. The funny thing scarfs all the jum-jills and every day returns for more until his tail grows so long he can hardly move. At which point he relocates to the top of the mountain, letting his long tail curl down around it, while the birds fly him a steady supply of jum-jills and thus keep the world’s population of dolls safe from harm. Moral of the story: flattery will get you everywhere, especially if you can think on the fly (and have a few really good recipes at your disposal).

Here I would like to mention that at the height of my daughter’s obsession with this book, my husband rather ingeniously made jum-jills for her. They tasted pretty good—a lot like tabbouleh — and it really did make her tail grow longer. Ha.

(Scribbler's note... Esme posted on a great Gág bio for kids here.)

Also by:
Millions of Cats
Nothing At All
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs


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penelope said...

we read this book in our family. although i didn't remember the name of the book, my mother (a fabulous pie maker) always gave us the left over crust to make jumjills. I remembered there was a dragon and jumjills were dragon food.
In fact, I just pulled a pan out of the oven for a holiday snack! and my kid is 30!

penelope said...

Oh, i forgot, jumjills in our family were the left over pie dough, rolled out, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, rolled back up and cut into bite size pieces.

the cinnamon smell fills the house.

Jil Casey said...

Haven't seen this book, gotta love Wanda Gag

Powell River Books said...

This was my favourite book from childhdood. To this day I call something good to eat a jum-jill. When I taught school (kindergarten), I read it to my students and each year we all made a batch of jum-jills (altered recipe to make them tastier for human children). Thanks for the memories. - Margy

Anonymous said...

Still in love with this story. We had it in Book 5 of the Red Books. I was recalling but not remembering so I Googled and found you had kept the details for me. Thank you!! Our jum-jills were also piecrust left overs. Loved you posted the picture of the dragon on the hill and a very long tail and the birds feeding the dragon, happily resolved. Ahhhh.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I LOVED this book when I was little! We got it out of the library regularly. I thought of it recently, but couldn't remember the name. All I could remember was the dragon who ate treats made especially for him, and I could envision some of the illustrations. Just today I was reading old letters my mother had written to her mother, and she mentioned the book as being one of my favorites when I was three years old. I ran to my computer and Googled the title, and here we are! I don't understand why I have never heard it mentioned in all the years since I was little. It's such a classic!

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