Is Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas a Work of Genius?
On Russell and Lillian Hoban, Giants of 20th-Century Children's Literature
It would be hokey to say that I’ve already received a heartwarming gift this holiday season: at long last, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell Hoban with pictures by Lillian Hoban has been reissued in a cheery new edition. Then again, hokey feels appropriate, considering we’re talking about a 1971 children’s picture book about the hardscrabble woodland creatures of Waterville who compete in a talent contest presided over by the town’s mayor, Harrison Fox. Emmet Otter and his Ma have entered the competition unbeknownst to one another in the hope of winning the $50 grand prize and buying something “fine and fancy” for Christmas this year.
It was “The Gift of the Magi” meets the Muppets even before Jim Henson got ahold of it for his 1977 television adaptation that cultivated a legion of fans which included Frances Gilbert, editorial director at Doubleday Books for Young Readers, the imprint that has now revived Emmet. Gilbert, who cherished a local library after moving from England to Canada as a child, recently recalled being “instantly smitten” by the movie in the late 1970s. But, she added, “Back then you couldn’t just rent or stream video, you had to wait—for years!” Maybe that added to the story’s charm. She finally found a VHS copy during her college years, and it was then that she realized the movie had first been a book, and “by the same creators of Bread and Jam for Frances, no less.” (The Hobans’ Frances the Badger series had been another childhood favorite.) When Gilbert got into publishing, she often thought it would be great to do a new edition. “Flash forward pretty much my whole career, and finally in 2015 I acquired the rights from the estates of the Hobans to republish the book … I wished I could go back in time and tell the four-year-old immigrant version of myself that one day I’d get to do that.” She celebrated by attending a live-stage performance of the text.
Gilbert’s story is similar to mine: I loved the movie as a kid, discovered the book later, bought a first edition for my daughter’s fourth Christmas, tried to interest publishing folks in a reprint, and, when that seemed to go nowhere, settled for reading and writing about Russell Hoban. From various obituaries (Lillian died in 1998, Russell in 2011) and biographical notes at RussellHoban.org, I learned that he was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in 1925. Art was his first muse, and after serving in the army during World War II, he began working as a commercial illustrator and storyboard artist. Hoban had married fellow artist Lillian Aberman in 1944, and together they had four children. Like any new parents, the couple became actively interested in children’s books and stories. Russell illustrated two mechanical books for children but found himself drawn to fiction. When he took up his pen again, he created a precocious badger who often needed nudging in the right direction. Bedtime for Frances, illustrated by the prominent illustrator Garth Williams, was published in 1960, and it became the first of seven successful Frances books written by Russell. From the second Frances on, the Hobans worked together, with Lillian contributing the art and Russell the words.
In 1969, the Hoban family decamped to London, for what was intended to be a sabbatical of sorts. Russell had always been inspired by the city. He told the Guardian’s Nicholas Wroe, “This image of Victorian London grew in my mind—heavy fog, a landlord and his wife toasting cheese on the gas ring and a newsboy running down the street shouting ‘dreadful murder in the Marylebone Road.’ I knew that London wasn’t there any more, but I wanted to be where that kind of thing was written.” That desire ultimately split his life down the middle. Lillian returned to the United States with the children, and he stayed abroad, where he would re-marry, father three more children, and start to write novels for adults that are, by turns, subversive, fabulist, and provocative.
An imperfect accounting of his output puts the number of books written at around 80. Emmet, by virtue of being my first, remains my favorite, although in the past few years I’ve read a dozen of his collaborative children’s books, including the Frances books, The Mouse and His Child (1967), and The Mole Family Christmas (1969), as well as many of the books he produced on his own, either for children or adults, such as Turtle Diary (1975), The Marzipan Pig (1986), and the novel for which he is possibly best known, Riddley Walker (1980).
By necessity I have purchased many of these books from secondhand booksellers online, but reading his expansive oeuvre has become increasingly easy. Since his death, publishers have clamored to restore his books to the frontlist. Between then and now, there have been straight reprints and/or new editions of Turtle Diary, Ace Dragon, Jim’s Lion, A Near Thing for Captain Najork, How Tom Beat Captain Najork, The Twenty Elephant Restaurant, Monsters, Tom Batifole, The Rain Door, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Kleinzeit, Pilgermann, and Riddley Walker. Some, e.g., The Mouse and His Child and The Marzipan Pig, were pinned to anniversaries, complete with new or invigorated illustrations.
Two of those reissues, Charlie the Tramp (2016, originally 1966) and Harvey’s Hideout (forthcoming 2018, originally 1969), have been undertaken by Plough Publishing, the publishing house of the Bruderhof, an international Christian community. At first, I was perplexed by this—I thought perhaps a Berenstain Bears evangelical switcheroo was afoot. In reality, said Plough’s Sam Hine, the house was responding to a request from parents “with old-school values” to bring back some titles that encourage family life, relationships between generations, and reading aloud. They reached out to librarians for suggestions of marketable books with this type of “universal appeal,” books that “people of all ages can enjoy.” The Hobans rose to the surface, along with Astrid Lindgren and Eloise Jarvis McGraw.
Frances Gilbert echoed Hine’s sentiments in discussing the Hobans’ appeal, 40 and 50 years on. “I think in many ways it allows us to fantasize about a gentler time. But [Emmet] is also a story about honesty and bravery and hard work and picking yourself up when you’ve been knocked down—and these are deeply timeless themes.” Incidentally, the titular characters of Plough’s Hoban reprints, Charlie Beaver and Harvey Muskrat, reappear as Emmet’s bandmates (Charlie on cigar-box banjo, Harvey on kazoo) in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a major plot point of which is Emmet’s decision to put a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a bass.
The Hobans’ children’s books do make us feel warm and fuzzy, but the truth is that while Russell was creating these characters, he was struggling with insomnia and the daily burdens of family life, as borne out in his papers, recently acquired by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. Like many writers, he kept tabs on work started, finished, rejected, or sold in his diary—bound day-planner type diaries, one for each year. On occasion, he noted exactly how much time he had spent on a project per day, peppered with reports of errands and children’s activities he had attended to (piano lessons, driving lessons).
On his birthday, February 4, 1968, he recorded: “Forty-three years old today. Mouse + Child Reviewed (Adversely) in the NY Times Today.” In June, he mentioned a plan to relocate to London. On New Year’s Eve, he wrote, “A prosperous year but a dismal one for me.”
I visited the archive last month with the intention of viewing, if it existed, the original manuscript for Emmet. I uncovered two versions: a typescript from October 13, 1969, likely a carbon copy, on pale yellow paper, splotchy and blurred; the other an undated, 14-page typescript on manila paper, with his handwritten annotations. They were thrilling to behold, and hold. Even better, though, was the entry in Hoban’s diary for February 28, 1969: “Started EO.” Following on that, March 2: “Working on Emmet Otter can’t get beginning right.” He writes of “converting” Emmet into a Christmas story (which means that he hadn’t initially envisioned it as such!). He finished Emmet that March, and was pleased to record on May 9 that Alvin Tresselt, then the executive editor and VP of Parents’ Magazine Press, had selected Emmet for its book club in 1970.
But that didn’t happen, and here the record drops off a bit. What did happen was that on August 14, 1969, the Hobans sailed to London. For the holidays, they traveled to the French Riviera, where, it appears, Russell purchased his 1970 diary—it is French. It is also blank after January, and he did not take up his journal again until mid-1971, by which time his marriage was shattered. Hoban retained carbon copies of his correspondence, and his long letters to Ursula Nordstrom, the Hobans’ editor at Harper & Row, cover this painful era. What Russell and Lillian had ready or near-ready for publication, including Emmet (1971) and Egg Thoughts (1972) eked out, and they both continued to publish, but as collaborators, they were done.
In all, they had produced 26 children’s books together, said Elizabeth Frengel, head of research services at the Beinecke Library and curator of +The Art of Collaboration: The Children’s Books of Russell and Lillian Hoban, an exhibition that opens on January 19. Drawing from Yale’s three separate collections of Lillian’s and Russell’s papers, the exhibition will showcase correspondence, printer’s dummies, artwork, and unpublished manuscripts like “Television for Frances,” that for some reason, never felt right to its creators. Frengel shares my fascination with the Hobans’ work—in the recurrent themes of freedom, free will, and figuring out one’s place in the world, and in what she aptly termed the “existential underpinning” of their stories. They are children’s books, yes, but adults often enjoy them just as much.
Yale had acquired Lillian’s papers in 2013, but Russell’s seemed to be in limbo after his death. In February 2014, a notice appeared online at the Group for Literary Archives & Manuscripts blog, stating that his papers were “in search of a home.” That announcement startled me, as it’s not typically the way famous authors’ papers are exchanged. Then, silence. I wondered, and I worried. Two years passed before I read that Tim Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, had purchased them from Hoban’s widow via New York bookseller Glenn Horowitz. Because Lillian’s archive was already there, and because the Beinecke is actively collecting the archives of American children’s book authors and artists, said Frengel, it was a natural fit.
For Frengel, two pieces have stood out so far among Russell’s vast trove (he was not only prolific, but a notorious packrat). “When the Russell Hoban papers first arrived,” she said, “and they hadn’t been processed … I started to pull boxes off the shelf, and I opened the box that had the original mouse doll from The Mouse and His Child.” She then located, among Russell’s correspondence, a letter to Clifton Fadiman, about the wind-up toy and how it inspired him. It was “mind-blowing,” she said. Another treasure: the dummy for Bread and Jam for Frances. “It has a high fetish value for me.”
The Hobans’ books incite that kind of cult adoration. It is certainly true for me—and particularly at this time of year when I re-read and re-watch Emmet (a 40th anniversary version of the Henson special was recently released). I waited a long time to see Emmet restored to print, so this new edition is enormously gratifying. Even more important is the sense that not only are the Hobans getting their due, but that outstanding children’s books are, too—books of depth and beauty, about, as Gilbert said, listening to one another and finding harmony in our differences. “I can’t think of a more important lesson in 2017.”