The Adventures of Isabel
by Ogden Nash, ill. by Bridget Starr Taylor
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2008
Some of the best, most enduring stories in kid lit started out as improv.
The Hobbit, for instance, started out as a bedtime story for J. R. R. Tolkien’s children. Peter Rabbit first appeared in a letter Beatrix Potter wrote to a young fan. Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Winnie-the-Pooh all have similar origins.
I think these stories endure precisely because of their off-the-cuff origins. Extemporaneous storytelling tends to be wildly creative stuff, especially in the hands of a gifted tale-maker. It’s usually mold-breaking, colorful, and deeply engaging–all qualities that make for excellent kid lit.
So I was pretty excited to find Ogden Nash’s The Adventures of Isabel in a bargain-book bin at my grocery store (yes, I dig through book bins even at the grocery store).
Nash is best known for his humorous poetry for adults, but he also penned quite a few verses to amuse his daughters, Isabel and Linell. The Adventures of Isabel, a 40-line fantasy featuring Nash’s daughter as the heroine, is one of those poems.
The first three stanzas are a rompy sendup of classic fairy tales, with Isabel facing off against a bear, a witch, and a giant. In each case, she “calmly” vanquishes her adversary and moves blithely on to the next foe.
Her fourth and final challenger, a fussbudget doctor, is the only one to survive his encounter with Isabel; she simply “cures” him (of the sickness of being too grown-up, I like to think).
On its own, this is not a narrative poem–Isabel’s “adventures” are four disconnected, stand-alone incidents. But illustrator Bridget Starr Taylor had the vision to weave them into a continuous narrative through her drawings, with the first three villains serving as roadblocks to Isabel’s final destination.
This is one of the best examples of text-art interplay I’ve seen. Taylor’s drawings have a smirky but frenetic quality that perfectly matches the tone of Ogden’s text, and her story-behind-the-poem cleverly morphs light verse into dramatic quest.
The best part of the book, though, is the idea behind the poem: that a little girl can be fearless, ferocious, a force to be reckoned with. And that she can be all those things without being crazy, mean, or hysterical.
Isabel is a level-headed problem-solver and happy adventuress rolled into one. Her courage runs very, very deep–it’s simply a part of who she is. Whether her problems are the stuff of fantasy (the fairy-tale bear, witch, and giant) or reality (the doctor), she can tackle them.
And that’s a great message for very little girls, whose imaginations can sometimes run away with them. The magical realism of the toddler and preschool years is a double-edged sword. It’s what generates both the glittering make-believe worlds of playtime and the terrorizing nightmares of bedtime.
As a parent, I sometimes forget that the monsters in my daughter’s dreams are as scary-real to her as a trip to the ER. She needs equal measures of courage to confront them both.
With inspirations like Isabel, maybe someday she’ll be the recipient of a tribute like the one Linell Nash Smith wrote for this book: “For the real little girl named Isabel, who grew up to be just as adventuresome and courageous as her namesake in the story.”
How do you help the little girls you know deal with their fears, both real and imaginary? Do you have a favorite courageous picture-book heroine?