Best known for her 1940 perennial bestseller Pat the Bunny, which was a groundbreaker in the touch-and-feel genre, Dorothy Kunhardt also published nearly 50 other books for children and adults throughout her many decades as an author. These include Junket Is Nice, her first book, released by Harcourt, Brace and Co. in 1933, and Now Open the Box, which that house brought out the following year. The New York Review Children’s Collection is reissuing paper-over-board editions of these picture books – which mesh the sensible with the nonsensical –in July and October respectively. The original art, the rights to which are held by the author’s estate, were scanned to create the facsimile editions.
Founded in 2003, the New York Review’s Children’s Collection issues new editions of previously published, often long-out-of-print titles, from picture books through YA novels. The imprint’s backlist includes works by an impressive roster of authors and illustrators, including Eleanor Farjeon, Russell and Lillian Hoban, Ruth Krauss and Marc Simont, E. Nesbit, James Thurber, and T.H. White.
Editor-in-chief Edwin Frank said that the Children’s Collection’s acquisitions have several sources. “We mine archives to find classics,” he explained, “and of course there are books I remembered as a child and those I remembered reading to my own children. It’s important that the books we publish are ones that parents enjoy reading to their kids and that kids enjoy having read to them. We also invite suggestions from readers and sometimes find leads in reference books. And we’ve had editors in the business pass on ideas to us. We always keep our ears open.”
Kunhardt’s Junket Is Nice and Now Open the Box fit nicely into the Children’s Collection credo. “These books are very important in the history of American illustrated children’s books,” he said. “In a sense, Dorothy Kunhardt invented the practice of writing books in a child’s state of mind, in terms of the handwriting of the text and the way the story is told. Instead of talking down to children, she engages their imagination. Her illustrations are striking and the text and images complement each other beautifully. I wouldn’t publish something just because it’s quaint and vintage. A book still needs to be fresh, and these certainly are.”
A Family Tradition
In addition to the enduring popularity of Pat the Bunny, Dorothy Kunhardt’s legacy was enhanced well before the new reissues. Her daughter, Edith Kunhardt Davis (for whom Kunhardt wrote Pat the Bunny, when Davis was three years old), has written some 70 children’s books of her own. Some of her work is modeled on her mother’s, beginning with Pat the Cat, which Golden Books published in the mid-1980s. Pat the Puppy, Pat the Pony, and other books in the series followed.
When asked to write and illustrate Pat the Cat, Davis, who was with Golden Books at the time, was at first reluctant to step into her mother’s footsteps. “My first reaction was, ‘A spinoff of Pat the Bunny? No, no, never – don’t do it!’ ” she recalled. “But I decided to take it on. I didn’t know if I could do the illustrations, but they said, ‘We’ll see what you come up with.’ It was a tremendous challenge, but I’m very glad I did it and am pleased with the results. And that led me to think about other tactile children’s books on the same theme. It was a lot of fun.”
Davis, whose stand-alone children’s books include I’m Going to Be a Police Officer, Pompeii... Buried Alive!, and Honest Abe, recalls her mother working from her attic studio when her four children were young. “The studio had no heat, and she would take these very bad 1940s electric heaters up there to work,” she said. “We rented a house on a rundown estate in New Jersey, and that was magic for my brothers and sister and me. We roamed all over the estate making up stories!” Davis wrote and illustrated her very first homemade book – about Rosie, a hippo that lived in the Central Park Zoo – in elementary school.
Davis notes that her mother’s first foray into publishing came about because Davis’s father lost his job in the early 1930s. “They were really hard up for money, and that’s why she started in children’s books,” she said. “She submitted a four-color dummy for Junket Is Nice to Harcourt, Brace, but was told that they couldn’t do a four-color book – it had to be two-color. So my mother knew that she wasn’t about to do the whole thing all over again, and threw the dummy into the bathtub to wash off all the color. Even though it swelled up enormously, she dried it out and put in red and black and took it back to Harcourt.”
A contract was signed and a publishing career was launched – quite successfully. Kunhardt “had this incredible and weird sense of humor,” said Davis, quoting a review of Junket Is Nice in the New York Herald Tribune that advised families to “read it every day before supper.” (The book centers on a man who challenges “all the people in the world” to guess what he is thinking about as he consumes an enormous bowl of junket.)
Davis is pleased that Junket Is Nice and Now Open the Box will reach a new generation of readers. “It’s very gratifying and exciting,” she said. “The Children’s Collection has a wonderful list and it is a great honor that my mother’s books will be included on it. My mother had a great knack for reaching children: my brother always said that my mother had a ‘baby mind’ and she did. And that is a great compliment to her.”
Junket Is Nice by Dorothy Kunhardt. The New York Review Children’s Collection, $16.95 July ISBN 978-1-59017-628-3
Now Open the Box by Dorothy Kunhardt. The New York Review Children’s Collection, $16.95 Oct. ISBN 978-1-59017-708-2