My kids and I loved James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks so much (our thoughts here) that we quickly jumped to The Wonderful O (1957), another currently published in a lovely edition in The New York Review Children’s Collection. As with The 13 Clocks, this one was illustrated by Thurber’s friend Marc Simont, since Thurber had gone blind by the time he wrote these children’s books.
This book is a blast. Each of us was laughing frequently, from its arch beginning (“Somewhere a ponderous tower clock slowly dropped a dozen strokes into the gloom.”), to its ridiculous (in a good — no, great — way) middle, and its lovely, over-the-top ending.
When the book begins, two pirates, Black and Littlejack, each possessing a piece of the puzzle to finding a lost treasure, come together to plan just how to get that treasure.
“I’ve had a hatred of that letter ever since the night my mother became wedged in a porthole. We couldn’t pull her in and so we had to push her out.” He shuddered and his eyes turned hard. “What is the name of this island?” he asked, shaking off the thought of O.
“Ooroo,” said Littlejack, and once more the other shuddered.
So, off to Ooroo they go, but when the treasure isn’t found immediately, Black and his pirates terrorize the inhabitants by (1) forcing them to speak without using any Os (“Ophelia Oliver repeated [her name], and vanished from the haunts of men”) and (2) with the assistance of a local lawyer, taking away all items deemed to be too much O (thus, cows cannot run around alone but are okay if in a herd, while, on the other hand, hens must be kept segregated to prevent them forming a flock).
Chas ensues, and it affects people in the saddest of ways: “A man and his wife who loved to play duets on mandolin and glockenspiel drifted apart.”
It is such a fun book to read aloud, intelligent, witty, filled with not only Thurber’s wordplay but with his internal rhythm. I cannot recommend it enough. I think my boys feel the same way. Here is Carter (7) and Holland (5) answering questions my wife posed to them.
Can you tell me about the book?
Carter: It was good. They didn’t like Os, so they put everything out that had Os. It was funny. I guess it was plain. Regular. They do silly things with words.
Holland: I liked it. Because they invited people from different books to come and save them too. Like Robin Hood.
What characters would you bring from other books to save you?
Carter: Thomas the Tank Engine . . . He’s all I could think of . . . He could run over them.
Holland: Dumbledore. And Harry Potter. Because I love them!
What was your favorite character in this book?
Holland: Black. Cause him was funny.
Carter: The guy that sold candy. Remember? He said that he would be sad there would be no chocolate. Find it in the book!
What O thing would you be saddest to lose?
Holland: Me. I would miss my man. I would miss me.
Carter: Moon. Ground! Ground, ground. Ground.
What did you think of the lawyer in the book? Did you like him?
Carter: No. He told them what they had to do.
Holland: Uh uh. He told them what to hit.
Do you think that’s what kind of lawyer Dad is?
Carter: No no no. He’s one that helps people.
Holland: Uh uh. He’s a mommy lawyer. He’s just mean to us cause you tell him to be.