May 17, 2009

Donald Barthelme's The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

irregular_fire_engine.jpgI don't know who started it, but there was a period in the 1960s and 1970s when everyone from Monty Python, to the four-armed swami on Sesame Street to Sister Mary Corita Kent to whoever made the tables at Wendy's was remixing old-timey illustrations from 19th-century books, newspapers, and advertisements.

Personally, until I hear otherwise, I'll assume it was all because of Donald Barthelme. The postmodernist short story writer regularly illustrated his stories with ironically subtitled engravings, and he used his signature vintage collage technique to illustrate his only children's book, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, or the Hithering Thithering Djinn.

The book follows a girl named Matilda on her visit into the Chinese doll house that grew in her backyard. Matilda, who already looks like she could have been clipped from Lewis Carroll's sketchbook, meets a string of characters from Kid Lit Central Casting: the djinn in the title, a pirate, an elephant. And in the end, her wish for a fire engine is fulfilled--slightly irregularly. It's an early, brainy example of the kind of children's book that plays with a kid's expectations as much as it tells a story, like how--to take two divergent examples--Grover breaks the fourth wall in The Monster At The End of This Book, or how Jon Sczieska turns everything in The Stinky Cheese Man into a parody, including the table of contents.

The Slightly Irregular Train Engine won the National Book Award in 1972, a fact which still rubs at least one traditionalist reactionary children's book nerd the wrong way. [He also complains that nothing happens, the illustrations are "cold and off-putting." And he doesn't know "what to make of the distracting advertising logos."]

The most comprehensive discussion I've found of the book is from the Virginia Quarterly Review, where David Gates finally got around to it in 1976. Gates calls TSIFE "a deliberate impersonation of a conventional children's book" that doesn't preach or condescend to its young audience:

[T]he usual Barthelme irony is there, but little of the usual darkness and high seriousness is immediately apparent. Whatever else it may be, it is first a game. Furthermore, the young reader is perfectly capable of understanding that the book is a game.
Which all makes sense when you consider how Barthelme understood his own adult audience--die-hard New Yorker readers and pointy-headed academics--and his initial target kid audience: his own six-year-old daugther, Anne. Some accounts describe TSIFE as being written with Anne, others say it was written for her. In the memoir she wrote for her ex-husband, though, Don's second wife Helen Moore Barthelme, who granted him the divorce he needed to marry his 9 months pregnant Danish baby mama in 1965, says Don just read the manuscript to Anne before the book was published in 1971.

It all makes The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine sound like one of those books your kid'll need to grow into. To make sure she's ready by 4-5, you should start introducing deconstructionist analysis of Farmer MacGregor's capitalist stranglehold on the implements of production and why Peter Rabbit has a jacket in the first place no later than age two.

Morning After Update Dude, what's the big deal? Why the overanalysis and the kneejerk traditionalist whining? K2 and I went to the library this morning to check out TSIFE, and it's a totally fine, accessible, and amusing book. The text is just more colloquial and naturalistic than typical kid-directed language, which strikes me as an entirely good thing. As for the collaged effect that juxtaposes images with old-timey ad copy, guess what? Not only does it provide an ironic subtext, it's also exactly what it's like to read a magazine, a newspaper, a website, a TV screen, everything. Welcome to the real world, hater librarians!

Buy Overlook Press's 2006 reissue of The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine on Amazon [amazon]
A Highly Irregular Children's Story []
WLYS on []
A Slightly Irregular Winner [collecting childrens books blog]
Previously: To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein

1 Comment

You have a interresting point. If you are looking for a book you and you kids will love try The Adventures of Kid Humpty Dumpty. You will have just as much fun reading to your kid as they will hearing it and it will fuel a love for reading that may last them a life time.
check it out at

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