October 7, 2006
One of my favorite childhood books was a hand me down from my mom titled the 'Tall Book of Make Believe'. The inscription on the front page read "Greetings from Santa Claus, 1951" followed by mom mom's name written in her 6 year old hand. My guess is she wrote her name on that very Christmas day — her 'e's are rendered backwards. I knew the book was something special even as a kid. The worn corners of the cardboard cover and taped up back gave it the patina of love and I always kept it in a place of importance by my bed. When she died it was one of the first things I took from the house.
The text, mainly poetry, was a bit archaic even in 1955 with lines like "Their wings were blue and they sang 'Tilly-hoo!' Till away they flew." There are poems by well known authors like Robert Lewis Stevenson and Carl Sandberg as well as authors you've probably never heard of like Midred Plew Meigs, but the reason I loved the book (and the reason my mom loved it) were the illustrations by Garth Williams.
You might know Williams from his illustrations of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, or Little House on the Prairie but the illustrations in the Tall Book of Make Believe are dreamier and occasionally scarier than anything you would find in those other books. Here the man in the moon looks like a sorcerer pulling clouds through the sky, rogue shadows follow wary bunnies through the fields, bad elephants are forced to eat coal, and teddy bears come to life to make mischief. This is just-about-to-fall-asleep—flashlight-under-the-covers reading at it's best. Today's children's books are too often filled with practical lessons about sharing, or diversity, or going to the potty. I prefer tales of an uninvited lions who lives under the table and out of control lollipop growth any day.
The Tall Book of Make Believe is highly sought after by collectors. There was a short run reissue in the early 90's but otherwise the only copies to be had are vintage and are hard to find at a reasonable price. The best place to look is Amazon where sellers will occasionally post copies in the $80 range (mint copies fetch up to $600). Less hard to find, but another great book for toddlers is The Tall Book of Nursery Tales".