The man who didn’t wash his dishes

We have a lot of old children’s books tucked away on various bookshelves around the house. Some of them date back to my childhood, others belong to my husband, and some were my mother’s. When our children grew up and moved out, they left all their childhood paraphernalia with us, including many of their books, which apparently we need to keep for them until they have their own houses. That day may never come, given today’s property prices, and if they do miraculously buy a house, I’m pretty sure their old books will continue to live at our place. Why clutter up your own house when you can clutter up somebody else’s?

I don’t really mind because I like re-reading them.

One of my favourites is The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky. It’s a very thin old book we bought secondhand at a fete for fifty cents. Originally published in 1950, it’s a simple story about a man who eats so much dinner that he goes into a food coma and can’t be bothered washing up. Once this bad habit becomes entrenched, he ceases washing dishes at all, and is forced to eat his dinner from random items around the house, including a vase, a flowerpot and even an ashtray! It always made me laugh.

The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky, illustrated by Barbara Cooney

I always assumed that this was a little-known book, so it surprised me to discover that Phyllis Krasilovsky wrote over twenty books for children and two novels for young adults. She also wrote humorous articles for several newspapers.

Many of her stories were written for children she actually knew. The Very Little Girl (1953) was originally a birthday card for her sister’s child, and The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes (1950) was written for her husband’s five-year-old cousin who was dying of leukemia. I don’t quite know why a story about a man not washing his dishes is appropriate for a five-year-old child, but my children always loved this story and I have read it many times.

She also wrote the wonderfully titled The Man Who Cooked for Himself , which is about being self-sufficient and begins like this…

There once was a man who lived with his cat in a little house on the edge of a wood. He didn’t have a wife or children, so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed. The man didn’t even have a car or a telephone. But he had a friend who visited him every few days, bringing him the things he needed.

Phyllis Krasilovsky
The Man Who Cooked for Himself by Phyllis Krasilovsky

Phyllis started her career with a bang.

Born Phyllis Louise Manning, she was just nineteen and newly married when she stormed into the offices of Doubleday and demanded to see an editor. Children’s book editor Margaret Lesser heard the confrontation at the front desk, read the manuscript and accepted The Man Who Didn’t Wash His Dishes a few minutes later. I don’t think it would be that easy today. After her husband checked the contract (he was a law student), the couple set off for Alaska in their miniscule car.

I’m not sure if it was this exact model, but their car was too small to travel on the back roads of Alaska and had to be transported on the back of a truck. It reminds me of Noddy’s car.

The couple spent three years in Alaska before returning to settle in Chappaqua, about 30 miles north of New York.

In those days, Alaska was regarded as the last frontier, a bit like the wild west. Phyllis had her first child in Juneau and subsequently wrote Benny’s Flag, which tells the true story of the Aleut boy who designed the Alaskan flag.

In 1927, Benny Benson was 14 years old and living on a mission when he won a contest to design the flag for the Territory of Alaska. He was awarded $1,000, an engraved watch and a trip to Washington, DC. Quite an achievement for a young boy.

Benny Benson with the flag he designed in 1927 – photo from the Alaskan State Archives.

Both Phyllis and her husband, Bill (an entertainment lawyer) were interested in helping people maintain or regain the rights to their work. Bill Krasilovsky represented many well-known musicians including Duke Ellington and Herman Hupfeld, who wrote As Time Goes By.

In the late 1960s, Phyllis was part of an initiative of eminent children’s book authors who pressed for foreign rights to their works to be negotiated separately from domestic publishing contracts. Other members of the group included Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) and Margret Rey (Curious George).

In her later years, Phyllis taught children’s literature in Tarrytown, near New York. She died in 2014, aged 87. I love her quilted vest. It’s very Alaskan.

Phyllis Krasilovsky 1926 – 2014

You’re never too old for a story book

You’re never too old for a story book

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately. I love the simplicity of the writing and the funny and quirky stories, but mostly I love the illustrations. I am in awe of the work that illustrators do to bring story books to life.

I’m currently enjoying reading Two Bad Teddies by Kilmeny and Deborah Niland, and it struck me that Niland is a very familiar name, but I couldn’t think why.

I thought they might be related to Carmel Niland, former Director-General of the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Community Services, former President of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, and founding co-ordinator of the NSW Women’s Co-ordination Unit, but it turns out that Kilmeny and Deborah are (or were) the twin daughters of Ruth Park (author of Poor Man’s Orange) and D’Arcy Niland (author of The Shiralee, a very famous Australian book about a shearer and his four-year-old daughter). What a pedigree!

Sadly, Kilmeny passed away in 2009, shortly after Two Bad Teddies was published. She was a prolific illustrator and artist and published over thirty books. She also painted a portrait of her mother, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. You can see it here.

Two Bad Teddies features Tilly and Gruff, a pair of naughty teddies who are jealous of a new soft toy named Bendy Bill. You can just see the displeasure on their faces as their new rival steals away the affections of Mollie-Sue.

Two teddy bears looking grumpy

Like most picture books, the story has a happy ending which I won’t spoil here. I like to read children’s books when I’m feeling down because they make me feel everything will be alright, even if things aren’t great at the moment. They’re a way to escape from reality that doesn’t involve over-eating or drinking too much wine.

So if your life is going a bit pear-shaped, I strongly recommend that you visit your local library or bookshop, and pick up some new books or some old favourites.

In the meantime, look after yourself!

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I want to be like Ramona Quimby

I love children’s books, so I was sad to see the passing of the children’s author Beverly Cleary (aged 104) on March 26, 2021. She was one of America’s most successful writers, selling over 91 million books during her lifetime. Her books have been translated into 12 languages and are loved by readers all over the world.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Cleary was the author of the Ramona books (amongst others), a series of eight humorous children’s novels that center on Ramona Quimby, her family and friends. Her first book, Beezus and Ramona, appeared in 1955 and the final book, Ramona’s World, was published in 1999.

Cleary described Ramona as a feisty girl with no desire to conform, even when pressured by those around her. In Ramona the Pest, when her sister Beezus (real name Beatrice) asks her to stop being a pest, she says…

“I’m not acting like a pest. I’m singing and skipping,” said Ramona, who had only recently learned to skip with both feet. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. The people who called her a pest were always bigger and so they could be unfair.

Ramona went on with her singing and skipping.

From Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary

Cleary (whose maiden name was Beverly Bunn), was born in Oregon, the daughter of a farmer and a school-teacher. She trained as a librarian, but didn’t start writing until she was in her thirties. She kept writing well into her eighties (there’s hope for me yet). Cleary said that children kept coming into the library asking for books about ‘children like them’ and there weren’t any, so she decided to write them herself. As a child she was a slow reader and was often sick and absent from school. This seems to be a common theme for a lot of writers. Long periods of time confined to bed must cultivate the imagination!

It’s not possible to calculate the effect that books have on people, but I think that children’s books in particular can really influence how we see ourselves in the world. It’s good to read about characters who look and feel the way you do, especially if you feel like you don’t really feel you fit in. I think this is the reason that I love Ramona. She’s both vulnerable and brave.

Here’s a lovely tribute from journalist Scaachi Koul, born some 20 years after the first Ramona book was published, talking about how the Ramona books affected her life.

Have you read any of her books? Do you have a favourite character?