The Portmanteau Book

It’s strange that I’m no fan of small children and yet I love their books. Or at least those that I grew up with. I’m way out of the modern kiddie lit loop (I just looked at the 2006 Newberry Medal winners and I don't imagine myself being crazy about any of them). I can’t even keep up with grown up publishing; that’s why I stick to TV and magazines.

I touched on this subject practically a lifetime ago. I don’t know what happened to me but there was a spell when I’d actually considered becoming a school librarian. Maybe it was the lure of summers off, maybe it was before I realized what a mess kids parents are. I liked my high school librarian, Mrs. Mears-Haskell even when she kicked me out of the library for being too loud (and I even worked there one period a day—no favoritism). Now I’m jaded and all for keeping the brats away from the books.

Over Christmas, thoughts of revisiting grade school faves struck me. Kind of how women might consider looking up old boyfriends (not me—I don’t like delving into that kind of past. I much prefer looking up the guys who wouldn’t go out with me). I’d read fiction once but would re-check out non-fiction books repeatedly. I loved cookbooks even though I never cooked from them, folk tales (I distinctly recall picking up an Estonian compilation for kids and having no idea where the country was located. I’m not sure that I do now either), codes and ciphers (I was really into the idea of hobo symbols because it was so old-timey and bizarre. It’s not like I ever had any occasion to use them in the suburbs. Maybe I should start tagging up my neighborhood now.) and jokes and humor collections. Basically, the 641s, 652s, 398s and low 800s of the Dewey realm. I can still picture the different sections on the small L-shaped range of shelves. This was in the old quaint library, not the new one I never used because it was built the year I graduated high school and moved out of town.

Portmanteau I wasn’t even certain of the name of the first book I thought about tracking down. It was a large hardback book that I can only describe as zany. I totally didn’t understand it. It was funny and kind of creepy. I think the creepy stemmed from the fact that it was from a different era. Kids are really attuned to this, at least I think so. I did most of my checking out in the early ‘80s, which had a distinct flavor but a lot of the books on offer were from the ‘70s, and early ‘70s at that.

It was obvious from the cover art (I had this semi-snobby friend who was also a big reader [strangely, she’s the only person I’m aware of from my childhood who lives in NYC, and I only know this because someone told me at my ten year reunion. We were not friends as teens] and we used to say [seriously, we’d say stuff like this] “you can judge a book by its cover” because you could. Weirdo illustrations usually indicated weirdo content and sexy covers usually contained sexy as you could get in the YA  scene.) or slang used, or how styles or music were described. Five years can make a huge difference in pop culture, now even more so when in five months something’s passé and forgotten.

This book had a brown suitcase on the front and I was pretty sure the word portmanteau, which I never understood or knew how to pronounce. It was filled with nutty stories, strange illustrations, comics that didn’t make sense, non sequiturs and fake recipes. Searching the keyword portmanteau on alibris turned it up, The Portmanteau Book, written by Thomas Rockwell of How to Eat Fried Worms fame and those eerie drawings were done by his wife. Collaboration is so ‘70s.

The battered copy I ordered turned out to be a Milwaukee Public Library, Forest Home branch discard whose last due date was May 15, 1995. I’m still trying to figure out why the call number was 974 (American history, if I’m correct—I’m not a cataloger). Wow, I wonder what kind of freaks were checking this out in the ’90s. Wisconsin isn’t possibly that far behind the times.

I’m pretty sure gross out humor is still big with young‘uns, but a lot of the ‘70s wit for children was in this kind of radical, almost anti-authoritarian vein. This particular book advocated bad behavior in ways I doubt kids really acted upon and titillated without actually being dirty. There was a series of stories with titles like Hot I: Nakedeness, Hot II: Toiletpaper and impractical recipes like Fried Hall Closet and Boiled Kvetch (that word vexed me more than portmanteau, and FYI the recipe art is drawn by kids–it's not the unsettling style I'm talking about). The drawings were in a stoner style that gave me the same icky feeling I used to get from Monty Python, Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Yellow Submarine. But time can gloss over the grotesqueness of the past. The Portmanteau Book conjures up good nostalgia.

35 thoughts on “The Portmanteau Book

  1. I just ordered a copy. So glad I can. I remember checking it out two or three times at the library in the 70s, and yeah, it’s weird.

    My hope is to better understand it now, and have it pull out long-forgotten memories.

    I remember it being definitely on the edge – I mean, having a book with the word “nakedness” on the cover definitely wasn’t something you wanted your parents to notice – and then having to explain that some of the concepts in the book were just plain weird, amde you go back, rethink, and hardly even be able to quite form a question qbout it.

    We’ll see how my 43-year young brain processes it now!

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