Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Eloise in Moscow

If you haven't yet discovered the Eloise books, I urge you to do so. Eloise is the brainchild of Kay Thompson, a little known MGM studio actress of the 1930s and 40s who, in 1955, published Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grownups. The eponymous feisty heroine was brought to life by illustrator Hilary Knight, and was an instant success. I will let the leading lady introduce herself:
"I am Eloise. I am six. I am a city child. I live at the Plaza... My mother knows The Owner... Nanny is my nurse. She wears tissue paper in her dress and you can hear it. She is English and has 8 hairpins made out of bones. She says that's all she needs in this life for Lord's sake... She always says everything 3 times like Eloise you cawn't cawn't cawn't. Sometimes I hit her on the ankle with a tassel. She is my mostly companion... I have a dog that looks like a cat. His name is Weenie. Sometimes I put sunglasses on him... I have a turtle. His name is Skipperdee. He eats raisins and wears sneakers."

- from Eloise -

Several books followed, among them my personal favourite, Eloise in Moscow.

This particular adventure satirizes the Cold War spy thriller: on her way with Nanny to their hotel Eloise observes that "everybody watches everybody...You have to be careful of what you do and say in Moscow otherwise they will swoop down on you and snip-snap at your wrists and send your radio to Copenhagen by rail." Knight's exquisite pictures detail a luxurious hotel decorously adorned with portraits of Stalin and Lenin; his piece de resistance is the central fold-out of the Kremlin, which, like a child, I can stare at for hours at a time. The running commentary by guide Zhenka is wonderful: "In former days is possible to see here market place Red Square immediate neighbourhood of Kremlin scene of momentous events in Russian history and is point of convergence of highways leading through Moscow's ceaseless noisy and brisk commerce." Perfect.

Eloise is described by Marie Brenner as "Holden Caulfield for kindergarten girls", which strikes me as incredibly accurate. She is an "ancient child with the musical vocabulary of a poet"; a cross, in English terms, between Nancy Mitford and Clarice Bean (whom I suspect was directly influenced by Thompson's creation). And yet these are, like so many children's books, largely lost on the very young. Eloise in Moscow, for example, served, at its time of publication, as an antidote to the Cold War propaganda and fear-mongering that gripped America in the 1950s. It is, more than any other of the Eloise books, of great interest as a piece of social history.

I have given Eloise the room to speak for herself here, as I simply cannot do justice to the beauty of these books, in terms of language or images. They are truly wonderful, and I can only hope that you will take the time to become acquainted yourself with this fabulously funny little girl and her gorgeously glamorous life.


Rochester Reader said...

Hello! I have only just discovered your blog and am charmed by this post in particular. I had never heard about these books before but I shall be searching for them now. I love the illustrations :-)
Your header is beautiful by the way, and your avatar eyecatching. Where is it from? She reminds me of an adventure game character although I can't recall which.

Lulu said...

Thank you! You won't be disappointed if you invest in Eloise, I promise. They really are little gems.
I'm afraid I can't remember where my avatar picture came from - I found her ages ago on a website and she looks like me, so I kept her! Then she just seemed appropriate when I started doing this blog. But if anyone does know who she actually belongs to, do let me know so I can check it's ok to use her!

Rochester Reader said...

How lovely to find an avatar that looks like you :-) And reading!
My library has three Eloise books which I shall be checking out. I absolutely adore the illustrations I found after following your Amazon link. Takes me back to more innocent, simpler times when I was at school reading 'Nicholas' by Goscinny and Sempe... I read it in French as 'Le Petit Nicolas' during French class and we all loved the hilarious drawings. I have the first book now in English and must get more and blog about it sometime. I love how these types of books continue to bring such joy even in adulthood.
Thank you for visiting my blog today, by the way :-)