The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 5, No 1 (2001)

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jeffrey canton, column editor


He Also Wrote Children's Books: Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001

Jeffrey Canton


Great Canadian writer Mordecai Richler died in July, and with the exception of a thoughtful passage in John Fraser's remembrance, the magnificent legacy that Richler left to Canadian children's literature was sloughed off. That's no surprise really; the adult literary world doesn't regard children's literature as its equal. After all, these are only books for children, so how good do they have to be? What does it matter that some of the obits got the number of children's books he actually wrote wrong, or that others described these splendid comic novels as merely children's storybooks - as if they were just piffle and not to be celebrated along with Richler's obviously richer adult masterpieces.

But the hand that penned acclaimed novels like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) and Barney's Version (1997), penned the three Jacob Two-Two books as well: Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang (1975), Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987) and Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case (1995). While Richler wrote them for a younger audience, he certainly didn't write down to that audience. That no mention was made that Richler won the Ontario Arts Council's very first Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award for Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang is shameful because Richler's book helped set the tone for excellence in Canadian children's literature represented by the prestigious Schwartz Award since 1976. That first Jacob Two-Two novel also won the Canadian Library Association's Children's Book of the Year, another major Canadian book award. And Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case won the Mr. Christie Book Award, another feather in Richler's literary cap not mentioned anywhere in the aftermath of the great man's passing.

"Once there was a boy called Jacob Two-Two. He was two plus two plus two years old. He had two ears and two eyes and two arms and two feet and two shoes. He also had two older sisters, Emma and Marfa, and two older brothers, Daniel and Noah. And they all lived in a rambling old house on Kingston Hill in England", begins the best known and most celebrated of the Jacob Two-Two books, the zany classic, Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang.

It's no wonder why; even the opening paragraph shows the careful craftsmanship that Richler brought to writing his first book for young readers. Not only does Richler position Jacob Two-Two as a story within the fairy tale tradition with his "Once there was…" opening and the big old house on Kingston Hill, but he subtly moves the story to the real-life world of young children who might well describe themselves as being two plus two plus two years old. Here's that delicious Richler twist as we discover to our delight - as both adult and child readers - that Jacob's shoes are considered among his body parts! It's a wonderful joke that children cotton on to immediately. And Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang is full to the brim with such tempting morsels; check out what Jacob can and can't do, as chronicled by Richler in the first chapter of the book.

But more than that, Richler perfectly captures Jacob's frustrations as a young child living in a world of adults and older children, frustrations that the child reader both identifies with but is also able to laugh at given how children are positioned in the book's zany imaginative world. Richler isn't just trying to make fun of the child world but to make us look at it with new eyes. After all, Jacob himself is named not for the all the various twos that we find in the opening paragraph, but rather because being only two plus two plus two years old and living "with so many people in his house, two parents, two older brothers and two older sisters, nobody ever heard him the first time", Jacob Two-Two says everything twice! It's a subtle gag but one that works splendidly in this book and the two that follow.

Because Jacob Two-Two is in some ways a satire that depicts the rough treatment children receive at the hands of adults. Richler is at his best as he describes the trial of master criminal Jacob Two-Two charged with being rude to big people and then imprisoned on Slimer's Isle. Richler has caught the self-righteous tone of the adult world just right - the world that looks down at children and trivializes their lives. As Justice Rough notes, "I should warn you that in this court, as in life, little people are considered guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent, which is just short of impossible." But Richler aims to redress that lack of power that is part and parcel of being a contemporary child. He does it by turning the adult world topsy-turvy.

Despite the threats and the insults and the dreadful food, Jacob won't give in -he won't pretend that the Hooded Fang is a terrible and frightening and evil man and he believes that he will be rescued not by the adults in his life but by the children - his two older siblings Emma and Noah a.k.a Child Power. And Child Power does play an important part in Jacob's struggle for empowerment. Ultimately, he has to learn to believe in himself in order to save the day.

The first sequel, Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur (1987) doesn't quite live up to the high standard set by the first book. Dippy, Jacob's pet diplodauras, seems just too much of an imaginative stretch. But the second sequel, Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case (1995), rights the balance with Jacob's misadventures at Privilege House school and its odious Headmaster, I.M. Greedyguts and villainous school caterer Perfectly Loathsome Leo Louse. This book has the edge of Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang plus the hi-jinks of X. Barnaby Dinglebat, master spy. Where else would you find a splendidly loathsome museum celebrating the villains of children's literature including the memorial to the Wicked Witch of the West, the riding whip used to beat Black Beauty, a replica of the apple that poisoned Snow White and the gun used by the hunter in Bambi?

The Jacob Two-Two books are exceptional because of the delicious way that Jacob succeeds - foiling the evil plans of the Hooded Fang, aiding and abetting Dippy the Dinosaur and putting an end to the perfidious hi-jinks of horrible headmaster I.M. Greedyguts. And they are also Richler's richest legacy to his children, several now literary figures in their own right: Daniel, Marfa, Noah and Emma and, of course, Jacob, who will be two plus two plus two years old forever to the children who follow his adventures.

So here's to that other Mordecai Richler, the one who also wrote children's books and whose legacy includes a unique Canadian hero who might have to say everything twice because he is the youngest but who is well worth listening to. As Dippy the Dinosaur would say, "Hooray for Mordecai Richler and for Jacob Two-Two!!"

The Jacob Two-Two Books:

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang. Illus. by Fritz Wegner. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975. ISBN 0771074824.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur. Illus. by Norman Eyolfson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. ISBN 0771074840.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case. Illus. by Norman Eyolfson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1995. ISBN 0771074719.

All three have been reissued by Tundra Books.

 


Jeffrey Canton is a Toronto writer and reviewer whose writing on children's books also appears in Quill and Quire, Children's Book News and Chapters On-line.


Volume 5, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, 2001

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"He Also Wrote Children's Books: Mordecai Richler, 1931-2001" © Jeffrey Canton, 2001.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

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