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The Thing about Ping

May 27, 2011

When it comes to classic kids books, an adjective that gets thrown around a lot is “timeless.” An author or illustrator who wins that particular plaudit is seen as having created characters whose actions and emotions are genuine, clearly wrought, and recognizable to the children of any era. But I actually think timelessness has less to do with any positive attribute that it is the absence of datedness.

A case in point: The Story About Ping, written by Marjorie Flack and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. At one point it was an unquestioned classic, read to millions weekly by Captain Kangaroo. Now it is forgotten, and I don’t think on merits but fashion.

A modern parent picking up Ping would quickly put it down, for fear of being caught perusing racist material. The book was published in 1933, and it’s a legitimate concern that something written about the Chinese in that day and age was racist. The nature of children’s illustration in the 1930’s leaves little chance that drawings of the era won’t seem racist to the modern reader, even if the artist was the rare type who wouldn’t bring greater caricature to the boatman on the Yangtze river than he would the Irish cop on the beat in Chicago. However, Wiese was exactly that sort of artist. He spent six years in China as a young man and won a Newberry Award and a Caldecott Honor for other books set in the country. Too often, the artists who break down barriers wind up looking the most dated, precisely because of what they took on.

The shame of it lies in the utter beauty of the illustrations. Wiese’s line work is both daring and flawless–a hard combination to pull off–and he overcomes the production limits of his day with an intense use of the colors available to him.

The datedness, however, is not limited to the drawings. The story revolves around a duck who doesn’t want to get spanked with a pole for being the last one back aboard his boat, so he runs away. He gets caught and is threatened by being turned into dinner. “I will cook him with rice at sunset tonight” has got to be the most terrifying line I’ve ever read in a kids book. And yet, I also love that line, and also that the duck’s home is “the wise-eyed boat”, for the eyes drawn on either side of its bow.

The basic elements of Ping are positively timeless: it is the story of wanting to run away to avoid punishment, the fear of being alone, the kindness of strangers, and the joy of returning home. The parts that are dated speak to changes in culture its author and illustrator were surely hoping to help effect.

Galatea, of course, cares about none of this. She loves the cute duck, all those boats, and a happy ending. Timeless indeed.

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