When our children were young we both spent many hours with them pouring over Wendy Watson’s illustrations for her sister Clyde’s rhymes in Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes and delighting in the sounds and the silliness of the rhymes themselves. We felt as though we had lost a personal friend when Wendy Watson died, even though we had never met her.
Here’s just one pennyrhyme:
Mister Lister sassed his sister
Married his wife ‘cause he couldn’t resist her,
Three plus four times two he kissed her:
How many times is that, dear sister?
The illustrations welcomed us into Father Fox’s family, a large rollicking creative crew in a house filled with writing, art, music, and children, much like the Watson family. Clyde has said that their father was the original Father Fox, and Wendy wrote of the art, “Many foxes wear favorite garments that still hang in closets in Putney; and special family occupations and times of the year and occasions are in almost every poem and picture.” In the pictures (and perhaps in the closets) the clothes are patched showing both wear and care.
Small stories unfold in the illustrations.
You might read,
Somersault & Pepper-upper
Simmer down and eat your supper,
Artichokes & Mustard Pickle
Two for a dime or six for a nickel.
Meanwhile in four panels on a double-page spread, a horse gallops by drawing a coach piled high with bundles, a fiddle case, and a young fox riding on top. The coach hits a bump, the salt shaker falls out the window, a bowl of supper falls on the coach driver, and, leaving bits and pieces behind, the coach drives on.
When Wendy had children of her own she often hid familiar things in her art that only they would know, “like dishes that we owned or furniture.”
Our friend Liza Ketchum, who knew Wendy very well, said that the time she spent on each drawing was incredible. In a drawing of a country store you can find boots, slippers, pots, pans, paintbrushes, penny candy, even bolts of fabric and a horse collar.
“Wendy had a throaty laugh that was just wonderful,” Liza told us, “and she cared so much about everything. When she could not take her cat on an airplane, she drove cross-country with her cat instead.”
Wendy wrote and illustrated twenty-one books for children and illustrated over sixty books by other authors. We could say so much more about so many of her books that we love, (you can read a list and descriptions of her published books), but we have to share one more of our favorites, Bedtime Bunnies. The bunny parents call to five little bunnies, “Bedtime, bunnies.” The heart of this sparely written book is verbs, four to a spread — skip, scamper, scurry, hop — while the art shows the bunnies coming in for the night, having supper, brushing their teeth — Squirt Scrub Splutter Spit — taking a bath, getting into their pajamas, hearing a story, getting into bed — climb bounce jump thump, and getting tucked in — Dearie Darling Cuddle Hug. The book ends with “Goodnight, Bunnies.”
The illustrations are spare but full of expression and love, and the color palette is soft and warm, with yellows, roses, green, blues. In each of the lively pictures the littlest bunny does things in their unique style. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this bunny family, or Father Fox’s family? It’s as if Wendy Watson is calling to us — Dearie Darling Cuddle Hug. Each time we open one of her books, we are invited in to her warm circle of family. And that will never change.