As I was sorting out the library shelves yesterday I came across The Shrinking of Treehorn by Florence Parry Heide and realised that a) I had never read it, b) it has illustrations by one of my heroes, Edward Gorey and c) it is very short. These three things made me bring it home and read it.
I am so glad I did.
This is one of those children’s classic books that often get included in lists of books you should read before you die. I am always quite sceptical of such lists, and yet drawn to them because I’m quite OCD when it comes to lists, and I love to tick books I have read off of long lists. It makes me feel accomplished without having to have done anything much of anything at all.
I feel that The Shrinking of Treehorn deserves its place on the list of books you should read, but like quite a few other books, I think it is one of those that really won’t be appreciated by children in the same way it is appreciated by grown ups who read it to children.
It is full of subtle digs at adults and the way they live their lives and the way that they ignore children, or fail to listen properly, or fail to give credit to children for the reality of their own existence. For a child reader this is really not worth commenting on, nor is it particularly funny. For some children it is just the way life is, and it must be hugely frustrating. It only becomes funny and pertinent when self aware adults read the book and either recognise themselves or recognise situations they were in as a child.
Having said that, it is still a lovely, magical story even if you only take its literal meaning, and the superb illustrations by Edward Gorey mean that children will love it anyway.
Treehorn is shrinking. He wakes up one morning to find that his clothes are spooling off the ends of his arms and legs. He tries to interest his parents in his shrinking. His mother is more worried about the fact that her cake won’t rise. His father is more worried about the fact that he can’t sit at the table properly.
Treehorn continues to shrink. He takes his problem to school and gets sent to the head master because he is jumping up and down in the corridor trying to reach the water fountain. His teacher asks: What if all the children in school started jumping up and down in the halls?’
Treehorn eventually solves the problem by himself, as even when the adults around him start to believe what he is saying, they are dismissive, judgmental and utterly unable to do anything to help.
This is quietly told and cleverly funny. It would work as a bed time story for very young children, but equally well as a chapter/transition book for confident readers aged 7-10. It also works brilliantly as a joyous oasis of humour when you are 43 and feeling a little jaded.