How many people have seen Roald Dahl’s strange picture book, The Magic Finger? Not the one with drawings by Quentin Blake, Dahl’s preferred illustrator, but the 1966 edition illustrated by William Pène du Bois.
My affection for this book, which has been on my shelf for decades, is partly nostalgic. I recall sitting with it underneath the horse chestnut tree in my backyard in late summer, feeling uneasy. My eyes kept wandering from the page in my lap to the rock wall between my yard and my neighbors’, and from there up to the treetops, then back to the page again. I was probably eight years old, like the girl who narrates the story.
The narrator doesn’t tell us her name. She tells us about her magic power to transform people who make her angry just by pointing a finger at them. It’s a childlike way of actualizing rage that she wields messily, with funny and frightening results. When a teacher rebukes her for misspelling “cat,” she turns her into one, or if you want to be technical, into a kat. I used to wonder why an eight year old would flub such a simple word. Maybe spelling isn’t her strong suit. Maybe it’s nerves. Maybe there’s some defiance in her reply, as you might find in her outfits, which include a sailor suit worn with prison-stripe leggings, white go-go boots and jaunty hat mysteriously labeled ZAK (no explanation).
None of that matters when she’s told she’s “stupid.” We don’t learn the final fate of her name-calling teacher, but as the narrator says, “If any of you are wondering whether Mrs. Winter is quite all right again now, the answer is No. And she never will be.” The girl’s sport-hunting neighbors, The Greggs, also get the Magic Finger treatment and end up as wild ducks roosting in their own backyard. Their 24-hour ordeal, which nearly ends in tragedy, is the centerpiece of the book.
I love Roald Dahl’s wry voice and energetic storytelling, but I don’t think the book would have struck me as much if I’d come upon the Quentin Blake version first. I was quietly appalled by the strange and terrible things happening to the gently shaded figures in my book. Blonde-moustached Mr. Gregg awakening to find he’s shrunk to the size of his bedroom slippers. Sweet, pretty Mrs. Gregg, gamely carrying sticks in her mouth. Blake’s characters always look to me like they’re half falling apart beneath the force of his wild line, regardless of whatever violence is done to them by the author. But a realistic rendering of a child being threatened by a giant but anatomically correct mallard, that’s really unsettling. Sometimes I feel like Pène du Bois didn’t quite know how to draw, but he sure knew how to do something. I defy you to erase his images from your mind.
I wish I knew more about Pène du Bois himself. Known now for his Caldecott-winning picture book, “Lion,” and his Newberry-winning novel, “The 21 Balloons,” he seemingly ran with a rarified crowd, and had the privilege of indulging his fancy. A letter from editor Ursula Nordstrom (featured in Leonard Marcus’s Dear Genius) reveals that he wanted Dahl’s protagonist to brandish a finger rarely used in kids’ books. Ms. Nordstrom prevailed, and the magic comes from the index finger. I’m glad he was able include more inoffensive oddities he devised for the book, like an image that’s only visible when you hold a page up to the light, and a series of trippy final spreads credited to the use of “telekinetic photography.” Some people don’t care for the closing image, which pays homage to a famous US Army recruiting poster. Others dismiss the whole book as a heavy-handed criticism of guns, or hunting, or of the Vietnam War.
I don’t dismiss the book: I like it. It portrays a sophisticated relationship between a girl and her neighbors, whom she calls her friends even as she punishes them for doing things she disapproves of. It faces the real habit of people to answer cruelty with cruelty. It reflects how children struggle to manage their will and their reckless energy as they grow. And it shows a duck trying to use a rotary telephone. You could say the book put its magic finger on me when I discovered it. I know I tried to turn my teachers into cats throughout the following school year, but fortunately for them, my creative powers were not yet ripe.
Melissa Guion has been a dishwasher, a photographer, a Macy’s sales clerk, and a Vice President. She was once paid $10 to remove a dead ‘possum from the garage of a United States Supreme Court nominee. She is relieved to now be an author/illustrator.
Her debut picture book Baby Penguins Everywhere! (Philomel) was selected for the 2012 Original Art by the Society of Illustrators.
You can find her on Twitter at @MelissaGuion and on the web at www.melissaguion.com.