When I was a child, most of the children's books I read came from the library. Though I remember many of these fondly , the few that I owned are emblazoned in my memory. I may not remember titles or author names, and certainly not publishers, but hours, days and months of poring over the illustrations etched many of them forever in my mind.
When Jane Flory and I discussed our childhood books, there was one in particular that I always brought up. It had disappeared years before during one or the other of our numerous family moves up and down the east coast. I remembered only that my book had a yellow cover and contained several fairy tales, Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin and one or two others.
I was particularly enamoured of the 3 increasingly more beautiful dresses Cinderella wore to 3 balls. The first white, the next silver and the last one gold. I remembered the white had elegant ermine trim and the gold skirt billowing gracefully as Cinderella ran down the palace stairs.
Occasionally over the years, I'd peruse the shelves of old kid's books in used bookstores in Philadelphia or New York but never stumbled on my old favorite.
As well as old books, Jane told stories from her art school days. Her classmates included artists Beth and Joe Krush, who in MY student days were teaching and illustrating books. Though as students theirs was a particularly talented class, as is usually the case, there was one other student they all mentioned with respect tinged with a touch of envy. Catharine Barnes' early talents and personal style set her above the rest. She also had a wealthy Uncle who took her on a European trip during the great depression. Right out of art school, Ms. Barnes had gone to New York finding immediate success not only illustrating books but taking the fashion and advertising world by storm as well.
When I finally got a computer (with Jane's help) and began to learn about search engines, I began looking for my old fairytale book. Quite a challenge without an author name, title or publisher. All I knew was Cinderella and Rumplestiltskin and it would have been published in the late 40's or early 50's. I tried Powell's and the other out of print and used bookstores with no luck. There must be a ka-billion books of Cinderella and Rumplestiltskin since WWII.
I never got to show Jane my favorite old book because after 40 years of friendship sadly she passed away in November 2005. A month later, I was once again fooling around googling with a combination of my pathetic clues. This time I included words like "ermine trim on Cinderella's dress". Suddenly I had a hit on a website specialising in helping nutty middle aged people find their long lost old books from hardly any clues. http://www.loganberrybooks.com/solved-l.html
There it was - title: Let's Pretend, author: Nila Mack, illustrator: Catharine Barnes!!
With Jane gone, I called Beth and Joe Krush. Joe answered and after I told him the whole story. He assured me this was most likely their same Catharine Barnes and then suggested that I call her and ask for myself! Call her?
While my mind was exploding, Joe went off to get her phone number and address. Not only was Catharine Barnes alive, she was living right across the river in New Jersey and Joe had seen her fairly recently at a function at the old alma mater and he was giving me her address and phone number.
I decided to write Ms. Barnes a letter. She was convalescing and living with her sister. It was helpful to introduce myself as a book author and illustrator, a long time friend and colleague of Jane and the Krushes and a fan since childhood, of her Let's Pretend art work. I also invited the ladies to lunch or tea and sent a copy of my latest book.
In the meantime, unbelievably, there was a copy of Let's Pretend for sale on Ebay. I followed it for days finally
placing what I was sure would be a way more than adequate offer. But somehow in the very last seconds I lost the auction.
A letter came from Ms. Barnes sister. They had been delighted to hear from me. They invited me for lunch and naturally I accepted. Too bad, I didn't win the book. I wanted so much to have it for her to sign.
Though I no longer recall all the details here's the gist of what happened next.
My brother Ted showed up with a copy of Let's Pretend. When I lost the auction, he was the first one I told. Somehow, he had managed to contact the winner. Turns out she had 2 copies of the book and heaven only knows what it cost him but he wanted me to have the book so he got it. Ted can be relentless, bless him. There are not words.
I spent a delightful afternoon with Catharine and her sister Ginny. Though we had not met before, we were like old friends because of our mutual chums, art school and professional experiences. Catharine's version of her old school stories and her exciting glamorous artist's life in New York in the old days were fascinating and often humorous. We compared notes.
I brought her some of my books, some done with Jane and Catharine Barnes signed my Let's Pretend book.
I can't help feeling my old friend Jane's fine hand in this tale. She could be pretty sneaky. Bidding a last farewell with a wink and a smile.