As a child I was read to pretty much every night. If not by my parents then by a cassette audiobook tape accompanied by a Disney themed paperback. I think everyone can come to the consensus that reading to kids is pretty important and I can speak from my own experience that it was pretty awesome. Coming from a family consisting of an elementary school teacher and a librarian I was influenced by my parent’s wide knowledge of children’s literature and general weirdness.
Books like “Good Night Moon”, with its plain pictures and mind-numbing repetition, or “Love You Forever”, a book where a borderline incestuous mother carries her grown son up the stairs in her arms, weren’t the types of things found on our bookshelves. I liked a lot of different books and my parents always tried to pick the ones with the most interesting stories or the most detailed illustrations.
My family mostly took out books from the library to keep the nightly selection fresh but I can recall one book in particular that we purchased. “The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher” by Molly Bang totally encompasses childhood nightmares in one wordless story. On her website, Molly Bang credits a walk in the woods as the inspiration for this story.
The illustrations paint a surreal dream-world that is both whimsical and uncanny. Some of the images seem photo-real while other objects on the page look roughly painted. The “Grey Lady” looks to be made entirely out of recycled paper and fades into the background in parts of the story, only her face and hands visible. The book is simultaneously amusing and horrifying. To this day it fascinates me in the way its story can be reinterpreted. On the book’s Amazon page a quote by Publisher’s Weekly is used to describe the story, “The Wily woman eludes the thief and then leads him into an eerie swamp where this curious adventure takes a surprising and laughable turn.”
This barely scratches the surface of the story captured in the images of this book. I haven’t managed to get my hands on this book in quite a few years but I remember having a lot of unanswered questions about the story, mainly, why is the person? creature?…thief? a blue humanoid gremlin and where did he come from?
Was this a statement about drug addiction? Was he a (racist?) caricature of a crack addict that would do anything for berries? Is that why he was deformed? Let’s not forget that in addition to being blue, the “strawberry snatcher” also leaves a trail of mushrooms wherever he steps with his giant bare feet.
In the end, the “thief”, ends up in a patch of blackberries and decides to end his chase for a different berry. In most children’s story logic the thief should be punished or at least atone for his mistakes in the end, this is not the case with the “strawberry snatcher.” He got to harass this old woman throughout the book and ends up getting what he wants anyway because, guess what kids, life ain’t fair!
And where is the “grey lady” in all this? She’s just trying to purchase some fruit at the market for her family (and lesbian lover?)and is harassed for no particular reason. As far as children’s story role models go, she’s pretty awesome. Old women are usually made out to be witches or evil stepmothers in fairy-tales, they’re bitter and seen as used up and pointless but the “grey lady” is quick and smart. She triumphs in the end and her reward is human connection, unlike the “strawberry snatcher’s” solitary binge.
Looking back at this book I can see how it quickly became my favorite and was highly regarded among critics at the time. While the world of the “grey lady” is not comforting bedtime fodder in the least, I think it does a wonderful job of illustrating just how effing weird the world really is. Sometimes it just takes a kid’s brain to make sense of it all.