BENJAMIN AND TULIP, by Rosemary Wells, my edition – which belonged, perhaps worryingly but not at all surprisingly for anyone who knew her, to my mother – 1973
Bookcase 5, shelf 3, book 23
This rather appropriately battered little children’s book is profoundly shocking. It should not be allowed.
(Er, maybe I should point out that I am being ironic here. I love this book, and am so glad the dice picked it for me. But Benjamin and Tulip is startling, particularly if you’ve been fed a diet of sanitised children’s books.)
For book of – oh – about 200 words, it’s pretty comprehensive. It covers:
- violence (and that’s violence which could just possibly have sexual overtones),
- inappropriate – to some – role reversal,
- adults who cannot be trusted to protect you,
- adults who cannot even be trusted to believe you when you’re a victim of violence.
So ready yourselves.
Benjamin and Tulip are small – well, I’m not quite sure, but I think they’re racoons. Tulip, according to Benjamin’s Aunt Fern, is ‘that sweet little girl’:
Benjamin knows differently. Every time he passes her home, she threatens to beat him up.
‘This is my brand new suit,’ said Benjamin.
‘I’m going to mess it up!’ said Tulip.
And she did.
Poor Benjamin. His sister Natalie knows exactly what’s going on: ‘Looks like he’s been in a fight with Tulip again, and it looks like he got the worst of it.’ His aunt, however, persists in her belief that Tulip is a sweet little girl and sends him to the store for more watermelon (Tulip smashed the one he’d been sent to get earlier).
‘This time,’ said Aunt Fern, ‘come back with the watermelon and without bothering that sweet little Tulip, or you can forget about dinner tonight.’
He has to go right past Tulip’s house – again.
Time for a little preventative action this time, and Benjamin zooms straight up a tree when he sees Tulip, who threatens him – ‘You’re cruising for a bruising’ – from below. Resignation has set in; he’s prepared to wait up his tree all night if he has to.
But Tulip climbs up, and wordlessly edges along the branch to where a nervous Benjamin is perched, still holding his watermelon. Then the branch suddenly bends, then it snaps and they both plummet down, followed by the watermelon.
However, Benjamin lands on Tulip, and the watermelon lands on Benjamin’s head, and suddenly something snaps in Benjamin too:
Of course there’s only one thing to do with a smashed watermelon and that’s eat it (oh, and spit the pips at each other – more undesirable behaviour being encouraged by Rosemary Wells).
And eat it in a new spirit of mutual respect:
This book still cracks me up.
It’s a splendid combination of the rather laconic writing (‘Where is the watermelon?’ asked Aunt Fern. ‘Back a ways,’ said Benjamin) and the wonderfully expressive illustrations. Tulip radiates malevolent glee; the expression on Benjamin’s face as he waits for her to reach him on the end of the branch says more about his state of mind than all the words in the world.
I’ve always liked Rosemary Wells’ work, but Benjamin and Tulip is in a slightly different league – some of her books are a little, well, anodyne. Not this one. Track it down and let yourself be shocked…