Belloc, Hilaire 1870-1953

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Hilaire Belloc


(Full name Joseph Hilaire Pierre Sebastien Rene Swanton Belloc) French-born English author of children's poetry, poet, essayist, novelist, historian, short-story writer, biographer, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Belloc's career through 2003.


Although a prolific essayist and historian known for his devout Catholicism and strong political opinions, Belloc is more fondly remembered for his volumes of light verse for children. By giving a dark twist to Victorian-era fables of manners for children, Belloc was instrumental in establishing a humorous and sarcastic genre of poetry aimed at younger audiences. In such works as The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) and Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the Ages of Eight and Fourteen Years (1908), Belloc combines irony, double-edged humor, and over-the-top moralizing with expertly metered and lyrically flowing poetics to create witty satires that appeal to children and adults alike.


Belloc was born on July 27, 1870, in Le Celle St. Cloud, France. His mother, Elizabeth Parkes Belloc, was an English-born political activist, and his father, Louis Swanton Belloc, was a French barrister and the son of Hilaire Belloc, a noted painter. Belloc was born shortly before the Franco-Prussian War, and his family fled Paris on the last train to leave the city before Prussian occupation; they eventually relocated to England. His father died when Belloc was two years old, and although he strove to maintain his French heritage, Belloc was raised in an English home and schooled in Britain. Belloc attempted to foster his connection with the land of his birth by enrolling at a French university, College Stanislas, but he lasted merely one semester. Belloc admired the ideals of the French Revolution, and upon returning to England, he began to observe the plight of the poor and wished to change the status quo of privilege versus the common man. Belloc married Elodie Hogan, an American, in 1896, and the two lived in Oxford, England, while Belloc pursued a fellowship at Oxford—a position he never attained. In this same year, Belloc's first two collections of verse were published, Verses and Sonnets and The Bad Child's Book of Beasts. The first volume contained classic-style poetry and enjoyed only moderate sales, but The Bad Child's Book of Beasts was an instant success and required a second printing. In 1906 Belloc became a member of British Parliament, running on a Liberal ticket and campaigning against colonialism and in favor of free trade. He served in Parliament from 1906 to 1910. In 1914 Elodie passed away and, in 1918, his eldest son was killed during a bombing mission for the Royal Flying Corps; these losses were very difficult for Belloc, and he succumbed to depression. Although he released more children's verse in the 1930s, the majority of Belloc's later works were largely political and religious. He painfully witnessed the fall of Paris a second time at the hands of the Germans in World War II, and in 1941, his son Peter died in military service. Shortly thereafter, Belloc suffered a stroke. He never regained his health and died in 1953.


Belloc's first volume of children's poetry, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, was a collection of nonsense verse about various wild animals. A year later, Belloc published More Beasts (For Worse Children) (1897), a selection of new animal verses with darkly humorous undertones. Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the Ages of Eight and Fourteen Years satirized the genre of Victorian moralizing tales for children. These brief stories are both humorous and ironic, featuring such descriptive names as "Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably" and "Franklin Hyde, Who Caroused in the Dirt, and Was Corrected by His Uncle." In "Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death," Belloc brings a morbid twist to the story of the boy who cried wolf, and, in "Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion," Belloc sarcastically warns children to behave or else they could meet a horrible fate. These two tales, in particular, have enjoyed enduring popularity throughout the twentieth century and have been re-released on several occasions with more contemporary illustrations. During the 1920s, Belloc focused on writing political and religious essays, travelogues, novels, and histories—including a history book for young adults entitled Mrs. Markham's New History of England: Being an Introduction for Young People to the Current History and Institutions of Our Time (1926)—but he returned to the children's poetry genre with New Cautionary Tales: Verses (1930). These popular tales were published together with the original illustrations by Basil Blackwood in Cautionary Verses: The Collected Humorous Poems (1939) and in Cautionary Verses: Illustrated Album Edition with Original Pictures (1941). The volume was later republished with new illustrations by Edward Gorey in 2002.


Although his novels and traditional poems received only modest critical attention during his lifetime, Belloc's lighter verse and children's poetry were immensely popular and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Critics have applauded Belloc's satirization of the Victorian morality tales that were popular in the early nineteenth century, reveling in the dark humor of his Cautionary Tales. Commentators have also observed that, even though his poems are often whimsical and humorous, the form of Belloc's poetry is both superb and lyrical. Grayce Scholt has contended that, "Belloc's satires were exceedingly skillful in that he not only made fun of the moralistic themes, but he also used meters so expertly that he created his own brand of macabre humor." In addition, Michael H. Markel has noted that, "Belloc never tried to assume the viewpoint of the child […]. Instead Belloc wrote from the perspective of the stern parent lecturing children on the ghastly consequences of their improper behavior." Although several of his tales reject the politically correct attitudes of some contemporary audiences, many of Belloc's verses such as "Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death," and "Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion" have been recently republished as stand-alone picture books and continue to enjoy widespread popularity, more than a century after their initial release.


*The Bad Child's Book of Beasts [illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood] (children's poetry) 1896

Verses and Sonnets (poetry) 1896

More Beasts (For Worse Children) [illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood] (children's poetry) 1897

The Modern Traveller (poetry) 1898

Danton: A Study (nonfiction) 1899

A Moral Alphabet [illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood] (children's poetry) 1899

The Path to Rome (nonfiction) 1902

Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the Ages of Eight and Fourteen Years [illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood] (children's poetry) 1908

Verses (poetry) 1910

More Peers (poetry) 1911

Sonnets and Verse (poetry) 1923; enlarged edition, 1938

Mrs. Markham's New History of England: Being an Introduction for Young People to the Current History and Institutions of Our Time (nonfiction) 1926

Joan of Arc (biography) 1929

New Cautionary Tales: Verses [illustrations by N. Bentley] (children's poetry) 1930

Ladies and Gentlemen, for Adults Only and Mature Ones at That (poetry) 1932

Milton (nonfiction) 1935

Cautionary Verses: The Collected Humorous Poems [illustrations by Basil T. Blackwood] (children's poetry) 1939

Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death [illustrations by Steven Kellogg] (children's poetry) 1970

The Yak, the Python, the Frog [illustrations by Steven Kellogg] (children's poetry) 1975

Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion [illustrations by Victoria Chess] (children's poetry) 1987

The Bad Child's Pop-Up Book of Beasts [illustrations by Wallace Tripp] (children's poetry) 1988

Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (children's poetry) 1991

*A revised edition, illustrated by Wallace Tripp, was published in 1982.

†A revised edition, illustrated by Edward Gorey, was published in 2002.

‡A revised edition, illustrated by Posy Simmonds, was published in 1992.


Eleanor Jebb and Reginald Jebb (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Jebb, Eleanor, and Reginald Jebb. "A Note on Belloc's Verse." In Testimony to Hilaire Belloc, pp. 89-97. London: Methuen and Company Ltd., 1956.

[In the following essay, Eleanor and Reginald Jebb examine Belloc's poetic endeavors, commenting on Belloc's form, his influences, the musicality of his verse, and the wit of his poetic "Tales."]

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Marcus Crouch (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Crouch, Marcus. "(Joseph) Hilaire (Pierre) Belloc." In Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, pp. 106-07. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Crouch highlights the comedic aspects of Belloc's "Tales," but stresses that the defining element of these verses is Belloc's mastery of poetics.]

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Michael H. Markel (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Markel, Michael H. "The Poetry." In Hilaire Belloc, pp. 24-36. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, Markel examines Belloc's lighter verses and notes that, although the poems appeal to children, they are written for adults and carry adult lessons and humor.]

During a writing career of more than forty-five years, Hilaire Belloc turned out almost one hundred and fifty prose works. With only a handful of exceptions, writing these books was an enormous chore for him, what one commentator calls his "sad campaign for a livelihood."1 Belloc's aggressive and domineering personality prevented him from long remaining anyone's employee, so he turned his antipathy for socialists, atheists, and Darwinians into a lifelong vocation.

But Belloc's real love remained his poetry. What he wished to be remembered for is collected in a slim volume called Complete Verse. 2 Had circumstances been otherwise, he probably would have written ten volumes of poetry and very little else. Whereas the subject of his prose was the struggle of men in the world, their attempt to create a set of reasonable and just institutions that would allow them to lead civilized lives, the subject of his poetry was the perennial theme of man's struggle against his mortality. Belloc put into prose what he wanted the world to hear; he saved for his poetry what he had to say.

In addition to his serious poetry, Belloc wrote several books of light verse, most of which is collected today under the title Cautionary Verses. His first book of light verse, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, appeared the same year as his first collection of serious poems and, much to his delight, sold briskly. Then twenty-six years old, and with a family, a prestigious First Honours in History from Oxford, and no prospects for a job, Belloc decided the serious poems would have to wait, at least for a while.

The Light Verse

The nineteenth century in England was the great period of light verse, or what is sometimes called nonsense verse. Perhaps as a reaction to the seriousness and solemnity of Victorian advice-books for children, the writers of light verse portrayed a world in which children, unencumbered by the restrictions of "civilized" behavior, romped freely through a world bounded only by their own imaginations. The two most famous writers of light verse were Edward Lear (1812-1888) and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898), who is known today as Lewis Carroll.

Lear, a landscape painter by profession, popularized the short verse form known as the limerick:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, "It is just as I feared!—
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!"3

Lewis Carroll, a minor church official and mathematics professor at Oxford, wrote mathematics books under his real name and children's books under his pseudonym. Best remembered today as the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Carroll is known for his creation of nonsense words in the poems contained within the two famous books. "Jabberwocky," in Through the Looking-Glass, is the prime example:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Although Belloc is often linked with Lear and Carroll as the third master of nonsense verse, he seems to have been largely indifferent to both of them. The limerick form appears in several of Belloc's letters to friends—he could apparently toss them off effortlessly—but it doesn't appear in any of his published verse. And Belloc seems to have been even less impressed by Carroll's nonsense verse. In fact, he was almost alone among his countrymen in not thinking Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a masterpiece. He described it as full of "the humour which is founded upon folly" and thus worthwhile but inferior to "the wit that is founded upon wisdom." He went on to predict—wildly incorrectly, as it has turned out—that the fame of Alice would not outlive the insular and protected garden of the Victorian period.5

Belloc remained unmoved by Lear and Carroll because he was not principally interested in writing for children. Even though the titles of his light verse collections—such as The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and More Beasts (for Worse Children) —appear at first glance to be intended for children, the adjectives "bad" and "worse" clearly suggest an adult perspective. Unlike Lear and Carroll, Belloc never tried to assume the viewpoint of the child, and there is very little childlike delight in any of the cautionary tales. Instead, Belloc wrote from the perspective of the stern parent lecturing children on the ghastly consequences of their improper behavior. Belloc achieved his humor by overstating the perils. Most of the bad children in his books die a horrible death: several are eaten by wild animals, one dies in an explosion caused in part by his own carelessness, and another succumbs because he ate too much string. Those lucky children who do not die suffer other unkind fates. Maria, for instance, constantly made funny faces. One day, "Her features took their final mould / In shapes that made your blood run cold …" Her sad story is suggested by the title of the poem: "Maria, Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage." Unlike Lear and Carroll, whose strategy was to bridge the gulf between adults and children, Belloc startled his readers by exaggerating that gulf. Belloc's view of children did not look backward to the Victorian nonsense poets, but forward to the films of W. C. Fields.

The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (1896) was the first appearance of Belloc's irascible narrator, who innocently announces his intentions in an introduction:

I call you bad, my little child,
Upon the title page,
Because a manner rude and wild
Is common at your age.

The Moral of this priceless work
(If rightly understood)
Will make you—from a little Turk—
Unnaturally good.

But the real personality of the narrator soon emerges. In "The Lion" he warns little children to beware:

The Lion, the Lion, he dwells in the waste,
He has a big head and a very small waist;
But his shoulders are stark, and his jaws they are grim;
And a good little child will not play with him.

The next poem is "The Tiger" :

The Tiger on the other hand, is kittenish and mild,
He makes a pretty playfellow for any little child;
And mothers of large families (who claim to common sense)
Will find a Tiger well repay the trouble and expense.

Enhancing Belloc's humor are the drawings by his friend Basil T. Blackwood that accompany the text. "The Lion" is printed around a sketch of a terrified child gazing at the ferocious animal rearing on its hind legs before him. "The Tiger" has two sketches: in the first, a hungry-looking tiger is approaching a smiling toddler. In the second, the tiger is walking away, licking its lips. This was one of Belloc's strategies in the book: the words express the seemingly innocent advice; the drawings portray the narrator's—and the reader's—real thoughts.

This kind of macabre humor obviously is not intended for the average child. The parents are the real audience, as several other verses in the collection make clear. "The Marmozet" and "The Big Baboon" gave Belloc a chance to have a little fun with the evolutionists, with whom he was constantly quarreling, while satirizing the poverty of the modern spirit. The drawing accompanying "The Marmozet" shows three figures: a statue of a burly caveman wearing an animal pelt and carrying a club, an anemic-looking young man perspiring as he pedals his bicycle, and a marmozet casting a scornful eye on the young man.

The four-line poem makes the point:

The species Man and Marmozet
Are intimately linked;
The Marmozet survives as yet,
But Men are all extinct.

"The Big Baboon" focuses Belloc's satire a little more:

The Big Baboon is found upon
The plains of Cariboo:
He goes about with nothing on
(A shocking thing to do).

But if he dressed respectably
And let his whiskers grow,
How like this Big Baboon would be
To Mister So-and-so!

The drawings that go with this poem show a happy baboon in the wild, a baboon gazing at a pretentiously dressed African, a baboon gazing into a mirror while his valet helps him on with his coat, and finally several baboons walking happily down a city street, outfitted with luxurious overcoats, fashionable hats, and canes.

Some of the verses in The Bad Child's Book of Beasts are funny without being violent or satirical, and many of the drawings are innocently clever, but for the most part Belloc was writing in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, not Lear and Carroll. Belloc chose animals for his subject not because every child likes to read about them, but because they are strong, self-sufficient, and unaffected. Belloc accepted them as creatures that know what they are, never aspire to be anything else, and never are needlessly cruel. In this way they serve as a perfect contrast to the foolish and vain species called Man. Belloc's book of nonsense verse, reminiscent of Swift's parable of the Yahoos and the Houyhnhnms in Part IV of Gulliver's Travels, turns the hierarchy of nature upside down. Published in Oxford, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts sold out in four days. A second printing began immediately, and the author arranged for publication in the United States.7

The critics were very enthusiastic, but, as biographer Speaight remarks, they usually failed to see that the comic verse was not really nonsense.8

The critics also applauded More Beasts (for Worse Children) (1897), which Belloc published quickly to capitalize on the success of the earlier book. Its plan is the same, but on the whole the humor is forced. Several of the verses are clever. "The Microbe," for example, pokes fun at scientists who describe fantastic microscopic organisms they have never seen. "Oh! let us never, never doubt / What nobody is sure about!" intones the narrator solemnly (246). But the violence and cruelty of many of the verses is gratuitous: the woman who is devoured by a python in this book "died, because she never knew / Those simple little rules and few" about how to care for it (242). Her fate is neither humorous nor revealing.

Belloc found his mark again the next year with The Modern Traveller (1898), a satirical parable about imperialism. His criticism of the British role in the struggle with the Boers in South Africa was already taking shape; despite its clever verse and Blackwood's drawings, The Modern Traveller was obviously intended for adults, not children.

The poem describes how the narrator and two friends—Commander Sin and Captain Blood—travel to Africa to establish the Libyan Association "whose purpose is to combine 'Profit and Piety.'" Recently returned from Africa and looking over the page proofs of his memoirs, the narrator invites a reporter from the Daily Menace over for an exclusive article on his expedition. The explorer has plenty of pencils ready for the reporter, because the story is going to be a long one,

Of how we struggled to the coast,
And lost our ammunition;
How we retreated, side by side;
And how, like Englishmen, we died.

He begins by introducing Henry Sin:

Untaught (for what our times require),
Lazy, and something of a liar,
He had a foolish way
Of always swearing (more or less);

And, lastly, let us say
A little slovenly in dress,
A trifle prone to drunkenness;
A gambler also to excess,
And never known to pay.

In short, he was "A man Bohemian as could be— / But really vicious? Oh, no!" (167). The other hero of the expedition, William Blood, while equally unsavory, was more at home in the modern world. He was:

A sort of modern Buccaneer,
Commercial and refined.
Like all great men, his chief affairs
Were buying stocks and selling shares.
He occupied his mind
In buying them by day from men
Who needed ready cash, and then
At evening selling them again
To those with whom he dined.

When the narrator and his two partners arrive in Africa, they enlist an accomplice, the Lord Chief Justice of Liberia, who gives them "good advice / Concerning Labour and its Price":

"In dealing wid de Native Scum,
Yo' cannot pick an' choose;
Yo' hab to promise um a sum
Ob wages, paid in Cloth and Rum.
But, Lordy! that's a ruse!
Yo' get yo' well on de Adventure,
And change de wages to Indenture."

A brief mutiny results—"We shot and hanged a few, and then / The rest became devoted men"—but soon the three adventurers find the land they wish to develop. The narrator describes Blood's triumphant pose:

Beneath his feet there stank
A swamp immeasurably wide,
Wherein a kind of fœtid tide
Rose rhythmical and sank,
Brackish and pestilent with weeds
And absolutely useless reeds …
… . .
With arms that welcome and rejoice,
We heard him gasping, in a voice
By strong emotion rendered harsh:
"That Marsh—that Admirable Marsh!"
The Tears of Avarice that rise
In purely visionary eyes
Were rolling down his nose.

The development of Eldorado, as Blood christens it, is thwarted. After a confrontation with an international commission against imperialism, which concludes that they are too mad to cause any harm, the three are finally captured by a native tribe. Captain Blood is chopped up and sold by the slice ("Well, every man has got his price") and Commander Sin finds himself floating in a large kettle ("My dear companion making soup"). The narrator endures so well under incredible torture that the tribesmen finally decide he must be a god and release him. His final words to the reporter are that Sin and Blood "Would swear to all that I have said, / Were they alive; / but they are dead!" (204)

The Modern Traveller, like Belloc's two previous books of light verse, was very popular with the public, but it received some unenthusiastic reviews in newspapers, probably because of the satirical portrait of The Daily Menace. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch explained the critical reaction by noting the link between the newspapers and imperialism: since the newspapers had been championing the cause of imperialism, they could not be expected to review fairly a book that criticizes it.9 The outbreak of the Boer War was in fact the most revealing comment on the book. Belloc in The Modern Traveller had shown that light verse could be the vehicle for serious satire without losing its popular appeal.

Belloc appreciated Quiller-Couch's praise, but his financial situation left him no leisure to savor it. Most of his time was being devoted to his first serious prose work, a full-length biography of the French Revolutionary figure Danton that could not hope to bring in much. So Belloc wrote A Moral Alphabet (1899). The alphabet format, in which each letter introduces a short verse, gave him a ready-made structure for verses on various subjects; unlike the Beast collections or The Modern Traveller, an alphabet book needs no unifying theme.

Signs of hasty composition are apparent in A Moral Alphabet, but the book is interesting in that it reveals Belloc's awareness of his audience and his growing self-confidence. Four of the twenty-six rhymes refer directly to this or one of his other books. "A," for instance, "stands for Archibald who told no lies, / And got this lovely volume for a prize." When he comes to the nemesis of all alphabet rhymsters, X, Belloc effortlessly turns the situation to his advantage:

No reasonable little Child expects
A Grown-up Man to make a rhyme on X.
These verses teach a clever child to find
Excuse for doing all that he's inclined.


A Moral Alphabet marks the end of the first phase of Belloc's professional literary career. With the coming of the new century he turned to more substantial formats; he had already proven himself a reigning master of comic verse in English. Between 1900 and 1905 he produced, among other works, a second biography, two prose satires, a book of literary criticism, a translation, a novel, and several travel books.

In 1907 Hilaire Belloc, member of Parliament, must have sensed that the public was ready for another book of light verse. Cautionary Tales for Children follows in the tradition of his first Beast book, but it shows a new direction in Belloc's thinking. Almost all of the children in this collection who pay so dearly for their misdeeds belong to the upper class. The title of one verse, "Godolphin Horne, Who was Cursed with the Sin of Pride, and Became a Boot-Black," is representative of Belloc's new interest in satirizing the rigid class system of England. His characteristic mask in this book is that of the defender of the class system, but occasionally the real author peeks out and winks at his readers. One example is "Algernon, Who Played with a Loaded Gun, and, on Missing His Sister, was Reprimanded by His Father." The most subtle verse is the final one, "Charles Augustus Fortescue, Who Always Did What was Right, and so Accumulated an Immense Fortune." Here Belloc takes particular advantage of Blackwood's drawings by making one statement with words and another with pictures. The verse describes how this perfect child sailed through life successfully,

And long before his Fortieth Year
Had wedded Fifi, Only Child
Of Bunyan, First Lord Aberfylde.
He thus became immensely Rich,
And built the Splendid Mansion which
Is called "The Cedars, Muswell Hill,"
Where he resides in Affluence still,
To show what Everybody might

The drawing accompanying this idyllic tale, however, shows the groom with a slightly pained expression on his face as he gazes at his decidedly unattractive bride, Fifi. Thus, Belloc's final suggestion for the best way to punish the indolent rich of England is simply to let them go about their own business unmolested. Cautionary Tales for Children was successful in part because a popular singer, Clara Butt, performed the verses in concert throughout England.10

Belloc's unorthodox parliamentary career kept him in the public eye. Frequently squabbling with his own party, he became known as something of a national eccentric, with a reputation apart from his literary renown. Just as nobody was surprised when he decided not to stand for reelection in 1910, nobody was surprised when in 1911 he published More Peers, a collection of cautionary verses for adults. One verse describes the unfortunate plight of a physician whose patient, a Lord Roehampton, dies without leaving enough to pay the medical fee. The furious doctor storms away when he learns this tragic news, "And ever since, as I am told, / Gets it beforehand; and in gold" (209). Another lord, Henry Chase, wins a libel suit against The Daily Howl, "But, as the damages were small, / He gave them to a Hospital" (209).

A Lord Finchley learns that excessive thrift has its penalties:

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

The highlight of More Peers is a story that never gets told:

Lord Heygate had a troubled face,
His furniture was commonplace—
The sort of Peer who well might pass
For someone of the middle class.
I do not think you want to hear
About this unimportant Peer,
So let us leave him to discourse
About Lord Epsom and his horse.

Nineteen years were to pass before Belloc got around to New Cautionary Tales (1930), published near the end of his long career. This collection is tired, partly because Belloc was then sixty years old, but mostly because he feared that the good fight against the forces of privilege had been lost. He could not escape the realization that fifty years of struggle and one hundred and fifty books had not changed the world. One verse tells the story of how young John loses his inheritance when he tosses a stone that hits his wealthy uncle William. The old man calls to his nurse, Miss Charming,

"Go, get my Ink-pot and my Quill,
My Blotter and my Famous Will."
Miss Charming flew as though on wings
To fetch these necessary things,
And Uncle William ran his pen
Through "well-beloved John," and then
Proceeded, in the place of same,
To substitute Miss Charming's name:
Who now resides in Portman Square
And is accepted everywhere.

Belloc's last book of comic verse, Ladies and Gentlemen, was published two years later, in 1932. It was quite obviously the work of a weary man who no longer felt that the foibles of society were a thoroughly suitable subject for humorous verse. "The Garden Party," the opening verse, describes an affair attended by "the Rich," "the Poor," and "the People in Between":

For the hoary social curse
Gets hoarier and hoarier,
And it stinks a trifle worse
Than in the days of Queen Victoria …

The verse concludes with a reference to the fate of an earlier corrupt civilization: "And the flood destroyed them all." The final verse in the collection, "The Example," is a parable of two modern types. The man is a miserable agnostic whose only joy is to read the books written by the prophets of doom. The woman leads a life of mindless intemperance:

The Christians, a declining band,
Would point with monitory hand
To Henderson his desperation,
To Mary Lunn her dissipation,
And often mutter, "Mark my words!
Something will happen to those birds!"

Mary Lunn dies, "not before / Becoming an appalling bore," and Henderson is "suffering from paralysis." "The moral is (it is indeed!) / You mustn't monkey with the Creed" (227). Appropriately enough, Belloc's last book of comic verse concludes with a deadly serious joke.

The comic verse, except for The Modern Traveller, was collected under the title Cautionary Verses in 1940. The critical reception was highly enthusiastic. The New Yorker, for example, called Cautionary Verses "a grand omnibus."11 The collection remains Belloc's most popular single volume. An ironic reminder of the extent to which the satirical element in Belloc's comic verse has remained unrecognized is the fact that Cautionary Verses is generally catalogued among the children's books in the library. Taken together, the comic verse is a remarkable achievement. Belloc wrote too much of it, as he did of everything, but the best represents the extraordinary diversity of his imagination, which could combine pure nonsense of the highest quality and serious political and social satire. Perhaps the best insight into the origins of the comic verse is provided by Belloc himself in a poem he originally published in 1910 but which serves as an epigraph to Cautionary Verses. The poem, which begins "Child! Do not throw this book about," ends with this stanza:

And when your prayers complete the day,
Darling, your little tiny hands
Were also made, I think, to pray
For men that lose their fairylands.

The comic verse is of course very funny, but behind the laughter is the sadness of an idealistic man in a real world.

  1. Garry Wills, Chesterton: Man and Mask (New York, 1961), p. 46.
  2. Eleanor and Reginald Jebb, Testimony to Hilaire Belloc (London, 1956), p. 20.
  3. Edward Lear, "There Was an Old Man with a Beard," in Iona and Peter Opie, eds., The Oxford Book of Children's Verse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 183.
  4. Lewis Carroll, "Jabberwocky," in The Oxford Book of Children's Verse, p. 241.
  5. Hilaire Belloc, The Cruise of the "Nona" (London, 1925), p. 79.
  6. This and all subsequent citations of Belloc's poetry refer to Complete Verse (London, 1970), which does not reproduce the illustrations of the volumes of light verse. Cautionary Verses (several different editions), which includes all of the light verse except The Modern Traveller (London: Edward Arnold, 1898), reproduces the illustrations.
  7. Speaight, pp. 112, 114.
  8. Ibid., p. 115.
  9. Ibid., p. 116.
  10. Ibid., p. 270.
  11. New Yorker, August 30, 1941, p. 56.

Grayce Scholt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Scholt, Grayce. "Hilaire Belloc: 1870-1953." In Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors since the Seventeenth Century, edited by Jones M. Bingham, pp. 49-54. New York, N.Y.: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Scholt provides biographical information on Belloc and examines his children's "Tales," noting that the books were often read by both children and adults. Scholt comments on the stories' lasting popularity, but recognizes that some of the poems' contents are not politically correct by today's standards.]

On 27 July 1870, during the worst thunderstorm that the village of La Celle-St.-Cloud had seen in fifty years, Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc was born. The storm signaled a thunderous life.

Louis, his father, standing at the baptismal font, said, "I should like him to be called Pierre." But out of the four given names, the one that stuck was Hilaire. Belloc was proud of his name because he felt that it showed he belonged to a great republic, a "perfect nation," France. For most of his life, however, his family and friends would address him as Hilary, the English equivalent.

The name confusion suggests the ambivalence in national loyalties that plagued the young Belloc. The child came from strong families on both sides. He was born to an English mother, Bessie Parkes, who had come from a long tradition of English radicalism. The granddaughter of the scientist and clergyman Joseph Priestley, she was on close terms with George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Sand, as well as Trollope and Thackeray. All her life she supported women's suffrage. Belloc's father, Louis, a semi-invalid, was the son of a well-known academic painter, Hilaire Belloc, who had studied under Théodore Gericault. The grandfather's reputation as a fine teacher of art was well established, as was his flamboyant temperament. He once said, "We have always been a family of guts."

Almost at the moment of Belloc's birth the Franco-Prussian War was breaking out. By September the Bellocs had fled to England. It was on a return visit to their war-damaged home two years later that Louis Belloc sickened and died. Bessie never fully recovered. Belloc's biographer Robert Speaight says, "Had Louis Belloc survived, his son would have been a Frenchman with an English mother instead of being an Englishman with a French father." Grief over her husband's death strengthened Bessie's ties with Roman Catholicism, causing the young Belloc's religious education to begin early. Throughout his life he would be a militant Roman Catholic.

Although much of the family's time was spent in England after Louis's death, summers were spent in the French village, and according to Speaight, most of Belloc's strongest youthful impressions come from those days. His major preparatory education was completed at the Oratory School, Edgbaston, England, where he was grounded in the classics, and where he came under the influence of John Cardinal Newman, famed Catholic theologian and founder of the school. By age seventeen the family had moved to Sussex, and Belloc began his lifelong love affair with that countryside. In 1892 he matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he won first-class honors in history in 1895.

As a student at Balliol, he quickly became known for his vigor, high spirits, and strong opinions. He frequently went on long walks, celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, for example, by walking from York to Edinburgh. He also drank a lot of wine (which he would do the rest of his life) and regaled his many friends with his witticisms and songs. By this time he had served for nine months in the French army and was full of the spirited army songs he had so loved on the march, but he also dazzled his listeners with his own often extemporaneous verses, which he recited or sang in his strong tenor, in a "roaring" style.

In the summer of 1890 he met Elodie Hogan, a Californian traveling in Europe. Elodie had been contemplating a vocation with the Sisters of Charity, but the love-smitten Hilaire vowed to change her mind. They were married in 1896. Shortly after, he left the university for public life.

Because his career at Oxford had been so remarkably successful, he was bitterly disappointed when he was refused an All Souls Fellowship. He never recovered from the humiliation. While reasons for the refusal are unknown, Speaight and others think that the dons were aware of his strong anti-Semitism. His hostility toward Jews began when he was young, probably during the few months he spent at Collège Stanilas in Paris when he was seventeen. The Collège was a center for Catholic reactionaries and anti-Semites. Whatever the reason, the loss of the fellowship changed his life. Instead of obtaining a comfortable teaching post with a salary allowing him to support his family, he felt he had no choice but to begin "the grinding out of books."

By the end of his life he had published 147 books—biographies, collections of essays, novels, travel books based on his walking tours and sea journeys (especially on his beloved boat, Nona), poetry, and children's books. He had also edited several magazines and gone on numerous speaking tours of Europe and America—all to make money. Wilfred Sheed says he "howled and hacked" for money all his life. Speaight also refers to Belloc's ongoing need for money: he sometimes gave four lectures in one day. In a letter to J. S. Phillimore in 1909, Belloc said, "I will lecture on anything in any manner for money: and don't you forget it…. I can lecture on my hand, on my head or between my legs or with the dumb alphabet" (quoted in Speaight).

Early in his career his name was linked with Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, and H. G. Wells as the most significant writers of the period because they all reacted fiercely against the "Dr. Pangloss with a stiff upper lip" atmosphere that was so pervasive at the end of Victoria's reign. Each writer's response was different, but Renée Haynes says:

All four writers … set out to shock, Shaw by rationalist and Chesterton by Christian paradox, Wells by angry, comic, compassionate fiction, and Belloc by satire of much that was assumed to be good, by an exuberant boastfulness that deliberately outraged all the current canons of gentlemanly modesty.

(p. 5)

Belloc's first published work was Verses and Sonnets (1896), a group of mostly serious, often "delicately sacred" poems, although one section is labeled "grotesques." In the same year, his first children's book, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, was published. Consciously or not, this book began Belloc's protest against the didacticism rampant in the early part of the century, especially evident in Elizabeth Turner's The Daisy; or, Cautionary Tales in Verse (1807). Although the ground had already been broken by Lewis Carroll with his parodies and by Edward Lear with his nonsense verse, Belloc went further than either. He made uproarious jokes of the moral admonitions that had once been given to youth as serious lessons.

While Belloc had his imitators, such as Harry Graham in Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes (1899) and Mrs. Ernest Ames in Wonderful England! (1902), Belloc's satires were exceedingly skillful in that he not only made fun of the moralistic themes, but he also used meters so expertly that he created his own brand of macabre humor.

His first collection of comic verses, The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, which sold four thousand copies in three months, begins: "I call you bad, my little child, / Upon the title page, Because a manner rude and wild / Is common at your age." With these words the rudeness and wildness takes over; he jabs at "evil children" who imitate the bounding of the kangaroo, who "eat like little Hogs" and "whine like Puppy Dogs" and "take their manners from the Ape." Perhaps Belloc's best (and most anthologized) verses appear in this first volume, such as "The Yak," whom the child can lead about on a string; "The Lion," whose "shoulders are stark, and his jaws they are grim, / And a good little child will not play with him"; and "The Elephant," who has "such a / LITTLE tail behind, / So LARGE a trunk before."

But not all of Belloc's verses hold up as well as these. Many of the rhymes are so sophisticated and require so much background that Carpenter and Prichard observe that they will probably not be understood by today's children and will, presumably, not endure. It seems likely, however, that his best cautionary tales, the most outlandish spoofs on Victorian tracts, will live forever, at least for collectors. In Cautionary Tales for Children (1907), twelve verses about blighted youth, the reader meets (and probably never forgets) "Matilda, Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death," as well as such other misfits as "Rebecca, Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably," and "Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and was Eaten by a Lion." In New Cautionary Tales (1930) the reader meets "Sarah Byng, Who Could Not Read and was Tossed into a Thorny Hedge by a Bull," along with the equally hilarious "Maria, Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage."

Although it must have pleased a wide British audience at the time of publication, one of the least satisfactory elements in some of Belloc's verses is the notion of Britain's presumed superiority over other cultures. In The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, for example, "The Dromedary is a cheerful bird; / I cannot say the same about the Kurd." These lines are accompanied by a doleful, stereotypic sketch of the Kurd, illustrated by "B. T. B." Six of Belloc's eight children's books were illustrated by B. T. B., Lord Basil Blackwood, a friend from Oxford days and a fine comic artist. One of these volumes, The Modern Traveller (1898), was about the satiric adventures of Commander Sin and Captain Blood; it was generally read by adults and almost unanimously praised by the critics, including Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. After Blackwood's death, Nicolas Bentley illustrated New Cautionary Tales (1930) and Ladies and Gentlemen (1932). Belloc was fortunate in both of his illustrators. Carpenter and Prichard say of Blackwood's pictures that they "were not infrequently funnier than the verse."

Whether the verses or the illustrations were intended primarily for children is impossible to say. At least one publisher advertised the books as "nursery furniture," but adults may always have found them more fun than children. Part of that fun, unfortunately, was based on the notion that people who were different, that is, not British, were worthy objects for humor. The lords in the verses from More Peers (1911) are not genuine Englishmen: Lord Uncle Tom is "as black as Tar," and Lord Ali Baba is a "Turk / Who hated every kind of work."



Publishers Weekly (review date 2 July 1982)

SOURCE: Review of The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Wallace Tripp. Publishers Weekly 222, no. 1 (2 July 1982): 56.

Tripp's ingenious, droll and skilled drawings put new life into this edition of Belloc's classic [The Bad Child's Book of Beasts ], world famous since it first appeared in England in 1897. The clipped, ridiculous verses hold up to scorn children whom good boys and girls should avoid copying, hellions the poet says, "Who imitate the Kangaroo, / With wild unmeaning bounds, / Who take their manners from the ape, / Their habits from the bear, / Indulge the loud unseemly jape, / And never brush their hair." The book should be popular, with its menagerie of unruly beasts instigating shouts of laughter as they perform in scenes reminiscent of Tripp's art in A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me, and some 40 other best-sellers by the anthologist, author illustrator. (All ages)

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date December 1982)

SOURCE: Review of The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Wallace Tripp. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 36, no. 4 (December 1982):61.

The rhythmic verses of an old favorite [The Bad Child's Book of Beasts ], first published in London in 1897, are newly and delightfully illustrated by the comic line drawings of a contemporary artist. Tripp's stout Victorian gentlemen seem straight out of a political cartoon, his children have an exaggerated air of sweetness or acerbity, and his animal faces have personality; occasionally the witty drawings are extended by balloon captions.


Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard (review date 1984)

SOURCE: Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. Review of Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Basil T. Blackwood. In Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, pp. 104-05. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Cautionary Tales for Children: Designed for the Admonition of Children between the Ages of Eight and Fourteen Years (1907), the fifth in a series of comic books with verses by Hilaire Belloc and pictures by 'B. T. B.', Belloc's friend Lord Basil Blackwood. It parodies the 19th-cent. genre of Cautionary Tales, and begins with the story of Jim, who let go of his nurse's hand at the Zoo and was eaten by a lion. The moral of this is that children should 'always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse.' The book, which has supplied generations of readers with comic quotations of this sort, also includes the macabre histories of "Henry King, Who Chewed Bits of String, and was Early Cut Off in Dreadful Agonies", "Lord Lundy, Who was Too Freely Moved to Tears, and Thereby Ruined His Political Career", and "Matilda, Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death" —this last recalling the story of the child Mary who meets a similar fate in Original Poems for Infant Minds (1804-5). Cautionary Tales concludes with the story of "Charles Augustus Fortescue", a child of incredible goodness, who in consequence of his rectitude 'accumulated an Immense Fortune'. The book's success, at the time of its first publication, was boosted by the contralto Dame Clara Butt, who sang musical settings of some of the poems at her concerts.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 October 2002)

SOURCE: Review of Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Edward Gorey. Kirkus Reviews 70, no. 20 (15 October 2002): 1526.

Typically deadpan, previously unpublished scenes of Victorian ladies, gents, and children decorate seven of Belloc's savage little ditties [in Cautionary Tales for Children ], including "Henry King, Who Chewed Bits of String, and was Early Cut Off in Dreadful Agonies," "Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and was Eaten by a Lion," and the ever-popular "Matilda, Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death." Stretching the stories across several pages of illustration (as many as 12 in some cases) allows the full effect of Gorey's macabre wit to sink in and the timing for a reappearance of Belloc's irreverent warnings couldn't be more perfect. Gorey gets credit for "re-discovering" these early 20th-century verses, but they have appeared previously in several collections or single editions. Still, his gothic sensibility made him the perfect illustrator for them, and Lemony Snicket fans will undoubtedly swoon with delight.

Paul Brink (review date February 2003)

SOURCE: Brink, Paul. Review of Cautionary Tales for Children, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Edward Gorey. School Library Journal 49, no. 2 (February 2003): 172.

[Cautionary Tales for Children ] is written in the style of a picture book, with sprightly little rhymes that speak of the foibles of children and the horrible consequences thereof. First penned nearly a century ago, the sort of story that Belloc parodies continues to be written today and read to youngsters, but readers who are more sophisticated will better appreciate these tales of disproportionate punishment. Children are whimsically eaten by lions or consigned to life as a bootblack for their sins—or, by contrast, a boy who fires a loaded gun at his sister is reprimanded sternly. Gorey's artfully antiquated style exactly fits Belloc's writing and brings this edition to life—a single pen-and-ink line shows the sister's satisfaction at hearing her brother called to task. The previously unpublished illustrations meticulously convey texture, such as the clothing of the myriad physicians called in to help poor Henry King who swallowed string, and the expressions of the self-satisfied adults seem so earnestly and seriously drawn as to make the whole that much more humorous. The art is refined and genteel—never gory. Teenagers will enjoy this quick and cathartic read.


Times Literary Supplement (review date 20 November 1930)

SOURCE: "Humour for Christmas." Times Literary Supplement, no. 1503 (20 November 1930): 965.

At the end of his "Ballads for Broad Brows" Mr. A.P. Herbert, who refuses to regard his eminence as a humorist as disqualifying him from speaking his mind like any other citizen, prints "a brief lecture to a serious poet" which is a plea, or rather a demand, that light verse shall be given its due. Mr. Herbert points out that, whatever may be the state of other branches of literature, light verse is in a flourishing condition, and boasts many first-rate craftsmen. He also points out that first-rate verse is the fruit of immense ability and labour, and that it is not accorded the respect it deserves. He has chosen a good moment for his protest, for the present year yields a singularly rich crop. After twenty years, during which the lessons of Cautionary Tales for children may be thought to have sunk home, Mr. Belloc produces some new ones [in New Cautionary Tales: Verses ], of an excellence which gives a special timeliness to Mr. Herbert's declaration that for his light and comic verse alone Mr. Belloc deserves the largest laurels the country can provide.

There you will find [says Mr. Herbert] that perfection of form which we old-fashioned fellows still regard as valuable. There is no sense of strain or confinement. Everything the writer wishes to say is said; but every word and every rhyme is as precisely fitted into its place as are the stones of an arch.

The verse is not a net or box into which a story must be fitted, but the vehicle which brings it into the reader's mind and enables it to stay there. Lines like these, describing Peter Goole's father, are clear and final and at the same time completely unforced:—

He wrang his hands, exclaiming "If
I only had a bit of stiff
How different would be my life."
Whereat his true and noble wife
Replied, to comfort him, "Alas!
I said that this would come to pass!
Nothing can keep us off the rocks
But Peter's little Money Box."

Small wonder that misfortune fell on all the Gooles, so that of Peter himself we read:—

There fell upon him such a fate
As makes me shudder to relate,
Just in its fifth and final year,
His University career
Was blasted by the new and dread
Necessity of earning bread.
He was compelled to join a firm
Of Brokers—in the summer term!
And even now, at twenty-five,
He has to WOrk to keep alive!

The special flavour of Cautionary Tales comes largely from Mr. Belloc's skilful ironical use of what may be called the language of approving relatives, the proud terms for things which can be described either with pride or the opposite, as fifth and final year and University career. A pleased parent might use either phrase, yet we know somehow that Peter Goole was not doing much at college.


Theodore Maynard (review date 24 October 1941)

SOURCE: Maynard, Theodore. "The Lighter Belloc: Appreciation of a Cautionary Poet." Commonweal 35, no. 1 (24 October 1941): 12-14.

It is only too often the ponderous Belloc that his readers, especially his American readers, think of when they hear his name. Probably a hundred people know his replies to H. G. Wells to one who knows his far better "Lines to a Don." Not that the controversial writing is to be disparaged: it is very useful. But it is, after all, merely useful and will pass, having served its day. There is another Belloc who will not pass. And much of him is compounded of light and comic and fantastic elements.

Even the historical writing is permanently valuable mainly for certain passages of prose as grand as any in our language. The challenge Belloc has issued to what he calls the "official" historians has done some good. At the same time his habit of overstating his own case, and of rather arrogantly refusing to give any authority for his opinions, has largely offset this. But no qualifications have to be made in the case of the essays of "Hills and the Sea" or for "The Four Men" or "The Path to Rome." Nor have any qualifications to be made in the case of much of his lighter verse.

There are, however, two qualifications that I should make regarding some of it. Belloc has complained that Chesterton was too good natured to hit hard. Well, his own satire raises a different kind of objection. When the amiable G. K. C. was roused to anger, that anger was terrible. Belloc is never really angry. He objects to the rich, and he objects to politicians. But not even in the wonderful "Mercy of Allah," not even in his poem on the Boer War is one quite convinced of his saeva indignatio. He just misses getting into the small group of the greatest satirists.

Another complaint I should make is that his verse is even more unequal in quality than his prose. There are certain things that no man has ever done better. His drinking songs are among these; so also is his "Dives." But though he is manifestly proud of his sonnets, not one of them is entirely satisfactory. All contain magnificent lines; not enough trouble has been spent to achieve perfection throughout. The best of Belloc is to be found in his songs and in his light verse. "Tarantella" is unmatched of its kind, so are some of the "Cautionary Tales" [in Cautionary Verses: The Collected Humorous Poems ].

French Melancholy

Belloc once wrote somewhere that melancholy is the true but generally unnoticed determinant of the French character. And this very much applies to him. As he says in his little poem about those borne by their mothers through this or that season of the year:

But they that held through Winter to the Spring
Despair as I do, and, as I do, sing.

It is with irony and beauty that he comforts his desolation. Belloc—like the Wife of Bath in this respect—is so jovial because he is so sad. He lacks altogether the innocent and astounding happiness of his friend Chesterton. Yet there is no need to be sorry for him. His sources of consolation amply compensate.

The very finest of his epigrams are not the bitter and biting ones, admirable as these are, but such pieces as the ten lines "On a Sleeping Friend" or "The Elm." One line of this—"The corn at harvest and a single tree"—might serve to illustrate the Bellocian touch. How it is done I do not know; but by bare statement, without any description, magic is evoked. One of these epigrams he labels as "Partly from the Greek" ; but indeed they are all more or less from the Anthology. Not that there is the kind of direct adaptation such as we find occasionally in A. E. Housman; it is rather that, outside of Housman and Belloc, there is hardly anything in English fit to be compared to the Greek prototypes. If examples are wanted, take two of the series on Sundials:

Here in a lonely glade, forgotten, I
Mark the tremendous process of the sky.
So does your inmost soul, forgotten, mark
The Dawn, the Noon, the coming of the Dark.


I that still point to one enduring star
Abandoned am, as all the Constant are.

So far I have referred to the collection which, first issued as Verses, has grown to the Sonnets and Verses now published by Sheed and Ward. Copyright difficulties presumably have necessitated the exclusion of the songs scattered through "The Four Men." Of these the concluding lyric beginning

He does not die that can bequeath
Some influence to the land he knows

is one of the loveliest that Belloc ever wrote, which means that it is imperishable. Difficulties of another kind have prevented his ever publishing his Ballade on Mrs. James, one of King Edward VII's lady-friends. In private it has had wide circulation. I got it from Chesterton's recitation of it to me, though as there were gaps in my memory I had to fill in a few lines afterwards myself. Now I could not tell which is my own patch-work. In this version hundreds of people must have heard it. And Tom Daly, having taken it down, had it printed and sent to his friends. I suppose it would be high treason, or lèse-majesté, or something, to put it in a book. Nevertheless it is a masterpiece and famous.

Collected Cautionaries

Now we have gathered in a sumptuously printed volume the rhymes which have previously delighted us and which the publishers offer to "wise children, who will know that they have found the ideal book for the edification of their parents." The parents in fact will probably read it more eagerly even than their children, although in my own household the tale about Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion, has long been a means of persuasion to the eating of spinach and similar nourishing but detested foods. But among these Cautionary Tales ostensibly told for children several have always been more relished in the smoking-room than the nursery. What could a child make of the climax of "Lord Lundy, Who was too Freely Moved to Tears, and Thereby Ruined His Political Career" ?

The Duke—his aged grand-sire—bore
The shame till he could bear no more.
He rallied his declining powers,
Summoned the youth to Brackley Towers,
And bitterly addressed him thus—
"Sir! you have disappointed us!
We had intended you to be
The next Prime Minister but three:
The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:
The Middle Class was quite prepared.
But as it is! … My language fails!
Go out and govern New South Wales!"
* * *
The Aged Patriot groaned and died:
And gracious! how Lord Lundy cried!

The present book includes all of Belloc's work in this vein except The Modern Traveller. That, being upon the whole tedious in spite of some highly entertaining bits, was advisedly omitted. Even of what is retained, some of the pieces are far less effective than others. It would seem that many were tossed off too hastily; even in this sort of work only perfection is tolerable. But perfection is attained time after time, especially when Belloc uses octosyllabic couplets as his pattern. A case in point is "Maria, Who Made Faces and a Deplorable Marriage." Another is "Sarah Byng, Who Could Not read and was Tossed into a Thorny Hedge by a Bull." It opens:

Some years ago you heard me sing
My doubts on Alexander Byng.
His sister Sarah now inspires
My jaded Muse, my failing fires.
Of Sarah Byng the tale is told
How when the child was twelve years old
She could not read or write a line.
Her sister Jane, though barely nine,
Could spout the Catechism through
And parts of Matthew Arnold too,
While little Bill who came between
Was quite unnaturally keen
On "Athalie" by Jean Racine.
But not so Sarah! Not so Sal!
She was a most uncultured gal
Who didn't care a pinch of snuff
For any literary stuff
And gave the classics all a miss.
Observe the consequence of this!

The consequence, fortunately for my limitations of space, is indicated in the title.

Moral Alphabet

Fortunately, too, Belloc writes his own review of his Moral Alphabet. I could of course dilate at length about much that is in this book—the beautifully unexpected conjunction of the Catechism and Matthew Arnold, for instance, with "'Athalie' by Jean Racine" adding to the joy—as I could dilate at even greater length upon the "Drinking Song of the Pelagian Heresy" set to a rousing tune of the poet's own composition and included in "The Four Men." This, however, is the kind of book that one does not need to review. If you, dear reader, were within reach, I would read reams of it to you. As that cannot be, the next best thing is that you buy the book and read it to your friends. It will be a good way of discovering those among them who are really civilized. And now for Belloc's alphabet:

R the Reviewer, reviewing my book,
At which he had barely intended to look;
But the very first lines upon "A" were enough
To convince him the Verses were excellent stuff.
So he wrote, without stopping, for several days
In terms of extreme but well-merited Praise.
To quote but one Passage: "No Person" (says he)
"Will be really content without purchasing three,
While a Parent will send for a dozen or more,
And strew them about on the Nursery Floor.
The Versification might call for some strictures
Were it not for its singular wit; while the Pictures,
Tho' the handling of line is a little defective,
Make up amply in verve what they lack in perspective."

The habit of constantly telling the Truth
Will lend an additional lustre to Youth.

Well, there is the book, except for the pictures—some by B. T. B. (who is Lord Basil Blackwood) and the rest by Nicolas Bentley. If you do not like what I have quoted, you are duly warned. Nothing can be done about it. In that event, there would be no use in your buying Cautionary Verses, though you still might enjoy the epigrams and satires (not to mention the serious poems) in the Sheed and Ward collection. I know that if you should happen to like what is quoted here, you will go dashing off to the nearest bookstore.

So we can leave it at that.


Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 November 1970)

SOURCE: Review of Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Kirkus Reviews 38, no. 22 (15 November 1970):1246.

[Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death is a] Belloc Cautionary Verse in Gothic guise with moral terse:

Matilda (who's cried wolf) cries "Fire!"—"They only answered 'Little Liar!'"

"And therefore when her aunt returned, Matilda, and the house were burned."

The punishment only fits the crime (so spare the child and skip the rhyme)

If construed in the style of Victorian idiom …

Which is a lot to ask of a listener who has but the fuzziest pen-and-inks to look at.

Susan Gilles (review date 15 November 1971)

SOURCE: Gilles, Susan. Review of Matilda Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. School Library Journal 18, no. 3 (November 1971): 3898.

Gr. 4 Up—Hilaire Belloc's familiar little cautionary poem [Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death ] centers on small, nasty Matilda who presumably gets no more than her due fate in being burned to death after yelling "Fire" in jest once too often. The verse is delightful ("Matilda told such dreadful lies, / It made one gasp and stretch one's eyes; / Her aunt, who, from her earliest youth, / Had kept a strict regard for truth, / Attempted to believe Matilda: / The effort very nearly killed her, / And would have done so, had not she / Discovered this infirmity.") but often quite sophisticated ("It happened that a few weeks later / Her aunt was off to the theatre / To see that interesting play / 'The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. '"). Steven Kellogg's deft pen-and-ink drawings spoofily interpret and expand the story; his characters call to mind Eloise (who lived in the Plaza) and the Addams Family. The setting is Victorian, with many very amusing elements (e.g., sour-faced Matilda has a pet raven and reads a book called The Skull, etc.). However, these pictures are scratchy looking and, as a result, many of the details are difficult to see clearly.

Lindsay Duguid (review date 8 November 1991)

SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. "Bad Children and Beasts." Times Educational Supplement, no. 3932 (8 November 1991): 40.

For every time she shouted "Fire!"
they only answered "Little Liar!"

The climactic moment in Hilaire Belloc's cautionary tale about Matilda Who told such Dreadful Lies, is illustrated by Posy Simmonds in an admirably deadpan manner. Across a London street of sombre Georgian houses, a procession of righteous citizens in top hats and bonnets go about their business in the gathering dusk. But the windows of one stately grand palladian mansion glow ominously red and smoke and flames are beginning to belch forth from the upper windows. The people below, messenger boys, policemen, nannies, etc ignore the impending crisis and from the mouth of one stout gentleman comes a large speech-bubble with the hand-lettered words "Little Liar".

The picture could almost serve as an allegory of the Edwardian onset, the crisis of capitalism or the end of empire in its detail and its sense of foreboding. Elsewhere, Simmonds, working in a manner familiar from her version of Daisy Ashford's The Young Visiters, provides a human portrait of Matilda as a bored child among absurdly corseted elders in a series of overstuffed interiors; we are also offered hansom cabs and horseless carriages and a dashing Victorian fire-engine escorted by boys and dogs. A pug dog becomes an incidental hero, unwitting cause and survivor of the fire.

Simmonds matches the sheer wickedness of Belloc's imaginings (she shows firemen hosing down the ancestral pictures: "And even then she had to pay / To get the Men to go away!"). Tony Ross's pictures for Belloc's The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, though sparer and more obviously comic than Simmonds's are similarly anarchic. Choosing to do without background detail and sketching in a bare suggestion of Victorian costume, his portraits go straight to the heart of the joke. His vision of Yak and Tiger as suitable pets is charmingly plausible with the former beaming crazily and the latter playing Blind Man's Buff; Frog, also recommended as a companion, is depicted as doing a most expressive tango. Ross's sketchy lines are full of sly humour: a marmoset drops a coconut on to the head of an unsuspecting child; a hippopotamus dances on a white hunter's gun; the dodo sheds a tear because it is extinct; a blindfold child walks into a lion's jaws. The jaunty, inconsequential nature of Belloc's verses is captured perfectly.

Hazel Rochman (review date 15 March 1992)

SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Posy Simmonds. Booklist 88, no. 14 (15 March 1992): 1381.

Ages 5-8. "Matilda told such dreadful lies, / It made one gasp and stretch one's eyes." The popular old comic verse [Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death ] from Belloc's Cautionary Tales gets wicked treatment in a picture book as weird as anything in the Addams family. Matilda's an ugly brat who wreaks havoc on her world of Edwardian respectability, causing her genteel aunt to succumb to the vapors and the whole of London to think her house is burning down. So when one day a fire really does break out, no one heeds her cries, and "Matilda and the house were burned." Simmonds' illustrations, alternately melodramatic and deadpan, in shades of gray and rosy pink, play with the poem's tongue-in-cheek humor. Matilda's nasty, and her world's idiotic. Dahl fans will recognize his "dreadful" roots.

Publishers Weekly (review date 30 March 1992)

SOURCE: Review of Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Posy Simmonds. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 16 (30 March 1992): 104.

Belloc's heroine [in Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death ] is one of several figures he conceived in satirizing the moralistic tales used in Edwardian England to instill proper behavior in children. Regrettably, Simmonds has illustrated one of the author's least hyperbolic—and thus least successful—verses. Matilda, an incorrigible fibber, calls the fire brigade out on a false alarm; later, when fire does indeed break out, she is disbelieved and left to burn to death. Despite a few delectable moments—the firemen take particular pains to drench the family portraits—the tale overall is macabre rather than funny, both because its denouement is not especially inventive and because death by fire is all too common. And, apart from the marvelous glint in Matilda's eye, Simmonds's illustrations, chiefly in muted pinks and grays, are restrained. A more wildly exaggerated and satisfying spoof can be found in Belloc's Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse and Was Eaten by a Lion, riotously illustrated by Victoria Chess. All ages.

Ann A. Flowers (review date March-April 1992)

SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Posy Simmonds. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 2 (March-April 1992): 1992.

Belloc's famous poem [Matilda, Who Told Lies, and Was Burned to Death ], a satirical Edwardian variation on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," tells of Matilda, who calls the London Fire Brigade one too many times, then perishes miserably when a fire does break out. The illustrations show evil Matilda peering with dire intent out of the corners of her eyes as she gleefully contemplates awful deeds. The pictures extend the text: we see Matilda accuse a gentleman caller of something scandalous—he turns bright scarlet, and even the dog looks shocked. The double-page spread accompanying the lines "for every time She shouted 'Fire!' / They only answered 'Little Liar!'" shows the populace striding briskly along, righteously ignoring the flames pouring forth from Matilda's house. Wickedly amusing, with illustrations to match.


Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 March 1975)

SOURCE: Review of The Yak, the Python, the Frog, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Kirkus Reviews 43, no. 5 (1 March 1975): 233.

Kellogg unites these three animal rhymes [The Yak, the Python, the Frog ] from The Bad Child's Book of Beasts and More Beasts for Worse Children and puts them in the pictured context of a little girl and her father driving up in their Rolls to select an unusual pet from Lady Alice Tinderpop's Rare and Strange Beast shop. The period elegance of Kellogg's settings (all chandeliers and gilt-framed portraits) complements the well bred British naughtiness of the rhymes and, though the author might not have countenanced the vulgarity, actually Kellogg's proclivities for slobbering tongues and bulging bellies and the like are quite suited to Belloc's delight in man-eating animals and other such innocent indelicacies. A diverting revival. 5-7.

Booklist (review date 15 May 1975)

SOURCE: Review of The Yak, the Python, the Frog, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Booklist 71, no. 18 (15 May 1975): 963.

A wacky trio of verses extolling potential pets provides the text for what artist Kellogg calls a "picture book production." And production it is: loads of action shots, elaborate doors opening on the title page of each poem, and a wildly colorful cast of people and animals. All this in a disjointed format that leaps from initial verse to book title page back to verse and on to an inconclusive wordless spread that abruptly turns the tables on the story line. Still, Kellogg succeeds in conveying the irreverent tone of Belloc's snide, repeatable rhymes. And the humorously played out theme—a wealthy old gentleman and his small (grand)daughter seeking an exotic pet—is directly appealing. Gr. 1-2.

H. L. M. (review date October 1975)

SOURCE: H. L. M. Review of The Yak, the Python, the Frog, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Childhood Education 52, no. 1 (October 1975): 34.

"… Sometime, Papa, for a change I'd love a pet that's rare and strange." So Papa takes his darling to Lady Tinderpop's Rare and Strange Beasts, where they learn about the Yak, the Python and the Frog. Wild, comic pictures full of insane details provide a story-frame for three poems by Belloc. Lady Alice looks like an ex-Wagnerian soprano and her assistants are no less odd. A sophisticated picture book for all ages, extravagantly funny, but sometimes grotesque. PreS.


Irene Cooper (review date 1 May 1987)

SOURCE: Cooper, Irene. Review of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Victoria Chess. Booklist 83, no. 17 (1 May 1987): 1363-64.

Gr. 3-5, younger for reading aloud. With tongue firmly in cheek, Belloc relates [in Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion ], in staid Victorian style, the adventures of Jim, a spoiled young child who makes the mistake of running away from his nanny at the zoo. He doesn't get very far when, alas, a lion springs from its cage and begins to gobble the boy up. "Now just imagine how it feels / When first your toes and then your heels, / And then by gradual degrees, / Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, / are slowly eaten, bit by bit. / No wonder Jim detested it." The zookeeper eventually comes to Jim's rescue, but at this point the poor boy is nothing but a head—"The Miserable Boy was dead!" The family grieves, but they are not surprised—Jim always had a predilection for disobeying. The moral? "… always keep a-hold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse." Belloc, well known for his parodies of nineteenth-century cautionary tales, certainly produced a first-class one here. Irreverently illustrated with Chess' sly pictures that feature a whole array of visually unappealing characters—especially fat little Jim—this poem will delight elementary-school students; those who like the offbeat will gravitate to its charm.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 May 1987)

SOURCE: Review of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Victoria Chess. Kirkus Reviews 55, no. 9 (1 May 1987):716.

The title says it all: [Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, ] Belloc's cautionary verse should be known to every child, its lesson dutifully taken to heart.

On a trip to the zoo, young Jim immediately learns the danger of slipping away from Nurse: a lion springs from its cage and devours the boy, leaving only his head lying on the cobblestones in silent reproach. Chess is the perfect illustrator for this gruesome incident—there's no gore, but everyone, from the portly balloon-seller to the apes and tapirs who watch interestedly through the bars, bears a pop-eyed, avid expression.

A fine companion piece to Steven Kellogg's edition of Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death (1970), though Jim's error is certainly the more venial.

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 May 1987)

SOURCE: Review of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Victoria Chess. Publishers Weekly 231, no. 21 (29 May 1987): 77.

Parents who will stop at nothing to make their children behave may want to present this Victorian cautionary tale [Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion ]—in good spirit, of course. Belloc's Jim is very well provided for in his self-controlled parents' home. The naughty boy defects, though, running away from Nurse, and is eaten by a zoo lion. Chess's art shows off the splendor of indoor life in those days: trim, warm interiors with àla mode wallpaper and draperies. She also presents very personable zoo bears, anteaters, Ponto the lion and a very veracious zoo-keeper. The images herein (Jim's gulp by gulp journey into the lion; his head rolling around on the pavement) make a lasting impression—beware cautionary tales! Ages 7-up.

E. R. T. (review date May-June 1987)

SOURCE: E. R. T. Review of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Victoria Chess. Horn Book Magazine 63, no. 3 (May-June 1987): 327.

What the title says is just exactly what the reader gets [in Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion ]. Little Jim, a pudding-faced, pudgy little boy of no discernible charm, is indeed gobbled up quite nastily by a lion when he imprudently slips out of his nanny's grip during a visit to the zoo. Belloc describes Jim's horrid fate with deadpan humor while asking the reader, "Now just imagine how it feels / When first your toes and then your heels, / And then by gradual degrees, / Your shins and ankles, calves and knees, / Are slowly eaten, bit by bit. / No wonder Jim detested it!" Chess depicts the ghoulish demolition of the unfortunate Jim before a trio of mad-eyed anteaters—or possibly aardvarks—right down to the disconnection of his somewhat startled-looking head. Yet, "When Nurse informed his Parents, they / Were more Concerned than I can say:— / His Mother, as she dried her eyes, / Said, 'Well—it gives me no surprise, / He would not do as he was told!'" Father advises Jim's surviving siblings, "Always keep ahold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse." The illustrations are a perfect foil for Belloc's droll and macabre humor, but some readers may prefer to leave the dismemberment of the hapless Jim to their own imaginations.

Yvonne A. Frey (review date June-July 1987)

SOURCE: Frey, Yvonne A. Review of Jim, Who Ran Away from His Nurse, and Was Eaten by a Lion, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Victoria Chess. School Library Journal 33, no. 10 (June-July 1987): 76.

Gr 2 Up—Chess' clever comic illustrations capture the witty black humor of Belloc's verse, taken from his 1908 collection, Cautionary Tales for Children. Definitely not for those with delicate sensibilities, Jim is a tale in iambic rhyming couplets that describes the demise of a nasty spoiled brat. The pen and ink with watercolor illustrations have an early 1900s setting. The story follows the gruesome fate of the boy who willfully breaks away from his nurse on a trip to the zoo and is consumed by a hungry lion. Parodying the ending of some moral tales, Belloc ends his verse with Jim's father dispassionately cautioning his children to "always keep ahold of Nurse / For fear of finding something worse." Chess' lion wickedly smiles back. Although some vocabulary may be unfamiliar to young readers, the illustrations tell the story quite well on their own. Such an irreverent tale may upset some squeamish readers, but for those who appreciate the humor, this is a delightful rendition.


Patricia Siegfried (review date February 1988)

SOURCE: Siegfried, Patricia. Review of The Bad Child's Pop-Up Book of Beasts, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Wallace Tripp. School Library Journal 34, no. 6 (February 1988): 67.

K Up—Bad children, and good ones, too, will enjoy this pop-up version of Belloc's classic collection of verse [The Bad Child's Pop-Up Book of Beasts ]. The menagerie of outrageous beasts and the occasionally "rude and wild" Victorian children have built-in child appeal both in text and illustration. As usual, Tripp's animals are full of personality and vitality. Ten of the short verses from Belloc's original book have been selected to provide cautionary advice about proper behavior and hilarious information—and inspired misinformation—about a variety of beasts, from baboons to yaks. Because of the fragile nature of the pop-up format, libraries may be better served by the paperback edition of Belloc and Tripp's The Bad Child's Book of Beasts (Sparhawk, 1982). The original collection with Basil T. Blackwood's amusing illustrations is still available (Dover, 1965), but several of his original drawings contain stereotypes likely to be offensive to today's audiences.


Lindsay Duguid (review date 29 March 1991)

SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. "Catastrophes of Considerable Dimensions." Times Educational Supplement (29 March 1991): 23.

The Edwardian period—that Golden Age of children's books—seemed to foster a distinctly ruthless attitude to children; from Saki's disaffected, self-possessed young people to Harry Graham's disposable monsters. In Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales, a new edition of five of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales, Quentin Blake's illustrations rise, with unflinching readiness to match the vengeance of the casual hand of fate. He draws a pale green severed head with unpleasantly shut eyes for the verse which shows what became of the boy who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion: "But when he bent him over Jim / The honest keeper's eyes were dim / The lion having reached his head / The miserable boy was dead". The mayhem caused by George (who played with a Dangerous Toy and suffered a Catastrophe of Considerable Dimensions) is dramatically rendered with fire and light and greyish brick dust to evoke "falling masonry and groans, / And crunching as of broken bones". At the scene at the deathbed of Henry King, the grief of the distraught parents and siblings is transformed by their shadows on the bedroom wall into something quite gothic and horrible (though this mood is cheekily undercut by a depiction of suitable and unsuitable food underneath this picture with the simple message: sausages not string).

Blake portrays death and destruction, sickbeds and funerals in a cheerfully lurid style, with stronger colours (especially acid greens and pinks) than we are accustomed to from his palette. His illustrations are quite different from the spare, unemotional line drawings of B. T. B, and Nicolas Bentley, which decorated the original editions, but he achieves the necessary deadpan approach to make the reader aware of the joke. (This cannot have been altogether easy in the case of Franklin Hyde, who is quite brutally shaken and kicked by his frock-coated uncle for getting dirty.) The grotesque nature of the punishment means that we do not need to take it seriously.

Another distancing feature is the elaborate Edwardian world in which the action takes place, with the full complement of aunts and servants: "The Footmen (both of them), The Groom, / The man that cleaned the Billiard-Room / The Chaplain, and the Still-Room Maid". This background is important to the verses' Bloomsbury-like rebellion against the Victorian world of Struwwelpeter and The Fairchild Family, and it is signalled by Belloc's parodic use of informal rhyme and his satirical capitalisation ("Her funeral Sermon (which was long / and followed by a Sacred Song) / Mentioned her Virtues, it is true, / But dwelt upon her Vices too"). Blake implies that this was a particularly dotty society. His tiny besuited children (Norfolk, sailor and Eton) are dwarfed by stout gentlemen with waistcoats, beards and eartrumpets or hefty dowagers with necklaces. Only his Rebecca, who slammed doors and thus suffered an early death ("She was not really bad at heart, / But only rather rude and wild, / She was an aggravating child …"), promises an independent spirit. With these glosses on the mood of the original, the whole thing begins to look rather more fun, and children, unaware of preceding generations crying woe, will probably be very amused by it.



Beard, Mary. "Cautionary Tales." Times Literary Supplement, no. 4606 (12 July 1991): 21.

Labels Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales as a "ridiculous mismatch between the crime committed and the punishment received."

Hilton, Tim. "Wearying of Elves: Tales of Matilda, Farmer Duck and Little Billy." Times Literary Supplement, no. 4625 (22 November 1991): 23.

Characterizes Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned to Death as "an odd poem" due to its horrific subject material.

Speaight, Robert. "Marriage and Verse." In The Life of Hilaire Belloc, pp. 112-16. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1957.

Provides information about Belloc's life during the last decade of the nineteenth century and comments on the satirical aspects of Belloc's lighter verse.

Wilson, A. N. "Early Married Life, 1896-1899." In Hilaire Belloc, pp. 66-91. New York, N.Y.: Atheneum, 1984.

Details Belloc's early writings and muses on the lasting popularity of Belloc's children's poetry.

Additional coverage of Belloc's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 106, 152; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 19, 100, 141, 174; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poetry; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 24; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; Something about the Author, Vol. 112; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 18; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.