Mr. and Mrs. Crow have a problem: they want to raise a family, but every time Mrs. Crow lays eggs, Mr. Snake comes along and eats them. Desperate for help, Mr. Crow approaches the wise Mr. Owl, who recommends they stoop to a bit of subterfuge. On Mr. Owl’s advice, then, the Crows paint two big rocks to resemble crow eggs and place them in their nest. Mr. Snake slithers up and (predictably) eats them, but as he glides away, he’s struck suddenly with a massive stomach ache. Moaning and twisting with pain, he stretches himself between two branches, ties himself in knots, and expires. Victorious, the Crow family goes on to successfully raise a nest full of little crows — and as we turn to the last page, Mrs. Crow is seen happily hanging laundry across the outstretched body of the dead snake. And all is right with the Crows of Pearblossom.
Aldous Huxley’s (yes, that Aldous Huxley) The Crows of Pearblossom is the first book that terrified me. Not in a Monsters-Under-The-Bed sort of way; it’s more like a Can’t-Look-Yet-MUST-Look sort of thing. Written as a gift to neighbor’s daughter during the darkest days of World War II, The Crows of Pearblossom can certainly be read allegorically, with the Nazi snake consuming the innocent Crows of Europe. But when paired with Barbara Cooney’s deadly serious illustrations, Crows becomes Aesop as channeled through Tim Burton — and at five-years-old, I found the combination of story and images to be perfectly and deliciously terrifying: Snake eats the Crows’ eggs — the Crows’ children! — while singing a funny song, and as he slithers sneakily away, eyes slitted with snakely satisfaction, the two eggs make visible humps in his middle. Later, after the Crows work their vengeance on the snake, his dead body stretches between the forks of two branches, his head hanging limply downward. Brrrr.
As a kid, I read this book more times than I can remember — and while elements of the plot have disappeared into age-induced fog, I’m still haunted by that snake and the creepy-casual way he ingested the Crow children. I was fascinated enough by this book as a child to make my own set of drawings, which I then rolled onto dowels and ran through slots in a box to make a primitive slide show. I can’t recall drawing the crows all that well, but I distinctly remember drawing those two humps in the middle of the snake, each one marking the spot where an unhatched little crow met his or demise.
Reader opinion on the Crows seems to be split down the middle — one amazon.com reviewer calls it a “horrid little book” — but The Crows of Pearblossom earns a sentimental spot on my list of favorites as the First Book That Really Truly Creeped Me Out.