Remember those huge books you used to have to read in Reading Class during grade school? You know, the ones which were filled with short stories and had the questionarres and/or matching assignments in the textbook's accompanying workbook which you had to answer after completing each story segment?
Well, I had first encountered "Marco and The Tiger" as a "short story" in one of those things during the fourth grade. As I had taught myself to read before starting any school and regularly devoured books while the rest of my classmates still stumbled over words, I really ate this one up: it started with Marco collecting for his paper route at the weird huge door with the fist-shaped knocker and only got more and more strange and wonderous from there. I was fascinated with the whole setup, and I couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, had happened afterwards. The memory of it ended up both haunting and delighting my childhood memories for the rest of my life.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Just the other day, I saw a copy of this sitting in my local thrift store and snatched it up.
Now that I've read through the whole thing, it turns out that the "short story" was in reality just the first two chapters condensed to create one. And I'm happy to say that the rest of the book is just as charming as the portion I had originally read all those years ago. John Foster has quite a way with words throughout this quaint little tale, and he gives it real personality that is both unique and touching. This is the sort of book that I would have read in one setting way back then, and would later proceed to re-read again and again on a regular basis. Here is a book which is naturally cute and appealing without ACTING cute and appealing, a story so well-told that it was obviously second nature to its creator.
The story is simple but actually quite unique when you compare it to others similar to it: a boy named Marco discovers a tiger living in the middle of a battered courtyard in the middle of New Orleans (!!!), befriends him and later wonders what on earth to do with him.
Now I have to state something right off the bat: this is the type of story which will appeal only to those who love animals and have the natural ability to suspend disbelief and accept what's going on here. For example, the boy and the tiger work out a method of communication in which the tiger understands English, and in return Marco learns that the tiger uses his own form of sign language to communicate (a cocked eyebrow means "yes", stretching the neck means "no", thrashing the tail means "I don't know", etc... sort of makes the tiger sound like a typical Andy Warhol interview, doesn't it? ;) ). But Foster makes it work because he presents everything from Marco's point of view so well and effectively that you immediately get the impression the author himself (a) still has the natural ability to communicate with children as equals to be taken seriously, and (b) might have based this on a story he himself dreamed up as a boy. Every single detail is described with loving care, ringing true to Marco's personality and resulting point of view.
For example, one passage describes Marco's fear of some kind of mustached gamekeeper hunting down and killing his tiger, and adds as an extra thought, "Marco had no idea why the man would have a mustache, he just knew that the man would." A lesser author would never have bothered to have put in such details, but Foster is obviously a natural storyteller, and he's enjoying himself here with every page. I don't know how to describe his writing style except to say that it's appropriate to the story, gives it added believability and works wonderfully in presenting us with Marco's thoughts and perspective.
I actually got hooked on this little story and got concerned about what was going to happen, especially since Foster also shows a GREAT natural flair for hooking your suspense... right down to the very last scene that closes the book in which he simply doesn't allow the reader to relax in relief until the last minute.
I'm not sure whether later additions of this book ever had different illustrations or not, but the one I found--a first edition from 1967, I believe--has beautiful illustrations, particularly of Marco rowing his tiger across the water on the title page. In fact, the whole book brought back teary-eyed memories of what books for young people used to be like back during the time when this one came out, the time I grew up in.
And after you finish this one, which I know both children AND their parents will enjoy, you just might find yourself as the grown-up-who-never-grew-up wondering to yourself: why can't more modern children's books be as naturally crafted and entertaining as this one?