Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A unicorn in the peach tree

I found this book the other day at a resale shop, but it turned out not to have too much resale value for me: If I Found a Wistful Unicorn, by Ann Ashford, illustrated by Bill Drath; Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., Atlanta, 1978.

It’s a nice little children’s book with a message about love, coaxed out of the gentle rhymes and soft watercolors that grace each page. But it has little resale value, even in first edition and jacket. A lot of these kids books are usually ex-library books, and I was about to toss it into the library donation pile, when I glanced upon the author’s photo on the front flap of the jacket. That started another angle of research that brought this book into a new dimension of interest for me. Maybe others as well.

The author’s photo looked like a child had written a children’s book. Very youthful looking, cute, pixie-ish. She had to be pretty young in 1978 when this was published. Maybe early to mid-20s. In the next 30 years, she must have written a bunch more books. But I couldn’t find any. What I did find was that this was her first book and she was near 40 when it was published. She would be about 70 now. I looked at the picture again and couldn’t imagine someone so youthful looking being 70!

Sadly, she never made it 70 or 60 or even 50. She died in 1988 at the age of 49. No details on her death. There's an abundance of youthful energy and optimism in that photo, though. She’s just published her first book and it has won the Award for Juvenile Literature from the Council of Authors and Journalists. She has a very bright future in the making as a writer. She had already been a group leader for migrant workers in Texas, a social worker, a teacher, an actress, and vice president of a fund-raising consulting firm. By all accounts, a full and rewarding life early on. I wonder if she only had one book in her? She lived another 10 years, but published nothing that I can find. Before 40, she had already worn a number of hats. Was "author" a case of been there, done that and she was off to new ventures?

A write-up about her book on amazon.com shared another interesting fact: Ashford’s book was the first book published by Peachtree. The very first book! I thought, ‘How many collectors or booksellers ever come across a book that they know to be the very first book of a publishing house?' Would you even know one if you saw it?

Peachtree is still here 30 years later. They've published hundreds of books during that time. But I have the very first title that rolled off the press. That lends a certain significance to it and makes it special and collectible. And then there’s something in the author’s personal story. The publisher’s first title is also the author’s first book, maybe her only book. Her death at a young age is certainly a tragedy, and in direct contrast to the sweet ending her book had.

I think I’ll hang onto this book for awhile. I find more than just trivia in the facts surrounding this book. I see the dreams and aspirations of both the writer and the publisher for their first book, which evolves into a collaboration between a unicorn and a peachtree.

Folklore throughout the ages has cast the unicorn as a both a wild, untamed animal and a peaceful bearer of good luck. Perhaps both versions came together out of necessity for the writer and the publisher to achieve their dreams together. And perhaps the wistful, bittersweet ending for Ms. Ashford a decade later is tempered somewhat by the creative spirit she shared in this story, which shall live on for future generations to enjoy.