I have a bazillion children’s picture books and not one of them is about a leprechaun. Cockroaches, beetles, sheep, lovesick frogs, blue muffins and a sweet, sweet moleman, but not a single shamrock wearing, shillelagh-packing leprechaun. Therefore, I cannot review or recommend a St Patrick’s Day book. Even a green cover would have sufficed, but I seem to have few of these as well, with the exception of a book I illustrated several years ago for a local publisher. It’s about zucchini. Not very Irish.
Usually if a book is themed, it’s god-awful. Take a wander through the seasonal section of any bookstore and you’ll see desperate publishers going to great gaudy lengths to win over consumers within a very tight window of opportunity. This means sparkles, bright colours, cutesy hydrocephalic animals, jaunty fairy-folk, and of course, shaped books-the flag bearer of seasonal tack. The exception is Christmas, and to a lesser extent, Easter. Nothing like the birth of our lord and saviour and the bloody crucifixion of said saviour to get the ol’ creative juices flowing, which is why, as we approach Easter, I’ll be reviewing books about rabbits.
The problem is St Patrick. A 5th century evangelist, who may or may not have expelled snakes, pagans and Michael Flatley’s step-dancing ancestors from Ireland, Paddy’s a dead-end, creatively. And you can’t blame the artists. Who wants to paint Jimmy Swaggart? So without another quintessentially Irish source of inspiration, leprechauns have become the muse o’ jour by default, and the results have have not been encouraging. One leprechaun, however, has achieved a certain level of notoriety, not for beauty or contribution to the children’s picture book canon, but as an iconic image in breakfast comestibles. If Andy Warhol can elevate a Campbell’s tomato soup can to the level of fine art, there is no reason why leprechaun cereal should not be worthy of at least some consideration.
Lucky Charms was created in 1962 by John Holahan at General Mills, and Lucky the Leprechaun (also known as Sir Charms, and originally L.C. Leprechaun) was born shortly thereafter, in 1963. Retro Lucky resembles the Rankin/Bass cartoon characters popular in the 60’s, like Frosty the Snowman, but with bushier eyebrows. As one would expect, he incorporates all the usual Irish stereotypes: ginger hair, jaunty green attire, rampant rosacea, and tap shoes. Instead of whisky, however, Lucky is holding a marshmallow heart, which is a break with tradition yes, but an acceptable one considering the target audience. This image remained relatively unchanged for a several decades, although the passage of time can be seen in the varying prize offers (Globetrotters, Star Wars), and especially in the description of the ingredients. I challenge anyone to find a cereal today that mentions ‘sugar’ on the front of the box. Or the Globetrotters.
Lucky’s image did undergo a transformation in the latter part of the 80’s, as twenty years of magical deliciousness finally took its toll on the diminutive Irishman.
Goodbye the plucky expression and soft sell lip-licking of Sir Charms, hello Hard Sell Luckmaster Flash, with his hyperglycemic stare, ear to ear grin, and gleaming veneers, no doubt a consquence of eating thousands of marshmallows for breakfast over an extended period of time.
And speaking of marshmallows, they too have seen the march of progress, from the innocence of the original hearts, moons, stars and clovers (try saying this without an Irish accent…if you’re of a certain age…ahem) to the current and far more complex shooting stars, keys, rainbows, horseshoes, and more recently, orange-flavoured Van Morrisons (in profile, with hat.)
Neither Sir Charms nor Luckmaster Flash have any relevance in the larger world of picture book illustration, but they sure know how to whore a product, and really, isn’t that we’re all trying to do? Even St Patrick was selling something. None of this is relevant to St Patrick’s Day, and I’m sorry I don’t have any pretty pictures or an uplifting Irish folktale to commemorate this occasion, but at least we can enjoy a tasty breakfast of whole grain oats and coloured marshmallows, and agree to be Irish for the day.