Thurber published this book in 1950, and it has been a classic ever since, albeit not a major one — I'd only dimly heard of it before finding Gaiman's endorsement. It's a curious blend of Dr Seuss, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Grimm's fairytales, with gorgeously silly language that makes the book an absolute delight to read aloud.
Which is exactly what I did: I read this aloud last weekend on a drive to and from the beach, to my eight year old daughter and three of her adults (my wife and my parents) who happened to be in the car. One thing I noticed straightaway: every time I stopped reading, my daughter insisted that I start again. This is the litmus test for any kids' book, and Thurber passed it with flying colors.
In Gaiman's introduction, he recounts the experience of reading the book aloud to a distressed friend who telephoned him in the night. The reading didn't make things any better, objectively, but his friend "was laughing, baffled and delighted, her problems forgotten."
This I find easy to believe.
If you can imagine Jabberwocky carried to book length, with some of the funniest lines from Humpty Dumpty, in Suessian scansion, you'd get close to what makes this book so great. It's got jokes for adults that sail over kids' heads, and jokes for kids that they will laugh at with their grownups. Though the plot — a princess whose hand can only be won from her evil uncle through the undertaking of impossible tasks — is simple enough, the glorious, glittering prose makes it more than its mere underlying tale. Who could resist the Golux, a possibly imaginary helpmeet with an indescribable hat who tells our hero:
"Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found.
When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself."
"I thought the tale of treasure might be true."
"You said you made it up."
"I know I did, but then I didn't know I had. I forget things, too."
The 13 Clocks [James Thurber/NYRB]