Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First Book Memories: Norbert Nipkin by Robert McConnell & Steve Pilcher

I have two REALLY solid memories from being like 2 or 3 years old. That was an age, that unless your memory is decidedly awesome, you only recall in fuzzy snippets. Small noted occurrences, or pieces of events rather than full sequences that you can put into words easily. Bright primary colors stand out, or the way something felt when you touched it. Other than these fleeting images you usually remember only a few things with anything more than a noteworthy passing.

So, two I have. Two memories that have never left me and I remember them quite clearly.  Number one would be when I was 3. It was 1980. What on earth could a 3-year old (future pop culture nerd) remember from 1980? If you guessed his first film screening in the form of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, then you get a prize! (Note: prizes will not be honored). I remember that vividly. Sitting in the darkened theatre downtown at the Bloor, as the Fox fanfare played and a yellow scrawl played across an ocean of stars.

Ah memories…

I digress. We are in fact here to talk about my OTHER memory. When I was 2 (psst, that’s 1979), my mother bought a picture book called NORBERT NIPKIN. Written by Robert McConnell and illustrated by the supremely talented (I think he works for Pixar now) Steve Pilcher, this book was a visual wonder.  It’s also a Fantasy book, go figure!

I remember my mother reading it to me for the first time, the cadenced poetic style to the words, and the pictures that took me away to another place. It took me to the nooks of trees, where lived the tiny Nipkins, and into the mountain fasts, where lived the terrible giant Zlogs. It dropped me off in clusters of autumn leaves and I thought I could hear them crinkle, and it tucked me in safe in my bed inside the hollow of a great oak. It saw me through a dark nighttime wood safely, only to bring me face to face with a nightmare giant who wanted to eat me.

The nuanced style of the text was such that any child could catch on and remember the words. As picture books often do, the poetic rhyming words, makes it so after the first few reads I could read along. Sometimes my mother would read a passage and then look to me to read the next. It’s one of my fondest memories, and exists in a time when my parents weren’t fighting; and I wasn’t worried about the umpteen things that an adult has to worry about day to day. It exists for me, untouched in my memories exactly how it was then. Every now and again I like to dust off that memory and recall that at one time, everything was hushed and warmly lit, and perfect.

It quickly became my favourite. Every time my mother asked what book she should read, I am pretty sure I answered "Norbert!" She likely got sick of reading it to me, but she’s never said if she did or didn’t. Books, especially picture books (since you outgrow them), came and went as I grew up but I never let NORBERT NIPKIN go. Garage sales would come and even some of my Star Wars toys would get sold to someone younger. Someone more able to enjoy them for what they were. But I was never able to let NORBERT go. No matter what happened or where we moved, I made sure he was safe. Yeah, the dust jacket got dinged and torn, and the spine was well worn from reading it over and over, but it was still a treasure to me. Many years later, unbeknownst to me, McConnell and Pilcher made a sequel book. So in 2005 (27 years after the first one came out), on my 28th birthday my father bought me NORBERT NIPKIN AND THE MAGIC RIDDLE STONE and inscribed it hoping it brought me nostalgia. It did, in spades, even though I was a grown adult. The cadence of the rhyming text. The glorious art on the pages. The solid, meaningful story told. A great addition. Is it as good as the first? No, but that’s not for any other reason than the soft spot I have for the first. That warm, candle-lit memory in my head is unassailable.

The book is long out of print now, and finding a First Edition in any decent shape will cost you a chunk of cash. Mine’s not in any great shape now, and part of me thinks the dust jacket may even be gone, but I don’t care. Which is funny, I’m SO picky about keeping all my books in pristine condition even while reading them (not cracking the spine ect.), but with Norbert I don’t care. As long as it still exists and I can still open it and read it, I’m happy. In fact it’s probably a lesson I should learn about my other books and my need to keep them pristine. The fact that my NORBERT is so well-worn just shows how much I’ve loved it over the years.

Somewhere along the line I think I brought it over to my sisters when my eldest niece was a child to read it to her while I babysat her. She enjoyed it, I hope, on the same level that I did. Well, it’s been a number of years since then, and my eldest niece is now fifteen, but her younger sister is only 5 and the book currently sits on her shelf and she's read it a bunch of times. I still have the sequel on my shelf, and my sister has said that I can take NORBERT back as well at some point. My dearest wish is that one day, when I have kids I can read it to them and hopefully bring them the same kind of clear memory of their earliest years. A nice memory. One that can stay untouched for the entirety of their lives. So that no matter what happens to them or the family around them, there can be this little thing in the back of their heads of a simpler time, with simpler wishes. A wish for adventure!

I think that may be the key to why activities like reading, watching movies or TV, or even listening to music are so special and important to us as society. It’s because that's something that NO ONE can steal from you, ever. It’s safe.


  1. A beautifully-written nostalgic review. I've passed it on to Steve Pilcher. Yes, he is at Pixar.

    May all your Nipkins be Norberts!

    Robert McConnell (grmc@sympatico.ca)

    * Five Norbert eBooks will soon be published by Skyreader Media in Toronto

  2. Whoa! I am quite honored to have had you read my post Mr. McConnell. Thank you so much for visiting!

  3. Also, Thanks for the note about the eBook versions. I will get those for my girlfriends' niece and nephew, and let them enjoy Norbert like I have. :)

  4. Scott,

    Steve Pilcher was very touched by your Blog. He commented this morning, "That's what it's all about." Also, the excellent people at Skyreader were very impressed by your work.

    Steve Pilcher sent me a preview of a new poster he has just completed for Pixar, in conjunction with Disney. It's a promotion for his new film "Brave". If you send along your email address to me, I'll pass it on to it. It really is spectacular and highlights, once again, that very special Pilcher magic.


    Bob McConnell


  5. Brilliant! I actually heard about BRAVE and love the idea behind it. Would love to see some art for it.

  6. I too have fond memories of Norbert Nipkin! I will never forget that when I was 5 (1981), I would take NN out of the library every week at school. I wouldn't borrow any other books but insisted on reading NN. I don't remember how long this went on for but it's one of the only books from my childhood that I absolutely cherish. I'm pretty sure my mother got tired of reading it to me but she continued to do it. I'm so thrilled that someone else cherishes it the way I do. I have read it to my small children with such excitement hoping that they would feel the same way but I'm not sure they'll ever have the same feelings for it. I do also have to comment that the artistry is a pure work of genius. It was eye candy to me. I would spend a lot of time looking at every detail and was always determined to try and find hidden nipkins throughout the pages.
    I have often wondered why a movie has never been made? Mr. McConell, if you happen to read this, please tell me why? I'm sure the brilliant Mr. Pilcher might have some sway over at Pixar!



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