A great children's book has sturdy elements. A dangerous quest, of course, for a magical sword or ring. A missing parent, or two. A deadly confrontation with evil.
Colorful and fantastic figures—pirates or witches or the odd school of wizardry—are generally employed to move the plot along.
So what is the appeal of a quest that takes place in the very real backwoods of Florida in the 1940s and involves three American kids named Nick and Ben and Penny for a knobby seashell called a lion's paw?
Well, I guess it is a mixed appeal. Robb White's children's book masterpiece, The Lion's Paw, has a rather unique status. According to the used and rare book website BookFinder.com, White's book is the most sought-after out-of-print kids' book in the land.
Now there's a backhanded compliment for an author.
I read and reread The Lion's Paw as a boy and dug up a copy for my kids (and me) a few years back. And so I cheered when I saw the ad in the New York Times Review of Books announcing that The Lion's Paw is in print again, in a custom version from Amazon or by direct mail order.
The teenage Ben is the keeper of his dad's sailboat, and memory—as his father has been declared missing, likely killed in action, in battle in the South Pacific. Ben lives in a marina on the Atlantic Coast of Florida, dreading the day, fast approaching, when his uncle will make him sell the boat and accept the grim fact that his father is never coming back.
Nick and Penny are younger runaways from an orphanage who hide out on Ben's boat. He tells them of his crazy notion that somehow his dad will return if he can only meet the challenge once given him by his father: to find a rare shell, the lion's paw. The young orphans persuade Ben to take on the quest and join him on his journey.
And so they set off through the rivers and canals and the swamps of central Florida, with Ben's uncle and the Coast Guard and bounty hunters giving chase, for the Gulf of Mexico and the then-wild beaches of Captiva Island, where the lion's paw might be found. The book reaches its climax in a mighty storm at sea, and a desperate flight for freedom, with the forces of evil closing in.
White, an accomplished novelist and screenwriter who died some years back, was no Twain or Shakespeare. But it takes real talent to set the hero's quest in a contemporary setting and realistic style. Joseph Campbell would approve.