Although in his other work, Sandburg was a passionate social activist, in Rootabaga Stories he relaxes and has fun. In a different context, for example, Sandburg might have treated the Potato Face Blind Man as an object of pity or as a victim of the social system. A street person, he “used to play an accordion on the Main Street corner nearest the postoffice in the Village of Liver-and-Onions.” Instead, he tells delightful stories and dreams that amuse the children of the village.
Nevertheless, the words of the Potato Face Blind Man are as close to morality or social commentary as the stories come. Whitson Whimble, “the patent clothes wringer manufacturer,” reads the blind man’s sign, which says “You look at ’em and see ’em; I look at ’em and I don’t. You watch what their eyes say; I can only feel their hair.” He then tells his chauffeur to “go on.” In this brief exchange, Sandburg’s sympathies are with the working poor, represented by the Potato Face Blind Man, rather than with capitalists such as Whimble. Earlier, the Potato Face Blind Man has explained another of his signs to Pick Ups:“Some of the people who pass by here going into the postoffice and coming out, they have eyes—but they see nothing with their eyes. They look where they are going and they get where they wish to get, but they forget why they came and they do not know how to come away. They are my blind brothers. It is for them I have the sign that reads ‘I am Blind Too.’ ”
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Rootabaga Stories and Rootabaga Pigeons were the only two books that Sandburg wrote specifically for children. His other books for children were by-products of his larger projects: Early Moon (1930), a collection of poems for children, was gleaned from Sandburg’s poetry; Abe Lincoln Grows Up (1928) came from Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926); and Prairie-Town Boy (1955) was excerpted from Always the Young Strangers (1953).
In Rootabaga Stories and Rootabaga Pigeons, Sandburg responded to a particular moment by turning his daughters’ bedtime stories into books that other children might enjoy. Afterward, his monumental six-volume biography of Lincoln took his attention, his daughters grew up, and he never again returned to writing whimsical children’s stories.
Rootabaga Stories and Rootabaga Pigeons have attracted new audiences since their first publication, and they will no doubt endure to amuse future generations. They came from such diverse antecedents as the nonsense verse of Edward Lear and American folktales, as well as from the more nonchalant tradition of parental storytelling. Both books have affinities with subsequent children’s works such as those by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), which began to appear in the 1930’s. Rootabaga Stories and Rootabaga Pigeons, by-ways in Sandburg’s literary career, are also by-ways in the course of children’s literature. They remain a unique amalgam of whimsy, poetry, myth, and magic, with a leavening of sympathy for the working class.