The book David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd was first published in 1957 (I have an edition from 1958). It was sort of an accidental thrift store find for me, because I always scour the kids’ book section for obscure children’s fantasy books that I’ve never heard of before. It was the illustrated dust jacket, which features the main character, that attracted me to it: David standing on the beach with the Phoenix and a gentle-faced sea-monster asleep in the sand. I was instantly convinced that this tattered copy was worth the read. I later created a sculpture based on the cover illustration, but for some reason I can only find a couple work-in-progress shots:
Basically, the general premise of the story is that a young boy moves with his family to a new house and is instantly drawn to the mountain that looms just beyond the back fence. His longing for exploring the mountain is what leads him to encounter “the one and only, the Unique, Phoenix.” Rather than being a ferocious, mythological bird creature, the Phoenix is a highly educated and charmingly arrogant character. After being convinced to stay, and not fly away to South America in order to avoid the scientist that has been hot on his heels, the Phoenix becomes David’s friend and mentor. Together they plot how to turn the tables on the persistent scientist – who doesn’t just want to study the Phoenix but has plans to shoot him! It’s not until they purchase the most frightening wail from a former banshee (who turned to being a witch, because running a witch apothecary is where the money is at) that they succeed at derailing the scientist’s plans. If your weakness is unlikely friendships with lovable monsters, then this book’s beautiful ending might make you sniffle.
Aside from the charming plot and illustrations, it was the conversations between the Phoenix and David that lent inspiration to my own writing. Here is where Ormondroyd’s writing truly shines. The Phoenix is an extremely witty character and is always imparting his wisdom on the impressionable young David in something close to a proper English accent. (When I read his lines, I always imagine a voice similar to Roddy McDowell’s). What the Phoenix feels is important and common knowledge always borders on the fantastic and amusing. While they are wildly different, the two characters, boy and bird, find kinship in their love for adventure and strawberry ice cream.
Go read it online through Project Gutenberg. Or, if you get lucky, you can purchase a copy at your local bookstore!
I’ll leave you with a favorite passage from the book. The Phoenix knows a thing or two about the other fantasy creatures:
“Gryffins,” explained the Phoenix, “are the small, reddish, friendly ones. Gryffons are the quick-tempered proud ones. Gryffens—ah, well, the most anyone can say for them is that they are harmless. They are very stupid.”
“I see,” said David doubtfully. “What do they look like?”
“Each looks like the others, my boy, except that some are bigger and some are smaller. But to continue: Sea Monsters, Leprechauns, Rocs, Gnomes, Elves, Basilisks, Nymphs—ah—and many others. All are of the Better Sort, since, as I have many times truly observed, one is known by the company one keeps. And your education will cost you nothing. Of course it would be agreeable if you could supply me with cookies from time to time.”
“As many as you want, Phoenix. Will we go to Africa?”
“Naturally, my boy. Your education will include—”
“And Egypt? And China? And Arabia?”
“Yes. Your education will—”
“Oh, Phoenix, Phoenix!” David jumped up and began to caper, while the Phoenix beamed. But suddenly he stopped.
“How are we going to travel, Phoenix?”
“I have wings, my boy.”