Ellen Raskin is one of my favorite authors from childhood. I think my favorite book by her is one that not a lot of other people have read, The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues. The book is broken into sections, each containing a mystery. However, the story continues throughout and must be read in order.
Dickory Dock is an art student in New York City. She becomes the apprentice of Garson, a portrait painter who uses his artistic eye to solve mysteries. In the process, we learn an emotional story of friendship, jealousy, guilt, and redemption. Like many of Raskin’s books, it kind of defies explanation beyond that. You’ll just need to read it for yourself, and I hope you do!
I tried reading it out loud to my kids, and I don’t think that was the best approach—we stopped about half way through. My daughter finished it on her own and enjoyed it. There are clues in the text for the observant reader, although most of them won’t fall into place until near the end of the story. I read it again on my own and I think it’s best read over a short period of time so that all the little hints and clues stay with you. It was taking way too long reading it out loud—we were losing the train of the story. I hope my son will read it on his own, too, since he was enjoying it overall.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Originally published in 1975, there are a few things kids won’t find familiar. $5 an hour for a part time job is a lot of money. Dickory gets paid by check and the banks are closed on weekends, so she has to wait a bit to get her money. She goes to the library to look up information on artists. Some of the gender stereotypes fit into this as well, like the idea that there are no male pedicurists. Some of these are clues to the mysteries, but since the reader isn’t solving the mystery (this isn’t Encyclopedia Brown) it doesn’t really distract from the plot.
Dickory is self-conscious about her name—and for good reason. Lots of people tease her about it. No matter how good-natured it is, it still bothers her. I can identify with this—I grew up with a name that leant itself to teasing (Yahner, pronounced “yawn-er”—insert your own joke here). Lots of people in this book have problematic names, and not just in the “silly but appropriately named” manner of many novels. In the end, she takes ownership of her name, essentially making it an asset and using it to represent who she is.
Dickory’s parents were murdered during a robbery, a crime that was never solved. Late in the story, she’s attacked by two criminals who clearly intend to kill her. Isaac comes to her rescue, bashing their heads together and killing them. This scene isn’t graphic or lingered on, although the consequences are explored.
Isaac was injured in an accident that left him disfigured, deaf, mute, and brain damaged. Dickory finds him terrifying and misjudges him for awhile, nearly with tragic consequences. Garson is fond of Isaac, providing him with room, board, and a job.
There’s a lot of discussion about art, such as techniques, supplies, and specific artists. There’s an exploration of what the purpose of art really is and what makes a good artist. These, of course, are unanswerable questions, but it’s interesting to see them explored in a novel for younger readers.
Dickory lives in a tenement with her brother and his wife. She’s struggling to put herself through art school and is embarrassed that she does her art projects with magic markers because that’s all she has available. She’s desperate to earn enough money to get her own place. This is part of the reason she puts up with stuff that other people might be able to walk away from.
Many people treat Dickory rudely. Garson is often less than kind, although he does care about what happens to her. The art teacher is a rather awful person who has only insulting things to say to his students. Of course the criminals are rude and scary—they make a living stealing and blackmailing. At least two people routinely recite “Hickory Dickory Dock” every time they see her, even though it obviously bothers her.
Not all opinions should be shared. Not all truth is worth telling. Sometimes it’s just too painful and not enough is gained. On the other hand, sometimes you’re lying for the wrong reasons.
Garson paints portraits of people the way they want to see themselves. In private, he paints brutally honest portraits of who they really are. These he hides from the world, convinced that people can’t handle the truth about themselves. And his experience backs this up.
In a touching subplot—and my daughter’s favorite part—Cookie Panzpresser, the bubbly wife of a wealthy art collector, is painted as a proper lady pouring tea. This isn’t how she sees herself, but rather how she imagines her husband wants her to be. Garson’s honest portrait portrays her as a garish middle-aged majorette. The husband detests the tea portrait, but when he sees the honest portrait, he says fondly, “That’s my Cookie.” This new-found honesty reinvigorates their marriage—the very opposite of what Garson assumed would happen if the honest portrait was seen.
I really like this book with its many layers and intertwining plot lines. It may be too outdated for some readers, and you kind of have to hang in there to see how everything comes together. It’s probably best read fairly quickly, but that shouldn’t be too hard for most readers as it’s a fairly short book, split into sections of several chapters each. It’s most appropriate for ages 10 and up.
The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin
Published in 1975 by Puffin Books
Read my personal copy