We saw a lot of terrific things on a recent visit to the Heard Museum, a local institution here in Phoenix which focuses on Native American art, past and present. Something that really stoked my imagination could be found not in the museum, proper, but in the bookstore. Neatly lined up on a shelf, there was a group of kids’ books – colorful volumes focusing on animals of the Southwest, done in a vivid 1940s style. It was the Mesaland series: a set of seven volumes written by Loyd Tireman and published by his employer, The University of New Mexico, from 1943 to 1949. These enchanting books were brought back into print by the University press in 2015. As evidenced by Cocky, Tireman’s tale of a feisty road runner and his young family, the books are well worth checking out.
The fourth Mesaland book, Cocky (1946) takes place in a contemporary desert setting brimming with wildlife, with some intrusions by humans (like Felix Slatkin’s classic Bambi, although not quite as preachy). Cocky arrives to set up a nest with his mate, Mrs. Cocky, his odd appearance puzzling a jackrabbit named Hop-A-Long (introduced in a previous Mesaland volume). While attempting to raise chicks with Mrs. Cocky, Cocky encounters a variety of foes, including a rattlesnake and a hunting human. He also sneaks into a farm’s chicken coop to pilfer some food, annoying a hot-blooded rooster. Tireman, a long-tenured professor of elementary education, makes the story both educational and entertaining. The story is fairly realistic and attuned to how real animals behave – like Bambi, it’s not sugar-coated. Having lived and worked in New Mexico for so long (32 years at the University alone), Tireman imbues the story with the ambiance of the Southwestern desert – something totally unprecedented in the ’40s!
All of the Mesaland books are enlivened by dynamic, Dr. Seuss-ish artwork from Ralph Douglass, one of Tireman’s colleagues at the University. Along with Cocky, the series included Baby Jack and Jumping Rabbit, Hop-a-Long (both about rabbits), Dumbee (focusing on a bee!), Big Fat (a groundhog), Quills (a porcupine) and 3 Toes (a wolf).
The reprinted Mesaland volumes are unabridged and nicely bound as compact, dust jacket-free hardbacks. The original two-color printing is done a bit differently in the 2015 books as a standard four-color process, a difference which likely will be only noticed by graphic designers. Cocky can be purchased at the University of New Mexico website, or at Amazon.com. Since the original books have long gone out of print, commanding high prices on the used market, it’s excellent that these wonderful books are back on shelves.