Here we one of the rarest and most sought-after children’s books of the 1950s. This 91-page hardcover was written by the famous LIFE Magazine photographer (and longtime Salvador Dali colleague) Philippe Halsman, who based it on stories he told his children. I can understand why the book is such a prized collector’s item, as for what it is PICCOLI is quite fine: a funny, scary and richly imaginative fairy tale with quite a few life lessons woven into the narrative.
Piccoli is an insect-sized living doll given as a gift by an old man to Terry, a young boy. Terry takes Piccoli back to his house, where she gets into a fight with a cockroach she subdues by stabbing it in the neck with a needle. The following morning she’s enclosed in a sugar bowl, from which Terry’s father unwittingly spoons her out, and crushed flat in the pages of a book. Luckily she’s revived by Terry’s tears, and she goes on to foil a robbery by climbing into the robber’s mouth and grabbing his uvula.
Piccoli winds up far away from Terry’s house but manages to get herself mailed back, where she paints the cockroach she stabbed and, in the book’s most unforgettable passage, leads “Cocky” and hundreds of his roach colleagues to attack the town bully in his bed (although how she manages to summon them so quickly to the bully’s house is left unexplained). This is followed by the inevitable teary goodbye as Piccoli leaves her friend and heads back to where she came from in a small balloon.
The language has all the paint-by-numbers obviousness you might expect from a fifties-era kids book, and an unwaveringly measured tone that never becomes unduly excited. Piccoli is a terrific character and first-rate girls’ role model, which is a damn good thing, as Terry is frankly a bit of a bore.
Then there’s the artwork of Paul Julian, a prominent painter and cartoonist who provides several colorful paintings (color illustrations were a sure sign of prestige in the 1950s) that are impressively drafted and very redolent of the time period. Images of Piccoli facing off against the cockroach and riding it up the inside edge of page 57 rank with the finest-ever kid-book illustrations.