Loyd Tireman

All illustrations by Ralph Douglass; courtesy University of New Mexico Press

Between 1943 and 1949, the University of New Mexico Press published Mesaland — seven smartly illustrated books that follow the realistic adventures of prairie dogs, roadrunners, coyotes, and other regional wildlife as they play and survive in their native high-desert habitat. Once a staple of grade-school libraries, these books featuring Hop-A-Long (rabbit), Cocky (roadrunner), and Quills (porcupine), among others, have been out of print for decades. Three years ago, however, UNM editors found the original titles languishing in their archives. This winter, they rereleased the series as spitting-image reproductions of the brightly colored volumes that children must have clutched in their hands more than a half-century ago.

“The only thing different is that the original books came with a paper dust jacket,” said UNM Press director John Byram. “It’s been very hard to find these books. We wanted to get copies [separate from the UNM archive copies] to make new editions of the original. Unfortunately, you have to tear the books apart to scan the images at high resolution. We had to really look through used bookstores, libraries, eBay.”

In the 1940s, Byram said, it was a commercially risky venture for UNM Press to take on these books. “Universities didn’t publish children’s books back then, especially ones that focused on such local wildlife themes in a realistic manner.” In other words, while we expect Babar the Elephant to convey real-life lessons to kids, we don’t fret about him driving off predatory lions or finding an edible source of tree bark on his daily walkabouts. Not so with Mesaland. Yes, the books’ animals enjoy playing and getting into trouble like other kids’ book characters. But with a realism we don’t expect in books with talking-animal characters, they must also forage for food, hunt down prey, and defend themselves and their offspring from predators.

For example, Big Fat, the fifth book in the series, follows the friendly rivalry between the title character, a rotund, jolly prairie dog, and his pint-sized, trouble-seeking nemesis, Little Ugly. Little laughs at Big as the latter gets stuck going down a burrow hole while Big chuckles as Little pokes himself on nopal cactus spines.

But the lightheartedness gives way to concern as Big Fat and Mrs. Big Fat have a litter of adorable prairie-dog puppies. The puppies rove around the mesa, looking for green roots to chew, obeying their parents’ edict to come running back to their den whenever they hear an adult whistle. One puppy ignores the whistle as a coyote, Three Toes — the subject of another Mesaland book — steps in to pluck off the youngling. (Mimicking the interlocked life of desert wildlife, the characters from one book frequently appear in another.)

“Blacky will not be back to play with you. ... He didn’t come when he heard the danger whistle. Now the Coyote has him,” says a somber Big Fat to his children, before the narrative resumes, with the prairie-dog family continuing to live life and find everyday joy. It’s a startling example of how the Mesaland books acknowledge danger and fear in the natural world while teaching their young readers not to succumb to these emotions.

Humans appear in the series, but they are often careless as to how their actions affect the lives of animals. For instance, in Dumbee, two honey-hungry young boys smoke out a beehive in a cave. The Queen-Mother bee frantically struggles to evacuate her colony while Dumbee, a worker bee, is devastated by the loss. True to the series’ focus on grit and personal transformation, both Dumbee and the Queen-Mother rebuild the honey pods, finding mirth and laughter in later adventures, even as the remorseless young boys complain that bees are too stupid to feel pain.

The books were the collective brainchild of Loyd Tireman, a pioneering bilingual educator who created progressive community grade schools in Nambé and Albuquerque; Ralph Douglass, a painter, cartoonist and UNM art professor; and Evelyn Yrisarri, a children’s storyteller.

A chapter in the 1991 book Educational Reform in New Mexico: Tireman, San José, and Nambé examines the series in light of Tireman’s experiments in progressive bilingual education in rural New Mexico in the 1930s and the larger climate of World War II, which inwardly focused many American authors and artists on creating regional literature. In the early 1940s, Tireman successfull developed a community grade school in Nambé that centered on conservation education and agriculture. At the same time, the state game warden was making rounds across the state, delivering personal appeals to New Mexico teachers to develop a curriculum around wildlife conservation.

Little is known about Tireman’s story collaborator, Evelyn Yrisarri, beyond a biographical mention that she was a member of the National Storyteller’s League based in Washington, D.C. The books’ illustrator, Ralph Douglass, however, was already well known at the time of the books’ publication. A former Chicago newspaper political cartoonist, he relocated to Albuquerque for health reasons, where he became an art professor at UNM and a well-regarded painter of New Mexico landscapes. His timeless illustrations for the Mesaland series mix a pulpy comic-book flair he developed as a cartoonist with an attention to line detail and facial and body expressions that he must have developed as an oil painter. Noticeably, each book is illustrated in only black and two other themed colors. It produces a striking visual effect but was a concession to wartime rationing that greatly restricted printers’ access to papers and inks.

At the time of their publication, the books received keen reviews in a number of regional and national outlets including the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, Chicago Sun Book Week, Library Journal, and New Mexico Magazine. The New York Herald Tribune wrote that it was “especially pleased by the rapidity with which each one [story] reaches a satisfactory conclusion” and added that the stories featured “drama that Mother Goose might respect.”

But in the decades since, the books not only went out of print but became a lost memory to both the publishers and the family descendants of the books’ creators. In fact, UNM Press only rediscovered this children’s literary treasure in its archives in 2013, when Douglass’ great-nephew, an archaeologist who happened to be working at UNM at the time, discovered that his relative had illustrated Mesaland. “He found out his late great-uncle had illustrated these books and wanted to see them,” Byram said. “So in helping him out, we found these books in the archive.”