Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer … and children’s book author? Given my soft spot for lesser-known vintage children’s books by famous literary icons, I was delighted to discover The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit (public library) — a charming children’s story Plath penned shortly before having her first child. Though her journals indicate it was written on or immediately before September 26, 1959, it wasn’t until March of 1996 that the tale saw light of day with its first — and only — publication, featuring wonderful illustrations by German graphic designer and artist Rotraut Susanne Berner.
It tells the story of seven-year-old Maximilian “Max” Nix, one of seven brothers, who sees people in various suits everywhere he looks and dreams of the perfect attire for any and all occasions — an “it-doesn’t-matter suit.”
One day, a mysterious package arrives at the Nix house and inside it is a “wonderful, woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit.”
All the Nix brothers proceed to try the suit on, but each finds it ill-fitted, worrying about how the townspeople might judge this unusual mustard-yellow suit.
When Max tries it on, it fits him “as if it were made-to-order.” Once he puts the suit on, Max never takes it off — he goes to school in it, goes fishing, rides his bicycle, takes to the slopes, milks the cow, goes hunting and all along earns the admiration of his fellow citizens.
It’s inescapable to consider how the moral of the story — an admonition against the perilous preoccupation with other people’s opinions — reflects Plath’s own daily struggle with self-consciousness.
The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit is currently out of print, but used copies can still be tracked down. Complement it with Plath’s other little-known and lovely children’s book — The Bed Book, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake — then revisit Plath on privilege and free will, the creative benefits of keeping a journal, and how her first job as a farm worker shaped her as a writer.