Paris Disneyland, Its Origin Story

A chance meeting in Montmartre leads to a revelation of a brand emergency . . .

We made our first visit to Paris in the early 1990’s, and like typical Americans we were hungry at 7:00 p.m. So my wife and I climbed Montmartre and stumbled into a huge but — at that unfashionable hour — nearly empty restaurant. In fact, there was only one other couple dining there besides ourselves.

It turns out they were hungry Americans, too. And architects from San Francisco. Paris Disneyland was about to open, they confided, and the two of them had been flown over for an “emergency.” “What?” we inquired.

The entrance to Disneyland, everyone knows, looks like the Golden Age of America filtered through Walt Disney’s childhood. A Midwestern American town, say, in the 1890’s. The era and Indiana atmosphere of the Broadway hit “The Music Man.” Ice cream socials and buggy rides.

But, alas, that part of Paris Disneyland had been given over to Italian subcontractors, and the feeling was that instead of turn-of-the-century Indiana, the Italians had done their own thing. They had created their own version of the Golden Age of America: something more like Chicago in the 1930’s, Al Capone and the Untouchables.

“Zut alors!” Here was a brand emergency!

“When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood”

Pioneering work in literature and childhood studies (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood” by Richard N. Coe. (Yale University: $25; 315 pp.)

Richard N. Coe’s subject is kid stuff — autobiographical accounts of childhood as they appear in such works as Joyce’s “Portrait if the Artist as a Young Man,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” and Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.” Coe’s approach is academic. He is, I gather, an Australian teaching French and comparative literature at UC Davis; this explains, perhaps, the international reach of his study and why Aussie authors (Graham McInnes and Alan Marshall) stand shoulder to shoulder with Beckett, Bellow, Genet, Gide, Goethe, Gorky, Proust, Rousseau, Sartre, Stendhal, Tolstoy and Wordsworth. This list is by no means exhaustive. The book is.

Coe examines nearly everything and everyone. His method, he explains, is not to offer conclusions of a nearly decade-long study, but first to lay out all the data and then work inductively toward theory. A reader is likely to be dazzled by this encyclopedic sea of data but feel unsure how much will later prove to be flotsam. The reader is also likely to feel a touch of vertigo: more than 600 books are examined in 300 pages, 350 footnotes, and a 1200-item index.

Coe’s shortcoming is the very difficulty he identifies: “Every authentic account of childhood relies mainly upon . . . a vast, disordered and inchoate accumulation of disconnected trivialities, whose residue of significance in the mind may bear little relation to any objective assessment of meaninglessness — a junk-pile of discarded or discardable bits and pieces, which make every demand on the literary skill of the writer to fashion them into a valid, coherent and well-proportioned shape.”

But there are jewels to be found in this tour-de-force heap of data. Coe demonstrates that childhood is appreciably different from adulthood. If this is not evident, consider: When was the last time you found it pleasurable to crawl underneath a table? Play is the ruling genie of a child’s life when an adult sense of utility is absent and things are done “for fum.” As for parents, “In the beginning one loves one’s parents. Later one judges them. Later still — sometimes — one forgives them.”

What is genuinely delightful is that in cataloging similarities between the works, Coe comes wonderfully close to describing a world we remember but no longer inhabit: the urge to make collections of rocks or bugs, a calendar measured out in holidays and birthdays, misgivings about religion (when prayers are offered to win basketball games or obtain pocketknives), the link between sex and obscenity (which results in so many defaced textbooks), the excitement of plays and movies, the lingering guilt for sadistic treatment of animals, the terror of sin and death, staring out the window of a passing car or train and imagining a life there, rooms and how they smelled, treasured things such as marbles and cards, and a familiarity with a few blocks that is even greater than adults’ comprehension of their neighborhoods.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 20, 1985). Rereading this piece these many years later, I was struck by how Coe’s effort to describe “childhood experience” (playing under tables, making collections, etc.) coincided with my own endeavor to identify phenomena peculiar to childhood in my book “Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.”


“Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood & Children’s Literature”

Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature” by Jerry Griswold (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).


This highly original book examines pleasures and sensations important during childhood and their reappearance as frequent themes in children’s literature. Surveying dozens of classic and popular works for the young (from Heidi to The Wizard of Oz, from Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter), Griswold argues that what makes great writers for children different from other kinds of writers — and what makes their work appealing to the young — is their ability to remember what it feels like to be a kid: playing under tables, shivering in bed on a scary night, arranging miniature worlds with toys, zooming around as caped superheroes, listening to dolls talk. Feeling Like a Kid identifies the ways the young think and see the world in a manner different from that of grown-ups. Lavishly illustrated, written in a lucid style by a prize-winning author and frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, this book will be fascinating to both the specialist and general reader.


  1. Snugness
  2. Scariness
  3. Smallness
  4. Lightness
  5. Aliveness

What others have had to say

  • “Insightful and engaging work of original scholarship… so lively and so engagingly written that it will appeal to and engage the imaginations of all readers who have even a passing interest in the literature of childhood.” — Booklist
  • “Written in the crisp, bright manner of a yet-to-be-disillusioned graduate student happening upon an exciting new subject for the first time, combined with the sage irony and impeccable background of a full-fledged academic expert.”— Rain Taxi
  • “Each chapter sheds light on childhood in general; taken as a whole the book effectively contrasts how children and adults experience the world in different ways.”— Baltimore Magazine
  • “A delight both to read and to hold in one’s hand, this is a splendid book with beautiful binding, end papers, paper, cover, and typeface, and 30 illustrations reproduced in lavish color… Essential. All adult lovers and students of children’s literature.”— Choice
  • “What is striking at first sight… is the beautiful production of the book as an artifact.” — American Book Review
  • “This is one of the most beautifully produced books on children’s literature I have ever seen… it certainly raises a number of provocative issues in a delightful way. “—International Research Society for Children’s Literature
  • “Beautifully illustrated.” — Bookbird
  • “A visually sumptuous book, stunningly appointed and lovely to behold, one that is well-designed for its intended reading audience: the general public.”—Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
  • “Griswold clearly knows how to ‘feel like a kid,’ and his analysis of why certain classics have appealed to thousands of children over the years is original and convincing.”— Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and critic
  • “Griswold is witty and wise in Feeling Like a Kid. He ranges widely over the field of children’s literature and offers telling insights.”—Beverly Lyons Clark, author of Kiddie Lit


The Disappearance of Childhood & Children’s Literature as Nostalgia

1. The Creation of Childhood & Children’s Literature

To even entertain the possibility of the disappearance of children’s literature, we have to first take notice of the fact that there was a time when childhood, as we know it, did not exist. In his now familiar observation, Philippe Aries has argued that the concept of “childhood” was unknown before the Renaissance. Until then, children (after they attained the “age of reason”) were regarded as small adults who mingled, competed, and worked with mature adults.[i]

Many people find it difficult to imagine a time when “children” did not exist because our own acceptance of the cultural construct of “childhood” has been so pervasive that it is now confused with biological fact. Our imaginations are taxed when we try to imagine a culture where children are not distinguished from adults. For us, it seems to mean imagining incongruities — say, legions of ten year-olds in business suits, swinging their briefcases downtown and talking on cell phones; or children mingling with grown-ups, say, in Las Vegas, their drinks in hand, on their way to risquè shows.

As Marie Winn has noted, it is easier to imagine a time when childhood didn’t exist if we remember that in pre-industrial times the world of labor meant agriculture and arts and crafts, conducted at home and with the help of child labor.[ii] A visit to the museum is also an aid to conception because as J. H. Plumb has observed, in the world revealed by old paintings there is no separate realm of childhood: in a painting by Brueghel, for example, a “coarse village festival [is] depicted, . . . showing men and women besotted with drink, groping each other with unbridled lust, [and] children eating and drinking with adults.”[iii]

Pieter Brueghel II (The Younger) , “Village Fair” (Village festival in Honour of Saint Hubert and Saint Anthony). Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The concept of “childhood,” Aries argues, first appeared in the 1600’s and gradually developed when children began to be distinguished from adults in everything from clothing fashions to norms of acceptable behavior. Speculation about the special nature of the “child” began then, and along with the development of schools and curricula. By the same token, “adulthood” became something to achieve — a guild with its own knowledge (e.g., reading) and secrets (e.g., sex) that “children” had to be prepared for or initiated into.

Childhood did not, however, arise full blown overnight. Its development was gradual and fitful. While at first a luxury of the privileged classes, “childhood” and its perquisites came to be seen (under the inspiration of John Locke and Henri Rousseau) as the birthright of any child (qua “child”). But this democratic impulse suffered setbacks along the way — for example, during the Industrial Revolution when youths, once again, found themselves laboring alongside adults; indeed, the popularity of Dickens’ novels, for example, might be said to reflect the cultural collision that occurred when “children,” trailing Wordsworthian “clouds of glory,” were seen working in mines and sweat shops. At the same time, “childhood” did not occur in all places at once; even today, in some places in the world, it seems for many to have never occurred at all.

“Snap the Whip,” Winslow Homer (1872). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the United States, a pervasive notion of childhood might be reckoned to have begun in the mid-nineteenth century. While there were certainly some well-to-do parents before that time who were aware of European fashions and who had the means to coddle their offspring in that special and leisurely period of time known as childhood, for the most part (in a largely agrarian culture and in the busy beginnings of the country) children were required to quickly put childhood behind them and enter adulthood with dispatch, to help on the farm and become mature providers as soon as possible. A real interest children and in the special nature of childhood did not occur in America until after 1865 when, for example, child-labor laws were introduced, the public school movement was begun, pediatrics was accepted as a legitimate specialty in medical schools, social and governmental agencies concerned with child welfare were created, and so forth. As Neil Postman has observed, “If we use the word children in the fullest sense in which the average American understands it, childhood [in America] is not much more than a hundred and fifty years old.”[iv]

If “childhood” is a relatively new concept, “children’s literature” might be reckoned an even more recent phenomenon. Historians generally point to its origin with John Newbery, the English bookseller who in the 1740’s established the trade of publishing books directly intended for children. During that era, however, “children’s literature” was not as discrete as we have come to think of it; in addition to imaginative works, it included folklore which had always had an audience of all ages (fairy tales, ballads about Robin Hood, legends of King Arthur, and the like) and works which seem more an adjunct to child-raising than imaginative literature (ABC and toy books, volumes on courtesy and manners, exemplary spiritual biographies, and lessons about good and bad apprentices). Generally speaking, prior to the 1850’s, children’s literature was in its infancy and a feeble branch of letters; few people besides literary historians are likely to recognize, for example, the names of Hannah More and Peter Parley. After the 1850’s, however, children’s literature became a genuinely robust genre, with the appearance of such authors as Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Henry Steele Commanger explains the situation in this way. In the past, children and adults shared equally in “the great tradition of literature” — which extended from Aesop, Plutarch, King Arthur, and Perrault; through Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels; to Scott, Austen, the Brontes and Dickens in England or, in America, to Cooper, Poe, and Longfellow.[v] But somewhere along the way, in the nineteenth century, arose a distinct category of children’s literature. This occurred, some scholars have suggested, when something called “adult literature” was invented and veered away from the mainstream of “the great tradition.” The remnant, “children’s literature,” arose by default.[vi]

2. The Disappearance of Childhood & the Boom in Children’s Books

Now let us jump to the present. During the 1980’s, social critics began to lament (as the title of Neil Postman’s book had it) “The Disappearance of Childhood.” These critics — besides Postman, Marie Winn in Children Without Childhood, David Elkind in The Hurried Child — predicted a return to earlier condition when children were not separated from adults. As proof of their contentions, they point to an abundance of evidence — for example:

  • In talking about the development of the concept of childhood, Aries had spoken of the rise of taboo knowledge (particularly sex). Now, television programs at any time of day routinely address subjects (from hermaphroditism to spouse swapping) that were once deemed too sensitive for tender years.
  • In an earlier era, films featured Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple, actors and actresses who were conspicuously children — in fact, exaggerated children. Nowadays, we are given transistorized adults and Lolita’s; and it is difficult to imagine their contemporary counterparts (Gary Coleman and Brooke Shields, for example) tipping and swaying to a song like “The Good Ship Lollipop.”
  • While the distinction between juvenile and adult court systems seemed important in an earlier era, it now seems arbitrary when the label “gang member” is no longer applied to Al Capone-like adults but usually used to describe metropolitan youths not yet old enough to vote.
Shirley Temple

I am only citing some of the abundant evidence these social critics offer as proof of the disappearance of childhood. That change is something they lament. They argue that the humane and liberal concept of childhood (invented in the sixteenth century, according to Aries) is being dismantled before our eyes.

If these critics are correct, then we might reasonably expect a waning of interest in and the disappearance of children’s literature. Here, however, we are faced with apparently contradictory evidence. Children’s book publishing is booming and interest in children’s literature has been growing by leaps and bounds.

The Boom in Kiddie Lit

The most remarkable trend in American publishing circles in the last decade or so is what magazines have termed the “Boom in Kiddie Lit.” While sales in all other areas have been down, between 1982 and 1990 sales of children’s books quadrupled in the United States; in fact, some publishers have said that their Children’s Departments have been the only thing that has kept their firms afloat during economic hard times. In addition, in 1990, circulation figures from the children’s sections of public libraries indicated that book borrowing is up 54 percent from the already high figures of the year before.

This same interest in children’s books has been occurring at American universities. Children’s Literature used to be a minor enterprise, a class offered only to would-be schoolteachers by a university’s Education Department. All that has changed. Now, by my count, more than 200 universities (including major universities like Princeton, Dartmouth, and Cornell) regularly offer courses in Children’s Literature in their English Departments. Given the chance, students have poured into these courses. A course taught at the University of Connecticut regularly enrolls more than 300 students a term. My own experience has been no different: in 1982 I offered a course in Children’s Literature at UCLA and 325 students signed up; since then, my courses elsewhere have been equally swollen. Across the country, the story is no different: enrollments are likewise measured in hundreds.

This same growing interest in children’s literature can be seen in literary scholarship in the United States. In the last two decades or so, the field has begun to enjoy some of the prestige it has long had in Europe and even become something of a boom industry. University presses have begun to publish monographs in what they see as a “coming” field. Scholarly journals have appeared. Professional organizations have sprung up. The prestigious Modern Languages Association has raised Children’s Literature from a Discussion Group to the status of a Division. And the National Endowment for the Humanities has begun to regularly fund Institutes devoted to its study.

3. Nostalgia & the Merging of Children’s and Adult Literatures

So, we encounter a paradox. On the one hand, social critics point to an abundance of evidence and argue convincingly that in America the notion of childhood is disappearing. On the other hand, evidence points to an extraordinary growth of interest in children’s books — in the sales figures posted by publishers, in university classrooms, and among literary scholars. How can this paradox be explained?

Many may not be pleased with the likely answer. If childhood is truly disappearing, then tremendous growth of interest in children’s books may reflect adult nostalgia for a notion in its evanescence, in a twilight period just before its disappearance.

This may explain many things. Take the extraordinary growth in the sales of children’s books. This has been occurring at a time when the actual number of children in the population has decreased. While sales of children’s books nearly quadrupled between 1982 and 1990, in 1985 the number of children (aged five to thirteen) reached a twenty-five-year low, and in 1987 births were just a little more than half (58%) of what they were in 1957. Moreover, figures for childless couples and single-person households have risen considerably.[vii] What the dramatic increase in the sales of children’s books may suggest, then, is a considerable adult interest in children’s books. In fact, several years ago, writer James Marshall told me that marketing studies done by publishers indicated that one third of all illustrated children’s books are purchased by adults who don’t plan to pass them along to children.

As for the incredible surge in enrollments in children’s literature classes offered by universities, I have no statistical or hard information to draw upon. I can only proceed anecdotally. When I ask the hundreds of students who enroll in my classes what brings them there, most often what I hear is that they have come to read the works they didn’t have a chance to read in childhood.

What was children’s literature?

And as for the dramatic growth of interest in children’s literature in scholarly circles, Postman may have an answer: “The best histories of anything are produced when an event is completed, when a period is waning. . . . Historians usually come not to praise but to bury. In any event, they find autopsies easier to do than progress reports.”[viii] The genuine subject of literary scholars, in other words, may be “What was children’s literature.”

Henry Steele Commanger’s point was that children’s literature arose when the great tradition of literature shared equally by children and adults (Aesop, King Arthur, fairy tales, and the like) parted into two streams: children’s and adult literature. If the notion of childhood is disappearing, then we are likely to see is what we are now, in fact, seeing: how those two streams are merging together once again and how children’s literature per se is disappearing.

Books for children and adults together

In the last few decades, we have seen the rise of that kind of book Randall Jarrell (thinking of his own work) described as “half for children, half for grown-ups.”[ix] Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work provides an example. Russell Hoban’s provides another; in this era, Hoban has said, “Books in a nameless category are needed — books for children and adults together.”[x] And, of course, the rise of adolescent “problem novels” — which take up previously taboo subjects (prostitution, incest, drug-taking, et al.) — also suggests the evaporation of boundaries between children’s and adult literature. From Hoban’s existential fable Mouse and his Child (with its joking reference to Sartre) to Judy Blume’s sexually explicit Forever, what we are encountering are works not written for “children of all ages” but for “adults of all ages.”

Another kind of evidence of the collapse of boundaries between children’s and adult literature may found in the last few decades in the renewed interest in classic fairy tales — in works as diverse as Anne Sexton’s collection of poems titled Transformations, Stephen Sondheim’s play Into the Woods, the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, and Bruno Bettelheim’s scholarly study The Uses of Enchantment. As Commanger suggested, fairy tales were shared equally by children and adults before the great tradition of literature parted into two, age-determined streams. The contemporary interest in this shared literature may now suggest that these two streams are once again merging.

One final suggestion of this erasure of boundaries between adult and children’s literature might be found in a least likely place — in the world of picture books. Beginning with the publication of Outside Over There in 1981, Maurice Sendak’s publisher (Harper Row) has simultaneously announced his subsequent books (including Dear Mili and We Are All in the Dumps with Jack & Guy) on both their adult’s and children’s lists. During the 1980’s, two of Dr. Seuss’ books — his parable about the arms race (The Butter Battle Book) and his geriatric fable (You Only Grow Old Once!) — appeared on adult bestseller lists.

Of course, in this short period of time I have only been able to provide a few examples which offer intimations that children’s literature per se is disappearing. Let me end by telling you of a conversation I had with a former student who now works in Hollywood. For the last few years, her job has been to search out and identify children’s books that may be made into films. She has now concluded that it is no longer possible to make traditional films like Old Yeller or Disney’s Cinderella and Pollyanna. Despite the fact that movie studios still try to market such concoctions (e.g., Pocahantas), children who have grown up with Bart Simpson or Beavis and Butthead no longer care for them. Children have become more cynical, more parodistic, more adult-like. Sensibilities have changed.

As an example, we might point to Stephen Spielberg’s Hook. This film is a gloss on James Barrie’s Peter Pan and its sequel. But what is important to note is that it no longer seemed possible to simply put Barrie’s children’s story on film. What was additionally needed in Spielberg’s film was a parodistic overlay, the insertion of the fast mouth and witticisms of the actor Robin Williams, the addition of an adult and an adult perspective — as if Bart Simpson was retelling the story of Peter Pan.[xi] In this way, let me suggest, we have another example of the disappearance of children’s literature per se, and of the gradual erosion of barriers between children’s and adult literature and the emergence of a “shared” story.

But Spielberg’s Hook, like other contemporary movies,[xii] shows something else. The storyline that is laid down on top of a retelling of Peter Pan is the story of a workaholic adult whose life has become sterile and valueless but who is redeemed when he is stripped of everything adult-like (from his cell phone to his very maturity) and who is transformed when he finally becomes a kid again (even engaging in a food fight). In other words, what frames this presentation of Barrie’s classic children story is an account of an adult “getting in touch” with his “missing child.” Let me suggest that there is a parable here: what we see is not only the disappearance of childhood and children’s literature per se in our own time, but also the nostalgia felt for their loss.


[i]. Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, trans. Robert Baldrick (New York: Random House, 1962).

[ii]. Marie Winn, Children without Childhood (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 88.

[iii]. J. H. Plumb, “The Great Change in Children,” Horizon 13, 1 (Winter 1971), 7. Qtd. in Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Delacorte Press, 1982), 15–16.

[iv]. Postman, xi.

[v]. Henry Steele Commanger, “Introduction to the First Edition” in A Critical History of Children’s Literature, ed. Cornelia Miegs, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1969), xii-xiv.

[vi]. Felicity A. Hughes, “Children’s Literature: Theory and Practice,” ELH 45,3 (Fall 1978), 542‑61.

[vii]. Information from the U. S. Bureau of Census. See: “Fertility of American Women: June 1987,” Series P-20, №427; March 2, 1990 press release (CB90–38), “Population Aged 35 to 44 Growing the Fastest.”

[viii]. Postman, 5.

[ix]. Mary Jarrell, “Note” to recording of Randall Jarrell reading The Bat-Poet, Caedmon record TV 1364 (New York, 1972). See: Griswold, The Children’s Books of Randall Jarrell (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), 52ff.

[x]. Russell Hoban, “Thoughts on a shirtless cyclist, Robin Hood, Johann Sebastian Bach, and one or two other things,” Children’s Literature in Education 4 (Mar. 1971), 23.

[xi]. In the film Aladdin, Williams had a similar role.

[xii]. Compare Tom Hanks in Big, George Burns in Eighteen Again, and Dudley Moore in Like Father, Like Son.

Originally appeared in “Reflections of Change: Children’s Literature Since 1945,” the International Research Society for Children’s Literature, ed. Sandra L. Beckett (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997).


“Beauty & the Beast”: Dating Advice, Marriage Manual

The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook. By Jerry Griswold

Using Beaumont’s classic story as a touchstone, this work shows how “Beauty and the Beast” takes on different meanings as it is analyzed by psychologists, illustrated in picture books, adapted to the screen, and rewritten by contemporary writers.

The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast” provides expert commentary on the tale and on representative critical approaches and contemporary adaptations. This book also includes a variety of original source materials and twenty-three color illustrations.

The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast” is for any reader who wishes to explore this classic, endlessly rich fairy tale.

Finalist for Mythopoeic Society’s Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies (2005, 2006 & 2007).


1. Tale and Author (Madame Le Prince de Beaumont and her “Beauty and the Beast”)
2. Among the Critics (Bruno Bettelheim, Jack Zipes, and Marina Warner)
3. Sources (Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche” and Mme. de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast”)
4. Fairy Tales to Compare (“Cinderella,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and “Frog King”)
5. Contemporary Stories (Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride,” Tanith Lee’s “Beauty”)
6. Illustrations (Walter Crane, Mercer Mayer, and others)
7. Films (Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney)


“‘Beauty and the Beast’ is one of the most popular tales in the world, but very few critics have been able to account for its immense popularity. Now Jerry Griswold has bravely undertaken that task and has written a fascinating book that explores the manifold meanings of this compelling tale. Not only does Griswold trace the origins of the classical erotic story, but he also interprets the numerous adaptations in literature and film throughout the world. Whether he analyzes the classic version of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, Angela Carter’s feminist versions, or the Disney animated films, Griswold is always thought-provoking. This is a book that will certainly interest all readers who are captivated by the mystery of fairy tales.” ― Jack Zipes, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

“While specifically focused on the tale named in its title, Jerry Griswold’s The Meanings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ offers a perceptive and entertaining introduction to the subject of fairy tales generally. Interweaving an eclectic collection of variants of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ within and around a knowledgeable discussion of the history and meaning of the tale, Griswold offers both a useful introduction for those new to the study of fairy tales and insightful ideas about and interpretations of versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that will greatly interest specialists in the field.” ― Perry Nodelman, University of Winnipeg

“A blend of synthesis, anthology, and analysis, this offers a broadly supported expansion of the scholarship on an irrepressible story.” ― Betsy Hearne, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Reviewed: Martha Hixon, “The Tale with a Thousand Faces,” Children’s Literature v. 34 (2006), 214–17; David L. Russell, Lion and Unicorn v. 30 no. 1 (2006), 154–56; Ruth Carver Capasso, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly v. 29 no. 3 (Fall 2004), 273–4; Siobhán Parkinson, Inis (Dublin), 49.


Jerry Griswold is a specialist in Children’s Literature and in American Literature and Culture. The author of seven books, he has published more than 200 essays in the national press (The Nation, Paris Review, New Republic, and elsewhere); he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Besides a book critic and cultural commentator, Griswold was a university professor at San Diego State University, UCLA, UCSD, the University of Connecticut, and the National University of Ireland in Galway. The former Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, Griswold lectures all over the globe (from Seoul to Salamanca to São Paolo).


Publication Date: March 16, 2004
ISBN: 9781551115634 / 1551115638
258 pages; 6″ x 9″
Order from Broadview Press: or order from Amazon:

For a brief account of the writing of this book, see “Diving Deep: Beauty and the Beast.” You might also be interested in “Beauty & the Beast” in Our Time: The myth of our era (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review).”

Goth Movies, Fairy Tales, & Teen Love in the Era of “Twilight”

“Beastly” and “Red Riding Hood”

Amanda Seyfried in “Red Riding Hood” (Warner Brothers, 2011).

When we consider fairy tale films, we commonly think of children’s fare: Disney’s Snow White and Beauty and the Beast, for example, or the recent Rapunzel-inspired Tangled. In 2011, however, two films appeared that signaled how fairy tales are being co-opted by teens and goths.

The first of these is Beastly (CBS Films, PG-13), based on Alex Flinn’s young adult novel of the same name. A version of “Beauty and the Beast,” the film centers on Kyle Kingson (played by Alex Pettyfer) who is a handsome and vain jerk who attends a Manhattan high school where he insults a goth classmate (Mary-Kate Olsen) who is actually a witch, and she transforms him into a grotesque covered from head-to-toe in Maori tattoos and bejeweled piercings. The curse is that he will remain in his changed state unless he can find someone to love him within a year’s time. Fortunately, before the deadline and despite his unpromising looks, he wins the heart of his attractive but nerdish classmate Kendra (Vanessa Hudgens).

Sadly, we arrive at this conclusion by clumsy plot contrivances that beggar the imagination. For example, embarrassed by the way his son looks, Kyle’s wealthy father tells him he no longer needs to go to school and provides the boy with his own, super-cool apartment in Brooklyn (along with a maid). In an equally convenient happenstance, Kyle is able to woo his classmate Kendra because she comes to occupy an attic (full of chintz and Victorian antiques) just above his own macho-cool-designer apartment.

What are the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys?

But story is not what this film is about. Beastly is really about High School Dreams. And what are the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys today? The film provides a catalog. You live in New York. Your high school looks like the Apple store in Manhattan. Your friends are never seen in class because they are busy texting on really neat smart phones. You have your own designer apartment in Brooklyn. No parents are around to bother you. You don’t have to go to school. You have a maid. Your girlfriend lives with you. And when you want to go for a ride in the country, you hire a limo.

The other film that does a young-adult take on a fairy tale is Red Riding Hood (Warner Brothers, PG-13) directed by Catherine Hardwicke who also directed the film Twilight, that teen favorite which mixes romance and vampires. In this reinterpretation of the well known story, the girl in the red cape is sent down the path in the gothic direction of Twilight but instead of meeting a vampire, she encounters a substitute: the fairy tale’s wolf is now a werewolf. That premise is not so farfetched; Neil Jordan experimented with this kind of retelling in his terrific film classic The Company of Wolves.

Like Jordan’s film, this movie opens in the Middle Ages in a rustic village surrounded by woods where we are introduced to the maiden in red (Amanda Seyfried). Valerie, as she is known, is torn between two heartthrobs: the hunky Peter whom she has loved since childhood (Shiloh Fernandez) and the wealthy Henry (Max Irons) whom her parents prefer. Meanwhile, the village is ravaged by a giant wolf who kills inhabitants until they summon the legendary werewolf hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) who advises them that the creature is a human by day and hiding in their midst. It falls to Valerie to discover and confront the beast among her neighbors and loves. And when it comes to providing a film summary here, let me add: That ain’t even the half of it.

Red Riding Hood suffers, alas, from an overly complex and shifting plot apparently created by indecision and improvisation. Moreover, the film doesn’t really engage the classic “Little Red Riding Hood” in any interesting way but only uses the tale as a kind of furniture to create what is finally a Werewolf Whodunit positioned within the boundaries of the Twilight franchise.

Boys prefer empowering metro realism, while girls opt for high fantasy and better costumes

But there is this to say in the film’s favor. If Beastly reveals the dreams of fourteen-year-old boys, Red Riding Hood unveils the air castles of fourteen-year-old girls in its presentation of a fantasy first seen in Twilight and repeated here: There are always two males (the one you like and the one your parents prefer) and you are always in danger of being assaulted (but find a way to remain virginal and aloof, popular yet chaste). In the end, Hollywood seems to say that the difference between the genders and their wishes amounts to this: Boys prefer empowering metro realism, while girls opt for high fantasy and better costumes.

Apparently, this trend will continue. As I write, news stories have appeared indicating that the films in our future will include–and I am not joking — three Snow Whites (one with Julia Roberts as the evil queen and another with the dwarves as warrior monks), a sequel called “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” (where the siblings are bounty hunters), and “Jack the Giant Killer” (where, in addition to his obligations up the beanstalk, our hero now needs to make peace with giants and rescue a princess). Given these two recent fairy tale films, we can only hope for better.

For related musings, see: Making Kids’ Stories “Dark”: Who Is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?And by the by, Jerry Griswold has written a relevant book: The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast.”


Love in the 90’s: Pop Y.A. Novels

When teens sported spiked & colored hair, when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” . . .

Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands,” starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder (2oth Century Fox, 1990).

Around the start of the 1990s, two remarkable books ushered in the pop young-adult or y.a. novel. When teens sported spiked and colored hair, when pixie princesses dressed in 1950s prom dresses and cowboy boots, when Cyndi Lauper was singing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” Francesca Lia Block introduced her punk heroine Weetzie Bat in the novel by that name. Weetzie was the immensely popular new kid on the block, and Block would eventually publish more Weetzie stories, then bring them all together in her collection Dangerous Angels. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, in Japan, the hot adolescent book was Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. With its references to Colonel Sanders’ Chicken, Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts,” and other trendy kitsch, Kitchen was very “kokusai” (international) and a sensation; by the time it reached these shores (in a translation by Megan Backus), the book had already gone through 60 printings.

Weetzie Bat. Ages: Young Adult. By: Francesca Lia Block. HarperTrophy: $7.99 (Paperback)

Block’s Weetzie Bat has been described as a “punk fairy tale” and an example of “pop magical realism.” The story of Weetzie and her boyfriend (a.k.a. My Secret Agent Lover Man) and of their pals (including the gay couple, Dirk and Duck) is largely realistic except that the story is shot through with fairy-tale events (like the appearance of a wish-granting genie in Los Angeles or a film-inspired but real witch). In its “pop” tone, and in its mixture of the “magical” and “realism,” it most resembles what may still be the best young-adult film: Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. There is a cheerful unreality to the book, and it is no accident that mention is made of another work that shares its tone: the television series “Bewitched.”

Kitchen. Ages: Young Adult. By: Banana Yoshimoto; Translated by Megan Backus. Grove Press.

Yoshimoto’s Kitchen also mentions “Bewitched” and shares with Weetzie Bat the same mixture of the everyday and fantastic. The heroine, Mikage Sakurai, is left an orphan when her grandmother, her last blood relative, dies. Then, out of nowhere, she receives an unexpected invitation to move in with an unconventional family: Yuichi Tanabe (a young man who sold flowers to her grandmother but whom Mikage doesn’t know) and Yuichi’s beautiful mother Eriko (who, before a gender change prompted by the death of her spouse, was once a man and Yuichi’s father). Like adolescents gathered around a Ouija board, like this invitation “out of nowhere,” other psychic and bizarre events befall the perky Mikage, who is open to the irrational and the cosmically whimsical.

But in both books, this cheerful lightness is threatened by an encroaching darkness. This is the borderline situation of adolescence. As Block has observed, “During adolescence we are powerfully in touch with two realms: Still close to our childhood, we are innocent enough to perceive the fantastic all around us. . . . But we are also almost adults and very aware of the harsh world we are about to enter.” Despite Peter Pan’s wish to never grow up, the adolescent can’t remain in twinkling Neverland forever.

During adolescence we are powerfully in touch with two realms: Still close to our childhood, we are innocent enough to perceive the fantastic all around us. . . . But we are also almost adults and very aware of the harsh world we are about to enter.”

So, despite its quirky and upbeat manner, Kitchen is a story also riddled with genuine losses: Mikage is left an orphan when her grandmother dies; Eriko, the grieving transgender parent, still mourns the loss of a spouse; then Eriko is murdered, and Yuichi is left a parentless orphan as well. Likewise, Weetzie’s fairy-tale life begins to fall apart when her lover leaves, friends are torn apart by the AIDS epidemic, and her junky father dies. For a punk princess tripping the light fantastic, this is a hard introduction to something else: “Grief is not something you know if you grow up wearing feathers with a Charlie Chaplin boyfriend, a love-child papoose, a witch baby, a Dirk and Duck, a Slinkster Dog, and a movie to dance in.”

In both books, this evaporation of childhood’s golden innocence, and these encounters with real losses and grief, prompt the same remedy. Shoring up their defenses against the encroaching darkness, in the absence of parents, these young adults form “constructed families” with their friends. Bereft, Mikage and Yuichi will lean on each other. Wounded, Weetzie gathers all her likewise wounded pals into a new household in a Hollywood bungalow and where everyone is pretty much the same age.

Here are two delightful and terrific, pop and trendy novels for adolescents. But what can’t escape thoughtful notice is that–despite their extravagant incidents and exaggerated imagery, in stories both of lost parents and of new families constructed of peers–what is pictured is the very state of adolescence: When the young leave childhood, parents, and family behind; and when they switch their loyalty and attention to like-minded and like-aged friends.

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Valentines Day: Sweets & Sweethearts

In the schoolroom, we preferred chocolate “kisses” to the other kind

Vintage Valentines (Press Out Book). Golden Books: $4.99

While my elementary-school teachers made earnest efforts to de-commercialize Valentine’s Day, back-in-the-day you could only turn out so many handmade cards constructed of red paper, lace doilies, and gobs of paste. So, we kids mostly used the mass-produced items offered by greeting card companies: red valentines featuring hearts and cupids, often on punch-out sheets and sometimes accompanied by small envelopes. These, I’ve recently learned, are still available: Vintage Valentines (Press Out Book).

“So that no one’s feelings get hurt by being left out,” our teachers gave instructions that teachers still give today: “You are to give a valentine to everyone in class.” To that end, on February 14, time was set aside for juvenile postal workers to file through the classroom, making deliveries to specially prepared “mailboxes” at every desk or place. Of course, this kind of evenhandedness did not prevent the addition of handwritten notes on valentines given to special friends. Valentines also served another important purpose: The valentine, this semi-anonymous form of correspondence, allowed shy kids the opportunity to signal their “interest” in someone when they were hesitant to do so directly. Moreover, such news was eagerly awaited. Recipients counted their “secret admirers” and sometimes divined who they were.

“Arthur’s Valentine.” Ages: 4–8. By: Marc Brown. Little Brown: $6.99 (paperback)

This is the subject of Marc Brown’s wonderful picture book Arthur’s Valentine. The “Kid’s Review” of this work on is wonderful and poignant:

“I liked the book because I can remember the first valentine that I received from a girl. I was happy like Arthur was, but didn’t want everyone to know about it. In the story, Arthur gets a valentine from his secret admirer. He didn’t know yet who it exactly was. He gets another one from the same person. The second one says for him to meet her at the movies. If you read this story, you will find out who sent him the valentine.”

Besides cards, the other part of Valentine’s Day was candy. Grown-ups, we learned, offered boxes of chocolates to their sweethearts. But what did we know about lovers, romance, and all that other smarmy stuff? We kids made do with powdered candy and cheap sweets. And that was fine with us. We preferred chocolate “kisses” to the other kind.

Raggedy Ann Stories. Ages: 4–8. By: Johnny Gruelle. Simon & Schuster: $17.95 (hardcover)

Connected to this confectionary side of the holiday was the story of Raggedy Ann. Johnny Gruelle’s famous rag doll had a candy heart sewn inside of her, a Valentine Day’s candy upon which were written the words “I LOVE YOU.” That explained something. When we were young and innocent, we were also literal-minded. The Raggedy Ann books, then, were a revelation. So, this is what a “sweetheart” really was.

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Explaining Child Abduction & Murder

On death and innocence and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (from the Los Angeles Times)

“Frankenstein” (1931). Directed by James Whale. Starring Boris Karloff.

Danielle van Dam. Samantha Runnion. Nicole Timmons. Jahi Turner. Alexis Patterson. Jennifer Short. Elizabeth Smart. The list seems endless. In 2002, child-snatching seemed a national epidemic taking on the biblical proportions of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

Still, as abhorrent as these crimes are, child abductions by non-family members are extremely rare; for example, in 2001, less than 100 cases were reported among a national population of 59 million children. So, what is at work in the American psyche that makes this rarity of child abduction into our fascinating crime du jour?

Pedophilia–the love of children — is an unfortunate term to describe aberrant and criminal behavior, but the word’s generality also suggests our wider cultural context of child-loving. Children have been made objects of desire and attached to consumer products to make those objects desirable; so, for example, fashion advertisements feature junior ingenues in various leering states of undress. At even younger ages, irresistibly cute children are celebrated in beauty contests — certainly one of the most haunting pictures of recent years must be that of 6-year-old Jonbenet Ramsey strutting her stuff as a cowgirl at one of these kiddy pageants.

In the book “The Death of Innocence” by John and Patsy Ramsey, Jonbenet’s parents assert their innocence in the murder of their daughter and suggest ways they have been smeared to look guilty. But that title also provides a sideways allusion and apt description of what happened to Jonbenet, as well as Danielle van Dam and other child victims. In fact, the title’s conjunction of death and innocence is something of an explanation of the phenomena of child abduction and murder.

The paradigm for this is a moment in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” After his creation, the novel’s monster is lonely and wants companionship. In a remote place, a “beautiful child” happens his way and the monster is filled with hope that this innocent will be uncontaminated by society’s values and not reject the creature for his ugliness and desires. But the monster is disappointed: The child is seized, struggles violently, calls out to parents, and shrieks all the while about the hideousness of the monster. In despair, wishing to silence the child’s voice, the monster grabs the youngster’s throat and in a moment a body lies at his feet.

For this paradigm of pedophilia, for this yoking of innocence with death, Shelley might thank Jean Jacques Rousseau. Reacting to religious tradition, this French thinker rejected the idea that children entered into this world contaminated by original sin and were essentially beasts until discipline and baptism could reshape them. Turning tradition on it head, Rousseau suggested that children enter the world as innocents and were later contaminated by society and culture.

Of course, either view of the child–as original sinner or original innocent–is equally exaggerated, but it is Rousseau’s view that holds sway over our own times. And it is the cultural notion of the child’s emphatic and malleable innocence, Shelley’s novel suggests, that lures the pedophile, then disappoints when discovered not to be true.

Harder to grasp and harder to accept, in both our own time and in Shelley’s, is a more matter-of-fact understanding of children as ordinary, nothing special, just themselves, some good and some bad, and symbol-free.

This creates a problem. Behind our child-loving, psychotherapist Adam Phillips suggests in his book “The Beast in the Nursery,” is a pervasive and unrealistic myth that childhood should be trouble-free and paradisaical. Most adults, however, realize that their own childhoods were ordinary and flawed. This feeling of being shortchanged of our share of paradise, Phillips argues, prompts adults to live out through their children, or children in general, a sort of desperate wish that the young have the innocence we lacked.

This living out through children of a mythical and emphatic innocence, that adults feel they missed, creates a horrible burden on children. Not recognized for their ordinariness, children are freighted with our desires and projections. Not incidentally, this is what makes them attractive in advertisements and, in some cases, candidates for abduction. Moreover, as “Frankenstein” suggests, the pedophile’s eventual disappointment may lead to murder.

What the psyche of America now seems obsessed with is innocent deaths and the death of innocence.

A version this essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times (August 28, 2002).

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Treasure Island

The appeal of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic

Robert New ton starring in “Treasure Island” (Disney, 1950).

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest — Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!” begins one of the most famous adventure stories of all time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The book became so popular it eventually spawned two well known films, the 1934 MGM version (where Wallace Beery played Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper was cast as Jim Hawkins) and perhaps the better 1950 Disney version (where Robert Newton played the squinting pirate with a parrot and Bobby Driscoll the wide-eyed young boy).

The novel began as a map Stevenson drew to amuse his stepson, Lloyd Osborne. The boy demanded a story to go with it, one that featured both treasure and an island, and Stevenson complied.

Treasure is an important ingredient in adventure stories beloved by the disenfranchised, by those too young to qualify for American Express cards. But there must be some risk. The young hero must acquire treasure from a forbidden place where some villain watches over it — whether the youngster be Peter Rabbit stealing vegetables from Mr. McGregor’s garden or Jack purloining the possessions of the giant at the top of the beanstalk. In fact, the risk is everything. Stevenson’s novel is about acquiring treasure; next to nothing is told about how it is spent.

Islands, too, are a favorite ingredient of adventure stories. They are a place outside the pale of law, as the boys in Lord of the Flies discover. And they are a place for “rugged individuals” — characters like Robinson Crusoe (who reappears in Stevenson’s book as that old goat, the marooned Ben Gunn).

I remember [the pirate Billy Bones] as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand barrow — a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat. His hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails. and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. . . . I remember observing the contrast the neat, bright [Dr. Livesy], with his [powdered wig] as white as snow and his bright, black eyes, and pleasant manners, made . . with that filthy, heavy, bleared scarecrow of a pirate of ours, sitting, far gone in rum.

Stevenson, it must be remembered, also wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His own life was a similar case of contrasts. He was raised in a highly religious household and trained as an engineer, but he came to prefer the bohemian life and to write romantic adventures stories. It says much that Stevenson was born in Scotland but buried in Samoa.

His novel’s characters also divide in two. On the one hand, there are the pirates with names like Billy Bones, Black Dog, and Blind Pew; and on the other, are the gentleman, Dr. Livesy, Captain Smollett, and Squire Trelawney. As if to make the sinners more obvious, Stevenson’s pirates are scarred, missing parts of their bodies, drunken, disorderly, and extravagant with devilish oaths. The gentlemen are repeatedly described as clean, quick, orderly, sober, healthy, godfearing Englishmen — and a bit smug, at that.

But Stevenson is particularly drawn to characters who (like Jekyll/Hyde) embody both sides. One of these is Long John Silver — certainly one of the greatest literary villains of all time. Like the reader, Jim Hawkins is both attracted and frightened by him at the same time. Jim is first charmed by the old sea dog because of his vitality, his colorful talk, and the interest he takes in the boy. But Silver is two-faced: cheerful but plotting, seemingly deferential and ready to take orders but actually the leader of the buccaneers, apparently weak but not really hobbled that much by his crutch.

Silver is wily, humorous, and courageous; for example, he is the only pirate undaunted when he receives the death threat known as “The Black Spot.” And despite everything he has done, because Jim secretly admires Silver, the boy cannot completely condemn the pirate when Silver gets away at the end of the book.

Jim admires Silver because they are so much alike. Jim’s father dies in early in the book and, in a fashion, Silver takes his place. And like father, like son: Jim, too. is two-faced. Jim appears cheerful but is plotting (once he overhears the pirates’ plans and must pretend he hasn’t). Jim seems deferential and ready to take orders but actually isn’t (and disobeys when he goes ashore when they first come to the island or leaves the stockade when told not to do so). And Jim appears to be weak and just a boy, but he is otherwise (killing Israel Hands and retaking the good ship Hispaniola in a singlehanded fashion). Jim is a hero from first to last, but he is so by being as strongwilled and as duplicitous as Silver.

Treasure Island is a sea dream. When Jim Hawkins sets sail from England, he leaves behind a land of gloom and oppressive laws. Like Maurice Sendak’s Max, he sails to that Other World of freedom and excitement where nothing can hamper the truly rugged individual. It is an inviting dream, captured in Stevenson’s book, which still appeals to boys and girls of any age.

See my related essays on islands and pirates.

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“From the New York Times Book Review…”

Some reviews & essays over the years…

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The Very Heart of “The Wizard of Oz”

Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, explains what the classic movie is all about…

Margaret Hamilton’s life was irrevocably changed when MGM released The Wizard of Oz on August 15, 1939. Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in the film, mentioned in the journal Children’s Literature how ever afterwards she was accosted in the street by fans and how she was often late for dentist appointments as a result.

Finally, after one more missed appointment, she decided at last to sit down and find “the answer to that question which had plagued and fascinated me for years: What is it that makes that picture so special?” The answer, Hamilton wrote in 1982, has to do with the idea of “home”:

“What that picture tells me coincides with the wonderful lesson Dorothy says she has learned at last, about feeling she has lost her home. Her answer to the Good Fairy is ‘If I have lost something and I look all over for it and can’t find it, it means I really never lost it in the first place.’ That is subtle, but finally I understood. If you can’t find it, it is still there somewhere — you still have it. I pondered over that for years. I used to think, ‘But I never really had it!’ Then I listened and thought and remembered, and then, one time, I knew. I had been there. And I still am.”

Hamilton’s gnomic remarks suggest an alternate understanding of that classic film, beginning with its most well known line. When, near the end of the movie, Dorothy says, “There’s no place like home,” that is commonly taken as an expression of the girl’s affection for the Kansas farm where she lives with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. But there’s another way to understand that line.

Remember that in the beginning of the film, Dorothy wants to run away from home, escape to “somewhere where there isn’t any trouble,” somewhere where Miss Gulch isn’t trying to get her dog Toto, “somewhere over the rainbow.” When she is injured in the cyclone, her imagination answers her desires by remaking Kansas into Oz, the hired hands (Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory) into her companions (the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion), Professor Marvel into the Wizard, and Elvira Gulch into the Wicked Witch. All these transformations make a subtle point: Dorothy cannot escape her troubles by going elsewhere. The last words of the movie, “There’s no place like home,” really amount to “There’s no place but home.”

Following Hamilton’s lead, we can say that Dorothy discovers that this here-and-now is all there is to life and more than enough. Fantasizing, resemblance-making, daydreaming are symptoms of existential dis-ease. Instead of being at-home in this life, these failures of nerve and moments of escapism amount to an automobile covered with bumper stickers that read “I’d rather be windsurfing” or “I’d rather be anywhere else but here.”

We can understand this in terms of the Zen story about a samurai who came to his teacher and asked him to explain the Christian concepts of “heaven” and “hell.” The master began to insult the samurai and his family until the warrior could stand it no longer and reached for his sword, beginning to unsheath it. “Behold hell,” the teacher said. Stunned, the samurai paused and realized the point. Then he began to sheath his sword. “Behold heaven,” the teacher said.

Likewise, at the end of The Wizard of Oz an awakened Dorothy is surrounded at bedside by those she knows and she witnesses their fantasy-world likenesses collapse and retreat to their source. As Margaret Hamilton explains, though she has hunted hither and yon for her heart’s desire, she never really lost it in the first place. She is at home and always has been.

This essay originally appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press blog (August 14, 2014). It is derived from my more extended discussion of “The Wizard of Oz” in my book “Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story.”

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Photographs of Puget Sound’s Past

When everything was looking up

The 1925 Northwest Indian Congress. Photo by Asahel Curtis.

I have called three places home. Connecticut is my home now, and before that it was Seattle. I went back there in 1971, the summer The Last Whole Earth Catalog was published, containing Gurney Norman’s folk tale about a young man returning to his family home place (Divine Right’s Trip). Some of the Catalog people went on later to have found a magazine the title of which implied its interest — place. Other people followed the Catalog’s example with a regional focus. Dave Sucher did this with Puget Sound Access, and a group of us published minding the store in our region of Connecticut.

demanding the patrimony of tradition that their immigrant and pioneer forefathers had lost

I returned to Seattle last summer to find an antique-buying craze that was unparalleled even in New England, turn-of-the-century waterfront warehouses changed into restaurants, and Pioneer Square — the old center of the city that had been abandoned to the famed Skid Road and had long been thought an eye-sore by the Urban Renewal team — had become the new magnetic center replacing the hip enclaves of the University district. The attention had turned from place to time. The sons and daughters of the mobile suburban culture that had made their Volkerwanderungen in station wagons across De Tocqueville’s America-without-a-past were demanding the patrimony of tradition that their immigrant and pioneer forefathers had lost in the congenial sludge of this country’s melting pot.

It is happening all across the country. Tom Wolfe calls it “Funky Chic” — all those kids in their sons-of-the-pioneer lumberjacks and Can’t-Bust-‘em-prole-of-the-twenties overalls — and Earl Hamner, Jr. is giving it to television in Apple’s Way. For some it was and is not doubt chic, but my Seattle friends used the Islamic term barakah. There is a quality that resides in things made by hand, into which someone has woven his life, that is lacking in its manufactured equivalent. It is barakah, and it may exist in white-haired elders, in homes that are built by one’s own hands, and in a familiar pair of jeans.

The difference between barakah and chic is the difference of consciousness behind all of America’s flirtations with time and which separates the movie American Graffiti from television’s Happy Days. It is a difference that can be intuited between The Way We Were or The Walton’s and the barakah of the folk in Maurice Sendak’s and Lore Segal’s Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm or The Asahel Curtis Sampler.

THE ASAHEL CURTIS SAMPLER: Photographs of Puget Sound Past. Edited by David Sucher. Puget Sound access. (Box 1400, Seattle 98104). 74 pp. $4.95.

“Sampler” is a word — to rephrase another antiquarian from the Northwest, Richard Brautigan — “that went out of style like an idea or lampshade or some kind of food that people don’t cook any more, once the favorite dish in thousands of homes.” The photographs of Asabel Curtis that Sucher has assembled, along with prose passages from magazines and pamphlets of the era 1900 to 1915 are like that, and this book appeals not so much to the people who have been a part of the Puget Sound region but the attraction to a time in this country’s history. It is an answer to the literate despair of Wallace Steven’s “Postcard from a Volcano”.

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill.

The Curtis brothers photographed what was left. Edward, under the sponsorship of J. Pierpont Morgan, photographed what was left of Indians of North America in his celebrated twenty volumes. Asahel was a commercial photographer and a leg man for Seattle’s manifest destiny a la Chamber of Commerce. He photographed the future, what was left for us.

These are photographs primarily of people; so may fresh youths in fact, heightened by visions of opportunity and progress, that the pictures swell way beyond The National Geographic’s dictum that 85 per cent of all photos must be domesticated by human presence. This is no Sierra Club collection with color plates of those terrifying infinite spaces that dramatize the choice between John Muir’s purism and the bulldozer. Asabel was decidedly on the side of the bulldozer, and his black and whites capture the time precisely as The Last Picture Show and without any of the pathos for the past that is found in Edward Hopper’s paintings.

Sucher’s choice of prose to accompany the photos, from Harper’s Weekly and other newspapers and magazines of the time has its fitness and is not without a pointed humor at times. Those were the days the rural counter-culture dreams of, when “a man with nothing save an axe and a frying pan” could live well and a “little work will pay for . . . the other small necessities. The woods and the sea provide food in unlimited abundances.” They were the days when people like H.A. Smith would trade information, as they do now in Sucher’s Puget Sound Access, about land reclamation.

They were short-lived days as the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed the city’s manifest destiny. As a seaport and the hub of five transcontinental railways, the city fathers explained, “Seattle is the link at the western extremity of the new world that will bind and complete the chain [Berlin, Liverpool, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and the Twin Cities] after a growth of five centuries with the original link in the heart of China.” Almira Bailey in a Whitmanesque mood catalogued the city’s energy — “Detroit automobiles for the Orient; apples for Europe; fresh loganberries, in ice, for London; and salmon for the world!” — and she saw the future: “It is the machine age. And [Seattle] is already flirting boldly flirting with her lover — Industry!” The men in motorcars with jaunty caps were already threading their way through gigantic Douglas firs past Makah Indians cutting whale meat.

It was the age when factories were no more than machines made bigger, and businessmen made expeditions to Alaska to buy the city a totem pole. The port became outfitter for those leaving for the Klondike and looked eagerly for their return with gold. Negroes and Chinese handled the labor and laundry. Women were gals working in the salmon canneries for pin money and some at night were suffragettes. These were days of growth and of the novelty of the first biplane’s arrival, which the citizens cheered with the slack-jawed amazement of the inhabitants of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo (One Hundred Years of Solitude) welcoming the arrival of ice. They were just the days for a civic “booster” like Asabel Curtis.

But after the time of growth and novelty, the city settled into an era of consolidation. While steam shovels were at work in the Panama Canal, in Seattle they were digging a shipping canal and engaged in regrading the city’s hills, using the dirt to fill in the tidelands for a railroad yard. Schoolmarms like Alice Pratt were gathering orphans together to make them “a little bunch of good citizens.” There was a rage for order not only at home (where socialism took the form a municipal-owned electric company because of the incompetence of the vested interests), but in the world at large, where President McKinley would depend on local shipyards (“We hear but few protests against ‘imperialism’ The people like it and are not bashful about saying so”).

This rage for order would leave a legacy for the future, and Sucher reminds us of that by accompanying Curtis’ photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching in a Potlatch Parade with a quote from The Exploitation and Industrial Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce: “Always a hospitable city, and with a welcome waiting for every visitor all year around. . .” Beneath a photograph of a golf course we hear the conviction of Seattleites that this is the real America. It might require detectives to prevent employee fraud and “do secret service work in general,” but it nevertheless was. Boeing might supersede the shipyards or John Wayne might become the new Pinkerton playing a dismissed Seattle cop carrying on his vigilante righteousness in the movie “McQ,” but the legacy of America and Seattle was firmly being created.

What seems odd in the retrospect was that there was so little of Natty Bumppo’s pastoral dread at the sound of the approaching axes. The romance of the logger overshadowed the fears of denudation of the forest, and pollution was only troublesome insofar as it affected the salmon industry. The Indians still made a “merry picture” in bright calicoes and though they worked for the breweries gathering hops to “spend their money on red cloth and trinkets,” their “wild and jolly faces” were still striking in “their queer camps on the edges of the fields.” Asahel Curtis and his fellow boosters had bulldozed roads into a wilderness that they cold domesticate with their after-dinner camp sings.

The Asahel Curtis Sampler, consequently, is far more than a coffee-table book, and Sucher includes a bibliography and a list of places where more can be learned of the history of the region by those who have gone beyond chic to seek and feel the barakah. The consciousness behind the book is sound, but as Wes Uhlman, Seattle’s Mayor adds, it requires an equally proper consciousness on the part of the reader. Barakah is not something that can be bought or owned like a funky pair of pants made of others’ recycled denims. It is something earned which one stands in relation to, “the tradition which is the true mythology of the region” — Wallace Stevens says in his essay “Connecticut” — which “we breathe in with every joy of having ourselves been created by what has been endured and mastered in the past.”

This essay originally appeared in The Nation (May 11, 1974).

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A History of the University in the Movies

How has higher education become a holiday, the professor a slacker, and students party animals?

Hollywood’s changed views of university life are best noted in the differences between “The Paper Chase” (1973) and “Legally Blonde” (2001). Both take place at Harvard’s Law School.

“The Paper Chase” tells the story of a Minnesota student named Hart (Timothy Bottoms) who comes to Harvard Law and confronts the imperious and intimidating Professor Charles Kingsfield (John Houseman). After an unfortunate classroom encounter, Kingsfield tells him, “Mister Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer.”

In “Legally Blonde,” Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a sorority girl majoring in fashion merchandising at a Southern California university who follows her boyfriend to, yet again, Harvard Law. In this case, with the help of her manicurist and making use of her knowledge about liposuction and shoe styles, Elle triumphs in the courtroom as a summer intern and eventually graduates from Harvard with high honors. While “The Paper Chase” is driven by a hardworking Minnesota student’s feelings of unworthiness upon arriving in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Legally Blonde” is motivated by a leveling impulse and provides a comic comeuppance to those same Yankee elites — in this case, by a pampered SoCal airhead carrying a chihuahua. Higher Education à la Paris Hilton.

And how have cinematic profs changed over those years? Charles Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase” was the Professor on the Pedestal, a mean curmudgeon but brilliant and admirable. Nowadays, the Prof has taken a tumble. We have the laughably obese Eddie Murphy as “The Nutty Professor” (1996) and the genuinely Mad Scientist played by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001). Then there’s the goldbricker: Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones series, taxpayers note, hasn’t spent more than ten minutes in a classroom since 1981. And even more typical of faculty slackers is the prof played by Michael Douglas in “Wonder Boys” (2000): He’s a longhaired, dope-smoking buddy to his students and a creative writing instructor whose unfinished novel exceeds 2500 pages.

“Animal House” (1978) starring John Belushi.

But if the movies’ professors seem to come from general casting, Hollywood’s university students are only one kind–Greeks. Well before the Harvard apotheosis of Reese Witherspoon (former president of Delta Nu Sorority) in “Legally Blonde,” the identification of college students with Greeks was made when John Belushi played Bluto, a fraternity brother in “Animal House” (1978). That film established the universal plot of university movies–namely, two fraternities competing with each other, losers versus alpha males–see, for example, 1984’s “Revenge of the Nerds.” Indeed, although only 10% of college students belong to a fraternity or a sorority, Hollywood gives you the impression that on any night most of the student body is down at a frat house having a toga party and playing beer pong.

“Old School” (2003) starring Will Farrell.

“Old School” (2003) suggests the reason for this skewed version of higher education: grown-up envy. In this movie, Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Will Farrell play thirty somethings who miss wild college days and decide to create their own fraternity near the mythical Harrison University. They reason: Why not give everybody, no matter their age, the chance to spend their weekends at keggers and hanging out with babes? Soon their 9-to-5 coworkers want to join.

Do we see a pattern here? If Hollywood is believed (or even just half-believed), the ivy-covered campus is now an extended pool party, the classroom not the center of attention but a locale rarely seen, the professor no longer a terrifying authority but a doofus, and students are not awash in homework but alcohol. Of course, this is fairly far from the truth but good movie fun.

Still, we might wonder: Does Hollywood’s comic vision of higher education have any effect whatsoever on the uninformed, or misinformed? The young now entering college, it is often said, are academically unprepared (but ready to party). Then, too, politicians in state after state have been reducing financial support for public universities: Is it because that’s where, moviemakers suggest, most toga parties occur?

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Literary Scavenger Hunt in Santa Barbara

How to travel: Look for the characters in stories and find out what’s become of them (from the Los Angeles Review of Books)

While the movie “Sideways” presented Santa Barbara as the regional capitol of mid-life wine tasting, it has also been a place where writers have come and set up shop for over 150 years. These have included Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Wallace Stegner, Kenneth Rexroth, Randall Jarrell, T.C. Boyle, John Sayles, Gretel Erlich, and many others.

Softer than L.A. but harder than Santa Cruz

Writers have also written about the place. One of the first was Kate Douglas Wiggin (best known for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) who found Santa Barbara a “tropical revelation” after moving from snowy Maine. Among the more recent is Pico Iyer, travel writer and sometime resident of the city, who described Santa Barbara as “softer than L.A. but harder than Santa Cruz.”

If you’re going to Santa Barbara, let me suggest a way to devise a literary tour. Before you go, read Steven Gilbar’s anthology collection Santa Barbara Stories (paperback, John Daniel and Co.). There you will find an entire gallery of Santa Barbara characters populating stories written by many of the writers listed above. Then, in a kind of scavenger hunt or a self-designed literary tour, go there (as I did) with a mission: Look for those characters and see how they fared.

Take Ross MacDonald’s story, “Find the Woman,” from the 1940s: “Mrs. Dreen was over forty and looked it, but there was electricity in her… Look how high and tight I carry my body, her movements said. My hair is hennaed but comely, said her coiffure…. Her eyes were green and inconstant like the sea. They said what the hell.” Mrs. Dreen is long gone, but her forty-year-old counterpart can still be seen in Santa Barbara today. With a great tan and great body, she chats amiably with protestors who show up outside the post office.

John Sayles’ story, “Old Spanish Days,” on the other hand, came out of the political 1970s and concerns Amado, an undocumented Mexican dishwasher who worries about being caught by INS. What happened to him? Amado married and now his daughter passes time with a posse of school friends, eating salted-caramel ice cream outside the Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center.

Then there’s T.C. Boyle’s “She Wasn’t Soft,” which gives a picture of Santa Barbara in the 1990s by means of a clash between two personalities. The title refers to Paula, an ultra-marathoner with nearly no body fat; she’s all discipline and lives on sports drinks and carbo-loading. Jason, her boyfriend, is a slacker who runs a surf shop; baggy shorts and beer belly, for him it’s all-night drinking and no discipline whatsoever.

Of course, that was 1994 when, as Boyle writes, everyone was talking about “Tommy Lasorda, O.J. and Proposition 187.” Now, twenty years later, what has become of them?

I found Jason in a Hawaiian shirt, hunched over a laptop, at the Santa Barbara Roasting Company on State and Gutierrez Streets. Coffee in hand, he’s there every morning to take advantage of the free wireless connection and run his business on Ebay.

And Paula? If you’re traveling to Santa Barbara and engaged in my kind of literary scavenger hunt, look for her at the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings at the corner of Santa Barbara and Cota Streets. She’s the beautiful woman buying flowers, wearing baggy pants, with rings on her toes. She moves with an enviable grace and ease. No longer the ultra-marathoner of Boyle’s story “She Wasn’t Soft,” Paula has become a yoga instructor.

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books (September 13, 2014).

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Explaining Present-Day America to Japan

Margaret Mead, the End of Trends, & “Stupid Cross-dressing Killer Werewolves”

If you want to understand America today, where would you begin? You might, for example, go to the theater and watch movies Americans like to see. Why?

Movies are our shared dreams, the dream life of our culture. Up there on the big screen, you can see the themes and issues we are struggling with. Sit in the theater like a psychiatrist. Ask yourself: What do you make of America near the end of the Twentieth Century?

I. Stupid Cross-dressing Killer Werewolves (or “Category Breakdown”)

Take, for example, four films popular in the U.S. during the summer of 1994:

Forrest Gump. In this film, Tom Hanks plays a “simpleminded” man with a low I.Q. In very funny way, however, he turns out to be the most influential man in America during the last thirty years. For example: when he is a child, Forrest Gump wears braces on his legs and tries to dance for a guest at his mother’s boarding house, for a young man who plays the guitar; that guest turns out to be Elvis Presley and, in this way, Elvis learns to swivel his hips when he performs on stage. Later, this “stupid” man invests money in the Apple Computer Company because he thinks they sell fruit, and he becomes a millionaire. “Forrest Gump” celebrates the wise fool. The distinctions between stupidity and cleverness break down.

Mrs. Doubtfire. Robin Williams plays a character who is separated from his children by a divorce. To be near them, Williams’ character disguises himself as a woman and is hired as their housekeeper. There are many funny moments in the film that are the result of Williams’ cross-dressing: when Mrs. Doubtfire is cooking, for example, he/she forgets about his/her stuffed bra and her/his “breasts” catch on fire. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” like the movies “Tootsie” or “The Crying Game,” the distinctions between male and female break down.

Serial Mom. Kathleen Turner plays an ideal suburban housewife who is a good cook and very concerned about her family’s problems. She solves those problems by becoming a serial killer, by murdering people. When her son gets poor grades at school, she runs over his teacher with her car. When her daughter is disappointed that a boy doesn’t show up for a date, Mom finds him and stabs him. And when her dentist husband is bothered by a rude patient who wants work done on the weekend, she kills him, too. What’s difficult to explain is that this a very funny film. John Waters’ film is like Morita’s “The Family Game.” You don’t know whether to laugh. You keep asking yourself: “Is that meant to be funny?” “Serial Mom” is an example of “edge humor” where the distinctions between tragedy and comedy break down.

Wolf. Jack Nicholson plays a timid businessman who is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one himself. Most of the time, he inhabits a world between his two identities. For example, when he encounters a business rival in the men’s restroom, Nicholson’s character urinates on the man’s shoes and says, “I’m just marking my territory.” Like “Beauty and the Beast” or “Splash” (where Darryl Hannah plays a mermaid), “Wolf” present a character who is half-human. The distinctions between human and animal break down.

Okay, these are enough examples to suggest what you might see if you sat in an American theater during the summer of 1994 and watched our collective dreams. What do you see? That “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” have been replaced by “Stupid Cross-Dressing Killer Werewolves”? That’s not quite it.

What may already be apparent is that you frequently see a condition that can be described as “category breakdown” — a twilight world where distinctions are beginning to disintegrate, where opposite begin to intermingle: wise and foolish, male and female, adult and child, gay and straight, tragic and comic, animal and human. Where does that “category breakdown” come from? And why is it so prevalent in our time?

II. There Will Never Be Another Woodstock Nation (or Half Way to a Postfigurative Culture)

Margaret Mead.

Several years ago, I was in the “red light district” or “willow quarter” in Amsterdam and I happened to meet Margaret Mead, the great anthropologist. (I hasten to add that we were both there for anthropological reasons.) I was happy to have that chance meeting because it gave me the opportunity to tell her how much her book Culture and Commitment meant to me.

In that book, Mead says there are three kinds of cultures. Prefigurative Cultures where lifestyles are determined by tradition: “My grandfather made canoes. My father made canoes. I make canoes.” Cofigurative cultures where lifestyles are determined by one’s peers: “All my friends are wearing black leather jackets and blue jeans. I wear a black leather jacket and blue jeans.” And Postfigurative Cultures where an individual doesn’t follow any particular pattern but determines his or her own lifestyle: “I’m doing my own thing.”

These distinctions do more that offer a way to understand different cultures in different regions. They also provide a way of understanding how cultures change over time — especially American culture.

From its beginnings to the early part of the nineteenth century, much of American culture was prefigurative. Tradition counted and if your ancestors were farmers, for example, chances were very good that you and your offspring would be farmers, too. The nineteenth century marked a period of transition. Tradition and parents were no longer such powerful forces. The Industrial Revolution took young men and women off the farm and sent them to the city where they took up unprecedented occupations. The waves of immigrants who came to America and those who headed west to settle the frontier were largely individuals who broke with their parents and with their past. Prefigurative culture was breaking down.

“ Wild One“ ”was released in 1953 starring Marlon Brando.

The Twentieth Century saw the rise of a cofigurative culture, where lifestyles are determined by peers. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, for example, there were “flappers” and that lifestyle pictured in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Before and during World War II, there was the Swing Era where a whole generation of young Americans danced to Benny Goodman while dressed in their zoot suits or, later, in their uniform soldiers’ uniforms. Later still, in the 1950’s and the Eisenhower era, conformity became a kind of national passion with everyone trying to blend in, live in a suburban tract home, and have a life like that on the television program “Ozzie and Harriet.” Those who didn’t want to be conformists could find their peers by becoming beatniks or by rebelling along the lines of “angry young men” like James Dean or Marlon Brando.

It seems to me that our cofigurative culture peaked in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the bland conformity of the Kennedy years gave way to the era of Woodstock and the Counterculture. Then, it seemed, nearly everyone of a certain generation dressed in certain ways, shared similar values, and rebelled against those who weren’t their peers. It was a huge Movement because there were so many peers to share it with. “Baby Boomers,” those born after World War II, constituted one third of America’s population.

In the time which has followed, it seems to me, we have witnessed a gradual disintegration of a cofigurative culture. And we are beginning to see a gradual transition to a postfigurative culture where patternless individuality will predominate. At the moment, however, we are in a transitional phase between these two states.

Take Youth Culture. While it may sadden Baby Boomers to hear this, there may never be anything like the huge Youth Movement of the 60’s and 70’s, the Woodstock Nation, the Counterculture. Instead, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, what we have seen are mini-movements: punks, preppies, grunge, retro, etc. Mini-movements are halfway houses in the move from uniform peer cultures to category-less individuality.

This same phenomena can be seen in the way people identify themselves. There was a time, through the 1950’s, when people readily described themselves as “Americans.” This “assimilationist” urge was so strong that many who felt they were outside the main culture tried to “fit in.” So, for example, a Mexican-American citizen named “Ernesto” might have adopted the more English-sounding name of “Ernest” and asked his friends to call him “Ernie.” At the same time, the major culture made moves to bring in everyone that they felt were outsiders. During this time, for example, there was a great movement to end racial separation and to integrate schools so that black and white students could study together. The point is that many wanted to be the same thing, the same kind of American.

Now, our cofigurative culture is breaking down and slowly giving way to a prefigurative one. In this intermediate situation, this halfway state, what we now see are micro-identities or new forms of tribalism. Now, Americans are more likely to identify themselves as gay, women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Irish-Americans, and so forth. You can see the same situation in the rise of ethnic literary works, for example, or in the appearance of movies (“Malcolm X,” “Joy Luck Club,” “Like Water for Chocolate,” etc.) that speak to or about these segments of the population.

In other words, in this transition to the patternless individuality of a postfigurative culture, what we see are temporary solutions: the break up of large cultural movements into mini-movements, the break up of large social units into micro-identities. What we see, in other words, is another form of “category breakdown.”

Of course, this is just what we noticed when we entered the movie theater and watched America’s collective dreams projected on to the big screen. Now we can see that these films are symptoms of large cultural forces at work in America in the late Twentieth Century. In the American fascination with cross-dressing, werewolves, “edge humor,” and the wise fool, we also see this gradual disintegration of categories.

This condition is not a failure of nerve or a symptom of decline, as right-wing critics would say. Instead, it is a reflection of the fact that we are at an intermediate phase. America has not yet arrived at the condition of a postfigurative culture — that fluid state of category-less or pattern-less individuality.

III. News Bulletin: White Boys Wearing Dreadlocks! (or The End of Trends)

“But,” I hear you say, “can this postfigurative culture (this culture of individuals) be called a ‘culture’ at all?” In truth, what a postfigurative culture implies is not the end of culture, but the end of trends.

Let me explain myself by way of anecdote. Last week, MTV issued a news bulletin, a fashion note: “White boys wearing dreadlocks!” Musicians in two groups, “Counting Crows” and “Big Mountain,” have started wearing their hair in dreadlocks — that style of long, braided and frizzed hair, made popular by Bob Marley and Rastafarians. They started sporting this hairstyle a few months ago. The implication of this style bulletin was that other fashionable caucasians may soon be doing the same. Having been identified by MTV, this whole trend may be over in, more or less, six months.

My point is how, in this age of electronic media and immediacy, this mini-trend occurred in so short a time. A decade or so ago, this trend might have lasted for two or three years. Now, electronic bulletins are flashed from the frontline, categorized as a trend, and (having been identified) rendered passé.

Now, if you want to see what the future will be like, imagine that this trend had occurred not in six months but in six weeks — or even six days. A trend starts, word is flashed out on the computer networks, and it dies. In the future, when electronic communication is nearly instantaneous, “originality” will only last for a few moments. Eventually, it will become virtually impossible, unimportant, and obsolete.

At that moment, we will witness the death of the “avant garde,” the disappearance of trends, and end to the frenetic obligation or desire to “keep up” or “stay ahead.” In these circumstances, today’s exhausted participants in the “rat race” might issue a collective sigh of relief. But more importantly, with the end of trends, we begin to witness the birth of postfigurative culture. But what kind of “culture”?

Photo credit: Wikipedia

We might begin to frame an answer by noting that, these days, the most common method of composing music is a technique called “sampling.” Sitting at a computer, a composer can take snatches of music from here and there, slightly alter them, add them to others and come up with a piece of music. Of course, I realize that the word “composer” may be an obsolete term here; perhaps “combiner” would be more accurate. In any event, with sampling the whole notion of “originality” goes out the window and the notion of “copyright” seems an anachronism.

In a fashion, this situation resembles that of the late Middle Ages. As T.S. Eliot suggests in his great essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” Dante was not trying to be “original” when he wrote his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. Instead, Dante was “syncretistic.” He borrowed from various schools of philosophy and theology, from literature, from history, from his own life, and he wove all this together into an impressive whole or summary. He “sampled” and created his own thing.

Today, in bars in Tokyo or America’s cities or elsewhere on the planet, you can see another kind of “sampling.” You can see an extraordinary kind of eclecticism. In places that almost seem a premonition of the bar scene in “Star Wars,” you will see: people wearing t-shirts that celebrate Nelson Mandela, Amazon’s rain forests, or gay pride at UCLA. On the tables are Corona beers or Heineken or Kirin. On the walls are pictures of Bob Marley, Sylvester Stallone, and Brigitte Bardot. In the background you hear the sounds of the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, and Hiroshima. On the televisions are pictures of Michael Jackson waving goodbye in Los Angeles, a soccer game in Birmingham, and a concert at a Buddhist temple in Nara where Bob Dylan shares the stage with Yoshiki.

Call this “global culture,” or even “kokusai” [internationalization], and you don’t quite describe it. Instead, you see “sampling.” You see the rise of a postfigurative culture where individuals make their own unities out of the fragments left over from “category breakdown.” In other words, in 1994, we are halfway between the peer-determined trendiness of a cofigurative culture and the eclectic individuality of a postfigurative culture. What we can begin to glimpse on the horizon is the rise of a new transnational and pluralistic personality — a condition where we may be able to echo (or “sample”) the poet Walt Whitman and say: “I contain multitudes.”

This essay originally appeared in “The Parallel Universe of English,” eds. Yoshiaki Sato and Motoyuki Shibata (U. of Tokyo Press, 1996). While meant to be a university text used in the learning of English, the book, I’m told, took on a life its own and became a bestseller in Japan.

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Mark Twain Comes Out to Play

From “Off the Shelf: Writers About Writing” (Los Angeles Times Books)

This year promises to be the year of Mark Twain. It marks the 175th anniversary of his birth, the 100th anniversary of his death and the 125th anniversary of the American publication of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Because I have written about Twain and his books — and because my white hair sometimes prompts others to say I look like him — invitations to lecture have trickled in for some months now. For Hal Holbrook — who has been channeling Twain for more than 40 years in his one-man performance “Mark Twain Tonight!” — 2010 looks like a boom year. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that long lines are already forming outside the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Conn., or his boyhood home in Hannibal, Mo.

Twain’s first book for the young, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” presents the classic view of American boyhood. There are plenty of books about American girlhood (from “Little Women” to just about anything by Judy Blume), but just as there are fewer readers among boys, there are fewer opportunities to encounter boyology in books and certainly none to equal this one.

The scene that’s most remembered, of course, is the whitewashing of the fence, as Tom hoodwinks his friends into doing this chore for him. But there are plenty of other moments that highlight an American era so mythic that many seem to recall it as if from their own childhoods, a nostalgic glimpse of small-town life in which youngsters play hooky, Becky Thatcher is a playground sweetheart, and Injun Joe supplies goose bump terrors.

That sunshiny offering was followed by another kind of book.

When I was young, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” made me want to build a raft. But then, I was lucky to read this book outside of school, when I was stuck at my grandmother’s house one summer with little to do. Later, I would read it again for class — and, later still, to teach it — and realize that, as Lionel Trilling said, it was “America’s most eloquent argument against racism,” although it can require some thorny discussions to arrive at that point.

Over the years I’ve discovered that, when it comes to discussing “Huckleberry Finn” in the classroom, much depends on the teacher: Given misconceptions and the occasional boneheaded school board, you need someone sensitive and courageous. But it’s worth the effort, in or out of class. As Twain himself said, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.”

The third Twain book I recommend for kids is “The Prince and the Pauper,” although I confess it’s been an uphill battle encouraging people to read this novel. In an introduction I once wrote to the novel, I suggested that some folks resist the book because it’s set in Merry Olde England rather than in the Old Timey America that most associate with Twain, and also because of a curious belief that they must have already read it since the story (of a prince and a pauper exchanging places) sounds so familiar.

But I like the novel because, besides a dandy yarn, it offers lessons in compassion. When you hear people say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” you sometimes hear a sigh of relief that another’s misfortune hasn’t touched them. But when Twain says those same words here, he stirs sympathy and identification.

So, visions of American boyhood, consciousness of racism, evocations of compassion — these are hallmarks of the author whom William Dean Howells once called “the Lincoln of our literature.” What’s missing from this list, of course, is his humor. The man was funny, sometimes in a pointed way: speculating about what knights in armor might do if they got an itch or observing, “I don’t believe in Hell but I’m afraid of it.”

Sid Fleischman collects many of these funny bits in “The Trouble Begins at 8,” the only really satisfactory biography of Twain for younger readers. Adults have great biographies by Justin Kaplan (“Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain”) and Everett Emerson (“The Authentic Mark Twain”), but for kids, there’s this one delight.

Unlike other offerings that march their weary way through a chronology of facts, Fleischman’s life of Twain is composed by a witty author bent on having a good time. If there’s any shortcoming, it’s that Fleischman has so much fun with Twain’s early years that when he finally looks up, he has to squeeze the later decades in and speed to a conclusion.

But that’s a familiar phenomenon to readers of Twain: You get so absorbed you lose track of time and end up well beyond your destination.

A version of this essay appeared in the Los Angeles Times (January 17, 2010). I also talk about Twain memorials here and about “Mark Twain and Whiteness” here.

You can find out more about the Mark Twain House and Museum here. My son Colin must have been in fourth grade when we first toured the Twain House. At one point, the guide pointed towards the wall and said, “Twain had the first telephone in Hartford.” Colin responded, “Who did he call then?”

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The Year of Mark Twain

“Learning by impersonation”

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Given my white hair and bushy eyebrows, I have heard more than a few times that I look like Mark Twain. This resemblance is a source of amusement to my friends. A few months ago we went to see Hal Holbrook in “Mark Twain Tonight,” his famous show where he impersonates Sam Clemens. The joke among my friends was that at the intermission I got more requests for autographs than Hal Holbrook.

2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Sam Clemens’s birth, the 100th anniversary of his death, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Celebrations will be taking place all over the country and abroad. At this very moment, no doubt, hundreds of school children are writing reports on his books. Come summer, I predict, dozens of small towns in the South will host lookalike contests where young people will dress like Tom Sawyer or Becky Thatcher. As for me, having written a good deal about Twain and having purchased a white suit, I’m hanging out my shingle and advertising my availability for talks at your local library.

The Trouble Begins at 8. Ages 9 -12 yrs. By Sid Fleischman. HarperCollins, $18.99 (Hardcover)

In my experience, folks want to know about the life of the man who wrote those classic books. If the curious are adults, I send them in the direction of Justin Kaplan’s solid biography Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, but if they’re youngsters I point them to Sid Fleischman’s The Trouble Begins at 8. Fleischman’s amusing work is subtitled “A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.” And that’s where it all began.

Sam Clemens grew up in Hannibal, Missouri (it would later become St. Petersburg in his books). Bored in this sleepy hamlet, the young Sam hatched a plan to make his first million by importing coca (a then legal stimulant taken for listlessness). So, he made a riverboat trip to New Orleans with the idea of traveling on from there to South America where he would set up business. But he got distracted. By the time he got to New Orleans, this bored boy from a sleepy hamlet, this backwoods youth looking for a cure to listlessness, had discovered excitement at last–in the glamorous world of steamboat pilots! He decided to become one.

Clemens called his years as a steamboat pilot the happiest of his life, but they were brought to an early end when the Civil War broke out and the rivers were shut down to traffic. So, Sam promptly signed up for the Confederate Army; he quit two weeks later–as he said, after learning all he could about retreating–and joined his older brother Orion who was heading to Nevada as Territorial Secretary. Out West, Sam tried his hand at prospecting, started a forest fire, and eventually turned to journalism, making ends meet by writing about such things as jumping-frog contests and adopting the name “Mark Twain” (a term used to describe the depth necessary for the safe passage of a steamboat).

Leaving Nevada, he became a humorist on the lecture circuit and eventually traveled to Europe; he would write about that trip in his hilarious and best-selling book Innocents Abroad. On his return, he met and eventually married Livy Langdon, and they set up home in their famous steamboat-like mansion in Hartford, Connecticut. They were living there in 1876 when The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published and when “Mark Twain” became a name associated with children’s books.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. By Mark Twain. Penguin. There are hundreds and hundred of editions of this classic; and with the exception of abridged versions, many make fine purchases. I like this Penguin edition.

The most famous scene in Tom Sawyer is, of course, the “whitewashing of the fence” where Tom is faced with a boring chore and hoodwinks his friends so that they pay for the privilege of painting the fence. Tom Sawyer is a sunny book full of comic scenes like this, incidents that remind you of childhood: superstitions, warts, playing hooky, pretending to be pirates, boring school recitals, and playground romances with girls like Becky Thatcher. The next novel was different.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Case Studies in Critical Controversies). By Mark Twain; edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Bedford/St. Martin’s. If you just want the novel, then there are many, many editions of the book. But my experience is that kids are often introduced to this book in high school, where it can be controversial. For that reason, I recommend this edition by Graff and Phelan because they collect in an appendix many worthwhile essays on the topic of race and the book’s reception. These encourage useful discussions.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a darker book and probably meant for older readers. To be sure, it is often remembered as a summer’s tale about a barefoot boy and an escaped slave riding a raft down the Mississippi and trailing their feet in the water; and perhaps it is just that kind of story for young readers. But growing older, many will come to realize that–as Lionel Trilling said–this book is “America’s most eloquent argument against racism.” Indeed, if the central moment in Tom Sawyer is where Tom is admired for tricking his friends into whitewashing, the most important moment in Huckleberry Finn is its opposite: where Huck plays a trick on Jim and Jim calls the boy out for treating a friend like that. As Huck later explains, he got down on his knees and apologized to Jim and “weren’t never sorry for it afterwards.”

The Prince and the Pauper. By Mark Twain. Penguin. Again, there are multiple editions of this book to choose from. But I am partial to this one because I am responsible for it; besides the Introduction, I labored for a year with various first editions to create what I believe is a version of the text most faithful to Clemens’ intentions.

The third of Twain’s three great children’s books is The Prince and the Pauper, a novel I have a special fondness for and that was written in tandem with Huckleberry Finn. In one book Twain unwinds Huck’s racism when, after his apology to Jim, Huck comes to the slow realization that “black folks have feelings same as white folks do.” In the other book, Twain unwinds the prejudices of class because once the prince exchanges clothes and places with the pauper, this member of the royalty comes to learn that poor folks have feelings same as rich folks do. The prince learns this by living, as it were, in another’s skin. You might call this learning by impersonation.

That’s a lovely phrase: “learning by impersonation.” Hal Holbrook has said that has been the great thing about playing Mark Twain night and after night. Of course, “Mark Twain” was the impersonation played by Samuel Clemens. Finally, let me add, “learning by impersonation” is a wonderful description of reading.

So, here’s to Mark Twain! Here’s hoping 2010 is a wonderful year for introducing new readers to Mark Twain and here’s hoping that his books get passed down for generations!

Himself on the lecture circuit talking about Twain.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice. A different take on the same topic appeared as “Mark Twain Comes Out to Play” in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 17, 2010). I speak about Sid Fleischman here. And I have also penned an essay about “Mark Twain and Whiteness.”

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Martin Luther King Day: Busing & Flying

African-American Children’s Books, Toni Morrison & Virginia Hamilton

U.S. deputy marshals escort 6-year-old Ruby Bridges from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in this November 1960 A.P. file photo.

The celebration of Martin Luther King Day and the movie “Selma,” as well as tributes given to Rosa Parks and others, signal how much we understand the history of the civil rights movement in terms of the heroic contributions of adults. Even so, a good deal of the burden for initiating social change actually fell upon the frail shoulders of children and the locus for transformation was their schoolrooms. In 1954, “Brown v. Board of Education” struck down the notion of “separate but equal” and ushered in school integration.

A good deal of the burden for initiating social change actually fell upon the frail shoulders of children

My daughter teaches at a bilingual school just a few miles from the U.S./Mexican border where children with every shade of skin color–from freckled white through brown to plum-colored blackness–go about their business and play with each other without any awareness that it was once otherwise. Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer-winning author of Beloved, wants today’s children to know about the past sacrifices of other youngsters who brought about these conditions they now unthinkingly take for granted.

Remember: The Journey to School Integration. Ages: 4–8 yrs. By: Toni Morrison. Houghton Mifflin, $18.00 (Hardcover)

In Remember: The Journey to School Integration, Morrison collects more than 50 photographs from the era of school busing, and she provides as commentary her own imaginings about what people were thinking at the time the picture was taken. Here are U.S. marshals sent by President Eisenhower–white men in dark suits and thin ties, in an era when men wore hats–watching over a tiny African-American first-grader carrying a plaid portfolio at her new school. Here are two black youths inside the circle of a jeering mob, their heads hung down as if expecting a rain of blows at any minute. As Huckleberry Finn once said, “It’s enough to make a body ashamed.”

Children often had to pay for what the Bible calls “the sins of the fathers.” Indeed, Morrison dedicates her book to the four black children murdered by members of the older generation and the K.K.K. in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church. On the other hand, the situation was sometimes different among the younger generation themselves. Morrison provides a photo of a smiling white boy (looking smart with his bowtie, his hair slicked with Brylcreem) talking so nonchalantly with a black classmate in their schoolroom that you wonder what all the fuss was about. And the back cover of the books shows two classmates, black and white, holding hands on a school bus.

The People Could Fly. Ages: 4–8 yrs. By: Virginia Hamilton Illustrated By: Leo and Diane Dillon. Knopf, $16.95 (Hardcover)

Addressing these same issues, but in the different and imaginative manner of literature, is another recently published book: Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. In 1985, Hamilton collected twenty-four African-American folktales dealing with airborne themes in a collection also called The People Could Fly. Now, after her death and as a tribute to Hamilton, Leo and Dianne Dillon have illustrated the title story from that collection. Previously, the Dillons addressed African themes in their prize-winning picture books Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu; here they surpass even their prior pictorial excellence.

The story concerns some Africans who had a magical ability to fly but were, nonetheless, caught and sent to America as slaves. When Sarah is mercilessly whipped in the cotton fields, she appeals to grey-bearded Toby who conjures up the old magic and Sarah wings away with her baby, to the consternation of her slave masters. Soon others join in this angelic procession to freedom; and those unable to do so, pass along this story of hope to future generations. This tale, let me add, recalls my own favorite African-American children’s book, a prize-winning young adult novel that Hamilton wrote some thirty years before: M.C. Higgins, the Great, with its account both of a slave mother escaping to freedom and of her descendant, a contemporary boy whose own adolescent desire for freedom manifests itself in his wish to fly.

“M.C. Higgins, the Great.” By Virginia Hamilton. Aladdin, 2006.

Though these seem different books–one nonfiction and the other fiction, one retelling recent history and the other passing down an old legend, one about busing and the other about flying–they both offer the same African-American vision of intertwined pain and hope. Still, we might ask: Why are these stories presented to us in children’s books? The answer is simple. The same expectation lies behind both: that the young will remain our saviors and take on the burden of keeping these stories alive.

This essay was originally published in Parents’ Choice. Kate Capshaw Smith has published an interesting study of photographs of children in the civil right movement in her Civil Rights Childhood (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

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Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty”

The phenomenology of historical thinking

Charles Perrault was fascinated by the twin topics of time and story. He was a French writer who lived in the Seventeenth Century. He was also member of the French Academy who played a central role in “The Debate Between the Ancients and the Moderns”; while some members of the Academy argued that the ancient Greek and Roman classics were better than anything written by later writers, Perrault took the side of the Moderns and said recent literature was just as good as the classics. Out of this controversy came Perrault’s four-volume work, Parallels Between the Ancients and Moderns.

Perrault’s fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”) first appeared in Perrault’s Histories, or Stories of Times Past, with Morals and published in 1697. The title is significant. Perrault not only offers “Stories of Times Past,” but “Histories with Morals.” The implication is that we look backward into the past in order to see how we should act when we march forward into the future.

Let’s consider the story in Perrault’s chosen manner —in terms of concepts of time and the phenomenology of historical consciousness . . .

“Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who grieved because they had no children.” The beginning of the tale expresses an apparent wish for perpetuity, for succession, for a child. Of course, it starts with the ancient storytelling formula. The word “once” — as in once, twice, thrice — reminds us of the ancient link between counting and tale telling. In fact, in some cultures stories are called contes (French), cuentos (Spanish), or accounts (English). The word “upon” signals an intersection between moment and context, a relationship which is the very foundation of historical thinking.

“In order to have a child, they tried the waters of every country, made vows and pilgrimages, and did everything that could be done . . . .” Note that Perrault does not itemize all the countries, nor does he list all the vows and all the pilgrimages. Instead, he concludes in a summary fashion: they “did everything.” Elsewhere, he begins a sentence with the phrase “To be brief.” In our own conversations, we use expressions like “et cetera,” “and so forth.” In writing, we use ellipses [“. . .”]. So, we should observe something about our idea of history. If the present unfolds at a constant speed, history is accelerated. History is compressed time.

Finally, a child was born to them and “a grand christening was held.” Seven fairies were invited to bestow gifts upon the child, “in accordance with the custom of those days.” Christenings, the Catholic mass, Passover, quinceaneras, funerary rites, weddings, other customs — these are rituals and rituals are the conscious reenactment of history. Rituals are postfigurative: the deliberate repetition of events seen (retrospectively) as “historical” or precedent-setting.

The seven fairies came to the christening but another also came, “an aged fairy whom no one had remembered to invite.” Remembering and forgetting . . . these are another way the experience of history is raised in “Sleeping Beauty.” Of course, historical thinking requires remembrance: memory is a prerequisite to the recognition of recurrence, even in a task as simple as counting. We remember histories. We remember stories.

“The fairies began to bestow their gifts upon the princess. An old fairy declared that she should be the most beautiful in the world; the next that she should have . . . .” Prophecy is the history of the future. While ritual is postfigurative, prophecy is prefigurative. Historical consciousness can be forward looking — for example: in our notion of the seasons, we look backwards in order to determine when (in the future) would be the best time to plant. When, in the title of his book, Perrault mentions “histories with morals,” he is also suggesting that we can look backwards into the past in order to come up with prudent suggestions about how we should behave in the future.

“It was now the aged fairy’s turn. Angry that she had not received an invitation, the aged fairy declared that the princess should prick her hand with a spindle and die.” It remains for the uninvited guest to introduce seriousness into the festivities, to offer a memento mori — a “remembrance of death.” The idea of “remembering” death may seem paradoxical; after all, death is in our future so how can we remember it? But if we understand prophecy as the history of the future, then we must say that (even for the princess) history teaches that death is in everyone’s future.

Suspecting trouble, a young fairy hid behind a curtain. After the aged fairy had spoken, she stepped forth to modify the curse: “The princess shall indeed prick her hand with a spindle. But instead of dying, she will fall into a slumber that will last a hundred years.” The curse is a Fall — a falling asleep, a loss of consciousness; a falling out of time, a loss of historical consciousness. It is as if the princess will be trapped in some sort of time machine while events will continue to go on all around her. Suspended between past and future, she will be frozen in an ahistorical now.

“At the end of fifteen or sixteen years,” the princess went exploring in the castle. In a tower, she came upon an old woman. In the version of the fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers, the date is more precise: “On the very day when she was fifteen years old.” Birthdays are one way we indirectly introduce children to periodization and our notions of history. History also appears in the story in another tacit way: in the constant contrasts between the “aged” fairy and the “youngest” fairy, the “old” woman in the tower and the princess at “the end of fifteen or sixteen years.” In other words, different characters are assigned histories of different lengths.

The princess did not know what the other was doing. “I am spinning,” the old woman explained. And because it was ordained, no sooner had the princess seized the spindle than she pricked her hand and fell into a deep sleep. We might wonder why the fairy tale gives such prominence to spinning rather than some other activity — singing, for example, or painting. The critic Marina Warner offers a suggestion when she points out that the word “fairy” — fata (Italian), hada (Spanish) — seems to be derived from “fata” or the Latin word for fate. In this feminine form, Warner suggests, the word “fairy” may refer to the goddess(es) of fate or destiny. This would seem to link the gift-bestowing and prophetic fairies in “Sleeping Beauty” with the Fates, those three old women in classical mythology who “spin” an individual’s destiny (their past, their present, and their future). In its use of fairies, then, and in the crucial importance given to spinning, Perrault’s tale may employ the ancient figures of the three Fates and even more ancient conceptions of the tripartite divisions of time that they embody.

Everyone in the castle fell asleep, and around the place grew trees and bushes so thick that no one could enter. Only the tops of the castle towers could be seen, and these only from a distance. Ruins are visible reminders of history. Consider ruins in children’s literature. What lessons do they teach? Rudyard Kipling is certainly making a point when he has Mowgli visit the ruins called the Cold Lairs in The Jungle Books: there Mowgli sees how a once mighty civilization fell. In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Badger talks with Mole about some ancient Roman ruins; and he observes that while people come and go, badgers remain. In children’s literature, then, ruins are historical reminders; they serve as mementos mori.

One day a prince saw the ruins. His servants told him the place was haunted by ghosts or the home of an ogre. An old peasant said, “More than fifty years ago I heard my father say that in this castle lies a princess. It is her doom to sleep for a hundred years.” Haunted houses, we should note, are always historical houses. It’s difficult to imagine a brand new house that is haunted. There must be an aroma of the past around a haunted place. But we should also note something else about this part of the Perrault’s tale. Regarding these ruins, some tell fanciful stories and others tell histories. What is the difference between them? How can we separate fiction from fact? The fairy tale suggests an answer when it indicates that histories are faithfully repeated. They are passed down. They are progeny. And the historian is a faithful son, a ra-conteur, a re-teller of stories. Finally, we might consider this important question: What tale does the old peasant tell the prince? There can only be one answer. It must be story of “The Sleeping Beauty” — this very one we are now reading.

The prince entered the castle and came to a golden chamber where he saw a beautiful princess. The hour of disenchantment had come and the princess awoke. “Is it you, dear prince?” she said. “You have taken a long time.” The comments the princess makes to the prince are absolutely remarkable. We know she has been asleep for a hundred years and dreaming. But her remarks tell us she has been awake inside of her dreams. She has been alert and looking forward, waiting for the prophecy to be fulfilled since she asks expectantly, “Is it you, dear prince?” And she has been aware of passing time and looking backward and measuring it since she observes, “You have taken a long time.” This mental state is sometimes called “lucid dreaming”: that unusual moment in our dream life when we wake up, as it were, in the middle of our dream and watch ourselves dreaming while we continue to dream. And this image of “being awake inside a dream” is a wonderful way to describe historical thinking.

The silhouettes that accompany the story appear in Arthur Rackham’s The Sleeping Beauty ed. Charles S. Evans (1920). For a related essay, see my comments on P.L. Travers’ “About the Sleeping Beauty.”

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Childhood in International Films

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hula Girls,” & “Vitus”… at the Palm Springs Film Festival

During the first half of January, for several decades, the Palm Springs International Film Festival has been a showcase for hundreds of new foreign films created in dozens of countries around the globe, from Australia to Yemen. The majority are adult films, but some twenty or so fall (sometimes uneasily) into the festival’s categories of “family friendly” or “coming of age.” To identify the best of these, in 2007 this reporter joined other journalists in covering this ten-day event. But while the international press was intent on red-carpet interviews with Brad Pitt, Kate Winslet, and Cate Blanchett, your own correspondent spent hours a day watching films in those two categories to come up with his own top three (below).

Pan’s Labyrinth, Mexico
The very first film I wish to commend to attention–and this needs to be emphasized– is not suitable for children; indeed, it is rated “R” because of occasional graphic violence that we would associate with horror films. Nonetheless, director Guillermo Del Toro’s new work will be of extraordinary interest to parents and to other adults who are interested in (or need to be reminded of) the curious ways children think and see the world. In other words, it is not for children but about children.

The film is half realistic story (set in Spain during the 1940s and the revolutionary struggles that brought Generalissimo Franco to power) and half fantasy (the story of ten-year-old Ofelia who meets a faun straight out of Narnia and wanders into a wonderland akin to Alice’s). Pan’s Labyrinth weaves together everything together by a childhood logic. On the fantasy side, we encounter: fairy tales and their three tasks, drops of blood signaling adolescence, ancient superstitions involving the mandrake (that fabled and screaming, human-like plant), and a baby-chewing monster borrowed from Goya’s “black” drawing of Saturn. On the realistic side, we encounter: Ofelia’s impoverished and pregnant mother, her military and sadist step-father (who seems to have stepped out of the famous “eyeball” scene of Buñuel’s film), and the parent-like housekeeper Mercedes (played by actress Maribel Verdú best known for her very opposite and salacious role in the film Y tu mamá también).

Movie critics for the New York Times have designated in the Best Foreign Film of the Year, agreeing with the panel who chose it as the best picture at the Palm Springs Film Festival. It is also interesting to note that Pan’s Labyrinth was produced by another Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón whose film Children of Men (a futuristic story about a world that has gone childless until one pregnant woman is found) has recently been released. Add in director Alejandro González Iñárritu (whose recent film Babel is garnering attention) and you have to say Mexican film making is hot. Look at these films in themselves, and you have to say their recurring theme is the importance of childhood.

Hula Girls, Japan
A coal-mining company in northern Japan is about to close it doors forever and put several thousand people out of work when someone comes up with a wacky idea to save the town by creating an Hawaiian theme park in this frozen and barren outback. That means trucking in palm trees (and keeping them warm with household heaters) and recruiting local schoolgirls to become hula dancers. Based on a real story, Hula Girls pits the skeptical and angry and unemployed townspeople against a group of rural teens who dream of saving their town by exchanging their school uniforms for grass skirts and shimmying their hips in unaccustomed ways that their parents would disapprove of.

The film features the girls’ struggles: to win the approval of their sensei or dancing teacher, to stand up for their rights and for each other when they are abused by drunken louts, to win attention for their theme park by traveling all around Japan in a broken bus, and finally to enlist their estranged parents and the town’s disbelievers into an enterprise that seems unlikely to succeed but finally does.

This is a lovely and inspiring family film. At its heart is a famous Japanese saying: Deru kugi wa utareru (“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”). But, then, nonconformity is a worldwide issue and marks this film as a touching story of adolescence.

Vitus, Switzerland
If Hula Girls is about “fitting in,” Vitus is unabashedly about “standing out.” This film is about a child prodigy; and as director Fredi M. Murer observed in a discussion after its showing, this story especially appeals to our own childhood feelings of “exceptionality.” How many remember, when we were young, our distinct conviction that we were bound for some kind of singular greatness? Sure to become the world’s best baseball player, fastest pilot, most skilled ballerina, and the like? How many middle-schoolers still await discovery as rock-and-roll performers when they rehearse in front of mirrors? To be sure, growing up, each of us may have settled into our own kind of ordinariness; but the Story of the Prodigy still speaks to our unanswered childhood wishes and certainties.

Vitus, then, is a precocious eleven-year-old and piano-playing genius; and as Murer observed, he was lucky to employ in the film a real child prodigy (the gifted musician Teo Gheorghiu) to play this character. To be sure, Vitus is pushed too hard by his aspiring mother and would rather spend time with his eccentric grandfather, even if that means feigning stupidity and ordinariness for a time. On top of that, this youngster is in love with the older girl who is his babysitter

The best scenes in this comic film are those where Vitus must be a problem solver. When his grandfather needs money to repair a leaking roof, the boy genius takes out a week to learn about the stock market and earns the old man millions, enough not only to fix his roof but to buy the old man an airplane. Wanting to court his babysitter, the eleven-year-old earns millions more in the market and gets his own luxury apartment in Zurich. And when his father is fired from his job by an officious boss, Vitus buys the business, fires the boss, and installs his own father as CEO. Part Home Alone and part A Thousand Clowns, this film was my favorite of all those shown at the Palm Springs Festival.

Each of these films can be purchased as DVD’s from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice.

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The First Licensing of a Literary Character

How Winnie the Pooh launched a billion spin-offs & an industry

Apple’s 2010 advertisement for a new device called the iPad.

January 6, 1930, is the first day a literary character was “licensed” for merchandising. On that day, A.A. Milne (the author) sold the rights to his fictional character (a lovable bear named Winnie the Pooh) to an agent (Stephen Slesinger) for $1000 and 66% of all profits he generated. A year later, Slesinger had earned $50 million for a Pooh doll, record, board game, puzzle, and radio program.

“Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” (Disney, 1966). Picture credit: Wikipedia.

After his death in 1956, Milne’s rights passed to his heirs but by 2001 Disney had purchased all of these from the various parties for a sum close to half a billion dollars. That extraordinary expense seemed warranted a year later when Forbes Magazine deemed Winnie the Pooh the most lucrative fictional character ever: a teddy bear on top of a honey pit generating buckets of cash from five movies, several TV series, countless radio and television specials, and more. By 2005, merchandising — including stuffed toys, games, and other spin-off’s— brought in $6 billion.

Taking a teddy bear into the future

Among the more curious uses of the licensed franchise occurred in April 2010 when Apple launched the iPad. Apple’s ads prominently featured pictures from “Winnie the Pooh” on the tablet’s sample screens and new iPads routinely shipped with a free e-copy of Milne’s beloved classic. Marketers wanted to convey visions of accessibility by linking this cozy childhood story with what was otherwise a cold, brushed-steel, futuristic device. Here was another honey pot.

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Reviving the Love of Poetry: Camille Paglia

Although her notoriety rests on being a renegade, Paglia need not be embarrassed that her book sheds more light than heat (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems” by Camille Paglia (Pantheon).

Camille Paglia’s radical agenda is to win undergraduates (and the general public) back to poetry. Who better to do this than the renegade literary critic and author of Sexual Personae, who showed she could take up Emily Dickinson and Madonna in the same sentence, this cultural spokeswoman and media celebrity whose name even appears in her new book’s subtitle.

In Break, Blow, Burn, Paglia contends that poetry has fallen on hard times in the United States. Contemporary poets, subsidized by self-interested and academic cliques, have become affected and precious. Poetry readings are exercises in narcissism; even the current craze of “slams” amounts to a pathetic bid for attention by annexing poetry to hip-hop.

But the real culprit in poetry’s demise, she suggests, is a new generation of professors who have sold their souls to Jacques Derrida and other effete French critics. Venerating theory-about-poetry over poetry itself, these solipsists bore students with their quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo. The love of poetry is in danger of being lost.

As a corrective, Paglia considers 43 poems and, in short essays of lucid prose, parses them and intelligently explains their meaning. Mixing the canonical with the contemporary, her choices include Shakespeare’s sonnets and Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock.” This last choice is revealing. Paglia means to bring back the 1960s and ‘70s.

When hundreds would pack an auditorium to hear Allen Ginsberg read poetry

I remember those days. When hundreds of us would pack an auditorium to hear Allen Ginsberg read poetry. When radicalism and poetry went hand in hand. When Sylvia Plath was avant-garde. When Dick Cavett’s television guests included Jimi Hendrix and W.H. Auden.

In clamoring to bring back those days, then, is Paglia’s agenda really radical or reactionary? At first glance, the poets she chooses (e.g., Donne, Herbert, Shelley, Lowell and Roethke) and the poems she examines (e.g., Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”) seem standard choices for a classical anthology designed by, say, William Bennett. But Paglia mixes in some contemporary choices (Plath’s “Daddy,” for example) and makes the furious point in her introduction that the love of poetry, itself, is a radical act of cultural recuperation in the face of current mores and mediocrity.

I’m not sure my undergraduate students would buy this. They would easily size her up: the aging ’60s radical, the professor willing to wear a leather bustier to class to stir Generation X-ers from their apathy and get them reading poetry. And if the truth be known, after the pugnacious radicalism of the introduction, this book is not that flamboyant; instead, it is a solid and impressive achievement that stands with the very best American writing on poetry by Helen Vendler and Randall Jarrell. Although such a compliment might unnerve someone whose notoriety rests on being a renegade, Paglia has no reason to be embarrassed that “Break, Blow, Burn” sheds more light than it does heat.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 11, 2005).

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Beautiful Nightmares: Nicoletta Ceccoli

The New Gothic and picture books for adolescents

Pictures by Nicoletta Ceccoli

A leading figure in European picture books, Nicoletta Ceccoli creates dark and eerie children’s books. But are they really for kids? Or has she created a new thing: picture books for adolescents and post-adolescents?

Winner of the Andersen Prize in 2001 as best illustrator of the year, Nicoletta Ceccoli is one of the most popular artists in Europe today. In Italy, entire bookstore windows are devoted to her children’s books. She has been featured in “Mademoiselle” and honored with gallery shows all over the globe (including exhibits in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles). Cutting-edge, she has inspired hundreds of wannabes and upcoming artists.

We met at International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna in 2013 where more than 1200 children’s publishers from 75 countries were displaying their juvenile wares. We were surrounded, in other words, by hundreds of pastel bunnies and stories about endangered polar bears. In a few corners, however, customers thronged booths where a handful of publishers were showcasing the work of young illustrators following in Ceccoli’s footsteps. As if raised on a diet of Tim Burton and the Adams Family, these artists eschewed bunnies and offered freaks, disproportionate heads, monsters, babies in jars, stacks of prosthetic legs, and distortions of all kinds. “Call it ‘Surrealism’ or ‘the New Gothic,’” publisher Lina Vergara suggested to me.

Ceccioli specializes in the Surreal: the creepy, the weird, the dark. She has clearly been inspired by classic surrealists like Magritte and Dalí, but she also acknowledges the influence of Americans–especially Edward Gorey and Mark Ryden. Even so, Ceccoli’s world is her own and populated by girls with widely-spaced and glossy eyes, and childhood “treasures” like old wind-up toys, buttons, and marbles. It sometimes seems a world of hurt (full of tears and pins, stabbing and bees) and sometimes a comic realm of youthful memories (with floating cookies and dancing cupcakes). Taken altogether, her pictures make you feel as if you have stumbled into the childhood dreams of Franz Kafka.

While Europe is full of her devotees, Ceccoli’s work is not so well known on this side of the Atlantic. “American publishers,” she laments, “do not like the dark and disturbing. They love the mainstream.” As a result, her illustrated children’s books for American publishers seem less challenging: employing a light palette and offering only hints of her genius with the weird. One exception is “The Girl in the Castle in the Museum,” her book with Kate Bernheimer, which gave the illustrator “the chance to show what I can do.”

It may be that American publishers have mistakenly pigeonholed her as an artist for the elementary school set. Instead, Ceccoli has a special kind of appeal. One European publishers described her audience to me as “girls 18–40.” That phrase may have been more an English-language mistake than a sexist slip. Still, it is an oddly accurate description of her special demographic.

Recently, American publishers have identified a new reader category called “New-Adult Fiction,” which are basically young-adult novels marketed to “post-adolescents” (ages 18 to 30). The classic example is “The Hunger Games” trilogy; supposedly intended for teens, more than half (55%) of these books, according to Publishers’ Weekly, have actually been bought by women in the twenties and thirties. If there is a new and older demographic for y.a. novels, maybe there is a new and older demographic for children’s picture books. If so, Ceccoli is their guiding light.

Ceccoli laughed when I told her how the publisher had described her audience as “girls 18–40.” “Maybe they are like me,” she suggested, “isolated, adults who do not like to grow up, who are afraid of people. The women in my pictures are fragile. Still, they also have a strength, and at times they are even cruel.” Then this shy woman sighed, “I know I’m popular at the moment, but I do these pictures for myself. They reflect my own feelings.”

The two best collections of Nicoletta Ceccoli’s pictures are “Beautiful Nightmares” and “Sogni di bambine” [“The Dreams of Little Girls”]. Her website is fascinating as well:

Some of the children’s books she has illustrated are: “The Girl in the Castle Inside the Museum” (by Kate Bernheimer). A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts” (by Jacqueline K. Ogburn). “Cinderella” (retold by Sarah L. Thompson. “Horns and Wrinkles” (by Joseph Helgerson). “The Tear Thief” (by Carol Ann Duffy). “Oscar and the Mooncats” (by Lynda Gene Rymond). “The Village of Basketeers” (by Lynda Gene Rymond). “The Boo! Book” (by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer).

Ceccoli and the author in Bologna

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13 Ways of Looking at Fairy Tales

On Wilhelm Grimm’s birthday (February 24)…

“Little Red Riding Hood” (illustration by Jesse Willcox Smith).

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are the German brothers most celebrated for kindling interest in fairy tales — those enduring stories of “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and their kin. Here are thirteen short essays that look at fairy tales in different ways: to view, simply click on them.

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Irish Fiction: Claire Keegan’s Debut

Galway, “Antarctica,” & post-colonial feminism (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

ANTARCTICA By Claire Keegan Atlantic Monthly Press: 224 pp., $23

Every spring, the city of Galway hosts the Cuirt International Festival of Literature. Ireland’s premier literary event, it draws the cognoscenti and the country’s leading writers and critics. Finding myself there last year but uncertain which events to attend, I let others lead and followed a gaggle of Ireland’s well-known and established writers, who were going to listen to a young woman who had just published her first book of stories. The buzz was that she was the real thing. I heard Claire Keegan and was thunderstruck.

Keegan read “Men and Women,” a story in her impressive debut collection “Antarctica.” Set in contemporary and rural Ireland (small farms, muddy cows), the tale turns on a gesture: Because of a bad hip, Da never gets out of his car to open the gate but expects his wife to do so, even when she’s wearing her best dress for a night out. But, his daughter observes, Da’s hip isn’t bad enough to prevent him from flirting and whirling other women around at the Christmas dance. Humiliated again, on the trip home, her mother does not get out of the car when the time comes; instead, complaining, Da is obliged to get out and open the gate, and then he is stunned when his wife slides behind the steering wheel and drives for the first time in her life, leaving him behind, hat in hand.

Keegan’s feminism, apparent here, is also present in “Quare Name for a Boy,” the story of a young woman come home from England to make an announcement to the fellow she had an affair with over the Christmas holidays. She’s pregnant and altogether nervous about meeting her lover again and telling him. But when he’s absolutely peachy about the news — for example, not knowing if it’s a boy or girl, she suggests the name “Daphne” and he endearingly responds, “It’s a quare name for a boy” — this moment of saccharine goodness makes her realize that the superficial person sitting opposite her is the kind of man the Irish call a “lad,” and she resolves to raise the child by herself. Thinking of how her aunts dote on their menfolk, she concludes: “I will not be a woman who shelters her man same as he’s a boy. That part of my people ends with me.”

Oppression and revolt are, of course, the rhythm of Ireland’s political history; so Irish feminism needs to be understood as an echo and logical trajectory of the country’s search for liberated identity in the post-colonial years since 1916. Keegan’s story “Sisters” signals that these issues needn’t be figured only in male-female relations. Like the Emigrant, Louisa was the sister who left for England, married, had children and became wealthy. Like the Native, Betty stayed home, milked the cows, took care of Da and went unloved. Now Louisa has come back and expects Betty to brush her hair every night as she did when they were young. Instead, long-suffering Betty cuts off her sister’s long tresses. It is the story of Cinderella’s revenge and, of course, Ireland is the Cinderella of its little Atlantic neighborhood.

Keegan offers a number of sympathetic portraits of the Other Woman. The new wife in “Burns” finds herself sweeping out spider webs in a cottage formerly occupied by her husband’s first wife and stamping on cockroaches with her stepchildren, who are haunted by memories of their abusive mother. In “Love in the Tall Grass,” Cordelia is the Other Woman: On the last day of the 20th century, she goes to the beach to meet the doctor, her lover who promised nine years ago to meet her there at just this moment. But the doctor’s wife also appears, and the story stops at an incredible moment of tension as each of them wonders who will be the first one to depart.

When it comes to dialogue, Keegan has oblique genius, as in the title story “Antarctica”: “‘I’m the loneliest man in the world,’ he said. ‘How about you?’ ‘I’m married.’ She said it before she knew what she was saying.” With incident, Keegan has an unerring sense of odd pathos: In “The Ginger Rogers Sermon,” a farm family employs as their hired hand a huge but “slow” adult, and one night their curious daughter sexually explores this gentle giant; the next morning they find he has hung himself. With conclusions, Keegan is unprecedented: In “Passport Soup” Frank Corso’s 9-year-old daughter is the missing child on the milk carton (she mysteriously disappeared one day from the family cornfield), and Frank’s wife arbitrarily blames him for losing her and hasn’t spoken to him for months. But he begins to feel better when his wife serves him a soup in which are floating nine passport-size photos of their daughter: “It is a start,” he thinks. “It is better than nothing.”

“Love in the Tall Grass” is the best short story this reviewer has encountered in a month of Sundays and as many book reviews

That’s not to say this story collection is flawless. Oddly enough, Keegan, who studied for a time in New Orleans, occasionally misfires when she uses the United States as a locale: Four of these tales seem the unfortunate result of watching too many Sean Penn movies because they are cornball accounts of honky-tonk lives, full of divorcees and guys named Butch. On the other hand, Keegan’s “Love in the Tall Grass” is the best short story this reviewer has encountered in a month of Sundays and as many book reviews.

Reading these stories is like coming upon work by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver at the start of their careers. That’s how we all felt, sitting there last year listening to Keegan read in Galway. There, among the leading writers of her country, perched on the westernmost edge of Europe, at the start of the new millennium, Keegan left the podium to the hush of profound awe and then the thunder of applause that greets the fresh appearance of talent.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (July 8, 2001). “Antarctica” was later named by the Times among the best books of fiction for the year 2001.

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Time to read “Catcher in the Rye” again?

On J.D. Salinger’s birthday . . .

The Catcher in the Rye was immensely important to me when I was in high school. Holden Caulfield’s jeremiad against “phonies” captured my sense of schoolboy estrangement; not surprisingly, another favorite book of that time was Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Of course, it goes without saying that there was something theatrical and contrived about my hauteur and superior disdain; this is a period of adolescence when many long-suffering parents have to put up with the world-weary sighs of their jaded(?) teens. Let me give you an image from that time: Myself and two friends at a high-school football game, a copy of Catcher in the back pocket of my jeans (somehow signaling my reservations about the scene in front of me).

Himself at that age. (Photo credit: Dan Larson)

In college, I fervently read other works by J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, and Nine Stories. Later I found out a few things about the author: for example, his birthday is today, January 1 (1919).

Then in 1972 the New York Times Magazine published an account by Joyce Maynard about her affair with the reclusive fifty-three-year-old author when she was eighteen. It was kind of creepy. Later memoirs and an unauthorized biography or two (as well as movie) did little to subtract from that impression. Still, the books were so good and so important to me at one stage in my life, that I was willing to set them aside and embrace them while conceding that their author might have been a jerk.

Besides its personal importance to me, Catcher in the Rye is also important for what it begot. The special thing about the novel is its Voice, that first-person confessional tone of Holden Caulfield. Critics will suggest you can hear the same in earlier works like Huckleberry Finn and David Copperfield, and that may be partially true. But somehow the Voice in Catcher in the Rye went further, seemed more authentic, had less of the adult-author-doing-an-adolescent-voice ventriloquism.

So, you can also measure the importance of Catcher in the Rye by what it begot. Without it, we would not have, for example, the great girl narrators of Francesca Lia Block’s equally impressive Weetzie Bat or Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen. Indeed, almost any brilliant young-adult novel today owes a debt to Salinger’s classic, whether that work is by Sherman Alexie or Rebecca Stead or Susan Patron.

It may be time to read “The Catcher in the Rye” again. Order it online or find it your local library.

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“Watership Down”

Some thoughts about the late Richard Adam’s rabbit classic

Today’s news brings word about the death of Richard Adams on December 24, 2016. He is most well known for “Watership Down,” his fantasy about a rabbit community that faces destruction and has to engage in bloody warfare to survive. Here are some observations about that work I deeply love.

  1. It is quintessentially English. Written by a British civil servant, sensitive to issues of class, “Watership Down” takes place in the English countryside. The curious thing is that the very same region in that country also inspired “The Wind in the Willows” and “Winnie the Pooh,” far less fearsome (more pastoral) animal stories.
  2. A question of scale. “Watership Down” is the “Iliad” resized, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” miniaturized. Here is the tiny worlds of “The Rescuers” and “The Borrowers,” “Stuart Little” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” It is the realm of Beatrix Potter who wrote her own rabbit story as well as tales about mice occupying dollhouses and hedgehogs keeping house.
  3. An entire universe of encyclopedic completeness. Adams’ rabbits have their own culture, language, and religion. They have a complete society with castes, police, despots, et al. Theirs is that complete world imagined in other childhood geographies: Narnia, Oz, Middle Earth, Neverland, Wonderland, the Seven-Acre Wood, in Harry Potter’s world of sorcery and Phillip Pullman’s “Dark Materials.”
  4. Welcome, talking animals. And here is a world of talking, thinking, feeling, planning, and warring animals. Where we learn what it is to be human by means of analogy: “Charlotte’s Web,” “Black Beauty,” the jabbering menagerie of Doctor Dolittle, the education of Mowgli by Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther, the lessons of Babar and Aesop.

If you like, you can order “Watership Down” at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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Professional Conventions: The MLA

When a town is invaded by 10,000 profs gathering at “the largest meeting of humanities professors in the world”

By some cruel fate, San Diego’s Marriott Hotel served in late December of 1994 not only as the headquarters of the Modern Language Association Convention, but also as the headquarters of the Colorado State football team and their boosters who were in town for the Holiday Bowl. It may have been some college athletes’ version of a nightmare: to be surrounded by 10,000 professors. If there is one person in the world who can make a 300-pound linebacker tremble, it may be the professor he’s been avoiding all semester. Michigan beat Colorado State 24 to 14. Somebody ought to sue.

What happens when an army of literature and foreign language professors assemble for “the largest meeting of humanities teachers in the world,” the Mother of All Scholarly Conferences — the MLA Convention?

  • Do professors sit around, trading academic jokes: “Did you hear the limerick about the Lithuanian linguist?”
  • If a Volkswagen is found in the hotel lobby in the morning, do they round up the usual suspects: those zanies from the Dickens Society?
  • What really occurs at “The Wallace Stevens Cash Bar”?

Not that I didn’t already have my suspicions. If the truth be known, I’m literature professor at a California university and I’ve done an MLA Convention or three. Several years ago, I took my first wife to one in New York. She walked in the front door of the Hilton, walked through the lobby, overheard two or three conversations, and sailed out the back door. She never looked at me the same way again.

That thought weighed heavily on my mind as I checked into the San Diego convention site and pinned on my plastic name badge. Moreover, I had to wonder: Was this any way to spend my holidays — with the very organization that fomented the Great Footnote Debacle?[1] “Where’s the Wallace Stevens Cash Bar?” I asked a puzzled bellhop.

No one knows how many literature professors are on the planet. I’ve asked. By my own methodology, I calculate that there are approximately 325,000. Of these, some 32,000 belong to the Modern Language Association; they may be viewed as the cremé de la cremé of literature professors, according to some.[2] The 10,000 or so who attend the MLA Convention, then, may be regarded as the froth on the cremé de la cremé.

Though usually willing to laugh at their own foibles, they’re a sensitive lot. Strangers accosted me in the elevator when they saw that my name badge identified me as a member of the press: “You aren’t go to make fun of us, are you?” “That would be too easy,” I replied.

a downtown aswarm with absentminded profs in their well worn tweeds and soup-stained ties

Whether the annual convention takes place in New York or Philadelphia or elsewhere, when newspapers, CNN, National Public Radio, and other media cover the convention, they do so in a predictable way: presenting a comic vision of a downtown aswarm with absentminded profs in their well worn tweeds and soup-stained ties. For the media, the convention’s high-rise hotels become Towers of Babel where dithery intellectuals deliver papers with ludicrous titles, extol the virtues of Esperanto, and discuss such erudite topics as “disembodied metaphors” and “pronoun envy.”

Let’s be frank: the MLA Convention is not the kind of convention where participants take the afternoons off for well organized and tax-deductible golf tournaments; bermuda shorts are scarcely seen.[3] Instead, it is the intellectual’s version of an all-you-can-eat banquet where a scholar can go into the equivalent of diabetic shock. From 8:30 a.m. to 10:15 p.m., over a four-day period, professors in literature and foreign languages could hear more than 2,100 presentations — on Shakespeare, the use of the letter “S” in medieval Spanish, African Literature, Slavic Poetry, Celtic Oaths, Chinese Chants, Yiddish Yammerings, Lapland Lyrics, and hundreds of other topics.

Huzzahs for the speaker. (Photo credit: Modern Languages Association)

To tell the truth, many of these papers might seem boring to the lay person.[4] And, of course, professors can be longwinded. Professors expect to be HEARD. Unlike the situation in other careers, when professors walk into their workplaces (the classroom) people start taking notes on everything they say. So, in a convention setting, when given twenty minutes to present a paper, the typical professor spends ten minutes discussing the paper’s title and the next forty minutes wondering (aloud) how to “sum up” the hundred pages that follow.

Of course, these soporific sessions are probably no different from those when research papers are delivered at meetings of the Poultry Producers of America (“Mite Control in Populations of Minorca Cockerells”) or the National Hematology Association (“Prophylaxis of Patients with Antiphospholipids”). Even so, there is, occasionally, the flash of brilliance: the paper that will remain memorable and change people’s minds about a literary work. Then, too, there were moments in San Diego that were the Fire Marshall’s Nightmare: 700 people jammed into rooms meant for 200 to hear riveting readings by the writers in attendance — Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Simon Ortiz, and others.[5] Then, too, there were the occasional “gunfights in the seminar rooms.”

In the classroom, a professor may try to shock slumbering students with the most outlandish assertions (for example, that Mussolini was the greatest philanthropist of the 20th century) and the only question that may be evoked is: “Will that be on the exam?” But at the convention, scholars find themselves in the company of other confident and competitive people who are also expert in their fields. Sparks can fly during the question-and-answer period.

There’s the now legendary story of a young linguist who was presenting his years of research which showed that while many languages use double negatives to indicate a positive statement (for example: “I’m not having nothing”), there are, he asserted, no known examples of double positives being used to indicate a negative statement. From the back of the room came a booming retort, a weary and cynical “Yeah, yeah.”

Until he arrived at the 1993 convention in Toronto, scholar Donne Raffát didn’t appreciate how his involvement with the MLA might put his life in danger. Raffát had organized a series of panels on Salman Rushdie, the author whose novel “Satanic Verses” had led to the “fatwa” or death sentence pronounced by Iran’s Ayotolla Khomeini. Writers Margaret Atwood and William Gass and others were scheduled to join the MLA in denouncing the threat to intellectuals and to free expression that was posed by fundamentalists in the Rushdie affair. But before those events took place, fearing reprisals, Canadian security forces stationed plainclothes police every ten feet along the meeting room’s perimeter and sent in dogs to check for bombs. “It wasn’t until that moment,” Raffát told me, “that I realized how really vulnerable writers and intellectuals are, when faced with the power of entire governments.”

In San Diego, less dramatic circumstances reminded scholars that they cannot take refuge in the Ivory Tower. While convention delegates conversed in hotel meeting rooms and met over meals at bistros in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter, some didn’t overlook the physical circumstances of the convention and the presence of individuals who emptied the ashtrays and swept the floors, made the beds and cleaned the rooms, cooked the food and served it. “It’s no secret that the hotel and restaurant industries often depend upon undocumented workers,” George Mariscal observed to his fellow MLA members in a series of hastily arranged meetings. “That custom not only seems socially-sanctioned, but a standard business practice. How then can we deny health services to what other countries call ‘foreign guest workers,’ and how can we deny schooling to the children of these workers we depend upon and employ?” For that reason, the MLA joined a number of other scholarly organizations in passing a resolution not to hold future conventions in California if the state’s Proposition 187 is implemented.

There is an “upstairs/downstairs” quality to the MLA Convention in other ways. I had a comic glimpse of the “upstairs” side one evening when I was on my way to another panel, fell in with the wrong crowd in the elevator, and ended up at a cocktail party in a hotel room jammed with boozy intellectuals. “This is another part of the convention,” my host rationalized while pouring this reporter his third glass of Irish whiskey.

When literature scholars are “off duty,” what they talk about are movies. And when they are “off duty,” they can be brilliant and funny — or so it seemed when I was buttonholed by yet another bleary-eyed professors who felt impelled to explain: 1) the special logic behind Demi Moore’s move from vamp in “Disclosure” to Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter,” 2) how Susan Sarandon has not really changed that much in the switch from “Thelma and Louise” to Marmee Dearest in “Little Women,” and 3) how Michael Douglas’ penchant for stories about “besieged white males” can be explained by his father’s having to wear one of those short Roman skirts in “Spartacus.”[6]

“Will Teach Shakespeare for Food.”

Downstairs, a well dressed young man stood for several days outside the convention hotel, wearing a signboard that read: “Will Teach Shakespeare for Food.” Upstairs in the seminar rooms, scholars engaged in airy disputes. Downstairs at the Job Center, hordes of young and anxious PhD’s wandered around looking for work.

The lucky ones had “interviews” and met with potential employers in “the pit” (a large hall full of folding tables and chairs) where they answered that hackneyed question which has been put to job applicants for years: “Where do you see yourself twenty years from now?”[7] The unlucky ones, the young PhD’s without interviews, clustered around a bulletin board in the Job Center looking for last-minute postings of job vacancies. I was there on the first day to check the listings and stepped in front of a few people, explaining I was shortsighted. “We were, too,” came the quip from the back.

Two days later, I had lunch with Chris Packard, Deborah Williams, and Ann Brunges — three graduate students from New York University who expected to be on the job market next year and who were in San Diego to learn the ropes. I mentioned the facts I had gleaned from MLA publications and elsewhere:

  • For the last few years, graduate schools have turned out more PhD’s than there are jobs, creating a backlog where there are far more job-seekers than there are positions for them.
  • In 1993–94, there were 44% fewer positions than the already low figures for 1989–90.
  • Of the positions vacated by retirement, about one third are filled, one third remain unfilled, and one third are converted into part-time positions.
  • 38% of all university positions are now staffed by part-time faculty, “temps” who often receive no benefits.
  • In 1993–94, funding for higher education increased (on average) a modest 2% — rising in 36 states and falling slightly in others; California stood apart from the pack by registering a walloping 25% decrease in public support for higher education.

It wasn’t a pretty picture. I asked how they felt they would do in their own job searches.

They felt frustrated, these NYU students explained, because graduate school wasn’t preparing them for what was needed at the convention. “After all those classes on Proust and 19th Century American Literature,” Packard said, “I think we should go to charm school. So much of this job business is about smoozing and marketing yourself.” Several bottles of white wines later, they laughed — too hastily, I believe — when I laid out my plan for the four of us to an enter an entirely different line of work and offer “One-Day Makeover Clinics for Job Candidates” at future MLA conventions.[8]

Of the young PhD’s, only some will find full-time positions; and because this is a “buyer’s market,” some of the best minds from Princeton and Yale will end up teaching introductory writing courses to Agriculture majors at small colleges in America’s outback. Other PhD’s will find there’s no room at the dinner table and have to go into other lines of work; among these, I know people who have become taxi drivers, technical writers, and editors at publishing houses. Still others will join a growing number of part-time instructors known as “Freeway Fliers.”

Originally a California term, “Freeway Flier” is now used across the country to describe a shuttling professor who make ends meet by holding down “temp” positions at various universities. Within this tribe there is the legend of one “Dr. Dramamine” who earns $30,000 a year by teaching eight classes at three different universities in southern Los Angeles, Riverside, and northern San Diego. Legend has it that he puts a thousand miles on his car each week. Nissan ought to name a university after him.

By now you may be asking: Why do bright young men and women want so desperately to be a part of this profession? They’re not stupid and if they wanted secure careers with a future they could have gone into, say, Intergalactic Contract Law or Multimedia Gene Splicing. And they aren’t trying to become a part of this profession for the glamour; their peers who went into business and law may have alerts set on their cell phones, but it’s hard to imagine a professor whose phone suddenly sounds so that urgent notice can be given about a new interpretation of Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by a Snowy Woods.” And with a professor’s average salary at about $40,000 a year, they’re clearly not in it for the money; NFL linemen can earn that much in bonuses for one game by sacking the quarterback, and Captains of Industry net that same figure in just one morning while brushing their teeth.

The experience can be an addicting drug

Why do they do it, then? The answer is hard to explain, but it could be that nothing quite equals the moment in the classroom when you’re teaching a piece of literature and you see a student’s eyes suddenly brighten and you realize that “the life of the mind” has begun. That experience can be an addicting drug. So, young, would-be professors put up with six or seven years of poverty to do advanced work in graduate school; haunt the halls of the MLA Convention looking for the elusive teaching position; and queue up for jobs as Freeway Fliers just to have a chance to be in the classroom. You gotta love ‘em.

That’s what it’s like to spend four days of the December holidays in the company of 10,000 professors. With people who would say, even in the midst of a San Diego hotel full of football fans that Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The fact that it was the Christmas season may also explain the odd habit I developed at the MLA Convention. As I wandered through the throngs of people–scholars, critics, and footnote fetishists; feminists, poets, and multi-culturalists; job seekers, film buffs, and glib deconstructionists–I kept mumbling Tiny Tim’s words: “God bless us every one!”


[1] In the 1980’s, in a decision that wreaked havoc in academia but went unreported in newspapers, the “MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers” (the bible for writers of term papers) signaled that footnotes (like this one) were passé; gone was the need for foresight and agility on the part of student typists. Instead, the MLA expressed a preference for “parenthetical documentation” where notes appear in the body of the text! Those who still prefer footnotes are now branded as reactionary Fifth Columnists. Another group, preferring endnotes, has mounted a rear-guard action.

[2] This opinion is held by approximately 32,000 people.

[3] There seems no truth to the rumor that the Doris Lessing Discussion Group was seen swimming nude in the hotel pool at midnight.

[4] Patricia Meyers Spacks most recent book is “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind.” I leave without comment the fact that Professor Spacks was recently elected president of the Modern Language Association.

[5] It can be unnerving when writers and their critics are both in attendance at the convention. My colleague Fred Moramarco was delivering a scholarly paper on Allen Ginsberg at one MLA convention when Ginsberg, himself, entered the room. Given Moramarco’s powers of corporeal evocation, I suggested that he deliver a paper on Emily Dickinson at the next convention.

[6] Now, in a more sober moment, I realize these movie discussions provide an antidote to the techno-babble sometimes heard at convention panels where, for example, books become “literary discourse embodying the problematics and dislocations of social constructs.” These kinds of comments show the real danger of giving Mac Powerbooks to people wearing all black clothes.

[7] An inappropriate reply: “Standing outside the MLA convention hotel, wearing a signboard that says: ‘Will Teach Shakespeare for Dessert.’”

[8] The first piece of advice would be: “Nose rings are a no-no.”

This essay was prepared for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and was set to run when, in January 1995, a reorganization was announced: Publication of the Magazine was suspended and six editors were fired. So, this essay never appeared. I did, however, get a handsome “kill fee” and my expenses were reimbursed — including a hotel bill swollen by the aforementioned bottles of white wine with grad students and by a late-night room-service order for an ungodly amount of macadamia nuts.

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Christmas Stories: History Bites Back

How Lynne Cheney (wife of Vice President Dick Cheney) published a children’s book at exactly the wrong moment

When Washington Crossed the Delaware. All Ages.
By Lynne Cheney; paintings by Peter M. Fiore.
Simon and Schuster, $16.95 (Hardcover)

At a time of year when others recite “The Night Before Christmas” or sing “Oh, Holy Night,” Lynne Cheney is something of an exception. Cheney is the wife of the former American vice-president Dick Cheney and a conservative figure in her own right. So, when members of the Cheney clan gather with hot chocolate around the yule fire, she tells a story from the America’s revolutionary past: How George Washington and a band of soldier crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night and surprised a garrison of Hessian mercenaries. “This is the story that I tell my grandchildren at Christmas,” and now she has written a children’s book about that historical event.

Published during the holiday season of 2004, Cheney’s “When Washington Crossed the Delaware was meant to stir patriotic feelings. But what stands out is the book’s extraordinarily unfortunate timing.

You need to pay attention to this provided summary: Cheney’s children’s book tells the story of how George Washington and his ragtag bunch of “insurgents” turned the tide of the war and eventually defeated the British (“the mightiest power of the world”) by adopting cunning guerrilla strategies on Christmas in a surprise attack upon Hessian mercenaries (coalition forces employed by the British).

Here’s the rub. Published in the fall of 2004, Cheney’s book appeared at the same time George W. Bush proclaimed victory in Iraq and stood grinning under a banner announcing “Mission Accomplished.” But at the same moment, the world was beginning to get inklings of the rise of Iraqi “insurgents” — a term the press constantly used — who employed guerrilla tactics against the occupying forces of the mightiest power in the world.

In other words, with American invading forces occupying Iran, Cheney could not have chosen worst time to release a book celebrating freedom fighters standing up to occupying forces! History bites back.

I initially rehearsed these remarks in a review essay in Parents’ Choice (January 2005). They were the beginning of my wider discussion of American politics and children’s books in October 2010 at Université Paris 13 and in April 2016 in Dublin and Galway. See these notes.

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Two Touching Christmas Stories

Ok, ok. I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Angela and the Baby Jesus
By Frank McCourt; illustrated by Raul Colon
Scribner, $17.99 (Hardback)

Onthe bestseller lists for months, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was an immensely popular and personal memoir about his Irish childhood. It may not be surprising, then, that Angela and the Baby Jesus, his Christmas children’s book, reads like an oft-told family story. The event described would have taken place in Ireland some time ago, when his mother was six years old and worried about the statuette of the Baby Jesus in the Nativity crèche at the nearby church, afraid that the little infant would be cold on a wintery night. So, the young Angela takes the baby home and puts Him in her bed to warm, and there is hell to pay. When her parents find out about the kidnap, the family takes the Baby Jesus back and they encounter a parish priest and a policeman, both irate about the theft.

“Tears twinkling on the cheeks of the priest in the December moonlight. The policeman coughed and gave his baton a bit of a twirl.”

Of course, what prompted Angela’s rescue mission was a little girl’s concern — that and the familiar childhood conviction that there is no boundary between the living and the nonliving, that statues (or dolls, for that matter) can be in need of care. But childhood compassion does not end there. When the priest and policeman jokingly speculate about what kind of punishment would be appropriate for this larceny, Angela’s younger brother Pat insists he will go to jail in his sister’s place. It is a touching moment, and rightfully so: “Tears twinkling on the cheeks of the priest in the December moonlight. The policeman coughed and gave his baton a bit of a twirl.”

Loren Long’s illustrations for this picture book are blue and wintery and, I have to say, just right. They recall the work of Chris Van Allsburgh in The Polar Express, but they are better in the way they go off in their own quirky direction. Long’s picture of the Baby Jesus flying over the wall (after Angela has tossed the statue into her backyard) is one I can’t forget.

Great Joy
By Kate DiCamillo; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Candlewick, $16.99 (Hardback)

Another beautifully illustrated Christmas book is Kate DiCamillo’s Great Joy with pictures by Bagram Ibatoulline. Set in that vaguely Golden Time of America in the 1940s and 50s, Ibatoulline’s sketches are likewise vague and golden. In truth, illustrators often engage in a vague and sketchy style to cover over an absence of skill. But Ibatoulline’s work is striking because it goes the other way, making faces, for example, more specific and more definite in a gauzy atmosphere. This is a really terrific and beautiful book.

The story is by Kate DiCamillo, a writer I am in love with. A few years back, I praised her The Tale of Desperaux (which is slated to appear as a film this Christmas season). I am also keen on her The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, likewise illustrated by Ibatoulline. Now I add Great Joy to my list of favorites.

The book’s opening recalls the wintery-night and Christmas-season opening of Russell Hoban’s great children’s novel The Mouse and his Child, but here DiCamillo introduces a monkey with a tin cup and an aged organ grinder performing on a snowy downtown corner. Watching them from her apartment above is the little girl Frances, who wonders where they pass the frigid nights. She asks if the two might be invited in, but her mother explains, “They’re strangers.”

“Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy! Great Joy!”

Then, on the evening of her debut as an angel in a Christmas pageant, Frances drops a nickel in the monkey’s cup and invites the organ grinder to come to the theatrical in her church just down the block. As the play begins, Frances unfortunately forgets her lines. But when the man and his monkey come in the back, Frances smiles and remembers: “Behold! I bring you tidings of Great Joy! Great Joy!” The last picture shows the reception afterwards, where Frances and the organ grinder and dozens of others (including the monkey) mingle with cookies and Christmas punch in hand. DiCamillo’s dedication appears at the end of the book: “With gratitude for open doors and for all the people who have welcomed me in.”

I should add that both these books present touching stories, the kind that make your eyes mist up and give you a catch in your throat. Previously, I objected to such sentimentality in Christmas books and in earlier essay expressed my preference for dark and sassy holiday stories like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Now, older and a grandparent, I no longer worry. I wear my heart on my sleeve. And I love these books for unashamed reasons.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (December 2008). My essay “In Praise of the Grinch: Welcome to Christmas.alt” can be found here.

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My 10 Favorite Posts for 2016

Living in Ireland, Running for Pope, Disney’s insult of the author of “Mary Poppins,” Donald Trump’s candidacy anticipated in a British fantasy… here are my 10 favorite posts on this year

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On Short Woman Appreciation Day…

On the Shortest Day of the Year (12/21): Some musings on Height & Size & Gender & Age (from the NY & LA Times)

“The Secret World of Arrietty” (Disney Studios, 2010).

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When the Wealthy Trumped the Poor

Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

The Prince and the Pauper (Penguin Classics)
By Mark Twain; edited with an Introduction by Jerry Griswold

Of all Mark Twain’s stories,” wrote his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, “none brought him greater joy in the writing than ‘The Prince and the Pauper.’ ” Still, there is something curious about this joyful novel: Everyone seems to know its story about two boys exchanging places (as if, somehow, it had seeped into our unconscious), but few seem to have actually read the book. Perhaps the time has come for rediscovery.

The most memorable moment in the book occurs when Edward Tudor and Tom Canty exchange clothes and stand in front of a mirror. Looking at their reflections, both are stunned, but the prince finally puts their recognition into words:

“Thou hast the same hair, the same eyes, the same voice and manner, the same form and stature, the same face and countenance, that I bear. Fared we forth naked, there is none could say which was you and which the Prince of Wales. And now that I am clothed as thou wert clothed, it seemeth I should be able the more nearly to feel as thou didst.”

At first glance, this scene might seem to signal Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ discovery that “clothes make the man” or, rather, that “clothes make the regent.” In “The Czar’s Soliloquy,” Clemens imagined the ruler of Russia standing before a mirror: “Is it this that 140 million Russians kiss the dust before and worship? Manifestly not! . . . It is my clothes. There is no power without clothes. . . . Strip its chiefs to the skin, and no state could be governed; naked officials could exercise no authority; they would look and be like everybody else–commonplace, inconsequential.” Of course, that is exactly what Clemens does in “Huckleberry Finn” when he trots out the naked king in the theatrical farce aptly named “The Royal Nonesuch.” This is Clemens’ democratic twist on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

But what is more significant about that memorable scene is that when the two boys exchange clothes, they do not simply look at each other. They look, instead, into a mirror and consider their reflections. More than the clothes, that mirror might serve as the central symbol of the scene. And if we can imagine that there is a second mirror behind the boys, reflecting what is in the first mirror, then we might be able to imagine them looking at that fascinating ocular image of reflection upon reflection, at a parade of similar images spanning backward through infinite regression. This is perhaps the best symbol of all for Clemens’ novel and its myriad reflections.

First of all, “The Prince and the Pauper” (1882) reflects Clemens’ era. To begin with, many scenes in the novel essentially show adults bowing and worshiping at the feet of The Child. In fact, the subtitle of the book solicits readers and puts them in a category when it defines the book’s audience: “A Tale for Young People of All Ages.” This was, after all, the Era of the Child.

During the decade in which “The Prince and the Pauper” was published, pediatrics became an established medical specialty taught at Harvard University; even the American Medical Assn. acknowledged this new category and the existence of this special kind of creature: the Child. And the same era also saw countless reformers and civic-minded leaders publicly concerned with this new creature: Sweeping child-labor laws were enacted, orphanages and public schools were founded, the kindergarten and playground movements launched and a thousand similar endeavors begun.

In literature, majors (on both sides of the Atlantic) were writing for minors. Heading the bestseller lists of the era (1865–1914) were children’s books, among them “Hans Brinker,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Little Women,” “Heidi,” “Treasure Island,” “Black Beauty,” “The Call of the Wild,” “Anne of Green Gables” and “Tarzan of the Apes.” The leading magazine of the day was St. Nicholas; intended for young readers, its contributors included Charles Dickens, Jack London, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling and a host of other literary notables.

But “The Prince and the Pauper” did not just reflect the era’s obsession with the Child; it also mirrored other enthusiasms of the times–among them the craze for Olde England. Sir Walter Scott’s novels were the rage. The well-to-do were having homes built in the Tudor style, featuring cross-beam architecture. And steamships were doing a brisk business carrying packet loads of American tourists over the Atlantic to see Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. To mention just one example: Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of the best-selling “Little Lord Fauntleroy”) made 52 such crossings herself.

Like “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “The Prince and the Pauper” also reflected the era’s fascination with the Claimant. Burnett’s popular novel tells the story of Cedric Errol (a poor American boy from the streets of New York) who is eventually recognized as the heir of a wealthy English nobleman, although the Little Lord does have some trouble when another, false claimant puts himself forward as the true heir.

In fact, both novels may have been inspired by the most celebrated news story of the 1870s, involving the Tichborne Claimant, an Australian butcher from Wagga Wagga who claimed to be the missing son and heir of the Lady Tichborne but was later shown in court to be an impostor. The Tichborne case spawned dozens of musical plays about missing heirs, and it fascinated Clemens, who paid a researcher to collect 12 scrapbooks of clippings about the case.

But it would be wrong to see “The Prince and the Pauper” only as a reflection of Clemens’ own time. It is, in fact, a timeless story, and this may explain its almost unconscious and mythic appeal.

When by happenstance Tom Canty finds himself among the royals, we glimpse Moses in the bulrushes. When Edward Tudor finds himself among the hoi polloi until his royal birthright is finally acknowledged, we see Oedipus redux.

Many are the heroes and heroines who are prophets without honor in their own county, be they Cinderella or the man from Galilee. The sagas of twins–think of the legend of Cyrus–are, likewise, as old as Persia. Then there are the legends of rulers who go in disguise among their people to discover the true state of their kingdoms, who (like the Buddha or Lear) must give up luxury and mingle with the people to discover pain and truth.

The fall, dispossession, involuntary adoption into changed circumstances, difficulties with those who fail to acknowledge one’s true identity and eventual recognition–this is an old and human story, and “The Prince and the Pauper” incarnates it. So, like mirrors lined up and reflecting each other, Clemens’ novel presents a vista of storied resemblances reaching back to the head of time.

Or we might venture in the other direction and consider how Clemens’ novel especially speaks to our own times. If movies are our shared dreams and indicate the particular concerns of our own era and culture, then we should notice the many recapitulations of “The Prince and the Pauper.”

Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places” (Paramount Pictures, 1983).

In “Coming to America,” for example, Eddie Murphy plays an African monarch who travels to the States and becomes a pauper, even taking a job at McDonald’s until he returns home in glory. In “Trading Places,” Murphy and Dan Aykroyd do just that: They play a street hustler and a wealthy stockbroker who, like Clemens’ Tom Canty and Edward Tudor, exchange places. “The Last Emperor” tells of the fall to the proletariat of China’s last ruler, while “Dave” and “King Ralph” tell of the rise of an average American prole to the White House and Buckingham Palace, respectively. In their own Pygmalion fashion, “Working Girl” and “Pretty Woman” recount feminine versions of the tale. Dozens of other examples might be mentioned.

Why is that? When other stories might preoccupy us, why is our own era fascinated with versions of “The Prince and the Pauper?”

It may be that our own times are not so different from those of the 16th century England pictured in Clemens’ book. Recall that it was a time when there was a growing division between the well-to-do and the poor, between the have’s and have-not’s. Clemens also tells us how the wealthy are self-satisfied and the government out of touch. Though he is speaking of a time long ago and of a distant place, it does not take much to see that he is painting a picture not unlike, say, the film “Grand Canyon,” with its portrait of contemporary Los Angeles as a place of BMWs and Brentwood on the one hand and inner-city decay and desperation on the other.

Looking in the mirror of this novel, observing both the time that Clemens writes about and our own era, we might come to the conclusion that there is really little difference between them and us.

It may be that “the poor will always be with us,” but many cultures seem to move in a cyclic fashion through episodes when poverty becomes more acute and social harmony begins to disintegrate.

For the generation that came of age after 1980, the great tragedy is that they may never know that the situation wasn’t always like this: that there was a time in America and elsewhere when it wasn’t routine to see hundreds of homeless sleeping in the streets

For the generation that came of age after 1980, the great tragedy is that they may never know that the situation wasn’t always like this: that there was a time in America and elsewhere when it wasn’t routine to see hundreds of homeless sleeping in the streets, when it wasn’t routine to worry about gang violence, when it wasn’t routine to be accosted for spare change by a man covered with a blanket or a woman holding a child, and when it wasn’t routine to react to these circumstances in an unfeeling way.

In the 1960s, then-President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty; in the 1990s, legislators launched a War on Welfare.

This is where “The Prince and the Pauper” can be of use in our time. At its heart, Clemens’ novel grows from the statement “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The way someone understands that statement is a kind of litmus test. From one point of view, what may be expressed is envy (of those whose good fortune could have been our own) or relief (that another’s troubles haven’t befallen us). But there is an entirely different way to take that statement. From a different point of view, when we say “There but for the grace of God go I,” what can be expressed is fellow feeling, compassion and sympathy, identification instead of distancing.

The Prince and the Pauper” turns on that difference, and Clemens’ novel means to forcibly shift the first point of view to the other. The last lines of the book speak of how Edward Tudor (once he ascended the throne) challenged the hardhearted and prosperous, how he encouraged in them mercy and fellow feeling. But, in truth, that was the lesson from the beginning when he exchanged clothes with the pauper and stood before the mirror. In this way, “The Prince and the Pauper” still summons, and creates, sympathetic readers.

Here, then, is one of Clemens’ finest novels and its hall of mirrors, in which we see not only the life of an author who went from barefoot boy to Oxford honors but also a parade of reflections spanning backward in time, images lined up one after another in infinite regression, in which we glimpse some of the world’s oldest stories.

We also see that Clemens’ 16th century England is not so different from our own world and that, ultimately, there is really little difference between us.

When that moment occurs, fortunate readers of “The Prince and the Pauper” may witness a miracle and see how the very book they hold in their hands is transformed into a mirror in which they, themselves, are reflected.

Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” continues to fascinate me. I wrote about it at length in my bookAudacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Storywhere I linked the story with the “impostor phenomenon”; that novel and “l’angoisse de l’imposteur” was also the subject of my essay in a French book. Then I spent a year working with Canadian, U.S. and British first editions of the novel to create a new and “established” edition of Twain’s story for Penguin books; I also contributed to the text an Introduction, Bibliography, and an Appendix (where I reprinted a missing chapter of the book). Because “The Prince and the Pauper” seems unusually relevant to our own era (where the luxuries of Hollywood coexist with L.A.’s Skid Row), the Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 30, 1997) published the excerpt from the Penguin edition above.

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Fairy Tale Lives of Celebrity Plutocrats

Andrew Carnegie & “Jack and the Beanstalk”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since the appearance of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment,(1) more attention has been directed to the way fairy tales may be put to use in early education. Among other things, Bettleheim argues that fairy tales can supply plots which give order to the inchoate fantasy lives of children and that the tale’s heroes and heroines provide models that children can emulate when working through their own problems. Such pragmatic and therapeutic uses of the fairy tales are, however, not a boon available only to children; James Hilman, the Jungian therapist and thinker, explains that adults may use the tales for similar benefits.(2)

the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself

Besides suggesting ways to shape a life, fairy tales can also be used by psychological historians and biographers in a reverse fashion — to understand the ways a life was shaped or (to use the fashionable language of some recent bestsellers) to understand the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself. Perhaps no work lends itself so well to this technique as Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls,(3) a book that used to be quite popular in the early part of this century and was a familiar item in many school libraries. While lives are never so orderly and as free of clutter as a fairy tale, what is striking about Carnegie’s autobiography is how closely it resembles a familiar childhood story.

Credit: The Library of Congress.

You know the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”: hard times force Jack’s family to sell their cow for some beans which turn out to be magical; plucky Jack climbs the beanstalk and somewhere in the sky he discovers the giant’s castle from which, on three trips, he steals a bag of gold, a goose that lays golden eggs, and a harp that plays itself; on the last trip, however, the giant gives chase, but Jack saves himself by chopping down the beanstalk and the giant crashes to his death. You know Jack’s story.(4) What you may not know is that it is also Andrew Carnegie’s.

Carnegie looked at the world and saw ladders, towers, mountains, inclines, problems to surmount, opportunities to ascend, and elevating pursuits

A child reading Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls cannot help but be impressed by how Carnegie speaks of climbing and air castles. If Don Quixote looked at windmills and saw challenging giants, Carnegie looked at the world and saw ladders, towers, mountains, inclines, problems to surmount, opportunities to ascend, and elevating pursuits. He had a topographical imagination, an aptitude for altitudes. One can only wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald had Carnegie in mind when he wrote:
“Gatsby saw the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees — he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”

Andy’s Air Castle

In his Own Story for Boys and Girls Carnegie reports that he was born of “poor but honest parents” in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland. Like Jack’s, his family fell on hard times; the introduction of steam machinery threatened the livelihood of the town’s weavers, Carnegie’s family among them. While Carnegie makes no mention of selling their last cow for a handful of beans, his family had to borrow funds to move in Andy’s 13th year to Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Andy did not forget Scotland, but he remembered one thing above all:

Where one is born is very important, for different surroundings and traditions appeal to and stimulate different latent tendencies. Ruskin truly observes that every bright boy in Edinburgh is influenced by the sight of the Castle. So is the child of Dunfermline, by its noble Abbey. . . and there, too, is Pittencrieff Glen, embracing Queen Margaret’s shrine and the ruins of King Malcolm’s tower, with which the old ballad of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ begins:

The king sits in Dunfermline tower
Drinking the bluid red wine.

The odd fact is that the ballad does not begin that way. Through, perhaps, a revealing distortion of memory this Jack-of-the-beanstalk substituted the word “tower” for the original: “The King sits in Dunfermline town.” Professor John C. Van Dyke, who assisted Carnegie in the writing of his memoirs, pointed out the error, but Carnegie was apparently adamant. The only recourse left the ghost-writing professor was a footnote: “The Percy Reliques and The Oxford Book of Ballads gives ‘town’ instead of ‘tower’ but, Mr. Carnegie insisted it should be ‘tower.’”

“The talismanic letters on the Abbey tower — ‘King Robert the Bruce.’” Photo credit:

Call it a Freudian slip, if you will, but what Carnegie remembered most of his Scottish hometown was its tower, abbey, and glen. Even during his first 14 years in America, this Jack would dream daily of his air castle: “Few days passed in which I did not see in my mind’s eye the talismanic letters on the Abbey tower — ‘King Robert the Bruce.’ All my recollections of childhood, all I knew of fairyland clustered around the old Abbey.”

Like Jack’s fairyland that lies at the top of the beanstalk, the tower and the Abbey may have seemed all the more tantalizing because they were out of reach. Carnegie’s relatives had led a rebellion to have the grounds turned over to the town, and this led to a lawsuit against their aristocratic owner. In return the Laird had ordered that no member of the Carnegie family was to be be allowed entrance to the grounds. Looking back at his youth Carnegie recalled how he would peer over the walls at this paradise and fondly stare up at its tower.

This is the inaccessible fairyland of which Carnegie would daily dream between the ages of 13 and 27. Such single-mindedness was certain to have its effect. Carnegie would find towers everywhere he looked, and he required of America only that it supply the ladders, the beanstalks, by which he could ascend and finally be admitted to his air castle. The conclusion of his Own Story for Boys and Girls makes clear that while he climbed many others, Carnegie counted his greatest success the day he scaled Dunfermline’s tower.

Three Trips Up the Beanstalk

In his analysis of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Bettleheim notes that there is a significance to the three things Jack brings back from his trips up the beanstalk.

  • First, he brings back a bag filled with gold, and this is satisfying for a time.
  • On his second trip, Jack brings back a goose that lays golden eggs; and Bettleheim points out that this is even better than the bag of gold because it provides a regular and more dependable means of satisfying physical needs.
  • Finally, Jack brings back the golden harp because of “the wish to find something better than material goods”; the harp “symbolizes beauty, art, the higher things in life.”(5)
  • Carnegie followed this same sequence. Before his philanthropy, Carnegie’s life divided into three stages: he was a wage-earner, then a capitalist, then a gentleman interested in the arts. When he first arrived in America he worked as a bobbin boy, but when he took a job at a telegraph office, Carnegie felt a distinct improvement: “I felt my foot was on the ladder and I was bound to climb.” This young breadwinner looked forward to the day that finally arrived — when he could bring a bag of gold down the ladder and plop it on his family’s table.

He soon went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a job he found all the more interesting because it frequently required his traveling over the Allegheny Mountains by means of inclines. The position also made it possible to move out of the city and, like Jack, improve the lot of his widowed mother:

“Any accurate description of Pittsburgh at that time would be set down as a piece of the grossest exaggeration. The smoke permeated and penetrated everything, if you placed your hand on the balustrade of the stair it came away black; if you washed face and hands they were dirty as ever in an hour. The soot gathered in the hair and irritated the skin. . . . We soon began to consider how to get to the country. We moved there at once. . . . Many of the wealthy families of this district [Homewood] had their residences in this delightful suburb. It was, so to speak, the aristocratic quarter.”

Having won his bag of gold, Carnegie decided to return and confront Scotland. Feeling very much like a giant himself, he was puzzled by the way the city of his childhood now struck him. Dunfermline seemed to have shrunk, to have become “a city of Lilliputians . . . . Everything was in miniature . . . But one object remained all that I had dreamed of it. There was no disappointment in the glorious old Abbey and its Glen. It was big enough and grand enough, and the memorable carved letters on top of the tower — ’King Robert the Bruce’ filled my heart as of old.”

“Here’s the goose that lays golden eggs”

One trip up the beanstalk was not enough for Jack. A bag of gold was fine, but what he wanted was something more regular. And so, Carnegie changed from wage-earner to capitalist. He had learned the value of investment early in his life, he explained, when he received his first dividend check: “Eureka!’ I cried. ‘Here’s the goose that lays golden eggs.”

T he Lucy Furnace at the Carnegie Steel Duquesne Works. Photo credit:

Noting that “tall oaks from little acorns grow,” Carnegie invested his capital and founded the Keystone Bridge Company in 1863. It was “uphill work” for a few years, he reports, but after that it was “smooth sailing” and the Bridge Company became the Iron Works. With his furnaces laying golden eggs on a regular basis, Carnegie could afford a vacation and went again to confront Europe. The way he spent his time was revealing: “in all the enthusiasm of youth” he “climbed every spire, slept on mountain-tops,” and ended his journey at the top of that sulphurous furnace of Europe — ”upon Vesuvius.”

But golden eggs were not enough for jack. As Bettelheim notes, Jack began to long for the higher things in life and climbed the beanstalk once again for the harp that played itself. Europe seems to have had the same effect on Carnegie:

“This visit to Europe proved more instructive. Up to this time I had known nothing of painting or sculpture, but it was not long before I could classify the works of great painters. One may not at the time justly appreciate the advantages he is receiving from examining the great masterpieces, but upon his return to America he will find himself unconsciously rejecting what before seemed truly beautiful, and judging productions which come before him by a new standard. That which is truly great has so impressed itself upon him that what is false or pretentious proves no longer attractive.”

“a new ladder upon which to climb upward.”

Listening to Wagner’s Lohengrin in New York, Carnegie would discover the answer to the dissatisfaction he felt upon his return to America: “Here was genius, indeed, differing from all before, a new ladder upon which to climb upward.” A year after his European trip Carnegie would draft his strategy in that famous memorandum to himself discovered after his death:

St. Nicholas Hotel, New York
December, 1868
Thirty-three and an income of $50,000 per annum! By this time two years [sic] I can so arrange all my business as to secure at least $50,000 per annum. Beyond this never earn — make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever, except for others.
Settle in Oxford and get a thorough education, making the acquaintance of literary men — this will take three years’ active work — pay especial attention to speaking in public. Settle then in London and purchase a controlling interest in some newspaper or live review and give the general management of it attention, taking a part in public matters, especially those connected with education and improvement of the poorer classes.
Man must have an idol — the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry — no idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery. I will resign business at thirty-five, but during the ensuing two years I wish to spend the afternoons in receiving instruction and in reading systematically.

Chopping Down the Beanstalk and Giant

After he seized the harp, Jack descended the beanstalk and chopped it down. Carnegie did the same thing. He turned to philanthropy. Carnegie believed that every man should grow and climb his own beanstalk. He was a Social Darwinian. He felt that it was in Society’s interest that only the fittest made it to the top. And so he was opposed to inherited wealth and spoke often of “the advantages of poverty.” Rather than have others depend on his wealth, he disposed of it.

But Carnegie did not simply give his money away. He became a philanthropist. He didn’t want to help just the poor but only those who would help themselves. He gave away seeds, the makings of ladders, so that individuals might climb as he did. The inscription on the first library he gave to the public speaks of “the precious treasures of knowledge and imagination through which youth may ascend.” The money he gave to Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes was meant to “promote the elevation of the colored races we formerly kept in slavery.”

But what of the giant Jack slayed? Carnegie said his boyhood dream was “to grow up and kill a king.”(6) Where, then, was the king for this Jack to slay? Certainly not in America. Carnegie found in America everything he required of a country — no royal family, no aristocracy, no established church. He even found in Lincoln a president without kingly airs, with no notion of Carnegie’s sense of altitudes; when they met, what impressed Carnegie was that Lincoln’s “attentions were not graduated. They were the same to all, as deferential in talking to the messenger boy as to Secretary Seward.”

Where, then, were the kings for this Jack to slay? the giants to be brought down? Carnegie traveled to Europe and did what he could to meddle in politics. He not only preached The Gospel of Wealth but, in the words of the title of another of his books, he argued for Triumphant Democracy. He tried, for example, to ally himself with William Gladstone to create a British Republic by toppling the House of Lords and abolishing the monarchy. When he was not successful, he turned in his later years to his last anarchistic gesture — buying away the castles of noblemen.

It was in this way that Carnegie came to own that Scottish castle in the air he always dreamed of and that tower he had spent his life climbing. Remembering his childhood, he would reveal the personal importance of his purchase of the abbey, tower, and glen of his birthplace:

“It had always meant paradise to the child of Dunfermline. It certainly did to me. When I heard of paradise, I translated the word into Pittencrieff. . . Its Laird was to us children the embodiment of rank and wealth . . In all my childhood’s — yes and in my early manhood’s — air-castle building (which was not small), nothing comparable in grandeur approach Pittencrieff.”

But stranger than his ability to buy paradise, was the fact that this purchase made Carnegie, the king-slayer, a member of the nobility. Even in his Own Story for Boys and Girls Carnegie can scarcely contain himself when telling how he received word of his purchase in a telegram that began “Hail, Laird of Pittencrieff . I was the happy possessor of the grandest title on earth in my estimation. The king — well, he was only the King. He didn’t own King Malcolm’s Tower or St. Margaret’s shrine, nor Pittencrieff Glen. Not he, poor man. I did.”

It may have been this strange inconsistency in an avowed king-slayer which led Mark Twain to say of Carnegie: “He thinks he is a scorner of kings and emperors and dukes, whereas he is like the rest of the human race: a slight attention from one of these makes him drunk for a week and keeps his tongue wagging for years.”(7) Nonetheless, Carnegie held on to the belief that he was a king-slayer and a Jack that had toppled a giant. The proof he offered was that he had taken Pittencrieff Glen from the nobility and made it into a public park. He called this “the most soul satisfying gift I ever made.”

Jack’s toppling of the giant had been an act of revenge since the giant had stolen the bag of gold, the egg-laying goose, and the self-playing harp from Jack’s father. Carnegie saw his purchase in the same way. “It is poetic justice,” he wrote, that a son of that family which had not been allowed to enter Pittencrieff “should arise and dispossess the lairds, should become the agent for conveying the Glen and Park to the people of Dunfermline forever.”

With this act the story of Andy and the Beanstalk, Andrew Carnegie’sOwn Story for Boys and Girls, ends. But Carnegie says it better: “It is a true romance, which no air-castle can quite equal or fiction conceive. The hand of destiny seems to hover over it, and I hear something whispering: ‘Not altogether in vain have you lived — not altogether in vain.’ This is the crowning mercy of my career! Truly the whirligig of time brings in some strange revenges.”

  1. Bettelheim, B. The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Random House, 1976).
    2. See Hilman, James “A Note on Story” in Children’s Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), Vol. 3, pp. 9–11.
    3. Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1920) comprises a series of chapters from The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie“ condensed and edited for younger readers by Eva March Tappan, Ph.D.”
    4. Like other fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk” was originally a story handed down in the oral tradition. In this essay, I depend upon the traditional version of the tale essentially told in Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales.
    5. Bettleheim, p. 191.
    6. See Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays, ed. Edward C. Kirkland (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1965), xiii.
    7. Mark Twain in Eruption, ed. Bernard de Voto (New York, 1940), p. 42; cited in Robert Green McCloskey’s American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865–1910 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 137.

This essay originally appeared in Children’s Literature in Education, 13, 4 (Winter 1982) (available with subscription.

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Snugness in “The Secret Garden”

A robin in its nest

I am engaged in a book-length study of pleasures particular to childhood. To explain what I mean, I often point to the joy children get from playing under tables or behind couches or in tents made of chairs and blankets. I know few adults who enjoy playing under tables.

That particular example has led me to explore, among others, the topic or poetics of snugness in Children’s Literature. I should also add that my studies began shortly after September 11 when I was haunted by stories my daughter, a schoolteacher, told about her first graders’ drawings after that event: What those pictures seem to indicate was a deep concern with vulnerability. So, in an essay (“Reading Differently After September 11”) for an Irish journal, I explored “vulnerability” as an opposite of snugness or coziness.

While I mean to examine here a very small passage in The Secret Garden in relation to all this, and by way of preamble, let me give you a rather quick summary of some of the various ways this issue of snugness appears in Children’s Literature.

Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren for “Heidi” (Houghton Mifflin, 1923).

One of the real great example of snugness occurs in The Wind in the Willows when Mole, after having been lost and snowbound in the Wild Woods, finally finds his way to Badger’s cozy, underground abode. The vision Kenneth Grahame gives us of Badger’s welcoming kitchen, the merry fire that greets the shivering Mole, that simple but welcoming place with its baskets of eggs and smiling plates–all these suggest the very picture of the snug abode and how snugness is a kind of friendly patina laid down on top of brute objects, how snugness is a spiritualization of feelings added to a place.

Felicitous space is often enclosed and protected; sounding very much like Robinson Crusoe talking about his stockade, Badger says of his underground home: “Nothing can happen to you, and nothing can get at you. You’re entirely your own master.” You might also think, in this regard, of the familiar childhood drawing of the “happy house”: a squat home very much rooted in the world, with eye-like windows, a welcoming door, and a chimney with smoke pouring out to indicate it is inhabited; and, of course, the sun happily shining on all of this.

There are, of course, certain times of year and day that are more conducive to evocations of snugness. Winter, especially after snow has fallen, and Christmastime are special in this regard; consider, for example, the tableau of the family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, all gathered together around the fire when father returns at Christmas; or Clement Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” when “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, / While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads.” And as for time of day, the moment for nesting is when sleep comes; here the great tableau may be in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi when grandfather, both when Heidi first arrives and when she returns from Frankfurt, steals up the ladder to look at the slumbering child in the nest she has made for herself from hay in the attic. To be brief: a snug place is a place where one can sleep peacefully.

Of course, as I have suggested, the opposite of snugness is vulnerability: they are a pair. So, Peter Rabbit’s return to his mother at the base of the fir tree is all the more welcome because of the precariousness of his time with Mr. McGregor; and Mole especially prizes Badger’s underground retreat, or his own Dulce Domum, after his anxiety in the Wild Woods. But perhaps the sense of vulnerability in the immensity of space is most acute in Little House on the Prairie where Laura Ingalls feels ill at ease: “All around them there was nothing but grassy prairie spreading to the edge of the sky,” she writes, “The land and sky seemed to large, and Laura felt small.” Laura feels that way at least until the house is built.

Illustration by Inga Moore for “The Secret Garden” (Walker Books, 2007).

All this by way of preamble, then. We turn now to the question of how anxiety might be allayed. How can confidence and security, well being and trust, be created and enclosed?

In this regard, I think we can view snugness as a retreat, but as an active retreat–a withdrawal associated with a sense of renewal rather than with torpor or defeat. In the safe anchorage of the snug place, calmness and confidence is restored and well being enclosed. And from this safe center–like the swallow that builds its nest, as it were, from the inside out, from mud and its own saliva — these feelings of well being can expand out into the universe. You might think, in this regard, of Erik Erikson’s first principle: the notion of Basic (or existential) Trust.

In the Sufi tradition, as passed along by Idries Shah, there is a story of a student who wishes for enlightenment and approaches a teacher who is resting in a courtyard. When the student asks to be instructed, the teacher tells this seeker that he will not give him any instructions until that time when the student can enter a courtyard and not cause the birds to fly away, as they just did. For twenty years, the story goes, the student did whatever was necessary to change so that when he entered a courtyard the birds didn’t fly away. At the end of the twenty years, Shah notes, the student no longer had any need for a teacher.

This presents an interesting question. What would a person need to change or do so that when one enters a place, the birds don’t fly away? Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden tells such a story, about such a transformation, and about creating the conditions where others feel comfortable and snug in their places.

Echoed in “The Secret Garden,” “My Robin” (1912) is a short account (approximately 17 pages) of the Burnett’s fascination with English robins and her friendship with one particular one. It is available on Amazon and Project Gutenberg.

In the beginning of the book, Mary and Colin are irritable, contrary, colicky children. But under the tutelage and example of Dickon, a rural boy amongst whom all the animals of the Yorkshire moors feel at ease, Mary and Colin change and their instability is replaced with a calmness that allows others to feel secure. This is most evident in a scene where Burnett tells how the three children share the space of the Secret Garden with a nesting robin and his mate:

In the robin’s nest there were Eggs and the robin’s mate sat upon them keeping them warm with her feathery little breast and careful wings. At first she was very nervous and the robin himself was indignantly watchful. Even Dickon did not go near the close-grown corner in those days, but waited until by the quiet working of some mysterious spell he seemed to have conveyed to the soul of the little pair that in the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves — nothing which did not understand the wonderfulness of what was happening to them — the immense, tender, terrible, heart-breaking beauty and solemnity of Eggs. If there had been one person in that garden who had not known through all his or her innermost being that if an Egg were taken away or hurt the whole world would whirl round and crash through space and come to an end — if there had been even one who did not feel it and act accordingly there could have been no happiness even in that golden springtime air. But they all knew it and felt it and the robin and his mate knew they knew it.

At first the robin watched Mary and Colin with sharp anxiety. For some mysterious reason he knew he need not watch Dickon. The first moment he set his dew-bright black eye on Dickon he knew he was not a stranger but a sort of robin without beak or feathers. He could speak robin. . . . His movements also were robin. They never startled one by being sudden enough to seem dangerous or threatening. Any robin could understand Dickon, so his presence was not even disturbing.

The robin feels less trusting, however, about the other children, about Mary and Colin, especially since the latter comes to the garden in his wheelchair and moves awkwardly until he learns to walk. But that discomfort eventually disappears as well:

At the outset it seemed necessary to be on guard against the other two. In the first place the boy creature did not come into the garden on his legs. He was pushed in on a thing with wheels. . . . That in itself was doubtful. Then when he began to stand up and move about, he did it in a queer unaccustomed way and the others seemed to have to help him. The robin used to secrete himself in a bush and watch this anxiously, his head tilted first on one side and then on the other. He thought that the slow movements might mean that he was preparing to pounce, as cats do. . . . When the boy began to walk by himself and even to move more quickly it was an immense relief. . . .[and] the nest in the corner was brooded over by a great peace and content.

Since we have been discussing snugness in Children’s Literature by means of a kind of photo album of images, this image of the robin snug in its nest may be the best one with which to end. Instead of a world where Burnett’s robin fears the cat is about to pounce, it is a trustworthy universe of “great peace and contentment.” Instead of a garden where Peter Rabbit trembles because of Mr. McGregor, or a snowbound woods where Mole crouches in fear, or a vast prairie where Laura feels dwarfed and vulnerable, it is a cozy hole where Peter is snug in his own bed and Badger’s underground abode where Mole can finally relax, and grandfather’s attic where Heidi slumbers. The image in The Secret Garden of the robin in its nest — absent of fear and full of trust–presents a strong picture of the conditions of snugness. Moreover, as with the Sufi story of the teacher and the student and the courtyard full of birds, it also suggests what must done to give rise to such ease in others.

This essay originally appeared in “In the Garden: Essays in Honor of Frances Hodgson Burnett,” ed. Angelica Shirley Carpenter (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006). I devote a chapter to the topic of snugness in my book “Feeling Like a Kid.”

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Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

Children’s books that attach themselves to prior successes by Aldous Huxley, Charlie Russell, Diego Rivera, and Shaun Tan

The Crows of Pearblossom
By Aldous Huxley; illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Abram Books: $16.95 (hardcover)

Illustrator Sophie Blackall hitches her wagon to a story by a world famous author: Aldous Huxley, the British novelist perhaps best known for his dystopian classic “Brave New World.” Before the outbreak of World War II, Huxley relocated to California’s Mojave Desert where, in 1944, he presented his six-year-old niece Olivia with a children’s story. “The Crows of Pearblossom” relates how Mrs. Crow is troubled by an egg-gobbling rattlesnake who lives at the base of her tree and how her husband and Old Man Owl solve the problem by tricking the serpent. Out of print since it was first published in 1967, the story is now available again thanks to Sophie Blackall and her illustrations: vivid color drawings and amusingly conceived scenes that wonderfully shorten the distance between readers and her in-your-face subjects.

Charlie Russell: Tale-Telling Cowboy Artist
By Lois V. Harris
Pelican Publishing: $16.99 (hardcover)

In this book, Lois V. Harris hitches what I guess is her chuck wagon to the star of Charlie Russell. A cowboy artist, Russell is represented here by a sampling of his recognizable sketches of settlers, Indians, broncos, buffalos, and warriors. Harris attaches a biography to this museum catalog, telling of a young man who came to Montana and stayed. A near dead ringer for Will Rogers, the young Russell earned his keep in the saddle and sketched on the side, but by middle age his reputation for capturing Western Americana was such that he could mosey off the trail to set up a studio in Great Falls and marry. Of course, in accounting for my enthusiasm for this book, I should admit that I have already written about how I am a sucker for cowboy stories and how my grandfather was friends with Charlie Russell.

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books: $16.95 (hardcover)

For a long time, Latino children’s books seem to have been stuck in a cookie-cutter “folklorico” style. In “Diego Rivera,” Duncan Tonatiuh makes a departure by using well known figures by painter Diego Rivera (where personae from ancient Mayan and Aztec murals were reshaped by Rivera and his modernist sensibility) and then goes them one better by reshaping them once more into figures for children. In his second departure, Tonatiuh then takes scenarios from Rivera’s well known paintings and reimagines them in contemporary times: so, for example, Rivera’s early twentieth-century scene of four factory workers on a production line gets re-envisioned (in visually similar terms) as four kids at computer terminals in a school library. This is twice clever. As its title suggests, the book hitches its wagon to Rivera’s star and offers an homage to the famous Mexican muralist. But this offering goes one step further: It shows that Tonatiuh has brilliance enough to unhitch his wagon and go off on his own.

Lost and Found
By Shaun Tan
Scholastic: $21.99 (hardcover)

Shaun Tan is a genuine star, and I have previously praised his work. Since then, this young Australian artist has gone on to win an Academy Award (for Best Short Animated Film) and the Astrid Lindgren Award (sometimes called the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature). The wagon that was recently attached to his star is the book “Lost and Found,” a collection of three graphic novels published previously in Australia but not widely known here. Those who liked Tan’s “The Arrival” and “Tales from Outer Suburbia,” young adults and others keen on graphic novels, will love these.

“Lost and Found,” by Shaun Tan

The first, “The Red Tree,” seems an early experiment in Tan’s signature combination of magical realism and art nouveau. While not a picture book, it is still not quite a graphic novel since it lacks an overarching narrative. Instead, this seems a notebook of drawings or, as Tan himself describes them, meditations on a feeling–in this case, alienation and displacement. I am partial to one where a huge trout seems to menacingly float over a downtown.

On the other hand, “The Lost Thing,” the second in the series, does have a coherent narrative; in fact, this is the story that was made into Tan’s Academy-Award-Winning animated short (see below) . It is an account of an “objet trouvé” [a found object], a creature that might have been imagined by Salvador Dali or Hieronymous Bosch, a kind of huge and living metal teapot with worm-like tentacles. Throughout the story, the curious thing is how no one seems to pay much attention to this conspicuous oddity–except for the young boy who takes it home.

John Marsden supplies the words to the final story, “The Rabbits,” which tells about the settling of Australia from the perspective of its indigenous peoples; in mythic language, we are told how the Rabbit People took over a continent already occupied by others. For this legend, Tan provides weird scifi and steampunk drawings that seem to show events as if unfolding before the baffled eyes of the bush people; at the same time, the exotic foreignness of the pictures universalizes this archetypal story of colonization. I’d say it’s my favorite of the three graphic novellas found in “Lost and Found.”

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H.M. Brock’s “Beauty and the Beast”

In 2012, Laughing Elephant Press republished H.M. Brock’s illustrated edition of “Beauty and the Beast.” Here is my Introduction to this curious & spectacular volume.

If a committee were to consider one story to be sent on a spaceship to outer space, one tale to represent our human activity of story-making, “Beauty and the Beast” would likely be on any short list. Found in cultures all over the globe, a story as old as India’s “Panchatantra” and the Greek myth of “Cupid and Psyche,” the enduring account of the animal husband seems ageless and immortal. At the same time, it is still a vital and living story–seen in our own time, for example, by changes rung upon the narrative by contemporary writers like Angela Carter and Tanith Lee and in movies like “Shrek” and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Both classic and au courant, “Beauty and the Beast” is like a melody in jazz composition: It inspired countless variations and still does. In most versions, a father inadvertently puts his daughter in a compromising position; to honor a promise he makes, she travels to a luxurious home and encounters a beast; after a period of acquaintance, she departs and breaks a taboo that puts the beast in jeopardy; but, finally, she returns and agrees to marry him, upon which he is transformed into a handsome man. That is the core story but it has been retold in a thousand different ways. To mention just one variable, depending upon the locale, the beast has been a snake (India, China), a pig (Turkey, Italy), a bear (Norway, Appalachia), a monkey (Japan, Philippines), a dog (England), a bull (Scotland, Jamaica), and a lizard (Indonesia).

In the version you have in this volume, the Beast is a lion. This is a variant that seems to combine the outlines of “Beauty and the Beast” with a folk tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm and known as “The Singing, Springing Lark.” In the latter story, the maiden asks for a lark instead of a rose, and the Beast is a lion who is promised the first thing the father encounters upon his return home which, alas, is his youngest daughter.

This version is illustrated by H. [Henry] M. [Matthew] Brock (1875–1960), a popular British artist who worked for magazines (e.g., “Punch”), illustrated books (e.g., Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”), fashioned posters (notably for opera companies), and created colored cards included in cigarette packs (of these, the most relevant is one of a curly-haired Little Lord Fauntleroy who seems to reappear in the conclusion of this book as the curly-haired chevalier who takes Beauty by the hand). Brock’s illustrated edition of this story was published in 1914. And in terms of the long history of pictorial versions of “Beauty and the Beast,”[1] that date would place Brock’s version about halfway between Walter Crane’s colorful Toy Book edition of the fairy tale (1875) and Jean Cocteau’s classic black-and-white film “La Belle et la Bête” (1946).

Brock’s “Beauty and the Beast” presents a kind of homage to Crane and his illustrations. Many of Brock’s scenes are staged in the same way Crane staged his; as with Crane, Brock pictures Beauty’s servants in a peculiar fashion (viz., as monkeys); even Brock’s furniture, with its curlicues and animal figures, seems borrowed from Crane’s warehouse. Throughout, however, Block plays his variations by substituting his own Beast (a regal and upright lion) for Crane’s protagonist (a noble but bristling boar).

But besides looking back to Crane, Brock’s illustrations also point forward.

Though Cocteau acknowledged how much the illustrations of Gustave Doré influenced the look of his film “La Belle et la Bête,” what has gone unacknowledged is the influence of Brock’s pictures on that cinematic classic. Take Brock’s first illustration as an example: the foregrounding of the horse, the peculiar caps of the women and the clothes of the father presage the importance of the horse Magnifique in Cocteau’s film as well as its Breton setting and costumes. Among the well remembered special effects in the film is one where arms, apparently unattached to bodies, hold candelabras or pour drinks for Beauty’s father as he sits down to dine; compare this with the disembodied hands ministering to Brock’s father when he sits at the table.

Indeed, as we look at the history of picturing “Beauty and the Beast”–not only in work by Crane and Cocteau, but by Eleanor Vere Boyle, Edmund Dulac, Gordon Browne, Jesse Wilcox Smith, Margaret Evans Price, Mercer Mayer, and others–it becomes clear that each illustrated edition is, itself, an interpretation of the tale. One artist sees the story in terms of Oriental erotics, another as a spirited defense of “difference,” another as an exploration of doubleness, and so forth. In that regard, Brock’s peculiar emphases — on enchanted servants (from monkey minions to disembodied hands to the numerous courtiers at the wedding) as well as the luxurious locks of his lion (in an uncanny anticipation of the permed hair of the Cowardly Lion in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz”) — invite special consideration.

As for the text, like its varied pictorial forms, “Beauty and the Beast” has been interpreted in multiple ways.[2] Psychologists see it as a daughter’s struggle with oedipal issues and a maiden’s gradual accommodation to otherness. Marxists find a confrontation between the impoverished merchant class and the landed gentry. Feminists note empowerment when the Beast concedes that everything depends upon Beauty’s decisions. As Pamela Travers said, “Fairy tales are like prisms in the window. They reflect many meanings.”

At this moment, then, you have in your hands such a gem-like prism. Here is a pictorial interpretation and story that offer the thoughtful reader not only pleasure but an occasion for extended discovery.

1. See Stephen Canham, “What Manner of Beast? Illustrations of ‘Beauty and the Beast’” in Image and Maker: An Annual Dedicated to the Consideration of Book Illustration, ed. Harold Darling and Peter Neumeyer (Green Tiger Press, 1984).

2. See Jerry Griswold, The Meanings of “Beauty & the Beast” (Broadview Press, 2004).

From “Beauty and the Beast,” illustrated by H.M. Brock. Introduction by Jerry Griswold. (Laughing Elephant, 2012). The whole book is interesting.

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“Audacious Kids”

A new edition of a classic study of American Children’s Literature

Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story.
By Jerry Griswold.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 368 pp.
Available from
Amazon or JHUP

Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Book is a new edition of what has become a standard study of American Children’s Literature. Published in 1992 by Oxford University Press and later in a paperback by Penguin Books, Audacious Kids was a prize-winning and trail-blazing work. In this revised edition from Johns Hopkins University Press, Jerry Griswold adds:

  • a discussion of the book’s reception
  • a comprehensive History of America’ Literature for the Young, from colonial times to genre-busting offerings of the present
  • and a Bibliography of some 100 essays and books that responded to the original Audacious Kids or to subjects raised in it

At its heart, Audacious Kids remains a discussion of a dozen childhood classics published during the “Golden Age” (1865–1914) — beloved favorites like Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz, and Little Women. And it offers remarkable proof that each book tells essentially the same story, a story intimately connected to this country’s political identity.

Here is what critics and reviewers have had to say about the book:

“Lucid and persuasively argued. Indeed he manages that difficult thing in writing about children’s literature: He manages to provide the reader with an interesting new intellectual angle on these books, without condescending to his material or diminishing its elusive and potent magic.”
 — New York Times

“Griswold’s analysis helps us appreciate that this country’s children’s literature is not marginal but squarely within our central literary tradition.”
 — Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Griswold’s analysis is coherent and persuasive.”
-Kirkus Reviews

“This is an impressive book. . . . The achievement of Audacious Kids is major. . . . It is not often that a scholarly book is so entertaining. The writing is articulate, the style lively.”
 — The Library Quarterly

“Griswold is successful in making the case for serious consideration of America’s children’s classics.”
 — Southern Review

“An insightful blend of literary and social history that ends with an interesting political perspective: these stories . . . are symbolic of our nation’s fight for independence and struggle toward maturity.”
 — Booklist

“One of the most exciting books of the year . . . . It challenges accepted thinking and is extremely readable, likely to appeal not only to scholars but also to those with nostalgic memories of Little Women and The Wizard of Oz .”
 — Signal

“This engaging book will quickly become an essential authority for students of children’s literature and should reach a wide audience among librarians, parents, and scholars of American literature.”
 — Choice

“This study by Jerry Griswold is boldly audacious, compelling, and convincing in its argument. Griswold defines ‘The Golden Age of Children’s Books’ as the period between the Civil War and World War I . . . [and] finds a pattern that threads its way through the children’s books of this period. . . . Griswold amasses persuasive evidence from a number of disciplines . . . [in a] sophisticated analysis of twelve novels: The Wizard of Oz, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Tarzan of the Apes, The Prince and the Pauper, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Toby Tyler, Hans Brinker, The Secret Garden, and Pollyanna. . . . The interpretations of each book are lively, original, and persuasive. . . . This book is felicitously written and provocatively argued, truly a significant contribution to the study of American literature and culture.”
 — American Historical Review

“In addition to dealing with American history, Audacious Kids includes literary and psychological interpretations of the books under consideration and biographical discussions of the books’ authors. In the hands of a less capable writer, such an eclectic approach could easily result in disjointed and uneven work, but Griswold, like Rumplestiltskin, pulls all of his strands together and spins them into gold.”
 — Journal of American History

“ Audacious Kids contributes a coherent new framework for the study of America’s formative literature, one certain to stimulate and enlighten both academic and general interest readers. An example of outstanding literary criticism, Griswold’s book illuminates the literature it analyzes and itself provides an example of lucid, pleasurable prose.”
 — Horn Book

“Griswold writes clearly, convincingly, and even entertainingly. This thoughtful union of the scholarly and the readable deserves a very wide audience.”
 — Library Journal

“The book’s virtues are clear argumentation and convincing analysis. The cultural and psychoanalytical criticism are well integrated and mutually illuminating, buttressed by relevant information about the personal histories, composing habits, and general mindsets of the authors discussed.”
 — American Literature

“An intriguing analysis of the dynamics of a dozen classic works published during the Golden Age of American Children’s Books (1865–1914).”
 — Nineteenth-Century Literature

“Griswold’s book is impressive in its close, productive readings of each of the novels and for the picture he paints of the relationship between literature and society. . . . Audacious Kids grants to children’s literature an important place on the literary and cultural scene.”
 — History of Education Quarterly

“In a time of unprecedented and often impenetrable critical discourse, this book is deliberately jargon free and accessible . . . to both scholarly and general audiences. It is written with clarity and humor, with inventive energy and an agile, synthesizing intelligence. . . . Audacious Kids begins a long-awaited, collective consideration of these key works of national literature.”
 — Children’s Literature

“The real audience remains those like me who love children’s books, appreciate critics who understand them, and delight in reading well-crafted and thoughtful essays about them.”
 — Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac”

Audacious Kids, by Jerry Griswold, is a compelling study of twelve classic children’s books from the Golden Age of American children’s literature (1865–1914). The book first appeared in 1992 and was published later in 1996 as The Classic American Children’s Story: Novels of the Golden Age. In addition to being praised by a wide audience including scholars, teachers, critics, students, as well as general readers, Audacious Kids was recognised as a landmark in children’s literature and childhood studies when the Children’s Literature Association honored the book as an outstanding contribution to children’s literature scholarship and criticism in 1992. Over the course of twenty-two years, from the first publication in 1992 to the revised edition in 2014, Audacious Kids has been acclaimed nationally and internationally and has found a permanent place in scholarship on American children’s literature.”
 — International Research Society for Children’s Literature

“Griswold’s enthusiasm for these novels is abundantly clear and is . . . the book’s most appealing feature.”
 — Children’s Literature Association Quarterly

“This is an excellent book.”
-Book Report

Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story.
By Jerry Griswold.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 368 pp.
Available from
Amazon or JHUP

“Suddenly sailboats began to appear all around him.”

Read an hilarious account by Meg Mardian of the book launch at Warwick’s in La Jolla, California, by clicking here.

Children’s Books Into Films

Four children’s films that will make a splash in 2009 and information about the stories they are based on

Read the book, then see the film — to my way of thinking, that’s the ideal sequence. Here are the four children’s films that I believe will make a splash in 2009 and — for those who want to read the book first — information about the stories they are based on.

Release date: February 6, 2009
Distributed by: Focus Films

By Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean
HarperFestival: $6.99 (Paperback)

This animated movie (stop-motion 3D) has already been released and become a favorite of mine. Not surprisingly, it recalls The Nightmare Before Christmas — a film on which the director of Coraline (Henry Selick) worked with Tim Burton. It also reminds me of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth because while I like the high-flown fantasy, I am not sure I completely understand it. Based on Neil Gaiman’s book by the same title, the story concerns a plucky little girl named Coraline (rhymes with “Madeline”) who travels to a parallel world and encounters the Other Mother, a nicer and Freudian alternative to Coraline’s real mother (although she does sport black buttons for eyes). Gaiman, by the way, recently won the Newbery Award for his The Graveyard Book and Neil Jordan is currently making that into a film.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Release date: July 17, 2009
Distributed by:
Warner Brothers

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
By J.K. Rowling
Illustrated by Mary GrandPré
Scholastic: $10.39 (Paperback)

David Yates directs this next installment in the legend. The cast includes many familiar faces: Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), Alan Rickman (Snape), as well as others. Book 6 is where Harry develops an interest in the opposite sex and once again faces his nemesis Voldemort on the school grounds at Hogwarts.

Where the Wild Things Are
Release date: October 16, 2009
Distributed by: Warner Brothers

Where the Wild Things Are
By Maurice Sendak
Harper Collins: $12.21 (Hardcover)

“Sassy kid amongst the monsters” might describe Coraline, but the earlier and more well known version of that story is the one featuring Max and the furry creatures in Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book. The challenge facing director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) is to create a movie not so frightening that kids run out of the theater but not so lightweight that the monsters seem like Jim Henson’s loveable muppets. Rather than head in the gothic direction of Coraline, the forthcoming film is said to be more in the eerie mood of The Neverending Story.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Release date: November 6, 2009
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
By Roald Dahl; illustrated by Quentin Blake
Puffin: $5.99 (Paperback)

In a sort of twisted version of Wind in the Willows, Roald Dahl’s short chapter book tells the story of a fox family and other subterranean creatures (badgers, weasels, rabbits) beset by three smarmy farmers intent on destroying them. The humans lose. Humans, however, provide voices for all the characters in the film: among them, George Clooney (Mr. Fox), Meryl Streep (Mrs. Fox), and Bill Murray (Mr. Badger). Another stop-action animated work, this movie was begun by directors Henry Selick and Wes Anderson until the production company went bankrupt. Selick then left to take on Coraline, and Anderson eventually sold and completed the film for — and this is almost too appropriate! — 20th Century Fox.

Let me add that two interesting films are slated to appear in 2010. Tim Burton will offer a new Alice in Wonderland (featuring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter); it is scheduled for release on March 19, 2010. And Guillermo Del Toro is at work on a new, stop-motion version of Pinocchio; no release date is available. Both Burton and Del Toro have expressed disappointment with the earlier Disney versions of these stories and, not surprisingly, have promised darker versions. You might get cracking on reading those books as well.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
By Lewis Carroll; Illustrated by John Tenniel
Penguin: $9.00 (Paperback)

By Carlo Collodi; Illustrated by Gioia Flammenghi
Penguin: $4.99 (Paperback)

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice in 2009. Now, after the fact, I can say: I liked “Coraline” a lot but I was disappointed with Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (as I say in another essay). I don’t remember “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” at all. “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” was clever but Burton’s “Alice” was less so (as I note elsewhere). Finally, we’re still waiting on Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pinocchio.”

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Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”

The selflessness of mercy (from the journal Children’s Literature)

Illustration by C.A. Robinson.

In an issue of Ladies’ Home Journal (October 1973), Bruno Bettelheim suggested that the virtue of children’s literature lies in the lessons it teaches about sacrifice. Bettelheim endorses Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Cinderella” because these tales advocate the repression of impulsive desires and show a child that pragmatic intelligence can plan for compensatory rewards. A clear understanding of the idea of sacrifice as a kind of self-discipline that provides for future rewards is essential to a critical reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” because the tale deliberately advocates mercy as an alternative to sacrifice. The compassion of the characters of the story radically juxtaposes the selflessness of mercy against the kind of utilitarianism that Bettelheim subscribes to where every sacrifice wins some personal benefit. In one sense, Wilde’s tale is an elucidation of Christ’s most frequent comment to the Pharisees: “Go learn the meaning of the words — What I want is mercy, not sacrifice“; and the similarities between the Happy Prince and Christ, we shall see, are abundant and specific.

Wilde’s theme of “mercy, not sacrifice” appears at several levels in the story and we can see it best if we divide the characters into three groups. The townspeople from the opening of the tale to its conclusion remain unchanged and reveal the shortcomings of the idea of sacrifice. The Swallow occupies the center of attention of the story and his metamorphosis seems to represent most clearly the transition from sacrifice to mercy that Wilde advocates. The Happy Prince himself, though he has undergone a change of heart before the story opens, remains throughout the tale an unchanged exemplar of the lesson and value of mercy.

I. The Townspeople

Sacrifice, as Bettelheim noted, is the pragmatic conclusion of common sense. It has two fundamental elements: repression (of impulsive desires for immediate pleasure) and compensation (the reward promised for this kind of behavior). These two elements are most clearly associated with the townspeople throughout the story. In many ways the poignant symbolism of “The Happy Prince” escapes them, and they stare as dumbly at the statue in the end of the tale as they did at its beginning.

As the tale opens the statue of the Happy Prince is for the Town’s adults, most clearly a symbol of repression. When he sees the statue, the Town Councilor, for example, experiences a delight which he feels is immoderate for a man like himself who must be concerned with the pragmatic, and so represses that delight rather than appear unpractical to others. A mother whose child is crying uses the statue for a remonstration since “The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.” And for the disappointed man the statue is an occasion for speech full of the secret misery and falseness that comes from repression and envy: “I am glad there is someone in the world who is quite happy.”

Only for the Charity Children is the statue a symbol, not of eliminative repression, but of inclusive identification: it reminds them of the angels they have seen in their dreams. Their visionary innocence is far different from the stern repression required of them by the Mathematical Master who, like Blake’s Beadle in Songs of Experience, has charge over them.

This difference in vision at the tale’s opening is not unlike that at its close where the question is not one of repression but compensation. After the Happy Prince has given away all his gold leaf and jewels and the Swallow’s corpse lies at the statue’s feet consumed by their tireless exercises in mercy, the statue itself is naked and shabby. “In fact,” the townspeople observe, “he is little better than a beggar.”

The compensation the Happy Prince and the Swallow deserve is far different from what they receive at the hands of the townspeople. The Art Professor, by a pragmatic aesthetic, concludes: “As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful.” The Town Corporation, agreeing, discusses new uses for the metal. The townspeople are blind to the lesson of selflessness and instead argue selfishly about which of them will be portrayed in the next statue.

The true compensation that the Prince and the Swallow deserve is seen by God and his angels, who see as clearly as the Charity Children. This compensation, however, is not a reward that has been planned for by the Prince and the Swallow as if all their actions had an eye on the future and were pragmatic sacrifices; instead, the recognition by God and the Angels seems gratuitous (since unasked for), the gift of divine mercy.

In fact, the idea that selfishness is attached to sacrifice and selflessness to mercy is illustrated throughout the tale in the lives of the townspeople. The small sacrifices of the palace girl who waits for the seamstress to finish her dress for the ball show a girl who thinks of the world in terms of utility, and her impatience is shown to be selfishness. On the other hand, the seamstress’ care for her sick son at her own expense is a commendable act of mercy. The Professor of Ornithology who pompously writes what is accessible only to a few can be compared with the playwright who writes for all but without the deserts of compensation that the Professor undeservingly receives. The abstemiousness of old Jews who count their coins in the Ghetto shows selfish repression by way of a Semitic stereotype that is far different from the selfless actions of the matchgirl who earns money for her tyrannical father.

Above all, it is through the unmerciful righteousness of the good burghers and townspeople that Wilde spells out quite clearly his rejection of sacrifice and his endorsement of mercy. Their righteousness is the vain result of lives where pragmatic sacrifices have played a great part both by ways of self-repression and by way of undeserved compensation that has been confused with moral worth. The result is that the rich make merry at the expense of the beggars and the Watchman scolds the two hungry boys of the tale as if poverty and reprobation were the same.

II. The Swallow

This same note of righteousness and practicality is found in the Swallow at the beginning of the tale, but it modulates as the Swallow undergoes a metamorphosis through the lessons of mercy he receives from the Happy Prince. His attachment to the Reed, for example, was selfishly imperious: “Shall I love you?” he has asked her. His friends have counseled that love for a Reed would be impractical, since he loves to travel, and the Swallow agrees, somewhat proud of his ability to sacrifice her, never thinking of sacrificing his desire for travel. His criticisms of the town (“I hope [it] has made preparations” for my stay) and the statue of the Happy Prince (“What is the use of a statue if it cannot keep the rain off?”) repeat the selfish pragmatic considerations shown in the townspeople.

The minor sacrifices the Swallow has to make in the “dreadful” Northern European clime of the town, however, will be abundantly repaid in the fantastical compensations he expects to find in Egypt. Europe and Egypt are wholly different places: one the land of dreary Puritanical sacrifices and repression of immediate pleasures and the other a fairy tale realm of jewels, lotuses, mythical kings, scented heavens — in short, the compensatory world of unalloyed pleasure so often insinuated and promised, as Bettelheim has observed, in children’s literature.

Each time the Happy Prince asks the Swallow to delay his migratory trip just a day longer to perform some small task, the Swallow must choose between the fabulous Egypt of compensation or another day of sacrifice in the repressive clime of Europe. Each time he reluctantly concedes one more day: to take the ruby from the Statue’s sword to the seamstress with the sick son, to take one of the sapphire eyes to the starving playwright, and finally to take the last sapphire to the matchgirl who has lost her matches.

The beginning of the Swallow’s metamorphosis can be marked after this series of trials from his decision to stay with the Happy Prince now that he is blind. Perched on the statue’s shoulder he tries to console the Happy Prince with tales of fabled Egypt as if it were a heavenly compensation the Prince could expect for his actions. The Prince listens politely to the stories of the Nile, red ibises and golden fish, the Sphinx, camels and merchants with amber beads, the ebony King of the Mountain of the moon who worships crystal, pygmies who war with butterflies, and more before he objects: “Dear little swallow, you tell me of marvelous things, but more marvelous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no mystery as great as Misery.” This substitution of the mystery of misery for the fantasies of compensation has, in a way, been prepared for in the Swallow’s discovery that the Happy Prince is not pure gold but alloyed gold and lead. The coincidence of happiness and misery is the mystery the Happy Prince shares with the Swallow. The Prince in effect asks him to see Egypt and Europe as one.

Sent on a mission over the city and experiencing this unific vision of the mystery, the Swallow now feels compassion instead of righteous repulsion for the beggars and children who are hungry. He returns to the Prince and they make a compact to strip the gold leaf off the statue which the Swallow will, not sacrificially and reluctantly, but freely and willingly give to the hungry. The approaching winter brings death for the migratory bird and the naked Prince, and the tableau of their dying creates the memorial to mercy that the townspeople judge unattractive.

Illustration by Walter Crane.

III. The Happy Prince

The townspeople never come to see beyond the sacrifice, and the Swallow only begins to understand that his separation of Europe and Egypt, of repression and compensation, must give way to the unifie mystery of misery and the gift of mercy. The Happy Prince, however, preaches for the duration of the story Christ’s message to the Pharisees: “Go and learn the meaning of the words — What I want is mercy, not sacrifice.” But it was not always so with him. In his account of his personal history and how he came by his name, the Prince tells the Swallow that as a child he used to live in the land of Sans Souci. It was a world not unlike the Swallow’s Egypt where infantile and absolute (if not autistic) pleasure was assured by a gardenwall boundary that excluded (as effectively as repression) whatever was painful. The Prince reports he was “happy” there “if,” he most pointedly adds, “pleasure is indeed happiness.” Now, in his second life as a statue, the Prince descries the misery and pain of the world in the alloyed mystery he speaks of to the Swallow.

If the fact that the Prince is “dead” to the land of Sans Souci (which implicitly and symbolically is maintained by repression) does not clearly imply that he is unconcerned with sacrifice, then his treatment of his jewels makes this fact far more obvious. Jewels have always been associated with those compensatory heavens of children’s literature and, more particularly in this tale, they play an important part in the Swallow’s Egypt: jade, beryls, amber, crystal, etc. The Prince’s merciful liberality with his jewels is not the result of a Puritanical asceticism but of commiseration for the poor, and not the result of pragmatic planning for compensation but of guileless selflessness.

There are a number of resemblances between the Prince and Christ which give the theme of “mercy, not sacrifice” a particularly religious ring: as a statue the Prince is a representative, he shows us the way to be happy, he is a “prince of peace,” he is twice-born, his death is a merciful gift to others. But perhaps less obvious is the Prince’s role as the “bread of life.” The gift of his jewels provides food for the seamstress and her son and for the playwright; and when the hungry children receive the statue’s gold leaf they pointedly rejoice: “We have bread now.” The Prince in effect says, “Take, eat, this is my body, which I have given up for you.”

In terms of this mythic interpretation the Swallow’s gift is a “partial” one. The Prince who surrenders his body to be eaten makes the “total” gift; the Swallow plays the role of an assistant, a disciple. His sacrifices are reluctant and the Prince must constantly ask him, “will you not stay with me for one night,” as Christ at Gethsemane asked his disciples to watch the night with him. Since the Swallow’s death is that of a disciple and is “partial” compared to the “total” gift of the body as food, he participates in the ritualistic eating of the Prince’s body only through partial and symbolic mitigation: he eats only bread.

The Prince’s sacrifice is total. He makes of himself not only a gift of food but a gift of fire. As the tale concludes he has been consumed by the hungry and his metal is consumed in a fire. And as he has been the gift of food for some, he has also been the loving gift of fire to others: to the unappreciated playwright who can afford no fire, to the unloved matchgirl who has lost her matches.

Pragmatic sacrifices depend upon repression and compensation. While Bettelheim is perfectly correct in his endorsement of children’s literature that teaches sacrifice as means of providing “armor” against adversities (as in “The Ant and The Grasshopper” or “The Three Little Pigs”) or insinuates the promised “jewels” of well-being to the ungrudging (in “Cinderella”) he fails to see that sacrifice produces the righteous “armor” of the townspeople and the selfish orientation of the Swallow’s Egyptian “jewels.” Mercy is selfless. The Prince surrenders both the “jewels” and the gold plate that constitute the “armor” of the self. He ceases to exist as “he” but through mercy exists everywhere, diffuse, as food for others.

This essay, one of my first, appeared in Volume 3 (1974) of the journal Children’s Literature (subscription needed). It was also translated into Italian and appears as “Sacrificio e pieta nel Principe felice di Wilde” in “La Grande Esclusa” di F. Butler e G. Niccolai (Milano: Emme Edizioni, 1978). Bettelheim’s remarks, which were excerpted in Ladies Home Journal, appear in his The Uses of Enchantment. Finally, I am embarrassed to say it only occurred to me a few years after this was published that what is echoed here–for example, in the prince growing up in the Land of San Souci–is the story of Buddha.

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U.S. Children’s Literature for Danish Eyes

“Angest” and “Hygge” (from Leksikon for Børnelitteratur)

To discuss in a few pages the history of American Children’s Literature, in the several hundred pages of this Danish Lexicon of Children’s Literature, is to engage in a task similar to miniaturization. If the distance from Denmark’s Skagen to the German border is about 500 kilometers (311 miles), the distance from, say, Chicago to the Mexican border is about 2500 kms. (1553 mis.). In an analogous way, given the volume of American literary works for the young, I can only offer a transistorized version of such a history here. Perhaps this can best be done by a suggestive pairing of stories.

Among the tales in the first great works of American Children’s Literature, Washington Irving’s A History of New York, by Dietrich Knickerbocker (1809) and his Sketch Book (1819–1820), is the story of Rip Van Winkle who falls asleep when the country was still a British colony and wakes up thirty years later to discover an entirely changed place now that the United States has come to exist. The first president of this new country was George Washington and his biography was presented in Parson Weems’ famous juvenile offering The Life of Washington the Great (1806) where, in a fit of patriotism, the young George is memorably shown chopping down an English cherry tree. Rebellion, of course, is the hallmark of postcolonial literature and stories for and about the rebellious young often appear in the nascent years of nations.

That same rebellious spirit can be found in America’s most famous boys’ book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), where Mark Twain (pen name for Samuel Clemens) tells of a “bad boy” who has all kinds of fun by skipping school, upsetting church services, and playing pranks on adults. While nowhere as mischievous, Jo March in America’s most famous girls’ book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), is also a rebellious heroine since she prefers to remain a tomboy and resists attempts to make her become a conventional woman.

Besides character, another great theme is geography since much of American history is an account of immigrant migrations and relocations. The best and most direct account of the pioneer experience appears in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935) which tells of the difficulties settlers faced and how they displaced the Indians or Native Americans. But even Frank Baum’s fantasy classic The Wizard of Oz (1900) might be seen as a pioneer book since the map of Oz is a transcendental version of the map of the U.S. and the book’s otherworldly locales (from a place troubled by prairie wolves to a California-like realm of sunshine and orange trees) have their regional counterparts.

Farther afield, in the Absolute Elsewhere or the mythic Dark Continent, is where Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1914) occurs and where a feral child climbs a Darwinian ladder of evolution in a world “red of tooth and claw.” A far more peaceful and pastoral world is presented in a Yorkshire arbor in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1914) where unloved children finally learn to feel snug and secure. While both books present a Green World, the difference in tone between the two is the difference between angest and hygge (anxiety and coziness).

That same tonal difference can be seen in two of America’s most favorite picture books. In The Cat in the Hat (1957), Dr. Seuss (pen name for Theodor Geisel) creates anxiety when a feline Mephistopheles visits two children while their mother is away and proceeds to wreck the house; the question is whether order can be restored before the mother’s return. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963) is America’s answer to Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter since, unlike Konrad, Sendak’s Max intimidates the monster counterparts of Hoffmann’s Scissor Man; indeed, after taming the Wild Things, Max tells the creatures what to do and plays with them–a movement towards domestication and coziness that inspired toy manufacturers to create Wild Thing dolls that children can curl up with in bed.

Angest and hygge may also explain the difference between two of America’s most impressive fantasies. Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child (1967) is an existential fable about the haunting quest for meaning by clockwork toys and animals, in a story that is part Jean Paul Sartre and part St. Exupery. On the other hand, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952) is a comforting pastoral tale about a pig and a spider in a warm barn full of companionable creatures and where we learn what is important is friendship.

To turn for a moment from literature to scholarship, my friend and mentor Francelia Butler launched in 1971 what was America’s first academic journal devoted to the literary study of Children’s Literature; originally titled The Great Excluded, the journal was eventually renamed Children’s Literature and was joined by other similar publications like The Lion and the Unicorn and Children’s Literature in Education. Around this time too, the Children’s Literature Association was formed and courses in literature for the young began to be offered not just in schools of education or library science, but in literature departments. Now some 200 American universities offer courses in the field.

With this widening acceptance of the legitimacy of the field has come a wide and growing body of scholarship, some of it especially devoted to American children’s literature. My own study Audacious Kids (2014) is devoted to well known novels that appeared in the Golden Age of American children’s books, 1865–1914. Taking in a larger period of time and far more books is Gillian Avery’s Behold the Child (1994).

Neither one of these books, however, reflects the current passion in critical circles to question the canon and devote attention to the way lists of popular and best-selling works (like the one offered here) can’t help but privilege majority views at the expense of minority voices. With that social concern has come a new attention to works and authors that emphasize racial and ethnic identity. Stories in this category often address issues of nativeness or belonging, and among the most notable would be Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins the Great (1974) where an African-American family that has resided for generations on an Ohio mountain is being driven off by a coal-mining company and the recent Esperanza Rising (2001) by Pam Munoz Ryan which tells of a Latino family’s difficulties in resettling in California after having been driven out of Mexico by a greedy landlord.

Related to these are works that challenge conservative views that a family should only look one way. In his fantasy The Animal Family (1965), Randall Jarrell shows an adoptive family composed of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy. In her punk novel Weetzie Bat (1989), Francesca Lia Block shows a constructed family composed of Weetzie and her Secret Agent Man, the gay couple Dirk and Duck, infants Cherokee and Witch Baby, as well as their Chinese and Jamaican godparents Ping-Chong and Jah-Love.

Related to these inclusive endeavors have also been works by feminist authors to create strong female characters. And following upon these have been contemporary works that address the immigrant experience and the situation of “hyphenated” Americans. While U.S. currency is printed with the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many one) and history books speak of America as a “melting pot,” many have come to believe that a better metaphor for this country’s culture and heritage is that of a mosaic — composed, for example, of Asian-Americans (Chinese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, et al.) as well European Americans (Irish-Americans, Danish-Americans, et al.). This list is by no means exhaustive.

This essay is by no means exhaustive. Given its length, this essay has not addressed many subjects–among them, poetry and theater for children, the “y.a.” (young adult) or adolescent novel, Disney and films for children. That’s how it must be. In a fashion, Shakespeare’s famous Dane speaks about this problem when Hamlet says to his friend:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Originally appeared as “USA” in “Leksikon for Børnelitteratur,” eds. Kari Sønsthagen & Torben Weinreich. Copenhagen, Denmark : Branner og Korch, 2003. For a related essay, see: “12 Representative U.S. Children’s Books (for Irish eyes).”

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When Insentient Things Can Talk

A memorable example from “Bambi”

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In New England, in autumn, there’s a time of year known as the “Peak” — the moment when the most trees have reached their maximum in terms of fall’s dazzling foliage colors. It’s something like the very exact center of autumn. On the evening news, television weather specialists report the daily movement of Peak from northern to southern states. I should add, however, that the trees themselves don’t seem to pay attention to these bulletins. But what if they did?

Read the following selection from Felix Salten’s Bambi and find out. “Felix Salten,” incidentally, was the nom de plume of the Austrian author Siegmund Salzmann (1869–1945) and his Bambi is considerably darker and more profound than the animated feature made from the book by Disney Studios.

In his Foreword for the English translation of Bambi, the famous British novelist John Galsworthy insisted, “I do not, as a rule, like the method which places human words in the mouths of dumb creatures.” But Galsworthy continues, Salten’s novel is the Great Exception and “very moving” and “a little masterpiece.” Even so, we might go Galsworthy one better and say that, as a rule, putting human words in the mouths of deer and rabbits and other creatures is one thing, but even more dubious is the method of putting human words in the “mouths” of insentient things — like rocks, and trees, and leaves. If we are to grant Salten an exception to do this rule, then his work needs be extraordinary.

It is.

By his putting words in the mouths of leaves, we learn — remarkable as it seems — nothing less than what it is to be human. And this is said with such simplicity, such brevity, such understatement and force, that encountering this piece of literature is like encountering the humble and fundamental and inherited wisdom of a life lived and put down in the kernel of a folktale or fable.

In New England, there are really three autumns. There is the Fall-that-is-no-longer-summer, which is a kind of invention when the season itself is painted and slightly distorted by memory and human feelings of nostalgia and loss. Then there is the Fall-that-will-soon-be winter which is another kind of invention and distortion when anticipation and human anxiety skew the season in another way. Finally, there is the Fall itself, the ding an sich (the thing itself), just the season all by itself when it not muddied over by human sentiments of regret or dread — a season not of summer’s absence or winter’s approach, but the thing itself: a time of pumpkins, the thud of a football being kicked, the sound of leaves underfoot.

You’ll find this all when Salten’s leaves talk like humans. They talk, as we do, of the Now in light of Then when things are gone. They wonder whether the Now is a prelude to . . . well, just what kind of Future? They even encounter the Now by itself. And they also wonder, “Why? How? What? When?”

There are writers, I’m told, who’ve cataloged typical reactions to announcements of death and argue that such news is greeted in stages: refusal to accept the truth, bargaining, etc. I don’t know much about that. But I can say that in Salten’s brief tale you find the entire catalog.

You encounter that kind of weltschmerz or fundamental sadness which lies underneath the personal tales of Hans Christian Andersen, especially “The Fir Tree.” You encounter the limbo and puzzled patience of the characters who bide their time in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Toward the end, you even encounter the kindness and acceptance and resignation of the loving old couple who appear in a myth like “Philemon and Baucis” or in a film like “On Golden Pond.”

There is wisdom here, but not of the direct kind when children and adults are preached at. Here is a wisdom not of the bullhorn but of the trees. And the leaves say something not just about death, but about how we humans respond when, moment by moment, we encounter a life that changes.

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From Bambi, chapter VIII

The leaves were falling from the great oak at the meadow’s edge. They were falling from the trees.

One branch of the oak reached high above the others and stretched far out over the meadow. Two leaves clung to its very tip.

“It isn’t the way it used to be,” said one leaf to the other.

“No,” the other leaf answered. “So many of us have fallen off to-night we’re almost the only ones left on our branch.”

“You never know who’s going to go next,” said the first leaf. “Even when it was warm and the sun shone, a storm or a cloudburst would come sometimes, and many leaves were torn off, though they were still young. You never know who’s going to go next.”

“The sun seldom shines now,” sighed the second leaf, “and when it does it gives no warmth. We must have warmth again.”

“Can it be true,” said the first leaf, “can it really be true, that others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others, and more and more?”

“It is really true,” whispered the second leaf. “We can’t even begin to imagine it, it’s beyond our powers.”

“It makes me very sad,” added the first leaf.

They were silent for a while. Then the first leaf said quietly to herself, “Why must we fall?…”

The second leaf asked, “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

“We sink down…”

“What is under us?”

The first leaf answered, “I don’t know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.”

The second leaf asked, “Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we’re down there?”

The first leaf answered, “Who knows? Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.”

They were silent again. Then the first leaf said tenderly to the other, “Don’t worry so much about it, you’re trembling.”

“That’s nothing,” the second leaf answered, “I tremble at the least thing now. I don’t feel so sure of my hold as I used to.”

“Let’s not talk any more about such things,” said the first leaf.

The other replied, “No, we’ll let be. But– what else shall we talk about?” She was silent, but went on after a little while, “Which of us will go first?”

“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” the other leaf assured her. “Let’s remember how beautiful it was, how wonderful, when the sun came out and shone so warmly that we thought we’d burst with life. Do you remember? And the morning dew, and the mild and splendid nights…”

“Now the nights are dreadful,” the second leaf complained, “and there is no end to them.”

“We shouldn’t complain,” said the first leaf gently. “We’ve outlived many, many others.”

“Have I changed much?” asked the second leaf shyly but determinedly.

“Not in the least,” the first leaf assured her. “You only think so because I’ve got to be so yellow and ugly. But it’s different in your case.”

“You’re fooling me,” the second leaf said.

“No, really,” the first leaf exclaimed eagerly. “Believe me, you’re as lovely as the day you were born. Here and there may be a little yellow spot but it’s hardly noticeable and only makes you handsomer, believe me.”

“Thanks,” whispered the second leaf, quite touched. “I don’t believe you, not altogether, but I thank you because you’re so kind, you’ve always been so kind to me. I’m just beginning to understand how kind you are.”

“Hush,” said the other leaf, and kept silent herself for she was too troubled to talk anymore.

Then they were both silent. Hours passed.

A moist wind blew, cold and hostile, through the tree tops.

“Ah, now,” said the second leaf, “I…” Then her voice broke off. She was torn from her place and spun down.

Winter had come.

This essay originally appeared in “TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature” (Sept./Oct. 1994). I discuss the childhood conception of “Aliveness” in more depth in a chapter of my book “Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature.”

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Diving Deep: “Beauty and the Beast”

A scholar’s dilemma: choosing depth over breadth

Illustration by Walter Crane.

For nearly a decade now, I have been examining how meanings are discovered in or imposed upon fairy tales. In particular, I have been studying how the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast” has acquired different meanings when, for example, it has been analyzed by psychologists or illustrated in picture books or made into a film or retold by contemporary writers. In his short story “Pierre Menard,” Jorge Luis Borges indicates how entirely different versions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote emerge when the novel is read by different readers at different times even though the text remains the same, word-for-word. In a similar way, over the years, I have encountered Bruno Bettelheim’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Jean Cocteau’s and Angela Carter’s and dozens of others.

In the contest between breadth and depth, I have kept repeating to myself this maxim: “What is the use of many shallow wells if you don’t reach water?”

My friends have worried about me and what they take to be my narrow interest in a single story, and they have urged me to explore more comprehensive subjects if I wish to meet with success as a writer. But my critics seem to have forgotten the wealth that can be found in depth and that entire books have been written on Hamlet, the Book of Job, and even the “Declaration of Independence.” Indeed, certain readers seek this experience of depth and for them bookstores provide works devoted to, for example, The Wizard of Oz, Othello, and Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily” — books with titles that begin “The Companion to” or “The Annotated,” or books with titles that end with “Casebook” or “Handbook.” In any event, in the contest between breadth and depth, I have kept repeating to myself this maxim: “What is the use of many shallow wells if you don’t reach water?”

What, then, has been the wealth opened up to me by my soleminded study of a single story? By reading about the life of Madame LePrince de Beaumont, the author of the most well known version of “Beauty and the Beast,” I discovered how this story about a difficult courtship between a beautiful virgin and her beastly suitor probably reflects the problems of arranged marriages, a custom which led to Beaumont’s own disastrous marriage and divorce. By reading about French history at the time the story was written, I began to see how the account of Beauty’s merchant family and the aristocratic Beast might be seen against the backdrop of the Eighteenth Century clash between the rising mercantile class and the bluebloods of the ancien regime.

Illustration by Mercer Mayer.

Turning to illustrated versions of the story, I encountered entirely different Beauties and Beasts. Walter Crane’s pictures, in his Toy Book (1875), are full of sexual innuendoes as his boar-in-squire’s-clothing meets a reserved (but later blushing) Beauty. Mercer Mayer’s impressive Beauty and the Beast (1978) is full of visual allusions and takes on the difficult task of showing perceptual error or how people see things differently. Looking at dozens of other illustrated texts, I concluded that “Beauty and the Beast” must be the ideal topic for an artist since illustrating it is something like a rohrsach test in reverse: What does a woman named “Beauty” look like? How can a man be made into a beast, of what kind and to what degree?

Other treasures were opened when I looked at older versions of the story. “Cupid and Psyche” is generally regarded as the source for Beaumont’s tale and that myth presents the problem of exogamy or “marrying out.” Thinking of the two together, it became easier to understand how “Beauty and the Beast” reveals the difficulties of a maiden leaving her family or clan and entering into a new situation with her spouse and his family or clan. Madame de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” appeared fifteen years before Beaumont’s and differs considerably: for example, in Beaumont’s version the Beast nightly asks Beauty, “Will you marry me?” but in Villeneuve’s version he asks, “Will you go to bed with me?” At first an erotic story told in the adult circles of the salon, in the hands of Beaumont the tale came to be rewritten and offered as one of the very first entries in what was then the new genre of children’s literature.

Rewriting the tale in other ways, contemporary writers have given the story a different spin. In “The Tiger’s Bride” (from The Bloody Chamber), feminist Angela Carter makes the story into a woman’s walk on the wild side and an encounter with her own beastly self. In “Beauty” (from Red as Blood), sci-fi writerTanith Lee turns the story into a racial allegory: Beauty is undone by her encounter with a strikingly beautiful black male.

But perhaps the most interesting takes on the story have occurred in films where gay moviemakers have had their say. In the gothic atmosphere of his “Beauty and the Beast,” Jean Cocteau essentially presents the Nightmare of Heterosexuality; and the title of the film may, in fact, refer to Cocteau’s lover Jean Marais who played both the handsome Avenant and the Beast. Gay writers of the Disney film took a more positive approach: condemning homophobic machismo by means of the hyper-masculine character called Gaston and advocating more tolerant attitudes towards “difference” in the movie’s story and songs.

This is only the beginning of an explanation of what can be yielded by a soleminded and in-depth study of a single story. Equally remarkable is the contagious effect this has on one’s thinking, so that at one point it seemed to me that I was encountering incarnations of “Beauty and the Beast” everywhere. At the movies, “Planet of the Apes,” “Elephant Man,” “Roxanne,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and more. Even encountering a couple at the store and wondering, “What does she see in him?”

This, then, is an apologia of a scholar to his friends for his soleminded obsession with a single story. To them I would say that in the scholar’s life, the experience of depth, when it is thorough and genuine, does eventually give way to an awakened breadth.

This essay originally appeared as “An Apologia of a Scholar” in a Spanish journal, Anuario de Investigación en Literatura Infantil y Juvenil (2001). Some three years later, all this work gave way to my book (below) The Meanings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’: A Handbook” . More information about that book can be found by clicking here.

Jerry Griswold, “The Meanings of ‘Beauty and the Beast”: A Handbook.” (Broadview Press, 2004)

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How Sex Plays a Significant Role in Children’s Literature

Tom Sawyer & the Absence of Sex (from Para.doxa)

Photo credit: Wikpedia

Though it might at first seem an unlikely assertion, sex plays a significant role in Children’s Literature. One of the cornerstones of our very definition of childhood–evident, for example, in our system of movie ratings–is the taboo that surrounds knowledge about sexual matters. Such a restriction draws attention to the way authors treat or don’t treat sexuality in children’s books, either by sublimating it or by leaving it out altogether (often in ways that call loud attention to the erasures in the manuscript). Consider Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

Desexualizing Tom Sawyer

The transformations of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820)–as they cross over from the adult romance (The Last of the Mohicans, 1826) to the children’s book (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876)–present a case history of the desexualizing of American juvenile literature. In Ivanhoe, Scott’s Rebecca trails a musky eroticism and is attractively dark because she is Jewish. The villain, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is taken with her and (in the language of the time) tries to forcibly steal her virtue.

James Fenimore Cooper, in turn, revised Ivanhoe in his The Last of the Mohicans.[1] Here, Scott’s Rebecca is renamed Cora, and her appeal and dark complexion comes from a touch of African-American blood. Likewise, instead of a Frenchman, Cooper remakes the would-be rapist into a villainous Native American, the Indian Magua.

The Last of the Mohicans, in turn, inspired much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. As others have observed, it is interesting how much Huckleberry Finn resembles Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo,[2] but what is more to the point is Samuel Clemens’s adoption of Cooper’s Indian villain Magua in his creation of Injun Joe. But, since he was writing a children’s book, Clemens had to avoid the central subject of Scott and Cooper. In Tom Sawyer there is no talk of rape, and Clemens turns his predecessors’ maiden into the aged Widow Douglas.

Clemens desexualized his novel in a number of other ways. For example, despite his age, Tom seems to surprisingly lack any interest in sexual matters. To be sure, it is difficult to know what Tom’s age is, Clemens is so inconsistent. Even though Tom loses his front baby-teeth in the novel (which would suggest he is about seven or eight), he seems through most of the story to be twelve or thirteen (or about the same age as Huck who is fourteen a summer later in his own book). Given this, it seems odd that Clemens makes no direct mention of Tom’s having any sexual curiosity. He is different, in this regard, from Becky Thatcher who, at one point, is seen guiltily feasting on a picture of nakedness in her teacher’s anatomy book, when the master is out of the room.

Certainly, Clemens knew that to talk about sex in a children’s book would make readers squirm uncomfortably. After he had finished the first draft of his novel, he wrote William Dean Howells and asked whether he should aim the book at adults eager to look back at their childhoods or at a market of boys and girls. Howells advised the latter. As a result, Clemens saw the task of revising the manuscript to largely consist in removing salacious passages.[3]

Following a similar ethos, critics often advise readers to leave their prurient minds behind when entering the sacred precinct of Children’s Literature. Take, for example, the Afterword to the New American Library edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where George P. Elliott even goes so far as to add a parenthetical caveat: “How peaceful and easy it is to enjoy a story in which a boy and girl can wander for three days in a cave with nothing more subtle on their minds (or on yours, reading) than cold, hunger, darkness, loneliness, pitfalls, and a desperado who would kill them if he came upon them.”[4] Such injunctions, because they smack of something denied, can, of course, have the opposite effect; and, in this case, Elliott’s self-satisfied remarks redirect attention to this important scene in Clemens’s book and to “What really happened in the cave.”

What Really Happened in the Cave

In the late hours of Becky Thatcher’s picnic, children pair up and couples begin to wander off and into the darkness of McDougal’s Cave. Tom and Becky also wander off into the “bushes.” They are on what they pointedly call their “honeymoon” and, after getting hopelessly lost in the cave, they discover that all the food they have is what they refer to as their “wedding cake.” Later, after the children have escaped, Tom takes Huck back there and explains the significance of caves (at least for pirates): “You shut up the women [in there]. . . . [Then] the women get to loving you, and after they’ve been in the cave a week or two weeks they stop crying and after that you couldn’t get them to leave. If you drove them out they’d turn right around and come back. It’s so in all the books.”[5] Tom also adds that a cave is “an awful snug place for orgies,” though he says he doesn’t know what they are but that robbers have them all the time.[6]

What happens, then, in the cave? Do Tom and Becky engage in adolescent hanky-panky? The answer is no. But what is interesting is how Clemens makes a guilty retreat from the obvious, how he turns this sexual opportunity into a moment of revulsion, how he represses all thought of sex and buries it deep in the unconscious (that is, the cave).

Next to a night spent in the bridal suite of a low-budget New Jersey motel, it may be the worst honeymoon on record.

Tom and Becky’s “honeymoon” is a horrible experience: full of tears, recriminations, and impotency. They are lost, at a loss, and do not know what to do. Bats swoop down on them. They run out of food and candles. Their calls go unanswered. Next to a night spent in the bridal suite of a low-budget New Jersey motel, it may be the worst honeymoon on record. Worse yet, the children catch a glimpse of Injun Joe and know the villain would not hesitate to kill them in reprisal, since he harbors a grudge against Tom for identifying him as the killer of Doc Robinson.

Injun Joe, notably, has just come from an unsuccessful attempt to get revenge upon Widow Douglas for an injustice done him by her late husband. And Injun Joe had planned to get his revenge in a manner appropriate to pulp-fiction savages–by slitting the nostrils and notching the ears of the Widow. Here, too, Clemens deeply submerged sexual issues. This scene is based on an event that occurred in Hannibal during Clemens’s childhood, when a widow was actually in danger of being raped.[7] But Clemens changed the danger to mutilation in the same way that he bowdlerized Tom and Becky’s story, converting their honeymoon (their “Tunnel of Love”) into a story about lost children (a subterranean version of “Babes in the Woods”).[8]


When Clemens looked back at his childhood, he said one thing stood out: “Chastity. There was the utmost liberty among young people–but no young girl was ever insulted, or seduced, or even scandalously gossiped about. Such things were not even dreamed of in a society, much less spoken of and referred to as possibilities.”[9]

The honeymoon, consequently, is pure horror and impotency, underneath which lies sexual guilt. And the experience ends with Tom “getting religion.” In this dark night of the soul, near the sign of the cross (which marks Injun Joe’s lair), at the end of his rope (the kite string he ties to Becky when he goes searching alone), Tom finally sees the Light. He finds a way out of the cave, emerges from it (with all the birth imagery that implies), and is “born again” and “saved” (with all those echoes of Southern salvation Christianity).

An iron door mounted at the entrance to the cave of sexual secrets

Instead of the familiar mischief-maker, then, it is a “born-again” and reformed Tom that we encounter in the last chapters of the novel. He has put all thought of “honeymoons” behind him, reverted to presexual adolescence by again taking up talk of the pirate gang with Huckleberry Finn, and (surprisingly) encourages Huck to consider the benefits to be had from keeping the rules. Mindful, perhaps, of his own daughter’s virginal escapade in rule-breaking, Judge Thatcher forgoes a chastity belt but has an iron door mounted at the entrance to the cave of sexual secrets–thereby sealing in that would-be rapist Injun Joe. Repression, after all, is a cornerstone to the very notion of childhood. There are some things “children” should not know or hear about until they are “adults.” The last words of Clemens’s novel imply as much, especially with their reference to marriage and a novelist’s obligation to propriety:


SO endeth this chronicle. It being strictly the history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go on much further without it becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop–that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can.

This essay originally appeared in from Para.doxa (Vol.2, №3–4, 1996). For a related essay, see “Hans Christian Andersen and Sex.”

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[1]. Cf. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Dell Publishing, 1966), 205‑212 and passim.

[2]. Cf. Sacvan Bercovitch, “Huckleberry Bumppo: A Comparison of Tom Sawyer and The Pioneers,” Mark Twain Journal XIV, 2 (Summer 1968), 1‑4.

[3]. Letter to Howells dated January 18, 1876, in The Selected Letters of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), 88‑89.

[4]. George P. Elliott, “Afterword” in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: New American Library, 1959), 224.

[5]. More than a discourse on the Patty Hearst phenomenon, these images might be read in a corporeal fashion. The implications would, of course, then be that males must introduce females to the body or the cave. Like the motifs of rape associated with Injun Joe, males must also (at least initially) do this against the will of females. While at first fearful, females will then (predictably and eventually) warm to the idea of the hostage in the cave and develop an almost nymphomaniacal desire–so that “if you drove them [away] they’d turn right around and come back.” For the psychologically inclined reader, Tom Sawyer might be seen, then, as:

  • an indication of sexist attitudes
  • the penchant for sado-masochist erotics so evident in Clemens’ other works
  • a re-presentation of Victorian attitudes and the familiar sexual tropes of the era
  • or a reflection of Clemens’ own circumstances at the time the novel was written and he was newly married to Olivia Langdon.

[6]. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Berkeley: University of California, 1980), 244, 247.

[7]. Fiedler, 274.

[8]. For this observation, I am indebted to John Seelye’s “What’s in a Name: Sounding the Depths of Tom Sawyer,” The Sewanee Review, XC, 3 (Summer 1982), 419.

[9]. Cited in Fiedler, 273‑74.

The Top Ten Stories on this Site

About Jerry Griswold, a blog, and . . . Mary Poppins, Roald Dahl, Nonsense, E-books, Smallness, Biking, & more

Photo by Salvador Mariscal.

Jerry Griswold writes about children’s literature, American culture, travel, movies, and other topics. He is the author of seven books, including the prize-winning Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story, The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast,” and Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature. Griswold is also a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review; and he has published several hundred essays in the popular press (Paris Review, The Nation, New Republic, and elsewhere).

For many years, Griswold was a professor of literature at San Diego State University and Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. On occasions, he was a visiting professor at UCLA and UCSD (the University of California, Los Angeles and San Diego), the University of Connecticut, and (for one hilarious year) the National University of Ireland in Galway. He has won a number of awards and lectured all over the globe (from Seoul to Salamanca to São Paolo).

This site on features a lot of his new writing but also gathers short essays on different subjects that have appeared over the years in various publications. Some 200 appear here. If you like, you can “follow” this blog by clicking the link at the top of this page. To sample this blog, please find below a list of what are currently (February 21, 2017) the ten most popular posts among readers: Click on any you would like to view.

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About the Sleeping Beauty: P.L. Travers

Pamela Travers muses on six different versions of “Sleeping Beauty” (from The Nation)

By P. L. Travers. Illustrated by Charles Keeping
McGraw-Hill Book Co. 128 pp.

P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, has turned again to the figure of the wise woman in About the Sleeping Beauty. Like the myth of Persephone to which it can be linked, the story of the Sleeping Beauty is about spring and all that follows after the dormancy of winter, when the sun begins to ascend and all creatures and events are brought to fruition. Travers offers six versions of the tale (including her own) and each is a little different, each adjusts its particular message to what the Sufis call Zaman, Makhan, Ikhwan (the time, the place, and the people).

Travers’s own version is set in Gurdjieffan opulence and cast in terms of sultans, seneschals and suites. This tale of ascendancy begins with the long-wished-for birth of the Princess Rose, rises to the great day when the twelve fairies bless her and reaches a hiatus when the curse of the Thirteenth Fairy leads Rose to the spindle and the whole castle to The Deep Sleep: The tale rallies once more when the Prince joins it, finds his way to the Sufic center (qutub) of the castle, kisses the Princess and breaks the spell, and finally makes a husband for the Princess beyond her family’s highest hopes. The peripaties of the tale are so happy — and Travers’s treatment so fecund — that when spindles are condemned in the kingdom, the weavers become even more prosperous as merchants. What is perhaps most interesting in this expansive version is that Travers has not adopted the narrative style of the fairy tale ethnologists of the Nineteenth Century who reduced oral forms to their literary equivalents. Travers’s voice is that of the storyteller: she plays with the story, jokes and makes musing asides, introduces linguistic flourishes (“taradiddles”) and swells character portrayals.

What makes Travers’s version different from the Grimms’ “Dornroschen” [“Briar Rose”], which she includes here, is her emphasis on the Sleeping Beauty that men come to think of as “a secret within themselves.” In the Grimm version the emphasis falls equally, if not more, on the Prince whose spirit brings the Princes and the kingdom out from beneath the spell. He is the hero who steps in as the curse of the hundred years wanes and who is carried along with the momentum of the world waxing again, as it does in Goethe’s “Das Marchen.”

Perrault’s Seventeenth Century “La Belle au bois dormant” [“Sleeping Beauty in the Woods”], the third in Travers’s series, is still a story about the Prince but with an added character (an ogreish mother-in-law) and a coda: after waking the Princess, the Prince moonlights with her only to have his mother discover the cause of his absences. Here the hero who has ridden the momentum of rising good fortune grows slack and easygoing. His comeuppance occurs when his mother demands that the steward serve her the Sleeping Beauty and her children at supper. The steward hides them away and provides substitutes, and the Queen Mother’s designs are finally revealed. The Prince feels shame at the self-indulgence that has caused all this and mends his ways.

Illustration by Walter Crane.

In the fourth version in Travers’s book, “Sol, Luna, e Talia” [“The Sun, Moon, and Talia”] from the Italian Pentamerone of Giambattista Basile, it is the common man who rides the wheel of fortune to his ascendancy. Instead of Perrault’s steward, it is the cook who hides away the Sleeping Beauty and her children. The Prince rewards this man according to his merit and with a mind free of class prejudice makes him a Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

In the Irish version by Jeremiah Curtin, “The Queen of Tubber Tintye,” the Prince is assisted not by a lone cook but by a legion of helpers. In this tale the Prince attracts people of wisdom, gives the experts a free hand, and exercises self-restraint in the face of pretenders. The results is the almost everyone’s lottery ticket comes in and a druidic spell is lifted from the Prince’s mother and aunts, miscellaneous princes and all of Erin and the Lonesome Island.

The sixth Bengal version, “The Petrified Mansion” by F. B. Bradley-Birt, shows how everyone joins in the upward movement of the Sleeping Beauty’s tale. Here, surely, the Prince is an Arhat who comes out of his forest retreat and returns to the here and now to help others. In this tale he is called the “deliverer” because he awakens a petrified world. This means good fortune for all. Others are drawn to follow his example, retreating for meditation deep in the forest in the same way that the sun of spring and summer begins to retreat at solstice.

“What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come a last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?”

Following her own version of the story and preceding the others, Travers has inserted an Afterword. When she begins to explain the devices she has used in her story and to draw parallels with the Hindu goddess Kali or with Robert Graves’s White Goddess, she seems guilty of reviewing her own book. It is as if Travers had forgotten that the fairy tale is like a Zen koan and books that explain the meanings of koans are the importunities of those who refuse their oracular pointedness. When a gifted storyteller like Travers begins to wrestle with meanings, one suspects that the Thirteen Fairy has laid the curse of criticism upon her. But in the Sleeping Beauty the Twelfth Fairy delays giving her blessing in order to mitigate the original curses from death to sleep; in Travers’s case the Twelfth Fairy has turned the urge to explain into the urge for meditative musing: “What is it in us that at a certain moment suddenly falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come a last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?” Travers’s curse and blessing is her Sultana’s conviction “That fairy tales are not as simple as they appear.”

Originally appeared in The Nation (February 21, 1976).

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“Fly by Night”: Randall Jarrell’s Best Children’s Book

A haunting book created by Maurice Sendak and Randall Jarrell (from the New Republic)

“Fly by Night,” by Randall Jarrell. Pictures by Maurice Sendak. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

There is a great distance between the callow clutter of books-for-kids and the high haunted aeries of American fantasies as told by Randall Jarrell or pictured by Maurice Sendak. These two fantasy kinsmen have worked together before (The Bat-Poet, The Animal Family) and Fly by Night is the last of these collaborations. Jarrell finished the tale before his death. Sendak has now provided the pictures.

Jarrell was a master of the pleasant seemings of American juvenile literature that hide grim truths. The Animal Family, a Newbery Honor Book, is a seemingly peaceful pastoral about a hunter who seeks and find companions. It is an idyllic tale so tranquil we are likely to overlook the fact that the hunter befriends each of his “sons” over a cashiered mother. That fact, and that the only female of the book is a mermaid in whom the hunter sees his dead mother, hints that something is amiss in Eden.

Fly by Night is likewise an embodiment of the wish for companions. David lives on New Garden Road and, because “there aren’t any children for him to play with,” spends his waking hours daydreaming in a tree house. Sometimes he is accompanied by a striped cat who makes the tree swallows uneasy and “never stays long.”

That is how David spends his days. At night David exercises an angelic prerogative: “At night David can fly. In the daytime he can’t. In the daytime he doesn’t even remember that he can.”

At night David floats while others sleep and in his clairvoyance can see their dreams: his father’s of his diminutive stature; his mother’s mixed with pancakes and feathers, his dog’s of chasing a rabbit. Sendak pictures one of these with David nestled embryonically in a tree while the cat malevolently eyes what the feline styles “dancing mice.” To hardnosed David the mice seem more frightened than dancing but, for some reason, he is powerless and cannot tell the cat “they’re afraid of you.”

David is as powerless as Huckleberry Finn, another floater, when in is tree perch he cannot save his friend Buck; as powerless as Peter Pan trying to persuade Wendy. David cannot help the mice, cannot ask the fleeing rabbit to wait, and his hovering presence makes the ponies shy. Though he exercises Superman’s power of flight, all his potential companions are the retiring Clark Kents of the animal world who take flight at his appearance.

And so he turns away from them and looks above, to a winged superior, to a night bird awake like himself. A striped owl with a small fish in its claws befriends him. The owl speaks to David in poetry and invites him to her next where two owlets rest. To hardnosed David the unfeathered owlets make a sorry picture but he sees in the loving eyes of the mother owl that she “doesn’t know how they look.”

The owl tells her three nestlings a bedtime story, one they can fall asleep to before daybreak, and one that is the keystone to Fly by Night. It is the story of an owlet who is all alone and wishes for company. A great owl comes and tells him this will only come to pass if he leaves his mother’s nest and flies in the daylight. The owlet departs, struggles in the tumult of “unfriendly day,” clumsily finds footing on a branch, and finally meets and makes a sisterly companion of another owlet in a tree at whose base a dead owl lies. The two of them wend their way back through the harsh sunlight and the crows to the original next where they welcome the arrival of night, the moon, and the owl they call “Mother” against whose breast they nestle making brooding sounds.

Once the owl has told the bedtime story she accompanies David home where he wakes to sunlight and forgets. Twice David struggles to remember, to link night and day in a simile: “the owl looks at me like . . . like . . . –“ but before he can remember sunlight streams into the kitchen and “his mother looks at him like his mother.”

Where David lacks the power of “like” Sendak is gifted. When the book ends, for example, we might expect an illustrator to provide a picture of David’s mother in the kitchen preparing him pancakes. Instead, Sendak gives us her likeness: the cat on the kitchen table and, in the window behind her, a fledgling swallow struggling to fly by day. It is the same brooding cat that eyed the “dancing mice” and whose eyes and stripes recall that of the owl pictured before, the owl that held the small fish in its claws.

Sendak illuminates Jarrell’s nocturnal hallucinations of “the owl’s white world” with the same power he brought to the Grimms in his Juniper Tree and Other Tales. Sendak’s David is pubescent and flats always by the light of the moon. The two-page picture that follows the bedtime story is lunar brilliance: David floats against the mammoth brooding eyes of the owl, above paired ducks and rabbits, above a mother and child and above a shepherdess and her flock between whom is a small plank carved with the name “Angelina.”

David lives in the same superstitious and myth-filled world where angels are made. It is a world where “like” carries no force and invisible passions or emotions must be wholly made over into visible and physical shapes: gods, and angels, wise owls. And it is a world of strict separations of night from day, child from companions, mother from child that become other separations: “dancing mice” and frightened mice, unfeathered owlets and loveable offspring, hardnosed literality and what is figured in dreams.

Fly by Night will be read by dreamy youths like David, those same youths who in their tree houses have read about others that were ordinary too but, like Tarzan or Superman or Peter Pan, were gifted with aerial mobility. It is a gift of the artist of In the Night Kitchen and the author of The Bat-Poet to youths in love with night and the creatures that, like Batman or Dracula or Zorro, are vivid then but grow anemic at daybreak.

And it is a book that speaks to their parents, to those youths’ fathers nested in their easy chairs with books that transport them to the knightly world of detectives. It speaks to their mothers, knees under their chins, reading of the possessions that were Salem’s lot, who have gone with the wind and wish to go again to moonlight trysts on mansion savannahs. Fly by Night is for us, Davids, hardnosed and slow to “like,” for whom fantasy provides what we cannot find at daybreak: a way to be in dreams awake

This essay originally appeared in The New Republic (January 1 & 8, 1977). I discuss “Fly by Night” and Jarrell’s other children’s offerings more extensively in my study “The Children’s Books of Randall Jarrell” (University of Georgia Press, 1988).

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Hans Christian Andersen’s Bicentenary

“Geek does good”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Denmark in 1805, Hans Christian Andersen is remembered for his fairy tales: “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and some 150 others. This year, Denmark will celebrate their native son in a series of festivals, exhibits, symphonies, and theatricals. These events will be coordinated with others taking place around the globe in a “Worldwide Celebration of Andersen’s Bicentenary.

If the truth be known, Andersen was not at all like the cheerful children’s author played by Danny Kaye in the film about him. Instead, Andersen makes Denmark’s other melancholy celebrities — Hamlet (“that moody Dane”) and Søren Kierkegaard (the philosopher of anxiety) — look like slackers. His biography suggests reasons: his idealistic father was often away fighting for his hero Napoleon and died when the boy was eleven, his mother (fifteen years her husband’s senior) seems to have lead a racy life, and his dotty grandmother (a resident of a mental asylum) encouraged his love of fairy tales by telling him queer folk stories.

Besides acute poverty, Andersen also suffered because he was tall, awkward, and — to be as kind as possible but as photos attest — striking in his homeliness. Indeed, when he finally found a patron to pay for his education, this lanky 17-year-old was mercilessly tortured at school by children five years younger than him — in other words, treated as badly as the Ugly Duckling is.

fantasy comeuppances

Of course, the Ugly Duckling turned into a beautiful swan and became universally loved. While this is ostensibly Andersen’s own story, more to the point is his theme of the Revenge of the Rejected. In the tale “The Swineherd,” for example, a prince masquerades as a peasant in order to turn the tables on a princess who refused his offer of marriage: in the end, he reveals he is a prince, rebuffs her, and strolls away in smug satisfaction. Here is both a picture of Andersen’s unlucky love life and his fantasy comeuppances.

His first love, Riborg Voigt, was the girl-next-door and declined his proposal, eventually marrying another; when he died, around Andersen’s neck was found a pouch he wore all his life and that contained a letter from her. His next courtship was more impossible; the most beautiful woman in Europe at the time, the opera singer Jenny Lind, indicated she wanted to be “just friends” with her lovestruck but homely swain.

He wasn’t much better at companionship. Often away from home, he was an accomplished writer of travel books full of keen observations and special advice (he always took a coil of rope in his trunk in case of a fire). When he came to London to visit Charles Dickens’ family for a few days, the children were at first delighted by his ability to create intricate figures with scissors and paper. But as was the case with his hosts elsewhere, after five weeks, the whole family grew weary of the Guest Who Wouldn’t Leave. Social awkwardness was his forte but also his subject in stories about the ungainly Duckling, the rejected Mermaid, and the guest who impolitely complains about having suffered after sleeping on a pile of mattresses in “The Princess and the Pea.”

Andersen was drawn to suffering. His most representative tale may be “The Little Match-Girl” which tells of an abused child who freezes to death in the streets, still clutching the matches she means to sell, while the good burghers of the town are toasty indoors eating their New Year’s dinners. But again, the story ends with a comeuppance: God shames the well-to-do by taking up the poor little matchgirl and admitting her to heaven.

Andersen’s stories are especially appealing to the young when they fancy themselves a Cinderella: mistreated and under-appreciated, dreaming of belated recognition and fantasy revenge. His life and his tales might be summarized under this reassuring headline: “Geek Does Good.”

Though numerous editions are available, Erik Haugaard’s translations of the fairy tales are generally considered best:

The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Ages: All Ages. By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Erik Haugaard. Anchor, $21.00 (Paperback)

Timed to the Bicentennial, a number of books have recently appeared about Andersen or featuring his work:

Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Jane Yolen Illustrator: Dennis Nolan
Dutton, $16.99 (Hardcover)

Terrific and prolific writer Jane Yolen neatly retells and summarizes the facts of Andersen’s life, emphasizing his dreary and aspiring childhood. More interesting is her parallel inclusions of quotes from Andersen’s works, leaving for readers the chance to connect the facts with the fiction. Dennis Nolan’s chalky illustrations are often inspired by the comic and more accomplished work of Maxfield Parrish.

The Ugly Duckling
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Anthea Bell Illustrator: Robert Ingpen
Penguin, $15.99 (Hardcover)

Since the story is so well known, what commends attention are the illustrations by this prize-winning Australian artist. Ingpen’s paintings of waterfowl and landscapes are both accurate and impressionistic — indeed, the kind of art you might find in a gallery and want to hang in your home. On the other hand, the text (in Times Roman font) seems superimposed or “typed” on top of the paintings and, in that way, superfluous.

The Wild Swans
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Naomi Lewis Illustrator: Anne Yvonne Gilbert
Barefoot Books, $17.99 (Hardcover)

Eleven brothers transformed into swans by an evil stepmother, a sister who has to go to the ends of the earth and weaves shirts out of thistles to save them — “The Wild Swans” is a little known Andersen tale worth discovering. As noted translator Naomi Lewis observes, it is a story that echoes others — including Swan Maiden tales and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” as well as the Grimms’ “The Seven Ravens” and “Brother and Sister.” Gilbert’s illustrations likewise echo the work of others (Michael Hague, Mercer Mayer, and Trina Schart Hyman); and at times, like Andersen’s story itself, her pictures are too busy and crowded with details. Still, in design and beauty, Gilbert has done something of her own. This is an altogether impressive picture book.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (April 2005). See these related essays:

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12 Representative U.S. Children’s Books (for Irish eyes)

Wherein I respond to an Irish request to speak about American Children’s Literature (from the journal “Inish”)

Near the end of my year of living in Ireland (see link below), in June 2000, I was asked by Children’s Books Ireland to give a talk at their annual meeting in Dublin. My remarks were later printed in their journal “Inis” (#5 Summer 2003) as part of a series dedicated to the children’s literature of particular countries — in this case, the United States.

Attending Catholic grammar school in America in the 1950s, we students of immigrant ancestors were often told by the nuns (most of whom were Irish) a story of St. Augustine. Contemplating the divinity of God, Augustine was walking by the seashore–at the time, I gathered this would have been in Kerry or County Clare. As it was, he came upon a child digging a hole in the sand. When Augustine asked the child what he was doing, the youngster replied that he was putting the ocean into the hole. Protesting that such a task was impossible, Augustine was then surprised when the child turned into an angel who advised him that it was equally impossible for a human to comprehend the divinity of God.

While nowhere as cosmically ambitious, but feeling equally chastened and humbled, I nonetheless take up in this essay Siobhan Parkinson’s invitation to write about Children’s Literature of the United States in 2,500 words. Let me add, then, the first of many qualifications. One of the most familiar features of the poetry of the modern American poet Randall Jarrell is his use of the phrase “And yet–.” This essay, too, is full of such caveats, which are meant to convey the interesting and curious complexity of this endeavor.

Consider, first, the size of the United States. If someone might drive from Belfast to Killarney in, say, six or seven hours, it would take six or seven long days to drive from Boston to Los Angeles. Come up with some factor to describe that geographical difference, multiply the number of Irish authors for children by that factor, and you will have some notion of the number of American authors that need to be reckoned with in this essay.

“There is a real sense in which our prose is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe. . . . The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.”

Then there is the difference between our national literatures. Ask folks elsewhere to identify works of Irish literature and they will mention, say, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney. Ask the same question about American literature and a difference may soon become apparent: as the great critic Leslie Fielder has observed, “There is a real sense in which our prose is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe. . . . The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.”

“Inis” (#5 Summer 2003)

In this essay, I have set for myself the goal of identifying twelve representative American children’s books. I have imagined my task this way: if I was abroad and teaching a course in American Children’s Literature (or if I was corresponding with a teacher abroad who was about to offer the same kind of class), what twelve books would I choose?

The number twelve was chosen for a purpose. In the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” twelve fairies are invited to the christening but trouble comes from the thirteenth fairy, the uninvited guest. Let me apologize, consequently, if I have overlooked a work or if someone’s favorite is missing from this list. Still, here goes:

1. Samuel Clemens’ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). For a vision of American boyhood, there is none better than this book by the man who called himself “Mark Twain.” It would be followed by his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which is the American classic but a work that fits uneasily in the juvenile category.

2. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). This account of Jo March and her sisters is perhaps the best example of the “girl’s book,” a genre that also includes, for example, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Pollyanna. If Tom Sawyer is about boyish pranks and mischief, Little Women is about the interior lives of girls engaged in an almost evangelical struggle with character development.

3. Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900). This is our Alice in Wonderland but more homely and native in its account of the little girl Dorothy, her dog Toto, Kansas, a scarecrow, a wood-chopping robot, and (because Americans are skeptical democrats) a ruler who is an impostor. The famous MGM film with Judy Garland appears on American television with about the same seasonal regularity that “Willy Wonka” appears on Irish t.v.

4. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1914). Swinging out of the book and into the mass market, Tarzan has become one of the most well known figures in popular imaginings. And yet in giving Burroughs’ novel a place in this list, I have had to forfeit to the British a claim on the classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, an author with dual citizenship.

5. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935). Representative of America’s “regional fiction” and presenting a vision of American homesteading in the West (and the consequent displacement of the Indians or Native Americans), Wilder’s novel is an archetypal story of the pioneer.

In choosing “representative” American children’s books, let me add, I have abandoned other ways such a list might be organized. For example, an essay organized around a history of American Children’s Literature might begin with the famous episode from Parson Weems’ The Life of Washington the Great (1806) where a young and revolutionary George Washington (later the first president of the republic) chops down an English cherry tree or with Washington Irving’s tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1809) which is a favorite Halloween story. For those interested interested in such a history, I direct their attention to my essay in Peter Hunt’s International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (Routledge). For my purposes here, however, I have chosen representative works irrespective of their dates and with no aim of outlining the development or evolution of this genre.

6. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Here is America’s most famous picture book, our Peter Rabbit. Nearly every American children knows the story of Max and the monsters which begins, “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another . . . .”

7. Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (1957). Many American youngsters learned to read via the jangling verse of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Giesel) and his subversive characters, including the Grinch.

8. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947). Lyrical and deceptively simple, this American bedtime book is a universal favorite. And yet, in choosing it, I have had to bump other worthy picture books: Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (1928), Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline (1939), and Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand (1936).

Having chosen as my subject 12 representative American children’s books, I see that (in mentioning the picture books above) I have already painted myself into a corner. Except for the purist, for those who feel it is important than children have stories, it may matter little whether they come in print or in some other media. In that regard, the name to reckon with is Walt Disney. In intellectual circles in the U.S. the productions of Disney Studios–from “Snow White” (1937) through “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)–are customarily dismissed in a knee-jerk reflex as a dilution of vivid story traditions and a pandering to the mass market. Outside the U.S., Disney films are routinely criticized as an example of the commercial colonization of children’s imaginations. All of that may be true, but let me suggest an heretical position: we need to squarely face up to the fact that Disney Studios has created a certain canon of children’s stories and their worldwide popularity must, in some way, be a measure of their genuine appeal.

9. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952). There is far more than meets the eye in this lovely and folksy story of a friendship between a spider and a pig. In the end, the thoughtful reader may realize its ultimate message: that by means of words, themselves, we can be lifted up a little and saved.

10. Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family (1965). A kind of Robinsonade, Jarrell’s fantasy talks about a family being created as a hunter befriends a mermaid and they take in a bear, a lynx, and a shipwrecked boy. Lyrical, simple, moving–this small book is a paean to family life.

11. Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967). Another fantasy, this book presents a masterful coincidence of adult and children’s literature — as if Hoban combined in himself and all at once the genius of Jean Paul Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Jean de Brunhoff. A story of refugee animals and clockwork toys, this existential fable is about finding a home and learning how to become “self-winding.”

And yet, in choosing as my subject “12 Representative American Children’s Books” and looking over my list thus far, the question arises: representative of who? In the last few decades, like others elsewhere, more and more Americans have become aware of the ways that the creation of canons has silenced and overlooked the literature of this country’s minorities, especially racial and ethnic minorities. Because I have gathered here works that are widely known and popular bestsellers, it is inevitable that my choices should reflect majority culture at the expense of minority voices. Let me insert then, if even in an abbreviated form, one more qualification in this essay.

African-American children’s books have their own grand tradition and if one had to be chosen as an exemplar, I would choose Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins the Great (1974), a touching story of a boy’s awkward growing up in coal-mining country. Latino and Latina children’s books, the literature of America’s Spanish-speaking population, also has its own tradition and here the best exemplar may be Gary Soto’s collection of short stories Baseball in April (1990). Let me also make passing mention of Asian-American children’s literature to illustrate another point.

While welcoming attention to their culture and traditions, “Asian-Americans” have pointed out that there is still something patronizing about the way they have all been lumped together so that no thoughtful discrimination has been made among those whose ancestry is, for example, Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Filipino. Likewise, those in recent immigrant communities (Lao, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, etc.) have also solicited a finer discrimination from the reading public and a more thoughtful appreciation of their own cultures. Moreover, this attention to the immigrant experience has also brought with it a new awareness of the history of European immigration in stories that might be classified as Italian-American, Irish-American, Swedish-American, and so forth.

If the reader of this essay now feels a touch of Augustinian vertigo, let me say that this is a feeling shared by this essay’s author. The atomization of American identities sometimes seems an example of infinite regression, and issues becomes even more complex when we consider how intermarriage has created ethnic hybrids; for example, a recent prize-winning book that has been gathering praise is Esperanza Rising (2001) by an author whose name suggests both Mexico and Tipperary, Pam Muñoz Ryan. Identity becomes an even more complex issues when one adds in gender and sexual orientation in the case of children’s authors whose American nationality takes second place to their being, for example, women or gay or lesbian. As dizzying as all this must be, the development and discussion of “hyphenated” American children’s books has, nonetheless, resulted in the most fructifying debates in recent years.

And yet, as I look over the list assembled here, I see it is also heavily weighted towards older books and thin on contemporary offerings. That really amounts to a confession of cowardice. As years accumulate, it becomes easier to see which books will endure because they have been submitted to a tribunal of multiple readers. Recent books lack that advantage, and we are more likely to be in error in estimating the value of our favorites or in overlooking the worth of a book that will be so manifestly apparent to our grandchildren some years in the future. Nonetheless, let me go out on a limb and suggest one recent work likely to endure:

12. Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989). Set in Los Angeles in an era when Madonna was the new phenom, Block’s book is partly a fairy tale and partly a realistic punk novel. In a touching and off-the-wall way, and thanks to grandma’s wish-granting magic lamp, a new family emerges in a community composed of Weetzie and her Secret Agent Man, the gay couple Dirk and Duck, infants Cherokee and Witch Baby, as well as their Chinese and Jamaican godparents Ping-Chong and Jah-Love.

Of course, assembling a list of this kind is like answering the question “If you could take one book to a deserted island, what would it be?” I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who suggested that the appropriate answer would be a book on boat-building. But Randall Jarrell said his own answer would be more heartfelt: “Can I take one more?”

Feeling the same, if I had room, I would smuggle into this essay mention of: Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling (1938), perhaps America’s most impressive “y.a.” or young adult novel; and William Steig’s impressive picturebook Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Chris Van Allsburgh’s Garden of Abdul Ghasazi (1982) and Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (1981). Mention should also have been made of Madeline L’Engle’s science-fiction series begun with A Wrinkle of Time (1962); and since sci-fi has been raised, how can it be possible to ignore George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films and the story tradition they started. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) is also terrific and The Prince and the Pauper (1881) may be Mark Twain’s most well written novel. And yet, if I had still more room, I would also liked to have mentioned (but, of course, won’t) a number of other books–J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker (1865), Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl (1946) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1917), and dozens of others–but I see I am approaching the prescribed maximum of this essay with only five words left to spare.

Bailing, bailing at the seashore.

Read about “My Year of Living in Ireland” here.

Looking Back at Mickey Mouse

November 18… On the 50th Birthday of the Mouse With White Gloves (from the New York Times Book Review)

By Walt Disney.
Illustrated. New York: David McKay Company.

Mickey Mouse was introduced to the world on November 18, 1928, in “Steamboat Willie,” the first cartoon talkie. In 1978 the David McKay Company, noting that it was “Mickey’s first hardcover publisher,” reproduced from the color originals the first three books in which the mouse appeared. “Jumping Juniper,” Mickey would have said.

In some circles a Disney book may still be unwelcome. It has become routine to deride Disney Inc. This wasn’t true in the old days, in the days when Janet Flanner went to meet the master, when Jerome Kern would say that Disney “has made the 20th Century’s only contribution to music,” when Toscanini would ask to see him and Sergie Eisenstein would proclaim him an American genius. H. G. Wells used to brag that he introduced Chaplin to Disney.

Disney had a special affection for his own little tramp, the mouse with white gloves. For 20 years he supplied Mickey’s squeaky falsetto. And it was, no doubt, Disney who thought of merchandising Mickey to McKay.

In the first of “The Adventures” in this anniversary collection, Mickey outwits Claws, the Cat, by virtue of his size. While Mickey holds a dance for his barnyard friends, the cat is held in check, caught in her own mousetrap, after her claws have ventured on the far side of the hole grabbing for Mickey. Mickey has been assisted in this prank by Minnie (who lives a discreet distance away in the chicken coop and also sports gloves). After Mickey goes to bed Claws finally escapes, though she continues to see cartoon stars and ringed planets.

This is one of those rare and early stories in which Mickey was both heroic and gratuitously cruel. But he is, after all, the Little Guy, and it’s 1931 in Hollywood as well as Scottsboro and Harlan County.

Book II of “The Adventures” appeared a year later, when the Bonus Army encamped in Washington and the Lindbergh baby disappeared. Minnie, Mickey and Pluto (“his old houn’ dog”) set off to visit the impoverished Widow Church-mouse. In this story, told in rhyme, they encounter the wolfish villain Peg Leg Pete unearthing a buried treasure chest (it seems that Peg Leg made a voyage with Captain Church-mouse but the Captain never returned). The trio frightens Peg Leg and his henchmen and restores the purloined treasure to the Widow Church-mouse. The Widow is delighted (she has no pension) and plans to share the booty with Clara Cow) who has a broken arm and a mortgage to pay.

The Widow’s largesse and her motto (“others’ burdens try to ease”) must have been congenial to a country trying to keep the wolf from the door and whistling “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The next year, when Disney won the Academy Award for “The Three Little Pigs,” the most popular song was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”

The work ethic of the three little pigs is important to the third book here, “Mickey Mouse and His Horse Tanglefoot.” If it isn’t an Horatio Alger story, then it is Disney’s story of his own lost childhood spent as a penniless hawker trying to help the family. Mickey “struggles manfully” at the delivery business: ice — groceries, milk and finally parcels. Alas, though he gets to work earlier than others and works harder, he is undone by his dutiful horse, Tanglefoot, whose attention to Mickey’s commands always seem too righteous for the occasions. “Just when everything was looking so bright,” Mickey’s jeremiad goes, “It was hard indeed to find yourself and your business in the gutter.”

“There are three reds in town with a time bomb and these fellows are dangerous, regular revolutionists!”

But Mickey is not one to cry over spilt milk, groceries, or ice. The last chapter is titled “Success at Last.” Shortly after Mickey is asked by a group of bearded dogs with accents to deliver a package to Mr. Much-money, he meets a policeman on the lookout: “There are three reds in town with a time bomb and these fellows are dangerous, regular revolutionists! They won’t work and have nothing themselves and they don’t want anyone else to have anything.” “Goats and Ganders!” thinks Mickey, “there was not a minute to lose.” He tosses the package over a fence and scorches the Reds, who happen to be hiding behind it. “What a mouse!” everyone says, “and from that day on their affairs prospered, for everyone wanted to do business with the brave little fellow who knocked out the three revolutionists.”

This was in 1936, the same year Chaplin’s “Modern Times” was released. In that year, too, Franklin D. Roosevelt would look back at the labor and socialist strifes that marked his first 100 days as President: “In the spring of 1933, we faced a crises . . . . We were against revolution. And, therefore, we waged a war against the conditions which make revolution — against the inequities and resentments that breed them.” Disney’s hardworking New Deal mouse did, too.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (June 25, 1978).

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Herr Wolf Responds to Fairy Tale Scholars

The villain from “Little Red Riding Hood” complains about new hunters in Grimm’s Woods (from the Los Angeles Times)

“Fairy Tales and Children: The Psychology of Children Revealed Through Four of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.” By Carl-Heinz Mallet, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (Shocken: $18.95; 256 pp.)

Diese woods, Grimm’s woods, vas once upon a time a good place to live. Of course, I was junger den. Und I hat many a supper of fraulein, und some grammas too.

Dat vas alle bevor Little Red Riding Hood. So, you know the story. After supper I vas sleeping und der hunter kommt. He cut me open and emptied out das fraulein und das gramma. Den im my stomach he put rocks and sewed it up. He vas a lousy surgeon. Since den gallstones und kidney pebbles, you vould not believe.

Diese woods haf changed, too. Now, a crazy kind of hunter kommt. First it vas der Jungians und Frau Maria von Franz; dey ran through hier mit butterfly nets chasing die Archetypes. Den it vas die Freudians und Herr Doktor Bruno Bettelheim; dey made a mess mit shovels digging vor der Id. Den Feminists kommt saying Grimm’s women vas too passive; die witches und stepmothers vas too busy pushing everyone around to say it vas not so. Last, die Marxists kommt mit megaphones und tried to get volk like die three pigs to mach revolution.

But you know vhat bothers most? No one knows me; und Herr Wolf used to haf quite a reputation in alle woods. But diese new hunters. Ach himmel! Dey mistake me vor der Animus or der Male Principle or der Bourgeoisie, even vor der Papa!

Now hier kommt Carl-Heinz Mallet, Freudian, to talk about four children I used to know, and every one is more than they seemed to me: Hansel–who, mit his sister, Gretel, vas as tasty a child as ever walked diese woods in search of gingerbread–vas a mama’s boy to Herr Mallet. Little Red Riding Hood, too much like Lolita. Der Boy Who Set Out to Study Fear, studied puberty instead. And das Goose Girl, learned fraulein can be assertive.

If you ask me, it comes to dis: Too much understanding und not enough belief.

This essay originally appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (July 15, 1984) where, in the contributor note, I was identified in the following fashion: “Griswold (Greiswald, in German, or ‘old man’s woods’) specializes in lupine literature at San Diego State.” The essay sparked kind words, including a letter to the editor printed in the Review’s August 19 issue where one J.E. Hill (from Long Beach) named it “one of the best reviews I have read in a long life of reading book reviews” and went on to elaborate its virtues. On my part, I wish to nominate J.E. Hill’s letter-to-the-editor as among the best I have ever encountered in the Book Review.

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America’s Tall Tale Heroes

The deaths of Pecos Bill, Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Johnny Appleseed, & John Henry

By Adrien Stoutenberg. Illustrated by Richard M. Powers
112pp. Penguin (paperback). $6.99. (Ages 7–11)

Behind the exuberant boasts, the extravagant deeds, and imaginative language, there is a fundamental wistfulness to the American tall tale. These are stories about ways of life that no longer exist, about once important heroes made insignificant by change — by the invention (for example) of barbed wire and the steam engine, by the disappearance of the frontier and great stands of virgin timber.

The stories about Pecos Bill provide an example. A figure for the Cowboy, Pecos Bill first appeared in legends that arose in the Pecos River region in Texas. Of course, the tall tales about him are extravagant and exuberant: how he was raised by coyotes, drank the milk of a mountain lion, wrestled bears, married Slue-Foot Sue, wrestled a cyclone and made Death Valley, and so forth. Pecos Bill is an Occupational Hero and represents a way of life that passed. He was the one who taught cowboys everything they needed to know — inventing the lasso and spurs, showing them how to round up cattle and drive them to railroad stations, and (most importantly) instructing them in how to sing cowboy songs. Still, the manner of his death reveals much: in most versions of his story, he dies when a piece of rusty wire gets in his coffee.

“Don’t Fence Me In” might also have been the theme song for Davy Crockett. A figure for the Backwoodsman, this Tennessee folk hero was legendary for his overpowering grin, his way with animals (especially bears), his prowess and accuracy with a rifle, his preference for common sense over book learnin’ and his oft-repeated motto (“Be sure you’re right and then go ahead”). But if there was a consistent motive to Dave Crockett’s life, it was the frontiersman’s wish to stay ahead of the crowds of settlers behind him. Like the setting sun, Crockett kept going westward while civilization nipped at his heels — until he reached the end of Tennessee. Then, legend has it, Crockett said: “The state’s getting too crowded. I’m moving to Texas!” That is, of course, where he died and where his nightmare overcame him, when crowds swarmed the Alamo and the frontiersmen who were defending it and their way of life.

Paul Bunyan was also part of this westering motion. A kind of friendly giant given to epic deeds and epic breakfasts, carrying his silver-bright axe and accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan was another Occupational Hero and a figure for the Lumberjack. Born in Maine, Paul hacked his way west through the forests alongside the Big Onion River (Michigan), St. Croix River (Wisconsin), and Lake Superior (Minnesota). After chopping down the last tree in North Dakota, he headed on to the Douglas fir in the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon. One would think the Pacific Ocean would be the terminus of Paul and his lifestyle; and, indeed, at this geographical juncture Paul and Babe are now grey-haired and look back on the good life they’ve had in lumbering. But unwilling to let them go off into the sunset, their original storyteller — William B. Laughead (an advertising agent for the Red River Lumber Company of Minnesota and California) in a series of pamphlets issued between 1914 and 1930 — has Paul and Babe head up to Alaska, “as long as there is a toothpick of a tree left.”

Mike Fink was the tall-tale representative of Keelboatmen, Known for his bull-roarin’ boasts, his rowdy and exuberant nature, he was also a bit of a bully. Still, he may have been — as he proved in countless contests — the best boatman between Pittsburgh and New Orleans. But all that meant naught once Robert Fulton invented the steamboat and these vessels took over the river trade and made Fink’s prowess a pointless anachronism. But the point of Fink’s story is how this man of boasts was never daunted and bragging to the end. His last words were “I was the best keelboatman that ever lived.”

“Johnny Appleseed” was, like Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, an actual person — in this case, John Chapman. But the legends surrounding him differ from theirs. While the tall tales involving Crockett and Fink reveal a nostalgia for the disappearing wilderness, the stories of Johnny Appleseed speak of the Planter, speak of a taming of the wilderness and the planting of orchards. Here is another vision of a country on the cusp of change. And the stories of Chapman/Appleseed also differ from those of Crockett/Fink in portraying someone who is not a “macho” hero. Instead, Johnny Appleseed is something like an American St. Francis — a special friend to animals, wearing his gunnysack clothes and saucepan hat instead of sackcloth and ashes. The story of his saving Brother Wolf from a trap, and mending the creature’s leg, seems a wholesale adoption from the saint’s legend where a thorn is removed from the Brother Wolf’s foot. And his death, as the tale has it, was a Glorious Death: with all of God’s creatures coming to surround the tree under which he lay, with the appearance of a rainbow bridge so that he might walk over into paradise, and with the blossoming of apple trees all across this great land from the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Gulf Stream Waters.

You’ll find it all in the anonymous ballad of “John Henry.” What you may need to know is this. Around 1870, John Henry (an African-American from West Virginia) helped build the Big Bend Tunnel for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. He was a steel-driver, creating holes in rocks by hammering a drill held by an assistant (a “shaker”); once the holes were made, dynamite was inserted and the rocks exploded into fragments. In the 1870’s, machines started to take over this job.

When John Henry was a little baby,
Sittin’ on his mammy’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
Sayin’, “Hammerin’ will be the death of me, Lord,
Hammerin’ will be the death of me.”

John Henry was a steel-drivin’ man,
And he drove all over the world,
And he came on down to Big Bend Tunnel (over on the C&O Road),
Where he beat the steam drill down, O Lord,
Where he beat the steam drill down.

John Henry said to the captain,
“Captain, you go to town,
Bring me back a twelve-pound hammer
And I’ll beat that steam drill down, Lord
I’ll beat that steam drill down.”

They placed John Henry on the right-hand side,
The steam drill on the left;
He said, “Before I let that stream drill beat me down
I’ll send my soul to rest, O Lord,
I’ll send my soul to rest.”

John Henry said to the shaker,
“Shaker, you better pray,
For if I miss that steel,
Tomorrow’ll be your burying day, Lord,
Tomoorow’ll be your burying day.”

The man that invented the steam drill
He thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry sunk the steel fourteen feet
And the steam drill only nine, Lord,
The steam drill made only nine.

Then John Henry said to his loving wife,
“I’m sick and I want to go to bed,
Fix me a place to lay me down
For there’s a roarin’ in my head, Lord,
There’s a roarin’ in my head.”

They took John Henry to the buryin’ ground,
And they laid him in a grave.
And every locomotive that comes roarin’ around
Says, “There lies a steel-drivin’ man, Lord,”
Says, “There lies a steel-drivin’ man.”

For a feminist version of the tall tale, see:

Tall Tale: Paula Bunyan

The summer I was twenty I worked in the North Cascades of Washington State. A few years later I read Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” and learned we had both worked in the same place. A young man, that was the first time it occurred to me that a place I had lived in could be made into literature.

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Where Was “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” Conceived?

In New England, in California, or in bed?

“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” illustration by Helen Mason Grose.

Jack Kerouac called Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm his favorite childhood book. Mark Twain found it “beautiful and moving and satisfying.” Jack London sent Wiggin a letter from the headquarters of the Japanese Army in Manchuria: “Rebecca won my heart.”

We have to be reminded of these opinions because Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm has an unfortunate reputation in our own time: it is associated with Shirley Temple, with the darling and sacchrine Little Girl. Unfortunately, this reputation shortchanges a marvelous book. See for yourself.

While Rebecca is endearing, she is the girlhood equivalent of Tom Sawyer — enterprising, mischievous, alive. And Wiggin’s novel is anything but a celebration of softheadedness, a fact that was recognized in her own time: While the book was still being readied for publication, the crew of hardboiled pressmen sent their congratulations to the author. After it appeared, the novel attracted a wide range of enthusiasts — including schoolchildren (who wore sashes with the letters “KDW” to indicate they were members of the author’s fan club) and the superintendent of a lunatic asylum (who wrote, “I have given ‘Rebecca’ to a number of my patients to read and they have derived great profit from it”). Equally revealing is the fact that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and London’s Call of the Wild were the topselling books of 1903.

1. New England

For those who fondly remember it, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is the classic New England story. Most of the events in the novel take place in “Riverboro,” Wiggin’s archetypal Maine village — a place full of meddling gossips, rural folks with Yankee dialects and expressions, New England spinsters, a salt-of-the-earth old couple, unmarried young schoolmarms, the obnoxious well-to-do family, and the spunky but ragged band of kids with a shiftless father. When it comes to regional literature, and Northern New England in particular, this book reads like a latterday version of Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine rewritten by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Of course, what also make it a Yankee book is Wiggin’s use of regional dialect, and her own Yankee wit and dry humor. Take, for example, her descriptions of:

  • a luckless family: “they had settled down and invited fate to do its worst, an invitation that was promptly accepted.”
  • or Mr. Simpson, the town’s thief and “swapper”: someone who spent a good deal of time in jail because “having nothing of his own, [he was obliged] to swap something belonging to his neighbors.”
  • or Mr. Simpson’s family: they are so poor they don’t even own a chair, which is fine because Mr. Simpson “ordinarily sat elsewhere at the town’s expense.”
  • or the goodhearted ambition of a young teacher working with a group of ill-prepared, country schoolchildren: This reminds Wiggins of the story of a Canadian beaver that was transported to London and up three sets of stairs to a room, where the beaver began to build a dam with no thought about the absence of water. “In the same manner did Miss Dearborn lay what she fondly imagined to be the foundations of the infant mind.”

Given its Yankee pot-roast flavor, it may surprise some people to learn that Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was actually inspired by California. It was Wiggin’s relocation to Santa Barbara that gave her the perspective to look back at her New England childhood and write about it. In fact, throughout her life, Wiggin shuttled between the West and East, and she even advocated a kind of bicoastal exchange program for young people.

2. California

Like Rebecca, Wiggin grew up in Maine and was a spontaneous and outspoken child. Her earliest recollection was of having been given a prayer book by an Episcopal rector, saying thank you and then adding “but I do wish you had given me almost anything else.” According to her autobiography My Garden of Memory, that was when she received her first spanking. It was also when she first learned “the necessity of concealing one’s own feelings.” Like Rebecca, she was a slow learner. A six-year-old child from Maine, she encountered Charles Dickens on a train and bound for his lecture engagement in Boston. Pleased, she told her favorite author how she loved and reread his books, but she also confessed that she skipped the dull parts:

He laughed heartily, . . . and, whether to amuse himself, or to amuse me, I do not know, he took out a notebook and pencil from his pocket and proceeded to give me an exhausting and exhaustive examination on this subject; the books in which the dull parts predominated; and the characters and subjects which principally produced them. He chuckled so constantly during this operation that I could hardly help believing myself extraordinarily agreeable.

A few years later, because of her stepfather’s poor health, the family moved to Santa Barbara. And California opened up a new world to her, one as beautiful as the one Dorothy found when she left the gray plains of Kansas and entered the floral world of Oz:

Now ensued what proved to be the most irresponsible, delightful, entirely healthful and enchanting year or two of my life. No words can describe the loveliness of Santa Barbara, with its semi-tropical atmosphere, its luxuriance of foilage and flowers, its semi-circle of mountains, its blue, blue sea! I had been used to the deep snows, and the late reluctant springs of Maine. In California, when the rains had ceased, April was a revelation of beauty hitherto unimagined. We had a pleasant house, although there were no positively unpleasant ones to be found. It was a free, eager, venturesome, joyous life altogether, and if I had a dozen daughters I should like those born in the East to have a breath of the West, while I would send the California girls to the East for a year or two.

Shortly thereafter, however, this bliss ended when Wiggin’s father died and left the family in a familiar California situation: he had speculated during a real estate boom and was mortgaged to the nines when the slump came. Penniless, seventeen-year-old Kate sought to help her family by writing. And she sold a children’s story (which was the germ of Rebecca) to St. Nicholas Magazine.

But Wiggin needed a more regular income and that meant returning to the East. She had heard about “the kindergarten movement” — an experiment based on the theories of the German educator Friedrich Froebel and conducted in Boston by Elizabeth Peabody at the school of her brother-in-law, Horace Mann. So, Wiggin traveled back East in 1879 to meet Peabody, and she fell under the spell of the transcendentalists.

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Elizabeth Peabody had organized in Concord, Massachusetts, a series of summer seminars on educational reform. Among the guest speakers was the whitehaired saint Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father and a pioneer in experimental education). After the morning sessions, in the humid afternoons, the participants would lounge among the shade trees of Sleepy Hollow Burying Ground like so many Rip Van Winkles. On one of these occasions, Peabody chided Wiggin for her hairstyle: “Our friend has developed much this week. Another year [and] she must be a real student, and I hope then her hair will be drawn back smoothly from her fine forehead.” Emerson, lounging against a nearby tombstone, is said to have responded: “I have seen smoother heads with less in them.”

Encouraged, Wiggin returned to the West. She trained in Los Angeles and then set up the first kindergarten west of the Rockies. Established in a San Francisco slum known as the Tar Flats, the “California Kindergarten Training-School” took in children from all social classes. Wiggin served as the first teacher, organizer, and fund-raiser from 1880 to 1884. After her marriage and return to the East Coast, she remained interested in the school (returning there every spring) and she often donated the profits from her writing to what became a flourishing educational endeavor.

3. In Bed

Wiggin believed that it was her relocation to New England that put her health into jeopardy. But ill health, she soon learned, had its advantages. From that point on, she would use the occasion of real or feigned illnesses to write in the sanctuaries of hospitals and health resorts. She found it best to write in bed: “My superiors, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, wrote many novels in bed. . . . One cannot see callers, answer the telephone, go to luncheons or dinners, visit the dentist or shoemaker, address charitable organizations in or from a bed; therefore a bed, in my experience, is simply bristling with ideas.”

Rebecca was conceived in bed. The book was begun at a Southern health resort and finished during a make-believe convalescence when she persuaded the doctors that the work was better out of her system than in it:

I am not the least a psychic person, but Rebecca’s origin was peculiar to herself. I was recovering from a long illness and very early one morning I lay in a sort of waking dream. I saw an old-fashioned stage-coach rumbling along a dusty country road lined with maple and elm trees. A kind, rosy-faced man held the reins that guided the two lean horses and from the window of the coach leaned a darkhaired gypsy of a child. I was instantly attracted by her long braids floating in the breeze and by the beauty of the eyes in her mischievous face. She pushed back a funny little hat with an impatient gesture, straightened it on her head with a thump, and, with some wriggling, managed to secure the attention of the driver by poking him with a tiny frilled parasol. That was all. The picture came, and went, and returned, and finally faded away, but it haunted me, and I would recall every detail of it at will. Too weak to write, I wondered who the child was, and whither she was traveling, and whence she had come. I could not content myself until I had created answers to my questions and the final answer was, indeed, the book itself.

“Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” illustration by Helen Mason Grose.

This dream would, of course, become the opening scene of the novel: Jerry Cobb as the ancient stagecoach driver and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as his spirited child passenger.

“People of the spirit” — the Bible says and Wiggin seems to echo — “are like the wind: we do not know from whence they come or whither they go.” But while Rebecca may have come from the unknown of dreams, the answers to where she came from and where she went can be found between the covers of Wiggin’s wonderful book.

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“Heidi” & “The Secret Garden”

Talking About Cultural Differences (from TALL, Teaching and Learning About Literature)

“We must be cured . . . by a cure of the ground / Or a cure of ourselves.” — Wallace Stevens, “The Rock”

Identifying the differences between particular cultures is a difficult and tricky business. To do this, a social scientist might design an experiment where individuals from different cultures are given an identical task or problem to solve. The different ways these individuals go about their task (and the different solutions they design) may, then, permit the social scientist to draw some conclusion about differences between cultures.

Literary critics, unfortunately, do not have the same opportunities. While social scientists can organize life in an a priori fashion and create an experiment, literary critics work after the fact and with “given” materials that they have had no hand in organizing. Nonetheless, on rare occasions, literary critics may sometimes encounter a situation that resembles that kind of experiment which a social scientist might design. When given that special opportunity, literary critics, too, might then hazard some observations about cultural differences.

Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden provide just that kind of opportunity. Both books are well known and, it is possible to argue, representative of their cultures: Heidi taking place in the Swiss Alps, The Secret Garden in the English countryside. Moreover, both novels are remarkably similar, taking up identical tasks and solving similar problems. But their methods of doing so and the solutions they devise are subtly different, and in those differences we may find intimations of the differences between Anglo-American and German-Swiss cultures.

1. The Same Story, Twice Told

The resemblances between Spyri’s and Burnett’s novels are so extensive that it seems clear that Burnett must have read Heidi (published in 1881, first appearing in English translation in 1884) before writing The Secret Garden (1911). Still, while making use of Spyri’s novel, Burnett altered the story in her own manner.

To compare the two books, we might begin by noting the extensive similarities. Their female protagonists, Spyri’s Heidi and Burnett’s Mary Lennox, are both orphans. Both girls are aided by misanthropic and paternal adults who are transformed by the child and made more congenial: Heidi’s grandfather and Mary’s friend, the gardener Ben Weatherstaff. Both girls suffer sleep disorders. Both girls are taken into homes of the well-to-do and make nocturnal explorations of these mysterious places: the Sesemann mansion in Frankfurt and Mary’s uncle’s mansion, Misselthwaite Manor. And both girls grow healthy out-of-doors and in curative places (the Alps and the Secret Garden) where they thrive on exercise and on a diet of fresh milk and fresh air.

Heidi and Mary also have a friend in a youth who might be described as the “Nature Boy.” Heidi’s friend Peter is goatherd and comes from a poor but supportive and maternal household. Mary’s friend Dickon is always seen in the company of the woodland animals he has made into his pets; and he, too, comes from a poor but supportive and maternal household.

Both novels also present a third child. Spyri’s Clara Sesemann and Burnett’s Colin Craven are both hypochondriacs who have lost the use of their legs. Both have also lost their mothers and been left in the care of housekeepers and physicians because their fathers are often traveling and away.

“Heidi,” illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

These resemblances should begin to suggest the wide similarities between the two novels. These echoes are even more striking in a pivotal scene in both books: when Clara steps from her wheelchair and walks, and when Colin steps from his wheelchair and does the same. On both occasions, the children have left the confinement of their homes (the Sesemann mansion / Misselthwaite Manor) and come to the out-of-doors (the Alps / the Secret Garden). When they try their first steps, both children are encouraged by and in the company of their female companion (Heidi / Mary), their male companion or the “Nature Boy” (Peter / Dickon), and the formerly misanthropic adult male who has since been redeemed (Heidi’s grandfather / Ben Weatherstaff). Moreover, this event is followed by a reunion of both children with their prodigal fathers (Mr. Sesemann / Mr. Craven), who now see that their offspring can walk.

2. Two Different Cures

Having acknowledged their similarities, we should now note the subtle differences between the two books. Heidi’s problem, her melancholia in Frankfurt, arises because she is homesick. Her mental state is improved when Clara’s grandmother teaches her to pray, but she is essentially cured when she returns to the Alps. Mary suffers from a similar melancholia in The Secret Garden, but it is not caused by homesickness; instead, Burnett explains that Mary’s problem is the result of having a mind “full of disagreeable thoughts.” Mary’s remedy, consequently, is different. While Mary does improve by working out-of-doors in the garden, Burnett explains that she is essentially cured when “beautiful thoughts began to push out the old, hideous ones.”

Fresh air or positive thinking

Both books, in other words, identify two kinds of cures, but in Heidi the emphasis falls on transformative places and in The Secret Garden on transformative thinking. This explains the subtle difference between the scene where Clara steps from her wheelchair and walks and the scene where Colin does the same. Spyri essentially suggests that Clara’s relocation to the Alps is what prompts her recovery. While the invalid Colin does get better when he goes outdoors and spends time in the Secret Garden, Burnett explains his problems are essentially solved when he learns to “push [negative thoughts] out by putting in an agreeable, determinedly courageous one.”

Cures in Spyri’s book, in other words, are essentially geographical, while in Burnett’s novel they are essentially mental. To say this differently: when faced with problems, a modern-day Heidi or Clara might go to some alpine spa and exercise in their leotards, while a modern-day Mary or Colin might enroll in a seminar on positive thinking.

Spyri, then, advocates the Alps as a loco remedium (remedy by place) — and in this regard, we might add, Spyri is more Swiss than Pietist. We might say the opposite about Burnett. Burnett advocates positive thinking as a mens remedium (remedy of the mind) — and, in that regard, she might be described as more Christian Scientist than Anglo-American.

Indeed, one of the secrets behind The Secret Garden is Burnett’s secret advocacy of the tenets of the Church of Christian Science, a religious sect which was started by Mary Baker Eddy and her book Science and Health (1875) and that emphasizes the remedial power of positive thinking. Throughout her novel, Burnett’s characters are constantly encouraging and optimistic, and their transformations are primarily the result of a mental regimen where bad thoughts are excluded and positive thoughts put in their place; in fact, like a good member of the Church, Colin even adds that the efficacy of this technique is verifiable by “scientific experiment.” But Burnett disguises the source of these beliefs and presents her message in a secular fashion: instead of using the familiar terms of Christian Science (“God” or “Divine Mind”), Burnett’s characters refer to “Magic.” In Burnett’s novel, “Magic” is an animating spirit in the world and can be harnessed through a regimen of positive thinking to bring about mental health.

Looked at in a cultural fashion, we might add that The Secret Garden offers an alternative to Germanic, problem-centered psychotherapy; in its place, the novel endorses a kind of fervid cheerfulness, an Anglo-American and quasi-religious advocacy of positive thinking. Spyri’s novel, on the other hand, is a book that must please the Swiss Board of Tourism. Heidi offers a patriotic endorsement of the curative power of the Alps, almost suggesting that they are a secular alternative to the flatlands of Fatima and Lourdes.

This essay originally appeared in TALL, Teaching and Learning Literature (March/April 1996). I discuss “The Secret Garden” more extensively in my study Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story. And I can’t pass without observing that my maternal grandmother, Blanche Muehlebach, was German Swiss and might have talked about the differences between the two books as “zauberberg” and “zaubergeist.”

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With Children and “Hansel and Gretel”

Talking about fairy tales with the very young

Illustration by Collin Knopp-Schwyn and Immanuel Giel (Wikimedia).

Once Upon a Time . . . there was:
*a girl in a red cloak who spoke to a wolf
*a maiden who lost her slipper as she ran from the ball
*two children who came to a Gingerbread House and met a witch
*a princess who slept for a hundred years
*a damsel who lived with seven dwarves and ate a poisoned apple

“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White” — these are what we call “fairy tales,” though a better name for them is “folk tales” (because, if they belong to anyone, they belong to the folk or humankind). These stories or tales, as we might simply call them, are among the most popular and most well known in the world.

Take “Cinderella,” for instance. Folklorists have found more than 340 versions of this story in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It is generally believed to be the most popular fairy tale. That would make it the most popular story in the world.

The universal popularity of these tales begins to suggest something about their extraordinary power. These old, old stories have spoken to millions of people, over many centuries, and around the globe.

But their extraordinary power can also be seen close at hand. Walk into the chaos of a school classroom and pronounce the incantation “Once Upon a Time” and a magical circle seems to be drawn and a spell descends. By the end of the storytelling, the classroom and the students are different, the mood changed, the situation altered. On occasions like those, the power of fairy tales is palpable.

Several years ago, I volunteered to tell fairy tales to a pre-school group. I was interested to see how children actually responded to the tales. I learned two things the day I told the story of “Hansel and Gretel.”

I told the story as best I could . . . speaking of the hunger the family faced, how the father and his wife plotted to abandon the children in the woods so there would only be two mouths to feed instead of four, how clever Hansel overheard the plot and filled his pocket with white rocks to mark the path back home . . . and then from the back of the room came a little voice saying, “Not white rocks. White pebbles.” But I continued with my story and, going a little farther along, I heard the voice from the back again, a little louder this time: “Not white rocks. White pebbles.” But I continued, and got a little farther into the story when the voice from the back became loud and insistent: “NOT WHITE ROCKS. WHITE PEBBLES.”

Then I did what I should have done in the first place: I stopped and paid attention. (Like many adults, I confess, I have to be reminded to listen when children speak.) So, I asked and listened. And the little girl explained how I was mistaken: “It’s not white rocks. It’s white pebbles.”

That’s the first lesson I learned that day: when it comes to these stories, children are the real conservatives who wish to preserve these tales just as they are. So, obliging, I retraced my steps in the story back to the point where I first made my mistake and inserted the words “white pebbles” and took up the story again from that point, remembering to use the phrase “white pebbles” as I proceeded.

I told how the children were abandoned in the woods a second time, how the birds ate the bread that Hansel had used to mark the trail home, how they came to the Gingerbread House and were imprisoned by the witch, how the witch planned to eat Gretel but the clever girl tricked the old woman and pushed her into the oven, how Gretel freed Hansel and they started home, and how (at the end of the tale) . . .

they went on happily until they came to the wood, and the way grew more and more familiar, till at last they saw in the distance their father’s house. Then they ran till they came up to it, rushed in at the door, and fell on their father’s neck. The man had not had a quiet hour since he left his children in the wood; but the wife was dead. . . . Then was all care at an end, and they lived in great joy together. [translation by Lucy Crane]

Now as I was finishing story, when I mentioned the dead wife, another five-year-old in the back of the room interrupted and said: “That was the witch.” And, of course, she was right. But that is something I know from having thought about the story for years and having read Bruno Bettelheim’s interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” in his The Uses of Enchantment. Even my university students are slow to make this recognition until it is pointed out that both the father’s wife and the witch say the same thing to the children in the morning (“Get up, lazybones”), that both mean to harm the children, and that the death of the witch and the wife seem synchronous.

But this child, at this storytelling, knew something in the twinkling of an eye. That was when I learned my second lesson of the day: while they may not often reveal this fact, children not only enjoy fairy tales — they also understand them.

Roadway sign in Ireland.


1. Versions. To give students a sense of the various ways a tale has been told, ask them to write the story of a favorite fairy tale as they remember it. Then help them look up an original version of the story and ask them to compare it to their own version, noting the differences. Often enough, students remember or partially remember the Disney version of a fairy tale; but even in these cases, they sometimes have altered this or that part of the story. Invite them to speculate about why they remember the story in a particular way: why they left some things out, altered the story in some way, or made additions.

This can be a good prelude to talking about different versions of a fairy tale. Jack Zipes has collected several dozen renditions of a well known story in his The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (Routledge, 1993). It is easy to locate versions of “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault and by the Brothers Grimm and to compare these to the Disney film; other interesting versions of the tale (and some splendid essays) can also be found in Alan Dundes’ Cinderella: A Casebook (Wildman Press, 1983). P.L. Travers offers six versions of another well known tale in About the Sleeping Beauty (McGraw Hill, 1975). And don’t overlook comic versions of the tales: in Jon Scieszka’s books, Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971), and James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (Macmillan, 1994).

2. Understanding. The teacher who wishes to lead students to a discussion of the meanings of fairy tales — who wishes to encourage analysis and interpretation — will find a wide variety of resources in the library or bookstore. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage, 1977), despite its psychoanalytical methodology, is perhaps the most accessible of all studies of the fairy tales. A new — dense but exciting — study is Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde (Farrar Straus, 1995). In the library, you will also find dozens of other worthwhile books by scholars and critics like Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Ruth Bottingheimer, Joseph Campbell, Maria Von Franz, and others.

When reading these works, assemble a collection of quotes about a particular tale that you can distribute to the students and then ask them to respond to. For example, if you were discussing “Sleeping Beauty,” you might ask older students to respond to the following ideas:

“Our fairy tale tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of the new day. Processes which eternally have taken shape in ‘Sleeping Beauty” — processes in nature which surround man.” — Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time

“The king ordered every spinning wheel / exterminated and exorcised. / Briar Rose grew to be a goddess / and each night the king / bit the hem of her gown/ to keep her safe. / He fastened the moon up / with a safety pin / to give her perpetual light. / He forced every male in the court / to scour his tongue with Bab-o/ lest they poison the air she dwelt in.” — Anne Sexton, Transformations

“You see them in high school study halls, twisting their tresses and staring out the window. . . . You see them on the couch, TV blaring, paging through Seventeen magazine . . . young, languid, bored. . . . They are convinced they are waiting for something, . . . for their real existence to begin. . . . Sleeping Beauty is most of all a symbol of passivity.” — Madonna Kolbenschlag, Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye

“So, face to face with the Sleeping Beauty — who has long been the dream of every man and the hope of every woman — we find ourselves compelled to ask: what is it in us that at a certain moment falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come at last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?” — P.L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

This essay originally appeared in San Diego State University’s “Children’s Literature Circle” (Spring 1998).

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Mark Twain & Whiteness

The many meanings of a color

2010 marks the 175th anniversary of Sam Clemens’s birth, the 100th anniversary of his death, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Now’s as good a time as any to contemplate the man who seemed to have been born in his white suit — indeed, to notice his special connections with that color.

Mark Twain made white clothes famous, though he was preceded in this bit of fashion by the American painter James McNeill Whistler who started wearing a white suit in Paris about a decade earlier or about the same time the poet Walt Whitman adopted workman’s clothes as his style in Brooklyn. Like television actors typecast as grandees (Ricardo Montalban, for example) or fossilized versions of Southern aristocrats (Col. Sanders, for instance), Twain made the white suit his trademark late in life when he was a white-haired author moving in a world of plutocrats with silver motorcars and steam yachts. You might call this the sartorial version of White Privilege.

About this same time — in his dotage and after the death of his beloved daughter Susie — Twain developed a special fondness for little girls. He sought them out wherever he was — in New York or the Connecticut countryside, while vacationing in Bermuda–and would soon assemble a troop of “Angel Fish,” as he called them, to regale and take on pony rides. Whatever this might reveal, it seems to have had the approval of the girls’ parents and been entirely innocent. In fact, perhaps to emphasize that innocence, Twain asked his young companions to wear their hair in braids and dress in white to match his own spotless apparel — viz. to dress in white pinafores.

It is as if, in his senior years, Twain sought in real life the company of that familiar figure in fiction of Nineteenth Century America–the Virgin in White, often synonymous with the White Virgin. The most famous of these was Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom Harriet Beecher Stowe described in this way: “Always dressed in white, she seemed to move like a shadow through all sorts of places, without contracting spot or stain.” Clemens and Stowe, incidentally, were next-door neighbors in Hartford, Connecticut; Clemens occupied his famous steamboat-like mansion and Stowe lived a stone’s throw away in a modest bungalow financed by the sale of the aforementioned Cabin.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was, of course, the famous bestseller that challenged slavery on the eve of the Civil War; indeed, Abraham Lincoln referred to Stowe as “the little lady who started the big war.” When Twain later published his own “Tom” book, he was nowhere as courageous as his Hartford neighbor in his treatment of race. Instead, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer takes a nostalgic look at the Good Old Days before the War and the few African-Americans who have cameos in the book seem to have wandered away from a minstrel show; we should add that Injun Jo fares little better and is scarcely distinguishable from the scalping stereotypes of pulp fiction and is almost as unacceptable when he is believed to be a “tawny Spaniard.” In fact, the issue of color conspicuously appears at only one point in the novel: in the memorable scene where Tom persuades his friends to whitewash the fence.

Twain’s sensitivity to issues of race developed over time and didn’t appear in print until nine years later in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There, you will remember, Huck goes against his “conscience” to help the runaway slave escape; in that book we have (as Lionel Trilling observed) “America’s most eloquent argument against racism”–despite, we might add, the occasional boneheaded school board. This consciousness about race continued to expand in the succeeding years when Clemens would, for example, subsidize the first African-American student admitted to Yale’s Law School. Indeed, he would have found the idea of “affirmative action” too mild; given the institution of slavery, what was due black citizens, he felt, was nothing less than reparations.

Besides a sense of injustice, Clemens’ sympathy for African-Americans was driven by fellow feeling. If we can add one more permutation to our meditations on Twain and Whiteness, that feeling of kinship arose because he was “poor white trash” (a term in Clemens’ time that signified the hardscrabble folks living on Tobacco Road). Because of his father’s poor investments and persistent bad luck, Clemens grew up poor; as he often said, his family was little better off than their impoverished black neighbors, except by virtue of their color. There is something of that in The Prince and the Pauper.

In any event, it was a great leap from barefoot child in backwater Missouri to the man in the white suit living in a Hartford mansion, after he married Livy Langdon (from a wealthy family in upstate New York) and began socializing with the likes of William Dean Howells and other Boston Brahmins. These changed circumstances lead his wife and Clemens’ Yankee friends to conclude that he needed what we now call a “makeover”: He needed to give up his western string tie and become gentrified in a hundred other ways. Clemens always claimed they “whitewashed” him.

Originally given as a lecture to the Friends of the Library, San Diego State University.

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My Ill- Fated Run for the Papacy

Revisiting my 2013 campaign to become Pope

Q) You’re just an ordinary schmuck. What made you think you had a chance to be Pope? You weren’t even a cardinal.

A) Actually, the custom that the College of Cardinals would choose among themselves is a relatively recent phenomenon, from the Fourteenth Century–that’s like yesterday in ecclesiastical time. Technically, to be a pontiff, you only have to be a baptized Roman Catholic male. I qualify. I was counting on that technicality.

Q) Wouldn’t yours be the first campaign ever run on the internet?

A) Look at my situation. I first had to get my name in front of those assembling in Rome. I figured if I got 10,000 “likes” on Facebook that the cardinals would have to pay attention. I got 23. Bad planning on my part. I didn’t go viral.

“It’s not your parents’ Church anymore.”

Q) Let’s assume you had become Pope. How would things be different?

A) Well, first off, I’d make it a part-time job. I’ve looked into the duties and there really aren’t that many. Mostly, occasional blessings. An encyclical here and there. Second, the Holy See would be moved. San Diego has much better weather than Rome. My slogan would be: “It’s not your parents’ Church anymore.”

Q) The Church has been rocked by scandals. Every week seems to bring news about another member of the clergy who abused young people. What would you have done about that?

A) I would go on record. The Church can’t just discourage pedophilia. The Church has to forbid it. If there remains any confusion, I would have proposed an addition to the Ten Commandments.

Q) Had you given any thought to what name you might have taken if you had been chosen as Pope?

A) Yes. Innocent XIV. Given all the scandals, I wanted to be able to say, “I’m Innocent.”

Q) Did you foresee any personal problems if you were made Pope?

A) Small things. Infallibility is a real conversation stopper. Say, you’re with a bunch of friends and someone asks, “Who was the best pitcher in the 1974 World Series?” As soon as you open your mouth, the conversation is over.

Q) Wouldn’t you be the first married pontiff?

A) Well, as you know, we don’t like to air our dirty laundry in public. Let’s just say that it’s time we had a leader of the Church who represented the not so small number of Catholics who are married. Now that another pontiff has been chosen, I am sad to admit that my wife had already given considerable thought to redecorating the Vatican apartments. She wanted to move away from “Michelangelo masculine.” She also complained that the Pope-mobile looked like an ice-cream truck.

Q) What about ordaining women? Are you in favor of women as priests? Would you also include gay priests?

A) Yes, yes, yes. I see no impediment to anyone who can speak conversational Latin.

Q) So, when that puff of white smoke ascended from the Sistine Chapel, and word came out that we had a new Pope, you must have been crushed? How was that for you?

Next time I’m using Twitter.

A) Well, it wasn’t like I didn’t get an Academy Award and the tv cameras zoomed in on my face to see how I was going to react. It wasn’t like that. What I thought was: “Too soon, too soon. The Church is not yet ready for the changes I would make. Like a cruise ship steaming across the ocean, the Church can’t just levitate on a dime.”

On the other hand, I thought, “Benedict, the prior Pope, has considerably expanded the Retirement Option. Who knows how long the current fellow, Francis, will serve before he decides to take the health benefits and retire to that J.R.R. Tolkein place–Castel Gandolfo.” So, call me a pontiff-in-waiting. Next time I’m using Twitter.

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Fairy Tales & Homeland Security

How to get the government to fund reading programs

“Little Red Riding Hood,” illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith

I’m on a campaign to get kids to read more children’s literature but the folks in the government aren’t listening. After my third federal grant application was turned down, in 2004 I turned to an expert in fund-raising for advice: “All the money is going to Homeland Security,” she explained, “if you can tie a project to that, you’re a sure thing.” That’s when I dreamed up my new project: “Teaching Preemptive Thinking: Fairy Tales and Homeland Security.” Of course, as part of these grant applications, the Money People always want samples of tasks to be performed and indications of what children will actually learn. I provide five here:

1) Hansel and Gretel are being held in the Gingerbread House by the Witch, who operates with impunity under the doctrine of territorial integrity. Assuming Hansel and Gretel are U.S. citizens, what argument can you fashion to justify an invasion of Fairyland?

Also considered U.S. territories are U.S. military installations abroad and residences of overseas personnel. By the same logic, we might argue that our interests extend to foreign locations of American-owned businesses and, for example, restaurants abroad frequented by Americans. Under what might be called the “McDonald’s Doctrine,” we can conclude that all places Americans visit lie within our territorial interests. Since Hansel and Gretel are American citizens, and since they are visiting or inhabiting the Gingerbread House, Fairyland might be considered as much a “territory of American interest” as North Dakota and an invasion justified.

2) The Thirteenth Fairy has pronounced a curse that on her fifteenth birthday the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a 100-year sleep. So, that his daughter does not become the Sleeping Beauty, the king has banned spindles in Fairyland. What could the American government do?

Faced with a credible threat (who knows how many princesses might be subject to similar curses?) and given the ineffective nature of bans on WMDs (viz. spindles), the American government should step forward and demand that the citizens of Fairyland surrender all their spindles. If they claim they have none, we should invade on grounds of “non-cooperation.” If post-invasion searches turn up no spindles, we should point out that cursing alone is a punishable offense.

3) The Wolf has been harassing the Three Little Pigs, blowing their houses down. How could things have gotten so far in Fairyland? Using preemptive thinking, what would you have done?

Wolves, per se, are bad (see “Big Bad Wolf”; see Little Red Riding Hood). Just as a certain person can be a “Bad Man,” and since badness is bad, the Wolf should have been in preventive detention. In order to effect this, an American grand jury should find against him in abstentia. With just cause, then, an American force can be dispatched to surgically extricate the Wolf from Fairyland in order to quarantine him, preferably in a military brig.

4) The prince has fallen in love with Cinderella but her evil stepmother has hidden her. The prince’s only means of tracking her down is her lost slipper but that means trying the shoe on every maiden in Fairyland. If this happened today, what would you advise the Prince to do?

Since the Prince is a ruler, and since his happiness influences the well being of Fairyland, the finding of Cinderella might be viewed as a National Security issue. 1) Under that proviso, it would be possible to monitor phone conversations and email, provided these are limited only to marriageable maidens in Fairyland. 2) A DNA sample might be taken from the shoe and matched against a national database. 3) Warrant-less, sneak-and-peak searches might be conducted on the households of Fairyland in order to find the other matching shoe. 4) Library records might be examined to see if anyone has recently taken out a book on dressmaking.

5) The Emperor buys from some cronies a garment that is said to be magical; supposedly, only the patriotic can see it and it is invisible to those who are unpatriotic. In fact, the garment doesn’t exist and the Emperor has been tricked. One day, the Emperor wears this nonexistent garment at a parade and many people, having heard about its magic reputation, “Ooh” and “Ah” about the clothing they pretend to see. But a little child shouts out, “He’s naked” and some people begin to laugh. What would you do to prevent the Emperor further embarrassment?

Issue a gag order to the child’s parents and encourage others at the parade to submit the equivalent of our S.A.R. (Suspicious Activity Report) to a “tips” website that has been well advertised. Fairyland’s government might also (ahem) provide handsome grants to the deserving in order to reeducate children by means of stories.

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Bedtime Reading

Reading at bedtime helps children become better dreamers

Why is bedtime a customary time to read stories with children? Even in the days before the printing press, at night, our ancestors would gather around fires and tell stories before falling asleep. Why at that time?

In his now famous studies, Canadian neurologist Wilder Penfield found we humans have a pressing and biological need to dream. Penfield designed an experiment where his research subjects were denied the chance to dream: just at the moment they began to exhibit signs of dreaming (signaled by rapid eye movement or “rem sleep”), they were woken up. The results? When prevented from dreaming, Penfield’s research subjects became confused and psychotic. Indeed, Penfield had planned to conduct his research over a month but after a week, the behavior of the people he was observing became so bizarre and potentially injurious to themselves that he was obliged to break off the experiment.

If we have a biological need to dream, then what is it we need to do when we dream? The answer can be found in, of all places, James Barrie’s Peter Pan. Children’s waking lives, Barrie observes, are full of miscellaneous events: the “first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needle-work, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on.” When the young fall asleep and dream, this miscellany is converted into stories — for example, about “coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose.”

We shape that jumble of our lives into more coherent and orderly stories.

Dreams, in other words, are the result of a biological need to make sense of our lives and we do so in two ways. We shape that jumble of our lives into more coherent and orderly stories. And we take up the issues and events of our lives by means of analogies: for example, a child concerned about selfish siblings may dream of dragons guarding treasure chests.

Here is precisely the reason why bedtime is a terrific time to take up stories. Understood in one way, books amount to instructions in dreaming: in their fictional story-making and analogies, they replicate or exemplify what dreamers do. But besides offering models of the technique of story-making, reading at bedtime can also provide the young with ideas, characters, and plots that they can subsequently use when they fall asleep so that their dreams are more vivid and more organized, and thereby more satisfying. Reading at bedtime helps children become better dreamers.

As adults know, we sometimes wake exhausted in the morning after a restless night of jumbled and chaotic dreams; then we didn’t get a “good night’s sleep” At other times, after a night of satisfying dreams where all the loose ends are tied up, we awake refreshed and ready to take on the day. Anyone who has talked with children about their dreams knows that the same is true with them.

This, then, is the reason, why bedtime is a terrific time to take up stories with children. At night, when we dream, we are all more or less creative writers–some good, some bad; some skilled, some amateurish. Reading with children at bedtime helps them become “better writers” when they dream. This effort to make sense of our lives in nocturnal storymaking, Penfield’s experiments demonstrate, is absolutely essential to our health and well being. Reading with children at bedtime helps them do a better job at this and brings those benefits Penfield describes.

One of the striking things about children’s picture books is how often the story takes place at bedtime or concerns falling asleep. (How many adult books can you think of that pay special attention to that moment of our lives or that address, for example, how scary it can be when going to bed by yourself?) Among the very young, my favorite bedtime book remains Goodnight Moon. With the slightly older child, I recommend Randall Jarrell’s haunting Fly by Night which tells the story of David who flies in his dreams and describes what he sees.

Heidi, illustration by Gustaf Tenggren.

Perhaps the best book for older readers on the topic of sleeping and dreaming is Joanna Spyri’s Heidi. When the little girl comes to her grandfather’s alpine cabin, she especially chooses a place to sleep and makes a nest for herself in the hay in grandfather’s attic. There she sleeps contentedly until she is forced to relocate to the city of Frankfurt. Heidi’s troubled time there is revealed by what psychologists call sleep-and-dream disorders: every night she sleepwalks. Fortunately, however, she is returned to her beloved Alps and her grandfather, and once more dozes contentedly in her attic nest.

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Travel in England Via Kids’ Books

Next time I fly into Heathrow, I will present both my passport and my library card

Great, interactive website called created by VisitEngland but, alas, is no longer available.

One of the reasons that England is a favorite destination for Americans going abroad is that travel there may provoke feelings of deja vu. If there were children’s books in your childhood, chances are you spent years reading about the place. Indeed, many readers may have grown up in England before ever journeying there.

Our notions of London (from Kensington Park to Paddington Station) were formed by Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and, of course, A Bear Called Paddington. My own knowledge of the English countryside came from reading Beatrix Potter’s books, well before I ever traveled to Sawrey and Hilltop Farm where Peter Rabbit and his cousins actually lived. Then there was Doctor Dolittle and dozens of others–so many set in England, in fact, that I ought to claim dual citizenship. Indeed, next time I fly into Heathrow, I will present both my passport and my library card.

Not that I am authentically English. Unlike the Brits, Weetabix doesn’t strike me as the ideal breakfast cereal but rather as a clever way to compress cardboard boxes. On their part, my English friends don’t understand why, for example, Americans (myself included) aren’t bonkers on Enid Blyton’s books. The same goes for Thomas the Tank Engine, a series of railroad-themed picture books beloved by the English but that strike others (myself included) as simply stories about trains with smiley faces.

If you’re traveling to the UK, and you are a parent or children’s literature enthusiast, you might spend a little time doing research on the internet to link locales with children’s books and their authors. If traveling to Yorkshire, for example, you can get information on sites in The Secret Garden you can visit; and if traveling to the Lake District, those in Swallows and Amazons. Or, variously, you can find itineraries for following in the footsteps, say, of Robert Louis Stevenson or J.K. Rowling, tracing parts of Treasure Island or the Harry Potter books.

But even if you aren’t traveling abroad, making this kind of literary geography can be a wonderful adventure in itself. Did you know that Oxford is the home not only of Alice’s Lewis Carroll and Narnia’s C.S. Lewis, but The Dark Materials’ Philip Pullman? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were written by two different authors (Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming) but they lived in the same neighborhood. And the very same locale that inspired The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh also prompted that fearsome animal story Watership Down. Discovering this kind of information can be armchair travel at its best.

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The Kids’ Lit Quiz

Report on the Kids’ Lit World Final, aka the “Olympics of Reading”

Wayne Mills and the 2008 Kids’ Lit Quiz national team from New Zealand.

Wayne Mills objects to any comparisons between America’s National Spelling Bee and his own New Zealand-based “Kids’ Lit Quiz.” He sees the American contest as eccentric: “Kids are asked to spell an obscure word they’ll never use again.” In 2008, the Bee’s winning word was “guerdon.”

In the Mills’ Kids’ Lit Quiz, youngsters are asked about children’s literature:

  • “Who stole vegetables in Mr. McGregor’s garden?”
  • “Who had a mother called Mrs. Coulter?”

[Answers: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Phillip Pullman’s Lyra in “The Golden Compass”].

There’s an important difference there, Mills insists. To do well in the Spelling Bee, young Americans read a dictionary. To prepare for the Kids’ Lit Quiz, youngsters read hundreds of novels and literary works. The Spelling Bee is an affirmation of American individualism since it predictably features the triumph of a bespectacled autodidact. The Kids’ Lit Quiz, on the other hand, fosters teamwork since seventh and eighth graders form into reading groups of four that compete to get the best score by answering the 100 questions they are given.

“Born in 1965 . . . .” Buzz! “J.K. Rowling.”

In 2008, some 4000 kids earned places on teams from seven countries: China, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. By means of local rounds, followed by regionals and then nationals, eight teams were finally selected to travel (expense-paid) to the international competition in Oxford. Excitement was high. Cash awards were offered. At the heats, it was not unusual for team members to hammer their buzzer before Mills even completed a question: “Born in 1965 . . . .” Buzz! “J.K. Rowling.”

2008 marked a first. Previously, world champions have been all-girl or mixed teams. On July 10, an all-boy team from London’s Arnold House won the trophy. It was a special moment in Mills’ effort to use the Quiz to woo reluctant readers: “Their win was a powerful statement about boys and reading and in particular about how the combination of reading and competition appeals to boys. The competition brings boys out into the open and reaffirms for them that reading is cool.”

All-boy team from London’s Arnold House won the 2008 trophy in an international competition at Oxford.

That was the original thinking behind Mills’ creation of the Quiz in 1991. Talking with me in New Zealand, he said, “We live in a sports-mad country where achievement in school was only recognized on the playing field and at science fairs. There was nothing for our passionate young readers. The competitive side to the quiz was a real draw.”

Among those believing in Mills’ vision is writer Philip Pullman, who subsidized the 2006 and 2007 World Finals out of his own pocket. In 2008, corporate sponsors like Scholastic Books and Oxford University Press stepped up. Looking ahead, Mills hopes that twenty countries will be competing by 2020. The Land of the Spelling Bee, alas, has yet to field a team.

I met Wayne Mills when I traveled to New Zealand in 2008. An essay arising from the trip appears here: “New Zealand YA Novels.” Information on the Kids’ Lit Quiz can be found here:

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Reading “Series Books” Backwards

Chasing descendants, making ancestors (from TALL: Teaching and Learning About Literature)

Series books call attention to a special way of reading literature: over time. We can visit and then revisit Narnia or the Land of Oz. We can follow the further and developing adventures of Babar or the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. When we encounter series books and sequels, our predilection is to read these works in a “forward” fashion, in a progressive or evolutionary manner. But can we use this same way of “reading over time” in unconventional ways? Can we read works “backwards” — looking for prequels and progenitors — and come to new understandings of literary works?

1. Sendak’s Trilogy

Maurice Sendak has insisted that three of his picture books constitute a trilogy. Taking note of that, readers and critics often take them up in a chronological fashion in terms of their order of publication: 1) Where the Wild Things Are, 2) In the Night Kitchen, and 3) Outside Over There. In general, readers and critics have followed ideas and images from the relatively simple story of Where the Wild Things Are through the growing complexity of In the Night Kitchen to the dense profundity of Outside Over There. Others have also noted how Sendak’s earlier work Pierre in some ways anticipates Where the Wild Things Are, and they suggest how Pierre might be viewed as its prequel.

Imagine, however, that Sendak wrote these works in reverse order. Such an exercise in “reading backwards” might yield new and fresh understandings of Sendak’s books. In this experiment, it might seem to us that Sendak was continually working with ideas until they became simpler and simpler until he reached some “core” realization.

If Sendak’s trilogy is read backwards, Ida’s rococo aerobatics in Outside Over There might seem clearer when they are subsequently rephrased in Mickey’s aerial adventures in Night Kitchen. And Mickey’s nocturnal time in that imaginary hinterland known as the “Night Kitchen” might seem all the more understandable when subsequently reimagined as Max’s even simpler escapades in the Land of the Wild Things. Finally–linking the culminating scenes of Where the Wild Things Are (where Max is shedding his wolf suit) and Pierre (where Pierre tumbles out of the lion’s mouth)–we might view Pierre not only as a simpler and clearer version of Where the Wild Things Are but as the ultimate expression of the ideas Sendak has been struggling to get across.

We are only scratching the surface here; much deeper and more sophisticated realizations can be made by reading Sendak in this fashion. And this is only one example of what might be yielded by a “backwards” reading of series books.

2. Tarzan’s Progenitors

Who is my father, in this world, in this house,
At the spirit’s base?
My father’s father, his father’s father, his–
Shadows like winds
Go back to the parent . . .
At the head of the past.
–Wallace Stevens, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”

To read “backwards” is to seek out parents. And, as in real life and in the era of DNA testing, we may sometimes encounter surprises. We may sometimes discover that a work is a literary bastard, an illegitimate offspring, an unofficial sequel. In this way too, our notion of a “series book” can be expanded.

Take, as a special moment, this short description of Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes:

The young Lord Greystoke was indeed a strange and warlike figure, his mass of black hair falling to his shoulders . . . with the noble poise of his handsome head upon those broad shoulders, and the fire of life and intelligence in those fine, clear eyes, he might readily have typified some demigod of a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest.

Burroughs’ story (of a boy raised by apes) is really a sequel to Rudyard Kipling’s stories in The Jungle Books (of a boy raised by wolves). Consider Kipling’s description of Mowgli:

As he stood there in the red light of the oil lamp, strong, tall and beautiful, his long black hair sweeping over his shoulders, the knife swinging at his neck, and his head crowned with a wreath of jasmine, he might easily have been mistaken for some wild god of a Jungle legend.

Burroughs always claimed that Tarzan was not Mowgli’s offspring and that he never read Kipling’sJungle Books until after he had begun his Tarzan series, but the facts seem to suggest otherwise. Burroughs did admit publicly, however, that his favorite childhood books included Samuel Clemens’The Prince and the Pauper and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy. So, perhaps, we ought to also seek out Tarzan’s parents there.

The Prince and the Pauper bears some resemblance to Burroughs’ book. Clemens’ novel tells its famous story of switched places, of how a prince suddenly finds himself in the hurly burly world of the lower classes and survives. Burroughs’ novel takes this a bit further and tells how the young Lord Greystoke suddenly finds himself in the hurly burly of the jungle and among the lower orders (the apes) and how he survives.

Likewise, Burroughs’ other favorite childhood book, Little Lord Fauntleroy, tells the story of a boy (the offspring of nobility) who finds himself among working-class people in America. And, like Tarzan (Lord Greystoke), Little Lord Fauntleroy ascends from these circumstances.

But since we are talking about “unauthorized sequels” and “illegitimate offspring,” we might also note a further curious thing about Little Lord Fauntleroy: Mark Twain claimed to be the father of this work. The Prince and the Pauper was published a few years before Little Lord Fauntleroy and Clemens had sent an inscribed copy to Burnett. WhenFauntleroy appeared, Clemens felt that Burnett had borrowed from his book and contemplated a copyright–or paternity–suit.

But we can go further. If Clemens had a legitimate claim as the actual father of Fauntleroy, perhaps Louisa May Alcott ought also to have considered a suit and claimed to be its mother. In Little Women, Alcott had introduced Laurie (an effeminate boy) and his grumpy grandfather Mr. Lawrence (who had disapproved of his late son’s marriage to an Italian woman). In Fauntleroy, Burnett seems to have lifted this idea: presenting her story of Cedric (another effeminate boy) and his grumpy grandfather the Earl of Dorincourt (who disapproved of his late son’s marriage to an American woman).

What can we finally say, then, about Burroughs’ Tarzan? It is an unofficial “series” book; and the series begins with Little Women, continues right on through The Prince and the Pauper and Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Jungle Books, until it arrives at Tarzan of the Apes. Reading “backwards,” in other words, we encounter a secret history of literary illegitimacy: Tarzan’s father seems to have been Rudyard Kipling and his mother Frances Hodgson Burnett; on his mother’s side, his grandfather was Samuel Clemens and his grandmother Louisa May Alcott. Here is an expanded notion of what constitutes a “series book.”

3. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Canon Making

Literature classes, like some anthologies, are often organized in a chronological fashion. This can sometimes create the mistaken notion that the evolution of literature has been a seamless thing, free of accidents. American literature, for example, might seem an inevitable march from Washington Irving, through Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry James, to T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison.

But the truth is that any vision of evolution or progress is implicitly a “backwards” reading. If we now pay attention to Walt Whitman or Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson, it is because later writers chose them as their forefathers or foremothers–chose them and not other possible authors, who then remain aside and apart from this otherwise direct line of succession. In this way, later writers engage (almost invisibly) in canon making, defining the “worthy” literary works of the past that merit attention. Antecedents become precedents.

The full name of the heroine of Kate Douglas Wiggins’ Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is Rebecca Rowena Sawyer Randall. The name “Sawyer” provides one clue. In Clemens’ novel, Tom Sawyer’s sweetheart is Becky Thatcher, who is called “Rebecca” once in the novel. The name of Wiggins’ heroine almost invites us to imagine what a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer might look like, a sequel where Tom and Becky marry and have a daughter called (say) “Rebecca Sawyer.” Indeed, it isn’t surprising, consequently, to encounter echoes of Clemens’ novel in Wiggins’ later book–especially in Wiggins’ schoolroom scenes.

But Wiggins’ character is also named “Rebecca Rowena.” As another character in the novel observes: “Both? Your mother was generous.” The reference here is to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with its two heroines: the dark-complected Rebecca and the fair Lady Rowena. But what is even more interesting is that, in creating her character’s name, Wiggins has seen something and linked Scott’s Ivanhoe with Clemens’Tom Sawyer. Again, antecedents become precedents.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, then, is something like an anthology of literature that invites us to see a line of succession. In Ivanhoe, Scott’s Rebecca is attractively dark because she is Jewish, and the villain (Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert) is taken with her and attempts to forcibly steal her virtue. James Fenimore Cooper revised Ivanhoe in The Last of the Mohicans. Here, Scott’s Rebecca is renamed Cora, and her appeal and dark complexion comes from a touch of African blood. Instead of a Frenchman, Cooper makes the seducer a villainous Indian, Magua.

The Last of the Mohicans, in turn, inspired much of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. While it is interesting how much Huckleberry Finn resembles Cooper’s character Natty Bumppo, what is more to the point is Twain’s adoption of Cooper’s would-be rapist and Indian villain Magua in his creation of Injun Joe. But, since he was writing a children’s book, Clemens had to avoid the central subject in Scott and Cooper; inTom Sawyer there is no talk of rape, and Twain turns his predecessors’ maiden into the aged Widow Douglas. In her own book for children, Wiggins took a different turn and avoided the carnal subjects of Scott and Cooper in another fashion: she deleted the Indian and would-be rapist, but she restored the maiden (making her both dark and fair, Rebecca and Rowena).

Here, then is a phenomenon worth noting: a book where the very name of the title character defines its antecedents, a novel that announces itself as a “series book.” If you want to understand Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm then, start with Ivanhoe, then read The Last of the Mohicans and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Moreover, this “series” may be continued. After the publication of her book, Wiggins invited her readers to write or imagine the next book in this “series.” Wiggins received so many letters asking for a sequel to Rebecca that she finally composed a form letter to be sent out in reply:

No, I shall decidedly not write a sequel to ‘Rebecca,’ because I feel that it might disappoint my readers. You see, there always is a sequel to every story, but it is thought out by each of its readers for himself; consequently, a book has as many sequels as it has readers. . . . My correspondence demonstrates at least that its readers are anxious to go on with it, but Rebecca is theirs now, no longer mine, and their accounts of her further life would interest me much more than my own could possibly do.

You can, of course, take up Wiggins’ invitation.


  1. Take one of your favorite books (it can be a series book) and imagine a sequel set in our own times–for example: “Tom Swift and his Nuclear Submarine.” Take one of your favorite books and imagine a prequel–for example: what was Mole’s life like before the opening of The Wind in the Willows? Just as the acorn becomes an oak and not an alder, a good sequel or prequel has to be consistent with the work it based upon. Now look at your own sequel or prequel. What things did you carry forward or backwards? In what ways were you consistent with the original work? Noticing these consistencies, what then does your sequel or prequel reveal about what was in the original work?
  2. Consider a set of stories in a series. For example, the Star Wars episodes. Do they make sense at all if they are considered in reverse order? What new views do you have of stories if you think about them in this backwards fashion? What is the best order in which to see the Star Wars movies? Here is the order of their release: Star Wars (A New Hope) (1977), The Empire Strikes Back(1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983), then The Phantom Menace(1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith(2005). Here is their order in terms of events: Phantom Menace (I),Attack of the Clones (II), Revenge of the Sith (III), New Hope (IV), Empire Strikes Back (V), and Return of the Jedi (VI).
  3. “Series books” often imply a clear sense of time: this happened “before” and this happened “after.” What is the experience when time is “mixed up”? Consider the simultaneous presence of the past, present, and future in “Rip Van Winkle” or Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, or in films like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future.

A version of this essay originally appeared in TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults (Jan/Feb 1996).

Día de los Muertos & Halloween

Food and the dead, Irish begging door-to-door, Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”

Anon. Día de los Muertos.

Now celebrated in many parts of the world, Halloween has come to mean different things to different people. For some adults, the holiday has acquired a Mardi-Gras flavor and offers opportunities to pose at parties and bars as preening pimps and naughty nurses. Spandex, it seems, has liberated many a black cat and outed a number of otherwise closeted French maids. “If you’re over twenty-one,” a student of mine observed, “Halloween is more about stare than scare.”

For kids, Halloween remains a night to sport with fears and make candy-seeking visits to homes decorated with spider webs and grinning jack-o-lanterns. It’s also a time when their wishes aren’t hidden; they get to walk around as Spidermans and Cinderellas. And the night before All Soul’s Day is also the time when youngsters–dressed as the Grim Reaper, or bloodthirsty vampires, or ghosts who have suffered ghastly wounds–pound on the doors of the aged and say not “Memento Mori” but “Trick or Treat.”

For adolescents, the night may be more about Trick than Treat. Tipping over outhouses and soaping people’s windows now seem pranks from a bygone era when folks bobbed for apples and told stories about the Headless Horseman. Nowadays, it’s more likely a neighbor’s yard will be festooned with toilet paper–or worse. In Detroit, Devil’s Night (October 30) has come to mean arson and unchecked civic mayhem. In Ireland, the traditional bonfires have been replaced by packs of youths burning tires in the streets.

We have the Irish to thank for Halloween. For the ancient Celts, October 31 was a “hinge” time that marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. As the days darkened, the boundaries between the living and dead became blurry. In the festival of Samhain, food was left out for hungry ghosts and the living masqueraded as the dead, begging food or “soul cakes” door-to-door.

Wishing to incorporate this pagan celebration into Christianity, Pope Boniface in the Ninth Century declared November 1 “All Saints’ Day”; and so, the night before came to be called “All Hallow’s Eve” and eventually “Halloween.” Then, after the famines of the Nineteenth Century, the hungry Irish brought this food-gathering custom to the other side of the Atlantic. Here they discovered that American pumpkins served as better shelters for their candles than the customary hollowed-out turnips they had used back home.

To be sure, the notion that the dead are hungry is found all over the world, but especially in Latin America and particularly in Mexico. Since time immemorial, food offerings have been connected to the indigenous celebration of El Día de los Muertos, a custom later linked with the Christian events of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2).

Our family altar for one Día de los Muertos

In our Irish-Mexican household, we celebrate the Day of the Dead in the customary way: constructing an altar covered with photographs and ofrendas (offerings of our loved ones’ favorite meals). Other folks mark the way into their homes with marigold petals and candles so the dead don’t get lost, and still others are even more considerate and go to the cemetery to picnic with the deceased and clean their gravestones.

What’s important to understand about El Día de los Muertos is its macabre humor. People tell funny stories about the dead. Sugar skulls (calaveras) and zany skeletons (calacas) are used as comic decorations. And the vision of an abundance of food on the one hand, and hungry ghosts on the other, is likely to prompt, I can report, jokes about graveyard Jenny Craigs and Latinas on Slim-Fast.

Talking about the macabre, besides Michael Jackson in “Thriller,” the person who really gets this holiday is Tim Burton. His popular animated film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” tells the story of Jack Skellington (the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town) who decides to escape his place in the calendar (October 31) and disastrously invade December 25. But be advised: Charles Dickens got there ahead of Burton. In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens was probably the first to link the ghost story with the Nativity and propose that the typical sound of Christmas Eve was not reindeer prancing on rooftops but the Halloween-like howling of doomed spirits dragging chains behind them.

Even so, Burton got something right. When you can see Goths any day of the week, when you consider the time-less appeal of vampire stories, it’s clear Halloween won’t stay in its place on the calendar.

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And see these related essays:

KidLit: 11) American History & Politics

George Washington, the War for Independence, the Tea Party, Lynne Cheney’s poor timing, Obama’s children’s book (more)

Patriotic Biographies

The Lives of the Saints gave way to the Lives of the Patriots

American Children’s Literature changed in 1809 with the publication of George Mason Weems’ The Life of Washington the Great, with its well known (but invented) story of the young and future president chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Before that, America’s young were given biographies about children who were virtuous in a religious way. But after Weems’ immensely popular book, the Lives of the Saints gave way to the Lives of the Patriots. A number of children’s books in this season’s crop of biographies continue that stirring tradition.

When Washington Crossed the Delaware. All Ages.
By Lynne Cheney; paintings by Peter M. Fiore.
Simon and Schuster, $16.95 (Hardcover)

At a time of year when others recite “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” or sing “Oh, Holy Night,” Lynne Cheney seems something of an exception. Apparently when the Cheney clan (including her husband, the Vice-President) gathers with hot chocolate around the yule fire, Lynne Cheney recounts how George Washington crossed the Delaware River in darkness and surprised a garrison of Hessian soldiers. “This is the story that I tell my grandchildren at Christmas,” she writes.

Recall that story. By the end of 1776, the British had soundly defeated the rebels in quick succession at the start of the war. Thinking his “mission accomplished,” the British General Cornwallis had grown confident and lax. The issue then was: How could a ragtag bunch of insurgents “succeed against the mightiest power in the world” and “the greatest army in the world”? The answer, Cheney tells us, was “surprise.” Several hundred fighters rowed across the Delaware in the middle of the night, staged a guerilla attack on Christmas day upon occupying coalition forces (Hessian mercenaries employed by the British), killed many and took hostages, and the tide of the war changed forever. I must add that if this wasn’t actually a part of our country’s past, it might seem uncanny how Cheney unwittingly echoes recent events in Iraq–where roles are reversed and the American occupying force is battling ragtag insurgents.

While more impressionistic, Peter Fiore’s accompanying paintings remind me of N.C. Wyeth’s pictures for the Scribners’ edition of Treasure Island. It was at first puzzling why so many in Fiore’s rendition of Washington’s ragtag army looked like pirates and buccaneers. Then I recalled Frank O’Hara’s poem about Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting “George Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the one with our standing hero facing forward at the front of the boat, the Stars and Stripes unfurling behind him. It’s “a pirate’s flag,” O’Hara observes.

You’re on Your Way, Teddy Roosevelt. Ages: 9 & Up.
By Judith St. George; illustrated by Matt Faulkner.
Philomel Books, $16.99 (Hardcover)

In familiar advertisements in yesteryear’s comic books, Charles Atlas (once a “97 pound weakling”) sold his regimen of bodybuilding exercises by picturing a bully kicking sand in the face of a thin fellow lying at the beach with his girlfriend. The young Teddy Roosevelt, Judith St. George tells us, was also a puny child and suffered horribly from asthma. But he overcame those problems by playing outdoors, going to the gym, camping and riding, and learning how to box in order to take on childhood bullies who taunted him about his thick glasses. He became the twenty-sixth president of the United States.

This book is the first in a promised series of stories about the childhoods of our forty-two presidents and the “turning point in their young lives.” These days, predictably, that means “Facing Problems and Overcoming Them.” Another president (Ronald Reagan) once said, “Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.” The same might be said about much of contemporary children’s publishing.

Caesar Rodney’s Ride. Ages: 9 & Up.
By Jan Cheripko; illustrated by Gary Lippincott.
Boyd’s Mills Press, $16.95 (Hardcover)

To tell the larger story of the Second Continental Congress and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jan Cheripko takes up the minor story of Caesar Rodney–a largely unknown delegate from Delaware who rode some eighty miles by horseback to attend the meeting at the last minute and vote. By means of this technique, readers are introduced to information about the issues then being debated and we see in the background those patriots (John Adams, Ben Franklin, and others) usually found in the foreground. Balancing foregrounds and backgrounds, Gary Lippincott provides competent illustrations for the book.

The story is made compelling by sacrifice and suspense. Rodney’s ride was long and hard, and Cheripko makes much of the fact that Rodney had suffered from cancer of the face and asthma; but for a story of patriotic sacrifice, one can only wish that he might also have had to plow through horrible snowstorms rather than just suffer from saddle sores and a July thunderstorm. Suspense is generated by cinema-like crosscutting between Rodney’s ride and events unfolding against the clock in Philadelphia where the vote would be taken for a declaration of independence or not; of course, it would have been wonderful if the vote was close and Rodney had arrived just in time with a tie-breaker but, as the author concedes, that wasn’t quite the case.

History has a way of not being as interesting as fiction, but this book goes to great lengths to overcome that by trying to put Caesar Rodney’s Ride right up there with Paul Revere’s.

Aside from exemplary problem-solving, then, there is one good reason to buy this book and that is Matt Faulkner’s terrific pictures. Faulkner knows the one piece of advice routinely given to amateur photographers: always take several steps closer to the scene you wish to capture. But more than this, he has a comic genius that recalls the very best of similar moments in Disney’s films (say, the village scene in “Beauty and the Beast” or caricatures in “Pinocchio”). This comic touch is just the right counterbalance to this earnest story because it reminds us that, besides grit and determination, problems are just as often solved (or dissolved) by wit and humor.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (January 2005).

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Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Forge”

The American Revolution from a slave’s point of view (from the New York Times Book Review)

Forge. By Laurie Halse Anderson. 297 pp. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. $16.99. (Ages 10 and up)

Men in tricorn hats dressed like American Revolutionaries and their spouses as Betsy Ross lookalikes, the Tea Party insisting the right-wing agenda of their political party makes them the legitimate heirs of the Founding Fathers–this is an interesting time for Laurie Halse Anderson to publish “Forge,” her new novel about the Revolution and colonial-era slavery, and a sequel to her prize-winning “Chains.”

While her books take up some of the same themes as the “Octavian Nothing” novels of M. T. Anderson (no relation) — the link between the freedom of the colonies and the freedom of slaves, the double-dealing and hypocrisy of both the American colonists and the British — they are as different as “Magic Mountain” is from “The Diary of Anne Frank”; the two volumes of “Octavian Nothing” are encyclopedic and magisterial, whereas “Chains” and “Forge” are conspicuous for their almost claustrophobic narrative voices.

In “Chains,” significant events involving the Tories and the patriots unfold in the background while the voice of Isabel, a slave, commands our attention; the commotion outside enters her consciousness only as “buzzing.” On the inside, however, Isabel is screaming. Within her sensory cocoon, this slave girl’s life is one of constant hurt from whippings, a branding, imprisonment, and mistreatment. In this, “Chains” is not far from Anderson’s first and still most well known novel, Speak,” which reports the inner monologue of a fourteen-year-old girl who is raped and grows mute.

A new narrator appears in “Forge” (the second book in an anticipated trilogy). Curzon is another slave and the boy who captured Isabel’s interest in “Chains.” The scene changes too, from a besieged New York to the winter encampment of Valley Forge. But what continues is the close, internal voice of an abused narrator. Curzon is not only a freed slave returned to bondage, but a new recruit in the Continental Army during that winter’s freezing cold and constant hunger.

Valley Forge has forever been linked with Thomas Paine’s question about whether the American Rebel would prove to be merely “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot.” Here, Curzon supplies an answer. Intent on gaining his own freedom as much as that of the colonies, he endures — with the help of poor white friends, in the face of evil slave-holding gentry and despite the petulance of Isabel, his romantic interest, with whom he is dramatically reunited when both are re-enslaved.

It is difficult to imagine there will ever be historical fiction about this time in America that is more nuanced or respectful of time and place.

When it comes to background research, Anderson has clearly and commendably done her work. It is difficult to imagine there will ever be historical fiction about this time in America that is more nuanced or respectful of time and place. Historical quotations serve as epigraphs to each chapter, hinting at what will follow. Her appendix provides annotated list of recommended books by historians and is expanded on her Web site. Her accounts of the hardships at Valley Forge are moving and vivid. Using her considerable skills as a storyteller, she has brought the past to life.

In our own times, Tea Party acolytes have bizarrely reimagined America’s radicals and revolutionaries as proto-­conservatives whose primary concern was fiscal restraint. Anderson’s “Forge” is a terrific return not only to the colonial era but to historical accuracy.

A version of this appeared in the New York Times Book Review (February 11, 2011) identifying me as a professor at San Diego State University. A few days later, the staff of a Florida congressman (known for his Tea Party sympathies), contacted my university to find out whether I had ever received any federal funds for the university’s National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature; at the time, I was the Director of the NCSCL. I presumed this inquiry was prompted by a desire to find out whether federal monies had subsidized the mild complaint against the Tea Party that appears in the essay above. Rather than a stirring defense of free speech and remarks about the “chilling effect” of such inquiries, I explained to university officials that we had not received any federal funds but they could advise the congressman that we would welcome them.

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KidLit: 10) Topics

Bears, Zen, cowboys & cowgirls, gardening, tall and small, toys, home, & grownups

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Halloween Readings

Here are some stories for the Halloween season

The Scarecrow’s Dance
By Jane Yolen; illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline
Simon and Schuster: $16.99 (hardcover)

I am keen on the artist Bagram Ibatoulline whose genius I first discovered in his pictures for two books by Kate DiCamillo (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Toulane and Great Joy). The haunting scarecrow and tasseled corn fields, the autumnal oranges and shadowy twilight are so extraordinary that this book is almost worth buying for the pictures alone. The verse story is by Jane Yolen, the children’s writer who best understands today what folklore is and does it herself. Here, Yolen tells the familiar story of what-the-dolls-do-at-night (but with a scarecrow now in that role) and finishes with an unexpected religious message about prayer and souls.

What Was I Scared Of?
By Dr. Seuss
Random House: $11.99 (hardcover)

Among the most famous Halloween stories is Washington Irving’s tale about Ichabod Crane being chased by the Headless Horseman. Dr. Seuss must have realized that we usually imagine our boogies from the top down — think of the familiar ghostly sheet. He must have wondered: What if we imagined them, instead, from the bottom up? What if we imagined, say, a ghostly pair of pants with no one inside them? In this way or another, Dr. Seuss created this story where one of his zany creature is pursued by an owner-less pair of pants. But one night our hero gets caught in a Snide Bush and overhears the trousers weeping; when he consoles the garment, they become friends. Hence the title.

Dark Night
By Dorothée de Monfried; translated by Whitney Stahlberg
Random House: $14.99 (hardcover)

“Babes in the Woods,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Baba Yaga,” “Peter and the Wolf”–countless stories talk about fears when a child passes through a forest at night. Such is the case with Felix who must hide when he sees a succession of animals. Like Mole in Wind in the Willows after a terrifying night in the Wild Wood. Felix fortunately finds a door and stairs that lead to a kitchen and an accommodating host. Felix and a rabbit join forces to overcome their fears: Putting a long cape, with the rabbit standing on Felix’s shoulders and then donning a Halloween-like mask, the two scare away a wolf, tiger, and crocodile. Dark Night is a tight fairy tale presented in a comic-book style that upstages Tintin.

Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead
By Judy Goldman; illustrated by René King Moreno
Boyd’s Mill: $16.95 (hardcover)

Goldman (a native of Mexico City) provides the all too familiar story of a child and a dying relative, and Moreno (a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design) provides colored-pencil sketches in the expected folkloric style. Still, this is an interesting little book that combines a concern for Monarch butterflies (who winter in Mexico) with a presentation of customs surrounding El Día de Los Muertos. Here children might learn about the altars built at home (where the dead are celebrated with photos and food) and how the night is sometimes passed in cemeteries with meals, memories, laughter, and candy figurines of skeletons.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2010). And here is a related essay:

Halloween’s Ghouls

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KidLit: 9) Singular Recommendations

Prize-winning, hits with bilingual youngsters, extraordinary graphic novel, Bing Crosby tune, cosmic fantasy, more

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Young Adult Novel by Roddy Doyle

Famed Irish writer turns to adolescence (from the New York Times)

WILDERNESS. By Roddy Doyle. 211 pp. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. $16.99. (Ages 12 and up)

If the problems of adolescence were not so familiar, one might be alarmed by the behavioral eruptions of the typical teenager and seek medical help — wondering, say, about possible lead poisoning. Here is one of Roddy Doyle’s apt descriptions of the symptoms in his new young adult novel,“Wilderness”:

“She was a teenager and suddenly, it seemed, she was unhappy and unfriendly, and silent and loud at the same time. She spoke to no one, but slammed the doors. She turned her music up loud, talked loudly to her friends on her mobile phone, telling them how stupid her family was and how she hated them all.”

As my Irish mother used to say about puberty and growing up, “When children get hair under the arms, they go away for a long time, and it’s a long time before they come back.”

The genius of “Wilderness” is how it turns that saying upside down and looks at adolescence from the point of view of the young. It’s not the youngster here who goes away but a mom who goes missing; it’s not the adolescent who is out of sorts, but the adult. Doyle does this two ways, in twin tales that he parallels throughout the book: one the story of Tom and Johnny Griffin, whose mother is lost in the snowy wilderness of Lapland and needs to be rescued by her enterprising sons; and the other the story of Gráinne, the boys’ teenage half sister, whose own mother abandoned her when she was young and who comes back to Dublin to beg forgiveness from her daughter. Ah, but these are satisfying fantasies!

Living between her isolating earphones, Gráinne is the sullen, door-slamming teenager described above. Having heard that the mother who abandoned her is now living in New York, Gráinne fantasizes about a swank Manhattan mom who shares glasses of wine with her. Alas, the woman who returns to Dublin is more ordinary; and when her mother asks for forgiveness, Gráinne is surprised that instead of fulfillment and resolution, she feels resentment and hurt. In long nights of cautious and pained conversation that follow, a change takes place in Gráinne that also hints at one antidote to adolescence’s poisoning: she turns from an obsession with herself to consider her mother’s feelings and needs, seeing her for the first time as a person, an outward shift of attention that had never been possible before.

While Gráinne is going through her doldrums, her stepmother, Sandra, needs a break from the slamming doors and hurled dishes and takes Tom and Johnny, her preteen sons, on a December holiday, a dog-mushing vacation near the Arctic Circle.

As it turns out, in Doyle’s novel, the voice crying in the wilderness is a mom’s.

The only kids in the tour group, the boys like speeding through the snow on sleds and how their gruff guide, Kalle, treats them like grown-ups, having them do chores with the huskies. Everything is “brilliant” until their mother fails to appear one evening at the rendezvous point. Then without permission, in a snowstorm that jeopardizes everyone, they steal away and take two dog sleds to find her. As it turns out, in Doyle’s novel, the voice crying in the wilderness is a mom’s.

In the background of all of this is the paterfamilias, Frank Griffin, who could be a stand-in for the author himself. This father is wise and sympathetic (giving just the right advice to Gráinne, for example), as if he were Sidney Poitier with his charges in “To Sir, With Love” and entirely on their side. (Doyle was a schoolteacher in Dublin from 1979 until 1993.)

Roddy Doyle who made a splash with his gritty north Dublin rock ’n’ roll novel “The Commitments” and also won the Booker Prize for “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”.

That would be the same Roddy Doyle who made a splash with his gritty north Dublin rock ’n’ roll novel “The Commitments,” as well as other books about working-class Irish families, who has written memorable historical fiction (“A Star Called Henry”) and also won the Booker Prize (for “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha”). In recent years, Doyle has experimented with children’s books (“The Giggler Treatment,” “Rover Saves Christmas” and “The Meanwhile Adventures”), but the results have been thin on everything but cleverness, as if he was trying too hard to be Roald Dahl. Here, more in the manner of Jack London, Doyle has found his voice.

“Wilderness” is that rare young adult novel that can speak to every member of the family: hardpressed moms, perceptive fathers, belligerent girls, and risk-taking boys. Still, it seems primarily a boy’s book, reminding me how I loved stories about survival that began with a small plane crashing in the middle of nowhere, and how I waited eagerly for the arrival of the magazine “Boys’ Life.” Like the best-selling “Dangerous Book for Boys,” “Wilderness” could rekindle interest in this true-grit legacy.

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (September 16, 2007).

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DiCamillo’s “The Tale of Despereaux”

“A terrific, bravura performance” (from the New York Times Book Review)

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering. 270 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press. $17.99. (Ages 8 to 12)

In Kate DiCamillo’s new novel, a rat, Roscuro, travels upstairs from the total darkness of a dungeon and encounters light. Addressing the reader, DiCamillo writes: ”Imagine, if you will, having spent the whole of your life in a dungeon. Imagine that late one spring day, you step out of the dark into a world of bright windows and polished floors, winking copper pots, shining suits of armor and tapestries sewn in gold.”

Here we might see DiCamillo’s own career, her ascent from full-time clerk in a store selling used books to author of a much-praised first novel for children, ”Because of Winn-Dixie,” which won a Newbery Honor Award and climbed the best-seller lists. Some might see kinship with G. I. Gurdjieff’s mystic parable about humans being captives in a prison but only a few recognizing this is so and, hearing rumors of another place, arranging an escape.

In any event, she sets the stage for a battle between the forces of Darkness and Light in ”The Tale of Despereaux,” and the book is a terrific, bravura performance.

Her accomplishment is also something of a surprise, since the book is a bouillabaisse of familiar ingredients. DiCamillo pulls it off with her wit, with her humor, but mostly with her voice. The narrator, who speaks directly to the reader, is wildly authoritative, over the top, funny and confiding. While that voice is like the loudest, most amusing one at a cocktail party, its strength also overwhelms the tentative sketches by Timothy Basil Ering, making them seem as superfluous as the proverbial wallflower at the very same party.

DiCamillo’s voice and comic asides recall those of the great Victorian stylist George MacDonald in ”The Light Princess.” But while MacDonald’s princess is light because she is exempt from gravity, DiCamillo’s Princess Pea is simply radiant. The story turns on her encounters with three characters.

Despereaux, like Wilbur in E. B. White’s ”Charlotte’s Web,” is the runt of the litter; like White’s Stuart Little, he is a mouse. The son of a French mother who speaks like Inspector Clouseau (”Get for me the makeup bag”), he is a nonconformist who falls in love with light, music and the princess.

Alas, the Mouse Council condemns him for not being a ”proper” mouse. Instead of being sent like Papillon to Devil’s Island, Despereaux is sent to the total darkness of the dungeon inhabited by mouse-eating rats.

If the mice are French in name and manners, then in name and spirit the rats are as Italian as underground relatives of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of 1990’s fame. The second important character, Roscuro the rat, is equally a nonconformist and is fascinated by the light upstairs. But just as Luke Skywalker has Darth Vader to urge him to come over to the dark side, Roscuro has as his mentor Botticelli Remorso, who counsels that a rat’s only pleasure comes from torturing others.

Like Manny Rat in Russell Hoban’s much-loved novel ”The Mouse and His Child,” and as his name suggests, Roscuro (short for Chiaroscuro) is torn between light and darkness. His love of light takes him upstairs, but he falls from the chandelier into the queen’s soup and, shocking her, brings on her death; for that, he gets a glance from the princess that sends him back to the dark dungeon to plot his revenge on her. Worse, the king bans soup in all the kingdom. ”A world without soup” is everyone’s lament.

Then, on a wagonload of confiscated soup kettles, we meet the last important character, Miggery Sow. ”Gor,” she says, showing that she is unmistakably English.

Mig, ”named for her father’s favorite prize-winning pig,” lost her mother when she was young; her father sold her into indenture; her master boxed the girl’s ears until she became hard of hearing; and finally she came to the castle, where she proved to be a slow-witted servant. But Mig has aspirations: she has seen the princess and wants to become her.

Roscuro plays on Mig’s dreams and persuades the dimwitted maiden to kidnap the princess and take her to the dungeon, telling her that in this way — as in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale ”The Goosegirl” — the servant will change places with the princess. What is called for is a hero, and in this case it is an unlikely one, a mighty mouse.

Despereaux, like Ariadne rescuing her lover from the maze, unravels red thread from a spool to track his way through the labyrinthine dungeon to rescue Princess Pea, his Persephone, from the darkness.

Here, in the culminating moment, Mig learns she is being used by Roscuro and haltingly realizes that what she really wants is not to be princess. Instead, she declares, ”I want . . . I want my ma!” This prompts empathy in Princess Pea — who, after all, has also lost her own mother — and eventually brings a change of heart in the rat when the princess asks him, ”Roscuro, would you like some soup?”

The resolution of this impressive novel — a chapter called ”Happily Ever After,” of course — finds the cast assembled in a banquet hall around a kettle of soup, risen from darkness to the light.

This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 16, 2003). Two months after this review, DiCamillo’s book won the Newbery Award. And here is an anecdote I shared a few years later in an interview:

A former student of mine at SDSU has gone into publishing and met Kate DiCamillo at a convention. They started talking and put two-and-two together until DiCamillo realized the connection and said, ‘You know, that’s the only review I ever framed. It’s hanging in my house. Every author dreams of receiving, once in their life, a review like that.’ Of course, when that story got back to me, I was immensely touched. I didn’t know what to do but I can tell you what my first impulse was: To call up DiCamillo and propose marriage.

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KidLit: 12) Critics and Professions

The field of Children’s Literature, scholars & practices, teaching, biography & literary criticism

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Francelia Butler: Two Remembrances

The woman often credited with starting the literary study of Children’s Literature

This essay appeared in the Hartford Courant (October 1, 1998).

Francelia Butler died Sept. 17. No doubt, quite a few people reading this newspaper will remember Francelia because they were students in the huge classes she taught in children’s literature at the University of Connecticut.

I remember her in a different way: as a dauntless woman and an example.

During the 1970’s, I was a graduate student in Storrs and studied under and worked with Francelia. Her classes in children’s literature were the most popular courses on the campus and typically enrolled 350 students each term.

One year, I and another graduate student were here teaching assistants. Characteristically, Francelia always generously insisted that the three of us “team taught” the course.

As others know, Francelia was largely responsible for creating the field of children’s literature and making it a respectable area of study in the humanities. Through her I was introduced to the field.

Later and through her help (lobbying potential employers on my behalf, writing letters of recommendation) I had whatever success has come to me as one of a second generation of scholar-teachers in children’s literature.

When asked, I say Francelia Butler first invented the field and then she invented me.

In this regard, let me also mention Elaine Scarry, the other graduate student who shared with me the duties of being Francelia’s teaching assistant.

Scarry is now a professor at Harvard, held an endowed chair at the University of Pennsylvania, has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and other awards and is the author of several high praised and influential books.

We met a few years ago, when Scarry was in residence at Berkeley and delivering a prestigious lecture series. Looking back, we agreed that we had been inspired to do more ambitious things because we had worked with Francelia.

Francelia Butler was a woman who knew no boundaries. The edges of the campus in Storrs were not the limits of her universe. She dragged, cajoled and wooed people from the world-at-large (movie stars, women executives she met on planes, collectors of Eskimo art) and persuaded them to come to her class and speak.

And from the campus she went out to the manufacturers of Silkorsky helicopters to solicit donations for her Peace Game projects; to the war-torn neighborhoods of Belfast to collect skip-rope rhymes.

She was dauntless. Perhaps that is best explained by anecdote. When she arrived in New Delhi during one of her summer scholarly expeditions, Francelia immediately called the palace to inform Indira Gandhi that she was in town, and she asked when Gandhi would like to see her.

A baffled government employee took the message and said he would call back. He did, and Francelia had a meeting with Gandhi the next day (where they discussed Indian efforts to encourage children’s publishing, an enterprise started by Gandhi’s father).

I have been told that Daniel Patrick Moynihan expressed some surprise when told of the meeting; during his four years as ambassador to India, he had only been granted three audiences with the prime minister.

But I think I can tell you something about Francelia when I note that she, herself, never expressed any surprise at having been granted that meeting. She was so plucky she didn’t even know that she was being so.

Francelia Butler was, in short, a remarkable woman. She was a great teacher, and was that for hundreds of students. For me and for others, she was also a great friend, ever eager to encourage and assist.

But even more than that, she was a great example. She was someone in the thick of the university and (at the very same time) in the thick of life.

Not recognizing boundaries, her curiosity and daring spanned time zones and the globe; you would just as likely to find her talking with Big Bird in a television studio in New York, as you were to encounter her collecting folk stories from children in Appalachia.

For this and for many, many other things, Francelia Butler should be acknowledged and remembered.

The Melted Refrigerator, edited by Norman D. Stevens and Jessica Fontaine (Mansfield, Conn.: Mansfield Hollow Press, 2013).

In 2013 in Biloxi, Mississipi, I gave the Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture at the annual meeting of the Children’s Literature Association. Because it seemed appropriate, I began with a remembrance of Francelia (excerpted here).

Since this is the Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture, I thought I would tell you a little something about Francelia. There are now only a handful of us here today who actually knew her–John Cech, myself, maybe one or two others. Soon there will be no one at a ChLA convention who will have ever met the woman this Memorial Lecture is named after. So, I thought I would say something about her.

Some forty years ago, Francelia and the late Anne Jordan formed the Children’s Literature Association on a kitchen table in Mansfield Center, Connecticut. I was a graduate student at the time and–along with Elaine Scarry–one of Francelia’s assistants.

Like people, every organization carries forward the DNA of its ancestors. So, I thought I should say something about Francelia so that you might have an understanding of the flavor she added to this organization at the outset; it was considerable and it remains. I ruminated for a long time about how to do that:

  • talk about her life and eulogize her: this woman born in Ohio who in her twenties went to Paris in the years before the Nazis invaded, where she worked on the International Herald Tribune and married her husband Jerry who died a decade later, and how this penniless and middle-aged mother then returned to college and took her Ph.D. so that in 1965 (at the age of 42) she could teach at the University of Connecticut the only course available to her and her kind, Children’s Literature.
  • recount what took place in her children’s literature courses and what I got from her: enrolling more than 300 students every term, her classes were circus-like (visits by Big Bird and Native American storytellers) and through her I got to meet and come to know people like James Marshall, Maurice Sendak, and Pamela Travers.
  • or identify her legacy: Francelia never felt appreciated enough. This dovetailed with the low status of Children’s Literature in literary circles and in English departments at that time. I have always found it revealing that the journal Francelia started–now titled “Children’s Literature”–was called for the first three issues “The Great Excluded.”

But I finally decided the best way to convey a sense of Francelia was to retell one of her stories. She had hundreds of those; as another friend once observed, she had a “phonographic memory.” But which one? About the time she met Indira Ghandi? Or the time she took a skip rope into the war zone of Belfast to collect rhymes? Or…?

The story I have chosen to retell is one Francelia told me about the great French perfume maker Emile Colá. Clever people may also find within an allegory about the study of children’s literature and, possibly, an oblique portrait of Francelia.

Emile Colá told this story to Francelia when she was living in Paris in the 1930’s. It’s about a trip the great parfumier made to India.

He and a friend were with a guide in the outback when they came upon a temple in the jungle. They could hear music and occasionally glimpse a large number of people inside for some sort of ceremony. The guide, however, was very uneasy and kept trying to steer them away; he indicated that if they were caught near the temple, they would be in real trouble.

But Colá insisted, and they got close enough to peer inside through chinks in the temple wall. What they saw was an orgy, dozens of couples in the throes of sexual ecstacy. They were holding branches from some plant and, every once in awhile, they would smell the leaves and this would stimulate them. After a time, Colá and company stole away. But Colá insisted to the guide that he must have that plant before he left India.

When he got back to Paris, Colá had a steamer trunk full of these plants and set about distilling them into an extract. Here he ran into a problem. Apparently, the aroma of this extract smelled so horrible that there was nothing the parfumier could add or do to change that. So, he gave up and set aside the vial of extract.

Some time later, a wealthy old man came to visit Colá and explained that he was in love with a ballerina. The old man wanted a perfume that would make the young woman fall in love with him. Colá said there was nothing he could do, but then he remembered the unused potion from India. Because of its horrible smell, he suggested that the old man have his chauffeur rub it into the leather upholstery of his car.

Some months later, Colá read in the newspapers about the marriage of the old man and the ballerina. And some months later, he read that the wealthy man had died of a heart attack. “At least, he died happy,” Colá thought.

A year or so after that, there was a commotion at the entrance to Colá’s flat. His servant came and told him that there was a wild-eyed man at the door who insisted on seeing him. Colá had him admitted. It was the chauffeur.

The desperate man insisted that Colá give him more of that Indian elixir. But the parfumier told the man that he had no more, and the driver went away dejected. “That’s when I learned it was addictive,” Colá explained to Francelia.

Having played the Ancient Mariner, I can’t leave this story without adding one more thing. Don’t bother to look up any of this on the internet or anywhere else. I have been unable to find any information whatsoever about Emile Colá or even the correct spelling of his name. Moreover, this anecdote does not appear in Francelia Butler’s autobiography, the recently published The Melted Refrigerator, edited by Norman D. Stevens and Jessica Fontaine.

I have, however, heard this same “Francelia story” repeated in essentially the same words by Elaine Scarry just a year ago. As I said, the two of us were Francelia’s teaching assistants 1974–1975.

Francelia also reported that Colá made two copies of a book containing the secret formulas to his perfumes. He gave one copy to her because (if I recall correctly) he hoped she might smuggle it out of Paris on the eve of the German invasion.

Years later, while living in Connecticut, Francelia said she heard from a young woman in New York who had learned about the manuscript and asked if she might borrow and copy it; this was in the days before photocopy machines were ubiquitous. After loaning the work to her, Francelia never saw the woman or the manuscript again.

May I add, by way of afterword, that this vision of the “lost manuscript” provides a perfect ending to this story.

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The Study of Children’s Literature

The future of the profession ca. 2002 (from Children’s Literature in Education)

For two days last August [2001], nearly a hundred international scholars met at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Surrey in Roehampton (U.K.) to discuss “The Future of the Subject.” Kimberly Reynolds (the Director of NCRCL) invited me to attend, probably because of my gray hair. That gray hair served me well since the attendees soon discovered that you can’t discuss the future of the discipline without examining its past.

Me and my gray hair.

Now in my fifties, I count myself among a second generation of scholars in the field; and while there are others in my generational cohort, out of consideration to sensitivities they might have about my mentioning their ages, I will not identify them (though they will know who they are). I studied under Francelia Butler at the University of Connecticut, who was one of the great pioneers in the field and someone I would identify as part of a first generation of scholars in Children’s Literature. And now, there is already a third generation on the scene: young scholars amending and criticizing what their predecessors have done.

In my experience, general discussions of our profession always begin in the same way, and that was the case in Roehampton. Individuals complain that they have to defend the legitimacy of their field to their colleagues, that they and their discipline get no respect, etc. And often these complaints are accompanied by striking anecdotes of others’ obtuseness or unfairness, to which the assembled respond with expressions of sympathy and outrage.

I understand the sociological reason for such complaints, and how this litany of woes creates a community among the aggrieved and the righteous. But I must also admit that, by this point, discussions that amount to a Defense of the Discipline fill me with both weariness and nostalgia. Many of us, it seems to me, have gone quite a distance beyond Square One and don’t feel a real need to constantly revert to justifications of our specialty.

My generation fought those battles years ago and (in ways I will soon qualify) I’d say we won. Children’s Literature is now taught by hundreds of universities in their literature departments, the Modern Language Association has given the field status as a division and routinely hosts a number of panels at its annual convention, the leading journal in the field is published by Yale University . . . other evidence might be supplied, but I don’t wish to travel again this well-worn path of arguing for the field’s legitimacy. As the contemporary expression has it: “Been there. Done that.”

But in saying “We won,” let me make two qualifications. First, I can only speak with familiarity about developments in North America and certain parts of Western Europe; I know that in other areas the evolution of the discipline has been uneven and is at different stages. Second, let me say that I am (and have been) unusually fortunate at my own university to be surrounded by colleagues also engaged with Children’s Literature; I realize that there are others elsewhere who are the sole scholar in their field and who may still need to defend their interests and pursuits among skeptical colleagues. But setting aside these geographical and individual situations, and looking at the discipline in a general way, it seems to me that issues of legitimacy are now more or less moot and that, at this point, other issues have arisen that are more pressing when we consider the Future of the Profession.

In talking about Children’s Literature we are often only talking to ourselves and our protégés.

For those genuinely interested in this topic, I recommend Jack Zipes’s new book, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. I came away from that book with a worry. For our purposes here, Zipes essentially argues that Children’s Literature is a genre maintained by a circle of scholars, that the profession constitutes a kind of closed club, and that in talking about Children’s Literature we are often only talking to ourselves and our protégés.

As much as these ideas might seem hyperbolic, and as much as Zipes himself might object to this horrible simplification of his book, I worry that there is a degree of truth in his observation that “we are only talking to ourselves.” But before recommending some remedies, before discussing some possible Futures of the Profession, I think it is important to notice a context — what you might call an historical dialectic.

In the early days of this discipline, certain measures were absolutely necessary. At this later point, however, some of these remedies have now become problems themselves and the pendulum needs to swing in the other direction; trends have to be reversed or at least questioned. Let me mention five areas in a more or less anecdotal manner.

1. The Great Excluded?

In bygone days, there were few places where scholars in Children’s Literature could publish their work and, for that reason, Francelia Butler created a journal — the one now called Children’s Literature and published by Yale University Press. But before it was taken over by a university press, that journal (for several issues) was known by another name, and I believe that name is symbolically significant. Francelia called the journal The Great Excluded. That is really a revealing phrase, with its attendant feelings of persecution and righteousness. In Francelia’s eyes, if this nascent field of Children’s Literature was not accepted by the powers-that-be, then it would glory in its exclusion and prize its separation.

Those were the necessary conditions that gave rise to this and other journals in the field. But at this point, it may be worth wondering whether such exclusivity is still valuable. To reshape Zipes’s critique in a more specific manner: Are scholars in Children’s Literature only writing for their peers in the discipline when they publish exclusively in journals dedicated to this subject area?

Needless to say, in a now more enlightened time, specialists in Children’s Literature could (and perhaps should) be endeavoring to see their work published in other and (I hesitate to use this word) mainstream journals. Whether one is writing about Frances Hodgson Burnett or picture books or countless other subjects, there are journals outside those of our own discipline that might provide venues for this kind of work and reach audiences outside our own club. Submissions of this kind would also allow Children’s Literature scholars to play with the Big Boys and Big Girls in a less insular world. Please understand me: I do not wish to see journals in our own discipline fail for lack of submissions; I am only suggesting that there are opportunities to expand beyond the realm of the Great Excluded.

2. Discussions in a Wider Literary Context

Recently, I have been reading Italo Calvino’s marvelous collection of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I was struck that in making his points about different ideas or themes, Calvino makes reference to Dante, Borges, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” Kafka, Lucretius, and more. When I compare, however, Calvino’s essays to the kind of essays written by scholars in our own discipline, a worry arises — a worry prompted by Zipes’s critique that we are only speaking to ourselves and our protégés.

Sometimes, essays on Children’s Literature give the impression of having been written in a closed system. It needn’t be that way. When someone writes, for example, about colonialism in Burnett’s The Secret Garden, all the references or comparisons need not be to Kipling or Babar or other literature intended for children. Surely, references might be made, for example, to Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Aphra Behn’s Orinooko or other works; and in this way, such an essay might be more valuable, comprehensive and accessible.

While scholars in our discipline are ready to import theories employed with different literary materials, in other ways they seem less willing to practice what they preach. If Children’s Literature rightfully deserves its place at the banquet table with other kinds of literary study, then we might act as if it were so and position our discussions in a wider literary context.

Related to this is a complaint I sometimes hear from students: that there are few places where one might do specialized study in Children’s Literature. I agree that this is the case and that such specialized programs need to exist. On the other hand, my sympathy only extends so far because in addition to Charlotte’s Web and the Brothers Grimm, I believe it is important that students have a wide familiarity with literature in general — with Shakespeare, Melville, Brontë, Voltaire, Borges, Kafka, and others.

3. Conferences: Literary Critics & Public Intellectuals

I used to have a beef with people who organized conferences in Children’s Literature. Too often, it seemed to me, they invited creative writers as their featured speakers rather than literary critics — or people who do what we do. There are, of course, exceptions: writers (Maurice Sendak, for example) who also have the interpretative skills of a critic. But too often, I have sat though after-dinner speeches by authors who have had no sense of their audience and what we do, who gave talks that they must have given to parent groups or would-be writers on a Saturday afternoon at the public library.

Things have changed, and now more often we see literary critics featured at conventions and conferences. But when I see at these affairs the same faces over and over again (my own among them), I wonder whether Zipes might be right in painting our discipline as a closed circle in which we are talking to each other and our protégés.

Some of the most interesting work with Children’s Literature is now being done by individuals who are not often seen at these conventions and who might be described as “public intellectuals.” Marina Warner, Alison Lurie, Iona Opie, Humphrey Carpenter, Leonard Marcus, and others — these are people working in our disciplinary area but (with one recent exception) not being featured at our conventions. It is as if in our feelings of being the Great Excluded, we have turned our backs and formed a circle that has shut them out. I think this is something that should change, if we are concerned with the Future of the Profession and wish to address Zipes’s critique. Conference organizers, please take note.

4. Reaching Out to Education & Library Science. Speaking to the Public.

For quite a few years, in organizations and at conferences and in other ways, literary scholars in Children’s Literature have put out the welcome mat for their colleagues in Education and in Library Science, and have said that there is a place for parents and schoolteachers and like-minded souls. But in terms of translating words into action, a lot of this has amounted to lip service — sincere but empty expressions of goodwill. I think there is an historical reason for that.

In the early days of this profession, literary scholars needed to establish the field of Children’s Literature as an area of literary study, and that meant discussions among ourselves and distinguishing ourselves from our cousins in Education and Library Science so that we (and our colleagues) might see how we were different. Too often, colleagues in literature departments thought we might be working, say, with puppets in our classrooms. And too often, instead of recalling works like Treasure Island, colleagues wondered whether we were discussing the kind of children’s books found in supermarkets. As a result, a certain distancing of ourselves from our cousins in other disciplines was an historically necessary phase in self-definition.

Now that we have a firmer understanding of who we are and in answer to Zipes’s critique, the time may have come for a genuine reaching-out to our counterparts in Education, Library Science, and elsewhere. Having entered into discussions of this kind, let me suggest that two things are important: a need to search for areas of shared interest and, simultaneously, a clear understanding of how our interests are different.

At Chula Vista, California, Learning Community Charter School.

What I am arguing for, in other words, is a larger social role for scholars in Children’s Literature; and let me add that among all the various specialties in literary studies, our own field may lend itself more to these kinds of good works. The shape of this social participation will, of course, differ according to the individuals involved. Some may be comfortable in schools, working with children, others working with schoolteachers. Still others might find yet other ways.

What I am suggesting, as a remedy to Zipes’s critique about our exclusivity, is that Children’s Literature scholars take a more public role. Let me explain by way of example. At the moment, thousands of people want to understand the Harry Potter phenomenon: what is it about these books that makes them so popular, and why is it at this time that we need such books? For my part, I am grateful to read about J. K. Rowling and her books in essays published in journals within our speciality. At the same time, however, I think the occasion is right for scholars within our discipline to be introducing their ideas in more public forums and to be writing for newspapers and magazines.

5. What Makes “Children’s Literature” Literature?

I have left for last the most troubling area in which I think the pendulum should be swung the other way. I think the time has come to begin separating children’s books or children’s reading from children’s literature. Again, there are historical reasons for this situation.

While it may be difficult for young scholars to believe this, there was a time when literary studies were narrowly confined to canonical works, and any attempt to widen that canon was resisted as an attempt “to get comic books in the classrooms.” Those of us who were Young Turks then fought to widen the canon to include Popular Culture, Women’s and African-American Literature, unacceptable genres like Science and Detective Fictions, as well as other kinds of literary work. And we won. And Children’s Literature was carried along in this rising tide of new acceptability.

Now, at this phase of historical development, we are faced with a harder question: Is everything equal? Teen magazines and just about anything written for children may be proper subjects for specialists in Popular Culture and in the new field of Childhood Studies, but what is the case with us in that discipline identified by two specific terms — Children’s / Literature? The harder question we need to reckon with, needless to say, is this one: Is it literature? And that means making choices.

Of course, what makes this difficult is the historical and democratizing impulse that led to the widening of the canon and the establishment of our discipline. For aging Young Turks, it is difficult to consider making needed choices without worrying that one is becoming a reactionary. Perhaps the new generation of scholars in the field will have the courage to bring these issues to the fore and make these choices, weaving their way between the Scylla of a needed openmindedness and the Charybdis of worries about becoming reactionary. It seems to me that when we are able to talk about Children’s Literature as literature, we will be able to address others outside our discipline with genuine confidence and authority.


I have been suggesting here that we can understand the development of Children’s Literature in an historical and dialectical way. When we were the Great Excluded, we needed to turn our backs on others — speaking among ourselves and reinforcing each other — as a necessary step in self-definition. Now we are at another phase and, as Zipes’s critique indicates, we need to consider the dangers of narcissism. In the various remedies mentioned here, I am imagining a Future of the Profession that is expansive so that we don’t end up a closed club, talking only to ourselves and our protégés. In suggesting a widening of venues for our scholarly writing and the manner in which we write, in proposing the opening of our conferences to public intellectuals and genuine overtures to those in other disciplines, and even in intimating our need to consider where kinship lies in reckoning with the second term of the phrase “Children’s Literature,” I am envisioning a new phase for the profession, in which we might consider ourselves the Great Included.

This essay originally appeared as “The Future of the Profession” in The Lion and the Unicorn (April 2002)–requires a subscription. Subsequently, Kenneth Kidd rightfully challenged my defensiveness in this essay, suggesting that I was still sensitive to issues of the legitimacy of the profession. On my part, in retrospect, I now feel most uneasy about section #5 above–where I suggest others might take up distinctions between Children’s Literature (qua Literature) and Childhood Studies–because it is in that intermingled area that I have spent the most time since this essay was published in 2002.

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“Secret Gardens”: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature

Humphrey Carpenter plays the Curmudgeon (from the journal Children’s Literature)

Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature
by Humphrey Carpenter
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Secret Gardens may become many scholars’ bête noire. Already one of my acquaintances has advised me that she learned nothing new from Humphrey Carpenter (except in his chapter on J. M. Barrie), and another wrote that she found the book appalling. My own feelings are different; despite its shortcomings, I feel the work is deliberately iconoclastic and successfully provocative.

Much previous scholarship about children’s literature has been of three kinds: the glimpse at the field as a whole, as in Roger Sale’s Fairy Tales and After; studies of a single author, such as C. S. Lewis; and discussions of a genre, e.g. Volksmärchen. Carpenter’s work takes as its subject a “period,” the “Golden Age,” an unusually fertile time (1860–1930) when England, in particular, produced an extraordinary number of writers for children.

For the most part, Carpenter interprets the major authors and works of the period in a biographical fashion, with some acknowledged but, nonetheless, notable omissions–including Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Frances Hodgson Burnett (from whom, of course, this book takes its title). The book has a familiar thesis: that a recurrent theme of children’s literature of the Golden Age is Arcadia, the Enchanted Place, Never Never Land, the Secret Garden. The prologue summarizes previous scholarship and outlines the tradition of juvenile literature up to what Carpenter believes to be the start of the Golden Age in 1860; the epilogue traces modifications of Arcadian motifs after 1930 in the work of such authors as Tolkien, Lewis, Salinger, Hoban, Norton, Pearce, and Garner.

Charles Kingsley, “The Water-Babies.” Illustration “Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid” by Jessie Willcox Smith. (Credit: Wikipedia)

In the first third of the book, “Arrears of Destruction,” Carpenter’s intention is to discuss authors who suffered from misgivings about Christianity and whose writings reveal a wish to destroy the old order. Carpenter often forgets his intention; his digressions, nonetheless, are most interesting. More than any previous author, Charles Kingsley, he argues, made children’s literature a vehicle of private obsessions; The Water-Babies, for example, combined Kingsley’s odd aquatic notion of sexuality with that liberal Episcopalian movement known as “Muscular Christianity.” Lewis Carroll’s nonsense, Carpenter shows, is not just silly or clever, but reveals a fundamental negativity and wholesale destructiveness. (Carpenter also digresses to point out that, no matter how others have side-stepped the issue or soft-pedaled it, Carroll was unusually fascinated by little girls.) George MacDonald, Carpenter argues, was always searching for something to replace the heaven of Christianity in which he had ceased to believe; in his “phantasies” he finally created a home for his transient souls. In the chapter on Alcott (largely a redaction of Martha Saxton’s biography Louisa May), Carpenter points out the muddle of Little Women: Louisa, wrestling with Bronson, turns Jo into a father after Marmee departs and refuses to let her character marry Laurie because they are the same person and Jo wishes to marry her sister.

The middle third of the book, titled “The Arcadians,” treats authors whose disenchantment with Christianity led not to destructiveness but to the construction of Arcadian alternatives. Richard Jeffries, for instance, gave the cherubs of Kate Greenaway a prelapsarian consciousness (the ability to understand animals) and created his Bevis, a pagan Pan whose offspring would be Mowgli and Christopher Robin (at this point, a reader may lament that Carpenter did not include a discussion of The Secret Garden since Dickon is surely the apotheosis of this figure). Kenneth Grahame’s aptly titled Dream Daysand The Golden Age reveal his preoccupation with the vision of the “Good Place” which he dreamily associated with childhood and with the “rediscovery” of something which had no existence, prior or otherwise. E. Nesbit was a lovable hack whose exotic life style prompts Carpenter to view her as the Isadora Duncan of children’s literature. Finally, Beatrix Potter was not the timid creature she seemed but someone who emphasized the victory of the victim over the predator and sympathized with the two bad mice who smash middle-class life.

In the last and weakest section of the book, Carpenter makes predictable observations about three representative Arcadian novels. The major issues of The Wind in the Willows are noted: the desire to escape responsibility versus the desire for stability, the ambiguous appeal of Toad, and so on. Peter Pan is the life story of an author who wished “never to grow up” and who cast this desire in an amalgam of fairy literature and Ballantyne’s Coral Island. With the help of Christopher Milne’s portrait of his father, The Enchanted Places, Carpenter reads Winnie-the-Pooh as the story of a distant man who was better able to deal with childhood in his characters than in real life.

Out of the corner, like some lame and nearly forgotten family servant, hobbles The Thesis.

The shortcomings of this book are obvious. Carpenter is a biographer (W. H. Auden, J. R. R. Tolkien) whose most recent work (with Mari Prichard) appears in the capsules of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature; and this book is best in short biographical stretches. Even here, however, he is far too interested in National Enquirer-like “curiosities”; for example, “Charles Kingsley and Louisa May Alcott were among those overdosed with [the medicine calomel].” But this kind of discursive book is now, regrettably, out of style and it appears some editor advised Carpenter that his work required some comprehensive argument; so, often, near the end of a chapter — after a series of short, interesting, delightful, anecdotal passages — out of the corner, like some lame and nearly forgotten family servant, hobbles The Thesis.

Carpenter is far too quick to make dubious assertions: for instance, “In writing Little Women [Alcott] gave birth to a new genre, the American Family novel.” And too often, he lets the part stand for the whole and makes his argument by repetition instead of evidence: “Louisa [Alcott] was on much closer terms . . . with her mother, whose rather pugnacious, masculine looks she had inherited” (88); “[Louisa’s mother] managed to find the emotional energy to help and stimulate her second daughter — largely, no doubt, because she and Louisa were of the same physical and emotional type: dark, mannish looking” (90); “In the family plays . . . , Louisa always took the male roles. . . . It was natural: she had inherited her mother’s masculine features” (92).

Finally, Carpenter deliberately takes the contrary position whenever the opportunity affords itself: for example, “Many commentators, following Peter Green, have regarded Grahame’s apparent desire to escape, in his writings, from the conventional late Victorian society as a natural result of his having been pressed, in this fashion into an alien mould [where he was obliged to take a clerkship in the Bank of England]. Yet the facts do not accord with this interpretation. . . . [The Bank of England] was in Grahame’s day notable, even notorious, for its tolerance and even encouragement of eccentricity.” “The standard picture” of Beatrix Potter (derived from Margaret Lane’s Tale of Beatrix Potter) is of a shy child who was stifled by her parents during her early womanhood, and who late in life broke free and became someone entirely different, Mrs. William Heelis, an endearing and formidable personality. Instead, Carpenter asserts, Potter’s journal “shows that the young Miss Potter and the old Mrs. Heelis were really one and the same person: that from her earliest years she was a determined, self-confident person.”

“Even in the Golden Age there was probably someone who complained about how yellow everything looked.”

Despite these shortcomings, Secret Gardens remains delightful because of its tone and manner: willful, cranky, wrongheaded. It is that kind of work for which the English are famous: the curmudgeonly book. And throughout its unblinking examination of the sordid underbelly of what the public still believes is the innocent and fey world of children’s literature, I was reminded of Randall Jarrell’s comment about the perdurability of curmudgeons: “Even in the Golden Age there was probably someone who complained about how yellow everything looked.”

This is a deliberately provoking book. By often taking the very same evidence upon which others have based their views and interpreting it in the completely opposite fashion, Carpenter challenges scholars to reexamine their conclusions. This is useful; and for this reason, what at first seem its shortcomings must be discounted and viewed as a part of the book’s eccentric strengths.

Originally appeared in Children’s Literature (1987).

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Teacher Preparation

Can Little Mary Learn if Teacher’s in the Dark? (from the Los Angeles Times)

“Technique” gang aims to steer the college training away from content

Since 1970, California’s teacher-preparation programs have been shaped by the Ryan Act, which mandates that would-be schoolteachers must first earn a bachelor’s degree before taking courses in how to teach in a “fifth year” of credential study in schools of education. As undergraduates, most future elementary school teachers, for example, major in liberal studies — a general program that includes classes in English, math, science, history, social sciences, physical education and the arts.

The thinking behind the Ryan Act was simple: Teachers need to know something before they learn how to teach. And this common-sense California idea proved a model for educational programs in other states.

But the Ryan Act has recently come under attack. Some critics say future grade-school teachers, for example, shouldn’t have to pass undergraduate math or science classes to teach at elementary and middle schools, and they needn’t take English classes in order to lead a story hour. “Content” classes, critics say, needlessly prolong teacher training and should be dropped or shortened. Instead, emphasis should be given to practical classes on how to teach.

The Ryan Act‘s challengers are well-intentioned politicians seeking to remedy teacher shortages. In the 1990s, burgeoning student populations and a drive to reduce class sizes created shortages, and education schools offered everything from fast-track programs to “blended” undergraduate and credentialing classes to increase the numbers of teachers. But today, that shortage no longer exists. Now, with a fiscal crisis and a glut of teachers, many newly trained educators can’t find jobs, and school districts across the state are laying off those already employed. Nonetheless, that news apparently hasn’t reached Sacramento, and a misguided movement to speed up California’s teacher-prep programs continues unabated.

The most recent assault on the Ryan Act is SB 81, a bill that passed the state Legislature and was signed recently by outgoing Gov. Gray Davis. The new law reduces requirements, mandating that universities create programs in which the total of undergraduate and credentialing classes fall somewhere between 120 and 135 units. Since the former system required 124 units for a bachelor’s degree and an additional 30 units in teacher education, the question is what gets cut.

Mark Shapiro, an emeritus Cal State Fullerton physics professor who writes commentary on higher education issues, predicts that content courses — not education courses — will be jettisoned. At Fullerton, for example, he sees as likely cuts seven classes that future teachers now take in English, math, science and the arts. Another scenario, however, is the continuation of “blended” curriculums in which content is reduced to make room for instruction in pedagogy. Either way, future teachers will spend less time learning about the subjects they are supposed to teach.

What happens when content classes get eliminated or watered down? Consider literature. Teachers who haven’t been required to read and study a rich range of writers are not likely to introduce your kids to socially significant books and classic masterpieces. Forget “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Charlotte’s Web” — for these kinds of teachers, selecting class reading material gets narrowed to ransacking the library shelves for, say, Halloween-themed books. Even in school districts that require the use of quality literature, if future teachers aren’t taught to recognize the meanings of stories, they will perpetuate superficial reading in their students. And poor reading skills mean poor performance on state and national exams.

The reduction of units required for a teaching credential is also likely to engender turf wars between professors in sciences and the humanities and those in education about what the new teacher- preparation programs should include. The wrong kinds of questions are already being debated: “Should Johnny’s teacher know math or know how to teach math?” “Should Juanita’s teacher actually have read children’s literature or only learn how to use it?”

That these mistaken either/or questions are on the table is an immediate tragedy of the gutting of the Ryan Act. But the greater tragedy is yet to come. Though the new requirements will no doubt speed up the production of teachers, they also guarantee that the state’s next generation of teachers will know less than their predecessors. Whatever the problems of California’s schools, they won’t be solved by putting less educated teachers in the classroom.

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times (October 27, 2003). I take up this topic in an extended way in “Children’s Literature in USA Teacher-Preparation Programs,” CREArTA, vol. 4 (2003–2004), 21–24.

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Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling

“The genius behind simplicity” (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling
by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles
Laurence King Publishing; 192 pages; $35

Just before a 1982 event at the San Diego Museum of Art where the two of them were to speak, Maurice Sendak looked in the direction of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and told me, “There’s more there than meets the eye.” He meant that Geisel was a genius too often taken for a whimsical lightweight. But in saying “There’s more there than meets the eye,” Sendak could just as easily have been talking about the picturebook, that unique kind of art object the two of them are famous for.

Because they are given to the very young and serve as a stepping stone to reading, few notice that picturebooks hide a complexity behind their hard wrought and apparent simplicity. We have now a wonderful study that assesses this complexity: “Children’s Picturebooks” by two British academics, Martin Salisbury (an artist and illustrator) and Morag Styles (a scholar of children’s literature).

Fabian Negrin, “Las Huellas Secretas” by Julia Alvarez

This is the world of Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” and Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” Jean DeBrunhoff’s “The Story of Babar” and Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline,” Wanda Gag’s “Millions of Cats” and Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day” and Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” and many more. To be sure, British and American artists are favored in this lavishly illustrated volume, but works from Scandinavia, Western Europe and Asia appear as well. Here is a chance to revisit old favorites and note others you will wish to explore further: in my case, the work of the Italian artist Fabian Negrin and the curious 1950’s travel books of Miroslav Sasek (available at the San Diego Museum of Art).

Miroslav Sasek, “This is Greece”

Workbook-like, “Children’s Picturebooks” is a kind of catalog of short essays on varied topics, 300 color illustrations, and “case studies” (mini-interviews with professionals and would-be artists). Here is a history of the genre from the classics to rule-breaking contemporary offerings, as well as mention of the widening audience for visual literature as teens devour graphic novels and adults honor wordless masterpieces like “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. Here, too, are intellectual discussions of picturebook techniques (largely borrowed from La Jolla-based critic Carole Scott): how, for example, pictures or words can be used to fill gaps the other leaves and how they can duel with each other.

Shaun Tan, “The Arrival”

If there is one section that may make a reader wince, it is the one meant for professionals which suggests the image of an educator with a clipboard monitoring the body language of youngsters as they peruse a book and interviewing them afterwards for “affective responses”; my own image is of a grown-up on the couch sharing a favorite volume with someone much younger. On the other hand, a very useful chapter provides an overview of publishing processes, explaining such topics as three-color printing and lithography, as well as detailing the changes Photoshop has wrought and commenting on the arrival of e-books and iPad offerings. Equally valuable is a concluding chapter that provides how-to information for every would-be picturebook artist who would like to see their work accepted by a publisher.

In that regard, it seems nearly everyone thinks they can be a children’s book writer, as evidenced by the many works now on offer from movie stars and politicians’ wives. Indeed, not more than three weeks ago on a beach in the Yucatan, I was accosted by a lawyer from Portland who, learning what I did, asked if he might send me his writings for kids. On such occasions, I wish to warn, “It’s a lot harder than it looks.” Kathleen Rushall, a San Diego literary agent specializing in juvenile literature, offers more useful advice: “Get involved with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.”

In the meantime, for enthusiasts (would-be writers or no), there is this book. There is also the spectacular Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts. With only a little education on the subject, it will soon become clear that what appears simple requires real genius.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune (April 28, 2012). Martin Salibury’s new offering, “100 Great Children’s Books,” has been garnering considerable praise.

For a related essay, see:

Picture Books

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Wizards of Oz

New views of Baum’s classic via criticism and illustration (from the journal Children’s Literature)

The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, pictures by W. W. Denslow, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn. New York: Critical Heritage Series (Schocken Books), 1983.

Others might say what I say: Michael Hearn taught me how to read The Wizard of Oz. After the book, the place to turn was Hearn’s The Annotated Wizard of Oz (Clarkson Potter). Until now the next step was to find the works listed in that volume’s bibliography.

Schocken’s new critical edition of The Wizard makes this last step obsolete. In place of my sheaf of photocopies, I can now substitute this single volume which collects in one place all the criticism I had to acquire through hours of labor in the library. Here are most of the works listed in the earlier bibliography together with some new additions (for example, Brian Attebery’s section on Oz in his Fantasy Tradition in American Literature).

Those familiar with Oz criticism will find many standard works here: the anecdotal and personal essays (usually of first encounters with Oz) by James Thurber, Gore Vidal, Ray Bradbury, and Russel Nye; the treatises by Wagenknecht, Bewley, Sackett, and Littlefield which argue (much too seriously, in my opinion) that Oz is a utopia. There are two sections containing material fresh to me: one prints four essays that chronicle the petulant rejection of Oz books by librarians; the other section contains both an important essay by Baum (“Modern Fairy Tales”) and Hearn’s own intelligent gloss on it (“L. Frank Baum and the Modernized Fairy Tale”). Finally, there is one thing I missed: for nearly everyone (except, perhaps, subscribers to The Baum Bugle) the book and the MGM movie are so inextricably entwined in memory that they seem like, say, two versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”; I would have been pleased to have found an essay or two about them.

Schocken’s Wizard is the first volume of their new Critical Heritage Series which, apparently, will follow the pattern of Riverside’s Critical Editions — it will print the text followed by a collection of commentaries. Without the text and the pictures, the volume would make a handy casebook; as it is, the book belongs on the scholar’s and enthusiast’s bookshelf. Its price ($19.95) will probably prevent its adoption in the classroom, unless an inexpensive paper edition is made available; even then, teachers may prefer Dover’s edition of The Wizard which has color plates of Denslow’s pictures instead of the black-and-white reproductions that appear here.

The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, pictures by Michael Hague. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

My opinions are less decided in the case of the new Wizard of Oz illustrated by Michael Hague. So, let me simply chronicle my reactions to it as an individual still in the process of making up his mind.

First, there was resistance. My images of the book’s characters and landscapes are enduring ones that have been given me by the MGM movie and Denslow’s pictures, and who was Hague to upset this? Wasn’t he the presumptuous fellow who wandered into the domain of Arthur Rackham and Ernest Shepard to give us “new and improved” illustrations for The Wind in the Willows?

But then an urge for fair-mindedness set in. Honestly, didn’t I find many of the pictures lovely and interesting? Was I resisting the charm of the book like an old fogey with idées fixes? Isn’t it easy to snigger at the new and dismiss the work as a Golden Book writ large?

Then a compromise suggested itself. Perhaps Hague was someone like Mercer Mayer when the latter did a “Beauty and the Beast.” Both were yeomen with considerable gifts, still learning, but doing far too much in the business of illustrating to acquire depth.

After patronizing, it occurred to me that what I actually felt was that something was missing. Whimsy had always been a part of Denslow’s pictures (and an even greater part of the work of John R. Neill in the subsequent Oz books), but it was absent here. And — except for a picture where Dorothy and her companions jump a ditch and the ditch is the spine of the book — there did not seem to be an imaginative use of design.

But this seemed wrongheaded, like looking at the landscape of southern California and seeing the absence of elm trees instead of the presence of eucalyptus. Hague is less whimsical and more serious; but, after all, consider how the book ends with its answer to Aunt Em’s question about where her niece has been: “‘The Land of Oz,’ said Dorothy gravely.” And in place of daring in design, Hague is more concerned with portraiture and landscape; imagine, if you will, a Wizard of Oz illustrated by Kay Nielsen or Maxfield Parrish and you will begin to understand what Hague has done with this book.

It is this last observation that led me to a conclusion. Every generation, Borges argues in his story, “Pierre Menard,” has its own Don Quixote; though the words remain the same, subsequent events lead us to reread the text as different “versions.” Hague made me, unwillingly, read another version; and that is what is wonderful about his own Wizard.

This review originally appeared Children’s Literature (Yale), 14 (1986)–subscription required. See also this related essay:

L. Frank Baum: Oz & California

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Retired Children’s Lit Profs Just Wanna Have Fun

Two Interviews with Jerry Griswold (from The Unjournal)

SDSU Commencement Speaker 2011

The Unjournal is excited to bring you not one, but two enthralling interviews with the esteemed Dr. Jerry Griswold. The first was conducted by the Unjournal editors (a preview of which you glimpsed and hopefully enjoyed earlier this summer). The second comes from Dr. Julie Anne Stevens of St. Patricks College, Dublin City University, who has kindly granted us permission to publish and share her interview with Dr. Griswold on the nature and future of children’s literary criticism. Dr. Griswold’s colorful perspectives on a variety of topics expressed in both interviews demonstrates his depth of knowledge and experience and confirms that retired children’s lit scholars do have the most fun.

A Very San Diego Interview with Jerry Griswold

Jill Coste, Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman
Date Conducted: April 25, 2013

About the Authors: Jill Coste, Alya Hameed, Alixandria Lombardo, and Kelsey Wadman had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Griswold earlier this year for a conversation culminating in this interview. Coste is a recent graduate of San Diego State University, while Hameed, Lombardo, and Wadman are currently all graduate students at San Diego State University and co-founders of The Unjournal of Children’s Literature.

~ ~ ~

Dr. Jerry Griswold may have retired from his position as Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at San Diego State University, but he has not retired from the field of children’s literature scholarship. Already in 2013, he was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual The Child and the Book Conference, hosted by the University of Padua in March; he delivered the Francelia Butler Lecture at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in June; and his dance card is continually filled with future engagements. Considering Dr. Griswold has resolved not to do anything he does not want to do now that he is retired, those of us at Unjournal were touched that he enthusiastically participated in an interview for our inaugural issue. We appreciated his thoughtful reflections on a long, important, and prestigious career in the academic field of children’s literature and we think that, like us, you too will be inspired and enlightened by Dr. Griswold’s insight, humor, and sustained passion for children’s literature.

Dr. Griswold’s has been and continues to be an important voice in the field of children’s literature. He has written countless articles and book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, The Lion and the Unicorn, and other esteemed publications. Additionally, he is the author of several books,notably Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America’s Classic Children’s Books, the Children’s Literature Association’s 1995 Outstanding Book of the Year. While you can find more comprehensive details of Dr. Griswold’s contributions by visiting his website or typing his name into Google, what we hope to show in our interview is just how personable, charming, and boisterously verbose he is in person. As his long-term colleague and friend, Dr. Alida Allison, declares, “Jerry Griswold has the Irish gifts: humor, smarts, eloquence, literary fluency, good friendships. Good taste in beer, too. Whether in York, Calgary, Biloxi, or San Diego, it’s been a pleasure to bond with Jerry these many years.“

With Professors Kenneth Kidd (left) and John Cech (U. of Florida)

How did you become interested in the academic treatment of children’s literature?

My good fortune was to study at the University of Connecticut under Francelia Butler, who was one of the founders of the study of children’s literature in English departments. The field was brand new and she was an exceptionally dynamic woman. Francelia offered this huge children’s lit class every semester. It was immensely popular, 300 or more students enrolled, and I was her graduate assistant one year along with Elaine Scarry, who’s now a famous, famous literary critic and has a chair in Aesthetics at Harvard. Through Francelia, I was able to meet Margaret Hamilton (who famously portrayed the Wicked Witch of the West), Maurice Sendak, Big Bird, James Marshall, and other notables. Probably the most interesting person I met was Pamela Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books and whom I later interviewed for The Paris Review. At the time, the academic interest in children’s lit was just starting to take off, so just by being in the field, I was a big fish in a small pond.

What have you enjoyed most about your newish positions as professor emeritus and children’s literature scholar at-large?

Travel. I’ve reached this point of my life now where people invite me to speak about what I love. I just got back from two weeks in Italy and in October I was in Florida. I’ve recently been to Ireland. Upcoming is Biloxi, and then Philadelphia in the Fall.[1] It’s exhilarating to go to these different places and to talk with people about children’s literature. I met with graduate students at the University of Florida and at the University of Padua, and they’re all really enthusiastic about the field and want to know everything they can. There are not many people out there in the real world that you can sit down with and discuss Peter Rabbit critically.

You can’t just walk up to strangers and do that — they look at you strangely! When you’re in this coterie of people who like and study this kind of literature, it feels very comfortable and kind of exciting… Also through my travels, I discovered this new Italian illustrator. Her name is Nicoletta Ceccoli and while she is already big in Europe, her work is just starting to make an appearance here. Her style of illustration is provocative and ethereal. So, my position allows me to feel authorized to call her up, or send her an email, make a meeting, and then go interview her, which is an amazing opportunity… I mean, it’s a pretty good life. Sometimes, I envy my own life, I feel so lucky.

What did you consider was the best part of your work before you retired?

Of course, teaching has always been a favorite aspect of the profession… you know that you’re a good teacher when you leave the classroom and you have more energy than when you entered. The connections and the discussions that bring people together, all that sort of stuff is exhilarating when it occurs in your classroom. As a scholar, when you’re doing that kind of thing in your writing, it has that same sort of exhilaration — when things are really going well, things are clicking, and you feel energized by and connected to your work.[2]

As an early scholar of the genre, did you anticipate that your study of children’s lit would lead to such a prolific and satisfying career?

I didn’t really have any idea. It also depends on when I would have anticipated this outcome. Would it have been when I just got my PhD and I was unemployed for a year, and I was living with my family on a diet of rice and beans and not knowing if I would get a job offer? I certainly didn’t expect then that it would end up where the Italians are paying for me to fly over and talk about children’s books, of all things. So, no, I did not anticipate this future then.

But the field was really new then. Francelia — who was, at that point, probably 30 years older than me — was the first generation. I suppose I’m the second generation. Then there is a third generation of scholars like my SDSU compadrees June Cummins and Joseph Thomas Jr. I guess Philip Serrato would probably be 3.5. In the beginning, things were so new, there were probably only a dozen or so of us graduate students doing this kind of work. There were a lot of battles to fight for the legitimacy of the field and so forth. Anyway, I saw what my professors’ lives were like and I thought, “Hmm, that would be pretty good.” Walking around with like a sports coat, smoking a pipe, wearing a beret — I thought, “I’d like to do that.” Of course, it didn’t work out like that; I didn’t care for sherry.

As I’m sure you know, E.L. Konigsburg (February 10, 1930 — April 19, 2013) passed away recently. What are your thoughts on her generation of writers and the current trends in children’s fiction?

I love her book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It has inspired so many other books, even contemporary books. And I know people love that book. I remember I was on the radio doing a couple of things on KPBS. People call in and talk about, you know, “Oh, my favorite book was Elmer the Lackadaisical Guy by so and so,” and “Do you know that?” and often I’ll say that no, I don’t know it, but you can ask, “What did you like about it?” And it’s great to hear people’s enthusiasm about children’s books. I mean there are so many books, and people have no idea how wide this field is.

Another author in the same vein of Konigsburg is Lois Lowry; they’re about the same age. Lowry’s The Giver (1993) seems to me such a fantastic book. When The Hunger Games came out, Maria Tatar was talking about Hunger Games because she’s keen on the feminine warrior archetype thing. And she dvises me that she’s going to see Lois Lowry later and I said, “You tell her that Suzanne Collins owes her a million dollars!” because The Giver was so groundbreaking and Hunger Games just completely lifted it! I’m surprised no one’s been noting that: “Look, it’s all been seen before!” This is the thing: if you have a long reading history, you’re always surprised why the newest incarnation is getting so much attention. I mean, when Harry Potter came out I thought, “Oh Jesus, I’ve seen this a million times, I can tell you how it’s going to end.” I just saw it like that. Maybe there’s something to be said about not being well read. That way, you can be blown away by books.

In your review of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, MA, you said it was “remote” in terms of location but “rightly situated” with regard to the area’s contributions to children’s literature. Do you think the city of San Diego would be a good location to host a children’s literature museum considering the city’s abundance of children’s authors and thriving academic interest in the field?

Possibly. I think one of the most interesting events I went to in San Diego was a lecture at the San Diego Museum of Art in the early 80’s with Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), a San Diegan. The two of them lectured together and it was absolutely fantastic. The lecture has been transcribed in Glen Sandler’s Teaching Children’s Literature (1992).

So, San Diego has Dr. Seuss and San Diego State University which has an extraordinary, important, strong, and prestigious children’s literature program. Moreover, the city has had and has plenty of other writers and illustrators too.

The author of Misty of Chincoteague and many other children’s books, Marguerite Henry, lived in Rancho Santa Fe. Currently, there’s a very talented author and illustrator who’s won a number of awards, Eric Shanower. He’s doing an entire comic book series about the Trojan War, and he is a big Oz guy too. He has written, edited, and illustrated a collection of Oz books and comics. Additionally, Brian Selznick lives in San Diego and is good friends with Pam Muñoz Ryan, another San Diegan and a really great hotshot Latina writer. In fact, Selznick and Ryan did a few books together. Janelle Cannon, who wrote Stellaluna, also lives here. There’s a whole bunch of people associated with children’s literature around this area, so there’s a logic to thinking of San Diego as the capitol of children’s literature.

You’ve talked about children’s books in the era of the iPad, writing in Parent’s Choice that “[d]igital books will never replace their print versions. They will always be used in addition to print books.” How are you so sure?

You know, we’ve got to quit worrying about the idea of books as a repository of stories. Stories are what are important. They could be oral. They could come on CDs. They could be television programs. It’s fascinating that when the iPad first came out, the initial marketing campaign had it linked with Winnie the Pooh. It shipped with a free copy of Winnie the Pooh. It was a marketing concept — we’ll get the “soft and fuzzy” to go with the silver, steel thing. The Android tablet — the Nexus — used Madeline and Curious George in advertisements last summer. But what they didn’t anticipate was that the most resistance to the idea to put children’s books and tablets together would come from reactionary parents. Even the most high-tech parents want their offspring to experience stories in the old-fashioned way. My point is that we shouldn’t get upset about stories and what they’re embedded in. Stories are what are important.

Stories have been embedded in a variety of devices. In the 19th century there was something called toy theaters: these cardboard things you would cut out and glue, with characters and scripts. When I was growing up, there was the “View Finder,” a device to put this disc in and you would click it and see fairy tales and so forth in 3D, and we have pop-up books. We’ve got to get over the idea that stories can only be embedded in books and there’s some sort of natural link between them. Stories can be embedded in a lot of different things…

What did you enjoy reading as a child?

Everybody at this moment says, “Oh, well, I read a lot of comic books,” and I did. I read a lot of comic books. It’s funny that people want to establish their déclassé cred, their street cred, by stating that. But yeah, I read a lot of comics, and… weird stuff.

The earliest books I can remember are two. One was a Good Housekeeping book of children’s stories my mother would read to us from, and the one story I remember her reading over and over again was The Little Red Hen. That’s every mother’s favorite story! Do you remember The Little Red Hen? It’s like, “Who’s gonna help me bake this cake? Who’s gonna help me roll this out?” and then she gets the cake, and [says] “Who’s gonna help me eat it? Well, too bad!” It’s a sort of mother’s revenge story. Then, the other one of my earliest memories is a book by Elmer and Bertha Hader called Little Appaloosa, a story about this boy who lived on a ranch and had his own horse. Now, my grandfather had a ranch which we would visit, and I would ride horses when we went up there, but I lived in town and didn’t have my own horse.

Then I think around the fourth grade, maybe fifth grade, there was a librarian who started giving me books. It started off as boys’ adventure things, you know, like the Piper Cub airplane crashes in Alaska and Bill Jones has to survive and work his way out of the outback — how does he do it? By rubbing sticks together, he took a little piece of the plane off, etc. This is what Kenneth Kidd calls ‘boyology.’ Isn’t it curious that the popular children’s books have included Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe? What is it about kids that they want to relive, they want to have these survival skills, and they want to understand about how a culture is built from the ground up? Why? They arrive in a world that is already formed. They want to know, how did it get this way? There is the whole notion of independence and so forth, so there was that period of my life, too.

In high school my favorite book was not really a children’s book. It was Albert Camus’ The Stranger because I fancied myself disenchanted, misunderstood, and French. I would smoke Gauloises, wear a beret, and walk around my parents’ suburban living room saying, “Oh, it’s all meaningless.”

Are you working on any new books?

No, I’m working on an old book: Audacious Kids. It was due, oh God, a year and a half ago, but it’s hard — now that I’m used to just having fun — to be responsible and finish that book. I mean I have five more pages to finish and it has been that way for over six months. These opportunities come up — like this interview with the Italian illustrator — that are diversions but really, really fun, and these have sort of vectored me off.

Then at some point, I’m also going to collect my work. I’ve got hundreds of things that I’ve written. It’s embarrassing when I think of what I’ve done to the forests of North America! It really is! My mother died two Octobers ago, and I went up the following April to clear out the house and she had a complete collection of her son’s work. And I’m looking through it and there’s this Nation magazine from the 70’s, all yellowed and so forth but a small part of a larger collection, and I’m thinking, “The poor trees, the poor trees! There were about 10,000 of these published!”

What can we look forward to hearing from you in your Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture this June at the ChLA conference in Biloxi?

I’m going to talk about Francelia. I know at a certain point I’m going to be asked for a title and I’ve already thought that through… In fall of 1999 I was just beginning to teach for a year at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and Frank McCourt — the fellow who wrote Anglela’s Ashes and who was about to publish his next book ’Tis — came through and gave an evening lecture at the university. He starts reading from his new book and gets through the first paragraph, and then he stops and says, “That reminds me of a funny story…” and starts talking about how people always ask him where he got the title Angela’s Ashes. Then he goes back and he reads the next sentence and it reminds him of another story (and hours of that), and after about the third story, he remarks, “I’m the devil for digression.” And I thought, “Now there’s something.”

Later, I’m coming to Japan, and a friend of mine says, “We’re going to have you lecture and I think we should call the lecture ‘Digression,’ because, one: you’re really good at it, and two: you can never go wrong if you call your lecture ‘Digression,’ since no matter what you talk about you’re on topic!” So I’m waiting for the good folks at the ChLA conference in Biloxi to ask me what I’m going to talk about because I’ve already rehearsed a title. My lecture will be titled “Children’s Literature and Digression.”

But honestly, I’m just going to have fun. At this point in my life that’s all I want to do. I’m going to go to Biloxi and have a good time. Now that has gotten me into trouble before, but I have to say I really don’t care. It always seems to work out. Not that I won’t be anxious; I’m already anxious. I’ll prepare, and it’ll be okay, I think. Tell me, afterwards, if I pulled it off or not.[3]


1 The calendar on his website indicates an event he will attend held by the Childhood Studies Program at Rutgers University (Camden) in October 2013. Details have not yet been posted.

2 Jerry’s love of teaching is evidenced by his continued attention to the Children’s Literature program at SDSU. Much to students’ delight, he continues to make occasional appearances in graduate classes and, on occasion, partake of a dim sum brunch.

3 Dr. Jerry Griswold pulled off his Francelia Butler Memorial Lecture wonderfully. On Saturday, June 15th, hundreds gathered to hear Griswold’s speech, “Children’s Literature and Digression: A Post-Manifesto.” The audience was treated to colorful insight into the life of Francelia Butler, in which Griswold noted the expansion of the field since Butler first brought the study of children’s literature into English departments. Appreciating the presence of an academic community in the field, Griswold stated, “The good thing about having children’s literature colleagues is that when you spend half of an hour photocopying pictures of rabbits wearing clothes, no one asks you questions.” Griswold went on to discuss the future of the field, emphasizing that while it is problematic to make broad statements about the differences between children and adults, we do need to pay attention to childhood and children as they really exist. A controversial manifesto, his sentiments reflect the comments on his kindergarten report card regarding his behavior with crossing guards at school: Griswold “does not obey the patrol boys.”

An Irish Interview with Jerry Griswold on Children’s Literary Criticism

Julie Anne Stevens
Date Conducted: September 20, 2011

About the Author: Dr. Julie Anne Stevens is Director of the Masters Program in Children’s Literature at St. Patrick’s College, Dublin City University. She is also a critic and publishes on Irish literature and the visual arts as well as children’s literature. She published a book titled The Irish Scene in Somerville and Ross in 2007 and edited a book on the ghost story in 2010. This year, she has a chapter about the New York writer, Elizabeth Enright, coming out. Dr. Stevens has kindly granted permission to include this interview in The Unjournal.

~ ~ ~

Emeritus professor and international critic of children’s books, Jerry Griswold recently retired from lecturing in San Diego State University and tells me during our interview that for the first time in his life he could turn around and ask himself, “Okay, now what was it that I really wanted to do?” The question, his quizzical expression while asking it, and his slightly mocking but still implicit sense of expectation indicate Griswold’s greatest strength as a critic — the strength of curiosity, a kind of penetrating and inherently self-aware wonder about life.

In his 2006 study of childhood and children’s literature, Feeling Like a Kid, Jerry Griswold speaks of the importance of lightness in writing for children. Lightness not only refers to weight or, more correctly, weightlessness, but also to characteristics such as fluidity, deftness, and humour. Humour especially. There is no doubt that Jerry Griswold sees humour as a ‘high art’ and in his book he speaks more generally of a ‘Party of Lightness,’ a group that resists having too much gravity in life, and with a kind of tongue in cheek humour he quotes Oscar Wilde, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

Jerry Griswold belongs to the Party of Lightness in the sense that his criticism of children’s books is graced with a similar deftness and humour that he deploys with such skill in his study of the writings of Mark Twain, Hugh Loftus, Robert Louis Stevenson, George MacDonald, or Pamela Travers. I mention mainly the nineteenth century writers because he is especially good when discussing their works and he makes them accessible for readers accustomed to the movie versions of the same. Indeed, Griswold also writes about film; he moves fluidly between the genres, like some sort of shape-shifting commentator. His writings about children’s literature for the New York Times or the LA Times consider film, illustrated books, novels, and these newspaper articles and reviews are marked with the same grace and yet swift penetration we find in his longer studies like the award-winning Audacious Kids of 1992 or his study of the fairy tale called The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast of 2004.

I would like to say that the grace of Griswold’s thought and prose comes from his Irish background but that would be relying on stereotype — just as likely is the impact of his growing up in Montana and his love of children’s literature. The children’s literary critic, Perry Nodelman, notes the “complexity of apparently simple books” in this field of study — “complex books that work very hard to appear simple.” In a similar way, Jerry Griswold’s criticism can be disarmingly charming but needing much further consideration and thought. His book Feeling Like a Kid is like this. The Irish critic, Robert Dunbar, reviewed the book for the Irish magazine, Inis, in 2007 and noted the ‘seductive thesis’ at the heart of the critique — that children’s literature allows us to “glimpse and come to comprehend (or recall) what it feels like to be a kid.”

With Professors Larry McCaffrey and Sinda Gregory in Ireland

What do you think makes a good critic of children’s literature?

Besides the usual (superior intelligence, infallible judgement, a “good ear,” scrupulous honesty), it seems to me that the ideal critic of children’s literature should have read everything. Everything. Not just children’s books but adult fiction and nonfiction, the classics, literature, science. Boethius, Banville, Galileo, Pullman. Really. Everything!

On another note… I have noticed that the very top critics in this field are well dressed and have a sense of fashion. I don’t count myself among them.

Do you think that literary theory should inform children’s literary criticism and, if so, what do you think works especially well with children’s books?

I think, inevitably, literary theory influences the way critics approach children’s literature: I’m only sorry that it doesn’t seem to work the other way, as well. As for literary approaches that I recommend, I think it’s important not to put the cart before the horse. I’m from the use-the-right-tool-for-the-job school. Rather than coerce a text into some Procrustean theoretical mold, I think the work being examined dictates approaches that are apropos.

That said, let me add that a few years ago I gave a lecture in Massachusetts and at the end this scholar stood up and asked me where I got such and such an idea, where I had read it and what thinkers it had come from, I was flummoxed; I mean, really silenced for a minute or two. Finally, I said, almost apologetically, “It comes from my experience. See if the idea squares with your own experience and if it doesn’t, throw it out.” It says something about academia these days that she seemed puzzled by my reply.

To what extent does a good critic of children’s books encourage good book reading?

Jerry: To a great extent, and involuntarily. Enthusiasm is communicable. When we talk about this, we should use such terms as “outbreak,” “transmission,” “cluster,” and “virulence.”

Does the critic of children’s books work within constraints of any kind?

Of course. There are many, many kinds of constraints. In February, for example, in a passing remark in the New York Times, I criticized the Tea Party for rewriting America’s revolutionary history in nonsensical ways; shortly thereafter, a right-wing U.S. congressman from Florida had his staff investigating my university and the funding sources of the research center I was then directing. If you’re talking about constraints, however, I’ll tell you what’s worse: Being told to review a book in 600 to 800 words. It used to be twice that, in the pre-Twitter era.

Does he/she need think of classroom requirements or moral questions?

Many of my students eventually become schoolteachers, but I never thought about that much. Then one day one of my own offspring came home from school carrying an obscure paperback that I had used in my children’s literature classes years before, and it dawned on me that what I was doing had some effect on what was being taught in San Diego County. My former pupils had grown up, become teachers, and now made curricular decisions that affected the half million school kids in my county. To be frank, that realization paralyzed me: “How could I ever draw up a booklist for my classes again?” I finally had to put that idea out of my head and deal with things close at hand.

In that regard, just because your students are future schoolteachers doesn’t mean that you need to offer a class of higher moral calibre or always be mindful of morality. I think something is off kilter when you feel you should ratchet up your rectitude before crossing the threshold into the classroom. Not to make too fine a point about it, simply to say what others have said, but being a good person seems to me an all-the-time thing — whether you’re standing at a university podium or buying milk at the Spar store on the corner. It’s seamless. You bring your everyday life, and who you are, to class.

Do you think the critic guides public taste and influences book sales?

Well, it works both ways. Sometimes public taste and book sales influence the critic. I endured months and months of hectoring by friends and students before I went to a store looking for a book by someone called J.K. Rowling. That book, incidentally, had been on the bestseller lists for quite a few seasons. But sometimes the influence thing works the other way.

I was lucky to get the assignment to review Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Desperaux for the New York Times Book Review. I loved the book and praised it to the stars. Some weeks later her offering won the Newbery Award, the top prize in American children’s books and (like the Man Booker Prize, say) something that is immediately translatable into increased sales and oodles of dollars. Noting how this increase followed my laudatory review, my joke at the time was: “Where’s my check?”

Of course, a critic can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I couldn’t have made something out of DiCamillo if she wasn’t a genuine talent and real genius; indeed, from this promising debut, she has continued on to an illustrious career. I simply pointed out her gifts in a highly visible milieu, and others subsequently confirmed my opinion. But the story doesn’t end there. Let me tell you the sequel.

A former student of mine has gone into publishing and met Kate DiCamillo at a convention. They started talking and put two-and-two together until DiCamillo realized the connection and said, “You know, that’s the only review I ever framed. It’s hanging in my house. Every author dreams of receiving, once in their life, a review like that.” Of course, when that story got back to me, I was immensely touched. I didn’t know what to do but I can tell you what my first impulse was: To call her up and propose marriage.

These interviews first appeared in “The Unjournal” (2013), and I thank the the editors for their permission to reprint them here.

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Biographies of Children’s Authors

Two recent books suggest the perils and pleasures of biographies penned by critics (from the journal Children’s Literature)

L. Frank Baum: The Creator of Oz
by Katharine M. Rogers
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002

For the climber who maps a new route up Everest or K2, actions may speak louder than words; and more than any account they may write afterwards, what we value is the accomplishment. In that regard, Katharine Rogers’ new biography of Frank Baum is an accomplishment: on the face of it, she has read all of Baum’s nearly 100 books, examined all the letters, and (it would seem) spent decades on this labor of love. There may only be a handful of others who know as much about Baum as she does; and for this, she is to be admired and honored. Regrettably, however, the applicable criteria in a review of this kind is not “Actions speaker louder than words” but something more along the lines of “You shall know a tree by its fruits.” In this, Rogers’ book is a disappointment.

Pity the poor biographer. For years and years, they collect the minutiae of a life until they have a sea of facts or index cards. It can be overwhelming. Then comes the u-turn in the project, the moment when inhalation must become exhalation. When the writing begins, choices have to be made. Here, fortunately, a principle of selection is manifest: in the critical biography of a writer we are primarily interested in the writing; we are interested in the author’s life in so far as it influenced the writing; our curiosity about other matters (the writer’s spouse, for example) is likely to be more limited since we are keen to know about these only in a tangential way; finally, in all likelihood, there are things we won’t be interested to learn at all (for example, about the hairdresser of the author’s spouse). In less words, a biographer needs to keep his or her eye on the ball.

In this, Rogers’ biography disappoints. She has been unwilling to give up all the hard-won facts of her research. Two examples will have to suffice. To get an understanding of Baum’s “boosterism,” it may be important to know that while he lived in Los Angeles he was an enthusiastic member of an organization called the Lofty and Exalted Order of Uplifters; but is it important to know that this group was founded by “Harry Marston Haldeman” and–even more, or rather less to the point–that Mr. Haldeman was “a pipe company executive” [p. 183]? Here is another representative item:

On February 1, 1886, Maud [Baum’s wife] gave birth to her second son, Robert Stanton, in their new house on Holland Street, where they had moved the year before. The childbirth was difficult and caused abdominal infection; Maud contracted peritonitis and almost died. In the days before antibiotics, it was remarkable that she pulled through at all. As it was, she was bedridden for months with a drainage tube in her side. [p. 18]

It may or may not be interesting where and when Maud gave birth to their second son, and the same might be said about it being difficult childbirth which caused her to be bedridden and for how long. But may I suggest that in a biography of Frank Baum, his wife’s clinical diagnosis (peritonitis) is an unnecessary specificity and that the “drainage tube” is (in several senses) an appendage that leads nowhere.

Multiply this habit exponentially over several hundred pages, add in a second half of the book that largely consists of three-paragraph summaries of Baum’s voluminous output interleaved with biographical comments and passing commentary, and what you have is more an archive than a biography. Of course, spending weeks in author’s archive will give you a sense of him or her. But that “sense” is something we wish for straightaway from a biographer. To save others such a tough slog through Rogers’ archive, let me summarize the man who emerges:

growing up in a world of mansions and well laid-out gardens; raising chickens as a hobby; smitten by the stage as a young would-be actor; smitten by Maud Gage and marrying this daughter of a prominent suffragette and ever afterwards a feminist himself; a compliant husband and a softy as a father (who could only be bullied into spanking one of his sons once and then never again); traveling to South Dakota and working as a newspaper editor trying to boost the new territory; broke, moving to Chicago and dazzled by the World Columbian Exposition with its futuristic visions of machinery and whiz bang gadgets; starting to enjoy success as a children’s writer so that he could afford a motorized mahogany boat on Michigan’s lakes and wintering at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego; moving to Los Angeles and finally falling into a recognizable L.A. pattern–viz., making a living as a hack writer, forever pitching deals or movie ideas, days of gardening and golf, nights at chummy men’s clubs playing cards or staging amateur theatricals, and always (according to reports) handsome, optimistic, and “boyish” until the end.

Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter
By Alison Lurie
New York: Penguin Books, 2003

Though it would be unfair to compare an essay with a book, Alison Lurie’s short piece on Baum in her Boys and Girls Forever is a model of how biography can be used as a basis for critical understanding of an author’s work. Relating facts that an ordinary reader would not know–that Baum married into the Women’s Movement and was a longtime feminist–Lurie intelligently comments upon the matriarchy of Oz and the remarkable production of girl heroines by a male author. In other essays, Lurie takes an odd biographical fact and elaborates an understanding of the author’s work from that: John Masefield (best known for his maritime poem, “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”) actually suffered from seasickness and had an extraordinary recollection of his childhood toys; Walter de la Mare wrote The Memoirs of a Midget where he imagined himself a young woman between two and three feet tall. In still other essays, commonly known facts are pregnant: the Harry Potter books can be understood in terms of J. K. Rowling’s residence in Scotland and Salman Rushdie’s entrance into children’s books was a consequence of the fatwa pronounced upon him by a Muslim cleric.

“It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves”

Boys and Girls Forever, I should acknowledge, is a cut-and-paste assembly of essays Lurie has published elsewhere, primarily those splendidly written pieces that have appeared in the New York Review of Books. Though the stitching sometimes shows, the essays largely hang together; but let me hastily add that even a hand-me-down from this Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, and from this critic who has written insightfully about clothes and about children’s literature, is still of designer quality. In so far as the collection has a thesis, it is announced in the first sentence: “It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves” [ix]. But this book is not so thesis-driven as her previous work Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups where her point was the essential subversiveness of literature of the young. In this work, the thesis (viz. “Didn’t Become Grown-Ups“) weaves its way lightly through the book like a motif in music.

She reclaimed the classics for the left and conscientious objectors of all stripes.

Occasioned by the recent film, Lurie’s essay on Little Women, however, hearkens back to the earlier book since her point is that conservatives who fasten on Alcott’s novel as a repository of old fashioned values miss the point that it was a radical novel for its times and, for the thoughtful reader, still subversive. Her point there reminds us of what eventually became the true value of Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: when William Bennett and Co. seized the classics as part of their right-wing agenda, it seemed that liberals and activists were left only contemporary books (and sometimes vapid works with social agendas) as their bailiwick. In essence, Lurie suggested that Bennett et al. read shallowly and got it wrong. She reclaimed the classics for the left and conscientious objectors of all stripes.

That’s not to suggest that Lurie’s observations are striking to the degree they are outré; often enough, they are striking in an ordinary but singular aptness. Talking about Hans Andersen in his youth, Lurie is reminded of how famous authors like herself are often accosted after a reading by young writers who press their manuscripts upon them, these petitioners presenting themselves as unrecognized geniuses; thinking of the juvenile Andersen, Lurie observes the odd fact that on extremely rare occasions these youthful imposers are, indeed, geniuses. In another moment, she seems right on target in a passing remark that the sexually squeamish author de la Mare resembles E. M. Forester’s character Leonard Bast, the doomed clerk in Howard’s End. Ordinary but also on the mark, her discussion of the creatures who populate Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books amounts to descriptions of kinds of people we all know.

The idea of “contamination” in the customary playground play where gangs of boys swoop in on girls to seize and kiss them, giving each other “cooties”

Not all her chapters deal with authors. Some take up genres, and here she often has an unerring eye for what’s important and telling detail. For example, her discussion of children’s games (in a review of works by Iona Opie and Barrie Thorne’s Gender Play) seizes on the idea of “contamination” in the customary playground play where gangs of boys swoop in on girls to seize and kiss them, giving each other “cooties.” In her chapter on children’s poetry, she ultimately intimates that models for comparison don’t exist in Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens but in that author whose works seem all of a piece–namely, Anon.

These are two very different books: the one an archive and the other scrapbag of secondhand and previously published works. Which is the more valuable? When Charlotte sends Templeton out for salvific words that will preserve Wilbur, she does not send Templeton to a dictionary but to the dump.

This essay originally appeared in Children’s Literature (2004) [subscription required]. My own biographical essay on Baum, “Oz & California,” can be found here. Let me add that, in a profile of Lurie by Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian, I am seen repeating my estimations of her political importance:

“Jerry Griswold, a professor of literature at San Diego State University and a specialist in children’s literature, says that while Lurie is not seen as a strictly academic figure — ‘she doesn’t appear in obscure scholarly journals that are read by 100 people worldwide’– she has been influential in the field. ‘First, her prose is so lucid that cats and dogs can understand it,’ he says. ‘And when Don’t Tell the Grown-ups was published, it seemed that the right, particularly in America, had captured the classics of children’s literature as moralistic and conservative. But Lurie’s book showed how works like Tom Sawyer and Little Women challenged the traditional order. It gave sustenance for those of us who think of ourselves as progressive thinkers in the academy to recover the classics.’”

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Keeping “Kiddie Lit” in Its Place

The day the New York Times Book Review changed the rules (from the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly)

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

On July 23, 2000, the New York Times Book Review changed the rules. For 82 weeks previously, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had appeared on their Bestseller List and her two subsequent books also occupied two more positions on that treasured list of fifteen. But Goblet of Fire, her fourth book, was about to appear and the Times felt something must be done. Despite the fact that the Harry Potter books were being read by children and adults, in a fit of gerrymandering meant to give space to other books and the publishers who buy advertising, the Book Review created a separate children’s bestseller list and bumped Rowlings to there.

What if, instead of Rowlings, the bestseller spots had been occupied for weeks by works by Toni Morrison or Judith Krantz or Stephen King? Would the New York Times have created a separate list for African-American Writing, Women’s Books, or Popular Fiction? Why does it seem so unthinkingly acceptable that if a “separate but equal” ghetto should be created, if the concept “bestseller” needed to be redefined and skewed, that it would be okay to do so in terms of age but objectionable if done in terms of race, gender, or class?

Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. By Beverly Lyon Clark. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

In her terrific and important Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature, Beverly Lyon Clark indicates this wasn’t always so. A little more than a hundred years ago, the great writers wrote books for an audience composed of both children and adults: Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, et al. And the bestseller lists of the time were headed by the likes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Heidi,The Call of the Wild, and Anne of Green Gables. And these books were prominently reviewed by leading critics in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and other popular magazines. What happened to those days?

Following Felicity Hughes, Clark symbolically lays blame at the doorstep of Henry James. In a bid for respectability, James divided a shared American literature by creating a kind of complex and adult fiction that would be disassociated from the vulgar and popular reading of women and children. He appealed to a cognoscenti, a coterie largely composed of adult white males of a certain social station, the Eastern Establishment nuanced by British inclinations. As Clark points out, James’ heirs eventually came to occupy the men’s clubs at ivy-league universities, the boys in blazers whose highbrow tastes and iron canon ruled throughout most of the twentieth century.

Then came the “culture wars” of the last few decades where everybody else asked, “What about us?” In that regard, the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) was a milestone, widening the canon to include women and people of color as well as previously unacceptable genres and authors. Now mention could be made, for example, of detective fiction and science fiction, Mexican American and Asian American literature, Zora Neale Hurston and Pearl Buck. But what was still unacceptable?

To conceive the magnitude of the omission of Children’s Literature in Columbia Literary History of the United States, one would have to imagine a 1300-page study of transportation in China that makes no mention of the bicycle.

In some 1300 pages of a Literary History of the United States, no essay concerns Children’s Literature; and since no mention is made of it, you would never know that anyone in America had ever read, for example,The Wizard of Oz or Charlotte’s Web. As Leslie Fiedler has observed, what distinguishes America’s masterpieces from those of other nations–what is central to our literature–is that our classics (e.g., Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, The Last of the Mohicans) are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library. Consequently, to conceive the magnitude of the omission of Children’s Literature in Columbia Literary History of the United States, one would have to imagine a 1300-page study of transportation in China that makes no mention of the bicycle.

In her book, Clark tracks the various moves by which “Kiddie Lit” has been diminished and kept in its place, and she does this by tracing the historical reception of a half dozen or so representative works. As she notes, “childishness” is a dismissive often mixed with slurs on race, gender, and class. In the United States, to call a black man a “boy,” others easily recognize, is to insult an African-American; but Clark would have us recognize, as well, the other insulted party in that slur and the obligation put on African-Americans to forcibly disassociate themselves from that other group in order to rise. In a similar fashion, one of the most immensely popular children’s books in America, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was undermined when it was labeled “effeminate”; why that should be a stigma is worthy of consideration. Finally, for the socially elite, popularity and profitability are equated with vulgarity, so the highbrow write off Harry Potter and Disney’s movies in a supercilious way as things for the hoi polloi and children; Dickens’ books, we might add, suffered a similar fate until they were repositioned and “rescued” by academe.

Huckleberry Finn was also repositioned and “rescued” from “Kiddie Lit” by the arbiters of taste when (in 1950) T.S. Eliot forcibly separated it from Tom Sawyer (its companion boy’s book) and declared that this work “does not fall into the category of juvenile fiction.” Mark Twain would have been surprised. Nonetheless, since that time, an entire industry has grown up of critics who completely ignore Twain’s own notion of that novel as a children’s book and who busily construct arguments for Huck’s maturation in order to get him out of childhood (and that genre) as soon as possible. Now, Huckleberry Finn is generally seen as an adult book, a classic “too good” to be a children’s book, and so (paradoxically) required reading for high-school students.

As Clark suggests, the case of Little Women is more complex. Beloved for a hundred years but never mentioned in histories of American Literature, Louisa May Alcott’s novel began to enter the canon in the 1970’s with the rise of Feminism. Regrettably, the first step was to “rescue” this novel from Kiddie Lit; Elaine Showalter’s Introduction to the Penguin edition (1989), for example, essentially steps on one group to raise another, arguing this “women’s novel” is better than the puerility of a “children’s book.” Indeed, in feminist circles, Alcott was first “rehabilitated” by the discovery of her adult thrillers; Alcott’s work for children was slower to receive acceptance and it was only in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1996) that excerpts from Little Women appeared and with the publisher trumpeting the introduction of “a genre new to the anthology: children’s writing.” Only recently have feminists come to realize that there are two groups that traditionally share the lifeboat, and that to step on children and their literature is to do the same to women and their works.

Clark’s book, then, is a “must read” for scholars in Children’s Literature, a group already with a chip on its shoulder, a literary specialization whose leading journal was once called The Great Excluded. In an era when they teach books like those of Harry Potter which the masses read, and in an era when the New York Times goes through extraordinary contortions to keep their genre in its place, Children’s Literature enthusiasts can become, via Clark’s study, more articulate about their righteousness. At the same time, those who should read this book–the nabobs gloried at the plenary sessions of the MLA convention, the grandsons of Henry James in their ivy-league blazers and the few women and people of color they have now allowed into their club–will not and that is a continuing shame.

Kiddie Lit, then, is an account of the discipline thus far; and as this review has indicated, Clark suggests how its development has followed models arising from interrogations of issues of class, race, and gender. If I may, let me suggest the agenda likely to be followed in the future.

The study of Children’s Literature has one more model to absorb before coming into its own and that is postcolonial thinking. Clark hints at this by noting, for example, that while no essay on The Wizard of Oz has ever appeared in the PMLA, several have appeared on the Alice books because (she opines) they are British; she observes that the Alcott revival was first prompted by an appearance of a front-page essay on Alcott in 1965 in London’s Sunday Times which granted her acceptability; and Clark wonders whether the open-mindedness proffered Harry Potter in some intellectual circles may arise from the books’ old school ties and British imprimatur. It is not a far step from this, as some critics have begun to discover, to postcolonial criticism and the transfer of tropes found there to the special status of children and their literature; indeed, let me go further and add that the situation of adults writing about Children’s Literature resembles that of the emigrant and, say, Irish-Americans writing about Irishness.

Finally, it’s worth noting that each of these prior models has come in two phases: the first is a parsing of victimization, and the second a recognition of distinctness–so, for example, we now discuss what is particular to African-American literature or sources of feminine pride in “old wives’ tales.” That day is coming in the study of Children’s Literature. At the moment, however, the talk is all of the “constructions” of childhood, as if to suggest age boundaries are entirely arbitrary and/or hurtful. But just as we all aren’t the same color, when it comes to age, we all aren’t essentially the same; if it were otherwise, we would see adults setting up “camps” under tables and seniors playing on the rug with tiny figurines. Discussions about what is distinct to childhood and particular to its proud literature–that second phase is still coming. Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America is poised on the cusp of that change.

This review originally appeared in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 28 №4 (Winter 2003–2004) [requires subscription].

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Interviews with Leading Children’s Writers

Jonathan Cott talks with Seuss, Sendak, Steig, Lindgren, Achebe, Travers, & Opie (from the Los Angeles Times)

PIPERS AT THE GATES OF DAWN: THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE by Jonathan Cott (Random House: $19.95; 327 pp. illustrated)

The reader who expects softheadedness should be warned away. This is not a winsome foray into a saccharine world of childhood books and pleasant chats with their grandmotherly authors. Instead, this book is a serious, even profound study of complex writers and the depths concealed under the hard-wrought simplicity of their stories.

Somewhere near the end of this book, Peter Opie observes that the self-supporting, independent scholar is dying out. Jonathan Cott is proof that this figure is not yet extinct. It says something — both about Cott and the appeal of his subject — that portions of this book have appeared in such diverse publications as Rolling Stone and the New Yorker.

In “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn,” Cott discusses and interviews seven living children’s authors — some of whom are more often recognized by something other than their name: Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss), Maurice Sendak (“Where the Wild Things Are”), William Steig (“Sylvester and the Magic Pebble”), Astrid Lindgren “(Pippi Longstocking”), Chinua Achebe (perhaps Africa’s leading novelist), P.L. Travers (“Mary Poppins”) and Peter and Iona Opie (noted collectors of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes).

The place to begin is the interview with Travers. How many people would imagine that the author of “Mary Poppins” was herself a part of the Celtic Twilight, close to poets William Butler Yeats and George Russell? How many can conceive that a steady diet of myth and folklore could produce such a remarkable woman, so warm and so acutely wise?

How many individuals–given the lack of seriousness with which children’s books and their authors are regarded–are prepared for Cott’s revelations? Seuss is a subversive genius. Sendak is a deep as Grimm. The neurotic torture of Steig’s New Yorker cartoons is unraveled in his children’s books. Lindgren thinks a sane maturity is paying attention to such fundaments of childhood as the house and the tree in the yard. Achebe believes that politics is often best discussed in children’s books. True folklorists, according to the Opies, would better spend their time on playgrounds — not in Borneo — where they can hear an underground tradition that keeps alive Sixteenth Century stories and even more ancient games.

Cott has done his research. He has approached each of these authors with the aim of being the most intelligent and sympathetic reader they have ever had. He takes a special pleasure even in anticipating their answers and their secrets, and more than once you can hear the muffled amazement of those he interviews: “How did you know that!”

Occasionally, there is the feeling that Cott has done too much research. His chapters are really a hybrid of the essay and the interview, and sometimes he smuggles into his interview a lengthy passage (of what would otherwise be intelligent analysis of the person in an essay) and then fashions it as a question: “How would you respond to that?”

Stylistically, Cott makes liberal use of parentheses. He has to. His mind is made quickly with associations. A conversation with Steig, for example, may lead him to an observations about Wilhelm Reich and then to observations about Chaplin, Stravinsky, Balanchine and Picasso.

The result is a density, a bramble the equivalent of ((( and ))), as Cott pursues an idea’s eclectic cousins. For some readers who prefer the straightforward path, this tour-de-force thicket may seem to need pruning. But for the reader willing to accompany Cott in his mazey ways, the book is a fertile abundance not seen since Norman O. Brown.

Wholly convinced by the subtitle of Cott’s book, I went right to the bookstore and set about rereading. I hope intelligent and open-minded readers will be similarly moved. “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn” should be put on the shelf next to another milestone book — Bruno Bettelheim’s study of fairy tales, “The Uses of Enchantment” — because it shows that childhoods are our common ground, lasting in their influences and as wide as they are deep.

Originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 19, 1983).

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New Zealand YA Novels

I could find out more about New Zealand by reading fiction rather than facts in a travel guide.

Leaving Auckland harbor.

On my way to LAX, it occurred to me (again) that the young are going to have lives very different from our own. On the airport shuttle was a twenty-something with an English accent and a perky haircut like that of young chef Jamie Oliver. He was accompanied by his French girlfriend and they were on the cell phone asking an American friend if they could use his Los Angeles apartment before they flew on to Mexico. While the “international” still has glamour for me and others my age, for many in the younger generation, global culture doesn’t seem remarkable but simply the way of life–eating sushi, say, while listening to reggae.

On my part, I was on my way to the airport to travel to the Southern Hemisphere where everything is upside-down: where I would spend the longest night of the year while those in California celebrated the longest day; where natives drive on the “other” side of the road; where temperatures were a wintery 8C instead of California’s forest-fire highs of 95F — indeed, where even temperatures are measured in different ways. Clearly, New Zealand required new thinking.

As the poet Wallace Stevens observed, more important than “the look of things” (mountains, rivers, etc.) is what the inhabitants “feel about what they see.”

When journeying somewhere new, I usually buy the relevant Lonely Planet book or another travel guide. This time my idea was to come to know a place by studying its “shared dreams.” More specifically, I queried a dozen experts to identify the four most popular young-adult writers in New Zealand and then the best novel by each. It was my thinking that I could find out more about New Zealand by reading fiction rather than Fodor’s facts. As the poet Wallace Stevens observed, more important than “the look of things” (mountains, rivers, etc.) is what the inhabitants “feel about what they see.”

Wellington Civic Center

There was an unexpected benefit to my decision to study the nation’s young-adult fiction. As I carried around this or that novel, young people in New Zealand struck up conversations with me, telling me why the book was great and recommending others. So, it occurred to me, a really clever parent ought to do just that: proffer books like these to adolescents accompanying them on trips abroad; in this way, the teen might learn about the likes and dislikes of their age peers at the foreign destination and, maybe, make some friends along the way. That said, I would encourage reading of the books mentioned below even if one is not bound for the Southern Hemisphere. There are many ways to travel and many ways to become international.

Margaret Mahy: The Catalogue of the Universe. Considered New Zealand’s top writer for the young, Margaret Mahy has penned numerous books but her The Catalogue of the Universe is considered among the best; strangely, this prize-winning novel is only available in the U.S. on a sometime basis. Here is the familiar story of Beauty and the Nerd, only this time their names are Angela & Tycho and they are unlikely pals until the end of the novel when they discover romance in each other’s arms. Angela, born out of wedlock, wants her absent father to acknowledge her; she fails, though she does strike up a friendship with her paternal grandmother. Our nerd Tycho is an autodidact and bonkers on Big Science and Carl Sagan and Angela. What I like most about the book is its Kiwi ambience: life in the countryside outside town where cars always seem to be breaking down; independent kids and free-spirited adults living together extemporaneously, in messy houses and loving families.

Witi Ihimaera: Whale Rider. You would likely know this work by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera because of the terrific movie made from it. While Angela in The Catalogue of the Universe wants her father to acknowledge her, Kahu (the heroine of this book) longs for the attention and affection of her grandfather. It is enough to break your heart. But the old man is fixed in his wish to preserve the disappearing Maori culture of Whangara and equally fixed in his patriarchal belief that women have no place in this. If you remember the film, you will know Kahu solves her dilemma by becoming (like her legendary ancestor) the Whale Rider. Her sexist grandfather learns to be open-minded, but he also learns tradition can only be kept alive through change.

Maurice Gee: Salt. Imagine a dark version of the movie “Blue Lagoon” set in a post-apocalyptic world. Instead of the movie’s Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, Gee’s futuristic novel features Pearl (a fair complected girl from the ruling families of the Company) and Hari (a dark-complected boy from the indigenous peoples confined to the Burrows). In what seems like a fantasy abstraction of race relations in New Zealand between Maori and Pakeha (whites of European ancestry), these two young people form an alliance in the midst of class wars and internecine struggles; they can communicate without speech and eventually they discover love. Gee’s novel is a page-turner made more exciting by the ticking time bomb of a radioactive substance known as Salt. It is surprising the book hasn’t been made into a film. It is also surprising that the book is not yet available in the States. Order it.

Bernard Beckett: Genesis. Like boxes within boxes, Bernard Beckett’s sci-fi novel has stories within stories within stories; and it moves between these various levels in deft ways until the dizzying shifts of its surprising conclusion. At its heart, if that’s where our attention should reside, is an account of brilliant and cunning conversation between the imprisoned Adam (a self-interested rebel in a Big-Brother-like society of the future) and Art (a robot with artificial intelligence who has the ability to self-program itself as it interacts with Adam). In Beckett’s novel, nothing is as simple as it appears and eventually the reader is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the author that echoes Adam’s attempts to “game” the robot.

I traveled to New Zealand in June of 2008, stopping first in Auckland to meet with Wayne Mills of the Kids’ Lit Quiz (which you can read about here). Then after a stay in Rotorua, I passed on to visit friends in Wellington and give a lecture at the ACLAR convention at Victoria University. During my stay in the country I also appeared on New Zealand television when, during a stop on Waiheke Island, I was approached by a camera crew and asked to comment upon a wine that had just won top honors at the Los Angeles County Fair. This required a number of glasses with the crew to prevent my rendering a hasty judgement; after which, to their delight, I mugged for the camera and declared the vintage “prize-winning.”

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KidLit: 8) Travel

Read “Heidi” in the Alps, “Babar” in France, “Pinocchio” in a gondola, also Paris in Kids’ Books, New Zealand, more

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KidLit: 7) Authors & Artists

Hans Christian Andersen, Mark Twain, Frank Baum, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Michael Sowa, David Weisner, more

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KidLit: 6) Calendar

Valentines Day, MLK Day, St. Patrick’s, April Fools, Cinco de Mayo, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving, more

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In Praise of the Grinch

Welcome to Christmas.alt

There’s something about Christmas that can bring out the curmudgeon in us. For a person of unblinking honesty, the holiday season (as wonderful as it is) offers plenty of things to hate: department stores that begin decorating shortly after Halloween, those damnably cute red-and-white elf hats that some folks wear, the chore of Christmas cards. But say one critical word about the holiday and you’re immediately assaulted by coercive group-think, by the sanctimonious herd who’ll tell you: “Get in the spirit” and “Don’t be a Grinch.”

The crankiness sometimes evoked by Christmas seems a reaction to an excess of sentimentality and the pathetic that is common during the holiday season. Consider how the typical Christmas story is pathetically touching: Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Matchgirl freezing to death in the streets of an uncaring world while others celebrate indoors around their Christmas trees; the March sisters sacrificing their Christmas dinner to the poor German family in Little Women; the gifts of a hairbrush and watch chain to the shorn wife and watch-less husband in O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

If that isn’t enough of the touching, consider how many times during the season that the films “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” will appear on television. And if that still isn’t enough, consider how many times newspapers will feature stories about someone who did a good deed and felt warm inside. In small doses this is fine; but after a certain point, it’s enough to make a diabetic wince.

This is Grinch territory, and we might begin to explore it by noting a curious post-holiday phenomenon of the last decade or so. After a long period of good behavior and kind feelings in the run-up to Christmas, and after plumping themselves with holiday dinners, folks go to movie theaters for the opposite: for mayhem and mischief, for scary rather than merry.

Have a Scary Christmas

Consider the offerings of Christmas Past: “Gremlins” (where teddy-bear-like creatures become murderous in a shootout at–of all places, the Holy-of-Holies–a toy store); “Scrooged” (where in a reprise on Dickens’ story, Bill Murray plays an arrogant network exec assaulted by monsters); “The Grinch” (both the recent film with Jim Carrey and the popular animated version where Boris Karloff supplies the sinister creature’s voice); “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”; and more. Call these all examples of “Dark Christmas” or “Christmas.alt.”

A terrific edition of “A Christmas Carol” illustrated by PJ Lynch. (Used with permission.)

The first to do this was Charles Dickens’ in A Christmas Carol, the first to mix the Nativity with the Gothic. While not completely free of sentimentality (think of the crippled Tiny Tim and his concluding the tale with “God bless us, every one”), Dickens’ story is a surprisingly dark holiday entry: a nightmare where ghosts go clanking about and Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart in, in — a graveyard! Wait a minute! Where’s Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer and all his upbeat kin? Isn’t Christmas a time for happiness rather than remorse and scariness? Dickens’ classic seems to have mistakenly mixed up Christmas with Halloween.

Of course, Tim Burton deliberately mixes up these same dates in his Halloween-like “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” his terrific upside-down version of Clement Moore’s famous holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas.” But prior to that, the first “upside-down version of Moore’s poem” was Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Indeed, anyone who has thoughtfully read the good doctor’s book will subsequently see Moore’s beloved holiday poem in a completely new way — namely, as an account of greedy tots bent on “getting ” and poised in acquisitive anticipation:

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

Seuss provides the antidote to this picture of junior consumers who have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads; his parody even echoes Moore’s rhyme scheme. The Grinch (dressed as a sham St. Nick) and his dog Max (masquerading as a reindeer) travel to Who-ville and put Moore’s poem on “rewind.” Descending the chimney, the Grinch notices:

Where the little Who stockings all hung in a row.
“These stockings,” he said, “are the first things to go!”
Then he slithered and slunk, with a smile most unpleasant,
Around the whole room, and he took every present!

But this is only the beginning of his subtractions. The Grinch takes everything, from Christmas tree to yule log. But, you will remember, Christmas comes just the same:

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”

And here is where the Grinch pauses: with the authentic, with the Xcess removed from Xmas. Properly understood, the Grinch is not the enemy of Christmas; he is the enemy of the inauthentic and insincere. At a time of year awash in over-the-top sentimentality and contrived touching stories, the hard-nosed Grinch wants to save Christmas from all the bogus frills and furbelows. He wants, in fact, to save us.

As Tiny Tim might say, “God bless you, Dr. Seuss.”

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How Rush Limbaugh Stole Thanksgiving

Limbaugh has photoshopped himself into American history and claimed our national holiday

When it was released in 2013, Rush Limbaugh’s kids’ book “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims” (Simon & Schuster) zoomed to the tops of bestseller lists where it remained for months. Indeed, by 2014, Limbaugh’s sales figures were so extraordinary that the Children’s Book Council named him their Author of the Year. That may have been too small an honor. Who knew we should thank Limbaugh for Thanksgiving itself?

In “Brave Pilgrims,” it is difficult to distinguish between the author (Rush Limbaugh) and the story’s hero (Rush Revere). That seems deliberate. Besides sharing a name used throughout the book, whenever an illustration of the story’s hero appears, a photo of Limbaugh’s face is superimposed upon the drawing. Another thing. In an odd anachronism, Rush is pictured in a tricorn hat–referencing either the considerably later period of the American Revolution or our current era and Tea Party politics.

In an event, in this zany novel for adolescents, Rush Revere (the character) is a substitute history teacher at Manchester Middle School and he enlivens his lessons by means of time travel. Making use of a flying horse named Liberty, this educator and two students teleport to the past where they chat with Puritans preparing to sail the Atlantic, mingle with those on the Mayflower, stand on top of Plymouth Rock, and befriend Myles Standish and the Indian Squanto.

The lengths this book goes to in order to win over its boy readers is — well, awesome!

Rush (the author), it should be noted, is a born middle-school teacher and knows his audience. The lengths this book goes to in order to win over its readers, especially boy readers, is — well, awesome! There are, for example, two pages of sniggering jokes about the Mayflower’s “poop” deck. And as for why England’s King James was out to get the Puritans, we are advised: “He probably got too many wedgies when he was a kid.”

The technique of time travel does, however, present the author with a few problems: for example, how aren’t the clothes of the time travelers a dead giveaway and how do you get cell service in the Plymouth, Massachusetts, of 1620? On the other hand, teleporting can be real handy when it’s time for a potty break (since the Puritans don’t have flush toilets) or when the modern-day visitors get hungry (because the Puritans are starving through their first winter). In answer to the latter problem, Rush (the character) and his students travel to a 1950’s diner and get some delicious burgers. Why they don’t bring back food for the starving Pilgrims is a puzzle. It may have something to do with Rush (the author) and his belief in laissez faire economics.

Fortunately, misfortune strikes and Plymouth Colony falls on hard times.

In that regard, the only time Rush (the character) is at loss is when he learns that the first building the Puritans erected was a Common House in their belief that the welfare of the many should trump that of the individual. You can almost hear Rush (the author) grumbling off camera: “Doesn’t that sound socialistic, like Obamacare?” Fortunately, misfortune strikes and Plymouth Colony falls on hard times. This provides Rush (the character and the author) with the occasion to lecture the Puritans about the virtues of free enterprise and private ownership: how they provide incentives for the industrious and undermine lazy welfare cheats.

It’s the very first Thanksgiving, and settlers and Indians alike turn to celebrate Rush

Thirty pages later, Rush Limbaugh and Rush Revere (the freewheeling author and his time-traveling counterpart) rewrite history and photoshop themselves in. It’s the very first Thanksgiving, and settlers and Indians alike turn to celebrate Rush, the man whose ideas about free enterprise and private ownership brought freedom and prosperity to what would eventually become the United States. Let none forget, especially the young readers of this history book.

Please, then, as you sit down to your meals this Thanksgiving, raise your glasses and toast the man who made this all possible.

Rush Limbaugh has published these sequels in the “Time-Travel Adventures With Exceptional Americans” series: Rush Revere and the Star-Spangled Banner, Rush Revere and the American Revolution, and Rush Revere and the First Patriots.

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Halloween’s Ghouls

Our Monsters Aren’t What They Used to Be (from the Los Angeles Times)

“Little Red Riding Hood,” Jesse Willcox Smith.

With Halloween nearly here, with ghouls and ghosts about to pound on our doors, this may be the time of year to consider the fortunes of scariness in children’s stories. It used to be that youngsters would sit around the fire and listen to hair-raising tales about the evil queen in “Snow White” and the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood,” about witches and ogres, about La Llorona and Baba Yaga. Nowadays, I am sorry to say, monsters aren’t what they used to be.

The most frightening children’s book of all times, most Europeans would agree, is Heinrich Hoffmann’s “Struwwelpeter.” First published in Germany in 1845, Hoffmann’s illustrated storybook went on to be translated into dozens of languages and sell so many millions of copies that scholar Jack Zipes has called it “the most famous children’s book in the world.”

Hoffmann aimed to scare children into being good with tales, for example, about Harriet who plays with matches and is burned up, and Augustus who refuses to eat his soup and shrinks to stick-like proportions only to die in five days. But the consensus is that the most frightening of these is “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb” where Conrad is warned by his Mama about his offensive habit but when her back is turned, he puts the digit in his mouth and the Scissor-man (a tailor) bursts through the door and snips off both the boy’s thumbs. The last picture shows a chastened and amputated Conrad.

“When I was a child, ‘Struwwelpeter’ terrified me,” Marina Warner wrote in a typical reminiscence about the book. “I did not find it funny because I sucked my thumb and I was truly afraid the tailor, drawn like a leaping pair of scissors, would come to get me and cut off my thumbs, as he does to little Suck-a-Thumb. . . . I must have been around seven when I read ‘Struwwelpeter,’ and it took such possession of me that I kept going back and looking at the Scissor-man until I could bear it no longer and took the book to my father when he was gardening and asked him to burn it on the bonfire.”

A little more than a hundred years later a different scary book came down the pike when Maurice Sendak published his now beloved “Where the Wild Things Are.” Max is misbehaving in the opening of Sendak’s story and then finds himself in a land of monsters, the Wild Things, who seem as horrific as Hoffmann’s Scissor-man: “They roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.” But in the next scene, Sendak departed forever from tradition and indicated that this was not your grandparents’ scary story.

Sendak’s Max is not intimidated like Hoffmann’s thumbless Conrad. After the monsters do their best to terrify him, Max gives them a start and “tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened.” Then, as the story continues, Max marshalls these critters to do his bidding and they all play together.

As much as I love “Where the Wild Things Are,” it must be said that Sendak’s book marked the downfall of monsters. Soon, Roald Dahl in “The BFG” would tell the story of the little girl Sophie who is abducted by the Big Friendly Giant and transported to monsterland where they trump a miscellaneous band of oversized ogres (Bonecruncher, Childchewer, et al.). It wouldn’t be long before the scary story would be retold from the sympathetic point of view of a frightened monster (Philippe Corentin’s “Papa!” is only one example) and Raymond Briggs (in “Fungus the Bogeyman”) would provide a comic account of everyday life in monsterland. A final stage in the domestication of fears was reached when Mercer Mayer published his bestselling “There’s a Nightmare in My Closet” where it is the monster who is terrified by the child and has to be tucked into bed and consoled.

The same is true in films. Nowadays, thanks perhaps to over cautious parents, children are introduced to loveable monsters–our buddy Shrek and the bogeys uncertain about their profession in “Monsters Inc.” All this seems a long way from the heart-pounding moment in MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy is accosted by the Wicked Witch who cackles, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too.”

It used to be that our children’s stories taught youngsters the very useful knowledge of what is to shiver, have your heart thump and hair stand on end. Now, where is MGM’s Margaret Hamilton when we need her?

A version of this essay first appeared as “Fee Fi Ho Hum” in the Los Angeles Times (28 October 2002). I devote a chapter to “Scariness” in my book Feeling Like a Kid.”

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Spike Jonzes’ Movie “Where the Wild Things Are”

Not a children’s film but a film about childhood — and that’s a quite different thing

“Where the Wild Things Are,” Directed by Spike Jonze (Warner Bros., 2009)

Spike Jonze’s movie Where the Wild Things Are is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s famous picture book of the same name–the one that nearly every parent and most children have memorized, the one that begins “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.” Max, you’ll remember, is misbehaving when his mother sends him to his room. But the imaginative boy is unwilling to see that as a punishment and so, in his mind’s eye, he converts his room into a jungle and goes on a romp with the Wild Things. When Max tires of playing with these monsters, he returns home from his imaginary journey to find his supper waiting and “it was still hot.”

Jonze’s “take” on Sendak’s story has been eagerly awaited because the book is a beloved favorite and because Jonze is a hot young director in Hollywood (best known for his terrific movie “Being John Malkovich”). Now that the film has finally arrived, what is striking is Jonze’s abandonment of Sendak’s idea that Max’s adventure occurs entirely within the boy’s imagination. In the film, except for actors in giant monster suits, Jonze has the story unfold in a largely realistic environment–a landscape not so different from, say, that in “The Blue Lagoon.”

His big intention with this project, Jonze has said, was not to make a children’s film but “a film about childhood,” one that presents what it actually feels like to be a kid (in this case, a nine-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and older sister). What, then, does Jonze’s Max actually feel? At the heart of the film and throughout, what motivates Max (as well as the humans and monsters who surround him) can be described as “hurt feelings.” This movie is a bouillabaisse of misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, hitting, and injured recriminations.

“Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak (Harper Row, 1963).

Given Jonze’s genius and Sendak’s wholehearted endorsement of him, expectations for the movie have been high. Unfortunately, the film falls short because except for its bath of emotions and some dirt-clod wars, nothing much happens. Moreover, for those who remember the book, the hurt feelings of Jonze’s Max seem a kind of moody preciousness compared to the boldness that was striking in the original Max. Fortunately, the book will survive this cinematic misstep. Like Max’s supper, the audacity of Sendak’s original offering still awaits the curious reader–and it is still hot.

A version of this essay appeared in October of 2009 in Parents Choice. For a related essay, see: Making Kids’ Stories “Dark”: Who is Disney’s “Into the Woods” For?

This is a movie about hurt feelings: misunderstandings, hot tears, anger, home-wrecking, hitting, and injured recriminations. Even the monsters are miffed and mumbling, couples are having arguments, etc. Basically, the movie seems a portrait of Jonze’s childhood (troubled, single mom, absent father, hurt). In other words, plain and simple, this is a movie about divorce. Jonze was right: This ISN”T a children’s movie but a movie about childhood (like, as Sendak said, “My Life as a Dog”). My beef is false advertising. For example, hundreds of kids from my daughter’s school marched to the theater on Friday. Many were disappointed. Because of the book’s association with the book & its title & with Sendak, people have expectations. But “Neverending Story” it wasn’t. Something entirely new it wasn’t. Think about the difference between a class in children’s literature and another on childhood in literature. I object to the false advertising and the mendacious marketing.

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“Return to Oz”: Disney Film & Novelization

Theatergoers might have welcomed an unabashed sequel, even a musical (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

“Return to Oz.”

If the fortunes of “novelizations” (books made from movies) rise or fall with the films they are tied to, then “Return to Oz” seemed certain of success. No one could have imagined a surer thing — a children’s movie, made by Disney Studios, following the most popular film ever made (MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz”). But when the movie appeared, theatergoers were underwhelmed.

Defensively, Disney Studio has claimed that the film is a sleeper and (like the other Oz classic) may take a decade to find its niche. But another explanation for audiences tepid reactions may be found in director Walter Murch’s frequent assertion that his movie is “neither a musical nor a sequel” to the MGM classic but, rather, a return to the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. That is its great mistake; given memories and expectations, theatergoers might have welcomed a genuine “Return to Oz,” an unabashed sequel, even a musical.

As it is, elements from the MGM film trickle in anyway. To mention one of the most obvious: Readers of Baum’s book remember that Dorothy clicked together her silver slippers and said, “Take me home to Aunt Em”; but for better Technicolor contrasts and reasons of their own, MGM had Judy Garland click together ruby-red slippers and repeat “There’s no place like home.” It is surprising then — in this non-sequel, in this purist’s return to the Oz books — to find a villain wearing Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers and taunting her by whining, “There’s no place like home.”

“Return to Oz.” Directed by Walter Murch (Buena Vista, 1985).

At the end of the MGM film, a scene occurs that does not appear in Baum’s novel: Dorothy wakes up in bed and finds herself surrounded by friends who try to convince her that she dreamed up the Land of Oz. Disney’s “Return to Oz” begins here. When Dorothy has recurring dreams about Oz, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry try to convince the girl that she has imagined the place because of a head injury, but Dorothy insists that she was actually there.

In their fear that Dorothy has gone dotty, her aunt and uncle take her to an asylum for shock treatments. In the following scary scenes — not found in either of the Baum books upon which the film is based (“The Land of Oz” and “Ozma of Oz”) — the little girl is victimized by the terrifying Nurse Wilson and Dr. Worley. Fortunately, during a thunderstorm, Dorothy escapes the asylum and is transported back to the magic Land of Oz

Things have changed. The Yellow Brick Road is in disrepair. The inhabitants of Oz have been changed to stone. And Dorothy is not greeted by Munchkins but harassed by a band of traveling punks known as Wheelers.

Instead of Toto, Dorothy has a hen named Billina to accompany her. Instead of the Scarecrow and Tinman and Lion, the little girl makes new friends with the scarecrow Jack Pumpkinhead, the robot Tik-Tok, and the moose like Gump. And, instead of killing a witch and facing a wizard, Dorothy overcomes Princess Mombi and the evil Nome King and thereby brings the inhabitants of Oz back to life and restores Princess Ozma to the throne — all before she returns to Kansas and a search party finds her asleep near a river.

Return to Oz
By Joan D. Vinge
Based on a screenplay by Walther Murch and Gil Dennis
Ballantine: paperback; 214 pp., illustrated

Joan D. Vinge’s novelization of the film is competent, accurate, and workmanlike. Any novelization seems to exist to translate a story into ink and alphabet for those who want to repeat an experience, muse on motive, luxuriate in atmosphere and there are enough of those satisfactions here. But in light of the film’s ho-hum reception, the question that remains is how many people will wish to return to “Return to Oz.”

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (September 8, 1985). “Return to Oz” would not be the last time Disney tried to hitch their wagon to the Oz franchise. In 2013 they released “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco — a genuinely creepy and sexualized Oz sequel meant, apparently, to draw in the young adult crowd: like other recent films, for example, “Into the Woods.” For an account of L. Frank Baum — and the relationship between Oz and California — see this related essay.

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Children’s Films: A Subject in Search of an Author

A “People’s History of the Movies” would largely be a discussion of children’s films

Widely used as a textbook, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States makes the argument that instead of looking at the past in terms of “great men” and from the top-down, history should be examined from the bottom-up and in terms of the masses, popular tastes, and widely held beliefs. What would a “People’s History of the Movies” look like?

Film historians, professors in film-studies, and other elite tastemakers frequently direct our attention to motion pictures that deserve their high reputations because of artistic merit: Citizen Kane, The African Queen, All About Eve, The Godfather, and the like. And like conventional histories, books about the film industry are often of the great-man or great-woman variety with offerings about Hitchcock and Mayer, Chaplin and Brando, Hepburn and Monroe. But a People’s History of the Movies would have to do something different. If looked at from the bottom-up, if looked at in terms of the films the public actually prefers and spends money to see, a People’s History of the Movies would largely be about children’s films.

A People’s History of the Movies would largely be about children’s films.

Any way you look at them, the statistics are remarkable:

  • Heading the top-grossing films of 2005 were the recent Star Wars and Harry Potter offerings, followed by The Chronicles of Narnia; and acing out the film in 10th position (Mr. And Mrs. Smith) was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (no. 7) and Madagascar (no. 9).[1]
  • The same is true when you look at lists of the top-grossing films of all time: after Gone With the Wind and Titanic, the top entries include Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, E.T., The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, and many other children’s movies.[2]
  • This same phenomenon can be seen when home video sales are examined: among the top five sellers in each of the last three years, only two adult titles (The Passion of Christ and My Big Fat Greek Wedding) elbowed their way on to lists otherwise populated by juvenile offerings–besides series installments (Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings), these included The Incredibles, Madagascar, Shark Tale, Polar Express, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo, and Pirates of the Caribbean.[3]

Children’s movies are at the heart of what the film industry does

In other words, if someone wanted to write A People’s History of the Movies, if they were prepared to really examine those films the ticket-buying masses prefer, they would have to acknowledge that (from the public’s point of view) children’s movies are at the heart of what the film industry does. That no one has yet written such a book is a surprise. No Big Author–say, of the likes of Pauline Kael–has written the Big Book on so central a topic. In many ways, children’s films is a subject in search of an author.

Such a book, let me suggest, would be interesting and provocative.

Here are four topics a Big Book on Children’s Films might take up

  1. How do children’s films shape culture? Under the banner of Family Values, conservative groups like the Dove Foundation badger Hollywood to get in line, while liberals fault Disney for providing poor role models for girls in The Little Mermaid or applaud the appearance of characters of color in Pocahantas. Children’s movies, everyone seems to agree, shape lives in a way that isn’t true for other kinds of films; we don’t see, after all, Citizen-Kane-branded lunch boxes or Meet-the-Fockers hamburger meals. In short: movies for the young have become one of the most visible flashpoints in the so-called “Culture Wars” between Red States and Blue States.
  2. How do children’s films reflect our times? Besides their role in shaping our culture, children’s films also reflect cultural change. Perhaps most obvious is our changing conception of childhood. Mickey Rooney’s eyes may have twinkled when he shouted, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” but Macaulay Culkin’s eyes seem strangely vacant when he declares, “This is my house, and I have to defend it.” The movie youngsters of yesteryear were extravagant innocents (the ah-gosh Jackie Coogan, the curtseying Shirley Temple), but nowadays movie kids (from Corey Feldman to Lindsay Lohan) seem worldly wise and quasi-adults. The same can be said about the ways children’s films are now presented: it no longer seems possible to offer a straightforward story like Disney’s Snow White or Cinderella; what is required these days is the addition of an audio track that is streetwise and witty in a grown-up fashion (the wisecracks of Eddie Murphy in Shrek, the patter of Robin Williams in Aladdin).
  3. Why are children’s film popular with adults? The Big Book on Children’s Films might also address a related phenomenon: while the percentage of children in the population has decreased (from 36% in 1964 to 25% in 2003),[4] box office numbers for children’s movies have zoomed. Maybe the Big Book on Children’s Films could explain what I noted at an evening showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: while half the audience was composed of parents and their offspring, the other half might be described as unaccompanied adults (childless couples, singles in their 20s and 30s, the middle-aged, empty-nesters, and seniors).
  4. How are children’s films changing? The Big Book on Children’s Films might also take up how things are changing. While Disney still accounts for some 50% of all blockbusters, children’s films are going international; the biggest name in animated films these days is an anime genius from Japan (Hayao Miyazaki), and other popular offerings have come, for example, from New Zealand (Whale Rider) and Argentina (Valentin). Moreover, I wonder whether we can anticipate the day when–like many current offerings, including Toy Story, Antz, A Bug’s Life, A Shark’s Tale, Madagascar, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc.–children’s films won’t feature actual children at all?

These are only four topics that might be addressed in the Big Book on Children’s Films. But that requires an author willing to do something unusual and actually look at the history of movies from the point of view of the ticket-buying public. For the moment, alas, this a review of a book yet to be written.

[1]. ”U.S. Theatrical Market: 2005 Statistics,” MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America).

[2]. Ibid. See also:

[3]. Lorne Manly, “Film: Doing the Hollywood Math,” New York Times(11 December, 2005) and “U.S. Entertainment Industry: 2005 MPA Market Statistics,” MPAA.

[4]. ”Children as a proportion of the population.” U.S. Census Bureau.

These remarks were delivered at the Children’s Literature Association Convention (June 2006) in Manhattan Beach, California.

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KidLit: 5) Movies

Hook, Up, The BFG, Tim Burton, Spike Jonze, Saving Mr. Banks, Disney, Goth Movies, Miyazaki, Novelizations, and more

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Brian Selznick’s “Wonderstruck”

Graphic novel even more impressive than his “Hugo Cabret” (from the San Diego Union Tribune)

By Brian Selznick; illustrated by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press; 640 pages; $29.99 (Hardcover)
Ages 9 and up.

In promotional material, Brian Selznick explains that he “divides his time between Brooklyn and San Diego”; indeed, part of the year he lives in the La Jolla and he has illustrated prize-winning picture books by noted Cardiff author Pam Muñoz Ryan. We have, then, an occasion to boast: “Local Author Does Good.” In 2008, Selznick published his groundbreaking visual narrative “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” which went on to win the Caldecott Medal, the top prize in illustrated children’s books, and the story will soon appear as a movie directed by Martin Scorcese [see below]. Plaudits are also likely to accompany his newest offering, “Wonderstruck.”

Like the earlier book, “Wonderstruck” might seem daunting at first to the would-be reader since in size and heft it resembles “War and Peace.” Not to worry. What is conspicuous about both tomes is Selznick’s use of the visual and, in this case, among the new book’s 640 pages are more than 400 pencil drawings. This new book differs, however, in the way Selznick employs the visual.

While “Hugo Cabret” told its story by alternating between text and the pictorial equivalent of a film’s story boards, “Wonderstruck” tells two separate tales in the two mediums. The story told in words is set in 1977 and recounts how Ben leaves Gunflint, Minnesota, and travels to New York City to find his missing father. The story told in pictures is set in 1927 and recounts how Rose travels from Hoboken, New Jersey, to New York to track down her absent mother. As Selznick moves back and forth between the two, these parallel mystery stories begin to echo each other until they finally intersect in a surprising moment of synchronicity too touching to spoil by divulging here.

As if Selznick didn’t have enough in the air while juggling these twin stories, he adds two more features which make “Wonderstruck” dazzling. Much of the book takes place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History where Ben hides and sleeps, and we learn much about its history and its famous wolf diorama. In granting us this “backstage pass,” Selznick openly acknowledges that beloved children’s classic which first introduced the idea of kids secretly overnighting at that museum: E.L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler.”

The other complexity that Selznick adds is that Ben and Rose are deaf; and both learn, at different times, to sign and read lips, “feel” music and find a community among others who are hearing impaired. Indeed, the book’s special format–alternating between text and “silent” pictures-seems singularly apropos to this topic. Finally, in its sensitive exploration of perceptual alternatives, this may be the first young adult novel to take a page from cognitive science and the neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Intended for adolescents, Selznick’s book is written with perfect pitch. His vision of the moody young, cut off from parents and seeking new ways of belonging, is situated within Ben’s 1970’s boyworld (fishing rod, rifle, slingshots, arrows) and Rose’s 1930’s girlworld (scrapbooks of stage and screen starlets, miniature cities constructed like dollhouses). Moreover, the deafness of the book’s young characters serves as a symbol for that pervasive feeling of alienation (as well as a sense of empowerment in separate communities) which often accompanies adolescence-and, Selznick has added, the discovery of gay identity. Here is the territory of “Edward Scissorhands,” “Weetzie Bat,” and the Hardy Boys.

Wonderstruck. By Brian Selznick; illustrated by Brian Selznick.

In “Hugo Cabret,” Selznick celebrated Paris in the era of silent films and mechanical clockworks. In “Wonderstruck,” he turns to a span of time in New York of automats and typewriters. We might now hope that he is closing in on his new home and that we can soon expect, perhaps, a work set amongst the rococo flourishes and expo architecture of Balboa Park or the Oz-like extravagances of the Hotel Del, a book that might make use of, say, the Victorian paper theater collections at UCSD or Edward Gorey’s secret library at SDSU. That would give new meaning to the headline applicable to this book: “Local Author Does Good.”

This essay originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune (September 25, 2011). Scorcese’s movie “Hugo” appeared in November 2011.

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Mary Poppins Now on Broadway

While not what I had hoped for, the Broadway “Mary Poppins” is terrific in its own right

I was interested in seeing the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins” because it was touted as being “closer to the book” than was the movie. I knew Pamela Travers, the author, and knew her opinion of the Disney film. “When I left the movie premier,” she told me, “I was crying.”

For those who love the book, it is easy see the sources of her disappointment in the film. The center of Travers’ book, for example, is the chapter “Zoo Story” where Michael and Jane are told by a wise snake about the unity of all of life; it is a teaching story like one from the Panchatantra, only comically reset in turn-of-the-century London and told by a writer who was a student of Zen and of Gurdjieff and the wisest woman I ever met. On the other hand, the center of the film might be the song “Supercalifragilisticexpedialdocious” or the scene of chimney sweeps dancing on rooftops. That’s a world of difference. But Travers finally struck her peace with the film by deciding it was “another thing”–in other words, about as related to the book as “Jesus Christ, Superstar” is to its source. Nonetheless, though different, the 1964 film is a worthy and beloved production and generally regarded among the top ten film musicals of all time.

I attended the Broadway production of “Mary Poppins,” then, with a kind of proprietary interest: to see if it was more faithful to the book and to see if Travers (who died in 1996) would have been happy with the results. As it turns out, I went looking for one kind of thing but found “another thing” in its place, not quite the “Mary Poppins” I know but a wonderful play in its own right. Producers Cameron Mackintosh and the theater division of Disney have given us a play that is recognizably the story of the umbrella-flying nanny and of the Banks family. Still, the Broadway version might best be understood as a cousin to the book.

The Broadway version might best be understood as a cousin to the book.

One curious refocusing in the Disney theatrical is the central role played by Mr. Banks, who spends too much time at work and wrestles with the ethics of providing loans to good people or venal moneymakers; at home, he is distant from his children and scolding with his wife. Over the course of the play, he learns that when it comes to work, “family comes first.” He also becomes more childlike and flies kites with his kids. This stiff-necked man also melts and turns loving with his wife.

When Hollywood (or its Broadway franchises) takes up classic children’s stories, the story becomes a familiar one about career-minded and negligent daddies.

If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. It is a curiosity that when Hollywood (or its Broadway franchises) takes up classic children’s stories and gives them their spin, the story becomes a familiar one about career-minded and negligent daddies. Consider just one more example, the movie “Hook,” where in a reprise to Peter Pan a yuppie businessman and father played by Robin Williams must learn the importance of family and get in touch with his “inner child.” That the Hollywood “spin” these days is the story of Negligent-and-Careerist-Daddies-in-Need-of-Reformation must make us wonder about the domestic lives of entertainment execs.

Another twist to this Broadway version is its attention to child-raising practices. My students have always found the Mary Poppins in the book to be sharp and peremptory, when compared to the cheery characterization of her in the film. Travers herself, however, preferred the book’s version of Mary Poppins as strong and authoritative in the manner of a Zen master. This controversy is presented in the play as a clash over parenting styles between Mary Poppins (who advocates “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”) and a new character in Act II, a rival nanny, Miss Andrews (who is old-school when it comes to medicine and advocates “brimstone and treacle and cod liver oil”). Not understanding the book’s “tough love,” in the play, sugar wins out.

Not understanding the book’s “tough love,” in the play, sugar wins out.

Nonetheless, despite being a partisan for the book and (when it comes to this kind of sugar) something of a diabetic, I still very much liked the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins.” Indeed, I liked it almost as much as the ten-year-old girl who sat on the edge of her seat in front of me, her shoes rat-tat-tatting in excitement on the seat in front of her. I have never seen better stage sets (some in a clever trompe l’oliel style) or better special effects. Bert the Chimney Sweep (Gavin Lee) is our narrator and a charming performer, and Mary Poppins (Ashley Brown) is both self-possessed and gifted, as is nearly the whole company. Though this play was something else and not what I had hoped for, the Broadway “Mary Poppins” is terrific in its own right and very much worth seeing.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2007). Related reading: my interview with Pamela Travers in The Paris Review (Winter 1982), my homage upon her death in the Los Angeles Times, and my reaction to Disney’s biographical film “Saving Mr. Banks.”

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Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Visit the only institution of its kind devoted to this art form, located in bucolic Western Massachusetts

If it were in Manhattan or downtown Boston or next to the new public library in Seattle, chances are you would have heard of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Open since 2001 and the only institution of its kind in our country which is devoted to this art form, if the museum is still an unknown treasure that’s because of its location in bucolic Western Massachusetts. But that’s not to suggest it isn’t rightly situated.

In bucolic Western Massachusetts where Rural meets Academic and Yankee goes Bohemian

Amherst and the Five College Area is where Rural meets Academic and Yankee goes Bohemian. University women with crewcuts tap away at laptops in coffee shops built in converted riverside mills. Companions read paperbacks in the collapsed couches at nearby bookstores. Elsewhere, matrons in L. L. Bean sweaters park Volvo station wagons outside restored colonial homes. In this milieu and next to Hampshire College is an architectural masterpiece set in an apple orchard–the Eric Carle Museum, all glass and brushed aluminum, blonde wood and whimsical decorations on the bathrooms’ tiles. Parking is free and ample.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By Eric Carle. Philomel (boardbook): $10.99.

Eric Carle is the picture book artist most well known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though he is the author of some 70 other books (among my favorites are his alphabet books and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?). He is the master, Peter Neumeyer has pointed out, of that kind of book the Germans call a “Gesammtkunstwerk” or a book that employs every kind of thing (in Carle’s case, that includes collage, layering, texture, cuts, holes, etc.). Indeed, Carle once described a picture book as “a toy that can be read.”

An immigrant from Germany, Carle has done rather nicely (it seems) and wished to repay his host country; at the same time, he wished that the special genre he works in–where visual and verbal interact–might receive the attention it deserves. Those wishes built this museum. And with the help of the likes of Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer and dozens of other well known artists, this unique place came to be. And, yes, it’s worth the drive — though you will also find directions on their website about how to arrive via train, plane, and bus.

This is not a place dedicated solely to the work of Eric Carle, though you will often find exhibits of his work there. Instead, the three main galleries feature the work of celebrated artists like Margot Zemach, James Marshall, Arnold Lobel, and others.

That’s not to suggest the 40,000 square-foot museum is a stuffy place suitable only for connoisseurs of childhood. When I was there, busloads of schoolchildren scampered about. Out of the house and out of their cars, young mothers, infants strapped to them, passed the afternoon in interesting ways. And at other times, schoolteachers and professionals take classes there. Some nights, performances are staged in the auditorium.

Not just a museum, there is also a hands-on art studio where kids can make things and where (if the truth be known) grown-ups can also work with scissors, paste, and scraps of material or paper. In another, library-like area, stories are told and books shared. The brightly lit museum café features healthy foods, from apples and soup to organic chocolate-chip cookies.

My favorite locale, however, was the bookstore. While you can shop at the store online, I suggest you go to the museum and bring lots of money. This is the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world and, by itself, a reason to visit.

Information on hours and admission prices, as well as directions to the museum, may be found at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. 125 West Bay Road. Amherst, Massachusetts. 413–658–1100

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (June 2008).

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Island Dreams

Control and chaos in fantasy locales (Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies, and more)

Illustration by N.C. Wyeth for Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”

I should like to rise and go
Where the golden apples grow;
Where below another sky
Parrot islands anchored lie
And, watched by cockatoos and goats,
Lonely Crusoes building boats.
–R.L. Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses

For adults in winter, daydreams about tropical islands seem to be associated with warmth; any travel agent can tell you that when toes are frozen and cold winds blow, Jamaica and Hawaii become especially desirable destinations. For the young, however, island dreaming is less seasonal and, it seems to me, particularly acute when they are grappling with issues of order and disorder, control and chaos.

Peter Pan. Ages: 9–12 yrs. By: J. M. Barrie. Penguin: $8.49 (Paperback)

Neverland, in James Barrie’s Peter Pan, is an island. Neatly circumscribed and isolated, this Fantasy Island is more manageable than Real Life. Neverland is a simplified place, even a silly place: more Gilligan’s than Rhode Island. Still, there are potential threats to this orderliness because, Barrie notes, the island is “nicely crammed” with chaotic forces: wild animals, Redskins, and pirates.

Treasure Island. Ages: 9–12 yrs. By: Robert Louis Stevenson. Dover: $4.00 (Paperback)

Rather than wild animals and Redskins, pirates are, of course, the dangerous forces of chaos and entropy in Robert Louis Stevenson’s more realistic Treasure Island. Still, before his sea voyage begins, when Jim Hawkins daydreams over the map of the island, what he imagines are the wild beasts and savages to be found there. Indeed, “Here Monsters Be” was the typical entry made by cartographers when describing the isles of Terra Incognita on the edges of their maps.

Lord of the Flies. Ages: 9–12 yrs. By: William Golding. Perigree: $9.95 (Paperback)

When it comes to islands, Jim Hawkins’ daydreams are our own. As for “wild beasts,” islands seem to be their refuge: whether we are talking about King Kong or the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. And as for “savages,” if cannibals are not to be found there, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows that an island can change that, since Golding’s English schoolboys soon degenerate into uncivilized and murderous savages there.

What is also noticeable about island dreams is that these forces of disorder (beasts and monsters, pirates and savages) often seem to appear in what is otherwise a pacific and often Pacific locale (South Sea islands, tropical and fruit-filled paradises, The Blue Lagoon). It’s as if these stories picture that time when the chaos of adolescent rebellion is about to upset the otherwise golden period of childhood. Call this Mutiny on the Bounty — or, rather, mutiny in the midst of bounty.

So, the island’s outlaws, its pirates and savages, might be seen as exaggerated figures for pending adolescent anarchy. And the island’s many beasts and monsters might be understood in terms of the film Teen Wolf: that story about a teen troubled by the scary hairiness of puberty (by animal tendencies and werewolf-like complexion problems) and played by the appropriately named actor Michael J. Fox.

Island of the Blue Dolphins. Ages: 9–12 yrs. By: Scott O’Dell. Houghton Mifflin: $6.99 (Paperback)

Approaching adolescence, a youngster may sometimes feel all alone and very much like a shipwrecked castaway stranded on the beach of some new and foreign land. And so, for the young, during this period of their lives, there are reassuring stories of survivors who become rugged individuals on islands: Robinson Crusoe or Karana (the lone girl who inhabits Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins). And for pre-teens, there are also other island stories–Swiss Family Robinson, for example, and Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family–where the important suggestion is made that family life must be entirely reinvented in these new circumstances.

Island books, to say this differently, make wonderful gifts for the young who are approaching the threshold of adolescence and who need the imaginative space that literature provides to rehearse issues of control and chaos in these more dreamy locales.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2006).

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Recent Adolescent Fiction

The four best contemporary novels

When I was in junior high and high school, all we had for young adult novels (it seemed to me) was “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So, curious, I spent the last year or so reading y.a. novels to see what I might now recommend in this category. Here, in my opinion, are the four best young adult novels published in recent years.

The Higher Power of Lucky
By Susan Patron; illustrated by Matt Phelan
Atheneum: $6.99 (Paperback)

With their windswept trailers and government-check poverty, California’s desert communities are often the last stop for eccentrics and the woebegone. The Higher Power of Lucky is their novel. Here is Short Sammy (who lives in a converted metal water tank), Lincoln (a schoolboy genius keen on knot-tying), Dot (who owns the Baubles and Beauty Salon), Miles (a five year old who constantly wants others to read to him his favorite book, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?), Lucky (our ten-year-old hero who is the only person in town with a job, sweeping out The Found Object and Wind Chime Museum), and Brigitte (the woman who has flown over from France to temporarily care for Lucky after Lucky’s mother died).

Near the end of Patron’s novel, Lucky runs away and Miles goes missing; but the lost children are finally found in the desert by a search party from their hometown of Hard Pan, California (Pop. 42). Surrounded by her neighbors, Lucky uses this opportunity for an impromptu memorial service for her late mother and releases her ashes to the wind; and not long after, Lucky learns that Brigitte, her guardian, wishes to adopt her. In this way, Lucky’s worries about being abandoned and sent to an orphanage — worries present from the start of this funny and touching book — are finally answered.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
By Sherman Alexie; illustrated by Ellen Forney
Little, Brown: $15.00 (Paperback)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a Native American novel that seems to bring together Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (also published in 2007) and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Junior is the wimp, a fourteen-year-old high-school student from the Spokane Indian Reservation. He is also a smart alec whose PG-13-rated mouth gives Holden Caulfield a run for his money.

Trouble begins when Junior takes his teacher’s advice and transfers to the better and white high school some miles from the Reservation; his best friend Rowdy and other tribal members see him as a traitor. But Junior is escaping the Rez’s omnipresent alcoholism and tragedy that bring, in these pages, the deaths of his sister, a family friend, his grandmother, and even his dog. Given this, what may be difficult to understand is that the book is often witty and downright hilarious, especially with Ellen Forney’s comic cartoons and pictures. This peculiar mixture of the sad and funny turns out to be a measure of Junior’s resilience and this book’s authenticity.

When You Reach Me
By Rebecca Stead
Yearling Newbery: $6.99 (Paperback)

If you like mysteries, you are going to love this book; indeed, when the pieces all come together in the end, you will want to read it a second time. If you liked Madeline L’Engle’s time-travel series A Wrinkle in Time, you are going to love this book and have a leg up on solving its mystery. And if you like stories set in Manhattan (books like E.L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler), you’re going to love this story set on the Upper West Side in the 1980’s when moms wore orange turtlenecks with denim skirts and purple striped tights.

Miranda is a savvy latchkey kid. She’s good at navigating the streets by herself and dealing with friends and rivals at her school. But from the homeless guys sleeping under a mailbox, to the three weird letters she receives, Miranda finds herself in the midst of a mystery that undermines the apparent ordinariness of her sixth-grade life. There’s no way I can spoil the story by saying anything more, but here’s a clue: The puzzle begins when you read the words “the day Sol got punched.”

By David Almond
Yearling: $6.99 (Paperback)

After he moves to another house in a backwater English town and while his newborn sister languishes in a desperate way in the hospital, ten-year-old Michael encounters a strange creature sheltering in their abandoned garage. An angel, possibly, or a derelict, or some prehistoric leftover from an evolutionary experiment — Skellig, the name the mysterious creature goes by, is a man-sized creature with wings. Michael shares this mystery with Mina, a girl his own age, home-schooled and keen on William Blake’s poetry. These two — in a neighborhood of boarded-up and abandoned house, while anxiety about the hospitalized baby reaches heartbreaking levels — nurse Skellig back to health until his wings unfold and he leaves them.

Recalling the movie “Michael” (where John Travolta plays an angel fallen to earth) and Seamus Heaney’s poems about the Tollund Man (an ancient body found preserved in a bog), David Almond’s Skellig is a powerful and strangely moving novel. In the way the children share a closely guarded secret, it recalls Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden only repositioned now to contemporary times and urban circumstances. Impressive in the way it links themes and moods, touching in its music of mystery and heartbreak, this is a terrific, terrific book and my favorite of the four.

Originally published in Parents’ Choice (July 2010). See this related essay:

The Pop YA Novel

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Graphic Novels (& Shaun Tan)

A clash between the super normal and fantasy

American Born Chinese. Ages 12 & Up. By Gene Luen Yang. Square Fish, $8.99 (Paperback.) The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Ages 9 -12 yrs. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, $24.99 (Hardcover).

In a controversial decision in 2008, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret — a 533-page graphic novel that seems part film script, part story board — won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award, a prize normally reserved for a children’s picture book. The more appropriate prize, some argued, was the Michael L. Printz Award, ALA’s honor for a young-adult offering. Indeed, the precedent had been established the year before when the Printz Award had gone to Gene Yang for his graphic novel, the comic-book-like American Born Chinese.

This controversy points to a notable fact: Graphic novels are aimed at adolescents. While some bookstores mistakenly mix graphic novels and picture books, their real audience is not found among tots in love with Goodnight Moon, but teens keen on manga. Selznick and Yang are among the top artists working in this genre. At the top of the top, to my way of thinking, is Shaun Tan.

The Arrival. Ages 10 & Up. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (Hardcover)

The public first took notice of Tan when The Arrival was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2007. The book itself looks like a beat-up suitcase, and it “reads” like an old photo album with its series of finely penciled pictures that resemble old snapshots. What is remarkable is that there is no text whatsoever; the reader must fill in the gaps between the pictures to comprehend the story being told. Tan, himself, provided the best summary of the story:

“The Arrival” is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.

What doesn’t come across in this summary is that the features of the “immigrant experience” — unfamiliar food, language difficulties, homesickness, separation, loss of status, comic misunderstandings, and the like — are graphically conveyed by means of surreal effects: the landscape of Tan’s foreign city sports odd teepee-like structures, the vegetables are gnarly and unrecognizable tubers, unprecedented pets beg for attention, and the language of the place (written in a script as confusing to us as it is to the book’s immigrant) seems extraterrestrial. To be sure, this world seems partly familiar: an odd variation upon turn-of-the-century New York and immigrant-thronged Ellis Island. On the other hand, the alienness the immigrant feels is conveyed by bizarre features more common to the hallucinatory stories of Franz Kafka and the fantastical paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.

The Arrival. Ages 10 & Up. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (Hardcover).

This feeling of being “a stranger in a strange land” is, in fact, Tan’s preferred sensibility, a kind of acuteness which makes him attentive to the everyday. On his part, Tan has said that the immigrant in The Arrival probably reflects his discomfort growing up in Western Australia where he was “half-Chinese at a time when this was fairly unusual.” But he has also said that such alienness is a reflection of adolescence itself. And here can be found an explanation of Tan’s appeal among the graphic novel’s special demographic. Here, too, is an entrance to his newest book.

Tales From Outer Suburbia. Ages 12 & Up. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (Hardcover)

Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia presents a clash between the super normal and fantasy. This is the signature note of adolescence in our own time: where costumed young goths stride down suburban sidewalks, where the blankness of tract homes and their normative lawns provide only a staging area for extraordinary video-game fantasies and cinematic dreams of distant kingdoms, cosmic and colorful beyond the banal circumstances that give rise to them. If this is the flavor of contemporary adolescence, then Tim Burton aptly captured it in his terrific film “Edward Scissorhands.”

Welcome, then, to Tan’s Outer Suburbs, his Twilight Zone, where a Japanese guy dressed in an old diving suit knocks at a neighbor’s door and where a car is stopped in the countryside not by a herd of sheep, but by a flock of wind-up penguins. Here, every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile; and when a guy beats his dog to death, the other dogs in the vicinity assemble and burn his house down. And as for holidays? In late August, folks climb their roofs and place their favorite possession under the TV aerial; then at midnight, along comes a blind reindeer who tenderly carries those beloved objects away. In these sixteen illustrated short stories, magic happens to ordinary people.

Tales From Outer Suburbia. Ages 12 & Up. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine, $19.99 (Hardcover)

The wordless The Arrival showed that Tan was a visual genius. Who would have ever thought that he could write, too? But that’s the case. Tales From Outer Suburbia is full of well-crafted stories that suggest Tan’s place at the top of the world of graphic novels is entirely deserved.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2010). For an extended discussion of Selznick’s new graphic novel, see my review of “Wonderstruck” for the San Diego Union Tribune.

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“Saving Mr. Banks” But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus

A movie about the making of Disney’s “Mary Poppins” is self-serving and self-congratulating besides untrue and unfair

When I asked P.L. Travers what she thought of the movie Disney made out of her book Mary Poppins, she replied, “As I walked out of the theater, I was crying.” While she felt Julie Andrews could have made a great version of her nanny if the Disney folks had allowed it, Travers was heartbroken that Walt had taken her novel and turned it into a cloying musical and saccharin fare.

Saving Mr. Banks presents the story of the making of that Disney classic, with Tom Hanks playing Walt and Emma Thompson playing Travers. And in the penultimate scene of this new film, Travers breaks into tears at the premiere of Disney’s Mary Poppins. But here is the difference: In “Saving Mr. Banks,” we are to understand that she is weeping because Travers is deeply happy with what the filmmakers have done with her story and because she has finally worked through psychological issues surrounding her late father.

This is how history is rewritten.

It’s not like the real cause for Travers’ tears wasn’t widely known. Indeed, in a Disney publication connected to the Broadway version of Mary Poppins, a comment by Travers is reprinted: “Tears ran down my cheek because it was all so distorted. . . . I was so shocked that I felt I would never write–let alone smile–again!” We must conclude, then, that the truth was unimportant to John Lee Hancock, the Director of Saving Mr. Banks, and to his employer. This is, after all, a film tied to the 50th anniversary of Disney’s Mary Poppins. If Travers’ criticism might spoil the party, a happy ending was called for. So, Travers’ sobbing disappointment was converted into a misty-eyed endorsement.

The truth be damned.

But does the truth ever matter in a biopic or does that omnibus phrase “based on a real story” give the filmmakers license, poetic or otherwise? Divorced from any need for factual correspondence, seen simply as a movie, Saving Mr. Banks is terrific and Tom Hanks’ genial performance and Emma Thompson’s arching eyebrows deserve separate Academy Awards. Seen in another way, however, this film seems like hack work from a studio’s promotions department. This is a film about a film and — that beloved topic! — Hollywood on Hollywood. Walt Disney Studios not only released this film, Walt Disney is its hero. In the end, this is a self-serving and self-congratulating movie, and it comes once more at P.L. Travers’ expense.

I knew Travers and interviewed her for Paris Review; and when she died in 1996, I wrote an homage in the Los Angeles Times. Since the dead can’t set the record straight, I hope you will excuse me for feeling a duty to honor Travers and her fierce honesty.

The Travers given us in Saving Mr. Banks is a one-trick pony. Emma Thompson does a wonderful job in presenting a character who is peremptory, stiff, unkind, and unfriendly. On a plane trip across the Atlantic, she loudly objects to spending eleven hours in the company of a fussing baby. She complains about California’s endless sunshine. She is rude to Disney’s staff. She demands that tea be prepared properly. She is, in short, the Curmudgeon and over the course of the movie it will be the task of Walt and Co. to loosen up this English harridan with America’s folksy friendliness and, darn it, melt that Curmudgeon’s heart!

Call Emma Thompson’s character anybody else, and I have no problem. But associate her with P.L. Travers — a generous and kind woman, albeit with the no-nonsense manner of a Zen master — and I have to cry foul.

Travers, herself, was the most impressive woman I ever met. In her youth, she was part of the Celtic Twilight and good friends with William Butler Yeats and George Russell, the Irish poet and mystic known as “AE.” She lived with the Navahos during World War II. She was part of Gurdjieff’s inner circle, and she was the second Western woman ever to go to Japan to study Zen. She was wise and, when I knew her in New York, she was a teacher who took on students interested in the spiritual life.

In a similar way, her book Mary Poppins is profound — though let me tell you from experience, it’s hard to persuade people to sample it because of the Disney movie, even though the two are as different as Jesus Christ Superstar and its source. Travers’ other writings are equally impressive, especially her novel Friend Monkey. A good introduction to her and her mythological way of thinking is What the Bee Knows, a collection of her essays that does Joseph Campbell one better and treats the path of women’s lives as seen in fairy tales, the deep meanings of “Humpty Dumpty,” the sacredness of names in aboriginal cultures, and spiritual ways of understanding the story of the Prodigal Son.

Saving Mr. Banks, then, is off the mark in two major ways. The first is the suggestion that Travers was little else than a difficult person and hard to please, but that she finally came around and liked the Disney film. That’s just untrue. The film’s other misdirection comes in a series of flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in the outback of Australia and glimpses of her father Travers Goff (played by Colin Farrell) who drank himself to death. In a bit of penny-ante Freud (copied from Valerie Lawson’s sensationalized Mary Poppins, She Wrote), the great secret behind Mary Poppins, we’re told, was Travers’ troubled relationship with her father. As Mary Poppins herself might say, “Stuff and nonsense!”

But that is how the movie suggests Walt finally got Travers to sign over the rights to her book, which she had been withholding all this time. He flew to London and had a heart-to-heart with her where he confided that he knew the stand-offish Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins was really a figure for Travers’ own late father, and Walt knew this because he had gone through something similar with his own hardhearted father Elias. If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, here is a cloying movie moment that would make a diabetic wince. Knocking a tear from her eye, the film version of Travers caves and signs the contract, signing over Mary to Disney.

But, unintentionally, Saving Mr. Banks does offer a more believable explanation for why Travers finally did give her consent. Naive about the corporate world and hopeful, she really thought she could be of use to the Disney folks and (in a way largely unprecedented in Hollywood) be a partner, give advice, and have a say. How did that work out? Representative of the studio’s response is a scene in the film where the Sherman Brothers, Disney’s songwriting duo for the 1964 movie (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak), listen politely to some idea from Travers and then turn to the camera and roll their eyes.

The odd thing about Saving Mr. Banks is that in this contest between the creative side and the corporate side, we’re supposed to sympathize with corporate. We’re supposed to join in patronizing the writer. Over all, someone seeing the film would reasonably conclude that Travers was an extraordinarily difficult person and Disney a nice guy. And alas, given their reach, it may be the Disney folks who get the last word.

We can only speculate, then, about how things could have gone differently. Take that moment in the movie when the Sherman Brothers, knowing they are kings of Tin Pan Alley, turn a deaf ear to suggestions of the scold played by Emma Thompson and then mug for the camera in a superior and exasperated way. We need to consider: What if the piano-playing duo genuinely missed a chance at that moment because of their superficiality and righteousness? What if Hollywood could have actually listened, and learned?

This essay first appeared on San Diego State University’s Children’s Literature blog where (I’m told) it garnered 25,000 hits in its first week.

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“Finding Neverland”

Johnny Depp plays the author of “Peter Pan” (Q&A following the film’s premiere in San Diego)

In December 2004, the San Diego Cinema Society arranged a special preview of “Finding Neverland,” Miramax’s new film where Johnny Depp plays J.M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.” Because I have written about Barrie, I was asked to respond to audience questions in the after-film discussion. This is an edited transcript of that discussion.

How did you like the film?

I am interested in why “Peter Pan” is the story that fascinates us these days and not some other story–say, “Tom Sawyer” or “Little Women.” If you’ll excuse the pun, “Peter Pan” is in the air. A year ago, Universal released their live-action film “Peter Pan” and a few years before that, Spielberg did his movie “Hook.” On stage, we’ve had Alan Knee’s “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” (upon which “Finding Neverland” is based), and for the month of November a 51-year-old Cathy Rigby went aerial again in the play at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles. Dave Barry (the humorist) and Ridley Pearson (the mystery writer) have also just published a new book, a prequel to “Peter Pan,” called “Peter and the Starcatchers.” So, I wonder: Why is “Peter Pan” our story du jour?

Of course, I certainly came to see heart-throb Johnny Depp because there have been rumors he is certain to receive an Academy Award nomination for his work in this film. If he does, it will be because he has demonstrated his versatility as an actor. What is interesting in this film is how he underplays his role. Depp is coming from “Pirates of the Caribbean” where he gave a terrific over-the-top performance as the mincing Captain Jack; here he is much more understated.

How close is the film to the facts?

That’s like asking how much “Jesus Christ, Superstar” resembles the original story; at the end of the opening credits, you will recall the message that the movie was “inspired” by a true story. But here’s one difference and something I missed in the film. In “Finding Neverland,” Sylvia Llewelyn Davies (played by Kate Winslet) is a widow and Barrie befriends her sons. She did become a widow but much later. When her sons were at the age they are shown in the film, their father, Arthur, was still very much alive and always resented Barrie as an interloper who had fastened on to his family and spent so much time with his sons. By deleting him from the film, we miss out on important “father” issues which are central in “Peter Pan.”

Barrie did not have a high opinion of — or was jealous of — the father of the Llewelyn Davies boys; and you will notice that the father in “Peter Pan,” Mr. Darling, does not appear in a very favorable light. It’s also interesting that when the story is staged, Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are often played by the same actor: I wonder what a child psychologist would say about that. Then, too, the crux of Spielberg’s “Hook” is that the villain (played by Dustin Hoffman) is an interloper who lays claim to the children of the hero and asks them to think of him as their father.

There’s another difference, too. In the film, Barrie’s wife is having an affair. She did have an affair, but much later in her life and their marriage. Here are the facts.

Barrie married actress Mary Ansell, but there were rumors that the marriage was never consummated and there were speculations that Barrie was impotent. But I think a better explanation can be found in his thinly disguised autobiography “Tommy and Grizell” where Barrie writes: “He was a boy only. Is it not cruel to ask a boy to love? He was a boy who could not grow up.”

Sexlessness was something of a hallmark of Barrie’s life and work. Walt Disney may have told his animators to keep in mind Marilyn Monroe when they were creating Tinkerbell and Spielberg cast a fetching Julia Roberts in that role in “Hook,” but in Barrie’s story you will notice that Peter Pan is deeply puzzled by both Wendy’s marital hopes and Tinkerbell’s jealousy. And as part of that sexlessness, you might also note the impossibility of having an affair with Tinkerbell, given the complications of getting it on with a diminutive sprite.

Barrie’s essential sexlessness, incidentally, is the reason no one raised a suspicious eyebrow about his spending so much time playing with the Llewelyn Davies boys; I have in mind the fact that Michael Jackson named his ranch “Neverland.” In any event, Barrie’s wife had an affair but much later in her life and marriage–no doubt, out of curiosity.

What connection do you see between Johnny Depp in this film and “Pirates of the Caribbean”?

In the earlier film, Depp played a pirate, but in this film he plays an author who wrote about pirates. Barrie’s Captain Hook is one of the great villains of children’s books and very much over-the-top in the way Captain Jack Sparrow is over-the-top in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

In truth, Depp’s role here reminds me more of “Edward Scissorhands.” The most touching moment in that film occurs when Kim (played by Winona Ryder) realizes she loves Edward and asks him to hold her. He looks down at his scissor hands, the Captain-Hook-like appliances at the ends of his arms, lets out a (pre-Viagra) sigh, and says, “I can’t.” Perhaps you can see the connection with Barrie’s biography, its sexlessness.

“Edwards Scissorhands” ends, you recall, with a sudden rush of time as we move from the 1950s to the present. We are to understand that Edward has retreated to the mansion on top of the hill where, over the decades and like Peter Pan, has never aged or grown up. “Finding Neverland” ends with Depp as an aged Barrie sitting on a park bench wistfully contemplating a place unlike our own: where childhood still exists, innocent and evergreen.

It used to be that to call someone a “Peter Pan” (someone who wouldn’t grow up) was meant as a criticism. With this film aren’t we to see Peter Pan in a more favorable light?

I sometimes teach “Peter Pan” in my classes and begin discussion by asking students if they liked the book. I remember one woman’s response because it was obviously so personal; quite clearly she was talking about her own circumstances and her boyfriend. She said: “I hate the book! Look at Peter. All he wants to do is hang out with the Lost Boys and have fun. Does he want to grow up? No! Does he want to commit to Wendy? No!” In that regard, you might recall a popular pop-psych book of a few years ago, “The Peter Pan Syndrome,” where Dan Kiley talks about certain men who never grow up and remain boys forever.

And yes, I think with this film we are now to see “Peter Pan” in a more favorable light and J.M. Barrie as someone who kept alive the idea of childhood. Where does that come from? I have my own ideas.

In films of yesteryear, you will remember wide-eyed Jackie Coogan and the curtseying Shirley Temple; they were almost emphatically children. But today that has all given way to a vision of the child as a mini-adult: Bart Simpson is worldly wise beyond his years and Britney Spears in an earlier incarnation–around the time her hit song was “I’m Not That Innocent”–played the juvenile trollop. Lolita is the opposite of Shirley Temple. So, I think childhood, as we knew it, is disappearing and I think that films like “Finding Neverland” speak to our nostalgia about that loss. These ideas cluster around Barrie and his works, and that’s also why I think “Peter Pan” is our story du jour.

The film makes reference to Barrie’s other plays. What do you know about them?

What’s relevant here, in terms of what I have been saying, is Barrie’s last theatrical success, “Dear Brutus,” where a few adults are given a second chance to relive their lives after they have gone wrong. This seems to me the story behind Spielberg’s “Hook.”

You will recall that in Spielberg’s imagined sequel, Peter Pan has grown up and become a forty-year-old workaholic tied to his cell phone. Over the course of the film, to redeem himself, Robin William’s character must–as the current cliche has it–get in touch with his “inner child” and he does so by becoming more childlike, even engaging in a food fight. “Hook” can be seen as a film about the anxiety of being middle-aged. But as I have been suggesting, I think it is very much like “Finding Neverland” and that the concern that lies behind it is the disappearance of childhood in our own times.

Wasn’t Peter Pan often played by females?

There’s been a long tradition of actresses playing Peter Pan–think of Mary Martin and now Cathy Rigby. But I think too much can be made of this gender bending.

After their father died and later their mother, Barrie became the legal guardian of the Llewelyn Davies boys (though they were much older than the youngsters seen in the film). That put Barrie in a quandary. Over the years, he had been more of a companion to the boys–for example, playing pirates with them in boats on a lake and making each other walk the plank. In that sense, Barrie (the boy who didn’t want to grow up) was too young to ever become their father or mother. But here he was, being expected to become their legal guardian.

At that very moment, Barrie was writing “Peter and Wendy,” the book version of his immensely successful play. There we read how:

[The Lost Boys] went on their knees, and holding out their arms cried, “O Wendy lady, be our mother.”

“Ought I?” Wendy said, all shining. “Of course it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see, I have no real experience.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Peter. “What we need is just a nice motherly person.”

“Oh dear!’ Wendy said, ‘you see I feel that is exactly what I am. Very well. I will do my best.”

That was the best Barrie could do. And the best he could do was “play house,” as Wendy does.

“Finding Neverland” (Miramax, 2004)

Whatever happened to the Llewelyn Davies boys?

This may a situation where knowing the facts may ruin any pleasure you found in the film because, unlike the situation in “Peter Pan,” they could not remain young forever but inevitably grew up. George was killed in Flanders during World War I. Michael died in drowning accident at Oxford. Peter committed suicide in 1960.

Peter Llewelyn Davies always resented that throughout his life he would be associated with Barrie’s character Peter Pan. There’s a great moment in the film, in that regard. Just after the premiere of the play, audience members are hovering around the little boy and say, “So, this is Peter Pan.” Peter Llewelyn Davies (played by Freddie Highmore) looks at Depp-playing-Barrie and says, “I’m not Peter Pan. He is.”

Thank you.

For a related essay on Spielberg’s “Hook” and the Real Peter Pan, click here.

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Nursery Rhymes

For no other reason than they are delightful

The most awkward moment for an essayist is to recommend some reading for no particular reason. It goes against custom. Making the case for fairy tales, for example, Bruno Bettelheim felt obliged to call his book “The Uses of Enchantment,” as if enchantment alone was not a sufficient reward unless it also served some practical purposes. But here I am, nonetheless, making the case for nursery rhymes for no other reason than they are delightful.

Nicola Bayley’s Book of Nursery Rhymes by Nicola Bayley.

Others have tried to justify the nursery rhymes by saying they teach lessons. When Humpty Dumpty falls from his wall and is irreparably broken, youngsters profitably learn, authorities tell us, that some things cannot be undone; and maybe that’s the case. But what is to be learned when the dozing Little Boy Blue is summoned to blow his horn because of his straying sheep: Is this story really about the dangers of falling asleep on the job? And what lessons in child-raising are to be gathered from “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” (whose response to hungry kids is to whip them soundly and send them to bed)? Finally, recite the famous lullaby “Rock a Bye Baby”: Should we understand its conclusion as instructions in product safety?

Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Wringing meaning from nursery rhymes is like trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Sometimes these verses are simply games with infants, involving hands (“Patty cake, patty cake”) or toes (“This little pig went to market”). Other times they recall playground pastimes: “London Bridge is falling down.”

“Ring Around the Rosie,” Jessie Willcox

This hasn’t prevented scholars from looking for actual events behind the rhymes; for example, the “ashes” and “we all fall down” in “London Bridge,” we are told, refer to the Black Plague that decimated Europe’s population. More often, however, the search for historical references has generated silly theories about the “real” Mother Hubbard, the actual location of Jack Horner’s corner, and the nature of injuries sustained by the falling Jack and by Jill who tumbled after.

The Real Mother Goose by Blanche Fish Wright.

There may, however, be one worthwhile historical fact to know about the nursery rhymes. In America, the nursery rhymes are often known as the work of Mother Goose; indeed, if you take a tour of Boston, a guide will often point out the grave of Mother Goose, a seventeenth-century dame buried near Boston Common. This is malarkey. The term “mother goose” actually refers to a type of French tale (conte de la mère oye). But in the 18th and 19th century, American publishers wanted to avoid copyright problems when publishing collections of nursery rhymes, so they used this term and described their books as works of “Mother Goose.”

In truth, the nursery rhymes are the work of “Anon.” They are timeless, oral verses passed down the generations. They are cousins to lullabies and skip-rope rhymes. Sometimes, too, they are taunts and retorts. When one my sisters wouldn’t do her chores, we chanted:

Elsie Marley thinks she’s fine.
She won’t get up to feed the swine.
She stays in bed ’til half past nine.
Poor old Elsie Marley.

Of course, the chastised sister replied: “Sticks and stones . . . .”

Hunting for meanings in Mother Goose may be a lost cause. Some verses just tell a story and that’s that: recall the unusual pie in “Sing a Song of Sixpence” or the distribution of wool in “Bah, Bah Black Sheep.” Others make no sense at all–that is, they are nonsense: recall the running rodents in both “Hickory Dickory Dock” and “Three Blind Mice.” Indeed, searching for meaning in a nursery rhyme is, to use a Zen expression, like a mosquito biting an iron bull.

“The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon,” by Randolph Caldecott.

That’s not to suggest a statue of an iron bull can’t be magnificent in itself, despite the grumbling of mosquitoes. The magnificence of the nursery rhymes is the way words are used to make music. That they make little sense is no obstacle and, perhaps, part of their charm. In any event, the very sound of their heavily accented rhythms is what’s enchanting. And to my taste, the best remains:

Hey diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Nursery rhymes have been passed down by word of mouth from time immemorial, but in the last two or three centuries they have also appeared in books and sometimes with marvelous illustrations. Indeed, Mother Goose’s offerings ought to have a prominent place on every child’s bookshelf since, in the properly managed home, they are the Very First Book for Baby and a first musical introduction to the pleasures of poetry.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2007). See also my related essay on Nonsense.

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Author of “The Yearling,” hard-drinking sportswoman and friend of Ernest Hemingway (from the New York Times Book Review)

Marjorie Rawlings, her dog Moe, and Norton Baskin enjoying a day of hunting. Photo credit: The Friends of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Farm

Swashbuckling women seem all the fashion. Publishers have noticed those women executives in blue suits rushing through airports clutching books by or about Beryl Markham or Isak Dinesen. The very same swashbuckling passengers may well want to clutch Elizabeth Silverthorne’s sympathetic biography of an American woman writer of spirit — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Despite the 1983 film version of Rawlings’s autobiographical ‘’Cross Creek,’’ anyone who has recently read or reread ‘’The Yearling’’ will agree that Rawlings deserves more attention. Half a century after its publication, “The Yearling’’ remains a thrilling book, although it is circulated almost exclusively as a children’s title. The beautiful edition illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, which was reissued in 1983, is especially pleasing.

There is other evidence of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s standing as a 20th-century American writer. An editor with impeccable taste, Scribners’ Maxwell Perkins, chose his clients carefully and included her in company with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and when she died in 1953, an editorial column in this newspaper [the New York Times] equated the loss with that of Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill.

If her talent is not now widely remembered, it is probably for reasons of gender and the genres in which she worked — children’s books and regional literature. Rawlings always felt the term ‘’regionalist’’ diminished her. Still, it was her move in 1928 to a rundown farm and orange grove in ‘’the Scrub’’ of Florida that gave her the necessary venue for her work during the next quarter of a century.

Rawlings was first a journalist, and before writing anything she needed years of research among her beloved ‘’cracker’’ neighbors. Ms. Silverthorne, a children’s book writer, describes Rawlings’s activities as she set about tracking, trapping, fishing, ‘gatoring, hunting, logging and making moonshine.

She was a hard-drinking sportswoman who said she needed three things for the inspiration to write: Proust, a dog, and Max Perkins to help her edit out anything sappy or sentimental.

In its toughness ‘’The Yearling’’ is a far more ‘’masculine’’ or ‘’boy’s’’ book than, say, ‘’Treasure Island’’ or any other tale written by a man. Not surprisingly, Rawlings was perceptive of the uncertain machismo of her friend Hemingway, with whom she visited in Bimini.

In ‘’Frontier Eden’’ (1966) Gordon Bigelow discussed Rawlings as an existentialist writer, starting with the often quoted line in ‘’The Yearling,’’ “Life knocks a man down and he gits up, and it knocks him down agin.’’ Ms. Silverthorne suggests in ‘’Sojourner at Cross Creek’’ that a leitmotif of Rawlings’s life was betrayal or the fear of it, an anxiety that developed following the end of her first marriage, in 1933, and lasting the rest of her life.

MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS: Sojourner at Cross Creek
By Elizabeth Silverthorne.
Illustrated. 374 pp. Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press. $19.95.

Ms. Silverthorne’s account is full and competent, and from her I learned of Rawlings’s civil rights activism in the 1950’s, of her friendships with Zora Neale Hurston and Ellen Glasgow. Indeed, Rawlings was at work on a biography of Glasgow at the time of her death, and her executors later destroyed some of their personal correspondence. But most of all I was grateful because ‘’Sojourner at Cross Creek’’ reminded me that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was a regional genius, a sensitive writer who was, at her best, the easy equal of her other regionalist contemporaries: John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner and William Saroyan.

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 20, 1988).

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Picture Books

How They Work

The picture book, the first kind of reading many begin with, is not often recognized for the special kind of art that it is. It is not simply words plus pictures but something more complex and magical. To begin to understand, we might ask: “Which comes first? The pictures or the text?”

Where the Wild Things Are. By Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, $8.99 (Paperback)

Different authors create in different ways. Maurice Sendak explained how he worked for years perfecting the 338-word text of Where the Wild Things Are before sketching the locales where his story unfolds. Other authors begin with pictures. Some twenty-five years ago, Chris Van Allsburg sent to the children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin a portfolio of pictures that he hoped might win him a job as an illustrator. That editor, Walter Lorraine, urged Van Allsburg to come up with a story to accompany the drawings. The result was the award-winning The Garden of Abdul Gazasi.

The Garden of Abdul Gazasi. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95 (Hardback)

Van Allsburg took his “pictures-first” impulse a step further in his terrific The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. There he presents a portfolio of fourteen separate drawings: one, for example, shows a man in a living room, holding a chair above his head and about to strike a mysterious lump that is moving under the carpet (the caption is “Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again”); another picture shows a nun seated on a chair floating some twenty feet above a church floor while two priests, their arms clasped behind them, eye this unusual levitation (the caption is “The Seven Chairs: The fifth one ended up in France”). In this book, Van Allsburg invites readers to make up stories to go with these pictures and, I understand, children have obliged and mailed him narratives by the truckload.

Caption: “Under the Rug: Two weeks passed and it happened again.” The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, $18.95 (Hardcover)

Another way to talk about the richness and complexity of picture books is to notice how they differ from illustrated books. In the illustrated book, an image on the opposite page shows, more or less, what is happening in the text; the illustration is an aid to imagining but not necessary. But in the very best picture book, image and text are essential to each other and interact.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit. By Beatrix Potter. Warne, $6.99 (Hardcover)

Take the moment in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit when Peter has lost his shoes and jacket while escaping from Mr. McGregor. The text reads: “Mr. McGregor hung up the little jacket and the shoes for a scarecrow to frighten the blackbirds.” But Potter’s picture shows something else: the blackbirds aren’t frightened at all; indeed, they are lollygagging around the base of the scarecrow. Neither the words alone, nor the picture alone, is sufficient. Separately, each tells a different story. Together, they mean something more.

An even more dramatic example of this interaction between text and image is Kevin Hawkes’ new picture book The Wicked Big Toddlah. The story is a deliberately ho-hum description of the ordinary and generic life of a toddler. But the book is raised to hilarious heights by Hawkes’ pictures, since he imagines this youngster as gargantuan. The ordinariness of the text, then, collides with the extraordinariness of the pictures: baby has to have his diapers changed (this requires a helicopter and heavy machinery); baby likes to play with boats in his bath (tugboats, a lake); baby likes blueberries (and towers over the patch like King Kong); and so forth. This book is clever by a half.

The Wicked Big Toddlah. By Kevin Hawkes. Knopf, $16.99 (Hardcover)

Still, even this is not the extent of the picture book’s richness and complexity. There is also sequencing and design. For example, dig out your copy of Where the Wild Things Are and notice how Sendak’s pictures become larger and then smaller as Max goes into and out of his dream.

The Story of Babar. By Jean DeBrunhoff. Random House, $15.95 (Hardback)

On top of all this, the picture book — unlike other kinds of books — calls attention to itself as an “object.” For instance, when The Story of Babar first appeared, its gargantuan proportions were unprecedented at 10½ by 14½ inches; opened, the book is nearly newspaper-size. On the other hand,The Tale Peter Rabbit is a tiny volume measuring 5¾ by 4½ inches or a bit bigger than a deck of cards. Moreover, there are factors of style: Jean DeBrunhoff’s book about a triumphant elephant is full of huge pictures and a single one may occupy two pages and be drawn all the way to the edge, while Beatrix Potter’s book about a timid rabbit features miniature watercolors on a single page and that seem like little cameos surrounded by great expanses of white space.

In short, the picture book is a wonderful multimedia object that speaks in manifold and vivid ways. Indeed, Madeline, Ferdinand, Goodnight Moon, and many other beloved picture books rest on children’s shelves with other kinds of books; but unlike these mute others, picture books seem to glow with a kind of radioactivity and hum with a busy internal life of their own.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2007).

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KidLit: 4) Kinds

Board Books, Nursery Rhymes, Nonsense, Counting Books, Picture Books, Pop-Ups, Fables, Poetry, Tall Tales, Graphic Novels, Y.A.

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James Marshall, We Love You

Jim Marshall, and who he was

Miss Nelson is Missing! Story by Harry G. Allard. Houghton Mifflin: $5.95 (paperback).

When James Marshall died in 1992 at the age of fifty, many felt someone special was prematurely subtracted from our lives. In a tribute in the New York Times Book Review, Maurice Sendak lamented the loss of his friend and styled him the last in the line of great picture book artists. In the fall of 2008, Houghton Mifflin republished Marshall’s “George and Martha” stories (some 35 of them) in a single volume, along with remembrances from a number of his friends.

My own memories, I must admit, are tinged with regret because when we first met, I was a foolish young man in my twenties who would not realize until later the riches I was being afforded. In the 1970’s, Marshall was renting a room from Francelia Butler, a professor of mine living in Mansfield Hollow, Connecticut. I got to know him in that way. One time I gave him a lift back to Boston. Another time, we spent a week together in San Diego where, among other things, he deliciously gossiped about his and Sendak’s visit to the home of Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel).

George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends. Houghton Mifflin: $25 (hardcover).

We finished that rainy drive up to Boston in his apartment on Beacon Hill. There he drew pictures in two books for my newborn daughter and then signed them: “For Breca, from Jim Marshall.” Those books (George and Martha Rise and Shine and George and Martha Encore) remained among Breca’s favorites when she was growing up.

The George and Martha stories are fables about two hippo friends. For example, when George doesn’t want to get out of bed to have fun, Martha drags his bed outside to a picnic. When Martha is discouraged about her garden, George buys cut flowers and plants them in the dirt. All of them are about what friends do for each other.

Looking for these books on my shelves, I made a discovery. There are, needless to say, loads of children’s books in my house. But there are more picture books by Jim Marshall than by any other author. More than those by Seuss, Sendak, Lobel, and DeBrunhoff. That says something about my family’s enthusiasm for Jim Marshall.

Space Case. Story by Edward Marshall. Puffin: $6.95 (paperback).

I think my kids’ favorite book was Space Case, a Halloween story featuring a robot-like alien who is greeted by adults (from absentminded parents to a distracted schoolteacher) in a dumb and ho-hum manner. Another popular one with my offspring was the hilarious Stupids Step Out, which reads like a series or moron jokes (from the mislabeled pictures on the walls to its conclusion where the family gets dressed for bed by putting on clown outfits).

The Stupids Step Out. Story by Harry G. Allard. Houghton Mifflin: $6.95 (paperback).

Of course, the one book that teachers love–elementary school educators in my neighborhood voted it their favorite book–is Miss Nelson is Missing! because it neatly pictures their dilemma: how they love their students but have to discipline them. My own special favorite, however, is It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House because I think it comes closest to who Jim Marshall was. In this book, Cuthbert answers an advertisement for “a charming companion” and claims to be a German Shepherd. It turns out he is a whiz at making desserts for the Old Man and his pets, plays the viola, and (every Saturday) organizes a fancy costume party. When it is belatedly discovered that he is (in fact) a wolf, Cuthbert confesses to his misdeeds and everyone happily moves together to a retirement home in Arizona.

It’s So Nice to Have a Wolf Around the House. Story by Harry G. Allard. Doubleday: $14.95 (hardcover)

Jim Marshall was like his books. He was “a charming companion,” all his friends would say, and a little edgy like Cuthbert the Wolf. And his books, full of tulips and comic wallpaper, are immensely funny and loving–that special tone inherited from their author, and that those who knew him now prize in retrospect.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2008).

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Marcia Brown: The Tokyo Interview

“We need the stranger to understand ourselves”

Marcia Brown is a celebrated artist and author of children’s books. She was born in Rochester, New York, in 1918 and educated at the Woodstock School of Painting, the State University of New York at Albany, the New School of Social Research, Columbia University, and the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (Hangzhou, China). She now lives in Laguna Beach, California. She has written and/or illustrated more than thirty books and received numerous awards. I interviewed her in Tokyo (May 31, 1994), The following is our edited conversation prepared for publication in a magazine and for an accompanying recorded CD.

GRISWOLD: My name is Jerry Griswold, and I’m here with our distinguished guest Marcia Brown, a famous children’s book author and illustrator. Since The Little Carousel in 1946 and Stone Soup in 1947, she has published dozens of books of her own and she’s illustrated stories by others (Hans Christian Andersen’s, for example) and she’s illustrated many stories and pieces folklore (for example, The Three Billy Goats Gruff). She’s also made a specialty of doing and illustrating stories from various cultures–Hawaii, Russia, Jamaica, Africa and elsewhere. In America, the most distinguished award for an American children’s picture book is the Caldecott Medal. Marcia Brown has received three Caldecott awards–in 1955 for Cinderella, in 1962 for Once a Mouse, and in 1983 for (my particular favorite) Shadow–a book that was printed here in Japan by Dai Nippon. I want to welcome you today, Marcia Brown.

BROWN: Thank you. I’m delighted to to see a fellow American traveling the same road.

GRISWOLD: I understand one of your topics in your lecture yesterday was what you saw as a sorry state of affairs in Japanese children’s books and children’s books publishing. Would you mind talking a little bit about that?

BROWN: The Japanese desperately need some vital illustrators. And I think it must be a way that they’re training young people. They’re getting to be much too cerebral. And I have suggested to some of them: why don’t you get artists that have come up in the traditional kind of sumi-e painting where calligraphy (where the powerful stroke that is right out of your own spirit) is behind your line, and get some action, some real vitality into your work.

GRISWOLD: Are you suggesting that these conceptual books are meant more to appeal to adults rather than children?

BROWN: No. I don’t know enough about them to make any such statement. But I do think they are basically somewhat cold. They don’t have the kind of vitality that appeals to a little child, where you get a richness, an emotional richness as well as a background scene, action, all kinds of things that you get in in a book like Make Way for Ducklings or Millions of Cats, these old children’s books.

GRISWOLD: So, you sense a renaissance of interest in children’s literature, in children’s books in Japan?

BROWN: Oh, very much, very much. You know, in the twenties and thirties they did some very beautiful books here in Japan. It was a period when things were opening up all over. And American picture books were very good in those years. All we have to do is go back and see if they’ve lasted.

GRISWOLD: But at an earlier time, what kinds of problems did you run into when your books where being translated or produced here in Japan?

BROWN: You know, you’re not aware of a problem until it’s way, way too late to solve it. I was startled when I was reading on this trip that I’m on. I think at Kurashiki I was reading Once a Mouse, in the English of course. And someone else read it immediately afterwards in Japanese. And we discovered that the translator had enlarged on the text, when the text had been purposely pared down to the barest bones to say the things as simply and as powerfully as it could and in as few words as possible. It’s a teaching fable, after all, from India. At the end, when the hermit sat there thinking about “Big and little,” the translator had translated it: this hermit sat thinking about “This and that” . . . which is . . .

GRISWOLD: . . . not quite the same thing.

BROWN: No, no. That was very upsetting that that could happen. I have no idea about the other translations. I have to trust the people that do them.

GRISWOLD: You’ve done a lot of work with folklore. And I’m sure you must have thought of this problem many times before . . . but there seems to be, at least in the Western tradition, a choice between individual talent and personal style and originality and creativity (on the one hand), and (on the other hand) folklore, preservation, timelessness. You’ve written your own books, but you’ve also been particularly drawn to folklore and stories by other peoples and illustrating them. Do you see any competition between these two points of view?

BROWN: No. I think a good story is a good story. If you could write it yourself, fine. If you can’t, you find a good story that you relate to and put all you have into it. I don’t think there’s any conflict.

GRISWOLD: You’ve also spent time in Jamaica, all over Europe, time in Africa. I know you spent a year studying in China, and this is your third trip to Japan. Why is travel so important to you or why is it so necessary for you to explore these other cultures?

BROWN: I feel somewhat like Joseph Campbell: that we’re on the top of a big pyramid and the apex is at the bottom and all peoples have similar emotional and psychological problems–reactions to the world, to death, to these great big forces in life–and they express themselves differently up here on the surface but basically man is man, and he has very similar problems way down there at his beginning.

GRISWOLD: Do you think there’s a resistance in America to this exploration of other cultures that you don’t find in Japan, for example?

BROWN: No, I don’t think there’s a resistance. I don’t think there is as much curiosity.

GRISWOLD: I was struck by a statement you made in one of your Caldecott acceptance speeches where you say, “We need the stranger to understand ourselves.” This seemed to be an inspiration for Shadow and the whole idea of reflections and mirrors and echoes and so forth. But I wonder if that doesn’t in some way summarize a lot of your work, that you’re interested in the stranger as a way of finding out about yourself?

BROWN: Very probably. (laughs) Who knows? You suddenly see yourself as others see you often. In a way, that’s been valuable–sometimes gratifying, sometimes not.

GRISWOLD: Besides your artwork, you’re very interested in the other arts as well. You’re very interested in dance. I understand you play the flute. You’re involved in other kinds of work with Chinese brush painting. Do you think all young artists should be exploring all the arts?

BROWN: You do what you nature directs. It’s a little hard to say to a person who has only one interest: “Look, you’ve got to involve yourself in music, theater, and everything else under the sun.” It depends upon your background. I was trained in English, coaching dramatics in college. I’ve always been interested in music, all my life, and that doesn’t stop. And I’m no great flute player, but I enjoy it enormously and can play well enough to give myself pleasure. The interest in Oriental art comes from way back.

GRISWOLD: Can you tell us a little bit about what you plan to do in the future?

BROWN: Keep on with calligraphy. Keep on painting. I’ll be illustrating as long as I feel I can do good work.

GRISWOLD: Well, Marcia Brown, thank’s very much for talking with us this morning.

BROWN: It’s been a pleasure.

This essay originally appeared in “The Study of Current English” [Tokyo: Kenkyusha Publishing Co.], October 1994. Marcia Brown died on April 28, 2015, at her home in Laguna Hills. She was 96.

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P.L. Travers

A Remembrance of the Author of “Mary Poppins” (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

PL Travers in the 1950s. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

P. L. Travers died recently, at the age of 90. Perhaps it was wrong for me to think that she would always be here for us, for me. She was the wisest woman I ever met.

Travers wrote the “Mary Poppins” books. They are brilliant and profound works, but few people seem willing to overcome their prejudices and entertain that possibility. When I’ve pressed those books on friends, their eyes seem to fill with saccharine memories (of Disney’s film and Julie Andrews and her umbrella) and they smile indulgently as if this is one more proof of my eccentricity.

I once asked Travers what she thought about the Disney film, and she replied obliquely: “When I left the theater, I was weeping.” That was her conversational manner. She left it for you to consider whether they were tears of joy or (as I assumed) prompted by some other emotion. In any event, she later said, the book and the film occupy two different worlds.

I never had the audacity to call her by her given name of Pamela. She told me once how she abhorred the American custom of seizing on people’s first names (“as if they were a right rather than something to be given”). This came up as she was discussing the “sacred and inward nature of the name”–something she had learned while living for several years with the Navajos, something she linked to the name-guessing in the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin. She was always making those kinds of links. Throughout her life she took E. M. Forester’s famous words as her mission statement: “Only connect.”

And so she saw all of life, even current events, as reincarnations of ancient and timeless stories. She once wrote about Patty Hearst:

“It seems to me that she has embodied the myth of Persephone: kidnapped from the sunny fields of rich living, taken into the underworld, eating its fruit, falling in love with her dark Symbionic lord, and all the time her mother searching the upper world for her.”

We met when I was a graduate student and she was a visitor to the University of Connecticut. After dinner, I presumed to enlighten her with my bookish wisdom about yoga and Zen and mysticism. I was full of myself in a youthful way, and she was silent and polite and curious. Later, to my chagrin, I learned how well-versed she was on these topics: how she did yoga daily, had studied for several years in Kyoto under a Zen master, and had been an intimate of Gurdjieff and was a practicing teacher in that circle.

Nonetheless, and in a perhaps forgiving way, we hit it off. And I asked whether I might come to New York to interview her. She agreed and had only one suggestion: that I first read the work of “AE”–the Irish poet and mystic George Russell. Doing my homework, I was surprised to learn how as a young person she had been part of the “Celtic Twilight,” good friends with Russell, William Butler Yeats and others.

The afternoon of our interview, sitting on the rattan furniture in her Manhattan apartment, I felt like a character in “Mary Poppins” when the children go to the zoo and listen to the wise snake, the Hamadryad. Irish by birth, Travers offered her wisdom in stories. When I asked about her writing habits, for example, she told me this anecdote:

I was a young woman traveling by train to Dublin when I realized I would be passing by the Isle of Innisfree, the place Yeats had written about in his famous poem. And I was seized by an idea. I got off the train in a rush and hired a boatman to take me across to the island. On the way, a great storm came up and I didn’t know whether we would survive the crossing. But we reached the shore and I found a roan tree and broke off a huge bundle of branches. Then we made our way back again.

Soaked to the bone, I pulled this huge bundle of branches onto the railway carriage, much to the amazement of the other passengers. And when I got to Dublin, I rushed to Yeats’ home. His housekeeper met me at the door. I’m afraid I was a sorry sight, dripping wet, clutching this huge gathering of branches. The housekeeper took the branches from me and ushered me into another room to dry off. By the time my clothes were dry, I had grown mortified by my behavior and was about to slink out when the housekeeper said, ‘The master will see you now.’

Yeats was bubbling over with enthusiasm. His canary had just produced an egg and he was eager for me to see it. As we talked, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a vase on his desk with a tiny slip of roan from the huge bundle of branches I had brought. That’s when I learned you can say more with less.

The afternoon passed like that. We spoke of Humpty Dumpty, the sensuality of Mary Poppins, how her book Friend Monkey had been inspired by the Hindu myth of Hanuman, the Zen expression “summoned not created,” her notion that her books may be appealing to children since she had never forgotten her own childhood (“I can, as it were, turn aside and consult it”), and the fact that she never wrote for children but was “grateful that children have included my books in their treasure trove.” It was one of the richest afternoons of my life.

Hesitantly, I finally advanced my own interpretation of “Mary Poppins.” Taking a clue from AE and his remark that Mary Poppins reminded him of Kali, the mother goddess of India, I laid out an elaborate interpretation of the book in terms of myths of the mother goddess. Such a moment, an encounter between an author and a critic, can be awkward. The author can explode and say that the critic is talking nonsense: What do critics ever know! But Travers sat on the edge of her couch in rapt attention, pondering every idea. Then after some moments of some silence, she began:

The book was entirely spontaneous and not invented, not thought out. I never said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll write a story about the Mother Goddess and call her Mary Poppins.’ It didn’t happen like that. But let me tell you. . . .

Once, when I was in the United States, I went to see a psychologist. It was during the war, when I was feeling very cut off from England and couldn’t get across those mine-swept waters. I thought, well, these people in psychology always want to see the kinds of things you’ve done, so I took as many of my books as were then written. I went and met the man, and he gave me an appointment. And at the next appointment the books were handed back to me with the words: ‘You really don’t need me. All you need to do is read your own books.’

That was so interesting to me. I began to see, thinking about it, that people who write spontaneously as I do, not with an invention, never really read their own books to learn from them. And I set myself to reading them. Every now and then I found myself saying, ‘But this is true. How did she know?’ And then I realized she is me. Now I can say much more about Mary Poppins because what was known to me in my blood and instincts has now come up to the surface in my head.

So, I am interested in what critics have to say about my books; I read everything I can get my hands on. And I’ve spent years pondering the questions I’ve been asked, very perceptive questions by readers, because they can sometimes reveal myself to me.

P. L. Travers will be missed. I will miss her. But as her remarks suggest, what it is that is her does live on in her books. “Mary Poppins” is the place to begin. “Friend Monkey” is an unrecognized masterpiece. And What the Bee Knowsis a collection of essays, full of her stories and ideas and conversational voice, and perhaps the closest thing to her autobiography.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (June 16, 1996). For a discussion of the Disney movie about her, see my “Saving Mr. Banks, But Throwing P.L. Travers Under the Bus.” My interview with Travers appeared in the Paris Review (Winter 1982).

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KidLit: 3) Meetings

P.L. Travers, Bruno Bettelheim, Juan Felipe Herrera, Marcia Brown, James Marshall, Sid Fleischman, Robert J. Lang, Nicoletta Ceccoli

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Biking the SoCal Coast

Taking my bike north on Amtrak.
Dinner in a cheap motel in Lompoc after an exhausting climb over Harris Grade.

Over the years, I’ve cycled different stretches of the California coast a number of times. This was probably my crummiest trip.

Late September and early October 2014, I traveled between Grover Beach and Ventura. I’d planned a much longer trip but a companion jumped ship at the last minute, so I truncated my journey to get to a starting point via Amtrak (and even then, I missed Grover Beach and had to make up miles in the dark). I took a new steel bike, and that was a mistake because it weighed too much. And the route included pretty much the worst part of the California coast ride: inland, hilly, hot.

But as you can see from the pictures, once you get down to the Pacific again (north of Santa Barbara), everything turns lovely. On this part of the trip, I encountered dozens of other cyclists.

More on biking the California Coast here: “Biking the California Coast: San Francisco-to-San Diego biking tour provided hills, thrills and romance (from the Los Angeles Times).”

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“Beauty & the Beast” in Our Time

The myth of our era (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review)

Sometimes extraordinary things happen to ordinary people, even professors. First I had a phone call from a program director at BBC4 in England. He was thinking about doing a program about fairy tales. “I wonder,” he asked, “do you think fairy tales say anything to us today? I mean, do they provide paradigms or something like that? I apologize for being so vague but, for example, what do you think about Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast?’ ”

An hour later, the phone rang again. This time it was a film producer. “We’re trying to expand our list,” she explained, “and we’ve realized we’re weak in potential children’s films. Can you recommend some books we might consider? We’re thinking about the incredible popularity of Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ”

Both phone calls began in the same introductory fashion: “I (or my secretary) took the class you teach in children’s literature, and we’re wondering whether we could”–both used the same ominous phrase–“pick your brain.” With those two phone calls, a magic wand passed over me and I was suddenly changed from a drudge facing a desk covered with student papers into, well, maybe not a prince, but a Resource Person!

Of course fairy tales speak to our times and provide paradigms, but what is more interesting is the way certain tales speak to different times. During the Depression, it was “The Three Little Pigs.” Disney’s version of the tale won an Academy Award in 1933, a time when folks were trying to keep the wolf from the door and optimistically whistling the film’s hit tune, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” In the 1970s, the tale we seemed to need was “Cinderella”; think, for example, about “Rocky” (Sylvester Stallone climbing those stairs) and all its cinematic cousins. But since the 1980s, of all the world’s fairy tales, the one that speaks most to us is “Beauty and the Beast.” In fact, Disney’s film is a little late on the scene.

If films are the dream life of our times, a psychiatrist sitting in our theaters during the last decade might have concluded that we were obsessed with “Beauty and the Beast.” There was, of course, the passionately followed television series “Beauty and the Beast.” But consider also “Elephant Man.” Cher in “Mask.” The extraordinary popularity of “The Phantom of the Opera.” The remake of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The re-release of “King Kong.” Even “Splash,” a kind of cross-gender version of “Beauty and the Beast.” Or follow Daryl Hannah from “Splash” to “Roxanne,” where Steve Martin does his Cyrano. Or “Tarzan, the Legend of Greystoke.” And then there’s “Last of the Mohicans,” or “Dracula,” which do the same thing as “Greystoke”: woman and semi-beastly lover. The list goes on.

We not only seize on certain fairy tales at certain times, we also reshape them to suit our needs. In the conclusion of the original version of “Beauty and Beast,” Beauty professes her love for the beast, and he changes. It’s an evolutionary tale: He leaves his wildness behind and becomes civilized, a gentleman. Today’s films, however, head in the opposite direction.

Take “Splash.” If it was following the form, we’d expect Daryl Hannah to end up changing from a mermaid into a human. Instead, Tom Hanks dives into the water and becomes a mer-man, a sea creature himself. Civilization is abandoned. Beastliness is embraced.

Look at the ending of “Greystoke.” In the novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs ends with Tarzan at the top of Darwin’s ladder–a polished gentleman in America. But the movie changed all that. In its conclusion, Tarzan returns to Africa, sheds his clothes and goes back into the jungle. If the original “Beauty and the Beast” story was evolutionary, then “Splash” and “Greystoke” are regressive.

What are we to make of these deviations from the pattern?

These stories (as their popularity attests) seem to address a need, a need of our times, for wildness. The television series “Beauty and the Beast” is the story of a woman in the upper world who wears a business suit and carries a briefcase. But at night, below ground–the world of the sewers where we expect Manhattan’s fabled alligators to live–she can let her hair down (hair otherwise kept up in a tight businesswoman’s bun) and experience the passionate, the dangerous, the wild.

This seems to me to speak to the situation in which many people, especially women, find themselves today. And of course, fairy tales provide paradigms for these situations. One of my favorite films–though it’s not well known–is “Company of Wolves.” Based on an Angela Carter short story, the film shows a 20th-Century woman’s coming of age. Through brilliant fantasy sequences, her story is linked to the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” But there’s a twist. In the end, the heroine joins the wolf, becomes a wolf herself and runs with the wolves. It’s the same kind of ending as “Splash” and “Greystoke” and “Mohicans”–a return to wildness. (It is just this desire that the current underground bestseller, “Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, addresses.)

But I don’t mean to imply that this is just the case with women. What are we to make of the extraordinary popularity of Robert Bly’s book “Iron John”? Again, a fairy tale provides a paradigm. The point of “Iron John” and the men’s movement it has spawned seems to be the need for men to “get in touch” with a missing wildness.

This theme is everywhere. Rent the movie “Never Cry Wolf,” which ends with a naked scientist running and howling with the wolves. Or “Harry and the Hendersons,” with its message that into every suburban family must come a touch of wildness. Or “Edward Scissorhands,” which makes the same point but via Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein.”

Still, knowing all that, how can we answer the Hollywood producer’s question: Which are the stories that will capture the popular imagination next? What will be the next “Beauty and the Beast”? I must admit that made me pause. Then, since we’re talking about fairy tales, let’s say my fairy godmother tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Wild Women have been done. Wild Men too. What about the Wild Child?”

The Wild Child or Feral Child is a term folklorists use to describe a group of stories about children who grow up in the wild, without human help, often raised by animals. Romulus and Remus. Kipling’s Mowgli raised by wolves. Tarzan raised by apes. Pecos Bill raised by coyotes.

There are accounts of actual feral children. In France, there was Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron (about whom Harlan Lane, Lucien Malson and Roger Shattuck have written interesting books). In Germany, there was Kaspar Hauser. And both boys have been the subject of art films, by Francois Truffaut and Werner Herzog, respectively.

Surprisingly, I noted to the Hollywood producer, most films about the Wild Child have been of this nonfiction kind. Only two fictionalized versions came to mind, both set in the jungles of South America: “Emerald Forest” and the lesser- known “Where the River Runs Black.” There seemed to be room here, I suggested.

So I sent the producer’s assistant to the library. Go get Charles MacLean’s “The Wolf Children,” I said. It’s an account of two girls in India, Amala and Kamala, who were raised by wolves (or so we were told by one Rev. Singh in what many now believe was an entirely fabricated report, though this doesn’t diminish its value as a story). Find an anthology of Wild Child stories. And if it’s nonfiction you’re after, look at Susan Curtiss’ “Genie: A Linguistic Study of a Modern-day Wild Child” or Eleanor Craig’s “One, Two, Three: The Story of Matt, a Feral Child.”

For background reading, pick up Freud’s aptly named “Civilization and Its Discontents,” with its contention that the more a society advances, the more individuals are obliged to sacrifice (and miss) an essential wildness. To get in the mood, turn to “Lord of the Flies” . . . or to what must be the most popular children’s book ever written: Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (“The night Max wore his wolf suit . . . “).

To those who believe with me that stories, certain stories, speak to us and to our times, I would say: Read the original fairy tales, the paradigms–and “Beauty and the Beast” is a fine place to start. Then watch as a miracle unfolds and these stories begin to make sense, everywhere.

This essay originally appeared on page one of the Los Angeles Times Book Review (December 6, 1992) and eventually lead to my book The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast.”

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KidLit: 2) Revisiting Classics

Peter Rabbit, Beauty & the Beast, Mickey Mouse, Pollyanna, Prince and the Pauper, Tarzan

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KidLit: 1) Books & Reading

Dangers of Book Collecting, E-book Backlash, Map Reading, Reagan’s Childhood Books, Reading After 9/11

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Mother Goose

The Mother of All Rhymes (from the New York Times Book Review)

FAVORITE NURSERY RHYMES FROM MOTHER GOOSE. Illustrated by Scott Gustafson. 96 pp. Greenwich Workshop Press. $19.95. (Ages 2 and up)

Praising nursery rhymes, Vita Sackville-West observed, “The direct statement can seldom compare in aesthetic value with the oblique statement — which is probably the ultimate meaning that man sets on that strange devisement he calls art.” Nonetheless, some have been eager to wring sense from nonsense. Chief among these were William and Cecil Baring-Gould who, in “The Annotated Mother Goose” (1962), asserted connections between famous people and such characters as Jack Horner and Miss Muffet; the spider who sat down beside her, incidentally, was said to be the Protestant reformer John Knox. Equally quotidian was Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, whose humorless disapproval of Mother Goose in 1952 appears in his census of crimes to be found therein: under “means of murder,” for example, two cases of choking and one each of devouring, being cut in half, decapitation, squeezing, shriveling, starvation, boiling, hanging and drowning.

In reaction to this literal-mindedness arose what might be called the Robert Graves School of Literary Criticism, in which nursery rhymes were said to be repositories of ancient wisdom and primordial spells. Squarely in this camp was the author of “Mary Poppins,” P. L. Travers, who saw these verses as forms of “unknowing” and who was drawn to parts mysterious; she asked us to contemplate, for example, the deeper meaning behind Jack and Jill’s going “up” the hill when wells and water are customarily found in the other direction.

MOTHER GOOSE’S LITTLE TREASURES. By Iona Opie. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. 55 pp. Candlewick Press. $17.99. (Ages 3 and up)

The celebrated folklorist Iona Opie now seems in this camp. Opie’s Mother Goose’s Little Treasures” offers 22 not-very-well-known nursery rhymes, illustrated by the quite-well-known artist Rosemary Wells. In her introduction, Opie explains her principle of selection: “What I was looking for — what I hope I have found — are the most mysterious fragments from our shared memory: long-ago laughter of little meaning and echoes of ancient spells…. These rhymes are a confirmation that though we must live in the real world, we need to know the way to another world, where there are no limits and nothing is certain.”

Having made a name for herself as a leading anthropologist of childhood (known for collecting playground games and skip-rope rhymes with her husband, Peter), she now sounds more the Jungian than the scientist.

Indeed, Opie favors the quizzical in her collection, with choices like

When the rain raineth
And the goose winketh,
Little knows the gosling
What the goose thinketh.

It used to be that nursery rhymes were kept alive and passed down through the generations by recitation. In our own memory-challenged era, Ma Goose’s opus is being translated into other media and routinely appears in print, often in oversize books meant for children and decorated with gorgeous illustrations. Since the verses change little, what distinguishes these offerings is their pictures.

Sadly, most illustrations in children’s books today amount to a cliché: apparently many adults nowadays believe that the young see the world as if drawn by Grandma Moses and colored by Paul Klee (in truth, the young may actually see the world more in the manner of, say, Dürer or Dalí). As a result, originality in illustration can often be measured nowadays in the distance an artist strikes from the Grandma-Klee axis. To my taste, Wells’s pictures for Opie’s collection don’t go far enough in the originality direction. In particular, there are some curious echoes of Maurice Sendak’s picture books, like “In the Night Kitchen.”

FAVORITE NURSERY RHYMES FROM MOTHER GOOSE. Illustrated by Scott Gustafson. 96 pp. Greenwich Workshop Press. $19.95. (Ages 2 and up)

Scott Gustafson’s illustrations for his “Nursery Rhymes From Mother Goose” show this same kind of echoing run amok, but wonderfully so. The book’s jacket explains that Gustafson was inspired by “Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons” and the illustrations of N. C. Wyeth, then adds, “as well as those by Arthur Rackham, Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish.” That is nowhere near enough. I would add, “as well as those by Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Blanche Fisher Wright, Michael Hague and others.”

These echoes appear, for example, in what, for copyright reasons, must be described as the cousin of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket; in comic modifications of well-known pictures where (according to an author’s note) Gustafson substitutes portraits of friends; and in amusing hybrids where the styles of two different artists mingle on the same page. There is only one shortcoming to this technique: In places where I could congratulate Gustafson on his originality, I worry that I am just not smart enough to know whether I am being had.

MOTHER GOOSE. Numbers on the Loose. Written and illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon. Unpaged. Harcourt. $17. (Ages 3 to 7)

No similar feeling of uncertainty hovers over the professionally polished work of the award-winning veteran artists Leo and Diane Dillon. Their “Mother Goose: Numbers on the Loose” is a collection of counting rhymes (from “One potato, two potato” to verses celebrating the upper ordinals) where we encounter animated numbers with dancing legs, parades of animals and harlequins, and the back story to “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.” In each double-page picture, as if to keep the other hand busy, the Dillons play variations on a curve: here, from upper left to lower right; there, the opposite; over there, both; then, neither.

Of course, in the end, the great virtue of the nursery rhymes is their enviable economy. These little bouillon cubes — think of “Humpty Dumpty” or “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” — are the shortest of stories, models of memorable concision. Indeed, if this review were a nursery rhyme, it would be a short story-in-verse about Not So Clever, Too Clever and Clever Enough.

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 11, 2007). You might be interested in a related essay.

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KidLit: 5x) People

Roald Dahl, Bruno Bettelheim, William Steig, Frank Baum, Hans Christian Andersen, Nicoletta Ceccoli, . . .

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Tall Tale: Paula Bunyan

Everyone knows about Paul Bunyan . . . but not many people know about Paula Bunyan (from the New York Times Book Review)

By Phyllis Root. Illustrated by Kevin O’Malley
Unpaged. Farrar, Straus & Giroux (hardover). $16.95. (Ages 4 to 8)

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew the Romance of the Logger. I used to see in the pine-paneled cafes old photographs of bewhiskered men paired up on crosscut saws wedged into gigantic Douglas firs. Later my contemporaries would admire Gary Snyder as a workingman’s poet because he had spent time logging for a timber company in Oregon. Behind all this was the mythy Paul Bunyan, that giant lumberjack from the North Woods who bestrode entire counties in a single step while accompanied by the equally gigantic Babe the Blue Ox. To be sure, as with other heroes of American fakelore — bear-wrestling Davy Crockett, coyote-raised Pecos Bill, river-boating Mike Fink — there lingered about Paul Bunyan an aroma of frontier development and ­chamber-of-commerce boosterism.

Like other larger-than-life American legends, Paul Bunyan was associated with the tall tale, that narrative offspring of the liars’ convention (“He snored so loud that . . . ”) and the “pourquoi story” (the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota came to be when water filled in the footprints of Babe the Ox). Ultimately, however, the tall tale pictured a disappearing way of life: what if Paul Bunyan ran out of woods?

This is where “Paula Bunyan” begins, on the cusp of cultural change, and Phyllis Root, a Minnesotan herself, wonderfully follows the tradition of the tall tale in telling her story:

“Everyone knows about Paul Bunyan, . . . but not many people know about Paula Bunyan, his little sister. Maybe ‘little’ isn’t the right word. After all, she was as tall as a pine tree and as strong as a dozen moose. . . . Paula could run so fast that once when she forgot to do her chores, she ran all the way back to yesterday to finish them.”

Inevitably, Paula is overcome by a hankering for Wide Open Spaces; so, her parents pack her a snack (gallons of cider, bushels of apples, wheels of cheese), and she heads out to that virgin land where the trees are so tall that clouds get stuck in them. In this Peaceable Kingdom, she also teaches wolves to sing three-part harmony and a brown bear obligingly provides a living rug to keep her warm.

Alas, Paula soon discovers a snake in Eden when she comes across a field of stumps. Following the evidence to a gang of lumberjacks, she attracts a flock of mosquitoes the size of chickens to drive them off. Then she sets about replanting the forests. As the story ends, we return to the formula of the tall tale:

“If you’re ever up in the North Woods, you might see some of those trees that Paula planted. If you listen carefully . . . you might even hear Paula singing.”

Given this green and feminist fable, you will not be surprised to learn that its author also wrote “Big Momma Makes the World,” where the almighty creator is imagined as a take-charge woman with a baby on her hip. Dressed in overalls, Paula Bunyan is likewise pictured as a determined gal in comic illustrations by Kevin O’Malley, who seems to take his inspiration from woodsmen books of the 1930s as well as the graphic work of R. Crumb and his wife, Aline. In fact, the book presents such a happy pairing of writer and artist that we can now wish for stories about the sisters of John Henry, Mike Fink and Johnny Appleseed.

This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (May 31, 2009). See my other essays on size: “Small and Tall: Books About Height” and “Arrietty,” “The Borrowers,” and Smallness.

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The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast”

A Handbook. By Jerry Griswold

Using Beaumont’s classic story as a touchstone, this work shows how “Beauty and the Beast” takes on different meanings as it is analyzed by psychologists, illustrated in picture books, adapted to the screen, and rewritten by contemporary writers.

The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast” provides expert commentary on the tale and on representative critical approaches and contemporary adaptations. This book also includes a variety of original source materials and twenty-three color illustrations.

The Meanings of “Beauty and the Beast” is for any reader who wishes to explore this classic, endlessly rich fairy tale.

Finalist for Mythopoeic Society’s Scholarship Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies (2005, 2006 & 2007).


1. Tale and Author (Madame Le Prince de Beaumont and her “Beauty and the Beast”)
2. Among the Critics (Bruno Bettelheim, Jack Zipes, and Marina Warner)
3. Sources (Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche” and Mme. de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast”)
4. Fairy Tales to Compare (“Cinderella,” “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” and “Frog King”)
5. Contemporary Stories (Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride,” Tanith Lee’s “Beauty”)
6. Illustrations (Walter Crane, Mercer Mayer, and others)
7. Films (Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney)


“‘Beauty and the Beast’ is one of the most popular tales in the world, but very few critics have been able to account for its immense popularity. Now Jerry Griswold has bravely undertaken that task and has written a fascinating book that explores the manifold meanings of this compelling tale. Not only does Griswold trace the origins of the classical erotic story, but he also interprets the numerous adaptations in literature and film throughout the world. Whether he analyzes the classic version of Madame Leprince de Beaumont, Angela Carter’s feminist versions, or the Disney animated films, Griswold is always thought-provoking. This is a book that will certainly interest all readers who are captivated by the mystery of fairy tales.” ― Jack Zipes, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

“While specifically focused on the tale named in its title, Jerry Griswold’s The Meanings of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ offers a perceptive and entertaining introduction to the subject of fairy tales generally. Interweaving an eclectic collection of variants of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ within and around a knowledgeable discussion of the history and meaning of the tale, Griswold offers both a useful introduction for those new to the study of fairy tales and insightful ideas about and interpretations of versions of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ that will greatly interest specialists in the field.” ― Perry Nodelman, University of Winnipeg

“A blend of synthesis, anthology, and analysis, this offers a broadly supported expansion of the scholarship on an irrepressible story.” ― Betsy Hearne, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Reviewed: Martha Hixon, “The Tale with a Thousand Faces,” Children’s Literature v. 34 (2006), 214–17; David L. Russell, Lion and Unicorn v. 30 no. 1 (2006), 154–56; Ruth Carver Capasso, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly v. 29 no. 3 (Fall 2004), 273–4; Siobhán Parkinson, Inis (Dublin), 49.


Jerry Griswold is a specialist in Children’s Literature and in American Literature and Culture. The author of seven books, he has published more than 200 essays in the national press (The Nation, Paris Review, New Republic, and elsewhere); he is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Besides a book critic and cultural commentator, Griswold was a university professor at San Diego State University, UCLA, UCSD, the University of Connecticut, and the National University of Ireland in Galway. The former Director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, Griswold lectures all over the globe (from Seoul to Salamanca to São Paolo).


Publication Date: March 16, 2004
ISBN: 9781551115634 / 1551115638
258 pages; 6" x 9"
Order from Broadview Press: or order from Amazon:

If you liked this, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium. For a brief account of the writing of this book, see “Diving Deep: Beauty and the Beast.” You might also be interested in “Beauty & the Beast” in Our Time: The myth of our era (from the Los Angeles Times Book Review).”

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September 19, Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day

Pirates & Pretending

Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney’s “Treasure Island” (1950)

Ah, the theatrical gorgeousness of being a pirate! With an eye patch and swordplay. Flying the skull-and-crossbones. The lively lingo: “Avast!” and “keelhauling” and “walking the plank.” Parrots and treasure maps, doubloons and pieces of eight. The easy mention of–and wonderfully named — Blackbeard and Captain Kidd.

It all began, more or less, with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island where the boy Jim Hawkins falls into the company of buccaneers lead by that rogue Long John Silver, the peg-leg pirate with a parrot named Captain Flint. But as a realistic as Stevenson’s novel was, the Pirate Story soon veered in the theatrical direction of Penzance.

Hook (Amblin Entertainment, 1991)

A few years later, James Barrie repositioned the Pirate Story to fantasyland when he transported Stevenson’s buccaneers to Neverland. That Peter Pan was first a play may not be surprising. Its villain Captain Hook is theatrical and gorgeous, dashing and swashbuckling, all smarted out in his jacket and frills. Dustin Hoffman plays a wonderful version of him in Steven Spielberg’s sequel to the story, the movie Hook.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Disney 2003).

Of course, it’s not a far step from there to Johnny Depp in the wonderful film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (I confess that I don’t much care for the sequel, Dead Man’s Chest). Depp moved the seagoing villain in an even more histrionic direction by adding a gay sensibility to the mincing menace of Hoffman’s Hook. With his eye shadow and swish, Depp’s Captain Jack Swallow is doubly theatrical: RuPaul playing a pirate.

To understand the Pirate Story’s vector into increasing heights of staginess, we can turn to a lovely book written between the two world wars: Swallows and Amazons. Arthur Ransome’s children’s novel tells of youngsters passing their summer holidays on a lake in England, making their time more interesting by pretending to be pirates, dodging each other in their sailboats and raiding each others’ camps. They also harass Uncle Jim, an adult and a writer who is trying to finish a book, by fancying him (in a bow to Treasure Island) “Captain Flint,” warning him with the Black Spot and attacking his cottage.

Ransome’s book reminds us how youngsters before puberty spend extended time in make-believe, rehearsing life in theatrical ways. How many adults have attended backyard “shows” put on by kids for neighborhood audiences? How many can recall afternoons spent imagining with playmates: “You be the Teacher and we’ll be the students” or “You be the Baby and we’ll be the parents”? These prolonged stays in periods of pretending are a perquisite of the young. To be sure, there are beefy adults who gather on weekends in medieval attire at meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism and others who become Confederate soldiers for Civil War re-enactments, but the grown-up who comes to work on Monday dressed as a Star Trek Commander is cause for apprehension and concern. With some exceptions, protracted make-believe is mostly for the young.

A young Barack Obama in costume with his mother in Hawaii. (Photo credit: Friends and Family of Stanley Ann Dunham.)

So, interestingly, the Pirate has been relocated from history and become a stock character in the Theater of Childhood, a figure from general casting under the category of Outlaw, and someone who has counterparts in other game-like scenarios (“Cops and Robbers,” “Cowboys and Indians,” et al.) For these roles, junior actors and actresses have done research. Waving their light sabers, they know Star Wars by heart. Studying television characters, they arrange their own performances with Barney and Strawberry Shortcake.

The author (right) and his gang.

Still, other junior dramaturges have prepared for their roles by reading. That is the case in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Mark Twain explains how Tom and and his gang reenact a scene from a favorite book:

Who goes there?”
“Tom Sawyer, the Black Avenger of the Spanish Main. Name your names.”
“Huck Finn the Red-Handed, and Joe Harper the Terror of the Seas.” Tom had furnished these titles, from his favorite literature.
“’Tis well. Give the countersign.”
Two hoarse whispers delivered the same awful word simultaneously to the brooding night: “Blood!

There are some of the make-believe pirates who appear in movies and books. But there are still others: youngsters who have studied up on piracy. Indeed, at this very moment, while your attention is here, they are stealing up behind you unnoticed, preparing to attack and plunder.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2006).

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Roald Dahl: Can Grown-Ups Be Trusted?

The Darkening of Children’s Movies and Plays

Johnny Depp denied insinuations by internet bloggers that he was impersonating Michael Jackson in playing Willy Wonka (the oddball candyman with whitened face and long black hair) in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Depp — who says he channeled Keith Richards for his role in Pirates of the Caribbean and Ozzy Osbourne for his character in Finding Neverland — insisted he was not inspired by Neverland Ranch’s famous ranchero but by the late children’s show host Fred Rogers.

That’s quite a choice: between the preternaturally innocent Mr. Rogers and the Michael Jackson found innocent of child molestation charges in a Santa Maria, California, courtroom. But that this question should arise at all — and that it should be framed in such stark alternatives — reveals dark clouds now overshadowing our visions of childhood. Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does little to dispel them. Indeed, it can be seen as just one more recent contribution to the general darkening of children’s movies and plays.

Consider the principals behind this film. Its director is Tim Burton, the Edward Gorey of children’s films, the twisted genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. And the film is based on a book by Roald Dahl, an immensely popular but macabre children’s author who was particularly fascinated with child abductions and scary jeopardy.

As Dahl’s daughter once observed about her father: “The stories he told us were rarely cozy or sweet; they always had a spooky edge. He told us about creatures who could only survive on the supple bones of small children and about strange old men who lurked in the undergrowth.”

That Dahl has emerged as our author du jour — now in theaters is a film version of his The BFG, another story about child abduction— says something about our current and uneasy obsession with relations between youngsters and grown-ups. A recent hit on Broadway was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a play based on the film for which Dahl wrote the screenplay. In its central scene, we encounter the Primal Scene of Dahl’s stories: the spooky and darkly clad Child Catcher arrives in the child-hating kingdom of Vulgaria to abduct youngsters, luring them to their doom with candy.

In our own era of child abductions and Amber alerts, the question we keep revisiting is: Can adults be trusted?

Consider guardians. In the Long Ago, an orphaned Heidi could depend upon her grandfather and live with him in his hut in the Alps without an eyebrow being raised. These days, in the film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the character Jim Carrey plays is no kindhearted uncle to the Baudelaire children but a ghoul who takes giddy pleasure in harming them.

Or consider Phillip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” at London’s Royal Theater and and then a movie starring Nicole Kidman. Pullman’s story tells of vast adult conspiracy to employ a high-tech guillotine to separate children from their souls.

Gone, in other words, is that sunny era when the public imagination was filled with images of the trusting children like the wide-eyed Jackie Coogan and the curtseying Shirley Temple. Instead, we live in a darker time when the young must be wary of the Candy Man and the Child Catcher. Behind newspaper reports about Neverland Ranch and Amber alerts, behind stories by Tim Burton, Roald Dahl, and Phillip Pullman, a question lingers: “Can grown-ups be trusted?”

More than fifty years ago, psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that the first belief a growing child must acquire is “Basic Trust.” Nowadays–as films, plays, books, and the news suggest — they first need to acquire Basic Mistrust.

On related topics, see my: “Roald Dahl and the Back Story to ‘The BFG”’; “Making Kids’ Stories Dark: Who is Disney’s ‘Into the Woods’ For?” and “Burdening Kids with Innocence: An Explanation of Child Abduction and Murder.”

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Living Toys

For the very young, the whole world is alive–from talking dolls to the North Wind

Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet. Ages: 9–12. By: Carlo Collodi. Penguin: $10.00 (Paperback)

The very young child, psychologist Jean Piaget observed, does not distinguish between the animate and the inanimate: the youngster who bangs her knee on a table, for example, goes back and strikes the offending table. For the very young, the whole world is alive–from talking dolls to the North Wind.

It’s not surprising, then, that in children’s stories we sometimes encounter talking animals interacting with talking toys. The evil Mouse King exchanges challenges with a household object in E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker. The villain Manny Rat discusses the meaning of life with a tin toy in Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child. And the wily Fox and Cat parlay with a puppet in Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio.

This presence of sentience in insentient things is neatly presented in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice. The two mice have destroyed things left and right, and made a mess of the nursery. When the little girl in the story returns to that room, she carries her two dolls (Jane and Lucinda). Potter writes: “What a sight met the eyes of Jane and Lucinda! Lucinda sat upon the stove and stared, and Jane leaned against the kitchen dresser and smiled; but neither of them made a remark.”

The Tale of Two Bad Mice. Ages: 4–8. By: Beatrix Potter. Warne: $6.99 (Hardcover)

In a stroke of genius that counterposes the sentient and the insentient, Potter pictures, on the opposite page, these stunned and bemused dolls, these thinking and emoting creatures, in dramatically rigid and stick-like postures that contrast with their otherwise conscious natures. Potter’s picture presents a vision of inanimate toys that any adult might see, but her words signal that something different which is in the child’s eyes: how the dolls are not only alive but offended by the mayhem the mice have caused.

Something similar occurs in “The Dumb Soldier,” a poem in Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. In the spring after the lawn is mown, a boy finds a hole in the turf and hides his tin soldier there; then comes the autumn and another mowing, and the toy is recovered. As the boy observes, his tin grenadier has witnessed much during those months: seen the springing flowers and fairy things passing in the grass, heard the talking bee and ladybird, and more. But as the boy observes, the Dumb Soldier remains mute:

Not a word will he disclose,
Not a word of all he knows.
I must lay him on the shelf,
And make up the tale myself.

A too hasty understanding of the last line might suggest that, in “making up the tale,” the boy is engaged in wholesale invention; indeed, that would be the adult view of the situation. But the important point to grasp is that, from the boy’s point of view, the soldier would speak if he could — if he were not handicapped. The soldier may be dumb or speechless, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t alive. Rather than a ventriloquist, in relating all the toy has seen, the boy serves as interpreter or translator.

A Child’s Garden of Verses. Ages: 9–12. By: Robert Louis Stevenson. Dover: $1.50 (Paperback)

This aliveness of toys is important when the young play. Dolls have tea parties. Teddy bears talk. Stick horses gallop. From the point of view of children, living toys actively participate in their lives; and toys do so, as it were, from their side and at their own initiative. This is a way of thinking peculiar to childhood, but not an unfamiliar one. Raise the subject at a cocktail party and some adults can still recall how, when they were young, they would check in the morning to see whether their dolls had moved overnight.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2005). A chapter in my book “Feeling Like a Kid” is devoted to the subject of “Aliveness.”

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The State of Middle-Grade Reading

Self-consciousness for girls, adventures for boys (from the New York Times Book Review)

GINGERSNAP. By Patricia Reilly Giff. 149 pp. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99. (Middle grade; ages 9 to 12). NAVIGATING EARLY. By Clare Vanderpool. 306 pp. Delacorte Press. $16.99. (Middle grade; ages 9 to 12)

Here are two new novels by prizewinning authors, both set during World War II and featuring a brother in the armed services who is missing in action. Both are for middle-grade readers, though one is more or less intended for girls and the other for boys. Patricia Reilly Giff is the author of many books for children, two of which (“Lily’s Crossing” and “Pictures of Hollis Woods”) have won Newbery Honor awards. This is Clare Vanderpool’s second novel; her first, “Moon Over Manifest,” won the Newbery Medal in 2011.

Giff’s “Gingersnap” takes place in 1945 in Norman Rockwell’s America, an era Giff recreates by frequently mentioning rationing and the wartime news on the radio, along with Glenn Miller’s music and the serial “The Shadow.” An orphan, Jayna, known as Gingersnap, misses her brother Rob, who, while fighting in the Pacific, is lost at sea. She stumbles upon a recipe book in French and “an old black-and-white photo” (though, strictly speaking, it would be 15 more years before anyone would designate any photograph as “black and white”), prompting her to leave her guardian and travel to the brownstones of wartime Brooklyn in search of a bakery and her grandmother.

Everything turns out fine in the end: America wins the war. Rob returns from the Pacific to his sister, and they make a new family with Brooklyn friends. This is, after all, a story meant for middle schoolers, caught between the demands of home and allegiance to peers. Parents disappear early in these kinds of stories; the actuarial statistics are staggering. A second family, freely chosen, arises accordingly.

Heightened self-­consciousness.

If much here is familiar, Giff moves in a less common way by introducing a ghost (a k a “the voice”) who speaks to Jayna. In juvenile fare, ghosts usually come in two forms: the Scold (think of Scrooge’s in “A Christmas Carol” and the Talking Cricket in “Pinocchio”) and the Surrogate Parent (Neil Gaiman’s novel “The Graveyard Book” and Virginia Hamilton’s “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush”). But Jayna’s ghost serves no high purpose. Instead, this phantom wears Jayna’s fingernail polish and reads the girl’s mind (out loud). In other words, “the voice” is Jayna once again and another occasion for internal dialogue in a novel where the pronoun “I” receives an incredible workout and the plot often advances on a sea of question marks when Jayna debates this or that issue with herself. This heightened self-­consciousness seems a reproduction of the target-audience mind-set.

If self-consciousness is conspicuous in “Gingersnap,” the hallmark of “Navigating Early” is abundant adventure. Jackie is 13 years old when his mother dies and his distant father moves him from Kansas to Morton Hill Academy for Boys, a maritime boarding school in coastal Maine. There he makes friends with Early Auden, a wonderfully named and eccentric classmate.

Early listens only to Billie Holiday when it rains; he lives in a custodian’s room in the basement rather than in a dorm; he detects a story in the numbers that are generated when pi is calculated to the nth degree — and he believes his brother Fisher, who has gone missing after an assault on the Germans, is not dead but is actually hiding out in the woods of Maine. In a concluding author’s note, Vanderpool says she had a form of high-­functioning autism in mind when she created Early.

Lots of action.

The friendship between Jackie and Early and the Morton Hill Academy episodes have the flavor of Wes Anderson’s delightful summer-camp movie “Moonrise Kingdom.” But halfway through this otherwise carefully constructed and matter-of-fact story, the narrative veers in a bizarre direction. As Jackie and Early take a boat from the school for an expedition on the Kennebec River, we have reason to expect the story will continue in its largely realistic vein. Instead, the floor drops away and we suddenly find ourselves in something closer to “The Perils of Pauline” when the boys encounter pirates — yes, pirates! — in the Maine woods and a villain seemingly modeled on Bluto, Popeye’s nemesis. Adventures soon multiply at a dizzying rate.

It’s as if someone told Vanderpool that boys, those reluctant readers, like lots of action and want things going on all the time. In fact, late in the novel, the breathless author seems to congratulate herself for “a journey that included pirates, a volcano, a great white whale, a hundred-year-old woman, a lost hero, a hidden cave, a great Appalachian bear and a timber rattlesnake — in Maine!” She shortchanges herself. She forgets the skeleton, the fly-fishing, the burials, the accidental death and much more as the novel careens over hill and dale, whipsawing readers until they cry “uncle.”

Here are two stories: one about a girl who is chatty in an interior way nearly to the point of solipsism, and the other about two boys offered the literary equivalent of a dozen video games. In terms of audience, both novels are meant to be placed in the company of standards like E. L. Konigsburg’s “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and Sid Fleischman’s “Whipping Boy.” In truth, what may be most interesting about these books is their assumption about what appeals to middle-grade readers.

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (January 11, 2013). “Navigating Early” was later named a 2014 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association.

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Berta & Elmer Hader

Bohemians and Picture Book Artists (from The Lion & Unicorn)

Joy Hoerner Rich, Karen Tolley, John Waller and Judy Waller. Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art. Roseburg, Oregon:

The first picture book I was ever given was Berta and Elmer Hader’s “Little Appaloosa.” I loved it because it was a mix of my real life and my wishes. I grew up in Montana and often visited my grandparents’ ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains; in other words, my own circumstances were not so different from those of Little Ben in the book who had been in the saddle since he was a baby and who had Native American friends. On the other hand, I didn’t, alas, have my own Appaloosa pony named Pal that I rode to school every day.

“Little Appaloosa” was the first book I “read” and, for me, that meant visualizing. In a slow and very patient way, and through multiple readings, I constructed a picture in my mind of the book’s young cowboy and the other characters mentioned; at the same time, I felt I had to have very clear and concrete images of the ranch–where the boy’s room was located, for example — before I could understand the events that occurred there. Since this was a picture book, I was greatly aided by the Haders’ drawings which provided me with clues about ways to visualize the story’s world so that my images would not only be accurate but also very concrete and complete — as concrete as an actual encounter with a real place, as complete as the memory of my own house when I was away from it.

I owe, in other words, a great debt to the Haders–albeit, a highly personal one–and I have long wanted to know more about them. Now, thanks to “Berta and Elmer Hader: A Lifetime of Art,” that desire is answered. Here is a biography of these beloved children’s book illustrators (active between 1927–1975) as well as a liberal collection of their art (close to 300 color pictures). And here are a number of surprises as well.

The story begins with Berta Hoerner, a young artist in Seattle who was getting by doing fashion drawings of Gibson girls for the leading department stores in town, the Bon Marche and Frederick and Nelsons. She was a bohemian keeping company with Edward Curtis (most remembered for his collected photographs of North American Indians) and Imogen Cunningham (the modern photographer who combined her botanical studies with an interest in human forms).

Then Berta traveled to San Francisco and rented a bungalow on Telegraph Hill with her roommates Katherine Ann Porter (eventually the Great American Writer) and Rose Wilder (daughter to Laura Ingalls and often thought to be the real author behind the Little House books). There she met another young bohemian painter, Elmer Hader, and fell in love. They were separated by the Great World War, but reunited afterwards in Greenwich Village and married.

Eventually, by hand and with the help of friends, these bohemians built a home and studio called The Little Stone House, alongside the Hudson River, near Nyack, New York. From there, they made more or less weekly trips into New York to pick up assignments from magazines and publishers and drop off work they had completed; they did close to fifty children’s books and numerous other odd jobs (including the illustrations for the iconic dust jacket of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”). And they worked together, passing artwork back and forth, in this way harmonizing their two very different styles (his Paris-trained impressionist landscapes, her merry Kate-Greenaway-like figures).

In his “Metamorphoses,” Ovid tells the tale of Philemon and Baucis, an elderly couple of modest means who lived in the country and were noted for their kindness and hospitality. When they died, Zeus granted their wish and changed them into two trees that wrapped around each other. This was the story I thought of as this book sounded its last notes with accounts of the deaths of Berta and Elmer.

This essay originally appeared in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (January 2014) at the prompting of Nathalie op de Beeck.

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Three Little Red Hens

Recent picture-book versions of a well known story where subtle differences appear in the conclusions

“The Little Red Hen.” By Jerry Pinkney. Dial Books: $16.99 (Hardback)

Once asked what stories I recalled hearing in my childhood, I half jokingly replied, “I remember my mother reading the story of ‘The Little Red Hen’ over and over again. I think it was her favorite.” “That’s every mother’s favorite story,” my inquisitor replied.

Though it sometimes differs in this or that detail, the unchanging part of the story tells how the Little Red Hen decides to bake a cake (or a loaf of bread) and asks her pals: “Who will help me . . . [plant the wheat, harvest it, mill it, mix it, and bake it]?” On each occasion, her barnyard friends (a dog, a cat, or other critters) repeat the reply “Not I” and the Hen does the chore herself. Then comes the time when the pastry is done and the Hen asks who will help eat it. Of course, the good-for-nothings are eager to share in the treat. But in most versions, the Hen turns these sluggards away with an admonition that since they didn’t help in its preparation, they can’t savor its consumption: “I’ll eat all myself!” the Little Red Hen snaps.

Though most of us are familiar with the phenomenon it encapsulates, it’s interesting what others say this tale is about.

During the Ronald Reagan era, the story was employed by conservatives to teach the dangers of liberal socialism; it was said that if the Little Red Hen was forced to share the fruits of her labor with everyone, she’d lose the incentive to work.

Of course, you could just as easily make the story into a left-wing sermonette about fiscal conservatives: how if you’re unwilling to pay taxes, you really can’t complain about pot holes and poor teachers. Other lessons are suggested in three recent picture-book versions of the story where subtle differences appear in the conclusions.

“The Red Hen.” By Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley. Roaring Book Press: $16.99 (Hardback)

The vivid artwork and splashing colors of Rebecca and Ed Emberley’s The Red Hen recall the collage style of Eric Carle. And the book would seem to end in the traditional way when a cat, a rat, and a frog eagerly offer to help eat the cake even though they have done nothing to assist in its creation. The last words of the story are: “‘Hmmph!’ said the Red Hen. ‘I think I will eat all myself.’ And she did.” While those are the last words of the story, they aren’t the last words of the book because the volume closes with a recipe for baking a cake. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I find it significant that the directions begin: “With a grown-up’s help, preheat the oven to . . . .” Doesn’t that make kids into the Little Red Hen and grown-ups into the reluctant helpers?

“The Little Red Hen.” By Jerry Pinkney. Dial Books: $16.99 (Hardback)

Jerry Pinkney’s The Little Red Hen recalls his recent Caldecott Award winning book The Lion and the Mouse. Each drawing is incredibly textured and multi-layered. The perspective is wonderfully close. And though comic, the animals are faithfully drawn. Moreover, the miller (where the Hen takes her wheat to be ground) is an African-American in overalls behind whom can be seen tubes of paint, brushes, and a sketch pad–would that be a self portrait, of Pinkney himself? And how does this version end? Not quite with the Hen’s solo joy and peremptory “I will eat all myself” but with a kind of compromise. Pinkney’s heroine does jilt her uncooperative neighbors (a dog, a rat, a goat, a pig), but she shares the cake with her five chicks who encircle her.

“The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah.” By Leslie Kimmelman; illustrated by Paul Meisel. Holiday House: $16.95 (Hardback)

My favorite of the season, however, is The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah by Leslie Kimmelman and comically illustrated by Paul Meisel. Here our barnyard heroine is making Passover matzah and speaks in Yiddish inflected ways–kvetching about her lazy no-goodnik friends (a dog, a sheep, a horse) who don’t help while she’s schlepping flour to the kitchen, and then they have the chutzpah to turn up at her Seder and ask her for matzah? Oy gevalt! But then she remembers the words from the Haggadah (“Let all who are hungry come and eat”) and she invites them in, nonetheless. But after the feast who does the dishes? “Not I,” says the Hen from her easy chair, while in the background we see her guests up to their elbows in dish soap. To my way of thinking, that’s the best ending I’ve encountered to this story.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Parents’ Choice (March 2011).

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Sid Fleischman: A Remembrance

He felt his success was due to the fact that he still sometimes thought like a kid

Sid Fleischman (photo credit: Wikipedia)

The well known children’s writer Sid Fleischman was a graduate of San Diego State University, where I taught, and we met on one of his return visits. On the drive to campus, he told me that he felt his success was due to the fact that he still sometimes thought like a kid. As an example, he mentioned a kind of magical bargain he had struck with himself that morning: While showering, he decided that if a certain event happened in the next five minutes, he would do this; but if it didn’t, he would do the opposite.

As we traveled down the interstate, he spoke about other ways kids think, and he did so in a manner both sympathetic and anthropological. I owe him a debt of gratitude. This wonderful conversation would eventually beget my book about children’s writers and their works: Feeling Like a Kid.

Greenwillow Books; Reprint edition (April 15, 2003)

We felt a kinship in other ways. Fleischman is probably best known for The Whipping Boy which won a Newberry Award in 1987 for best children’s book. In this chapter book, Fleischman does his own turn on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, inventing a story about Prince Brat and the pauper Jemmy who is employed as a whipping boy to take the prince’s beatings.

Penguin Classics (December 1, 1997).

Fleischman was thunderstruck, consequently, to learn from me that Twain had actually experimented with the idea of having a whipping boy in The Prince and the Pauper but had later abandoned the idea. I had discovered a “missing chapter” to Twain’s novel (where the idea of a whipping boy was rehearsed) when I was preparing a new edition of the work for Penguin Books; it’s included in an appendix to my Penguin edition of Twain’s classic. Fleischman said that news made the hair on the back of his neck stand up; he found this news uncanny.

Greenwillow Books; First Edition edition (July 29, 2008).

So, I looked forward to seeing Fleischman again in Spring 2010 at San Diego State University. We were both scheduled to speak in a series of lectures organized for a Mark Twain Centennial. In preparation, I read a dozen biographies — including Fleischman’s The Trouble Begins at 8 as well as other biographies of Twain meant for young readers — and concluded that his was the best by a mile.

Sadly, that meeting would never took place. Fleischman died on March 17, 2010, at his home in Santa Monica, California. He had just turned ninety.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (March/April 2010). You can find out more about Fleischman and his books at


Mandatory Schooling & the School Story

Winslow Homer, “Crack the Whip”

The morning before his fourth day in kindergarten, my son Colin said he wouldn’t be going. He had tried school, he explained, and “it wasn’t working out.” Very much like eating broccoli, he saw this education business as voluntary and a taste you either acquired or didn’t. He hadn’t. As his parents, we were amused: How to explain that schooling, like gravity, was not really optional?

Mandatory schooling, we sometimes forget, is a recent phenomenon and only some 150 years old. We can glimpse the uneasy transition to that state of affairs in Nineteenth Century children’s books. Angered by the disciplining of one of her daughters, Marmee in “Little Women” storms into the classroom and tells the teacher that for her child (to quote Alice Cooper’s song) “school’s out forever.” Then there is Tom Sawyer who plays hooky so frequently that his companion Huckleberry Finn envies him; Huck doesn’t have the chance to do that since he doesn’t go to school at all. That’s not to suggest, incidentally, that Huck is ignorant; as Mark Twain observed,

“You should never let schooling get in the way of education.”

Nowadays, however, the school calendar is such a fixed part of our lives that it seems as much a part of nature as the change of seasons. August marks the beginning of back-to-school sales as excited and anxious students acquire stationary supplies and new clothes for the advent of September. Soon thereafter, families organize their lives in terms of Thanksgiving, Christmas holidays, spring break, and summer vacation.

To get a sense of how pervasive schooling is in our culture, we might imagine what life would be like without it. In this case, dropping off the face of the planet would be such films as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Legally Blond,” and “Good Will Hunting.” Gone, too, would be all the Harry Potter books with their accounts of events at Hogwarts, that fictional school more interesting than any its readers might attend.

Actually, as the television program “Glee” also makes clear, fictional schools are often more appealing than the real kind. When my daughter and her friends were in junior high, their favorite film was “Grease” even though that movie recounted life at Rydell High in the mythical 1950’s, decades before their own era. In a similar fashion, when the young Ronald Reagan was daydreaming about going to college, he was reading “Frank Merriwell at Yale”; Burt L. Standish’s popular pulp novel talked about football and cheerleaders but never mentioned classrooms and homework.

If we were to imagine subtracting schooling from our culture, gone as well would be all those books and films that feature dedicated teachers — from Mr. Chips to Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver.” That wouldn’t be so bad if it meant burying the smarmy prof in “Dead Poets Society.” But such a subtraction would also mean the loss of Sidney Poitier in “To Sir, with Love” and the curmudgeon Charles Kingsley (played by John Houseman) in “The Paper Chase.”

If schools were absent, we would also lose stories about the prom (“Sixteen Candles,” “Carrie”), school sports (“Friday Night Lights,” “Hoosiers”), student misbehavior (“Porky’s,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House”), and reunions (“The Big Chill,” “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion”). In a similar vein, we might wonder whether someone who is home-schooled can ever really understand “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

The absence of schools would also mean that films like “Mean Girls” and “Napoleon Dynamite” wouldn’t make sense. Adolescents would no longer need to be a part of the in-crowd or accommodate themselves to such categories as cheerleaders, nerds, jocks, losers, and the like. On the upside, “The Breakfast Club” could finally be retired from television reruns.

As an intellectual exercise, this imagining of a life without schools makes evident how mandatory schooling has shaped our culture in pervasive ways. If it was not a part of our lives, so many phenomena from bake sales to car washes, from back-to-school specials to high-school reunions, from Harry Potter to Ferris Bueller, would be . . . well, unimaginable.

The School Story

With the advent of mandatory schooling came the “school story,” a genre as old as Tom Brown’s Schooldays and as recent as the Harry Potter stories. In these, and in the many books in between, educators seem to come in two types: the Dedicated Teacher (or Mr. Chips) and the evil Classroom Tyrant. But if the truth be known, every educator is something of both since they constantly wrestle with the issue of being both kindly and demanding.

My favorite work on this topic is a picturebook by Harry Allard and James Marshall:Miss Nelson is Missing!” Miss Nelson is kindhearted, so her pupils take advantage of her and misbehave. Then one day, a substitute teacher arrives and Miss Viola Swamp is a disciplinarian who gets the job done but in such an unloving way that the students begin to miss Miss Nelson. Without spoiling the ending, let me simply say that the Misses Nelson and Swamp seem to live in the same house, a place where disguises and wigs are abundant.

Besides Dedicated Teachers and Classroom Tyrants, other familiar features in the school story include: the wish to “fit in,” the fear of being an outsider, bullies, special friendships, school sports, misbehavior, truancy, nerds, homework, and the like. You can find a catalog of these in the Harry Potter books. But there are two other features which seem to me to make J. K. Rowling’s stories especially appealing to readers who are also students.

The other compelling feature of Rowling’s books concerns the general powerlessness of the young in schools. Richard Brautigan once wrote:

“My teachers could easily have ridden with Jesse James
for all the time they stole from me.”

It is certainly appealing, then, for a student to read a story where a young person in school is not a helpless victim but an individual with extraordinary, even supernatural powers–and in this, Harry Potter shares something with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Very much to that point, let me add that my son did go to kindergarten that morning after we struck a bargain: that he could carry his Luke Skywalker action figure in his pocket.

Different versions and parts of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2005) and the San Diego Union Tribune (August 19, 2012).

Bears in Kids’ Stories

In Kidsworld, every fifth animal seems to be a bear.

Lyra and the bear Iorek in “The Golden Compass” (New Line Cinema, 2007).

To identify the kinds of animals the young feel close to, all zoologists need do is conduct a census of creatures in children’s stories. That would reveal a startlingly fact: In children’s books, every fifth animal seems to be a bear. In fact, a literary zoologist would observe a population explosion among minors of ursus major: blacks, browns, polars, grizzlies, pandas, and teddies.

“Winnie-the-Pooh” by A.A. Milne (Puffin Modern Classics, 2012).

What accounts for this? Why are the young more inclined to carry around teddy bears than, say, stuffed geckos or upholstered cows? And why are there so many stories about teddies: Paddington, Corduroy, Winnie the Pooh, Care Bears, Berenstain’s Bears, and more? To be sure, having lent his name to this stuffed creature, President Teddy Roosevelt bears some responsibility; but even before these furry replicas came to bear his name, youngsters carried around baby bruins as if totems of their tribe.

“Teddy Bear” (photo credit: Wikipedia).

Of course, we should note that — bare naked, in its five-pointed-star shape — the stuffed bear fuzzily resembles our own bodies. And unlike other creatures, and as dancing bears at circuses reveal, these animals are also like us in being fuzzily upright. And for the young who seek the satisfaction of snuggling, the fur-covered teddy is — well, fuzzy. There is, in other words, a simple explanation for the overpopulation of bears in Kidsworld: the bear presents a “fuzzy” version of ourselves.

That “fuzziness” permits the child to think the “same only different,” to understand something under the guise of marginal difference. Take “Goldilocks.” When she samples the three chairs, porridges, and beds, Goldilocks discovers that Papa Bear’s items are not right and that Mama Bear’s don’t suit; only Baby Bear’s chair, porridge, and bed are perfect. As psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suggests, this story teaches the child two things: that there are roles in the family and just which one is theirs. (It teaches this lesson, we might add, by means of bears.)

“Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik and pictures by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 1992).

Among the best stories featuring this creature are the “Little Bear” books by Else Homelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In the first of these, Little Bear dresses to play outside, makes a “birthday soup,” plays at being an astronaut traveling to the moon, and is put to sleep by Mother Bear. Replace bears with humans and the story would read no differently. But that slight difference and animal substitution is vital because it allows the child to understand by means of analogy.

“Animals are good to think with,” the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said. (Bears especially, we might add.)

Another honeyed story of this kind is The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, based on the song by Jimmy Kennedy (made famous in a 1950 recording by Bing Crosby) and illustrated by Alexandra Day. In Day’s visual interpretation of the lyrics, a boy and girl don bear disguises, travel to the forest to see the secret of how teddies picnic, then–at the song’s conclusion (“At six o’clock their mummys and daddys will taken them home to bed / Because they’re tired little teddy bears”)–their parents (also dressed as bears) help their offspring out of their costumes and to bed.

“Zen Shorts” by Jon Muth (Scholastic, 2005).

Inside every childhood bear, in other words, is a human. It may be a handsome prince, in the case of the fairy tales “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “Snow White and Rose Red.” It may be a teacher, like Mowgli’s Baloo in The Jungle Books or the panda in Jon Muth’s Zen Shorts. Whatever the case, beneath the bear’s fuzziness is us–only different. This is something to bear in mind. Indeed, as countless children’s stories reveal, it bears repeating.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (July 2006). My New York Times review of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” can be found by clicking here. Pico Iyer’s interesting discussion of Paddington — in terms of racial discourse and autobiography — can be found in the New York Times Book Review can be found here.

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Cowboys, Cowgirls, Childhood, Montana

Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys and Cowgirls

The author and his sister Virginia at the family ranch in Montana.

Finding Susie, by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is ostensibly about a young girl’s desire for a pet “to hold, talk to, and take care of.” Little Sandra lives on a working ranch and after several unfortunate choices–including a fearful wild rabbit and a young coyote–she eventually acquires a puppy named Susie. In truth, however, this picture book is less about pets and more about O’Connor’s memories of growing up on a ranch near the border of Arizona and New Mexico. In that way, her old photographs on the book’s flyleafs may be more interesting than the sometimes awkward drawings for the story by illustrator Tom Pohrt.

Finding Susie reminded me of the first picture book I was ever given: Berta and Elmer Hader’s Little Appaloosa, a book I loved because it was a mix of fact and fiction, my life and my wishes. Growing up in Montana an hour away from my grandparents’ cattle ranch in the Bear Paw Mountains, my own circumstances were not so different from those of Little Ben in the book (who had been in the saddle ever since he was a baby and who had Indian friends). On the other hand, alas, I didn’t have an Appaloosa pony named Pal that I rode to school every day.

A mix of fact and fiction is the very hallmark of the Western Story. Buffalo Bill Cody was, for example, an actual frontier hero but later he put together his Wild West Show where he staged re-enactments of battles between cavalry and Indian warriors using some of the actual participants (Sitting Bull, for example) as actors. Annie Oakley, General Custer, Geronimo–these names are so legendary that the characters they refer to may seem unreal. But my mother was friends with Kit Carson’s granddaughter and a friend of mine, a Native American, had a cavalry pistol his grandfather found at Little Big Horn.

Cooper Edens offers this mix of fact and fiction in his terrific new anthology Classic Western Stories. Conspicuous among the seventy or so items Edens collects are dozens of songs. Here are actual cowboy standards that we sang on family car trips (“Git Along Little Dogies,” “I Ride Old Paint,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Buffalo Gals”). Here, too, are tunes that I now realize were composed by Hollywood types for cowboy movies (“Red River Valley,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ favorite “Happy Trails”).

Dale Evans and Roy Rogers

Growing up, Roy and Dale were important to me — as was the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and the Cisco Kid and Pancho–because they made my own everyday circumstances seem the stuff television programs were made of; I didn’t realize that the frontier where these actors’ horses galloped was within an hour’s drive of Burbank, California. Edens’ Classic Western Stories suggests how much movies and television contributed to the lore of the West by printing publicity stills of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry alongside Edward S. Curtis’ historic photographs of Native Americans and paintings by genuine Western artists like Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell (a friend, incidentally, of my Montana grandfather).

Nowadays, of course, kids are more likely to associate the word “Montana” with Disney’s celebrity darling Hannah than with cattle ranches and round-ups. So, we might wonder:

Will all this Western lore remain in the distant Lands of History and Nostalgia or will figures like the Cowboy and Cowgirl re-emerge some day and regain among youngsters the importance and popularity they once had in my childhood?

My hope is that with pirates making a comeback, cowpokes can’t be far behind. All it really takes is a few parents ready to provide a stick horse, a cowboy hat, and stories like these.

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (September 2009). For a discussion of “Little Appaloosa” and Berta and Elmer Hader, click here. And in another place, I mention a new book about Charlie Russell.

Of course, another part of Western history is the Native American. When I was twelve, my parents took me to the Grass Dance in Northern Montana. It was a time before tourists came to these ceremonials. My mom introduced me to the chief, Windy Boy. He was friends with my grandfather and they had worked together on the family homestead. Now, some fifty years later, I met his great grandson, Wesley Windy Boy, at the 2011 Cabazon Pow Wow where he was the singing judge. I introduced him to my grandson, Itzak. Comes full circle.

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Remembering a Day with Bruno Bettelheim

Bettelheim took his own life on March 13, 1990. Some found that strange. I have my own ideas.

The famous psychologist Bruno Bettelheim died March 13, 1990, by his own hands. Some found it strange that the man who wrote so convincingly about “surviving,” who had himself survived internment in Dachau and Buchenwald, should have chosen this manner of death. Others have suggested that he never completely left behind the pain of being a prisoner, and that his wife’s death in 1984 (as well as his own debilitating stroke in 1987) explain much. I have my own ideas.

We went to lunch in 1982. In the car on the way to the restaurant and throughout the meal, we hotly argued our interpretations of the fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel.” I insisted it dealt with “separation anxiety” but he was adamant that the subject was “oral greed,” and he pointed to the way the children ate their parents out of house and home and then were rapacious when they arrived at the Gingerbread House. When the waitress rolled the dessert cart by the table, Bettelheim took a piece of chocolate cake; after we had talked some more, he took a second; finally, a third. There’s a parable there.

Bettelheim was in town to deliver a lecture on fairy tales at my university, San Diego State University, but the first obligation was a press conference. There was a great gaggle of people when we arrived, television and newspaper reporters, several dozen of them, bristling with handy‑cams and microphones and notebooks. Bettelheim pushed them all aside and singled out the timid undergraduates from the student newspaper. He spoke to them. Outside their tight circle, the frustrated professionals had to be content, as they poked their microphones in his direction and took notes and waited their turn, rude and miffed.

Something unexpected happened when a dozen of us walked from there to the lecture site. A strange woman, a student I imagine, stepped out of the bushes and, with tears streaming down her face, confronted Bettelheim: “What can you do,” she sobbed and loudly insisted, “when your mother doesn’t love you and you feel there is no reason to go on living?” The threat of suicide seemed genuine.

The crowd around Bettelheim was stunned and silenced. It was one of those confrontations with the mentally ill that unnerves most people. Not Bettelheim. He looked at her squarely and told her forcefully, “You have to find the strength within yourself. You have to become your own mother.” Though it seems strange to say so now, as we moved on and I looked back over my shoulder, I could see in her face that she felt . . . well, answered.

The lecture, itself, was a tour de force, an examination of “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with the same kind of brilliance evident in his famous book on the fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. The question‑and‑answer period did not go so well.

Bettelheim played the bête noire, deliberately taking provocative stances meant to stir up controversies. When asked, he didn’t offer the conventional view on the merits of books over television: he found nothing wrong with tv and remembered how, in a similar vein, his parents’ generation believed cheek‑to‑cheek dancing would corrupt young people’s morals. He took on feminists, saying their greatest silliness was the belief that women could only identify with characters of the same gender, “as if no woman could understand Hamlet.” He chided parents, saying their greatest fault was to encourage their children to be independent and, when disappointed, scold their offspring for not “doing what I told you to do.”

Bettelheim shouted his views. He castigated students whose questions were badly phrased or not well thought out. Few seemed to realize he thrived on heated discussion, and there were some moments of awkward silence when, instead of rising to his provocations, the crowd of some five hundred people was cowed by the bully pulpit. Mistaking him, many of my students said afterwards that he struck them simply as rude.

Later, I mentioned this misapprehension to a faculty colleague. He had also been at the University of Chicago and remembered Bettelheim’s reputation there as a tyrant in graduate seminars. “Still,” he added, “we felt that to be scolded by Bruno Bettelheim was an honor!”

After the lecture, we adjourned to a small meeting of graduate students and professors. What impressed me, as he bandied and answered sophisticated questions about folklore, was that Bettelheim knew his stuff. His ideas about fairy tales were written for everyday people, but that did not indicate any superficiality. Instead, he was, like Margaret Mead or Paul Goodman, a “public scholar.”

I was, however, an hour late getting him back to his hotel. He berated me the whole way about my irresponsibility, until the hair bristled on my neck and I looked forward to dumping this scold at his doorstep. Still, I think now, it was an honor to have met him.

A version of this essay originally appeared in “TALL: Teaching and Learning Literature with Children and Young Adults” (Nov./Dec. 1994). And click here for essays in “American Imago” by Kenneth Kidd on Bettelheim and Feral Children and Living and Dying (subscription required).

Counting Books

At first, numbering seems to require fingers and toes

“1 2 3 4 U.” By David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim. Random House: $6.99 (board book)

Counting is one of the earliest forms of abstract thinking that we teach pre-schoolers. To really get this technique, it seems, the young have to encounter it in many different circumstances until they are able to extract this technique from its contexts and understand they can use it anywhere — to count trees, say, or apples or babies. At first, of course, numbering seems to require fingers and toes. About this time, numbers are also encountered in nursery rhymes:

“One, two, buckle my shoe,” “This old man, he played one,” “Five little Indians jumping on the bed.”

“Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose.” By Leo and Diane Dillon. Harcourt: $17.00 (hardcover)

Taking this development a little bit further, books can be useful. In that regard, I like Leo and Diane Dillon’s Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose because it’s a handy collection of nursery rhymes that involve counting (you will remember, for example, “One Potato, Two Potato” and “Baa, Baa Black Sheep”). I also like 1 2 3 4 U by David Horvath and Sun-Min Kim but for different reasons: because it is a board book (perhaps the most appropriate format for hands-on or teeth-on learning at this age) and because it’s zany.

“One Was Johnny: A Counting Book.” By Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins: $5.95 (paperback)

Books about counting divide into two kinds: there are those where each page is (more or less) its own thing though often sequential, and there are those which endeavor to tell a continuing story as we move from one number to the next. In this latter category, my favorite is Maurice Sendak’s One Was Johnny which tells the growing complications faced by our young cowboy hero and how he gradually undoes a Cat-in-the-Hat-like mess that grows up around him.

“Olivia Counts.” By Ian Falconer. Simon and Schuster: $9.55 (board book)

These are my favorites, but I also asked others about theirs. My local children’s librarian took me to find Olivia Counts and Anno’s Counting Book; but because they were so popular, the place where they would have been was vacant.

“Anno’s Counting Book.” By Mitsumasa Anno. HarperCollins: $6.99 (paperback)

My favorite first-grade teacher, my daughter, had one answer: “Hands down, Ellen Stoll Walsh’s Mouse Count — which is available in a bilingual edition.”

“Mouse Count / Cuenta de ratón” (bilingual edition). By Ellen Stoll Walsh. HMH: $11.99 (lap-sized board book)

It goes without saying, then, that it is still a long way from here to figuring out a restaurant tip as a percentage of the bill. But, remember, the journey of a thousand miles begins with — well, one or two or three or 3.5 steps. Expose the young to enough and varied examples of counting and, eventually, they will be able to abstract this skill and apply it where they like — for example, in the delighted enumeration of cookies on a plate, or in the more annoying habit of counting cars that pass by.

At this point, however, it should be admitted that math education can only go so far. The young can answer many, many questions of their own by making use of acquired measuring skills. But as near as can be determined, they will forever be unable to use those same skills to answer two eternal questions: “Are we there yet?” and “How many days until Christmas?”

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (November 2009).

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Board Books for Babies

If it were a vehicle, the board book would be a tank or an armored personnel carrier.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By Eric Carle. Philomel: $10.99

Board books are intended for infants, babies, and toddlers. At that age, pretty much everything is a teething ring; at the same time, one of the most delightful sounds in the world is made by tearing paper. So, the board book is built for heavy duty use: it’s made of thick cardboard pages often with rounded corners (so a youngster can’t get cut), and it’s durably bound and the pages are often coated (so it can be cleaned). If it were a vehicle, the board book would be a tank or an armored personnel carrier.

Besides an “object,” the board book is also an “occasion.” It seems to require a baby in the lap. When that is taken care of, one can sometimes witness miracles: for example, how (when certain images appear) a toddler can compel a grown adult to make the sounds of a cow, a dog, a pig, a cat, and a horse.

In that regard, the board book has a distinct advantage over the cloth book, the other safe alternative available to the under-four set. Because of the firmness of its pages, the board book allows for dramatic

Page Turning !#@$!!

— an action that, all by itself, is positively delightful to the very young and bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

What is surprising is that the board book is a relatively new invention. It was only in the early 1980’s, with the pioneering work of Rosemary Wells and Helen Oxenbury, that this kind of book became widely available. Publishers noticed their success in bookstores and (since board books aren’t usually available in libraries) quickly expanded their offerings by converting popular picture books into this new format. Some worked and some didn’t.

Personally, I don’t care for any board-book editions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and I don’t like those offerings where publishers have retained the title of an original picture book but left out sizeable parts of the story to make it fit into fewer pages. That seems like false advertising.The Story of Babar with pages missing is — if you will excuse the pun — a truncated Babar.

Goodnight Moon. By Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd. Harper Festival: $8.99

But there have been successes and among my favorites are three classic picture books that have been crossed over to the board-book format: Margaret Wise Brown’s bedtime favorite Goodnight Moon, Eric Carle’s cleverly designed The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Alexandra Day’s comic Good Dog, Carl.

Good Dog, Carl. By Alexandra Day. Little Simon: $7.99.

That’s not to say there aren’t interesting board books being made today. Two of my new favorites are Garth Williams’ Baby Animals (which combines the two great interests of babies, namely, animals and other babies) and Betsy Snyder’s Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? (which invites an exploration of textures by means various materials affixed to its pages so that a youngster can tickle the “cottony” stomach of a penguin, touch the “bumpy” back of a hedgehog, stroke the “feathery” skin of an ostrich, and so forth).

Baby Animals. By Garth Williams. Golden Books: $4.99.

Indeed, when you think about it, the board book is a remarkable and magical object. The basis for complex interactions between a baby and an adult, it is multimedia device that is at once colorful, pictorial, inexpensive, mobile, durable, and chewable. It beats the iPhone, well, hands down.

Have You Ever Tickled a Tiger? By Betsy Snyder. Random House: $9.99

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (April 2009).

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Cosmic Fantasies

An Appreciation of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”

I had extraordinary dreams the night I finished Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. In my mind’s eye, legions of angels and hosts of thousands crossed a starry sky composed of galaxies upon galaxies. These memorable visions made obvious to me that my usual nighttime fantasizing occurs on a much smaller scale, as if I were watching a modestly scaled television sitcom. But the dreams that night were different because they were so epic and so grand. If most people are like me and dream in a humble, sitcom-sized ways, then maybe only a rare few have minds capacious enough to engage in vast cosmos-making, imagining realms and inventing universes. I am thinking of Dante and Milton and Blake. We may now add Philip Pullman.

Pullman’s audience is commonly described as “young adults and fantasy readers ready to move beyond Harry Potter,” but sales indicate that he is also very popular among adults not so young. Critics often compare him to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but here I am ready to make a bold prediction: Pullman will outstrip these two. He is really that good.

But Pullman will not have an easy time in the spotlight. His anti-clerical attitude will not sit well with the religious; even to my irreligious tastes, his occasional bits about the papacy struck me as a cartoonish prejudice leftover from the nineteenth century. But more to the point, in recent years, evangelical Christians have engaged in witch hunts with the Harry Potter books (and even with the Oz books), hunting for, well, witches. Meanwhile, these same right-wing inquisitors have given a “pass” to Lewis and Tolkein because these two revered Writers-From-the-Past have linked High Fantasy with the High Church. Pullman, however, will never receive such an imprimatur because at bottom, in his world, ecclesiastical and adult authorities are conspiring against children in a vast plot to keep the human race shallow and unconscious.

Saving the human race is the job of Lyra (Pullman’s wonderfully imagined young heroine) and her friend Will. They must thread their way through the evil motivations and noble aspirations of Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter (whom Lyra later discovers are her parents). And having suggested the trilogy is imagined on a grand and cosmic scale, I will not surprise anyone by saying that a cast of thousands appears–including armored bears, tribes of witches, gypsy-like “gyptians,” and more, lots more.

The film version (New Line Cinema, 2007).

In the first book, The Golden Compass, Lyra is a wild child who negotiates her way through two locales, the university town of Oxford and the arctic North. She does so by means of cleverness and the alethiometer (an I-Ching-like device that reveals the truth). Pullman also creates an interesting ambience for the story, part Victorian (say, explorers meeting in the paneled rooms of the Royal Geographic Society) and part sci-fi or futuristic. To grasp this hybrid atmosphere, imagine, for example, high-tech dirigibles. This style has come to be known as “steampunk.”

In the second book, The Subtle Knife, we are introduced to the notion that universes upon universes are stacked one upon the other and that these very different worlds are accessible. In the third book, The Amber Spyglass, the unity of the trilogy becomes clearer, including its preoccupation with “dust” or luminescent particles of consciousness that cluster around humans and permit us to rise above our material circumstances. Of course, what I have offered here is the skimpiest of summaries. Instead, you should turn to this trilogy yourself to see how Pullman has created an awesome universe of incredible complexity and, by the way, linked cognitive science with cosmology.

Still, the greatest of Pullman’s creations is the “daemon,” an animal-like creature which accompanies each human and embodies one’s particular personality. For example, Lord Asriel’s daemon is a snow leopard who visibly stalks by his side and interacts with others, while Mrs. Coulter’s daemon is an especially sinister golden monkey. Lyra’s own daemon is Pantalaimon who, like other daemons who belong to children, constantly changes shape in accompaniment to Lyra’s feelings: becoming a timid mouse when she is frightened, for instance, or a challenging bird of prey when she is courageous. This shape-shifting continues until a person enters puberty; then one’s daemon settles into a fixed and appropriate animal form. It says something about Pullman’s child-centered universe that puberty is regarded as the Fall.

So, now a personal disclosure: The three books of Pullman’s trilogy have been my all-time favorite reading during the last decade, and I have read them numerous times.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2007). While British readers have long known Pullman’s work (the trilogy has been a bestseller in the U.K. and garnered awards like the Whitbread Prize), Americans seem to first need a film before picking up a book. In 2007, New Line Cinema released “The Golden Compass,” a movie based on the first book of the trilogy and starring Nicole Kidman as the villainous Mrs. Coulter. The result brought both good and bad news: Good, in that more viewers were prompted to seek out the books; Bad, in that there was no way a 113-minute film could do anything more than skim the surface of a complex story populated by a gejillion inhabitants. In any event, there has been no sequel to this initial film. But now word reaches us that the BBC is planning a series based on the trilogy.

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William Steig: Shrek & Co.

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

“Shrek” (DreamWorks, 2001)

When asked his opinion about the movie based on his picture book Shrek, William Steig responded: “It’s vulgar, it’s disgusting — and I loved it.” Featuring Mike Meyer as the voice of the long suffering ogre, Eddie Murphy as the wisecracking Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as the feisty Princess Fiona, the movie is the best children’s film ever (an opinion I share with my niece and nephews). Two sequels have followed as well as a Broadway musical. And even though the book seems sketchy compared to the film, what the film gets right is the spirit of William Steig: his clever and hilarious ways of playing with other children’s stories, a wittiness which makes Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” seem like a walk in the park.

Exhibit at the Jewish Museum of San Francisco.

The conventional story about William Steig is that he was a grown-up and for thirty years a famed cartoonist for adult readers of the New Yorker. Then, at the age of 60, he suddenly decided to become a writer for children. That was the view on offer at a recent exhibit of his work in the Spring of 2008 when the Jewish Museum in New York mounted a retrospective (“From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig”) that later traveled to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (where I saw it). But I don’t agree. I think he was a kid all his life. As Steig himself insisted:

“For some reason, I’ve never felt grown up.”

He died in 2003 at the age of 95, but even late in his life Steig had remarkably detailed memories of his Bronx childhood — the names of his boyhood friends, the games they played, the parkland locales of their forts, their favorite movies. Middle-aged in the 1950s, he made use of those memories in drawings for his “Small Fry” series where his pint-sized wiseguys pretended to be Edward G. Robinson, thugs, and G-men. His “Dreams of Glory” series featured the fantasies of a boy hero, a juvenile Walter Mitty: thwarting a bank robber, piloting a fighter jet, hitting a winning home run, starring on a television comedy, and so forth.

So, there was no great change when, during the 1960s, Steig turned to children’s books and eventually published what may still be his most remarkable picture book: the award-winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. It’s a story easily retold: the young donkey Sylvester finds a pebble that grants all his wishes but then encounters a lion and, panic-stricken, hastily wishes he was a rock and becomes just that; frozen in stone, he cannot communicate with others and it is some time before his parents happen to find and rescue him. As Steig suggested in an interview with Jonathan Cott, there is more in that work than meets the eye: Steig was inspired by his long-term friendship with the therapist Wilhelm Reich and in this book pictured the latter’s notion of “defense mechanisms” and “body armor.”

After Sylvester, other interesting picture books would emerge. The Amazing Bone is a version of “Little Red Riding Hood” where a talking bone helps young Pearl (a pig) escape a villainous fox; but the book is also a tribute to sounds of every kind — sneezes, lullabies, whistling, “chilling” tones, conversation, the noise of knife-sharpening, music, and more. Another picture book, Doctor DeSoto, is a funny story about a mouse dentist who has to exercise ingenuity to work on much larger animals; fortunately, he, too, outfoxes a fox. Indeed, a familiar issue in Steig’s books is how we must exercise compassion even though a concern for others often puts us in jeopardy.

Another of my top Steig choices is his chapter book called Dominic, a story about a wandering dog who is also a Good Samaritan. Indeed, one of my favorite passages in all of children’s literature appears there and I hope, by way of conclusion, you won’t mind my quoting it at length. At the start of his journey, Dominic stands at a fork in the road and must choose between two paths. A witch-alligator gives him advice:

“That road there on the right goes nowhere. There’s not a bit of magic up that road, no adventure, no surprise, nothing to discover or wonder at. Even the scenery is humdrum. You’d soon grow much too introspective. You’d take to daydreaming and tail-twiddling, get absent-minded and lazy, forget where you are and what you’re about, sleep more than one should, and be wretchedly bored. Furthermore, after a while, you’d reach a dead end and you’d have to come all that dreary way back to right here where we’re standing now, only it wouldn’t be now, it would be woefully wasted time later.

“Now this road, the one on the left,” she said, her heavy eyes glowing, “this road keeps right on going, as far as anyone cares to go, and if you take it, believe me, you’ll never find yourself wondering what you might have missed by not taking the other. Up this road, which looks the same at the beginning, but is really ever so different, things will happen that you could never have guessed at — marvelous, unbelievable things. Up this way is where adventure is. I’m pretty sure I know which way you will go.”

A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (October 2008).

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Pollyanna, Ex-Bubblehead

The most cunning trickster in American children’s books since Tom Sawyer (from the New York Times Book Review)

Hayley Mills in Disney’s “Pollyanna” (1960).

Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna seems in our time to be a book few people have read but everyone dislikes because of its reputation. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Pollyanna as “a foolishly or blindly optimistic person.’’ One postwar reference book describes Pollyanna Whittier as “possibly the most exasperating heroine in fiction. . . . She seems the epitome of everything that is priggish and sentimental.’’

That wasn’t the feeling when the novel first appeared. As one critic explained in 1947, “The publication of the story in 1913 was only less influential than the World War. White Mountain cabins, Colorado teahouses, Texas babies, Indiana apartment houses, and a brand of milk were immediately named for the new character.’’ Recognizing a sure thing, Mary Pickford paid the then astronomical (albeit, unusual) sum of $115,112 for rights to produce a silent screen version of the book.

Porter created a girl who preaches the Gospel of Gladness. Living out West with her impoverished missionary father, Pollyanna wishes for a doll. The missionary society barrel arrives and contains only crutches; but Pollyanna consoles herself by finding that she can at least be glad she doesn’t need the crutches.

After her father’s death, the orphan moves to Beldingsville, Vt. In the next hundred pages, this juvenile social worker persuades the whole town to play the Glad Game. Cranky Mr. Pendleton, the bedridden Mrs. Snow, the dispirited Reverend Ford, the forlorn Dr. Chilton, a loose woman contemplating divorce and (finally) her sclerotic aunt succumb to the power of positive thinking and begin to hunt for and find things to be glad about.

An editorial writer declared hyperbolically: “It is probably not putting the case too strongly when we state that it is the greatest game ever discovered since the foundation of the world.’’ Americans began to sport enameled buttons of a smiling girl to indicate that they were members of Glad Clubs -which included “The Glad Kids,’’ a group of penitentiary inmates whose ages ranged from 32 to 76. By 1947, however, things had changed. Then, a writer lamented: “Almost nobody plays the Glad Game any more. . . . [ It ] seems to belong to a more innocent time.’’

An attempt was made to resuscitate Pollyanna in 1960 when Walt Disney released a movie based on the book and starring Hayley Mills. Time, Newsweek and other major reviewers agreed that such an enterprise promised to be a disaster — a tearjerker of a story presented by the master of schmaltz; what surprised the critics (their opinions were unanimous) was that it was his best live-action film ever. But few had reckoned the curse of the book’s by then saccharine reputation. When the movie failed to bring in half of the $6 million that was expected, Disney opined: “I think the picture would have done better with a different title. Girls and women went to it, but men tended to stay away because it sounded sweet and sticky.’’

Shortly thereafter, except for a small press that kept a library edition available, American publishers let the book drift out of print. This wasn’t true in other parts of the world. My own British copy, for example, lists this publishing history: “1969. Reprinted 1970, 1972, 1973 (twice), 1974 (twice), 1975 (twice), 1976, 1977, 1978.’’ Dell has finally reissued it in paper this year.

American distaste for the book may spring from our longstanding suspicion, even antagonism toward positive thinking. Porter herself had said: “I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. I have been placed often in a false light. People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was ‘glad’ about everything. . . . I have never believed we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought it is far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’”

An elaborate psychological study called The Pollyanna Principle: Selectivity in Language, Memory, and Thought by Margaret Matlin and David Stang (1979), said that “to a considerable extent we are all Pollyannas.’’ Their studies and others, they said, concluded: people take longer to recognize unpleasant stimuli and communicate good news faster than bad news; pleasant words are used more frequently in the English language than unpleasant ones; we ask “how good’’ something is (a book, movie, restaurant) rather than “how bad’’ it is.

If we are all, then, natural Pollyannas, perhaps the only way to explain our disenchantment with Porter’s novel is in terms of our tendency toward cynicism. For the last two centuries, the scholar R. W. B. Lewis has argued, American literature has divided into three camps: the parties of Hope, Memory and Irony. His argument uses the work of Herman Melville: there is Billy Budd (the innocent optimist whom Pollyanna closely resembles), his nemesis Claggart (driven by contrariness to a cynical disdain of innocence), and finally Melville himself (who pits the two characters against each other in his story and, by distancing himself, suggests the tragedy of preferring one over the other).

This was all phrased in humbler terms in a magazine quiz in a recent issue of Seventeen titled “Are You a Pollyanna or a Pessimist?’’ Teen-age girls were asked to evaluate themselves by answering such questions as how they feel when the alarm clock rings or someone arranges a blind date for them, and offered answers such as “Good morning, world!’’ or “Another day so soon?’’ and “[ I know ] he’ll be Mr. Right’’ or “If he’s so great, why doesn’t she date him?’’ The correct response is not to be a Pollyanna who thinks everything is “peachy-keen,’’ nor a “Melancholy Baby,’’ but someone in between — “a levelheaded realist.’’

What rough beast now slouches toward Bethlehem, then, if Pollyanna is being brought back into print? Does its return indicate the apotheosis of “happy face’’ buttons and the expression “Have a nice day’’? If there is good news, it is in Grace Isabel Colbron’s observation in a 1915 issue of Bookman that Pollyanna is “the supreme nonconformist.’’ She argues that it takes a skillful reader to recognize that Pollyanna is not all the bubbleheaded gladness she seems, but instead one of the most cunning tricksters to appear in American children’s books since Tom Sawyer persuaded his friends to whitewash the fence. When she speaks to the missionary society and assumes it will support a neighborhood orphan rather than spend money in other ways to look good on the national report, when she expresses gladness for the shabby room she has been given and thereby shames her aunt into giving her more reasonable accommodations, in these and a hundred other ways Pollyanna engages in what the contemporary American critic Ihab Hassan has called “radical innocence.’’

Unwilling to accept life on defeatist terms, she looks for (and assumes she will find) goodness, and her presumptions manipulate others until they become as good as they can be. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain might have been describing Pollyanna when he wrote in Reflections on America:

“Deep beneath the anonymous American smile there is a feeling that is evangelical in origin — compassion for men, a desire to make life tolerable. This symbolic smile is a kind of anonymous reply of the human soul, which refuses to acknowledge itself vanquished.’’

Originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (October 25, 1987). I examine “Pollyanna” in detail in my Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story. I discussed “Pollyanna” with Lianne Hansen on her show “Weekend Edition Sunday” on National Public Radio (January 27, 2008). Hayley Mills (who played Pollyanna in the Disney film) was also part of the program. You can listen to the program here or download the audio here. You can read a transcript of the program here.

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Tarzan Redux: Fantasies of the White Male

Burroughs’ story nakedly offers: racism, sadomasochistic erotics, and (most conspicuously) the wish for dominance.

Directed by David Yates and starring Alexander Skarsgård as the ape-man, “The Legend of Tarzan” (Warner Brothers) is meant to be the Summer Movie of 2016. But it is also one more incarnation of a well known story.

First appearing in All Story Magazine and then published as a book in 1914, Tarzan of the Apes immediately jumped on to the bestseller lists and has remained an enduring favorite. Among those who have singled it out for special praise have been Ronald Reagan, Ray Bradbury, Gore Vidal, and Arthur C. Clarke. In the years which followed, readers would demand some twenty-five sequels from Burroughs. The statistics are staggering: by 1970, for example, there were more than thirty-six million Tarzan books in print in thirty-one languages; in addition, there have been more than fifty Tarzan films (from the countless Saturday matinees where Johnny Weissmuller let out his famous Tarzan yell to the more recent incarnations like “Greystoke” and “George of the Jungle”). Surveying all of American culture, scholar Russel Nye concluded:

“Tarzan remains the greatest popular creation of all time.”

Burroughs’ private dream spoke to millions of readers and became a shared dream, a public dream, a myth. Burroughs offered to take us Back, to the fierce Origin, to the “wild” and “hairy.” That means loincloth nakedness! Strip away the accretions of civilization. And that means apocalyptic truth! Frank admission of the fact that, at bottom, we are basically animals — fiercely competitive, concerned only with our own survival. Beneath politics and good manners lies sex and the wish for dominance. Rationality is only a fragile lid covering a more potent and fundamental stew of drives, impulses, and passions. And that means freedom! From restrictions, rules, and concern for others. From the pettiness of office politics and civilized bureaucracies. Here is unchecked and untrammeled egotism. Here, only the fittest survive. Finally, what are we at the bottom? After the Bomb has fallen, after we have been stranded on an island, in extremis? What would we really be like? Burroughs finds his answer-at-the-bottom in the realms of Darwin and Freud.

As much as Burroughs borrowed from legends about the Wild Child and from Kipling’s Mowgli stories, he made an important departure from tradition when he had Tarzan raised by apes instead of wolves. Seeking his own set of origins, Burroughs followed Darwin’s lead in The Origin of Species. Burroughs’ Darwinism is hardly sophisticated. Instead, he seems to have got many of his ideas from loose talk and popularizations of the naturalist’s ideas that appeared in newspapers and magazines (which bandied such terms as “survival of the fittest” and “evolution” and “lower orders”); from the propositions advocated by Social Darwinians and others keen on eugenics; and from discussions evoked by the Scopes Monkey Trial, on which Burroughs himself commented.

About the appeal of Tarzan, Burroughs said: “We wish to escape the narrow confines of the city streets [the restrictions of man-made laws, and the inhibitions that society has placed upon us] for the freedom of the wilderness,” Burroughs called himself a “subconscious” writer and added, “Psychologists tell me that, as the subconscious does not reason, too close a scrutiny might prove anything but flattering.” Indeed, when Burroughs opens his Pandora’s box, what spills out in his books are a number of sordid things: hostility to anything “other,” manifested in blatant racism and sexism; voyeuristic and sadomasochistic erotics, where white women often seem to be in danger of “the fate worse than death” at the hands of hairy brutes while the hero looks on from concealment with his knife or sword in hand; and, most conspicuously, the wish for dominance, evident in the anti-social behavior of this solitaire and self-made man who is pictured in retrograde fantasies of self-importance which sometimes make Tarzan seem kin to comic-book characters like Superman and the Hulk. Here, then, is no repression or embarrassment. Here comes spilling out all the violent and erotic fantasies of the white male. Here, unchecked, is naked id.

Following Rider Haggard, Burroughs made Africa the locale for this physical and psychological nakedness. It is, of course, an “Africa” that has no objective correlative. At one point, for example, Burroughs’ Tarzan pelts a tiger (an animal found only on the Indian subcontinent) with a pineapple (a fruit found in the Caribbean and now grown in Hawaii). Still, it is worth noting that, though the movies based on the books took even greater liberties with facts, Hailie Selassie made one request of America when he became the Emperor of Ethiopia: that Hollywood send him all of the Tarzan films. Burroughs’ books, to say this differently, while not true to facts, are true to the Dream of Africa.

This is the Africa of Freud, the Absolute Elsewhere, the Dark Continent.

In the second half of the novel, the civilizing of Tarzan begins when he develops an interest Jane Porter, an American woman stranded in the jungle. Tarzan rescues her from his ape stepbrother who abducted the maiden and planned to rape her. When Tarzan carries Jane off, his motives are no different. Then suddenly and unbelievably, something else happens. Tarzan’s English DNA begins to crackle with communiques about “acting like a gentleman.” Here Burroughs makes a stretch, suggesting that Tarzan’s evolution continues more or less seamlessly into his becoming civilized — as if the rise of morality is coextensive with natural selection; as if the ultimate victor in “the survival of the fittest” would not only be the strongest, but the most ethical; as if, say, every professional football player would also perforce be a paragon of deportment. When Burroughs suddenly has Tarzan’s DNA send him messages about ethics and fair play — and hastily explains Tarzan’s innate knowledge of Moses’ Ten Commandments and Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette as a genetic bequest coming from generations of fine breeding among English aristocracy — Darwin meets Rousseau in fantasyland, and natural selection suddenly becomes equated with natural nobility.

One of the books in Burroughs’ library was his copy of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, first purchased when he was twenty-three and on the flyleaf of which he doodled a picture of an ape and captioned it “Grandpa.” In that work Burroughs would have read Darwin saying, “The wonderful progress of the United States and the character of its people are the results of natural selection; for the more energetic, restless and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country and have succeeded there best.” It’s significant that Tarzan ends in the United States–in other words, as far as progress has taken human beings by the early part of the twentieth century. In this book, the word “natural” (natural nobility, natural selection) seems about to being slurred to sound like the word “national” (national nobility, national selection).

Jerry Griswold is professor emeritus of literature at San Diego State University and former director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of seven books, including Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story (published by Johns Hopkins University Press) from which this is excerpted.

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Ronald Reagan’s Childhood Reading

“I’m a sucker for hero worship” (from the New York Times Book Review)

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

When politicians are asked which books influenced them, they often find one answer most expedient: the Bible. In fact, this was Ronald Reagan’s reply when The New York Times queried him about his favorite books shortly after he was elected President. But when asked the question in 1977, the then-retired Governor of California responded less predictably.

At that time Reagan was one of 100 notable people that O. Dallas Baillio (director of the Public Library of Mobile, Ala.) asked to name “five books that influenced you as a young adult’’ in the hopes that their responses might inspire other young readers. Miss Lillian wrote that the young Jimmy Carter’s favorite book was “War and Peace’’ (a choice also made by Geraldo Rivera); Barbara Walters mentioned “The Little Prince’’; “Pilgrim’s Progress’’ was chosen by John Sparkman and Oral Roberts (who added “The Call of the Wild’’ and “White Fang’’).

Reagan’s response seems to have been the most candid and detailed of the survey. “I must confess your letter gave me some moments of mixed emotions,’’ Reagan wrote. “There must be a little snob in each of us, because my first reaction was to try to think of examples of classic literature I could list as my favorites in my younger years. None were forthcoming so I decided to ‘come clean.’”

After observing that he has been “an inveterate reader’’ all his life, Reagan lists his favorites as “King Arthur,’’ “Northern Trails,’’ “Frank Merriwell at Yale’’ and Edgar Rice Burroughs — “not only his Tarzan stories, but his science fiction, ‘John Carter Warlord of Mars’ and all the other John Carter books.’’ Then there were “phases’’ when he read Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, Sherlock Holmes, and Twain.

For the most part, he listed just the kind of books a typical 10-or 12-year-old boy growing up in Dixon, Ill., in the 1920’s might be expected to bring home from his twice-weekly visits to the library: historical romances, swashbuckling adventure stories, true-grit boys’ novels. But there is one notable exception. The book that “made a lasting impression on me at about the age of 11 or 12, mainly because of the goodness of the principal character,’’ he wrote, is one “I’m sure you never heard of’’ — “That Printer of Udell’s.’’

Harold Bell Wright’s 1903 novel, subtitled “A Story of the Middle West,’’ is the history of young Dick Falkner told in the Horatio Alger mode. The story begins with Dick’s mother speaking her last words (“O God, take ker o’ Dick’’) and his father passing out on demon rum. Dick hits the road and eventually finds himself unemployed in Boyd City. He wants work but cannot find it because the town’s smug and Christian businessmen turn him away. Finally, George Udell hires him as a printer. Dick spends his free time improving himself at night school. Taking a larger role in the community, Dick organizes help for the less fortunate and through melodramatic complexities solves a murder and saves socialite Amy Goodrich from life in a brothel. By the conclusion, he has married Amy and is about “to enter a field of wider usefulness at the National Capitol’’ as an elected Representative from Boyd City.

Throughout the book Dick faces one obstacle, and Wright scarcely misses an opportunity in his 468-page novel to identify it: “The trouble is that people follow the church and not Christ; they become church members, but not Christians.’’ Under the lead of a progressive minister, Dick and other young people of Boyd City grapple with the issue of “how to apply Christ’s teachings in our town’’ and find a solution in “civic Christianity’’ and “municipal virtue’’ — a kind of hybrid of boosterism and religion. It is their shared conviction that social welfare is a matter for the private sector, and they join in the novel’s frequent and wholehearted endorsements of the Salvation Army and the Y.M.C.A. By creating a Reading Room, their own Rescue Mission and an Institution for Helping the Unemployed (after devising ways to weed out the undeserving), they change Boyd City into a Midwest utopia.

Near the end of the novel, a traveling salesman looks out the train window and comments about the town’s change: “I’m sure of one thing, they were struck by good, common-sense business Christianity,’’ and the proof of that is the way saloons have been replaced by business firms, thieves and prostitutes have found other work, cheap and vulgar burlesque shows have been supplanted by musicians and lecturers, churches have grown, attendance at the high school and business college has quadrupled, and streets and lawns are well kept.

Another book Reagan singled out for special mention is “Frank Merriwell at Yale,’’ which, he notes, “convinced me that playing football was my goal.’’ What is surprising about that remark is that football is never mentioned in the novel. But football is only one of the book’s notable omissions; in its 383 pages the reader never sees a classroom and catches only one fleeting glimpse of a professor. Frank Merriwell’s Yale is a summer camp of raccoon coats and college songs, and the novel recounts how in his first year Frank wins friends and admirers among his classmates, becomes King of the Freshmen and leads them in the pranks they play on the sophomores, is reluctantly forced to use his considerable pugilistic skills to deal with envious rivals, creates a champion crew by teaching them Oxford rowing methods and does his best to beat Harvard as the youngest pitcher on the varsity baseball team.

In light of Reagan’s own career at Eureka College -where he was a member of the football and swimming teams, president of the student council, cheerleader for the basketball team, and active in the debate and drama clubs — it may be that the novel inspired him to play football once he had decided to become a Frank Merriwell.

If Frank served as Reagan’s model, it must have been in the same spirit in which he was put forward by his creator Gilbert Patten, who pointed out that his name was a compound of exemplary characteristics: “frank for frankness, merry for a happy disposition, well for health and abounding vitality.’’ Frank was “a shining light for every ambitious lad to follow’’ because he was a straight-shooter and was made of the right stuff. “None of his friends was ever a sneak, cheapskate or sissy,’’ the vices of smoking and drinking were unknown to him, and he was a born leader who also realized that among the privileged boys of Yale the democratic spirit truly exists only on the playing field.

Another book Reagan cited is William J. Long’s “Northern Trails’’ (1905), an anecdotal account of animal life in Newfoundland and Labrador, which Reagan said “planted deep within me a love of the outdoors, wildlife and nature that continues to this day.’’ The other books on Reagan’s list seem to offer what one critic finds in the works of Zane Grey:

“Thrilling but wholesome entertainment that endorsed many of the older values that the postwar world now disparages: individualism, a healthy self-reliance, chastity, woman as helpmeet of man, hardship as morale-builder.’’

Such heroes as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and the Count of Monte Cristo speak of a boyish enthusiasm that Reagan admits in his autobiography is still very much with him: “I’m a sucker for hero worship to this day.’’ Reagan concludes his letter about these books: “All in all, as I look back I realize that all my reading left an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil. There were heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair play.’’

This essay originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (August 30, 1981), shortly after Reagan’s inauguration. Amy Wallace and I later did an essay “What Famous People Read” — about the favorite childhood reading of folks like Alan Alda, Joan Didion, Richard Nixon, Frank Sinatra, Ray Bradbury, and Julia Child — for Parade Magazine (March 13, 1983). Lou Cannon used my research when describing Reagan’s boyhood in his bestselling “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime” (1991) and in subsequent biographies. From then on, my information on Reagan’s childhood reading, now Cannon’s, became a regular part of Reagan hagiography.

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The Beatrix Potter You Didn’t Know

The author of “Peter Rabbit” on Her 150th Birthday