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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

Hey, Are You Really Dead? And Other News

November 30, 2015 | by

Christian Eisenbrandt’s 1843 design for a “life-preserving coffin,” with breathing holes and an easy-open lid, to be used in the case of the doubtful dead.

  • Primo Levi died in 1987, after he tumbled over a railing in his apartment building in Turin. The consensus held that this was a suicide, but the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi has, at least in some quarters, renewed the debate. Tim Parks has chosen his side: “The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Anissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a ‘tumble over a railing’ in a Turin apartment block … Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity.”
  • While we’re on matters of life and death—when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she drew on a fierce and as-yet unresolved debate between two surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence, about the blurry boundary between the living and the dead: “Questions were asked about how to define life, and how living bodies were different to dead or inorganic bodies. Abernethy argued that life did not depend upon the body’s structure, the way it was organized or arranged, but existed separately as a material substance, a kind of vital principle, ‘superadded’ to the body. His opponent, Lawrence, thought this a ridiculous idea and instead understood life as simply the working operation of all the body’s functions, the sum of its parts. Lawrence’s ideas were seen as being too radical: they seemed to suggest that the soul, which was often seen as being akin to the vital principle, did not exist either.”
  • Today in Propaganda for Kids™: in China, publishing for children is still geared to less-than-subtle ends. “Parents and the state still believe the primary role of such works is to shape young minds, not amuse them … The moral is often laid on thick. One provincial publisher (state-owned, like all of them) has titled a six-volume set of nursery rhymes ‘A Good Father Is Better Than a Good Teacher.’ Chinese-language versions of foreign classics often proclaim their didactic worth: Paddington, a marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru, is a model of ‘thoughtfulness, modesty and self-discipline.’ ”
  • Marlon James believes the publishing industry panders to white women, pursuing fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’ … If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now … Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.”
  • Some have claimed that poetry today has no appeal to the common man. If that’s true, why has Kobe Bryant chosen to announce his NBA retirement in verse? Featuring such lyrical turns of phrase as “my dad’s tube socks” and “garbage can in the corner,” Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball,” may well show up in anthologies before his jersey number has been retired.

The Junket-Eater

February 26, 2015 | by

junket

An illustration from Junket Is Nice.

New York Review Children’s Classics has reissued so many wonderful forgotten texts: novels and picture books and nursery rhymes and even the occasional cookbook. But for my money, none is weirder than Dorothy Kunhardt’s 1933 Junket Is Nice.

The prolific Kunhardt is best known for Pat the Bunny, but long before Daddy’s scratchy face was even a twinkle in her eye, the author was animating a far more sinister beard: that of the mysterious Junket-Eater. The plot of Junket Is Nice is as follows: a fat man with a Rasputin-like red beard sits at a table consuming a massive bowl of junket (“a delicious custard and a lovely dessert”). This intrigues everyone; the people come running to view the spectacle. Between gulps, the Junket-Eater challenges the populace to guess why, precisely, he is eating this enormous bowl of junket. They put forth ever-sillier hypotheses, to which the Junket-Eater screams, “WRONG!” for all the world like a red-bearded John McLaughlin. And then a little boy stands up and tells truth to power: “JUNKET IS NICE.” For which effort he receives SOMETHING NICERead More »

Half Magic

December 16, 2014 | by

John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle, 1886.

I like the arbitrary lists the Guardian often includes in its children’s book section: best villains in children’s books, best dogs, best mothers. As with all lists, these are made to be debated, and it’s always fun to see what the compiler chooses. But today’s list made me mad. Simply put, it was incomplete. “Best cauldrons in children’s books” did not include the cauldron from Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.

I’m sure the cauldrons from The Worst Witch and Wyrd Sisters are great. I know the cauldrons found in Lloyd Alexander and J. K. Rowling are high quality. And certainly no one’s denying that Macbeth’s cauldron game is strong. (Even if it’s a stretch to call it a children’s book.) One can justify the exclusion of The Black Cauldron from this list, and, even though I’d have included Eleanor Estes’s The Witch Family, I understand that this is a matter of opinion. But Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth is nothing less than a glaring omission.

If you’re a fan of E. L. Konigsburg, you probably know her first book. It came out the same year—1967—as From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s the story of a loner, the titular Elizabeth, who falls under the sway of another girl, Jennifer, who claims to be a witch and takes Elizabeth on as her apprentice. Elizabeth balks at her mentor’s bossiness, but puts up with it: “Before I’d got Jennifer,” she says, “I’d had no one.” Jennifer declares that the pair will make a flying potion as a test for Elizabeth. But the cauldron actually appears earlier in the story, when the kids are asked to bring in kitchen props for a school play.  Read More »

Make It

December 3, 2014 | by

“More Than a Hundred Things for Boys and Girls to Make and Do.”

Here’s a gift idea for you, suitable for children and arrested adults—which is to say, a large part of your Christmas list. Go online at once and buy several copies of McCall’s Giant Golden Make-it Book.

Until recently, I had totally forgotten about the Giant Golden Make-it Book, but I ran across a copy at a used bookstore and immediately realized how well it’s held up. Simply put, no modern activity book can compare. It’s truly giant, and really comprehensive, but like the same-vintage Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls, it’s as much about the illustrations as the ideas. A smart publisher has seen fit to reissue the latter; McCall’s really needs to do likewise.

There’s everything you might hope for—games and homemade costumes and simple recipes and easy knitting instruction and theme parties—but also a lot of things that never occurred to you. Dutch painting! Soap carving! Elementary flower arranging!  Read More »

The Glad Game

November 13, 2014 | by

polly-anna-club-front

In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” 

Pollyanna Whittier would agree. The once popular novelist Eleanor H. Porter wrote the original children’s book Pollyanna in war-ravaged 1913. It concerns a destitute, orphaned young girl who’s taken in by her grim Aunt Polly. The girl wins Polly over with a good attitude—the Glad Game—all the while touching the lives of those around her. It was a best seller, and over the following decades, various authors went on to write thirteen sequels chronicling Pollyanna’s life.

Pollyanna grows up, has a family, moves around the world, but is always encountering lost souls and helping them develop a sunnier outlook. The books, while lurid—you may have heard about Pollyanna’s miraculous recovery from paralysis—are less treacly than the 1960 Disney adaptation, and considerably stranger. (Did World War I–era children enjoy seeing characters miraculously rise from their wheelchairs? Hard to know; Downton Abbey fans certainly do.) The books are certainly no more sentimental than most of the escapist titles on current fiction best-seller list, let alone YA.

To the extent modern kids know Pollyanna, it’s probably via Hayley Mills in that Disney adaptation, and possibly through the eponymous pejorative. But if by some chance you’re a die-hard fan, you should make your way to Littleton, New Hampshire—Porter’s birthplace—where there’s a bronze Pollyanna statue, erected in 2002, and even an official Glad Day. (Glad Clubs enjoyed a brief popularity all over America.)

The Pollyanna mentality kind of works, too. The other day, having just reread Pollyanna in the stacks of the library, I set myself the experimental challenge of casting a rosy light on everything I saw in a five-block New York City street. No mean feat. People rushed past panhandlers, an elderly woman with dementia punched her nurse (feebly, at least), the front page of the paper’s international section recorded nothing but suffering.

But then a motorist leaned on his horn, and a bunch of others followed suit, and it became a cacophony. And suddenly, this thought intruded: How inspiring that, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, these drivers still have the idealism to believe their honking will make a difference! When you thought about it that way, it was sort of a triumph of the human spirit. Sort of. 

I wonder if Churchill—nearly killed by New York City traffic in 1931—would agree.

As Dolls to Wanton Kids

September 16, 2014 | by

thedollshouse

Detail from the cover of The Doll’s House.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by. Children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost. ―Rumer Godden, The Doll’s House

Rumer Godden was preoccupied with dolls. In her many stories about dolls—including Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum, Home Is the Sailor, and, of course, The Doll’s House—we are presented with a cast of characters who are at the mercy of children. Some children are rough and wild; others are conscientious and intuitive. They are little gods, and the dolls are their playthings, and when they feel powerless in their own lives, it is the dolls who bear the brunt of this powerlessness. Godden wasn’t the only author to recognize this essential dynamic—The Velveteen Rabbit, Hitty, and later Toy Story truck in the same themes—but no one makes that reality as scary and lonely as she does.

Of all the books, The Doll’s House is perhaps the most sinister. We have Tottie, the stable peg doll; the doll father, who seems to suffer the aftereffects of a rough owner; the mother, who is made of celluloid and so somewhat dotty and scattered. And there is the evil, beautiful Marchpane—more financially valuable in the real world than the others. The dolls are survivors who have found each other—their relationships are resolutely asexual, by the way—but their peace can be shattered by a gust of wind, a candle flame, a child’s whim. It is scary stuff, and compelling, too. There is tragedy here, but even before the tragedy, there is menace.

Of course this appeals to a child. Children are both dolls and masters; they know their powerlessness and need to understand their power. While the subject matter sounds sweet, it becomes a stage for something far darker.

They made a film of The Doll’s House, and while I don’t think it captures the charm of the book completely—Tasha Tudor illustrated one version—it is strange and forceful in its own right.