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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

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 »

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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 »

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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.

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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.

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Inside Stories

September 3, 2014 | by

Quentin Blake at the House of Illustration.

SP46b_16 Twits (c) QB 2010

From The Twits

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From The Clown

LP32015A Wild Washerwomen (c) QB 1979

From The Wild Washerwomen

LP90A_089 Danny (c) QB 1997

From Danny Champion of the World

Quentin Blake - Inside Stories

Inside Stories

LP122a007 Sad Book (c) QB 2004

From Sad Book

LP10004 Capt Najork (c) QB 1974

From How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen

LP40025 Dancing frog (c) QB 1984

From The Story of the Dancing Frog

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From Clown

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From The Twits

SP162 p75 The Boy in the Dress (c) QB 2008

From The Boy in the Dress

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From Candide

Located somewhat improbably behind King’s Cross St. Pancras, the thrumming London tube and train stations, is the cheery House of Illustration, which opened in early July. The path leading to it is lined with illustrated panels, a showcase of the visual treasures to come: advertisements and poster art, medical and botanical sketches, children’s books and fashion illustrations. The center’s present exhibition, “Inside Stories,” features original work by the beloved illustrator Quentin Blake, one of the House’s trustees and now an octogenarian, whose drawings have enchanted young readers for nearly half a century.

Blake is perhaps best known for his work with Roald Dahl, but no matter who he’s collaborating with, his illustrations retain a buoyant, often impish air. His first drawings were published in the magazine Punch when he was still in high school. He began illustrating children's books in 1960, and taught for more than twenty years at the Royal College of Art. Since the nineties, he’s worked as exhibition curator, and has more recently created larger-scale works for health care wards and communal spaces.

Claudia Zeff, a publishing industry art director who has spent twenty years designing book jackets, curated “Inside Stories.” Zeff’s collaborative process with Blake was already comfortable—the two have worked together for more than a decade. The ideas for the exhibition “evolved quite gradually,” Zeff said. “Quentin came up with the idea of using the story behind the books as the theme … and expressed the different approaches/techniques he uses to illustrate to different types of narrative.” Read More »

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Hitty, Her Second Hundred Years

July 14, 2014 | by

16585 Hitty illfrontis

On Saturday, in Maine, I rode my bicycle the mile and a half to the very comfortable Northeast Harbor Library, which contains well-stocked “Maine” and “Garden” rooms; it’s currently showcasing a collection of antique “woolies,” folk-art embroideries made by extremely secure nineteenth-century sailors. Patrons who wish to memorialize their visit may buy “postal cards,” which are subcategorized accurately under such headings as  “Circulation Area” and “Reference Desk.” I bought six for a dollar.

It is always awkward to be the only adult in the children’s room, and repetition does not make it any easier. But I went down the hall, past the mat where very young children have story time. I took a left at an enormous stuffed mouse and ran my finger along the “F” shelf in chapter books until I came upon my quarry: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years.

I knew they would have it, not just because it won the Newbery in 1930 and is considered a classic, but because it is one of the great Maine children’s books. Hitty is an imagined history of a small doll carved from a piece of mountain ash—inspired by a real doll that its author, Rachel Field, found in a New York City antiques shop—which takes its heroine around the globe via whaling vessel and Missisippi river boat, and in the custody of many different children. But Hitty is born in Maine, specifically on Cranberry Island, some two nautical miles from the library itself. In the course of her travels, she bears witness to the events of the nineteenth century, all of which she relates with serene pragmatism, in the manner of a doll Forrest Gump. Read More »

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