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Posts Tagged ‘Children’s literature’

If I Had a Ribbon Bow

October 31, 2014 | by

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From the cover of In a Dark, Dark Room.

As we all know, the world divides, evenly or otherwise, between those of us who grew up reading In a Dark, Dark Room and those who did not. Those of us who have read it (I got my copy at one of those sponsored school book sales, noteworthy for its bake sale and wealth of Klutz-brand books, one of which came with a Koosh ball) will never look at a green ribbon the same way again.

Spoiler alert for “The Green Ribbon”: Girl has green ribbon around her neck. Grows up, marries, ages, dies. Ribbon is untied, head falls off. It is a perfect scary kid’s story: simple, terrifying, pleasantly idiotic. Certainly, I didn’t feel it to be in any conflict with the basic facts of anatomy. Certainly not doll anatomy. In Alvin Schwartz’s 1984 I Can Read! version, the girl—Jenny—looks sort of like Laura Nyro and rocks a really good look. 

If I have a beef with most modern fright-fests, it’s that they’re too complicated: over-plotted, spilling over with various malignancies and kinds of dark magic. “The Green Ribbon” is an antidote to this. Unlike, say, the Koosh ball, it has aged well. After its fashion, it is the perfect scary story. But you don’t have to take my word for it! 

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No Hours But (Sort of) Sunny Ones

September 19, 2014 | by

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From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: a mad tea party.

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

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From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Off with her head!”

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From Galligantus

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From Peter Pan: away he flew.

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From Jack and the Beanstalk Giant

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From Wagner’s The Rhinegold and the Valkyries

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From Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods

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From The Three Bears

You could spend hours marveling at Arthur Rackham’s work. The legendary illustrator, born on September 19, 1867, was incredibly prolific, and his interpretations of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Rip Van Winkle (to name but a few) have helped create our collective idea of those stories.

Rackham is perhaps the most famous of the group of artists who defined the Golden Age of Illustration, the early twentieth-century period in which technical innovations allowed for better printing and people still had the money to spend on fancy editions. Although Rackham had to spend the early years of his career doing what he called “much distasteful hack work,” he was famous—and even collected—in his own time. He married the artist Edith Starkie in 1900, and she apparently helped him develop his signature watercolor technique. From the publication of his Rip Van Winkle in 1905, his talents were always in high demand. Read More »

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As Dolls to Wanton Kids

September 16, 2014 | by

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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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Story Time

September 11, 2014 | by

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From the cover of a “Fun with Music” disc.

Ann Rachlin, storyteller, MBE, and pioneer of music appreciation, has been working for years—she’s now eighty—but she really came to prominence in the mideighties, when she started teaching little Prince William. I wonder if that’s when my mom bought her records. Whatever the reason, her “Fun with Music” series was in heavy rotation at our house, and the distinctive, lilting rhythms of her idiosyncratic narratives was the sound track of our childhoods. I think if you’d asked me between the ages of four and six which celebrity I would have most liked to meet, the answer would have been Ann Rachlin. (Well, Ann Rachlin and Jeff the mannequin from Today’s Special.)

The records (and later tapes, for playing in the car) featured narration over classical music pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, or the deeply distressing Swan Lake, Rachlin based her tale on a preexisting story. Others were wholly original, and often unabashedly bizarre. (I am thinking especially of Lost Coin in a Fountain, set to Respighi.) To call Rachlin’s style “expressive” is a vast understatement: her voice rises and falls dramatically, she takes on all characters with gusto, she evokes laughter and tears and bafflement. She is so wholly uninhibited that it’s shocking even to a child. Maybe especially to a child. And while her tales are all designed to capture a child’s imagination, she does not shy away from sadness and even, occasionally, tragedy. (See: Swan Lake.) Read More »

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Stories We Tell

August 5, 2014 | by

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It’s a strange coincidence that I should think to look up Ruth Sawyer today. Last night, I mentioned her book Roller Skates to a friend—I thought her nine-year-old daughter might enjoy it—but I had no idea that August 5 was her birthday.

Sawyer died in 1970, at the age of ninety. As a young woman, she traveled to Cuba, where she worked in kindergartens established for orphans of the Spanish American War, training their teachers in how to tell stories. Upon returning to New York, Sawyer obtained a scholarship to study storytelling and folklore. She went to work telling stories in the city’s school system, working primarily with immigrant children, and later founded the NYPL’s first storytelling program. Throughout her career, she would travel around the world collecting folktales, and for many years she volunteered as a storyteller at a women’s prison. Her Way of the Storyteller, from 1942, is still regarded as a landmark text—one full of charm and interest for the layman, too.

The stories she learned and the people she met inspired several of her many children’s books. But the most famous, Roller Skates, which won the Newbery in 1937, was, frankly, autobiographical: The story of one year in the life of a well-to-do New York ten-year-old. Like her heroine, Lucinda Wyman, Ruth Sawyer also spent 1890 away from her parents, who were traveling. Far from resenting their absence, she found the time living in a boarding house to be one of adventure and discovery. Read More »

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The First Children’s Book, and Other News

May 19, 2014 | by

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“The Soul,” from the 1705 English edition of Orbis Sensualium Pictus; image via the Public Domain Review

  • In 1658, John Comenius published what may have been the first children’s picture book: Orbis Sensualium Pictus, or The World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures. “The Orbis—with its 150 pictures showing everyday activities like brewing beer, tending gardens, and slaughtering animals—is immediately familiar as an ancestor of today’s children’s literature.”
  • Behind Alex Trebek’s veneer of erudition is an everyman, a heavy drinker, a handyman: “Trebek says that when he gets up in the middle of the night—he has terrible insomnia—he will lie awake for hours plotting how to fix the sliver of light peeking through his window, and all the other home-repair projects he wants to tackle next.”
  • “Throughout cult-movie history, the American cheerleader has come to stand for something demonic, bitchy, slutty, and secretly lesbian, resulting in an archetype as American as apple pie, football, and well, cheerleading itself: the Subversive Cheerleader Genre.”
  • Cell-phone novels, stories serialized in short bursts, have consistently appeared on Japan’s best-seller lists for years; now a few developers are attempting to popularize them in America.
  • Amazon puts the squeeze on Hachette: “Hachette, which owns Little, Brown; Hyperion; and Grand Central, says that Amazon is deliberately slowing sales of Hachette’s books in an effort to pressure the French publisher into agreeing to new contract terms on book pricing.”

 

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