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397799Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter

Alison Lurie

London: Chatto and Windus, 2003.

I went book shopping yesterday and came home with a book I already own.  This is happening with more frequency.  Can full-blown senility be far behind my dotty bibliophilia?  Luckily the book was Boys and Girls Forever, so I can enjoy telling you about a marvelous book before they cart me off to the seniors’ home.

Many of the essays collected in this book first appeared in The New York Review of Books.   I’ve been away from this kind of leisurely book review for far too long, and one of the primary pleasures of this collection for me was to read an unhurried essay, not a review that would determine a sale.  Of course, I am more than happy to be persuaded to buy a book, but there was such delight in reading an expert’s take on children’s classics that eventually came around to a contemporary occasion for its discussion: a new film of Little Women, the centenary of The Wizard of Oz, a new biography of the author.  Parenthood has brought with it many joys, among them (re)reading children’s books, but time in which to read the likes of The New York Review of Books of a weekend morning is in scarce supply.  Oddly, I raced through this book precisely because it was so wonderful to enjoy again the pleasure of a leisurely-paced essay.

The central theme of this collection, as stated in its brief introduction, is that many children’s authors failed to grow up.  It’s a bit forced, this argument, as well as being a bit facile, and the forced nature of the introduction really does not do justice to the wonderful work done in the individual essays.  I see no reason to apologise for reprinting essays in book form and so have little patience for false pretenses.  In the essays, Lurie does tell us how the authors’ lives and times informed their creations, so there was a common biographical thread throughout, but they were also so much more than that, and I found that in almost every instance my appreciation of the works under discussion deepened.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, but I am a huge fan of her fans, which is to say that I find enthusiasm about books ever so infectious, and I delight in others’ delight of her work.  Lurie is definitely one of Jansson’s admirers, and she revels in the Moomin books’ complexity and darkness.  I love Jansson’s language, especially her names for her characters, and I’ve collected all of the beautiful Drawn & Quarterly editions of her books, but the reading of the books always falls flat for me somehow.  What I love about Lurie’s chapter on Jansson is that it makes me want to go back and give the Moomintrolls another go.  (Tove is pronounced Tova, and in both the hardcover and paperback editions of Lurie’s book, her name is misspelled several times as Tova, as if the author had slipped up between sound and spelling.  There are also several other glaring errors, like Patrick rather than Philip Pullman, that made me feel a bit less alone in my absent-mindedness.  I may buy multiple copies of books by mistake, people, but at least my spel-ckeck wroks.)

Not all of the essays are full of praise.  Lurie, while largely enthusiastic about Theodor Seuss Geisel, has nothing much good to say about Dr. Seuss’s all-American, fame-and wealth-driven definition of success to be found in Oh! The Places You’ll Go!:

Who is buying this book, and why?  Apparently it is a very popular college-graduation gift, and also often given to people who are changing jobs or careers.  It is a pep talk, and meets the same need that is satisfied by those stiffly smiling financial experts who declare on television that any glitch in America’s prosperity is a Gunk that will soon be unthunk, to be followed-On Beyond Zebra!- by even greater success.  (104)

So, there’s a bit of spit and vinegar in this collection, too.

The  book ends with an essay on nature in children’s literature that begins with a wonderful piece of memoir:

When I was seven years old, my family moved to the country, and my perception of the world entirely altered.  I had been used to regular, ordered spaces: labeled city and suburban streets and apartment buildings and parks with flat rectangular lawns and beds of bright “Do Not Touch” flowers behind wire fencing.  Suddenly I found myself in a landscape of thrilling disorder, variety, and surprise.

As the child of modern, enlightened parents I had been told that many of the most interesting characters in my favourite stories were not real: there were no witches or fairies or dragons or giants.  It had been easy for me to believe this; clearly, there was no room for them in a New York City apartment building.  But the house we moved to was deep in the country, surrounded by fields and woods, and there were cows in the meadow across the road.  Well, I thought, if there were cows, which I’d seen before only in pictures, why shouldn’t there be fairies and elves in the woods behind our house?  Why shouldn’t there be a troll stamping and fuming in the loud, mossy darkness under the bridge that crossed the brook?  There might even be one or two small hissing and smoking dragons–the size of teakettles, as my favourite children’s author, E. Nesbit, described them–in the impenetrable thicket of blackberry briars and skunk cabbage beyond our garden.  (171-172)

I adore this retreat from urban rationality to rural possibility.  The child she was sees the natural world for the first time through eyes educated by story.

Though nowhere near as transformative, Lurie’s book took me on a pleasurable tour of my own bookshelves and gave me new eyes through which to see some of the books perched there.  Really, the only problem with books about books like these, books that make you want to go back to your shelves and pull down great piles of things, is that they bring home the fact, yet again, that there are so many books and so little time.

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The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie

Wendy McClure

New York: Riverhead, 2011.

(reviewed from a review copy)

This summer, after our annual two-day drive from Ontario to Nova Scotia, I climbed out of our mini-van and into a flu.  In the roof-top carrier of the mini-van was a banker’s box full of books I’d brought on holiday (because it’s just not a vacation unless you bring along enough reading material to last until the apocalypse), but on our first night at the cottage, we did not unpack that box, and I was left without bedtime reading material.  I went, instead, to the cottage’s shelves and found an old Dell paperback copy of The Little House on the Prairie.  Perfect.  In spite of my exhaustion, I read late into the night, and when I woke up feeling less than well the next morning, I put it down to the long drive and the short sleep.

Not long after, I was back in bed and there I would stay for a few days.  The banker’s box sat in the corner, untouched.  Not one of the books was suitable for flu reading, but Laura Ingalls Wilder was, and I made my way through two of the Little House books while shivering and sweating and coughing it out.  (Not to be too melodramatic here, but I could identify when the family all had malaria.)

As I read, I was paying as much attention to the books as I was to my response to them: attraction and repulsion.  Ma’s racism was something I had not remembered at all, and it disgusted me.  It’s always an odd sensation to revisit a book from childhood, but this was particularly jarring.  I found the narrator a tad cold, too.  But then there was the wonderful catalogue of things and deeds, of blessings and curses, of a world contained and enumerable.

How delightful, then, to read Wendy McClure’s book and find my ambivalence so precisely and humourously mirrored.  I am nowhere near the Little House fan McClure is, but her book is so well written, so amusing and richly textured, that she takes us along on her own (re)discovery of the world of the books without our having to match her level of devotion to them.

McClure, who is a children’s book editor and who tweets as HalfPintIngalls, begins by describing the appeal of the books:

Since I edit children’s books for a living, I get asked a lot about my favorite books as a kid.  When I tell people I loved the Little House books, I know it’s a perfectly respectable answer, the sort of thing folks expect me to say.  Then sometimes they go on and ask me whether I also loved various other Important Children’s Books, like Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Prince and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’ll do my best for a while, trying to play along, and then at some point I have to hem and haw and shrug because, well, you know what I really liked?  I liked books that had pictures of toast in them.

Well, not just toast, but, you know, cups and ladles and baskets and hats, lovingly rendered, all in their places in a room or even just in little vignettes, but at any rate, things, in all their thinginess.  (3-4)

I do know!  Things in all their thinginess is my thing too!

She re-reads the whole set of Little House books, researches the biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and begins to plan trips to the creeks, sod houses and towns in which her fictionalized biographies are set.  She buys calico sun bonnets.  She buys a butter churn.  And makes butter with it.  Her boyfriend, bless him, puts horehound candy in her stocking.

I flipped through the pages of [The Little House Guidebook] and mentally subtitled it Everything You Wanted to Know About Driving Out to Remote Locations in the Upper Midwest to Find Your Childhood Imaginary Friend but Were Afraid to Ask.  And I was still afraid to ask: what kind of a person would I become if I just went with this, let my calico-sunbonnet freak flag fly? (26)

What happens when she lets her freak flag fly is a wonderful book, full of humour.  Equal parts memoir, biography, picaresque and cultural studies, McClure’s book attempts to reconcile her childhood love of the books with some of their darker undercurrents.

As part of her attempt to live “La Vida Laura,” McClure and her boyfriend go on a homesteading weekend, encouraged by the host’s mention of the Little House books on her website.   She is encouraged to bring her butter churn so that she can show the other participants how to churn butter.  The other participants turn out to be Christians preparing for the apocalypse.

I was keeping an open mind.  And I had gotten used to encountering people of a somewhat more evangelical bent in the Laura Ingalls Wilder fan world—plenty of homeschooling moms blogged about the Little House books, for example, and I’d noticed more than a couple fish symbols on the cars in the museum parking lot in Mansfield, Missouri.  They were all nice folks who shared my love of Laura but maybe not my support for legalizing gay marriage. …

From everything I’d read, End Timers were waiting for the collapse of the civilization the way fans of the Twilight series awaited the trailer for Breaking Dawn.  They were bracing themselves to endure the myriad destructive ordeals that would wipe out infidels, atheists, unrepentant sinners, industrialists, government officials, and Salon.com readers, with the expectation that they, the prepared ones, would be among the worthy few who would be raptured to Heaven….  (191, 194) 

This wonderfully humourous clashing of worlds is an opportunity for McClure to investigate the darker side to the homey nostalgia of the books:

I had been searching for Laura Ingalls Wilder and I’d gotten Hippie Half-Pint instead, half full of her crazy, crazy Kool-Aid made from foraged berries.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was making me uneasy.  Deep down, I was starting to wonder if the Little House books had more to do with this sort of worldview than I’d been willing to admit.  Not the end-of-the-world stuff, of course, but that “simple life” mind-set and all that it rejected.  … I thought about the moms who bragged online that their homeschooled kids were not only reading the Little House books but were learning from reprinted editions of the same McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers that Laura and Carrie used, as if all of twentieth-century pedagogy simply didn’t exist.  (196)

It is this layered approach that I most liked about McClure’s book.  Memoir and biography, nostalgia and honest examinations of the racism in the book, humour and skepticism about the commercialization of Laura world.

On the banks of the real Plum Creek, McClure has a moment of clarity:

I was going to wade in the creek.  Others were doing it—both adults and kids were seeking out clear spots along the bank where it was easy to step into the water.  I found a place where the dirt was smooth from the feet of other visitors.  I took off my flip-flops and stepped awkwardly down the slope of the bank.  The water felt nice.  A little cloud of silt rose up with each step, just like On the Banks of Plum Creek had described.  Or it was just like each step I’d taken in the creek at the campground where my family spent weekends when I was a kid.  I don’t know which had come first, my own experience or the book, but either way, that smokelike swirl that wavered in the water was how I know the book was true. (232)

I love this passage.  The visceral layering of here and there, now and then, experience lived and experience read; the sudden awareness of truth.  Isn’t that what the complexity and clarity of re-reading old loves is all about?

This book was a joy to read, and I recommend it highly, not just for fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for any book lover who loves a good read.

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I Can Say Interpellation by Stephen Cain

I Can Say Interpellation

Stephen Cain

Illustrated by Clelia Scala

Bookthug, 2011.

My husband was given this book as a gift this weekend (thank you, Greg and Lisa!), and I think it’s one of my all-time favourite parodies. In I Can Say Interpellation Stephen Cain uses the familiar rhymes and rhythms of children’s books to make exquisitely barbed comments on contemporary politics.   “Marx on Box,” for example, is a wonderful riff on Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks, set in the streets of Seattle during the WTO riots.  (He reads it in the video below, but he is far too modest a reader.  I am giddy with admiration for the book and I would like to be able to share a clip of a much more animated reading.)

In “The Very Hungry Capitalist,” the capitalist’s feast climaxes thusly:

On Friday he ate up all the funding for social housing, public transportation, feminist research, environmental initiatives, unemployment insurance, universal daycare, Native land claims, and all the funding for the arts.

That night he felt a little guilty.

If you recognize the original and you sympathize with the sentiment, then this book is meant for you. 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and even Go the Fuck to Sleep, gave me a chuckle, but the joke wears out quickly; it’s novelty comedy.  Parody is the frame for what Stephen Cain is doing here, but the value of the satirical commentary in the poems is far deeper and far more resonant.  This is a book for adults, particularly left-leaning adults with children to whom they have read the originals of these poems over and over and over again.  Parody with a healthy dose of moral outrage.

The illustrations by Clelia Scala work perfectly with the text, with collages that pair familiar images from fifties domestic scenes and Victorian illustration, with memento mori that highlight the theme of death and destruction in so many of the poems. 

Stephen Cain’s modest demeanour does not do justice to how fantastic I think this book is, but if you want to hear the author read some of the poems, here he is reading from the collection

and here is in an interview about the book.

Thanks again, Greg and Lisa, for doing my holiday shopping for me.  I will be buying multiple copies of this book for gifts this year.

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared

Alice Ozma

New York: Hachette, 2011.

Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about.  It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it.  Was that book here last time?  Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock?  I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me.  It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day.  Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).

Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.  Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names.  She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.

When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights.   While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000?  They got much further than that.  From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night.  Including prom night.  They called it The Streak.

I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to.  But this book had me hooked.  It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.  

The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start.  But it was also a page-turner.  I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them.  Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading.  There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide.  The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line.  Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well.  The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat.  That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.

After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes

We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but.  Every night was different because every story was different.  Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting.  But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages.  Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces.  The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.

Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen.  (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time.  Jim Brozina was not.)  Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading.  As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort.  The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.”  This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.

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More akin to wanderers and creators than to gluttons and addicts, readers lead a nomadic existence that requires mental agility and the capacity to pursue leads and follow trails.  Not all hunters return from those literary travels with their creative instincts sharpened, but they all bring back some kind of quarry, souvenirs of those lures that kept them hot on the trail.  They preserve those souvenirs as precious talismans that are memorized, burnished, and preserved until they become their own.  As they appropriate and internalize words, readers use those same words to construct their identities, changing them in ways so subtle that they often escape conscious attention. … Souvenirs of reading function in much the same manner as psychologist D. W. Winnicott’s transitional objects, bridging the realm of fantasy with the ordinary world, providing something to hold onto when readers return to sober reality after the thrill of adventures in story worlds. … Just as our hands once needed those concrete physical objects in childhood, so too so our minds seize on images and words from stories to help us make our way in the world. (Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters 90-91)

I don’t think I’ll ever get around to reviewing this book, I’ll just keep quoting its marvellous passages. 

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You may have heard that Martin Amis has said that the only thing that would induce him to to write books for kids is brain damage

Here’s a brilliant response from Patricia Storms.

MartinAmisPigeon

Check out more of her portraits here.

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Pop-up books are a category unto themselves in children’s book publishing, and the very best pop-up books always give the reader a surprise, a new perspective.

Here’s one from Roaring Book Press by Marion Bataille that amazed me with its clever manipulation of the alphabet.  It blends beautifully the kinetic properties of books and letters. 

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