Showing posts with label children's literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's literature. Show all posts

25 May 2020

What Are We REALLY Doing?


Warren Zevon's song "The Hula Hula Boys" features the Polynesian refrain
"Ha'ina I'a Mai ana ka puana." It means "Sing the chorus," or maybe "Get to the point."

In other words, just tell the damn story.

A few days go, I forgot to charge my Kindle and couldn't order another book. Obviously, in the time of Covid-19, I've had lots of time to read, but some publishers are still figuring out how to get digital copies to reviewers like me.

I went to my book case and pulled out a massive short story anthology I assigned when I taught English. This was a newer edition, but I like it because it has a mix of classic (Poe, Hawthorne, Chekhov, Hemingway) and new and multi-cultural authors (Sherman Alexie, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Gish Jen, Leslie Marmon Silko). I read some stories either I'd never read before or forgotten (Yes, that does happen).

I enjoyed them all, but I'd hate to explain what a few of them said to me or "meant." Remember getting that question on standardized tests? My first reaction then was, "Hawthorne's dead. How the hell do I know what he was trying to tell me?"

Then I made a terrible mistake. I looked at a few of the questions following stories. Some of them were so esoteric I suspect they became thesis topics when the author's first 75 better ideas were either taken or got rejected by his advisor.

Teaching literature is an odd occupation. We don't teach our students to read, we force them to read "critically," and while I was accused of being good at it a long time ago, I no longer think I could explain what it means in a way that would justify it. I thought I was teaching kids to read for "ideas" and "themes" (A term I still avoid as much as possible) and techniques. Now, I think all that matters is that we have the tools to appreciate a story and can explain why that did or didn't happen. If you're a writer or potential writer, we should understand how the choices and techniques make a story more or less effective, but that's about it.

Remember Zevon's song?

Maybe that's all we should worry about.

Does the setting help bring out the story's ideas? would it work better with a different point of view or voice? What would happen if the writer changed the gender of the protagonist/narrator? What about a different time period? Would more or less humor help? I'm not sure we can really teach any of these except by wide reading and lots of experience, much of it through failure.

Last week, the University of Connecticut announced that they are abandoning the SAT as an admission requirement. In the age of Covid-19, many students don't have access to various preparation sites and workshops, which gives other applicants a big advantage.

Wouldn't it be great if we went back to reading for pleasure and a wider vision of the world without having to take multiple-choice and essay tests to pigeonhole the great works, or even the not-so-great ones? Let Shakespeare, Dickens, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Cervantes, and Dorothy Allison stand on their own merits instead of trying to find a sometimes arcane or non-existent common denominator?

Let young people rediscover the miracle of those funny little marks on the page, like when were were younger parents and we held our kids on our laps before bedtime, watching Paddington or the Poky Little Puppy or Curious George discover how the world worked...

01 January 2018

What's Old Is New Again


Happy New Year. Either online or in your local newspaper, you've probably seen one of those cartoons of 2018 in a diaper and 2017 with a long white beard, so I'm going to spare you another one. It expresses the idea that the old pass the world to the young and that there's still hope for the future if we build a strong foundation in the present. One of the great practitioners of that belief was also one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.
And to prove it, this last September saw the release of Mark Twain's newest children's book, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine. Yes, it's true, a new book from Mark Twain! And it's wonderful.

The Clemens family moved to Hartford, building the Farmington Avenue house in 1873-4 and living there until 1891, leaving forever after daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In the cigar-smoked study on the third floor, Samuel Clemens composed Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

He also observed the ritual of creating a nightly bedtime story for older daughters Susy and Clara.
In 1897, they made him continue a story they liked for five consecutive nights. He later jotted down notes and the first part of that story, but he never finished it. The new book includes the convoluted saga of how the partial manuscript was discovered in the Twain Archives at UCal Berkeley in 2011 and how the estate picked Caldecott winners Philip and Erin Stead to complete and illustrate the story--which they have done beautifully.

Prince Oleomargarine shows Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain at the peak of his powers, but used in a way we've never seen before. It combines elements of popular fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, for one) and several quest myths with a poor boy named Jack as the unrecognized hero. We meet a chicken named Pestilence and Famine, a skunk named Susy, and a menagerie of other quirky animals, all tied together with prose that's lyrical, ironic, and often bittersweet. My favorite line: "He felt as though he carried on his back the weight of all the things he would never have."

Wow...just...wow.

I never would have heard about the book if it weren't for my wife, who has one of the coolest jobs in the universe. She is a "Living History" tour guide at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford,
which held the book launch last September. She portrays the Clemens' housemaid Lizzie Wells and shows guest the house as it "is" in 1887. She got the gig because we both worked with several of the other guides (and the script-writer) in local theater for years, and the mansion wanted to increase the number of guides and tours. The offered Barbara a spot and she grabbed it.
Virginia Wolf (her real name), my wife Barbara, Lisa Steier,
author Philip Stead, Tom Raines, and Kit Webb. We worked with
all the actors at some time or another.

According to National Geographic, the Mark Twain House and Museum is one of the ten most visited historical homes in the WORLD. In the 1920s, a developer purchased the vacant mansion, planning to raze it and erect an apartment building. A coalition formed to buy the house back--for less than that developer hoped to gain--and restore it to its former glory. Middle daughter Clara, who died in 1962 at age 88, helped track down the original furniture. She also gave Hal Holbrook a private audience when he was developing his Mark Twain impersonation and approved his performance. How's that for a reliable source?
Samuel Clemens...and
Kit Webb, who portrays him at various events

Clara and Susy showed Papa pictures from a current magazine and had him tell a story inspired by those pictures. Today, we would call that a "writing prompt," but I never heard the term until near the end of my teaching career. My wife tells of writing stories to accompany the pictures in one of her favorite childhood books--when she didn't think the story already there was good enough. Do kids still do that today? Do they get encouragement?

Clemens and his children created dozens of stories involving The Cat in the Ruff, a picture in the family's library, but none of those survive. It's only through a freakish stroke of luck that Prince Oleomargarine has come to light.

The image of a busy and often irascible father spending his evenings sharing the excitement and joy of creating fresh stories for his children is one I can't stop thinking about. We all need to pass on to our children and grandchildren the magic of creating something new, whether it's stories, music, or painting. How will they discover it for themselves if we don't show them where to look? Buy them books for Christmas and birthdays, preferably with great pictures. Read them and share them. Play games that help them make things up. Let them pretend. Help them dream.

Pass it on.

19 October 2016

The Night the Old Nostalgia Burned Down


While working on my recent column on alternate history I was looking at my collection of science fiction and noticed a book that took me back through the decades.  Out of this World, edited by Julius Fast, was published in 1944 which means that, even as old as I am, it was a used book when I got my hands on it, in my father's personal collection.  I was probably around ten and it was already an antique.  The copy I have now is not the one I had then, by the way.  I found it in a used book store a few years ago.  (By the way, Fast edited the book while serving during World War II, using material he found in army base libraries.  He also won the very first Edgar Award for Best First Mystery Novel.)

I have fond memories of this collection of fantasy stories.   There are stories by Saki, Robert Arthur, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, and Jack London to name a few.  But what really knocked me out was my first encounters with the late great John Collier.  Collier was one of the great short story authors, a master of a certain kind of fantasy and mystery. His story "Witch's Money" (not in this collection) is on my list of top fifty crime stories of all time.  There are no witches in it: it's about the disaster that hits an Italian village when a comparatively wealthy American artist moves in.

Running across that book a few days ago inspired me to go looking for another one I found in my Dad's collection when I was at that same impressionable age.  I bought a copy over the web, and the shipping cost more than the book. 

The Pocket Mystery Reader was also published during the war, and in fact, this copy was owned by Sergeant Lawrence E. Hough of the U.S. Army in 1943.  (And I can tell you Sergeant Hough took much better care of his paperbacks than I  do.)

I remember reading my father's copy mostly because I recall Rex Stout's parody of Sherlockian scholarship, his famous speech to the Baker Street Irregulars entitled "Watson Was A Woman."  It's still funny.  So are the essays by P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Leacock.

This book was my first exposure to Dashiell Hammett and his Continental Op.  ("The Farewell Murder," not one of his masterpieces.)  In fact, while there are tales by Gardner, Sayers, and Woolrich, the only one I remembered from fifty years ago was "The Price of the Head,"by John Russell, which I recalled as being brilliant.  However, I experienced one of the downsides of revisitng a favorite old book: On rereading I discovered it was racist trash.  Apparently my memory wrote a completely different story and attached it to Russell's brilliant ending.

There is a ton of casual racism in this book which reminds me that it was published around the time Rex Stout produced a one-night extravaganza on Broadway just for writers, directors and producers, with the theme "We can't fight racism in Europe and appease it at home."

I was even younger when I ran across the Arrow Book of Ghost Stories.  I thought I read the copy belonging to my sister Diane Chamberlain but she swears she never heard of it.  What I can't forget is "The Wonderful Cat of Cobbie Bean," a lovely tale by Barbee Oliver Carleton.  Cobbie gets a talking cat, which might not be so disastrous except Cobbie lives in Salem at the time of the witch trials…

Another book I dug up because of childhood memories was The Bulls and the Bees, by Roger Eddy.  It's a novel (memoir?) in a series of short stories, narrated by the astonishingly solemn voice of a child growing up in the twenties.  His father is a stockbroker and the boy's hobby is buying a single share of stock from different companies.  He has no idea he is "investing."  He thinks he's just buying interestingly engraved paper.  This leads to a crisis after the Crash in 1929.

This has gone on too long.  Maybe next time I will talk about childhood favorites I bought my daughter when she was a kid.

But what books call to you from your childhood?  And if you reread them was it a joy or a disappointment?

19 February 2016

Learning From Children's Books


I'm almost certain that I never read Arnold Lobel's books when I was a child myself—or at least none of them stand among all the many books I do remember reading and rereading and adoring when I was younger. Lobel, as many probably already know, was the author and illustrator behind nearly 100 books, some of which he wrote himself, some which he illustrated for others. Among his best-known creations are probably the various Frog and Toad books—Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog and Toad Together (1972), Frog and Toad All Year (1976), and Days with Frog and Toad (1979)—but he's also the author of Prince Bertram the Bad (1963), Small Pig (1969), Owl at Home (1975), Mouse Soup (1977), Uncle Elephant (1981), and the Caldecott Medal winner Fables (1980), among scores of others.
While many of these books were certainly published in time for me to have read them as a child myself, my own experiences with Lobel's books has come later. The son of an old girlfriend loved Small Pig, and the two of us bonded over a reading of it. One of my wife Tara's favorite childhood books was Prince Bertram the Bad, a well-worn copy now, and when our son Dash was born, I tracked down a pristine first edition of it for us to share with him. And in addition to that book, Dash has grown to love other of the titles above—particular those Frog and Toad books (a gift from good friends) and Uncle Elephant, the title that first introduced him to the idea of chapter books, of stories that add up to a larger story. (Is this the point where I plug my own novel-in-stories? Oh, well, why not?)

I don't know that there's any part of the day I enjoy better than reading stories with Dash, and when I get to pick the evening's books, I often gravitate toward the Lobel titles on his shelves—stories that strike me again and again with their simplicity, their beauty, and their humanity.

Many people may think of children's books as teaching opportunities on various levels. Children need to learn to read, of course (our Frog and Toad collection is part of the "I Can Read!" series), but there's also the sense of lessons being learned, values being instilled, often some moral to the story in many books at this level. And I'm certain that there are lessons to be found in Lobel's books too—in the case of Frog and Toad, lessons about what friendship means and how friendship works, clearly, and it's been argued, persuasively, that these books also promote positive images of same-sex relationships; here's just one essay of many on this idea.

What strikes me as much as those positive messages, however, is the fact that not everything in the books stays positive—which isn't to say that it's negative, but rather that the author seems to acknowledge and appreciate the foibles and faults of characters as much as their strengths; in the story "A Swim," Toad is embarrassed by people seeing his bathing suit and laughing at him, and while a conventional story might have Frog ease him out of his embarrassment, boosting his ego, saving his pride, this one has Frog laughing along with everyone else at the end of the story, because, as he says, "you do look funny in your bathing suit." The stories recognize too the capriciousness of the world, maybe even the indifference of the universe. I adore the story "The Surprise" in which Frog and Toad each sneak over to the other's yard to rake October's messy fallen leaves—such generosity!—but then, as each of them are returning home, a wind comes up and the piles of leaves that each of them have raked blow everywhere. With this twist, each of them get home to find not a freshly raked yard but the same old mess they'd left. As Frog says, "Tomorrow I will clean up the leaves that are all over my own lawn. How surprised Toad must be!" And in perfect balance, over at his own house, Toad says, "Tomorrow I will get to work and rake all of my own leaves. How surprised Frog must be!" The story ends with the sentence, "That night Frog and Toad were both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed." O. Henry couldn't have done it better.

When I read Lobel with my son, I find myself not thinking of the lessons learned or the values instilled but of the sheer perfection—I do not use that word lightly—of the stories as stories...and of what I as a writer might take from them. I mentioned simplicity above as a hallmark of his work, but I'm often in awe of the brilliant balance in these stories: the establishment of character, the laying in of only the necessary elements, the balance of all those elements, and the rightness of the endings—which seem to me to strike that ideal mixture of being both surprising and inevitable...and, to fall back on that other word, all too human. In the story "Christmas Eve," Toad is worried that Frog is late for the holiday dinner but he doesn't know how late because his clock is broken. Stuck in that timelessness and the literally immeasurable waiting, Toad begins to imagine the worst that could've happened to his friend, and he begins to gather everything he needs to save him: a rope to pull him from the hole he must have fallen in, a lantern to guide him from wherever he's become lost, a frying pan to battle the beast who might be threatening him. Thus armed, he rushes out into the cold night—only to run into Frog coming in. "I am very sorry to be late," says Frog. "I was wrapping your present"—which is, of course....

The New York Times obituary for Lobel noted that drawing came easier for him than writing: ''Writing is very painful to me,'' he said in an interview in 1979. ''I have to force myself not to think in visual terms, because I know if I start to think of pictures, I'll cop out on the text.'' Whatever the process, the stories themselves prove that the pain paid off—at least for us readers and us writers too, who maybe can learn something of our own from all this.

What about others? Any other writers out there who can point to children's books or stories that have informed their own work? or that serve as a model for what you yourself want to do? I'm intrigued to hear—for selfish reasons, ultimately. Dash always needs more good things to read.

12 February 2014

Old Yeller Dies


by David Edgerley Gates


I'm prompted to these musings by a post my pal Art Taylor and his wife Tara Laskowski made on FaceBook about their son Dash, and his reading enthusiasms. Dash is a year old, and likes Robert McCloskey's MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS. Art says Dash has already memorized it, when Art reads it aloud to him.

I suggested a couple of other books to add to Dash's reading list, as he gets a little older. I remember a guy named Robert Lawson, who was an author-illustrator, like McCloskey, and told familiar stories from an unfamiliar POV. Ben Franklin's pet mouse, for example, or Paul Revere's horse. No man, it's said, is a hero to his valet.

The grand-daddy, of course, is Kipling, and THE JUST-SO STORIES. It's past time I gave him credit for his abiding influence on my own writing. My dad read those stories aloud to me, when I was sick in bed, at four or five. I still remember the smell of the inhalator, a kind of steam device, with a cup of spice-flavored medication. It was supposed to make your breathing easier. What actually set my mind at rest was the sound of my father's voice. We all have a comfort zone.

At what point do we graduate to more sophisticated stuff? Sake of argument, when we start reading on our own, at six or seven, say. I had an interesting exchange with my pal Johnny D. Boggs a little while back. THE SEARCHERS was being shown at the Lensic theater, on the big screen, and I asked Johnny if he were going to take his son Jack (THE SEARCHERS being one of Johnny's favorite pictures, and mine). Johnny said no. He thought the movie was probably too dark for Jack, who was, I think, eight or nine at the time. Maybe the threshold is our exposure to ambiguity, or a lack of moral certainty, and THE SEARCHERS sure fits.

CHARLOTTE'S WEB. E.B. White was an unsentimental cuss, and he doesn't sugar-coat the story. Charlotte's "web" is of course all the animals
in the barn, not just Wilbur, and death is part of their lives. Wilbur himself barely escapes being turned into bacon. But the book isn't really sad. it's more of an affirmation, that there's rebirth.

On the other hand, OLD YELLER. I think I was ten or eleven when I read it. It was probably on my summer reading list for school. Jeez, what a heartbreaker. The dog, after all, wasn't responsible. The real choice is the one the kid has to make, and in fact there is no choice. He has to do it.

So, what's appropriate, for Dash, as he grows up, or Jack? When do we, as parents, or role models, teachers or even librarians, stop making the decisions for them? I had dinner with some people, a few years ago, and there was a teenager there, with his dad, and the kid was nuts about science fiction. I think we started talking about DUNE, or STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and his dad interrupted to say it was all crap, and the kid just turtled in on himself, and the conversation dead-ended. I didn't say anything to his father, but it was discouraging. We should all be allowed to read crap, although I don't agree with the guy's description of SF. How many of us have actually ground through MOBY-DICK, or BLEAK HOUSE? I've rediscovered Dickens, in later years, but if he's crammed down your throat in high school, to fatten up your liver, you're like one of those unhappy geese.

Perhaps water finds its own level. Girls of a certain age go from ANNE OF GREEN GABLES to FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, which is arguably soft-core YA porn. Who's to say? Books lead us on, and one person's despised genre is someone else's delight. I suspect our earliest experiences, or exposure, are a template. I've mentioned Carl Barks, and his duck comics, in the past. I'd add Kipling, and TREASURE ISLAND. The child is father to the man.

One of these days, Johnny will take his son Jack to see THE SEARCHERS. And one of these days, Dash is probably going to read OLD YELLER, and cry at the end, the way I did. Especially when we're young, it seems to me, we inhabit the stories, or they inhabit us, and take on a life of their own, as real as a dime. A spell is cast, and I doubt if we ever break free of it. Innocence is never really lost.