Posts Tagged ‘Children’s books’

Briefly noted: Children’s books

June 11, 2020

The Blue Fairy Book
Andrew Lang (Ed.)
(Dover, 1965) [1889]
416 p.

This was the first of twelve collections of fairy tales prepared by Andrew Lang, each named (arbitrarily) after a different colour. It is good, and also a little surprising, to learn that it was through these editions that many well-known stories were first introduced to the English-speaking public. In this volume, for instance, we find “Little Red Hiding Hood”, “Cinderella”, “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”, “Rumpelstiltskin”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Puss in Boots”, “Blue Beard”, and “Hansel and Gretel”, along with about 30 other lesser-known tales. Lang and his collaborators collected the stories from a variety of sources, including Grimm, Perrault, and the Arabian Nights. We even get an abridged version of Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput.

Today we are familiar with many of these stories through children’s books and films, in which they have typically been adapted for children by removing the most gruesome and frightening parts (i.e. “Disney-fied”). Lang is something like the grandfather of this tradition: he too sanitized and simplified the stories specifically to make them suitable for children. (Even so, I would be wary of reading some of these tales to my own children, at least until they are older.) If you want the full, unvarnished versions, you should go to Grimm, etc.

I quite enjoyed myself as I read, not only on account of the historical importance of this volume, which has been credited with opening English-language children’s literature of the 20th century to folklore and fairy tales, but also for the intrinsic interest of the stories and the generally easy, elegant writing. Will I read the next volume in the series (The Red Fairy Book)? I might.

**

The Silver Sword
Ian Serraillier
(Puffin, 1970) [1956]
149 p.

An engrossing tale about four children who travel from Warsaw to Switzerland in search of their parents during the waning days of World War II. Along the way they meet with both cruelty and kindness, often from unexpected sources, and they must be resourceful and courageous as they struggle onward against the odds. There are a few beneficial coincidences to help them along, but by and large the story does not shy away from the very real hardships they and everyone else were suffering. In the early scenes in the bombed-out streets of Warsaw I could not help thinking that perhaps one of the men they saw in the streets was the future Pope St John Paul II. Serraillier tells the story in an unsensational tone, such that even major plot developments caught me flat-footed more than once. Suitable for older children, aged 10 and up or so.

**

Sarah, Plain and Tall
Patricia MacLachlan
(Scholastic, 1996) [1985]
64 p.

A slim volume that might be (and, I confess, has been) used as a bookmark in a larger volume, this Newbery Medal-winner nonetheless tells a quite rich and moving story about a courageous woman who moves to the American west during the pioneer days, a “mail-order bride” for a widower, told from the point of view of one of the children of the family she is joining. The situation is a delicate one, especially for treatment in a children’s book, but Patricia MacLachlan handles it beautifully; the feelings of all of the family members are conveyed with a light touch but also with clarity. We get a sense of what Sarah is giving up, but also of what she stands to gain, and of what this family, bereft of its mother for some years, is missing. A lovely book that can be read in an hour or so.

Harts: The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla

June 1, 2020

The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla
David Bentley Hart and
Patrick Robert Hart

Illustrated by Jerome Atherholt
(Angelico, 2019)
180 p.

The flyleaf teaser begins in this way:

It is known, of course, that soft toys — teddy bears, cotton-stuffed rabbits, velveteen squids, and the like — are all but incapable of deceit, greed, or criminality. And yet, when the treasure of the ancient MacGorilla clan is stolen from their castle in the Scottish Highlands, it seems that one or more of the soft toys gathered there must surely be the culprit, or culprits.

That “or culprits” is a nice touch, and gives a flavour of the pleasures to be had in this delightful book. We are off to Scotland, to the castle of Laird MacGorilla, a stuffed gorilla of great wealth and generosity of spirit and something less than great wit, where a number of guests are assembled, including Theodore Bear — Teddy Bear, to his friends — a soft toy bear with a knack for solving mysteries.

The story, as it unfolds, has the shape of a classic whodunit, where the “it” is brazen theft rather than lethal violence (although MacGorilla does get knocked on his soft head with a lily). There are mysteries, diversions, suspicions, bananas, secrets, discoveries, revelations — and, in the end, justice  (albeit tampered by Murphy).

David Bentley Hart, whom I count among my favourite contemporary writers, and whose previous collection of fiction I have praised in this space, but whose recent books have had the faint scent of quixotism about them, here returns, gently and winsomely, to fine fettle. He has co-written the book with his son, Patrick, who was 11 years old at the time of writing, and I’d love to hear more about how the collaboration worked. It must have been great fun.

The elder Hart has a reputation as a purveyor of elegant erudition, but that strain of jollity is mostly muted here. The book is written for intelligent children to enjoy, and skirts both condescension and ostentation. Some of the dialogue I found lacked a certain sparkle, being too liberally salted with ellipses and inert verbalisms of the “um, oh” sort, and some of the smaller scale sallies of wit had for me a strained quality, but on the whole I found it a good story enlivened by ready wit and smelling sweetly of banana tarts. I look forward to reading it to my children sometime soon.

Pellowski: Latsch Valley Farm

December 6, 2018

First Farm in the Valley: Anna’s Story
Winding Valley Farm: Annie’s Story
Stairstep Farm: Anna Rose’s Story
Willow Wind Farm: Betsy’s Story
Anne Pellowski
(Bethlehem, 1982)
191 p. + 202 p. + 180 p. + 180 p.

These four books, about several generations of a Polish immigrant family living in Wisconsin, give an engaging portrait of farm and family life over a long century of changes. They are based on reminiscences handed down in the author’s own family. Nothing overly dramatic has been cooked up — which is not to say that nothing dramatic happens — and the stories have a homey, satisfying feel to them.

First Farm in the Valley is set in the 1870s. Latsch Valley is populated by a number of Polish families, and the fact that they live in America is almost incidental: they still speak Polish, observe Polish traditions, and farm very much as, I suppose, they would have done in Poland. Our narrator is Anna, an 8-year old who is an interested observer of the goings-on in her busy household (of eight children, if I recall correctly). This book, like the others, is episodic, with each chapter focusing on a particular day or event, and the reader left to fill in the details between. We read about a Fourth of July celebration, at which the Pellowski children taste ice cream for the first time; about a hail storm that strikes while the children are herding the sheep; about a winter wedding; about a fire at the local school. The family is basically a happy one, held together by bonds of love and their Catholic faith. There are darker rumblings beyond the borders of the home: wandering tramps who might steal goods from the farm or pose a threat, or, more ominously, a diphtheria epidemic that strikes a number of homes in the valley, leaving dead children in its wake.

This second volume is similar in many respects, but is set in the 1910s. Anna appears again, peripherally, now grown with children of her own, but the narrator of this volume is Annie, another young girl who lives down the valley. Some of the stories are quite funny, especially one in which a group of boys plot to release bees, one by one, inside their one-room schoolhouse; Sister Pelagia’s method of dealing with this rambunctiousness is a model of good disciplinary tactics. The family in this book is again a large one, with everyone pitching in to help with chores. We are given a warm picture of farm life, both in the home and throughout the valley.

The third volume, Stairstep Farm, is set in the 1930s and is based on the personal childhood recollections of the author herself. Though things have changed — the children no longer walk all the way to school, and there are cars in addition to wagons — life on the farm is still fundamentally one of a family working together: lots of chores and manual labour, lots of know-how, and a pervasive sense that all is well with the world, in spite of sorrows and setbacks. The family’s Polish traditions are still alive — Dyngus still comes on Christmas Eve, and Polish songs are part of the family’s life — but American life has also begun to make inroads — they get a visit from Santa Claus, and they have learned to speak English, at least some of the time. The narrator of this book is Anna Rose, a 5-year old who wants nothing more than to finally go to school with her big siblings. The stories are about baking, a biting gander, playing games with cousins in the yard, Grandpa being struck by lightning, kicking a pig, riding in the hay wagon, and, most dramatically, a tornado.

In the fourth volume the year is 1967. Our narrator is Betsy, a seven- or eight-year-old, the granddaughter of Annie, who narrated the second volume. Once again the structure is episodic: picking blackberries, putting on a play, going to school, making doughnuts. The texture of modern life has begun to reach the farm: they drive cars, and have a record player. But some things remain the same: this is still a large (8-child) family, close-knit, faithful, and working together to keep the family farm running. Oddly, the tone of the writing is noticeably different from the previous three volumes; it is more verbose, more on-the-nose, and somehow less childlike. I do not know the order in which the books were originally written, but this one does stick out relative to the others.

I’ve just discovered that there is a fifth book in the series, also narrated by Betsy, called Betsy’s Up and Down Year. I suppose I should read it, and perhaps I will, but the inconsistent naming convention for that book — it ought to be called Betsy’s Up and Down Year Farm, should it not? — makes it seem like an adjunct, not an essential, rightly or wrongly.

For the time being I’ve rounded off my time in Latsch Valley. I’ve enjoyed the stay. One could imagine a series of books spanning this same time period that would cross-examine the changes to family life, economic life, technology, and culture, amounting to a sustained sociological critique of how we live now and how we got here. These are not those books; go to Port William if that’s what you want. Instead, these books are heartwarming and entertaining, and could be given with confidence to a child of 8 or 10 years old. Our daughter read them rapidly, and, I’ve noticed, has been reading them again from time to time.

Farewell, Latsch Valley. I may soon pay a visit to the prairie, where I’m told there’s a little house.

White: The Sword in the Stone

October 28, 2018

The Sword in the Stone
T.H. White
(Lions, 1991) [1938]
298 p.

It is wonderful that there are so many good books in the world. Read as much as you like; there is always a chance that a book is out there, lying quietly in your path as you approach. You may be thinking of other things, a bit distracted. A book can jump up and surprise you.

Such has been my experience with this, the first part of T.H. White’s Arthurian saga. I’d heard of the book, naturally, but the fact that it is a masterpiece was always discreetly withheld, presumably so as not to spoil the surprise. I’m grateful.

The story is about King Arthur as a boy, when he was but a page in training, and was called The Wart. Nobody expected much of him, except his tutor, Merlin the wizard, who, because he was living his life backwards in time and remembered only the future, knew where The Wart was heading, and laboured to prepare him. The book follows the Wart through a variety of adventures, some mundane (the recovery of a wayward falcon), some thrilling (a night attack, in the company of Robin Hood, on a group of cannibals), and some fantastic (his transformation into a serpent at the behest of Merlin).

This material, good as it is, is elevated by White’s exquisite prose. Few books, much less children’s books, have delighted my ear to the same extent. White can vary the texture — now barbarous, now lyrical, now trim and precise — as befits the occasion, and the language is unfailingly inventive. Here, by way of illustration, is a graceful passage about the onset of autumn:

The summer was over at last, and nobody could deny any longer that the autumn was definitely there. It was that rather sad time of year when for the first time for many months the fine old sun still blazes away in a cloudless sky, but does not warm you, and the hoar-frosts and the mists and the winds begin to stir their faint limbs at morning and evening, with the gossamer, as the sap of winter vigour remembers itself in the cold corpses which brave summer slew. The leaves were still on the trees, and still green, but it was the leaden green of old leaves which have seen much since the gay colours and happiness of spring — that seems so lately and, like all happy things, so quickly to have passed. The sheep fairs had been held. The plums had tumbled off the trees in the first big winds, and here and there, in the lovely sunlight too soon enfeebled, a branch of beech or oak was turning yellow: the one to die quickly and mercifully, the other perhaps to hold grimly to the frozen tree and to hiss with its papery skeleton all through the east winds of winter, until the spring was there again.

That is poetry. Quite apart from the imagery, listen to the sounds: “the cold corpses which brave summer slew”, “still on the trees, and still green”, “tumbled off the trees”. It is one passage picked mostly at random, and not quite representative — the style is so fluid that no one passage could be — but it captures at least some of the beauties here preserved for our delight.

The tale, as White handles it, straddles the boundary between dream and reality. The language can be grounded and precise — as when a snake is described as “dry as a piece of living rope”, which is perfect — yet, at the same time, manifest fantastic elements, like talking animals, temporal anomalies, and transmogrifications. There is a capering tone, a sense that anything might happen. One almost expects Toad, dressed as an old washerwoman, to wander onto the page.

As I read, there were two other books that kept coming to mind. The first, which is admittedly a distant, much more fearsome cousin, was Moby-Dick; something about the tension of White’s writing, like a compressed coil, in combination with a rough whimsy reminded me again and again of Melville. And the second, already alluded to, was The Wind in the Willows, an account of its eloquence and fancy. The Sword in the Stone is not an equal of those great books, but it is resonating with them, in my mind at least.

White wrote three subsequent volumes, and then collected them, with revisions, into The Once and Future King. I must read them, or it, and am accepting advice on which course to take.

Serraillier: Robin and his Merry Men

July 24, 2017

Robin and his Merry Men
Ballads of Robin Hood
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1969)
60 p.

I came to this book almost wholly ignorant of the Robin Hood stories, my main exposure until now having been pretty much limited to that old animated film. I usually have thought of these stories as the poor English cousins to the (originally French) tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Even if true — and I don’t know if it is true — it can, naturally, still be enjoyable to spend time with one’s poor cousins from time to time.

This book relates a set of stories, tied together by an overall arc, about Robin Hood’s dealings with Sir Richard of Lee, a woebegone knight whom Robin helps at a crucial juncture, an act of generosity which Sir Richard is, eventually, able to reciprocate.

Serraillier, to his credit and my delight, tells the story in verse. If you believe (as I fondly do) that tales of Robin Hood ought rightly to be told in song, around a fire, and under a greenwood, then this will satisfy, for it is admirably suited to the purpose. In a series of abcb quatrains (with occasional sallies at sestets), beginning with

Come, gather round and listen awhile
To a tale of the good greenwood
And a courteous yeoman, a brave outlaw
Whose name was Robin Hood.

and bounding, through field and forest, to the concluding

Meanwhile in the musty cheerless court
King Edward’s hopes grew chill.
He waited, waited … And for all I know,
He may be waiting still.

it works splendidly. The poetry is simpler than other examples of Serraillier’s verse that I’ve enjoyed, and I read sections of it, with only occasional difficulties, to my older kids (5yo and 7yo, at the time). The words are complemented by a set of illustrations; while fine, they did not particularly appeal to me.

The bad guys in the poem are the Sheriff of Nottingham (naturally) and the rich, including the bishops, archbishops, and abbots. This aspect took some explaining to the kids, who didn’t understand why a bishop should be behaving so badly, and why Robin Hood, with all the courtesy in the world, should be trying to take his money. This, combined with the forthright piety of the poem — for Robin is devoted to Our Lady, and his men express a sturdy reverence for Our Lord — took some time to untangle. But if those complications can be overcome this is a book easy to recommend. I believe it is presently out of print, but it was not too difficult to track down a reasonably priced second-hand copy.

If anyone knows of a particularly good source for further tales of Robin Hood and would like to recommend it, please do so!

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

The Ballad of St Simeonserraillier-st-simeon
Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Children’s books: beasts and beasties

February 3, 2017

farwell-brownThe Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts
Abbie Farwell Brown
(Kalavela, 2010) [1900]
146 p.

Teaching children about the saints is a worthy labour, and I take the view that it is good they learn the fancies as well as the facts, because the fancies, too, tell us something worth knowing about kindness and goodness. In stories about saints we imaginatively explore the happy side of life. In this book, first published over a century ago, Abbie Farwell Brown collects two dozen tales about saints and animals. The most famous of these in Christian tradition are undoubtedly those involving St Francis of Assisi, and the book closes with them, but Brown also treats us to tales about St Rigobert and the goose that followed him everywhere, about the fish who built a breakwater to shelter St Gudwell’s hermit cave, about St Launomar’s cow which was stolen but then led the robbers through the dark right back to his home, about St Kentigern who restored a robin to life, and numerous others. The stories are not especially religious in tone or content, except insofar as they are about saints. Two or three of the stories are told in verse. All are gracefully written, and were a distinct pleasure to read. My children concur; I read the stories aloud to them, and they were always clamouring for more.

***

nesbit-itFive Children and It
Edith Nesbit
(Puffin Classics, 2008) [1902]
288 p.

I assumed that the nameless “It” was nameless because frightening, and I wanted to read the book before passing it to my children, just to ensure that it was not too frightening. I needn’t have worried. The It is a cute little creature, with a furry, pear-shaped body, antennae-mounted eyes, and gangly limbs. It is easily annoyed, but harmless — at least in Itself.

But the catch is that It has the power of granting wishes — just one each day, and only until sunset — but wishes nonetheless, and for the children who find It that power might not turn out to be entirely benign. If there were ever a book to illustrate the wisdom of the old counsel to “be careful what you wish for”, this is it.

It’s quite a funny book, in its way, as the children make accidental wishes, or wish without thinking things through, and end up in pickles. I enjoyed reading it, and I think most children would enjoy it too. Of the five children, only the baby emerged in my mind as a really distinctive character. The book is well-written, and not too difficult. Nesbit hints on the last page that more adventures are to follow, and I see that she did write a few more books about the same children.

Although I enjoyed the story, and suggested it to our 7-year old, she abandoned it after a few chapters. This was precipitous, in my view — after all, not every book can be as good as the Magic Tree House books! — but the fault is partly mine: probably I gave it to her too soon.

***

grahame-windThe Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Illustrated by Arthur Rackham
(Everyman’s, 1993) [1908]
249 p.

Kenneth Grahame lived what seems a rather ordinary, if perhaps unhappy, life: his mother died when he was young, he was unable to attend university and worked his whole career in a bank, and his only child was sickly and committed suicide as a young man. Yet Grahame gave the world one of the great classics of children’s literature, a book so replete with humour and fresh adventure and beauty that it rejoices the heart of the reader each time it is opened. Would that we all could give such a gift.

The book is widely beloved and hardly needs me to praise it. I will just say that as I read it this time I was as dazzled and charmed as ever. It was wonderful to see Mole and Rat again, and I relished the chance to exclaim again over the foolishness of Mr Toad. Most of all, I was grateful for the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”; one doesn’t expect the numinous to come shimmering through the pages of a children’s book about talking animals, but there it is, luminous and alluring.

I am sorry to say that I have not read any other of Grahame’s books. He wrote two memoirs of childhood — The Golden Age and Dream Days — both of which were well-regarded when published (and both of which I own). I’m going to make an effort to read them sometime soon. The man who writes The Wind in the Willows is a man worth getting to know.

Children’s books: here be dragons

September 26, 2016

Beowulf the Warrior
Ian Serraillier
48 p.

A number of authors have distilled Beowulf into a version intended for children, but this is the only one of which I’m aware that does so in verse. Serraillier condenses the original 3800 lines of the poem into about 800 lines of blank verse. All of the essential plot elements of the story are included, and quite vividly depicted. Overall, the writing would be challenging for young children, but I think would be suitable for roughly ages 10 and up. This edition is complemented by interesting illustrations by “Severin”.

***

St. George and the Dragon
Michael Lotti
(CreateSpace, 2014)
162 p.

This short novel tells the story of Marcellus, a Roman soldier who encounters a fierce dragon lurking on the outskirts of his father’s estate. The story has a two-fold motion: the conflict with the dragon gradually escalates, on one hand, and on the other Marcellus encounters Christians and is gradually converted to the new faith (taking the baptismal name George). The two arcs come together in a final battle between George and the dragon — but of course we knew that would happen.

It’s a first novel for Michael Lotti, and quite a good one, best suited, I would estimate, for children aged about 8-12. The writing is not as supple and convincing as one gets from the most accomplished children’s writers, but the characters are well developed and the story is an interesting one. I would like to know how much of the material comes from the legends about St George, and how much was Lotti’s own creation. For me the most engaging aspect of the book concerned Marcellus’ encounters with the Christians, and especially with an itinerant Christian bishop named Agathon; there is a good deal of inspiring catechesis packed into those conversations, but I never felt that I was being preached to. I will certainly encourage my kids to read the book when they’re a little older.

***

The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien
(HarperCollins, 2007) [1937]
300 p.

This was my third or fourth time through this book, but my first with the kids, to whom I read it aloud. I have not a great deal to a say about it, apart from reporting that it was a huge success with the older kids (now aged 5 and 7). Actually, the experience of reading it to them was enriching for me too; I do not recall enjoying it on previous readings as much as I did this time.

It is always amusing to see the light-hearted, gee-whiz attitude this book takes to the One Ring, which we know will later prove to be so doom-laden. I used to surmise that Tolkien had not yet worked out the Ring’s significance at the time of writing, but this time I noticed that he returns to the Ring at the very end, emphasizing that it was a secret ring and that Bilbo never spoke of it to anyone. This inclines me to suspect that Tolkien did know its significance after all.