Exit Sendak, Pursued by a Bear: “My Brother’s Book”

January 11, 2013 § 5 Comments

In a now-infamous and oft-quoted NPR interview with Terry Gross in 2011, Maurice Sendak mentioned that he was writing a poem about a nose, and that it didn’t matter if no one understood it.

cn_image.size.maurice-sendak“I’m working for myself at this point,” he said. “This time is for me, and for me alone.”

“I’ve always wanted to write a poem about a nose, but you know…sort of a ludicrous subject,” he continued. “When I was younger, I was afraid of something that didn’t make a lot of sense but time went on, and you don’t have to worry about (your work not making sense to other people). It doesn’t matter.”

He was being completely serious. He was writing a poem about a nose.

His brother Jack’s nose, in fact.

Jack Sendak died on February 3rd, 1995. Now, less than a year after Maurice’s death, My Brother’s Book, his last completed work, is being published. The slim little book is an illustrated poem by Maurice about his brother’s death, and his own journey through grief. « Read the rest of this entry »

Why Stories are Important

December 12, 2012 § 4 Comments

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After my grandmother died, my mom told the story of her last minutes to everyone who asked. She’d been with her mother—my grandmother—at the hospital in Franklin, Indiana, and it was nighttime, around Christmas. She was about to leave when she noticed that it was snowing outside. She commented to those there that she was glad, that her mother loved snow. When she left, she watched the snow fall around her and on the lights and decorations outside the hospital. A peaceful knowing came over her: she knew that she wouldn’t see her mother alive again, but that it was ok. She drove to my uncle’s house. My grandmother was gone before my mom pulled into the driveway.

My mom will always tell this story, because she needs to know that her mother’s passing was a quiet, wondrous and good thing at the end of a wondrous and good life. It was acknowledged, not just by her, but by nature itself. This, for her, is the story of my grandmother’s death.

But it’s not quite enough—enough for her, perhaps, but not enough to share. Because there’s the story of what happened, and then there’s more. There’s the story you tell other people, and the story everyone needs to tell themselves. The after-story, the Er-story, the story that can feed everyone. « Read the rest of this entry »

We Are the Folk, Vol. 2: Cinderella in the Closet, Blood in the Shoe

November 27, 2012 § 2 Comments

You might remember my post on three odd news stories that, to this blogger, had the ring of Grimm to them: a woman who wished for children and instead collected over 500 cats, a man who had a fight with his wife about soup and then became lost in the frozen woods for three months, and a girl who was promised in marriage to a man only to be shut away and replaced by a false bride who, together with the groom, tortured the young woman for years. For links, see my original post here.

All of these are real, contemporary stories, and all are perfect ammunition to use against those who claim that we no longer live in the world of “fairy tales.” What, exactly, do these folks believe fairy tales are? It doesn’t take much—certainly not an entire feudal caste system, as some have suggested—for someone to embody an archetype. Shit, brides do it all the time. Cinderella gowns! Fairy tale weddings! And if you pay attention, it isn’t just the ones tossing “Cinderella” around as an adjective who are unwittingly playing what could very well be parts in some of our darkest tales. Let’s stick to our Cinderella theme, shall we, and take a look at the news. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Favorite.

November 8, 2012 § 31 Comments

It should be almost as blasphemous to pinpoint a favorite book as it is to single out a favorite child, especially if you’re a Reader with a Capital R. What will the others think? Will the Grimms become bitter? Will Peter Pan, knowing that he’s loved but not (gasp!) my favorite, develop some deeply-seated childish drive for attention? That is, more than he already has? It’s a risky move, both because someone on the shelf might get offended , and because there’s always the chance–some say–that you might change your mind.

But I won’t change my mind, even if my favorite book has lots of competition.

In my apartment there’s a special shelf, where my Grimms live, all of my Sendak, Barrie, and Trina Schart Hyman. Also, most of the criticism of the aforementioned hang out there as well. It’s the place of honor, away from the YA paperbacks and college poetry textbooks, where my 1st edition of Barrie’s The Little White Bird sits next to Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell’s The Juniper Tree, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, which was given to me by a good friend in a time of book-need. All of Maria Tatar’s Annotated series (Hans Christian Andersen, The Grimms, Peter Pan) are here, along with a copy of War of the Worlds, as illustrated by Edward Gorey, and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, as illustrated by the late, beautiful, Trina Schart Hyman. Audrey Niffennegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters, next to both volumes of Tony Kushner’s study of the work of Maurice Sendak.

All of this is not to brag, but to say that it might surprise some of you readers, who’ll have already been exposed to my rants and exultations about many of these titles, that none of these (not even Peter and Wendy, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman!) is my favorite book of all time. In fact, the author of this book is someone whose name has never appeared on this blog before. It’s a book I grew up with without attaching any significance to the name, the way I now do with my hoarded information about authors of books that I love. I love this book not because there’s any thrilling backstory or deep personal turmoil in the making of it. It’s simple, beautiful, and, sadly, out of print.

This, dears, is my favorite book of all time:

« Read the rest of this entry »

Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What You Please, and Night’s Best Girl

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

…Or so September’s shadow has become, in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, since being cruelly sliced from September’s side and taken down to Fairyland Below in the first book of the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Now September has returned to Fairyland to find that her shadow, Halloween, has caused a panic in Fairyland-Above by stealing everyone’s shadows (the source of their magic) to join her in her nightly revels in Fairyland-Below, with the help of the mysterious Alleyman. September must stand up to her impish and impulsive shadow, resist the temptations of constant, unbridled magic-making, and find a way to restore balance to Fairyland.

In Fell Beneath Fairyland, September is a slightly older, and more emotionally muddled, heroine—now a budding teenager, September’s heart is a bit more aching, and her instincts are a bit more honed. Her shadow is still the spitting image of the September who saved Fairyland in the last book, missing shoe and all—a couple of years younger, and so much more impulsive. Halloween is very much September’s Id, the child-self that growing September is leaving behind, and it’s this contrast that Fell Beneath Fairyland seeks to explore: what happens to a child heroine once she’s no longer such a child? Does a one-time savior of Fairyland get to enjoy the magical fruits of her labor and let untapped wishes loose, or is a heroine’s work dependent on balance? « Read the rest of this entry »

The Search for the Trippiest Children’s Book: Margaret Wise Brown’s “The Color Kittens”

August 7, 2012 § 7 Comments

It’s a great day at the old toy store day job when my love for vintage things, good books, and kooky surreality meet up in an item that costs less than $5. The best thing about The Color Kittens, originally published in 1949: it’s way cheaper than a hit of LSD, and produces similar results.

This gem is part of the Little Golden Treasures series, part of the Golden Books ouvre, published by Random House. The Color Kittens was written in 1949 by Margaret Wise Brown, who is best known for the soothing and poetic Goodnight Moon. The Color Kittens is similarly soothing to read out loud–many lines in the book rhyme, and those parts that don’t are written conversationally and almost nonsensically. Example: “And they wanted green paint, of course*, because nearly every place they liked to go was green.” *italics added for emphasis. The “nearly every place” is vague, but the tone of the sentence, with “of course,” is so certain. This is one way that Margaret Wise Brown engages a child’s confidence in the story, while still introducing a charming non-logic, or at least a hint at the unnecessary nature of logic.

But then, I’m not highlighting this book because it’s a paragon of logic. On the contrary. « Read the rest of this entry »

Voldemort Versus Mount Olympus: London’s Tribute to Great Children’s Lit

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I an think of nothing better to jolt me out of a bleak blogging block than the sight of JK Rowling reading JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, live, to the entire world (except the USA, who saw it four hours later).

Many have criticized (or backhandedly praised) London’s Olympian bash as pushing whimsy more than ceremony. Even I watched the first twenty minutes and thought the whole thing seemed a little Masterpiece Theatre-ish, and that Masterpiece Theatre really does belong on the small screen, and not live, in front of thousands. Just doesn’t quite fit, thematically, in a stadium.

But as the night wore on, I realized that London’s show was largely a philological one, for better or worse: a show that, rather than depicting the uniformity of its mindset and citizens as China did, attempted to catalog and define its greatest contributions to the world of information and literature, from Shakespeare to the world wide web. The biggest–and most nonsensical stop, for those who weren’t sure what they were looking at–was in the realm of children’s literature, which owes British writers…well, pretty much everything. « Read the rest of this entry »

Dear “Can Fairy Tales Belong to Anyone?”

May 31, 2012 § 5 Comments

God I love WordPress. There is nothing more entertaining, sometimes bewildering, and ofttimes enraging as being able to see what Google search terms someone used that led them down the rabbit hole to your humble blog.

I try to let the frequently searched high school essay questions slide off my back while resisting the urge to answer them for the poor student (“narrative voice barrie peter pan” and “what is the atmosphere of the book hnger games” (sic)), and I’ve stopped rolling my eyes every damn time someone searches “lana parilla hot” and it gets them here. Hi guys, I bet you found me again, just since I typed that. Enjoying yourselves? Here you go:

But this morning I saw listed not once, but twice, a question that got my brain buzzing and my heart hurting–someone, over the course of the night had searched multiple times the question “can fairy tales belong to anyone?” « Read the rest of this entry »

Briefly, on Cinderella.

May 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Because writing doesn’t exactly pay the bills, I work in a toy store.

Yesterday:

“My daughter wants to have a Cinderella themed birthday party, what do you suggest?”

Assuming that a pile of lentils and a severed toe aren’t what she’s after, I suggest the toy brooms we sell.

It would be funny, I say. You know, Cinderella. She cleans, and is rewarded with cake.

The woman stares blankly.

“I thought maybe you’d have headbands?”

Headbands? I think. Then I get it. THAT Cinderella. You know, the one who wears a headband. No other one exists.

I liked my idea better, but hey, it’s not my world. « Read the rest of this entry »

Baba Yaga, My Love

May 6, 2012 § 5 Comments

If you just heard a loud, resounding “sweet!” echoing across the mountains and valleys of upstate New York and wondered what just happened—it was me. Sorry if I scared your dog.

But that’s how excited I am to learn that Catherynne M. Valente has sold a companion book to 2011’s Deathless, a dark, sexy take on the Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless, set during the siege of Leningrad (you can read my full review of that here). In 2014, we’ll be treated to Matroyshka, a companion novel, which I can only hope means more dark Russian folklore, more sexy-times with undead men, and more of my favorite fairy tale character OF ALL TIME.

Readers, it’s time to tell you about my love affair with Baba Yaga.

There’s been much talk (and much writing on my end, which I hope to share with you soon) on the subject of the fairy tale figure of the Evil Queen/Stepmother, who is the permeating witch figure in German and English folklore. Thanks to our full helping of Snow White-related entertainment this year, we’re getting to see a lot of her, in all of her complex, mysterious dumbed-down glory. But as fascinating as the wicked stepmother/evil queen trope is in Grimm (if not in Hollywood), even more fascinating, even more dangerous, and even more chock full of contradiction is Baba Yaga the Bony-Legged, of Slavic folklore fame. « Read the rest of this entry »

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