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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday's for Kids VIII -- Two Late-30s Classics; Two Current Favorites

The Story of Ferdinand, 1936, by Munroe Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson, has always been one of my very favorite children's books, even though my family never owned it.  I don't know exactly when I first encountered the book, but there's the sensation that I've known the softy story, the softy characters, the romantic setting, and the beautiful everything, since before I can remember.  It, like so many other books, is a part of me.  Quite contrary to the subjective romance of my past with the book, naggingly I believe I first read--actually read--the book at the dentist's office--was likely even tempted to steal it (though I didn't--I still don't have my own copy) --and, if I'm honest with myself, probably actually had my very first contact with the Spanish Bull via Disney's short film, "Ferdinand the Bull,"1938 winner of an Oscar.

Certainly the film and the book have their own merits, and I don't recommend you substitute one for the other or the other for one.  Since I can't post the book here on the blog, and if you haven't read it, well, find a copy.  Read it.  The message is not deep, both the children you might read it to and you the reader will certainly receive its warm fuzzy endowment.


My second recommendation is for one Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by author/illustrator (and Caldecott Medal winner) Virginia Lee Burton.  This one I did indeed have growing up.  I read it all the time.  If you unfamiliar with it, it's kind of a Little-Engine-that-Could meets "buddy" fiction meets your very favorite sports fable--Rudy-like, even--meets Tolkeinish anti-industrialization propaganda (not that either LoR or MMHSS is propaganda!) story.  Yes.  This book is that good.

As a kid, of course, I loved the build-up of the dig-down.  Simply put, the story is this: the friends are introduced; they're outmoded by innovation; made obsolete, they retreat to the country; they're posed a challenge; and the mighty duo overcomes all, of course, but there's a bittersweet fate down there at the bottom of the hole they've dug themselves, which fate--there's no way out! --becomes more and more bitter, less and less sweet, the older I get.

The great thing about children's books, especially old favorites like these, is that they manage to replant you temporarily back into your childhood, often a very good thing for those like me who had great childhoods and who currently have, well, the beginnings of a very real adulthood.  This book is an excellent children's book, indeed--inspirational, fun, comforting; but it is also a book for grownups.  However, while it is indeed ideal for the kids, what is it really for we who read it to them?

I'm still working that out.

Maybe I'll do a Dubliners-style deconstruction of it someday--but not now; this is Wednesday after all.

The sound isn't very good on this one;
you may need to turn it up quite a bit.



  1. Arg, my computer's audio is not good enough to pick up the second one.

    To answer your question, or at least do my best to answer it, there are a few uses of which I can think.

    1. It obviously is a great bonding experience with the child, and it's great because it's something that's fun, helps them learn, and gives you a chance to be with them at the same time.
    2. There's obviously the nostalgia aspect that you brought up. A little over a month ago, the PBS channel here in Washington was playing "Thomas the Tank Engine" at like 12:30am. Now why was it on that late? I have no idea. But I was bored, so I decided to watch it, and it brought back good memories, such as the first birthday that I remember when I was 3 years old, and my mom made a Thomas the Tank Engine cake, as well as plenty of others.
    3. Finally, this might be just me, but every once in a while, I have a taste for a story that isn't as complicated as "Dubliners" or even "Jane Eyre". I think that a deconstruction of a story like this might actually be the worst thing that you could do, and you know how much I generally enjoy deconstructing a story because I think that most of them are meant to be simple enough that a kid can understand them just as well as any college professor of literature. What are your thoughts on it?

  2. 3 -- Well, I'm not entirely sure. There is an entire school of deconstruction for children's lit. For me, a good breakdown of material doesn't detract from the enjoyability of the surface story. In the case of these two, I don't think there's a lot of depth the first, but the ending of MMhSS.... Sometimes I feel like I'm going that way--sort of a metaphor on the rat race; but I think it goes a lot deeper than that--or that the rat race metaphor is maybe too simplistic. Either way, I don't think I'll get around to it, because the inkling of the bitter-sweet fate is more than adequate for me right now. More than that, I do think a lot of children's authors--rather than just type casting their audience--talk about issues that are significant to them as adults, but couch them in child-ish themes--maybe to simplify them, or deescalate or hide them. Look at "Where the Wild Things Are," any fantasy intended for children, even things as simple and pop as Scieszka/Smith or Silverstein. The great things about these stories and topics is there is substantial material for the kids to dig into, and there's an entirely complimentary side that invites the "adult." Not always. Often. Thoughts?

  3. I thought that would be your opinion. You're certainly right on "Where the Wild Things Are". And probably right over-all. I don't know. Sometimes I just get dubious of deconstruction. Not normally the way you do it, but the way my college poetry class operated sometimes, even though I loved the class as a whole. Sometimes it felt like we were making writing more of a science than an art, and I've had enough with sciences.

  4. I totally understand your position there with the science v art thing. Have you seen "Dead Poets Society"? That was a major issue there, too. And I think the big difference is in the attitude behind the deconstruction. I pretty much only analyze what I'm passionate about. Why bother with all that work if you're not interested in the first place. Sometimes I think the "professors'" passion has gone neuter, and that's understandable considering the concentration of effort and pressure. It's a little like the whole reason I couldn't major in music. Too important to spoil by making it homework. I think I lasted out as a teacher because I really wasn't all that great (still not, really) at the whole lit thing, though I loved it. I still love it. I'm crazy about it. It's exciting! The deconstruction is a driving force to that passion, because it help me understand. I've talked about treasure hunts before, and this has become one of them for me. However, there's got to come a point where it stops. When the arts get defined down to their mathematical components, then there's a problem. It's like talking about PASSION and LOVE and ANGER as no more than physiological responses to stimuli--nothing but chemicals. It's like defining religion and issues of faith with science--to a point it's okay, but go to far and there's no longer the leap--and that sort of objectivity can never create faith, though it is capable in certain circumstances to bolster it. Art, for me, is like that.

  5. Haven't seen the "Dead Poets Society". I assume you recommend it?

    I enjoy a good literary treasure hunt, too, but my fear is that sometimes a work is more supposed to be a kid's Easter egg hunt, and we bring in the hounds and metal detectors, and all the little kids run away screaming.

    But anyway, I think you're right. To me, it's about losing that feeling of awe at the work. If you've been studying something so long and deconstructing it so long that it kind of comes off its pedestal, I think that's a problem. There are some works for me, like "Lord of the Rings" or "Moby Dick" or "East of Eden" that I don't think could ever cease to excite me, but I'm sure that they have for some people.

  6. You would really enjoy the movie. Robin Williams is a revelation.

    I love your analogy about the Easter Eggs. Brilliant.

    I agree that there are some works that are just great enough that they'll never fall. In addition to LoR and EoE ("Moby Dick"'s gotta be next) Hulme is like that for me, among many others. Oh, like "Alice in Wonderland" and "Looking Glass." Man -- NEVER get tired of those!

    I finding myself more careful in asking questions about the text so that I'm not so nit-picky that the magic is lost. At least for me, as I'm my only measuring stick. It's actually a pretty tricky business there.

  7. I'm so afraid now that I've built "Moby-Dick" up so high that it's not going to be able to meet expectations. I've generally found either people love it or hate it. If you hate it, I'm going to feel really bad because it's a major time investment.

    I should check to see if our library at AU has the movie. I'd assume that they do. I never really take advantage of their video library.

    By the way, you didn't have the misfortune of chancing upon the latest "Alice" movie, did you? It would be an understatement to say that it kills the book--more like, well, I'm tired of coming up with analogies. It's bad.

  8. I hated it. I didn't mind the Hatter, and think he would do well in a "truer" turn of the stories. I think though, as I've said before, the best way to remake those books/movies is to really do them right. I just don't know how....

  9. The problem is that I think there are kind of two interpretations of the books, which I think that Carroll allows you to have at the same time: this really great, "wonder"ful place, but then also a fairly twisted, scary place. And it's really hard to make that into a novel, but probably even harder to make it into a movie.

  10. Actually, I there are a couple versions that actually capture this particular duality. The difficult one--the one that's never happened--is the farewell elegy to Alice from Dodgson. Pure freaking poetry! Spectacular stuff, and there's just got to be a way to capture that to show people. Or, maybe, it's a secret for the few....

  11. two great classics, both of which belong on any well-read bookshelf, amongst other revered works.


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