Before I comment on a few (certain, very good) works of children’s literature, I’d like to make some general comments on ‘children and their stories’.
I expect you have noticed how human children are ENTIRELY ‘at home’ with animals as characters in a story. I’ve never known a child to complain that it’s UNREALISTIC for animals to talk, or wear clothes (like people), or live in a house (the kind a human might live in)
We are BORN with mirror neurons – We are hard-wired for EMPATHY. It is apparently very easy for (human) children to regard animals (as well as humans) as : US … we.
[At the end of this article I will include the link to “This is the Earth, this is the Sky” which includes a brief discussion on (that) form of ‘children’s art”]
The Amazing Bone – William Steig
This is a delightful book. The main character is Pearl (who is a pig) – a schoolgirl. On her way home from school one day – in the forest – she discovers a talking bone. “But you’re a BONE ! “says Pearl. “How come you can TALK?” “I don’t know.” says the bone. “I didn’t make the world.”
Well – they quickly become great friends. Proceeding on through the forest, they are beset by thieves; but the bone (from Pearl’s purse) roars like a lion and frightens away the robbers.
So (it turns out – that the bone is able to produce ANY sound which may be imagined!)
The (scary) climax of the story is when (a bit further along) they are captured by a wiley fox (who is too smart to be fooled by any of the bone’s noises). The fox (quite delighted with the bone himself) sets about building a fire – to roast Pearl for his dinner. Pearl, greatly distraught, says to the bone – “Say something to comfort me!” “You are very dear to me.” says the bone. Then – to everyone’s surprise, the bone shouts a series of magic spells – shrinking the fox, finally, to the size of a mouse … saving Pearl!
Finally arriving home, Pearl introduces the bone to her parents ; and the bone is greatly appreciated … given a place of honor (on a special tray) and becomes part of the family.
I consider this to be a priceless piece of work. It is not merely fun and full of magic (and with lovely color illustrations) … but also contains profound truths about the Nature of Life – (that we are all the beneficiaries of life … and that Love and enjoying the gift of life are what really matter)
It was William Steig, by the way, who was the creator of Shrek!
The Quiltmaker’s Gift – Jeff Brumbeau
I have heard it said – that this story is about GENEROSITY; but I do not consider that to be quite right. I would say that it is about deliverance from the (great and common evil of) greed & selfishness.
The heroine of the story is a woman who makes quilts and gives them to the poor (homeless) people down in the town, who at night suffer from the cold.
The Main Character is the king of that land, who is very rich and who owns countless (precious) objects of every sort and description. Yet he just can’t ‘get enough’ of them and always covets more.
Our society (let us say Western Civilization) continues to suffer from the (great) Pathology of Greed & Selfishness. [I am confident that Neil Young entitled his song “After the Gold Rush” for a REASON – – such as – looking forward to / yearning for the time when we shall have outgrown this Sickness]
Anyway, the king in our story is the embodiment of this disease. And when he hears of the exquisite beauty of the work of the Quiltmaker, he requests (demands) that she gift him with one. She refuses. And this (same) transaction persists through several iterations … until she finally agrees … she WILL give the king one of her quilts – IF (& after) he gives away ALL his (many) possessions! Well, the King is certainly not fond of this proposal. But after much stewing and pondering, he decides to make a beginning … and he gives something away! And eventually he ‘takes it on’. But because he had acquired SO many possessions, it takes him a very long time to complete it. By and by, he returns home – ragged and happy. He has discovered that giving things away to others brought him true joy whereas his former ‘love’ of possessions was merely an (unfulfilling) lust, which never really made him happy.
The quiltmaker can see that he has earned his quilt. And, what is more, he has become a person who is fit to BE with.
Miss Rumphius – Barbara Cooney
I wish to begin this ‘review’ with an epigram
(a poem by Mary Oliver)
The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
This book is beautiful and charming enough … to be valuable. But what makes it precious is that it manages (in a beguiling way) to present to the child / (the reader) the (great) Question – “What would you like to DO with your life? How would you like to spend it?”
Here is an excerpt (from the book):
In the evening Alice sat on her grandfather’s knee and listened to his stories of faraway places. When he had finished, Alice would say, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea.”
“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather. “but there is a third thing you must do.”
“What is that?” asked Alice.
“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.
“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.
In the meantime Alice got up and washed her face and ate porridge for breakfast. She went to school and came home and did her homework.
And pretty soon she was grown up.
As you can see, Ms. Cooney’s way with a story is charming. And the counsel (from the grandfather) is worthwhile and sound, certainly.
I (eventually) realized that the counsel (to make the world more beautiful) … is (unnecessarily) narrow.
Truth, beauty, and goodness.
These (three) are what should be offered … and set before the young life … as a worthy goal. Any one (or any combination).
Mmm? Is it not so?
Goodness = Mother Teresa.
Truth = Madame Curie or Einstein or Malcom X or Rumi.
(And the fact that we humans have a tendency to kill our prophets – when they tell us the truth – is perhaps not a very good reason NOT to pursue the truth.)
Beauty = Michelangelo.
There are (of course) many human lives which have furthered truth or beauty or goodness. (Maybe give it some thought)
What the Dormouse Said – Amy Gash
This is (technically) not a children’s book. It is rather a collection of pithy excerpts from Children’s Literature. (The full title is “What the Dormouse Said Lessons for Grown-ups from Children’s Books”)
It may happen that you will read through this book … and be so smitten by certain of the excerpts … that you will obtain the book it is from … and read it to your children.
I think it is delightful and intriguing. And I like it very much.
Allow me to focus on a certain single entry:
“The life of a Marionette has grown very tiresome to me and I want to become a boy, no matter how hard it is.” (from The Adventures of Pinocchio by C. Collodi, 1883)
Is not this yearning for authenticity close to the heart of the human predicament? We want to have a Real Life … but we want to be Safe!
She’d teach them [her children] these things are nothing, the clothes, toys, and furniture. These things fool people into thinking they must stay where the things are. Leave it all, she’d teach them even . . . all your dreams of safe, calm places. Go with what is most terrifying. … Always choose love over safety, if you can tell the difference. – Josephine Humphreys Dreams of Sleep
What sort of things do old people say when they are at the end of their life? They say they wish they had taken more risks. Mmm?
And aren’t Pinocchio’s sentiments also behind stories like “I, Robot”? There are LOTS of ‘Pinocchio stories’.
And we can all relate to them, can we not? (even us humans)
[regarding – truth, beauty, & goodness]: