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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books

In the Land of Oz

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Wizard of OzThe Wizard of Oz is a classic. Full stop. Whether it’s known through L. Frank Baum’s original book for children or through the 1939 film adaptation starring Judy Garland as Dorothy, it lingers in the minds of many. Until recently, I had only been familiar with the film—and, to be honest, the first and last time I watched it was to see what may or may not have been a Munchkin hanging himself from a tree as the gang of four skipped down the Yellow Brick Road*.

Now, The Wizard of Oz has found its way back into the cultural conversation with a newly released prequel starring James Franco. Although the film isn’t getting the best reviews, there’s been an outpouring of interest in the book again and a number of thoughtful pieces have surfaced on the Internet.

At Litreactor, Kimberly Turner delves into the history of the Oz series. Included are a number of details about L. Frank Baum’s life, the book’s sales history, and the differences between the popular film adaptation and the original text:

As is typical with movie adaptations, the 1939 film differs from its source material in more ways than I can list here—at least without losing your attention. A few of the notable differences, besides the ruby slippers: In the book, Oz is a real place, not a dream world; thus the existence of forty-one sequels. The Wicked Witch Of The West is a blip on the radar rather than the primary obstacle. Dorothy is a stronger, more feminist protagonist and considerably less weepy. There are quite a few more subplots, including a visit to a city made of China and an encounter with an odd race of armless guards called Hammerhead, and much, much more beheading.

At The New Yorker, Erin Overbey, Deputy head of the magazine’s archive, dug through past issues and found a negative review of the film. Their critic at the time, Russell Maloney, said it had “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity.” Meanwhile an essay written by Salman Rushdie in 1992 links the story to a “longing for liberation from mundane routine.” In a Critic at Large piece by John Updike where he critiques The Annotated Wizard of Oz we learn some interesting background on Baum: he wrote The Wizard of Oz at age forty-four in 1900 and was married to a politically progressive woman, a suffragette who co-authored a book with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Dorothy’s strength, as noted above in the Litreactor piece, may have been her doing as she had a great influence on her husband. He’d even written a few subsequent books under female pseudonyms.

Wizard of Oz illustrationAs part of my experiment in reading children’s books as an adult, many of which I missed in my younger years, I’d decided to read The Wizard of Oz late last year. It was an iconic book that I had a cursory knowledge of and felt I was missing out on a piece of American cultural history.

In his introduction to The Wizard of Oz, Baum said he’d written the book “solely to please the children of today.” He hoped to do away with the “heartaches and nightmares” of previous fairy tales and legends. “Modern education includes morality … the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incidents,” he said. This last part leaves one to wonder how he explained the Winged Monkeys but point taken.

With Baum’s intention in mind I embarked on my reading. Instead of looking for social and political undertones, which many have read into the silver shoes and Yellow Brick Road, I enjoyed it as a simple story about a girl suddenly finding herself in a strange land and longing to return home. Mostly, I was surprised by and taken with the vivid descriptions undoubtedly lost in summary.

By now everyone knows that Dorothy lived on a farm in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. One day a cyclone hits, the house is lifted into the air, and she is flown to a faraway land. What those who haven’t read the book don’t know is the sad state her relatives were in prior to the storm. The opening scene is nearly comic in its darkness:

Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.

When Aunt Em came there to live she was a young, pretty wife. The sun and wind had changed her, too. They had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also. She was thin and gaunt, and never smiled now. …

Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.

Much is made of the use of technicolor of the 1939 film and after reading Baum’s book one has to wonder if it could have been made otherwise. After Dorothy wakes to find herself “in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty,” color is prevalent in his descriptions

Shortly after being set down, Dorothy meets a lion who has no courage, a tin woodman who has no heart, and a scarecrow who has no brains. Together, the four of them set off—often through hostile territory—in search of what they each desire.

They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled Dorothy’s eyes.

There’s lots of “brilliance” and “dazzle” in this book and after they’re instructed to visit the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz they encounter both again at the gates of his Emerald City.

The next morning, as soon as the sun was up, they started on their way, and soon saw a beautiful green glow in the sky just before them. … As they walked on, the green glow became brighter, and it seemed that at last they were nearing the end of their travels. … In front of them, and at the end of the road of yellow brick, was a big gate, all studded with emeralds that glittered so in the sun that even the painted eyes of the Scarecrow were dazzled by their brilliancy.

Although Baum said he wasn’t in the business of dispensing morals, there are plenty to be found in this story. When asked by the Scarecrow for brains, Oz replies, “You don’t need them. You learn something new every day. A baby has brains, but it doesn’t know much. Experience is the only thing that brings knowledge, and the longer you are on earth the more experience you are sure to get.”

When the Lion asks for courage Oz says, “You have plenty of courage, I am sure. All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger.” The Tin Woodman, when he asks for a heart, is told he is wrong to want a heart, that hearts “make most people unhappy.”

In the end The Wizard of Oz does offer lessons; it wouldn’t have lasted this long in our collective psyche otherwise.

Buy The Wizard of Oz from your local bookstore
Listen to Studio 360’s American Icons show on The Wizard of Oz

*While writing this piece I did some research (a.k.a a quick Google search) and learned that the Munchkin thing is a myth and that it was really a bird. Here’s a list of 7 others from BuzzFeed.

Written by Gabrielle

March 19, 2013 at 6:53 am

An Education with Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio

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It was by chance that I picked up a copy of Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. A recent edition published by New York Review of Books was shelved in the adult section of the bookstore, a place I didn’t expect it to be. At first the haunting cover image, a close-up of a tree with wide-open, wet eyes, caught my attention, but it was the introduction from Umberto Eco and afterword by Rebecca West that made me linger. These two celebrated writers promised the mature analysis I would need after finishing a book known to me as story for children.

Luckily, I wasn’t familiar with Disney’s film adaptation, nor had I read its numerous variations. I was coming to it with the barest of information: wooden puppet wants to be a real boy; talking cricket named Jiminy; old man named Geppetto; nose grows when Pinocchio lies. As it turns out, Pinocchio’s longing to be human is not as prominent in the original, his nose is barely mentioned, and Jiminy Cricket is a near fabrication.

In fact, the truth about Jiminy Cricket is a perfect example of why reading, or revisiting, children’s books when you’re older can be so much fun.

After the cricket–known in Collodi’s version only as the Talking Cricket–reprimands Pinocchio for his obstinacy, the puppet throws a tantrum. On page 15 we read:

At these last words, Pinocchio jumped up in a rage, grabbed a wooden mallet from the workbench, and flung it at the Talking Cricket.

Perhaps he didn’t mean to hit him at all, but unfortunately he hit him square on the head. With his last breath the poor Cricket cried cree-cree-cree and then died on the spot, stuck to the wall.

At the time of Collodi’s writing–Pinocchio was serialized from 1881 to 1883–children’s books were a new genre. In her afterword, Rebecca West says, “Children’s literature was an innovation in nineteenth-century Italy (and elsewhere).” This alone would explain why Pinocchio feels more like a story with a child at its center rather than a children’s story.

While children’s authors today have a lineage to look to for guidance, Collodi was without a bookshelf to reference. Instead, as West points out, among his influences were Dante’s Divine Comedy, Homer’s Odyssey, and Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. We owe the slimness of the book to the Tuscan novella and Boccaccio’s Decameron, with which Collodi would have been familiar. Also an influence, according to West, was Celtic and Nordic mythology, playing a hand in Pinocchio’s “magical vegetation,” which gave Collodi the idea for a boy carved from a tree.

“It must be said first,” says Umberto Eco in his introduction, “that, though written in the nineteenth century, the original Pinocchio remains as readable as if it had been written in the twenty-first, so limpid and simple in its prose–and so musical in its simplicity.” Although the story breezes along, thanks to quick sentences, urgent dialogue, and short chapters, the story itself gives readers much to think about, as Eco acknowledges: “though it’s written in simple language, Pinocchio is not a simple book. … [it] doesn’t limit itself to one simple, basic moral, but rather deals with many.” A bildungsroman, he calls it: a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.

Pinocchio, although wooden, is very much a boy and now that he’s been let loose in the world, he must learn to behave. But, like most 6 and 7-year olds, Pinocchio is unruly. In addition to murdering the cricket who, from thereon in, appears as a ghost, Pinocchio has no sense of right and wrong; he has a profound lack of empathy and about as much willpower as his fleshy counterpart.

One of Pinocchio’s major failings is his aversion to school. Although Geppetto demands he go, even sacrificing his last coins for a text book, Pinocchio is easily distracted and lured into harmful situations. Two characters who pull Pinocchio away time and again are a pair of greedy creatures hoping to steal what few cents the boy has. In turn, it’s Pinocchio’s own greed and ignorance that gets in the way of his making good decisions.

“Pinocchio hesitated a little before answering, as he thought of the good Fairy, of old Geppetto, and of the Talking Cricket’s warnings. But in the end he did what all children with thick skulls and hard hearts do: in the end, that is, he said to the Fox and the Cat, ‘Let’s go then–I’m coming with you.’”

When Collodi was writing, Italy was in the midst of political upheaval. He had allied himself with the Republicans–those fighting against the Monarchy for a unified country. After unification, and before Collodi wrote Pinocchio, the school system was restructured. The process was not without many heated debates. During this time Collodi made a name for himself writing pedagogical tracts.

Although “attracted by order, discipline, and structured educational practices,” as West says in her afterword, Collodi was not a great fan of the programs initiated after the unification. She continues, “in spite of his interest in pedagogical writing, Collodi was highly suspicious of them [the programs] because he saw them as a threat to individuality and personal freedom.”

This tension between obedience and freedom–structured education vs. individualism–is at the center of Pinocchio, allowing it to be read as “a tale of both transgression and the necessity for conformity.”

Ultimately, Pinocchio learns to control his impulses and, as is suiting to a bildungsroman, shows moral and intellectual growth. But while the story comes to a close, in the mind of a careful reader it doesn’t end on the last page. The great triumph of Pinocchio is that it doesn’t give you answers, only questions. In this way, Collodi is still teaching. Although touted as a children’s book, Pinocchio leaves you with big, enduring issues rumbling around in your head: freedom vs. authoritarianism, what does youth owe society’s elders, what system of education is most effective, and how should we approach adolescent development. Anyone interested in the role of education and a child’s place in society will be well-served to read or reread this timeless classic.

Buy Pinocchio at your local independent bookstore

Written by Gabrielle

October 9, 2012 at 6:51 am

Short Takes: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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In The Graveyard Book, with it’s sparse language and eight concise chapters, Neil Gaiman shines as a master storyteller. Although written for children, the story, winning the 2009 Newbery Medal winner, follows the Gothic fairy tale tradition, assuring it a satisfied adult audience.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy whose family meets a brutal end when he is just a baby. Unnoticed by the murderer, he escapes from the house and finds his way to the nearby graveyard. There he’s raised by ghosts, given to the Owens’ as a son, to Silas as a charge, and renamed “Nobody,” or “Bod” for short.

In true Gaiman fashion, the usual ghost story is flipped on its head, with the ghosts as protectors and humans (mostly) as villains. The boy has “The Freedom of the Graveyard,” the ability to go places inaccessible by the average living person, and a few ghost-like attributes, such as fading and remaining unnoticed—not to mention the ability to see and communicate with the graveyard’s dead inhabitants.

Trite as it is to say, this book is a coming of age tale. For years, Bod is kept inside the grounds for safety, watched over by the numerous ghosts, all of whom know there will come a time when he’s no longer a boy and must go out into the world to live among the living. As Bod grows older, the years neatly chronicled in separate chapters, he becomes curious, asks more questions, and takes more risks.

The Graveyard Book is a heartwarming story for all ages. Read it and pass it along to the younger ones in your life.

Buy The Graveyard Book at IndieBound (or find it at a local indie bookstore near you)
The Graveyard Book site
Neil Gaiman on the Orgins of The Graveyard Book (video)
The Art of Dave McKean (book’s illustrator)

Written by Gabrielle

December 6, 2011 at 6:06 am

Banned Books Week Review: James and the Giant Peach

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To celebrate the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week here’s a review of an often challenged book.

I was not surprised when I saw James and the Giant Peach on the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books list compiled by the American Library Association. I’d never read Roald Dahl as a kid, not even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory although I’d seen the movie. That all changed this August when Penguin reissued James and the Giant Peach as a Graphic Classic Deluxe. With a great illustrated cover by comics artist Jordan Crane and introduction from author Aimee Bender, I couldn’t resist.

In her recent New York Times essay about children’s book, The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules, Pamela Paul discussed how the now much-lauded books of Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, and Dr. Seuss were once deemed inappropriate for kids. All three authors challenged the status quo: the notion that children’s books were to teach children how to behave, not to portray them as how they actually were—rebellious, insolent, and rowdy.

A familiar trope often repeated to children is “respect your elders” and this was what was reinforced by their literature. While most of the time it’s good advice, there are exceptions to the rule. Not that kids should disrespect adults but not all adults are not worthy of deference.

When I began James and the Giant Peach I was horrified by James’s two aunts. He’d come to live with them after his parents were eaten by a rhinoceros while shopping on the streets of London—also horrifying. In no modern society would his aunts be considered fit guardians. They were undeniably abusive: they forced James into manual labor beyond what was appropriate for his age, threatened to beat him, isolated him from others, called him names, and, it appears, often neglected to feed him. The first few chapters are painful to read and will undoubtedly cause a sensitive reader to cry out in desperation for James stand up for himself.

It’s when, as Pamela Paul would say, James breaks with convention and runs away to the far end of the garden to console himself that he’s given magic seed-like things by a peculiar old man. He’s told that if he follows the instructions for preparation and swallows the seeds in one gulp “fabulous, unbelievable things” will happen and he’ll never be miserable again.

However, we never find out what would have happened if James drank the odd, magic seeds because, as Aimee describes in her introduction, in “an almost slapstick move whereby he trips, Buster Keaton-like,” he drops the seeds and they sink into the dirt at the foot of a fruit tree. Instead, what comes of the misstep is a trans-Atlantic journey in a giant peach with life-size insects.

With this turn of events, Dahl adds a twist to the classic fairy tale quest. James ultimately goes on an adventure but it’s not the one initially intended and not one of his own making. It’s a story of mishaps, coming into one’s own, developing confidence, and finding a group that appreciates you for who you are or, as Aimee eloquently puts it: it’s a story of “transformation of small things into large, of a helpless child into someone with power and agency”.

These larger themes, stemming from dark beginnings, make James and the Giant Peach a great book for both middle grade readers and adults—and an even better one if the two can share in it together.

James and the Giant Peach at IndieBound
New York Times essay The Children’s Authors Who Broke the Rules
Roald Dahl’s official website
Jordan Crane’s work can be found here
Aimee Bender’s website
The American Library Association’s list of 100 most frequently challenged books: 1990 to 2000

Written by Gabrielle

September 26, 2011 at 6:05 am

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