children’s literature

Book Review: George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville MacDonald


It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.

George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.

Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.

Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.

The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.

Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.

_________
Futher Reading

C.S. Lewis On Good Reading Materials For Children

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering

Bill Watterson On Creativity

55 Classics Review # 12 – The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster


I found quickly that The Phantom Tollbooth is one of those books that defined many people’s youthful reading. When I started it I found that it started conversations for me. This is a book that true fans read over again and often. It can be tricky to read something like this for the first time as an adult, but I think my slow start to the text actually helped to prepare me for the unique content of the book.

The Phantom Tollbooth is unlike any text I’ve read before. It feels surreal like Alice In Wonderland, fast and expansive like A Wrinkle In Time, and allegorical like Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet somehow it works in a way I wouldn’t have expected if you had simply explained these elements to me. It fits into a space in literature that seems wholly unique. I read The Dot And The Line a few years ago and loved it. After that I began to learn more about Norton Juster, and I find him to be a fascinating creative. There is something wonderful about people who make great work in a field they don’t consider to be their career. Juster was a career architect who also happened to write a definitive children’s book. He is an author not because he thought it was his calling but because he knew he had to write a certain story. The story found him.

image

The Phantom Tollbooth is a great story. It follows a bored little boy called Milo as he uses a mysterious gift to travel to a land filled with allegory and puns. Along the way he hears all kinds of non-sensical advice and learns that there is more to words, numbers, common sense, art, and logic than he ever imagined. He even helps bring a little order back to the lands that have lost their Rhyme and Reason.

I really enjoyed the characters in this book, though the nature of the book really keeps them shallowly depicted. The story moves so quickly through so much space that its a sensory overload for both the characters and the reader, which probably contributed to how slowly I read this relatively short book. I delighted in many of the puns, but I also found myself constantly wondering if I had totally missed some of them when I didn’t find one where I might have expected to. The main idea is simply that there are a thousand directions to explore knowledge of all sorts, and that’s one message that is always exciting to behold. The main thrust of the discovering in the book is of the use of words, numbers, and the sensory. I loved the idea of the colors in the world being brought out through the silent playing of an entire orchestra, and I personally would have enjoyed more of these artistic fantasies rather than the mathematic and scientific ones.

Overall, I was delighted by The Phantom Tollbooth. I realized from the first chapter that if this book exists as a quintessential classic to so many people, I can hold on to hope for my own creativity. Often I am dissatisfied with my own creative endeavors for the reasons I’m dissatisfied with some classics. There are things that I don’t enjoy about books like this one and Alice In Wonderland and A Wrinkle In Time, but I’m always delighted that there are people out there with different tastes that go beyond my simple appreciation for this type of work to outright passion and accolade. The Phantom Tollbooth wasn’t written for someone like me, but I can greatly appreciate how much people love it and why.

 

_________

Keep On Reading!

What I Learned From My First Book Review

Norton Juster Says Creating Is Hard Work

Wandlung, by M. Landers

55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

_________
Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

Wandlung Picture Book Giveaway


My new picture book, Wandlung, has hit the market and is now available in soft cover online and in hardback from me directly. It’s an adventurous tale of a young boy who sets out on a journey to protect his magically transformed best friend.

My good friend Jen at WhatMyKidsRead has been gracious enough to not only do the first review of the book but also to host a giveaway of a signed copy of the soft cover version!

That’s right! You can sign up to win a free, signed copy of Wandlung at WhatMyKidsRead! Hurry on over and remember, whether you love or hate the story, let me know your thoughts!

E. Nesbit’s Brave Tone and The Depths Of Whimsy


The Railway Children is a book I was unfamilar with when I added it to my 55 List, but so many people mentioned how they enjoyed it that I decided to bump it up to get started on right away. I have only scratched the surface but I have not been dissapointed. Right off the bat the whimsical, amusing-adults-while-engaging-children tone reminded me of A.A. Milne and the extreme swing from charmed living to tragic squalor reminds me of Lemony Snicket. I know I will love the rest of this one.

One sure sign of true whimsy is a work that inplies and includes a great deal of writing of songs and reciting of poems. The point is never that they be wonderful (although they sometimes are) but that they give a creative outlet to the characters and show us that the characters themselves are strong enough to respond to hardship and wonder with creativity. Here is a great poem that the Mother writes and recites in the first chapter of said book. Her 10 yr. old son has been devestated to the point of sickness by the explosion of his favorite new toy engine.

(more…)

My First Review and What We Can Learn About Our Kids


Recently, I self-published my first book. It is a picture book called Wandlung, and is itself unique in that it is the only idea I have ever had for a picture book. I am writing mostly short stories (some found on this blog under “Fiction“), children’s chapter books, and a fantasy/mythology epic. Wandlung is also unique because it is the only thing I have published this far (using the word “published” generously considering I published it myself with the help of my wonderful Kickstarter supporters!).

Yesterday Jen at WhatMyKidsRead.com did the first review of the book and I couldn’t be more pleased with her critique! Her family’s reviews are really helpful if you’re looking for books for a variety of ages as all of her kids provide their own input along with her perspectives on each title. For Wandlung, she gives a more detailed synopses of the story than I have yet done and goes into each of her family member’s thoughts about the story and illustrations. There is even a video review with Liam, the articulate eldest!

Part of Jen’s review that I really appreciated was something I am expecting to hear often. She reports that her kids liked the story a lot more than she did. She doesn’t prefer the premises upon which the story is founded and the story ending. Jen has wonderful taste in books, so if I wasn’t expecting many adults to respond this way I might have been devastated. But I’m glad about it, because I think out-of-the-ordinary picture books like this one actually teach us something about our children.

I may have said it before, but I’m a bit of a subversive at heart and a large part of what drew me to this story was the fact that the plot is probably more challenging to adults than to children. Wandlung challenges a lot of our modern preconceptions about stories that are good for children.

Kids have a knack for grasping concepts we don’t give them credit for understanding (which can be a good or bad thing in different circumstances) and they can often hear of a hardship befalling a character without flinching. Kids do not require a happy ending. What’s more, I believe that they should continue to cultivate this attitude toward stories and toward life. We learn to be disappointed when we refuse to accept anything other than our preconceptions of a “happy ending.” Kids start out with far fewer expectations than adults.

Anyway, I hope you will take the opportunity to check out the back story posted on the Wandlung page as well as the story itself. I am a much harsher critic of my own mind and I continue to think that this one warrants merit. If you think I’m crazy, please let me know!

55 Classics Review # 1 – “In The Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak


“In The Night Kitchen” is one of the most unusual books I chose to include in my 55 Classics. It is unusual because I’ve nearly memorized it I’ve read it so many times and it’s unusual because it is just a picture book.

If people know Maurice Sendak’s name, they usually associate it with Where The Wild Things Are. While I also love that book, I have reasons to prefer Night Kitchen.

ITNK is part comic strip part children’s story, part nostalgia and part bizarre dreamscape. The book follows Mickey as he falls out of bed one night and into the hands of “the bakers who bake till dawn,” experiencing and triumphing through a number of otherwise horrific adventures in a place called the night kitchen. In the end he jumps off of a huge bottle of milk and slides safely back into bed.

As someone who grew up addicted to newpaper comics, it is easy to see that Sendak finds huge quantities of inspiration for the style and imagery in old strips like Little Nemo. His three identical baker characters steal the identity of Oliver Hardy of Laurel & Hardy fame. Everything about this book’s aesthetic takes cue from the culture and advertisements of the 1920’s and 30’s. Sendak’s considerable illustration skills are put to good use in a totally unique setting of his own invention.

Bakers

The second and equally critical component to this book is its beautiful, lyrical text.
It does not attempt to rhyme. Sendak even seems to intentionally avoid obvious opportunities to create rhyming texts. I believe this is because rhyming would take away from the very nature of this nonsensical story. It does not rhyme, but it flows and sings beautifully. Anyone would have a very hard time not reading this book with a sort of musical quality. My 3 year old daughter has most of the text memorized, and I hold its sing-ability as a key to her latching on to so much of its text so proficiently.

Overall, I like Maurice Sendak’s work because he was an exceedingly talented illustrator who somehow retained the ability to think like a child. He stories don’t have to have strong plot lines or heavy-handed morals, but children have and always will love them.
Why?
Because he validates their dreams, those by day and by night.

The Classics Club


This morning I stumbled upon a wonderful blog called The Classics Club. Its exactly what I never knew I was searching for!

The premise of the club is a simple one. To join, one must simply submit a list of at least 50 titles that you personally consider classic in some way and commit to attempting to read and review all of them within a time frame of hire own choosing, up to five years. I eagerly spent some of my morning and afternoon building my own classics list.

A Few Notes Concerning My Selections

• I chose a very broad spectrum of titles because I am interested in a broad spectrum of fiction. I am aware that many, nay most, are probably not classics or only exist as classics in a certain subculture.

• They are in the order I came up with them, so I will not be reading them in this or any other particular order.

• I chose a number of children’s titles because I love children’s literature more now than when I was a kid.

• The spirit of the club is to read new titles, so I have only allowed myself step or three re-reads. I chose them mostly because they are lesser known titles and I was eager to re-read them to review them.

• Most of these are either titles I own and have not read or titles I started once and got side-tracked from finishing.  I thought this seemed like a great opportunity to officially pursue them more diligently.

• The list is mainly novels and chapter books, with a smattering of short story collections, picture books, essays, and curated diaries.

• I intend to use the maximum allotment of five years, finishing the list by 2/22/2019.

The List (55 titles)

– The Plague by Albert Camus

– The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

– Watership Downs by Richard Adams

– Letters To An American Lady by C.S. Lewis

– On Stories by C.S. Lewis

– The Worm of Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison

– The Giver by Lois Lowry

– Mr. Bliss by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

– The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

_______

– Odd And The Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

– Phantastes by George MacDonald

– The Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

– The Silmarilion by J.R.R. Tolkien

– Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

– Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

– A Room With A View by E. M. Forster

– Redwall by Brian Jacques

– Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

– Poems of John Keats by John Keats

________

– Brothers and Friends : The Diaries of Major Warren Lewis by Warren Lewis

– The Third Man by Graham Greene

– The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

– The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

– Peril At End House by Agatha Christie

– Bring It To The Table: On Farming And Food by Wendell Berry

– The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

– Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams

– War In Heaven by Charles Williams

– The Food Of The Gods And How It Came To Earth by H. G. Wells

_____________

– Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang by Ian Fleming

– Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

– The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

– At The Back Of The North Wing by George MacDonald

– Jeeves In The Offering by P. G. Wodehouse

– Heavy Weather by P. G. Wodehouse

– Middlemarch by George Eliot

– The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe

– Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

– The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

__________

– On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

– A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

– An Arsene Lupin Omnibus by Maurice LeBlanc

– The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

– The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

– King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

– The Sorrows Of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

– Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

– In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

__________

– Runaway by Alice Munro

– The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchanan

– I Sing The Body Electric by Ray Bradbury

– Walden by Henry David Thoreau

– My First Summer In The Sierras by John Muir

_______

As a somewhat saddening side-note, I realized while curating this list that I finished reading every Sherlock Holmes novel years ago. While there are only four novel-length Holmes stories, I was surprised to realize that I had finished all of them years ago. I’m certain that I haven’t read all the short stories yet, but it was a strange sensation to realize that I had long since finished these and even forgotten that I had completed every one of them.

Anyway, I am excited to get any feedback as I start! If you have any personal thoughts, experiences, or opinions on any or all of these titles, I would love to hear them. I need all the advice I can get!

Author Quotes – C. S. Lewis, Reality, & Children’s Literature


Excerpts from the essay “On Three Ways Of Writing For Children,” by C.S. Lewis. (I highly suggest that you read it in its entirety.)

My first picture book, Wandlung, should be coming out within the next month. If you’re interested in understanding my philosophy on children’s literature (and children in general), these excerpts come as near to defining them as I could myself. I tore apart this essay to find the most impactful statements.

“Sentimentality is so apt to creep in if we write at length about children as seen by their elders. And the reality of childhood, as we all experienced it, creeps out. For we all remember that our childhood, as lived, was immeasurably different from what our elders saw. Hence Sir Michael Sadler, when I asked his opinion about a certain new experimental school, replied, ‘I never give an opinion on any of those experiments till the children have grown up and  can tell us what really happened.’

. . . I think we have stumbled on a principle. Where the children’s story is simply the right form for what the author has to say, then of course readers who want to hear that, will read the story or re-read it, at any age. I never met The Wind in the Willows or the Bastable books till I was in my late twenties, and I do not think I have enjoyed them any the less on that account. I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.

. . . I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write—or burst. Partly, I think, that this form permits, or compels you to leave out things I wanted to leave out. It compels you to throw all the force of the book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me. It also imposes certain very fruitful necessities about length.

. . . About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale. Perhaps I had better say a few words in its defence, as reading for children.

It is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did.

. . . The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes—things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of I longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.

A far more serious attack on the fairy tale as children’s literature comes from those who do not wish children to be frightened. I suffered too much from night-fears myself in childhood to undervalue this objection. . . They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened.

. . . I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.

I feel sure that the question ‘What do modern children need?’ will not lead you to a good moral. If we ask that question we are assuming too superior an attitude. It would be better to ask ‘What moral do I need?’ for I think we can be sure that what does not concern us deeply will not deeply interest our readers, whatever their age. But it is better not to ask the question at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don’t show you any moral, don’t put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness. It is impertinent to offer the children that. For we have been told on high authority that in the moral sphere they are probably at least as wise as we. Anyone who can write a children’s story without a moral, had better do so: that is, if he is going to write children’s stories at all. The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”