Posts Tagged ‘children’s literature’

In occurred to me recently in Oxford, as I walked through the spaces formerly walked by Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. Tolkien,  that the children’s stories that I love most are all about  journeys, Alice in Wonderland, The Wind In the Willows, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Lord of the Ring.

The journey is one of the great motifs of art and literature and of life,  Alice traveling in wonderland, Mole and Rat down the river, the children through the painting and then onto the ship, the Dawn Treader, Frodo carrying the ring away from the shire to the mountain.

I want to get at this, the structure, the essence of the stories that I love. Paul Serusier, a French pioneer in abstract art, was interested in a new gospel of painting. His ideas help me.  Serusier sought to honor, I think, the shape and the idea behind things.  He was fascinated not by literal depictions of reality, but by the structure of certain motifs. With Gauguin, he was part of a group that dubbed  themselves Les Nabis, the prophets. They favored flat planes and bright colors.  I am with them. I lean toward wanting to see and understand the deeper things that can be shown by paintings, and I favor understanding the structure of  motifs when it comes to literature too.

In the  journey motif present in some of the best children’s literature,  the shape of the motif  is something like this: The departure of  travelers from home, their transport to a new place, their encounter with  new realities, the challenges and conflicts they experience, the changes that occur within them, and their eventual return to home as different people.  This shape of course is specifically the space drawn for the traveling characters. It does not necessarily get at the shape of the setting, plot, mood, theme or language of the stories.

But in itself, I find this extremely fascinating. It is really an invigorating question:  How do travels affect travelers?

There are so many ways to come at this. We all travel so much. There are our travels through the stages of life, our travels through our careers, our relational travels, our mental travels. They are all so amazing. There is also simply the travels we might take, if we are so inclined to new places, our vacations, our trips, our forays out.

We didn’t travel too far when I was young but we did get out. I remember a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. As we drove into mountains I remember the thrill of knowing ahead, we would find Mount Rushmore. And when we did, “Wow!” It was worth the miles. I remember the first drive into the Grand Canyon, the pinyon pines, the expectation that just around the corner was, and there it was, “Wow!” It was so eye-opening, so grand, so deep, so far across, so beautiful. I remember watching a storm form over the canyon, the cumulus clouds, the slanting rain, the chance to see the shape and structure of the storm, from a uniquely distant vantage point. And there it is, the chance to see. We travel, for the chance to see, what we haven’t seen, that defines, explains, and brings wonder to life.

The family I grew up in didn’t travel as a family to another country, but the travels we took were enough. I got the idea. And I found it a seed that I wanted to grow into something bigger.

And so when I got married, and I married, by no accident, someone interested in seeing too.  My wife Linda doesn’t like to stay home too much, even less than I and so together, Mole and Rat. We got out of our home in San Diego, California  to Chicago on our honey moon, and then we just kept going from there — to Sequoia National Park, (the place I fell in love with her) to see the big trees, to Lassen Volcanic Park to see the hot springs, to Tucson to see the saguaro,  to Seattle to see the water falls, to Alaska to see the orcas and the grizzly bears,  to Cape Cod  to see the horseshoe crabs,  to Hawaii to see the sea turtles, to  Rome  to see St. Peters,  to Johannesburg, South Africa to be with people in Soweto, to Mumbai, Swaziland to see new friends, to London to see the wonders in the British Museum, to Paris to see the art in the Muse d’ Orsay.  And because of my job, I have traveled too without her, to Rio de Janeiro  and to Mexico City  and to Washington, D. C.  These journeys, and others like them, have changed us, embedded as they are within the more central journey of our lives.

I wonder how.

Today,  I sit in  a house in West Finchey, in London. We have come to see our daughter Laurel who has been studying literature in London this last semester. We came so she could show us what she has seen. We have been to London before, but by coming again, we can see differently because we are seeing it with and through her. She ferries us around, through he tube, one tunnel to another, one station to another, we fly, following her, to see War Horse, Lion King, The British Museum, the British Library, Covent Garden to eat at “Food for Thought,” to Saint Paul’s, to Whole Foods. We fly down the tube from West Finchley each day, and zip back and forth through the city, and stream in a straight line back to Finchley at night. When she was little, we always told her, “We will take you to Europe when you are old enough to enjoy it. We were right and wrong. We are here together, but she is taking us.

We are exploring the world together. We have come here, as we have lived, as a family, together. Roz didn’t come; she didn’t want to. We respected that. Her disability needs familiarity. And when it journeys, it needs time to adapt, to reorient, to understand the new spaces. The tube wouldn’t work for her, the rush up and down the stairs, the terrifyingly steep and long escalators, the push of the crowd through the doors, the standing back-to-back, the coming out above ground in a new place each time, people and cars and buses everywhere. Nightmare, for the learning disabled.

 And so we skype her yesterday, and she told us about home,  and how the cats are doing, home where we go back in just a few days, to life with her and the cats and what is familiar. This is the journey, to do life together, to travel together, or if not to skype,  to  build shared experiences, to share the structure of the motif. We tell her about the big kitties, the lions, that we have seen in London and in Paris, sitting  happy with themselves in The Muse d Orsay, winged and magnificent in the British Museum, screaming off the side of Notre Dame. We get close, by talking. And we talk about what we have experienced and what we have seen because these things help make us who we are.

The changes that come with travel,  come through the people we go with, the people we that we tell of our travels and the people that we encounter when we travel.  I love the people I meet in  new places. They change me, define me and renew me. When I travel I find my own. I will never forget my  trip to Washington DC a few years ago.  I  went there for a Christian conference. But I had been reading Smithsonian Magazine  and my Bible, and so I had discovered that the American Art Museum was featuring an exhibition of the painter Charles Burchfield. A the beginning of the conference I saw an opportunity and made my way to the museum.  I attended later attended the conference don’t remember anything that was said; I can only remember the Burchfields in the museum. They were a revelation to me.  In the museum I woke up. I gawked. I wrote in my journal.  I didn’t want to leave.  I could see what Burchfield had seen the cathedral in the woods and God in the sun and the mystery of mysteries in the oncoming spring, and I saw it through him and with him, his way of seeing, his seeing the structure of the spiritual motif running through nature. 

This is it; this is why I want to travel.  It is about the people I meet,  in the  art museums of the world and on the streets of the world.  They renew me; they help define me; they remind me who I am and what I value. In them I encounter a new river, a new mountain, a wonderland and I go home different. In London and Paris I met Renoir. Renoir and I bounded, because Renoir is like me and so he adds affirmation to who I am. He loved children, and so do I.  He valued his own children, enough to paint them,  and so do I. In his La Lecture, the little girls, dressed with love and care, are bent over their book, focus, studying, learning. I love them. They are mine. This is my reality, teaching little girls, my daughters, bending over books, putting books and stories in front of them.  I have painted my daughters too, not with paint, but with words, and in that way I have valued them as Renoir did his own.

This is the part of the journey that matters, the part where in the new place, we meet  new people and  these people who are like us add to us and help us define what we value and who we are. Some of them are dead, and some of them are not yet.

Today I walked up to a market in Finchley to grab lunch. I bought some humos, some pita, some couscous, some brea and apple juice. The owner of the market was Turkish. We talked. I love to talk to people when I travel. We spoke of the weather in today in London. As newsman said yesterday on the tele, it is “bitterly, bitterly cold.” We compared the weathers in Turkey and in Southern California. I asked if he had family.

“Yes, I have two daughters,” he said, “five and eight years old.

 “Me too; I have two daughters too,” I said. “It’s good because daughters love their daddies,” I said.

  The space between us went small. We smiled knowingly at each other. Then we had to disconnect; someone was now waiting to pay. I wanted to keep on.

He gave me my change. He said, “Good to talk to you.”  I turned to go. I looked back at him over my shoulder as I went out into the bitter cold.  He was looking toward me again smiling. Our eyes caught, warm.  We knew each other. We knew each other’s reality, daughters. It was good; it was the deep structure of the motif.

I don’t know much from my travels. They have been too few and too short. But I learned a  few things.

When I was in Brazil, I met a little woman in Campinas, in a very impoverished part of town. She was standing in front of her unfinished home. She told me her son had epilepsy. I told her that my daughter Rosalind did too.  I could feel her pain, she could feel mine. We smiled at each other. The space between us grew small. I didn’t want to go.

This is it,  the trip down the rabbit hole,  what we find at the bottom, the queens and kings there,  the way they change us. And through such encounters, we begin to see what is true in us, and what moves toward the universal, and the planes and the colors that repeat, the central  themes of the piece.

The journeys change us.

We travel and then we come home and each time, we have met others and we have met ourselves and we are, because of this, slightly different.

Up the metal steps went my body, in through the narrow door and out onto the black rubber mats. The steering wheel was to the right, as usual, but to the left were rows and rows of spines. The spines went all the way to the back. The room rocked a bit as I stepped further inside. I chose one and opened it up to the thin white layers inside. I skimmed its dark lines to see if this one was for me. I loved them, all of them and this room, parked in front of my grade school. It was one of the first magic spaces in my life; it was the book mobile.

I was raised on potato-tuna casserole and “Rootie Kazootie.” Rootie hit home runs while Polka Dottie led the cheer, and then he rescued El Squeako Mouse from Poison Zanaboo. There were other children’s stories, so many, “Little Indian,” “The Little Red Hen” and “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” I sat under my mother’s arm and braved danger after danger. Little Indian bravely stayed by his hurt horse though the dark and scary night. The little red hen baked her cake alone, outwitted the fox and shared her cake. Peter Rabbit hid under a pot to escape from Mr. McGregor. Talking animals, for many of us, were our first best friends. Perhaps our parents read these too us for their moral values, as if children’s literature exists to instruct and preach. That didn’t work. We remember a good story, a unique character, some good lines. It’s enough.

These reside in deep memory, our storybook friends and their adventures, and we don’t merely  remember them, resting somewhere in the recesses of our cerebrums, snaked back to the surface throughout life by our hippocampuses, but in one way or another we eventually live them. I hit a Rootie Kazootie home run in grade school, turning on an inside fast ball and smacking a line shot that just kept rising over third, sailing over the outfielder in left, landing at the bottom of the hill and bounding into the trees. The arc of that shot, my unimpeded romp around the bases, crossing home plate and still waiting for Ronnie to find the ball – “Gosharootie,” life is good when you are the star, even if for just a moment, of Kazootieland.

Most every story that we read has universal elements with counterparts in our lives, like shadows have the thing that casts them. Take Little Indian for instance, the brave little child who loves the horse he finds. I too found a lost creature one summer day when I was little, a big red cat lying in the daisies, and I hauled him home under my arm. I can still remember his soft, flexible weight, almost dragging to the ground as I rescued his mangy hide, and made “Red” my best friend, day and scary night. And my mother hen baked me white cake with chocolate frosting on my birthdays every year, and we all ate it, whether we had helped or not. And I don’t remember helping. And we planted vegetables in a large garden spot near the house and the rabbits nibbled on them when we weren’t looking. Our early stories are the literary templates for our lives. And our later readings teach us how to write our own, Darwin borrowing phraseology from Humboldt’s personal narrative when he wrote his Beagle diary.

In writing about the value of fairy tales, G. K. Chesterton said, “My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery.” Chesterton tells how he learned from the fairy tales what he would later learn from philosophy and theology, that life was supernatural, mysterious and unpredictable. Ideas are powerful, and resident in tales they are even more powerful. We begin college in the nursery, encountering some of the great oppositions of life, good and evil and the will to persist in the face of dark magic until a beautiful woman or a beautiful kingdom is won.

When I think of stories I think of my mom. She read them to me. And she read them with me. When I was in grade school my mom and I read Zane Grey novels together, ones we had gotten from the bookmobile or the little library in town. We loved Riders of the Purple Sage. I totally connected to The Lone Star Ranger. “Duane could draw it [his gun] with inconceivable rapidity, and at twenty feet he could split a card pointing edgewise toward him.” I wished I could do that. I doubt if my mom did, but these stories became a bond between us. Her liking them seem to amp their value in my mind. Later in life when my wife and I went to Catalina Island to vacation we read Riders of The Purple Sage because Zane Grey had a home on the island, now the Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel.

Stories change places, turning ordinary towns into tour destinations, small houses into rooms people pay to tour. All you have to do to see what a writer can do to a town is to go to Hannibal, Missouri.  Tom and Becky and Huck are now longer carefree; they’ve gone into business together. When my daughter Laurel and I went to Concord, Massachusetts we walked through the home of Louisa May Alcott. The tour paused with awe in front of a little desk in her room; it is now a relic. We wanted to touch it; maybe the magic would enter us. But it already had; we had both grown up in homes with desks and bookcases full of stories.

My mom saved a few of our early childhood stories. Their thin, fading cardboard covers moved with my family from house to house and state to state, and on a day I don’t remember now, I found some of them in a box at her house and brought them to my own home, twenty-some years after first hearing them, and I read them to my little daughters. These scraps from my childhood, a Little Golden Book, and a Better Homes and Gardens storybook, unlike my transistor radio, came alive again through my own voice and storied my own children’s childhoods. My daughters sat under my arm and heard what I heard under my mother’s arm, “The Little Red Hen” and “Peter Rabbit.”

I walked into my daughter Laurel’s room the other day and noticed that on the table by her bed were stacks and stacks of books. She is majoring in literature. The stories got to her. She wants more. When our brains are still forming, the stories we hear are archetypal, a part of deep memory, mental construction, identity formation. The other night we got to talking about children’s literature, and one of my daughters went and found our old copy of “Rootie Kazootie.” We took turns reading pages and laughing.

 “’Come one step closer,’ Poison Zanzaboo cried, ‘and I’ll soak El Squeako in the lake!’”

“’Whatever can we do?’” cried Polka Dottie.”

It’s enough to make a modern egalitarian boil,  the helpless cheerleader and her Mexican mascot mouse who they keep in the dugout for luck.  I opened to the back of the title page, “Copyright 1954 by Steve Carlin.” I’d like to have known Steve, had him to dinner. He made up words. he must have been a fun guy.

We laughed at the Dogerooties and the Yankapups and shouted, “Zingarootie.” I checked on the chicken, broiling in the oven. The barbeque sauce on top was getting a tasty shade of dark. My daughter got out the serving dishes. The Little Red Hen was again about to share again.

Stories have a power that goes beyond their physical existence and beyond even the ideas expressed in them. Stories are community, and sharing our tales is one way we love each other. As my girls grew up I read to them out loud all seven volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia. When they were barely old enough to understand, we read out loud Treasure Island.  We exulted together in The Wind In the Willows, driving furiously with Toad, journeying with Mole and Rat. For hours on end they sat on my lap or under my arm, reveling in story, in language and most of all in having an arm around a shoulder, a hand on a forearm, a leg touching the border of another leg. Touch and story are a perfect compound.

Sometimes I didn’t read stories at all; I told them stories. They have always loved to hear the stories from how I grew up, like the time I shot my brother.  In telling them, I try to stick to reality, but it’s hard. The stories tend to get away from me.   

They like the one about the clubbing. This one involved a clubbing game that my brothers and I invented when we were young. We would fill our socks with other socks until they were hard and bloated. Then we would separate, hide and hunt each other. Our improvised games were often about maiming or killing each other. The intent of the sock game was to bludgeoning each other into oblivion. On one memorable occasion, I crouched down beside the washing machine in wait for my brother Steve. I  put my right hand back over my shoulder, club ready. I would strike, as quickly as the Lone Star ranger could shoot. The pocket door from the kitchen slid open. I could see the light change on the floor. With one fluid, non-stop motion I rose from the floor and swung the club down on his head with a vengeance. Except it wasn’t Steve; it was grandma. She swayed, staggered back, gasped and collapsed on the linoleum in  a defeated heap.

 It was shortly after that, that she moved back to California.  It probably didn’t matter to her that her beating was intended for my brother Steve. She went home anyway. I was distraught. She had bought us a TV. More good was sure to come from her living with us. Perhaps the clubbing was the last straw. But maybe it was just time.

The girls love this story; so do I. I’m the hero. But it is the girl’s birth narratives that are perhaps the most popular in our family.  When I tell Rosalind’s I say, “I cried when you were born. You were so beautiful. I loved you so much.” She is beautiful, the bluest eyes, the most lovely skin color. We played a call and response game throughout her childhood. “When will I stop loving you?” I’d ask. “You’ll never stop loving me,” she’d respond. That mattered when we were told that she was brain damaged, when we realized she would never read beyond the second or third grade level. When my wife or I tell Laurel’s story, we say, “When you was born, you were ten pounds and fourteen ounces. You were big because you were late, almost half-grown, practically ready to go to school and you didn’t want to come out. They had to suck you out with a vacuum. You looked like a cone head for weeks.”  Other stories involve their very early years. The girls were both bald for a year or so and they had fat cheeks. I tell them, “We paid extra for your cheeks. And we rubbed vitamins on your heads to try to get your hair to grow.” Sometimes they have asked, “Did you really?”  Such simple narratives are our histories, our oral traditions; we all need them.  We want our mythic tales. We want to have a story about ourselves.

I know adults who don’t know who their parents were; they don’t know any birth stories about themselves. They live without a personal myth. One of them has an attachment disorder, another a relational disorder; they are screwed up. Stories matter.When we don’t have early childhood stories we grow sick.  When my girls were very little I made up stories for them. I’d begin, “Once upon a time there was a piece of dirt. He felt so sad because he didn’t think that he was worth anything. Then one day a little girl came with a seed.” The dirt, or bug or plant always ended up finding their place in the world, making a contribution. I also told the girls stories about animals, who did what the girls would  like to do, fly, eat, adventure. The most famous stories I told were the Rusty Jake Stories, renown throughout my clan. Rusty was my brother Steve’s dog, but when my brother wasn’t home, Rusty took my brother’s motor cycle for a ride, with the family house cat on the back, and they went to Washington. They were stopped by the police, but had to be let go, because their were no laws on the books about dogs riding motorcycles,  and they saved the President of the United States and came back home to cheers and a parade.

Stories make choices for us.  In grade school Rosalind picked a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, our good family friend, when she was asked to choose something to memorize for a class assignment.  She heard the whole of Treasure Island very young, in the first or second grade, and she invited the author back.

When I was down beside the sea

a wooden spade they gave to me

to dig the sandy shore.

My holes were empty like a cup.

In every hole the sea came up,

till it could come no more.

Rosalind grew up at the beach in San Diego. On one of her early trips to the beach she ate sand, hand over hand. We never knew why she did that, but it came out in he diaper and we were amazed — we have a sand eating baby. So when she chose this poem, she could taste it, and she could smell the salty air and she had seen the sea wash away her sand castles. She had already lived her story poem.  Why do we read what we read? Perhaps we move toward the stories we have lived or almost lived or hope to live someday.

For my family, and for all of us, stories come to us in so many different packages. They are so much a part of our lives, and of course, they aren’t always in books. One of the most powerful first stories I bonded with my daughter Rosalind over was The Little Mermaid, a movie. It was the movie that saved Disney and it added to us too. We came home from seeing it cheering, singing the songs, “Kiss the Girl,” and “Under the Sea.” Disney had rediscovered it, the formula, the songs, the dialogue and more great stories were to come. We were taken up, as a family, with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Hercules.

Hercules was a standout for us, the characters, Hades, Pain and Panic, the clever dialogue. We use it around the house. The characters became a part of our family. The movie is about Hercules searching for his own story, what happened to him when he was little, the reason he is different, the identity of his father, Zeus. It is one of those universal stories, zero to hero, and the more important discovery of his family and his own true love, Meg.  

We loved Meg,  “I’m a big tough girl, I can tie my own sandals and everything.”

“Thanks for everything, Herc. It’s been a real slice.”

Pain and Panic gave us one of our most repeatable family mantras, “If? If is good.”

Hades  was sheer genius, “So is this an audience or a mosaic?”

We live by our movie lines; they have become part of the family ideolect, a homey parlance to joke with. People do this, quote lines from movies to talk to each other. The dialogue comes off the page and works in the real world. People quote from What About Bob, from Napoleon Dynamite, from everything. The stories in this way get integrated into our lives. They become part of our mythology, the shared narratives that we use to understand life.

On the movie screen, on the TV, on the computer screen — it doesn’t so much matter how the stories are delivered, but it matters how they are told. A good narrative is a good narrative and nothing will substitute.  I read a lot now online, on my phone too, a news story, an article, Facebook, Twitter, checking my blog. I love a story song, something unexpected. niche, heard on Pandora Radio for the first time. I love a good sound bite, a pithy Tweet, but I think that most of all, I still love a good book. There will always be something about the page, about the longer read, about the physical experience of books, especially the books we keep.   My battered copy of Shakespeare’s complete works, the checked and underlined passages on the smooth, thin pages, those favorite lines I find my way back to,  “Nothing will come of nothing,” but something will come from a good story, like Macbeth or As You Like It, which is one of the sources for my daughter Rosalind’s name. And there is my old hardback copy of Emily Dickinson’s poems, the numbers of my favorites written in the front of the book so I can find my way again to those explosive bits of insight that blow the top of my brain off every time I read them.  “Tell the truth but tell it slant…” I like the pencil check beside this line in my book.

Books are so physical. There textures and their smells compliment so nicely their ideas and concepts. After we reread “Rootie Kazootie” the other night, I smelled it, the pages. Matija Strlic, a chemist at University College London, has figured out that the smell of the paper in old books comes from hundreds of volatile organic compounds released into the air from the pages. From her research, she writes of discovering in old paper “a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.”

Reading is a total sensory experience, the grassy, tangy, musty pages, the spines, covers, dust jackets, paper pages signal us through our fingers.  Many of the books on the book mobile, as was common with library books then, were bound into heavy, fabric bindings, dark red, blue, green, brown, and hardened with glue. The authors, titles and call numbers were printed or embossed onto the spines. I can still remember the heft of them, the rough feel of their covers in my hands.

And  stories are relational and meant to be handed to other people and shared in close quarters. How often have my wife and I called out in the evening after reading alone, and laughing, “Hey, listen to this.” I still find stories as a way to find my people and bond with them. I  love a reading groups where we eat together before we talk books and then we gather in the living room and puzzle over print and story and concept and quote lines and laugh and remember and travel together to a world of ideas and foreign places and togetherness. A story in another person’s mouth is a new story. I’m always surprised by what someone else sees that I don’t. We read The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and discussed it in a group recently. I commented that I thought Lawrence was a masterful leader shown in how he immediately addressed problems. My friend Melissa pointed out that she was more impressed by his subtle leadership, the way he let others learn for themselves and take leadership for themselves.

Our lives are journies to find good stories and to explain those stories to each other, to find something to pass on to the little ones sitting under our arms, to get back on the book mobile, the idea mobile, to take a cerebral ride, to bring friends along, to have something to tell while we eat.  So has it been for all of us, or if it has not, then I wish that it may be so in the future.

Life is story and story life and there is so much more to tell.