Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Let there be Light

There is an interesting debate among economists and policy mavens regarding how to measure standards of living - e.g. from a quality of life perspective, would you rather be in the top 5% of income earners in 1850 or in the top 50% today? I am currently reading Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763 and came across this passage that highlights the practical implications of many of the small things we so take for granted.

In this instance, matches, electricity and light. Boswell has made a commitment to himself that he will maintain a detailed record of his time in London, but has lately fallen behind owing to his heavy social schedule, not to say just plain carousing. He is rather put out with himself.
By way therefore of penance for my idleness, and by way of making up for the time lost and bringing up my business, I determined to sit up all this night; which I accordingly did, and wrote a great deal. About two o'clock in the morning I inadvertently snuffed out my candle, and as my fire was long before that black and cold, I was in a great dilemma how to proceed. Downstairs did I softly and silently step to the kitchen. But, alas, there was as little fire there as upon the icy mountains of Greenland. With a tinder-box there is a light struck every morning to kindle the fire, which is put out at night. But this tinder-box I could not see, nor knew where to find. I was now filled with gloomy ideas of the terrors of the night. I was also apprehensive that my landlord, who always keeps a pair of loaded pistols by him, might fire at me as a thief. I went up to my room, sat quietly till I heard the watchman calling ‘Past three o'clock.' I then called to him to knock at the door of the house where I lodged. He did so, and I opened it to him and got my candle relumed without danger. Thus was I relieved and continued busy till eight next day.
(Pages 208-209)

The Power of Books

An interesting article in City Journal this past fall by Nicole Gelinas (A Social-Uplift Program that Works) on the power of books and libraries.

You are the story you tell

I am not sure what I make of the overall research as reported in the New York Times (This is Your Life) but the piece-parts are interesting.

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.


. . .most people do not begin to see themselves in the midst of a tale with a beginning, middle and eventual end until they are teenagers. "Younger kids see themselves in terms of broad, stable traits: ‘I like baseball but not soccer,' " said Kate McLean, a psychologist at the University of Toronto in Mississauga. "This meaning-making capability — to talk about growth, to explain what something says about who I am — develops across adolescence."


Well, it ended up taking a lot longer than we thought, but here we are. After many months of preparation we are finally ready to present Through the Magic Door™. We have been talking about it for a long, long time and finally got serious enough to actually do something. And after a lot of effort and delays, we're here. So who are we?

Sally and I (Charles) are avid readers with three children who in turn are avid readers. In addition, we all share a love of bookstores in general and used bookstores in particular. A visit to a used bookstore has always been akin in my mind to walking on a beach, never knowing what shiny shell or intriguing object you might turn up.
For some years we have been talking about several different issues that have come together in the form of Through the Magic Door™. Sally's career before becoming a full-time home maker was in banking, responsible for strategic planning. Mine has been in management and systems consulting. One of the things that we frequently observed among our peers was that, for those with children, they obviously devoted much time and energy to the welfare of their family. In education, that encompassed trying to ensure that their children were good readers. In many, many cases though, we witnessed two patterns. One was for reading to become just one more academic skill; a box to be ticked. The other observation was that, unless they in turn were raised in a reading family, many of our friends did not know how to find books likely to be enthralling or of interest to their children.
We have established TTMD as a means to make reading much more than a task and to make it easier to find the right book for a given child at a given point in time, given their interests.
Reading is certainly at its minimum a skill, but it is potentially far more than that and those children that explore the greater frontiers of reading are those that become the best readers. It is not so much the skill that builds the interest but the interest that builds the skill. You build the skill by feeding the interest with those books that have the greatest ability to grip the imagination and attention of the reader.
While there are many wonderful new children's books coming off the press each year, there is an even fantastically greater inventory of books from years past that have already demonstrated the capacity to capture and hold children's interests but have, for many reasons, faded from awareness. The challenge becomes matching the interests of a child with what's available, without having to invest incredible amounts of time reading all the possible candidate books. One of the things that you will find here at TTMD is a focus on quarrying the rich seams of books from past decades that still can hold a child's interests today.
In a world that holds out many opportunities but also many uncertainties, concerns and fears, books and the stories that they contain offer not just a form of entertainment, not only a method to hone one's critical thinking skills, and not only a means to build the furniture in one's mental attic, but also a hawser tying generations of a family together. Books that a child knows you read at their age and were in turn read by grandparents take on a special distinction and weight.
Another idea which underpins this site is that we look on books as a value delivery system. We as parents are unable to completely control all the (mixed) messages to which our children are exposed. By the lessons we teach, our behavior and values that we demonstrate, and the discussions we have with our children, we help inoculate them to some of the corrosive influences in the world about us. Time, circumstance, and the development of our children (and ourselves) sometimes stand in the way of discussing everything we might want to. In those instances, stories can sometimes serve as our ambassadors - the book tells our children something they might not willingly wish to hear from their parents.
What we hope to accomplish with Through the Magic Door is to become a community of parents, teachers, librarians, relatives, etc. that have an interest in children's books and children reading and who share that interest and passion with one another in order to get the best reading materials into the hands of our children, thereby increasing their love of reading.
We have built into our site many features, communication vehicles, and links which we will be introducing in greater detail in the Thing-Finder section in the coming weeks. We encourage you to tell us what you like about what we have created as well as tell us what you would like to see added. As you will note from both About Us and from our Privacy Policy, we do not take any advertising nor do we sell our customer's information, two significant sources of revenue for many e-commerce sites. We intend to earn our keep by providing the services desired by our community of readers and selling children's books.
In order for us to have a strong sense of community we need to have strong conversations. In turn, we believe strong conversations are based on openness, respect, and vehicles for sharing. The initial means for sharing are through the bulletin boards, the book reviews and the blogs. We are open to suggestions for building additional vehicles for dialogue. We invite all in our community of readers to become contributors to the conversation about children's books; through the bulletin boards, through hosted blogs, through book reviews (which follow a structure that in turn makes it much easier for others to find exactly the type of book their child is interested in) and through any other contributions you want to make. Just tell us how to hear your voice.
There are other things we hope you will see on the site. Because of my father's career in the oil industry, I was raised primarily abroad. Fortunately, in my own career, I and the family have had the opportunity to live overseas again. As a consequence, we are making a strong effort to introduce children's authors and illustrators from overseas that may have had little or no exposure in North America.
Finally, we are always seeking those treasures that lie somewhat off the beaten path and which we wish to share. Sometimes this will be a book of which we were unaware, sometimes an author, sometimes stories about the author or the circumstances of how a book came to be. We hope you will find it easier to get good books for your children here, but we hope you will also find a community that you enjoy and the little surprises that brighten a day.

Wanda Gag

Sometimes you are pulled up short by the realization that something you thought you knew just was plain and unequivocally wrong. For many years, I assumed, based on what I do not know or recall, that Wanda Gág was a Hungarian artist that had fled to the United States in the 1930's. Well, except that she was an artist, none of that is true.

Instead, her story is even more interesting and touching and is quintessentially all-American. First-off, Wanda was born in New Ulm, Minnesota March 11, 1893. Her parents were émigrés from Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Her family name, by the way, is pronounced Gog (rhyming with dog) rather than Gag (rhyming with bag). Her family story inspires an even greater respect for her accomplishments beyond the merits of her books.
Her father, Anton Gág was a painter and photographer. Wanda was the first of seven children all of whom inherited artistic talent and two of whom latterly worked with Wanda on her books. German was the native tongue at home when Wanda was growing up and she did not learn English till she began attending school. Her grandmother told her many German folktales which later had a significant bearing on her work.
Wanda Gág's father passed away when she was fourteen and, her mother apparently being poorly, Wanda became the de facto head the household, raising her six siblings, the youngest of whom was only a year old. In addition to caring for the family, she continued her high-school education, graduating in 1912. She then worked for a year as a teacher. She also earned additional income writing and illustrating stories and articles for magazines and newspapers. Her next two oldest sisters graduated high-school and became teachers, freeing her to attend art school on scholarships, though with the passing of her mother in 1916, the remaining children all moved in with her while she completed studies at the Minneapolis Art School.
Wanda Gág worked in many mediums but became best known for her lithographs, pen and ink drawings and woodcuts, all of which are evident in her children's books. There is a compact energy in most her children's illustrations. "A still life is never still for me, it is solidified energy".
In 1917, A Child's Book of Folk-Lore, which she had illustrated but not written, was published. Moving to New York that same year, she continued her studies. Following her studies, Wanda Gág worked as an illustrator in the fashion industry for a number of years. During this time she completed the manuscripts for a number of children's stories but was unable to stir any interest among publishers.
In 1923, Gág left her career in fashion illustration to pursue her own artistic interests, eventually settling in rural western New Jersey. It was in this period that she and Earle Marshall Humphreys began their association, eventually marrying in 1943. She settled into a pattern of summering in New Jersey and living in New York City in the winter.
While she began building her reputation as an artist with many shows and exhibits, and with her work beginning to be added to museum collections, she had a chance encounter with a new children's book editor who asked whether she had ever considered writing and illustrating children's stories. Gág resurrected one of her manuscripts, illustrated it and in 1928, Millions of Cats was published.
Millions of Cats was immediately recognized as an innovative children's illustrated book and was named a Newberry Honor Book that year. Gág was the first illustrator to use the double spread of a book (both pages) for a single illustration. She also integrated the text of the story into the illustration by using hand lettered text.
The immediate success of Millions of Cats led to a refocusing of Wanda Gág from her art work to writing and illustrating children's books and was quickly followed by The Funny Thing (1929), Snippy and Snappy (1930), The ABC Bunny (1933, Newberry Honor Medal), Gone is Gone; or, The Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework (1935), and Nothing at All (1941, Caldecott Honor). Beginning in 1936, Gág undertook a series of books harkening back to the German folktales told to her by her grandmother. Tales from Grimm appeared in 1936 followed by Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938, Caldecott Honor), Three Gay Tales from Grimm (1943), and More Tales from Grimm (1947).
In the seventy odd years since the first publication of Millions of Cats , the majority of her books have been in print at any given point in time. All of the books are wonderful. Our children have particularly enjoyed Millions of Cats , Gone is Gone, The Funny Thing, and Nothing at All. While I have always enjoyed her books, I now enjoy them all that much more seeing such a wonderful American story of duty, self-sacrifice, independence, and perseverance. In that regard, her life story bears some echoes of that other Great-Plains woman writer from that period, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairies books. Another story from the plains states and that period, is that of Kate Shelley Bound for Legend who similarly, at fifteen, became the head of her household.
The ABC Bunny, 1933.
The Day of Doom by Michael Wigglesworth; illustrated by Wanda Gág, 1929.
The Funny Thing, 1929.
Gone is Gone; or, the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework, 1935.
Growing Pains: Diaries and Drawings for the Years 1908-1917
Millions of Cats , 1928.
More Tales from Grimm, 1947.
Nothing At All, 1941.
Snippy and Snappy, 1931.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938.
Tales from Grimm, 1936.
Three Gay Tales from Grimm, 1943.
Wanda Gag's Storybook (includes Millions of Cats, The Funny Thing, and Snippy and Snappy), 1932.
"Excerpt from Wanda Gág." Minnesota Historical Society. 19 June 2006.
"Gag, Wanda Hazel." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 24 Oct. 2006.
MacPherson, Karen. "Book Corner." The Standard Times. 22 March 2003. 19 June 2006.
"Mystery Artist Revealed." Rebecca Writes. 17 March 2006. 7 August 2006.
Ortakales, Denise. "Wanda Hazel Gág." Women Children's Book Illustrators. 24 August 2002. 18 September 2006.
Ritz, Karen. "The Wanda Gag House." Children's Literature Network. 19 June 2006.
Schmitz, Terri. "When Gone Isn't Gone." Horn Book Magazine Mar/Apr 2005 Vol. 81, Issue 2: 173-185
"Wanda Gag." Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 4: 1946-50. American Council of Learned Societies, 1974
"Wanda Gag." Minnesota Author Biographies Project. 2002. 19 June 2006.
"Wanda Gág." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 16 June 2006. 19 June 2006.
"Wanda (Hazel) Gag." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2006
"Wanda (Hazel) Gag." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002
"Wanda (Hazel) GAG." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. 5th ed. St. James Press, 1999