Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mere Oblivion

Here is an interesting article by Ian Hamilton in the March 16, 2000 Guardian, Against Oblivion. He is writing about poets' reputations rather than about authors of children's books but the dynamics are not dissimilar.

These ups and downs are to be expected and literary history is full of them. I mean, whatever happened to the 19th-century Spasmodics? And maybe we should not shed too many tears for fashion's victims. After all, getting to be fashionable is not usually an accident. Maybe we need these intermittent purges. On the other hand, there are poets who, by keeping to one side of the ins and outs of literary fashion, do find themselves rather more to one side than they would wish. By holding back, they run the risk of getting lost.

Rather more to one side than they would wish - how nicely put.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Bibliomaniac's Prayer

The Bibliomaniac's Prayer by Eugene Field

Keep me, I pray, in wisdom's way
That I may truths eternal seek;
I need protecting care to-day,--
My purse is light, my flesh is weak.
So banish from my erring heart
All baleful appetites and hints
Of Satan's fascinating art,
Of first editions, and of prints.
Direct me in some godly walk
Which leads away from bookish strife,
That I with pious deed and talk
May extra-illustrate my life.

But if, O Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To keep me in temptation's way,
I humbly ask that I may be
Most notably beset to-day;
Let my temptation be a book,
Which I shall purchase, hold, and keep,
Whereon when other men shall look,
They'll wail to know I got it cheap.
Oh, let it such a volume be
As in rare copperplates abounds,
Large paper, clean, and fair to see,
Uncut, unique, unknown to Lowndes.

For it was then that I knew I loved reading

Robert Louis Stevenson in his Collected Essays has one, Random Memories: rosa quo locorum, describing his earliest recollections of reading.

I was sent into the village on an errand; and, taking a book of fairy tales, went down alone through a fir-wood, reading as I walked. How often since then has it befallen me to be happy even so; but that was the first time: the shock of that pleasure I have never since forgot, and if my mind serves me to the last, I never shall, for it was then that I knew I loved reading.

Plus this interesting observation on the move from being read to to reading.

To pass from hearing literature to reading it is to take a great and dangerous step. With not a few, I think a large proportion of their pleasure then comes to an end; ‘the malady of not marking' overtakes them; they read thenceforward by the eye alone and hear never again the chime of fair words or the march of the stately period. Non ragioniam of these. But to all the step is dangerous; it involves coming of age; it is even a kind of second weaning. In the past all was at the choice of others; they chose, they digested, they read aloud for us and sang to their own tune the books of childhood. In the future we are to approach the silent, inexpressive type alone, like pioneers; and the choice of what we are to read is in our own hands thenceforward.

Monday, November 26, 2007

War in the winter

I just finished Alex Kershaw's The Longest Winter. This is the story of a single platoon, the eighteen members of which, through the dogged defense of their position at the beginning of the German onslaught at the Battle of the Bulge on December, 16, 1944, managed to delay the advance of a critical German regiment of Panzer tanks for twelve crucial hours.

Amazingly, the entire platoon survived despite a couple of members receiving dreadful wounds. Because they were all captured (only surrendering after having completely exhausted their supply of ammunition) and through the discombobulation associated with the decommissioning of captured soldiers at the end of the war, the significance of their actions and the beneficial consequences of their defense was not recognized until years later. Medals and commendations for members of the platoon did not actually get awarded until the 1970's.

More than the battle actions, this is a good book for painting the most remarkable feats of very ordinary American citizen soldiers.

You might pair this with a pictorial version of an incident of the Battle of the Bulge, captured in Peggy Mercer's There Come a Soldier .

Best foot forward

I am reading Thomas J. Cutler's The Battle of Leyte Gulf, currently out of print. This late WWII naval battle doesn't receive a lot of attention but Cutler's account is a nice mix of historical analysis and battle action.

I have just finished his account of the bombing of and ultimately the sinking of the USS Princeton, an aircraft carrier. The Princeton was commanded by Captain William H. Buracker. Also aboard was Captain John M. Hoskins, who was scheduled to succeed Buracker in command of the Princeton within the next couple of weeks.

In the course of the engagement, 108 sailors lost their lives and 190 were wounded, including Captain Hoskins who lost a foot. There is a post script to the story.

"Captain Hoskins had, of course, missed his chance - by a frustratingly few days - to command USS Princeton. And he had lost a foot. But John Hoskins was not the kind of man to be easily deterred. He was eventually fitted with an artificial foot and was expected, under the circumstances, to accept diability retirement as his lot. There had not been a 'peg leg' captain in the Navy since the days when sail yielded to steam. But Hoskins petitioned the Navy to allow him to remain on active duty, and, when it was decided that one of the newly built aircraft carriers was to be named Princeton, Hoskins applied for her command. He insisted that he was 'one foot ahead of the other applicants' and argued that he was better qualified for the assignment because, in a middle-of-the-night emergency, he could get to his battle station more rapidly than anyone else since he would already be wearing a sock and a shoe. His arguments may not have been convincing, but his spirit certainly was. John Hoskins was given command of the new USS Princeton."

Death of the Bird

A.D. Hope was a wonderful, if occassionally racy, Australian poet. You can find his works in any anthology of Australian Poetry.

As I look out at the woods, a steady, cold rain drizzling down this late-November day, The Death of the Bird seems to match the mood.

The Death of the Bird

For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a speck on the map divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come;
Season after season, sure and safely guided,
Going away she is also coming home;

And being home, memory becomes a passion
With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest;
Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart's possession
And exiled love mourning within the breast.

The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;
The palm-tree casts a shadow not its own;
Down the long architrave of temple or palace
Blows a cool air from moorland scraps of stone.

And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger,
The delicate voice, more urgent with despair,
Custom and fear constraining her no longer,
Drives her at last on the waste leagues of air.

A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place.
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space.

She feels it close now, the appointed season:
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign,
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Louisa May Alcott

There are some stories that somehow seem to escape the shackles of language, place, time and fashion. They entertain and edify children down the generations without ever seeming old, stilted or "peculiar" even when there are details that anchor them in a different time and place.

Think about the Railway Children, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, King Solomon's Mines and Tom Sawyer. What is the authorial sleight of hand that allows these books to remain relevant and entertaining over such spans of time and reach children with knowledge and sophistication unimaginable to the author of the story at the time it was written?

It is in this pantheon of books out of time that Louisa May Alcott's Little Women resides. Written one hundred and forty years ago and set in the northeast US at the time of the Civil War, it has an identifiable time and setting but is a timeless read.

I cannot recognize what it is that set these books apart nor do I know of any research which has attempted to identify those characteristics that permit a book to unfetter itself from the period in which it is written. If you go back to the time of publication and identify the other books which were in circulation, there are often others which were even more popular but have faded completely from the scene. Reading these other books, you can often, like a building or a song, place it to the quarter century if not the decade based on the language, structure and tone of the book. But by being so anchored in their time of writing, they seem doomed to die with those times, whereas others float free on down the tide of generations, always fresh and entertaining.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania to Amos Bronson Alcott and his wife Abigail May Alcott on November 29, 1832. She lived her life predominantly in Massachusetts, alternating between Boston and Concord. Louisa was the second of four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May.

Alcott led an initially difficult, but fascinating life. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an idealistic, progressive transcendentalist philosopher, very active in many movements and launching many initiatives but in the end, apparently very impractical, leaving the family usually in straightened financial circumstances.

Alcott was home-schooled consistent with her father's theories but supplemented by the very rich intellectual environment with which he enveloped the family. Not only were there rarified discussions within the family on social and scientific issues but the young Alcott was taken under the wing of family friends and neighbors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. She apparently spent much time in Emerson's library reading deeply and broadly.

Out of this hot-house transcendentalist environment, she took away a deep commitment to helping her family, helping others, and an abiding respect for hard work. After a reasonably disastrous family exercise in utopian community living (in the community christened Fruitlands) when she was twelve and which resulted in borderline starvation, Alcott committed herself to doing whatever was required to provide for her family.

She was exposed to writing from an early age, all four daughters being required to maintain a journal of thoughts and observations which would then be reviewed with her parents, all as part of her practical and spiritual education. There were a number of entries through these middle teenage years reflecting her commitment to see her family through the hard times such as this one when she was fifteen "I will do something by and by. Don't care what, teach, sew, act, write, anything to help the family; and I'll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won't." This was a fairly prescient forecast as she did indeed do all these things (as well as acting as a tutor for Emerson's daughter and working as a household servant) as she tried to bring in money and did indeed eventually become wealthy and happy.

In her mid-teens, and like Jo in Little Women, Alcott began writing stories and was earning money by selling poems and sentimental/passion stories, often under the pen name of A.M. Barnard, to various magazines and other publications by her late teens. She published her first book, Flower Fables, a collection of fairy stories originally written for Emerson's daughter, Emma, in 1854 when she was twenty-two.

All during these years of financial strain, uncertainty and near impoverishment, Alcott, as with the rest of her family, remained true to their progressive ideals, supporting various movements including women's suffrage, abolition, coeducation, vegetarianism, temperance, education reform.

In 1856, after a number of years of poor health, Alcott's beloved younger sister, Elizabeth, died of scarlet fever. This was followed soon after by the marriage of her older sister Anna, bringing to a close the many years of family life together. It was these first twenty-four years of her life and her family experience that formed the basis for the books which were to bring her literary fame and fortune.

With the coming of the Civil War, Alcott, wanting to help, went to Washington, D.C. to serve as a nurse. She only served for six weeks before contracting typhoid and being invalided back home. The treatment, including doses of mercury, was almost worse than the disease and she suffered various recurrent symptoms throughout the remainder of her life. While serving, she had written many letters home describing the terrible conditions and circumstances to which she was exposed and the suffering of her patients.

She used this material to writer her second book, Hospital Sketches, which was published in 1863. The public was desperate for all information about the war and this combined with her distinctive, straightforward writing style in which she was able to relate terrible stories in a way that was moving without being overly sentimental, brought her to the attention of a much wider critical audience than she had had with her earlier writings and book.

Encouraged by the positive reception of Hospital Sketches, Alcott produced seven books over the next five years. These books provided some measure of financial and literary success and she was able to achieve her goal of beginning to pull her family out of their precarious financial circumstances.

Her publisher Thomas Niles, encouraged her to write a girls' story. Alcott was reluctant at first and skeptical of her ability to produce anything that might find an audience but accepted the suggestion and began work on a story, basing it on her own life. Her hesitancy is reflected in her journal recorded at this time, "So I plod away, though I don't enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, other than my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences might be interesting, though I doubt it."

So out of this very distinctive up-bringing, peculiar life experiences, and the need to put food on the table was created one of America's iconic stories. There was no literary guile, no effort to write a classic, no deliberate artifice in structuring the story - simply another book to earn some money.

Alcott wrote the story in six weeks and Little Women, substantially drawing from her own life, was published in 1868. It was an instant and huge success. So successful in fact that she immediately sat down and wrote a sequel Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second in two months. Ever since, these two volumes have almost always been published as a single book, Little Women.

With the triumph of Little Women, Alcott had arrived at a station of literary and financial success, for which she had striven but had seemed completely improbable. Some of the things that set Little Women apart from the run of the mill children's books of the time were that it was a warm and sympathetic story, it told a story without preaching, it was very concrete in its descriptions of people and settings and the protagonists were clearly attractive character's but all flawed in their own particular way; they were characters with whom children could empathize.

This period saw the emergence of a number of children's protagonists each of whom were essentially good kids, but all of whom had flaws. In addition to Jo and her sisters in Little Women, there was also The Story of a Bad Boy by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge, and of course the north stars in this particular constellation, The Adventures of Tom Sawyerby Mark Twain.

There are considered to be eight Little Women stories though they are more of a hive of stories than a series per se. Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out all cover the March family and children. An Old Fashioned Girl; Eight Cousins, The Aunt-Hill; Rose in Bloom; Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill are considered part of the series as well even though they do not focus on the March family.

As she wrote further stories, Alcott's writing style became more structured and there is perhaps more intention to communicate a particular message.

As with any great story whose success is assured by popularity, there have of course been legions of literary army ants eager to attack and draw out all sorts of points ranging from literary critiques to assaults on the stories for various social short-comings. I think these can be safely tucked away in some sort of basement collection of critical writings that don't amount to a hill of beans.

You can turn your children loose on these books and be confident that they will enjoy them. I would add, whether representative or not, that they ought to be left where young boys can get their hands them as well. I remember one long summer finding myself one day without anything to read and raiding my sister's room for anything that might be good and first latching on to Little Women. I enjoyed it so much I then kidnapped her Little Men as well as Jo's Boys. Had I not been bereft of reading material I probably would never have thought of trying them. I am glad that I did.

Alcott never married. Her father died March 4, 1888 and Louisa May Alcott followed him two days later on March 6, 1888.


Flower Fables by Louisa May Alcott 1855

Hospital Sketches by Louisa May Alcott 1863

On Picket Duty, and Other Tales by Louisa May Alcott 1864

The Rose Family. A Fairy Tale by Louisa May Alcott 1864

Moods by Louisa May Alcott 1865

Nelly's Hospital by Louisa May Alcott 1865

A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott written in 1866 and published in 1995

The Mysterious Key, and What It Opened by Louisa May Alcott 1867

Aunt Kipp by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Kitty's Class Day by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Little Women or, Meg. Jo, Beth and Amy, 2 volumes by Louisa May Alcott and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith 1868

Louisa M. Alcott's Proverb Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Louisa May Alcott's Proverb Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Morning-Glories, and Other Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Psyche's Art by Louisa May Alcott 1868

Hospital Sketches and Camp and Fireside Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1869

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott 1870

V.V.: or, Plots and Counterplots by Louisa May Alcott 1870

Will's Wonder Book by Louisa May Alcott 1870

Little Men: Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott 1871

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 1: My Boys, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1872

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 2: Shawl-Straps, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1872

Something to Do by Louisa May Alcott 1873

Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott 1873

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 3: Cupid and Chow Chow, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1874

Eight Cousins; or The Aunt-Hill by Louisa May Alcott 1875

Rose in Bloom. A Sequel to "Eight Cousins" by Louisa May Alcott 1876

Silver Pitchers: And Independence, A Centennial Love Story by Louisa May Alcott 1876

A Modern Mephistopheles, anonymous by Louisa May Alcott 1877

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 4: My Girls, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1878

Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott 1878

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 5: Jimmy's Cruise in the Pinafore, Louisa May Alcott 1879

Meadow Blossoms by Louisa May Alcott 1879

Sparkles for Bright Eyes by Louisa May Alcott 1879

Water Cresses by Louisa May Alcott 1879

Jack and Jill: A Village Story by Louisa May Alcott 1880

Aunt Jo's Scrap-Bag Volume 6: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, Etc. by Louisa May Alcott 1882

Spinning-Wheel Stories by Louisa May Alcott 1884

Jo's Boys, and How They Turned Out. A Sequel to "Little Men" by Louisa May Alcott 1886

Lulu's Library. Vol. I. A Christmas Dream by Louisa May Alcott 1886

A Garland for Girls by Louisa May Alcott 1887

Lulu's Library. Vol. II. The Frost King by Louisa May Alcott 1887

A Modern Mephistopheles and A Whisper in the Dark by Louisa May Alcott 1889

Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters and Journals edited by Ednah D. Cheney 1889

Lulu's Library. Vol. III. Recollections by Louisa May Alcott 1889

Comic Tragedies Written by "Jo" and "Meg" and Acted by the Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 1893

A Round Dozen: Stories edited by Anne Thaxter Eaton 1963

Glimpses of Louisa: A Centennial Sampling of the Best Short Stories by Louisa May Alcott edited by Cornelia Meigs 1968

Behind a Mask; The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott and edited by Madeleine B. Stern 1975

Louisa's Wonder Book: An Unknown Alcott Juvenile by Louisa May Alcott 1975

Plots and Counterplots; More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott 1976

Diana and Persis edited by Sarah Elbert 1978

Transcendental Wild Oats by Louisa May Alcott 1981

The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson 1987

The Works of Louisa May Alcott by Louisa May Alcott 1987

A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine B. Stern 1988

Alternative Alcott edited by Elaine Showalter 1988

The Journals of Louisa May Alcott edited by Joel Myerson 1989

Louisa May Alcott's Fairy Tales and Fantasy Stories edited by Daniel Shealy 1992

Louisa May Alcott Unmasked: Collected Thrillers edited by Madeleine B. Stern 1995

The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott 1996

A Modern Cinderella Or The Little Old Shoe And Other Stories by Louisa May Alcott 2002

Winter Stories

I love each of the seasons, each for their own reason, but there is a special place in my heart for winter. Having lived in Sweden for a number of years in my childhood, I measure winter by those norms, i.e. very cold and with lots of snow.

In children's stories, winter is often the metaphor for dying and death, for evil: the ice princess, the snow queen. I have a different take on it. Winter inescapably calls up the images of the dying of the year, of darkness, etc. But when you think about it, it is also the triumph of the human will. Winter is not an act of God, an accident that happens to you out of the blue. It is an event for which you prepare and your survival of that winter is a testament to your will, a test of your capacity to overcome a difficult environment.

It is a little like field sports. I never used to like the nauseating anticipation of a race, the knowledge of the aching muscles and desperate breath that would come. But all of that was more than made up for by the feeling of pinched exhilaration at the end of the race, whether having won or not, of knowing and feeling you have pushed your body to new limits. Winter is something like that.

Of course you can have too much of a good test. Years ago, I had been living in Atlanta for three or four years. While we occasionally get a snow or two, it is not anything like a real winter. Not like a Swedish winter. So I was missing the test of a real winter - real cold, real snow. I moaned to Sally a couple of times about my missing winter but she, having grown up in the tropics of South Carolina, doesn't have the time of day for anything below 80 degrees and views winter with abomination. Whenever she hears me speak of winter or look longingly at photos of a beautiful snowscape, she just rolls her eyes.

In early December, I got a call from our Winnipeg office: Could you come up and spend a week with us? We have to write a proposal for a client and we need your experience with this particular industry.

Winnipeg - now that is good ways north. They surely have good cold, snowy winters up there. Of course my answer was "Yes! I'll come up and help out." So I bustled around the house digging up all my old winter outfits, scarves, gloves, heavy coat - all the things that had been in the way and never been used in Atlanta.

And off I flew Sunday afternoon to Winnipeg. Flying over the Canadian prairie I could see that there were no deep drifts of snow, but there was some snow; certainly more than I was likely to have in Atlanta.

It was only when I walked off the plane that I began to realize that I might have gotten more than I had bargained for. It was cold; really cold. I decided it was just because I was out of shape and hadn't worn all the warm clothes. I got to the hotel, checked-in, and went up to my room, unpacked and got out all the accoutrements of cold weather clothing. It was late, but I really wanted to feel the bite of cold.

I changed and walked down to the foyer. As I started out the front door, the concierge caught my attention and pointed out that Winnipeg has an underground system of walkways and I could get anywhere I wanted using them. "No, thanks. I just want a breath of fresh air. I'll be back in a bit." If I had paid close attention, I would probably have seen another set of rolling eyes.

So out I went into the bracing Canadian prairie winter. Oooouuuuch! Nothing in Sweden prepared me for this. Minus 40 degrees! Made sharply worse by a stiff breeze. Of course, there was nothing for it but to put on a brave face and walk at least a short ways. A few blocks would give me enough time not to look too foolish. Well, I made it to the end of the block. It felt like frost bite was already taking the rims of my ears and my lips. I could barely open my eyes without weeping. I had to breathe slowly through my nose in order not to completely freeze out my nasal passages. Despite simply walking, I felt breathless as from a run. I finally found an entrance to the underground passage ways and made my escape. So now, while still usually missing hard winters, I am much more careful about what I do about it.

I suspect every reader, consciously or unconsciously, has some real or imaginary place or places where they love to read and some way of going about it. Just yesterday, as I was walking through the living room, my youngest came bouncing past me, a book clutched under one arm and a bowl of boiled peanuts in the other hand. He had the biggest grin on his face and said in passing - "Boiled peanuts and a great book. Mmm-um!"

Places - It might be on the grass in the garden that catches the warmth of the sun at just the right time of the year. Or perhaps it is a special leather sofa in a room somewhere in the house, or maybe a window seat looking out over the street. Someplace. For me, it is an ugly looking old overstuffed chair in the house we lived in in Sweden. It wasn't our chair. It came with the house. It had a funny, dusty kind of smell and its covering was some sort of artificial felt, but it was just the right shape. I could curl up so comfortably in that thing. There was a nice big floor lamp right beside it that not only gave me good light, but was warming as well. And when I think of the favorite places I have read, that is close to the top. Curled up there, in mid-winter, with a good book, a warm light and large open window out onto the snow covered backyard. It is cold and dark out there and I am warm and content in here. That is a treasured moment.

Here is a collection of winter stories. Explicitly excluded are Christmas stories which are a list of their own. These are stories taking place in winter or have to do with winter activities. Are there others you would suggest?

Picture Books

The Mitten by Jan Brett Recommended

Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton Highly Recommended

An Indian Winter by Russell Freedman and illustrated by Karl Bodmer Suggested

Dear Rebecca, Winter Is Here by Jean Craighead George and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski Suggested

The Big Snow by Berta Hader & Elmer Hader Recommended

Snowie Rolie by William Joyce Suggested

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats Highly Recommended

The Tomten and the Fox by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Harald Wiberg & Karl-Erik Forsslund Recommended

Froggy Gets Dressed by Jonathan London and illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz Suggested

The Race of the Birkebeiners by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Mary Azarian Recommended

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian Recommended

Snow by Roy McKie and illustrated by P. D. Eastman Suggested

There Come a Soldier by Peggy Mercer and illustrated by Ron Mazellan Highly Recommended

Don't Wake Up the Bear by Marjorie Dennis Murray and illustrated by Patricia Wittmann Suggested

Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Sucie Stevenson Suggested

Here Comes Darrell by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Mary Azarian Suggested

Brave Irene by William Steig Recommended

When Winter Comes by Nancy Van Laan and illustrated by Susan Gaber Suggested

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

Cam Jansen and the Snowy Day Mystery by David A. Adler and illustrated by Susanna Natti Suggested

Corduroy's Snow Day by Don Freeman and illustrated by Lisa McCue Suggested

Where Fish Go in Winter and Other Great Mysteries by Amy Goldman Koss and illustrated by Laura J. Bryant Recommended

Changes for Felicity by Valerie Tripp and illustrated by Dan Andreasen Suggested

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Recommended

Young Adult

Endurance by Alfred Lansing Highly Recommended

The Snow Walker by Farley Mowat Suggested

Blizzard by Jim Murphy Suggested


The National Library of Scotland has a fascinating collection of digitized broadsheets from years gone by. Looking through some of these broadsheets is a real eye-opening reminder of how much has changed (and how much has stayed the same). From the NLS site:

How Ordinary Scots in Bygone Days Found out what was Happening

In the centuries before there were newspapers and 24-hour news channels, the general public had to rely on street literature to find out what was going on. The most popular form of this for nearly 300 years was 'broadsides' - the tabloids of their day. Sometimes pinned up on walls in houses and ale-houses, these single sheets carried public notices, news, speeches and songs that could be read (or sung) aloud.

The National Library of Scotland's online collection of nearly 1,800 broadsides lets you see for yourself what 'the word on the street' was in Scotland between 1650 and 1910. Crime, politics, romance, emigration, humour, tragedy, royalty and superstitions - all these and more are here.

There are too many examples to include - as a small sampler, try this report of the sale of a wife.

One thing leads to another

As so often happens, when looking for one thing I came across another of interest. In a similar vein to the poem I posted a while ago, Barbara Frietchie, I found this poem, The Bravest Boy in Town by Emily Huntington Nason.

The Bravest Boy in Town

He lived in the Cumberland Valley,
And his name was Jamie Brown;
But it changed one day, so the neighbors say,
To the "Bravest Boy in Town."

'Twas the time when the Southern soldiers,
Under Early's mad command,
O'er the border made their dashing raid
From the north of Maryland.

And Chambersburg unransomed
In smouldering ruins slept,
While up the vale, like a fiery gale,
The Rebel raiders swept.

And a squad of gray-clad horsemen
Came thundering o'er the bridge,
Where peaceful cows in the meadows browse,
At the feet of the great Blue Ridge;

And on till they reached the village,
That fair in the valley lay,
Defenseless then, for its loyal men,
At the front, were far away.

"Pillage and spoil and plunder!"
This was the fearful word
That the Widow Brown, in gazing down
From her latticed window, heard.

'Neath the boughs of the sheltering oak-tree,
The leader bared his head,
As left and right, until out of sight,
His dusty gray-coats sped.

Then he called: "Halloo! within there!"
A gentle, fair-haired dame
Across the floor to the open door
In gracious answer came.

"Here! stable my horse, you woman!"—
The soldier's tones were rude—
"Then bestir yourself and from yonder shelf
Set out your store of food!"

For her guest she spread the table;
She motioned him to his place
With a gesture proud; then the widow bowed,
And gently—asked a grace.

"If thine enemy hunger, feed him!
I obey, dear Christ!" she said;
A creeping blush, with its scarlet flush,
O'er the face of the soldier spread.

He rose: "You have said it, madam!
Standing within your doors
Is the Rebel foe; but as forth they go
They shall trouble not you nor yours!"

Alas, for the word of the leader!
Alas, for the soldier's vow!
When the captain's men rode down the glen,
They carried the widow's cow.

It was then the fearless Jamie
Sprang up with flashing eyes,
And in spite of tears and his mother's fears,
On the gray mare, off he flies.

Like a wild young Tam O'Shanter
He plunged with piercing whoop,
O'er field and brook till he overtook
The straggling Rebel troop.

Laden with spoil and plunder,
And laughing and shouting still,
As with cattle and sheep they lazily creep
Through the dust o'er the winding hill.

"Oh! the coward crowd!" cried Jamie;
"There's Brindle! I'll teach them now!"
And with headlong stride, at the captain's side,
He called for his mother's cow.

"Who are you, and who is your mother?—
I promised she should not miss?—
Well! upon my word, have I never heard
Of assurance like to this!"

"Is your word the word of a soldier?"—
And the young lad faced his foes,
As a jeering laugh, in anger half
And half in sport, arose.

But the captain drew his sabre,
And spoke, with lowering brow:
"Fall back into line! The joke is mine!
Surrender the widow's cow!"

And a capital joke they thought it,
That a barefoot lad of ten
Should demand his due—and get it too—
In the face of forty men.

And the rollicking Rebel raiders
Forgot themselves somehow,
And three cheers brave for the hero gave,
And three for the brindle cow.

He lived in the Cumberland Valley,
And his name was Jamie Brown;
But it changed that day, so the neighbors say,
To the "Bravest Boy in Town."

Bingen on the Rhine

J.J. Tanner, 1850

I just finished reading Stephen Crane's short story The Open Boat. In the story he alludes to a ballad whose first line is "A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers".

A quick search on the internet reveals that it is by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton (1808-1877), a poet with whom I was unfamiliar but who looks pretty good. The title is actually Bingen on the Rhine.

Bingen on the Rhine

A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers,

There was a lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth of woman's tears;

But a comrade stood beside him, while his lifeblood ebbed away,

And bent with pitying glances, to hear what he might say.

The dying soldier faltered, and he took that comrade's hand,

And he said, "I nevermore shall see my own, my native land:

Take a message, and a token, to some distant friends of mine,

For I was born at Bingen, -- at Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my brothers and companions, when they meet and crowd around,
To hear my mournful story, in the pleasant vineyard ground,
That we fought the battle bravely, and when the day was done,
Full many a corpse lay ghastly pale beneath the setting sun;
And, mid the dead and dying, were some grown old in wars, --
The death-wound on their gallant breasts, the last of many scars;
And some were young, and suddenly beheld life's morn decline, --
And one had come from Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my mother that her other son shall comfort her old age;
For I was still a truant bird, that thought his home a cage.
For my father was a soldier, and even as a child
My heart leaped forth to hear him tell of struggles fierce and wild;
And when he died, and left us to divide his scanty hoard,
I let them take whate'er they would, -- but kept my father's sword;
And with boyish love I hung it where the bright light used to shine
On the cottage wall at Bingen, -- calm Bingen on the Rhine.

"Tell my sister not to weep for me, and sob with drooping head,
When the troops come marching home again with glad and gallant tread,
But to look upon them proudly, with a calm and steadfast eye,
For her brother was a soldier too, and not afraid to die;
And if a comrade seek her love, I ask her in my name
To listen to him kindly, without regret or shame,
And to hang the old sword in its place (my father's sword and mine)
For the honor of old Bingen, -- dear Bingen on the Rhine.

"There's another, -- not a sister: in the happy days gone by
You'd have known her by the merriment that sparkled in her eye;
Too innocent for coquetry, -- too fond for idle scorning, --
O friend! I fear the lightest heart makes sometimes heaviest mourning!
Tell her the last night of my life (for, ere the moon be risen,
My body will be out of pain, my soul be out of prison), --
I dreamed I stood with her, and saw the yellow sunlight shine
On the vine-clad hills of Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

"I saw the blue Rhine sweep along, -- I heard, or seemed to hear,
The German songs we used to sing, in chorus sweet and clear;
And down the pleasant river, and up the slanting hill,
The echoing chorus sounded, through the evening calm and still;
And her glad blue eyes were on me, as we passed, with friendly talk,
Down many a path beloved of yore, and well-remembered walk!
And her little hand lay lightly, confidingly, in mine, --
But we'll meet no more at Bingen, -- loved Bingen on the Rhine."

His trembling voice grew faint and hoarse, -- his grasp was childish weak,--
His eyes put on a dying look, -- he sighed, and ceased to speak;
His comrade bent to lift him, but the spark of life had fled, --
The soldier of the Legion in a foreign land is dead;
And the soft moon rose up slowly, and calmly she looked down
On the red sand of the battle-field, with bloody corses strown;
Yet calmly on that dreadful scene her pale light seemed to shine,
As it shone on distant Bingen, -- fair Bingen on the Rhine.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A.J. Liebling

"Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience."

p. 24 Mollie & Other War Pieces by A.J. Liebling

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Strong Girls

As I sat down to write this essay, I realized to my surprise, that what I intended to write about was reasonably moot and that this topic, Strong Girls, is really more pertinent to a different subject altogether.

Let me explain. We set these essays many months in advance, taking into account topical issues, themes from the calendar, and other factors. So this particular essay was a counterpoint to last week's Adventure Stories for Boys. When we set it out some months ago, I was sort of thinking in terms of the women's movement, equal rights, etc.

Strong Girls - it almost seems a quaint concept these days. I was raised partly in Sweden, a very progressive country where women as fully equal members of society has been a long established norm. Returning to the US in the late seventies, I found something of a post-1960's stage of the women's movement - a strong and active NOW, a focus on the ERA, Title XI, etc. Starting my professional career in the early eighties the initial institutional barriers had effectively been broken down and we seemed to all be trying to figure out the operational impacts of how to make a promise a reality. We seemed to have come so far.

But the mighty river of equal rights rather lost itself in a delta of branches and divergent streams where the issue is not equal rights but much more nebulous issues of perceived fairness and independence and individuality and personal choices. We seem to have arrived at a point where there are so many choices open to girls and women that the issue is not really any longer so much about barriers as it is about making those choices and taking responsibility for them. Stay-at-home mom, soccer-mom, bread-winner, single parent, single professional, super-mom with full-time career and family; when I look around my peers, I see examples of all those models. And everybody occasionally looking over the fence and wondering if they made the right choice.

As I contemplate the world ahead for my daughter, I find that my concern about institutional barriers, corporate discrimination, societal prejudice, damaging stereotypes, etc. is surprisingly low. We have come a long ways.

So what am I most concerned about for her? Well, to be frank - other girls. What is it with all this mean-girl business? YIKES! I stand prepared to be told that this is nothing new, that mean-girl behavior has been an issue all along. That's quite possible. I cannot claim that my sensitivity to the social dynamics among girls was particularly acute at 12-18. I know there are some that might argue nothing has changed either.

But it seems to be everywhere I look now. Well, that is a bit of an over-dramatization. It is fortunately not everywhere and my daughter fortunately has a wonderful group of friends. But I do hear of some pretty dreadful, malicious behavior among particular girls. I guess it is the premeditated, deeply hurtful intent of the behavior that I find so startling. That and that there seems to a whole genre of girls books that in a way celebrate this behavior. There are, for example, series such as The Clique and The Baby-Sitters Club which basically mull through various scenarios of mean-girl behavior without advancing any sort of condemnation of it.

Humph! There are books for every occasion and some people for every book. Sally explains the popularity of these books among some girls as a function of the story reflecting the reality they live. Perhaps. Still, I feel there is more than enough dysfunction, maliciousness and emotional brutishness in the world without adding to it by passively condoning unacceptable behavior. Especially when there are so many wonderfully positive stories and role models to share with our daughters and sons.

Wherever we are in the experiment of "all men are created equal", we often forget just how egalitarian American history has been. Whether it is the influence of the Scandinavian and German traditions, the independence and autonomy inculcated by frontier living, or some other source, we have in our history, and correspondingly in our children's books a tremendously pervasive tradition of strong girls and women. These role models were evident long before our radical sixties.

Take, as an example, Little Lulu, recently republished by Dark Horse Comics. This comic strip first appeared in 1935, authored by Marjorie Henderson Buell, and ran through 1969, ultimately being syndicated across the US and the globe. Now if there is ever a strong girl, it is Lulu. The setting for the strip is the adventures of Lulu and her friends in their traditional neighborhood. Everyone is in-and-out each other's homes, the boys have a gang (of the old neighborhood variety, not the armed thug version), parents are present but peripheral to the kids day-to-day lives. Lulu is constantly butting heads with one or more of the fellows in the neighborhood and almost always, through cleverness and sometimes brawn, overcomes whatever the issue is.

Think of Lucy Van Pelt and Peppermint Patty in the Peanuts comic strip (running from 1950 to 2000). Charlie Brown would never have thought of them as anything but strong girls. Especially Lucy.

And in the literature itself, at least as early as Lousia May Alcott and the Little Women series, we have always had characterful strong girls. Just think of the roster: Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Jo March in Little Women, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking, Pollyanna, Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House on the Prairie series, Julie in Julie of the Wolves, Sarah in Sarah, Plain and Tall, Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, The neat thing is that you would love to spend a meal, or a day, or a summer with any one of these characters and you know that you would have a wonderful time. These are characters you would want by your side when dealing with adversity.

And then there are the series such as American Girl, >Trixie Belden, >Nancy Drew, >Cam Jansen, Malory Towers and St. Clare's, Betsy-Tacy.

And we are replete with great biographies of great women; Amelia Earheart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, Helen Keller's Teacher and Joan of Arc just to start with.

So there is a lot to choose from to give our daughters wonderful stories which they will treasure and remember about strong girls and women who make a difference for the better. Why waste time dwelling on the negative when there are these great books to read instead?

Below is a sampler of titles where the female protagonist displays self-reliance, confidence, strength and good humor to overcome circumstances or to achieve something which they value. Critically, these books are 1) great stories that just happen to have a female protagonist and 2) don't preach. While they might have some particular resonance with girls and serve as role-models as they address day-to-day issues, I think you will find that virtually all of these books are thoroughly enjoyed by boys as well, though they might not readily admit it.

There are way too many potential titles for here, be sure to check in booklist in a couple of days where a more extensive list will be included.

Are there others which you might recommend? Please use the comments section to nominate additional titles.

Picture Books

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch Suggested

Brave Margaret by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport Suggested

Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack Highly Recommended

Heroines: Great Women Through the Ages by Rebecca Hazell and illustrated by Rebecca Hazell Suggested

Joan of Arc by Josephine Poole and illustrated by Angela Barrett Suggested

Kate Shelley Bound for Legend by Robert D. San Souci and illustrated by Max Ginsburg Recommended

The Little Ships; The Heroic Rescue at Dunkirk in World War II by Lousie Borden and illustrated by Michael Foreman Highly Recommended

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney Recommended

Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman (Out of Print)

Sacagawea by Flora Warren Seymour Suggested

Susanna of the Alamo by John Julius Jakes and illustrated by Paul Bacon Recommended

The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon Highly Recommended

The Bus Ride by William Miller and illustrated by John Ward Recommended

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Recommended

The Library by Sarah Stewart and illustrated by David Small Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle Highly Recommended

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by John Tenniel Highly Recommended

American Girl series by various authors Recommended

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and illustrated by Jody Lee Recommended

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and illustrated by Diane Goode Recommended

Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich Recommended

Boston Jane by Jennifer L. Holm Suggested

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman Recommended

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman Suggested

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster Suggested

Helen Keller by Katharine E. Wilkie and illustrated by Robert Doremus Suggested

Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain by Robert Burch Recommended

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell Recommended

Joan of Arc by Angela Bull Suggested

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and illustrated by Louis Jambour Highly Recommended

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers and illustrated by Mary Shepard Highly Recommended

Not One Damsel in Distress by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Susan Guevara Highly Recommended

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren and illustrated by Michael Chesworth Highly Recommended

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee Highly Recommended

Young Adult

A Bone from a Dry Sea by Peter Dickinson Suggested

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts Recommended

Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes Highly Recommended

The Warrior Queens by Antonia Fraser Suggested

To the Heart of the Nile by Pat Shipman Highly Recommended