Sunday, May 25, 2008

Family Storytelling in the Tropics

From Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, a memoir of family and the Dutch-Ceylonese in Sri Lanka. He has returned to Sri Lanka to reconnect with near and distant family, to hear and retell the stories that a family accumulates.

But I love the afternoon hours most. It is now almost a quarter to three. In half an hour the others will waken from their sleep and intricate conversations will begin again. In the heart of this 250-year-old fort we will trade anecdotes and faint memories, trying to swell them with the order of dates and asides, interlocking them all as if assembling the hull of a ship. No story is ever told just once. Whether a memory or funny hideous scandal, we will return to it an hour later and retell the story with additions and this time a few judgements thrown in. In this way history is organized. All day my Uncle Ned, who is heading a commission on race-riots (and so has been given this building to live in while in Jaffna), is at work, and all day my Aunt Phyllis presides over the history of good and bad Ondaatjes and the people they came in contact with. Her eye, which by now knows well the ceilings of this house, will suddenly sparkle and she will turn to us with delight and begin "and there is another terrible story . . .."

There are so many ghosts here. In the dark mildewed wing, where the rotting mosquito nets hang, lives the apparition of the Dutch governor's daughter. In 1734 she threw herself down a well after being told she could not marry her lover, and has startled generations since, making them avoid the room where she silently exhibits herself in a red dress. And just as the haunted sections are avoided for sleeping, the living room is avoided for conversation, being so huge that all talk evaporates into the air before it reaches the listener.

The dogs from the town, who have sneaked past the guards, are asleep on the porch - one of the coolest spots in Jaffna. As I get up to adjust the speed of the fan, they roll onto their feet and move a few yards down the porch. The tree outside is full of crows and white cranes who gurgle and screech. A noisy solitude - all the new stories in my mind and the birds totally compatible but screaming at each other, sweeping now and then over the heads of drowsy mongrels. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, pages 26-27

A Flock of Messenger Pigeons

From Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, memoir of family and the Dutch-Ceylonese in Sri Lanka. Here he is describing the hot-house, tropical social environment in the 1920's and 30's.

It was almost impossible for a couple to do anything without rumour leaving their shoulders like a flock of messenger pigeons. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, page 54

Friday, May 23, 2008

Churchill on Generals

I am still enjoying Churchill's My Early Life. This comment caught my eye as a well put truism and particularly pertinent to our experience in Iraq in the past three years.

In battles, however, the other fellow interferes all the time and keeps upsetting things, and the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.

Cibber Serendipity

Yesterday, I was reading Kenneth Roberts' Boon Island originally published in 1956. In it, he references Cibber in relationship to the London theater. I had never heard of Cibber before.

Then today, I am reading Dorothy Sayers' The Lost Tools of Learning and she mentions

. . . the idea of playing Shakespeare's plays as he wrote them, and not in the "modernized" versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.

So in the space of twenty-four hours I come across references to a single individual (of whom I have never been consciously aware) in two entirely separate and unrelated documents.

I am always intrigued by these seemingly improbable coincidences.

The Lost Tools of Learning

I came across a most interesting essay by the British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers entitled The Lost Tools of Learning written in 1947. While there are many details with which one could quibble, I find myself in substantial agreement with her larger point about the importance of early-on, equipping children with the tools of learning as opposed to simply acquiring specific bodies of knowledge.

I am daily astonished at the intellectual paucity underpinning some of our most important debates and how rarely there is any engagement around the facts and logic of the issue and how much of what passes for debate is actually an exercise in out-emoting one another. And everything is a crisis. It would appear that every advocate has to establish the primacy of their cause by making it a crisis. We can no longer just prioritize issues by their importance.

Take the issuance of a "study" this past week by the American Association of University Women (various background articles here,here, and here). In the first instance, it is debatable whether there is a "crisis" as defined by the proponents of the theory that males and white males in particular have the cards stacked against them in virtually all government programs. An issue, yes- but a crisis? On the other hand, the AAUW study does have some interesting data within it but their interpretation of that data is at several critical points logically fallacious as has been pointed out by a number of commentators within the blogosphere and yet there is little main stream acknowledgement of what is patently obvious.

Whether it is education, global warming, sexism, racism, or such mundane issues as to how well the economy is performing, facts and logic take a back seat and the discussion is driven by those that frame the discussion in terms of how important they feel the issue is and which facts can be taken out of context and couched in a way to support the conclusion at which they have already arrived.

Sayer's essay has many interesting observations and suggestions and is very quotable.

Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase--reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past), or whatever tag comes first to hand--I will ask you to consider one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and occasionally pop out to worry us.

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society. The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is there there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects--but does that always mean that they actually know more?

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?


I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, which offers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the "distressing fact" that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them: "he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it."

And finally:

For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

Read the whole essay, it is well worth it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Asian Folktales

Caught in the truly remarkable global changes of the past twenty years, it is easy to lose sight of what has been accomplished as well as the fact that we have been down this road before. India and China in particular, having made the decision some twenty years ago to more or less unleash market forces, have wrought such change as to numb the senses. After several decades of centralized planning and international aid agency handouts and nothing to show for it but increased poverty and enervating famines, both countries have seen such staggering progress that, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing, by dent of their own efforts we are seeing global poverty falling at the fastest rate in living memory.

None of this is easy or predictable and the consequences are not, well, inconsequential - as we can see daily in the prices of food and energy. Taking the long view though, as much disruption as these changes and improvements wreak on all of our lives, the improvements in the lives, health and wealth of all people can only be a good thing in the long run.

How is it that we have been down this road before? Well, in the 1910's and then again after World War I in the 1920's and 1930's the world was surprisingly integrated within the constraints of technology as it existed at that time. Yes it took weeks to steam from Europe or North America to Asia but people were engaged in trade - trade of ideas, art, commerce. People in Europe invested in China and India building factories and railroads. Merchants in India and China exported cloth and steel and other goods around the world. A small handful of Indian intellectuals and artistic talents found their way to Europe and even into the top reaches of academia in Oxford and Cambridge. Some 200,000 Europeans lived in India. Thousands of missionaries worked in China.

You can see this engagement in some of the children's literature of the time with many stories either relating experiences of China, India or elsewhere in Asia (such as Lafcadio Hearn and his collections of Japanese folktales) or incorporating the experiences of having lived there (for example, Kurt Weise who illustrated Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping, based on his experiences of having lived in China for a number of years).

And then things fell apart. The communist conquest of China, the Indian dalliance with socialism and a planned economy, World War II, etc. basically empoverished and isolated these countries and their wonderful cultures. And now, all of a sudden as it would seem - they are almost all back. The magic and mystery of the orient is again available for our children to explore. With any luck, the wheels won't come off this time.

So our children, I hope, have the prospect of needing (and hopefully wanting) to understand this great swath of the earth which has produced some of the most fascinating history and cultures. Just naming the countries and places evokes a sense of adventure and excitement - The Kingdom of Siam, the lost cities of the Khmer, the temples in Rangoon, the Yangtse River, the South China Sea, the princely Raj's of India, the delicacy of Japanese rock gardens, the Middle Kingdom, the Great Wall, and on and on. It is a veritable cultural smorgasbord, something for everyone and for every sense. Where to start introducing our children to this magical world?

There is nothing so basic in understanding a culture as understanding their language, their idioms and adages, and understanding their folktales.

Language presents some challenges. A number of years ago I was based in Australia and was asked to take on a regional role responsible for a number of practices across Asia. Having grown up in Europe, I was accustomed to an environment of many languages and cultures. I am unfortunately an anti-linguist; I forget (or mangle) languages faster than I can learn them. In Europe I had picked up a smattering of languages and whenever I found myself having to visit another country, I would pick up Berlitz type guide and brush up on the basics.

Having received this new role in Asia, that was my first instinct as well. I need to visit each of these practices in their countries and see what is happening on the ground. To do that I need at least a taste of the language. So down I trotted to the nearest Dymocks to pick up a few language guides. I will not ever forget the humbling sense of bewilderment standing in front of the shelves of local language guides - all were in the local scripts. I literally had no idea of which way was up or what I was even doing. It was a great reminder that the East is a mighty big place.

So, setting aside language as a bridge into another culture, how about idioms and adages? I find them fascinating but experience has taught me that flavoring a family dinner time conversation with idioms and adages and teasing them apart for what they might tell about a culture is a mugs game.

So that leaves folktales and there, fortunately, the pickings are much richer. There is always a challenge in that some folktales can be so far afield from one's own sense of reality, that they can become almost disorienting. As I think I have mentioned on this site before, we encountered this in Australia when reading aboriginal folktales to our kids. They enjoyed a good number of these but there were large swaths of folktales which would simply almost beyond comprehension. It wasn't that they didn't understand the words of the stories, simply that the unadulterated Aboriginal cultures were so fundamentally different that it was a challenge to fit ones' mind into the right perspective.

Fortunately this issue is not as prevalent in most of the major cultures of Asia where there have been fundamental parallels with much of European history which shaped our own folktales. Town versus Country, Rich versus Poor, War and Peace, Longing and Fulfillment, Quests; these are all common themes across the many cultures. In fact, it is fascinating to see some of the striking similarities; a Chinese version of Cinderella as well as even Little Red Riding Hood. Which is not to say that all the tales are familiar. Indeed, there are many that have no parallel at all. But they do tend to be comprehensible and accessible.

One of the wonderful things with these folktales, and the authors and illustrators response to demand for folktales, is that they also often incorporate the distinctive style of art and illustration of that culture as well. While there are good renderings of many folktales from the earlier period of engagement, in the past fifteen years we have seen an increasing volume of really good renderings of different Asian folktales sometimes told and illustrated by Asians, sometimes by Westerners and often by a mixed team one from one culture retelling the story and one from the other culture illustrating it.

Listed below are a number of primarily picture book renditions of folktales from across the many cultures of Asia. I hope you and your children enjoy these selections. Please let us know if there are other favorites we have overlooked.

Picture Books

The Monkey and the crocodile: a Jataka Tale From India by Paul Galdone Recommended

Stories from the Silk Road by Cherry Gilchrist and illustrated by Nilesh Mistry Suggested

The Weaving of a Dream: A Chinese Folktale by Marilee Heyer Suggested

Hush! A Thai Lullaby by Ho Minfong Recommended

I Once was a Monkey by Jeanne M. Lee Suggested

Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu by Emily Arnold McCully Recommended

Little Oh by Laura Krauss Melmed and illustrated by Jim LaMarche Recommended

Stone Soup by Jon J. Muth Suggested

Basho and the River Stones by Tim Myers Suggested

The Love of Two Stars by Janie Jaehyun Park Recommendation

The Firekeeper's Son by Linda Sue Park Suggested

Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Moss Roberts Suggested

Filipino Children's Favorite Stories by Liana Romulo Suggested

Japanese Children's Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade Highly Recommended

In the Moonlight Mist by Daniel San Souci

Fa Mulan: The Story of a Woman Warrior by Robert D. San Souci Recommended

The Gift of the crocodile: a Cinderella story by Judy Sierra Recommendation

Asian Tales and Tellers by Cathy Spagnoli Suggested

Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes by Robert Wyndham

Nine in One Grr ! Grr!: A Folktale from the Hmong People of Laos by Blia Xiong Suggested

The Dragon Prince: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale by Laurence Yep Suggested

The Emperor and the Kite by Jane Yolen Recommended

The Sons of the Dragon King: a Chinese Legend by Ed Young Recommended

Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac by Ed Young Recommended

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China by Ed Young Highly Recommended

Holling C. Holling

Born August 2, 1900 in Holling Corners, Michigan
Died September 7, 1973 in Pasadena, California

Few children's writers are acknowledged to transform or even initiate a genre within children's literature. They may make contributions of a great book here or there, or they may add a refinement or two. Holling C. Holling initiated, almost out of the blue, a whole new genre of children's books - stories wedded to and built from a factual foundation in which a fictional story outline provided the impetus to carry a child along while infusing a surprising volume of factual knowledge along the way.

Holling is a bit of a cipher. His declared life story is out there and easily obtained, but the few facts proffered hint at there being more than is said. For someone that made a major contribution to children's books, founded a new style of writing and whose principle books remain in print sixty years later, surprisingly little has been written about Holling. There is no biography that I can locate.

Children's books often give us the lie of our current perceptions of the past. There are many topical issues that we think of as relatively modern: women's rights, conservation, ecology, civil rights, etc. It is striking to me how frequently it is that I will be reading some children's books from fifty or a hundred years ago and right there, you will find a focus on these issues.

Holling is an example of this observation. Two decades before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring captured people's attention, Holling was educating children about the interconnectedness of life and the life cycle of animals and ecosystems (Minn of the Mississippi and Pagoo ). Forty years before Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Holling was presenting Native Americans in respectful and positive ways (The Book of Indians, Claws of the Thunderbird, and - to some degree - Paddle-to-the-Sea).

Holling's life story is easily told. He was born into a well-established pioneering family, in Holling Corners, Jackson County, Michigan on August 2, 1900. His father was superintendent of schools and so their house was well stocked with books, supplemented by those his mother brought from the library in the nearby town. In addition to loving to read, Holling was very much an outdoor child with a great love of camping, animals, Native American history, etc.

Holling early displayed a talent for art and illustration and on graduating high school in 1917, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1923. He met his future wife and collaborator, Lucille Webster Holling at the Art Institute, later marrying in 1925. It was also while attending the Art Institute that Holling spent a year in New Mexico studying art. This year gave him a much sharper appreciation of the use of color in illustration (he had mostly been accustomed to working in black and white). It also fueled his love and fascination of Native American life and culture. In fact, his first two books, New Mexico Made Easy and Sun and Smoke: Verse and Woodcuts of New Mexico, were both published in 1923 the same year he graduated from the Art Institute.

After graduating, Holling cast about a bit before settling into his chosen career. Initially, he worked as a taxidermist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago until 1926 and then spent a year as an art instructor on New York University's University World Cruise. In 1927 Holling and his wife returned to Chicago and Holling tried his hand at advertising for a brief period. From 1927 on, though, Holling concentrated on his art work and writing for children. Over the next fifteen years he wrote and illustrated a dozen books for children.

None of the books from this period in his writing career are still in print; however, three of the titles though received particular notice at the time. Claws of the Thunderbird: A Tale of Three Lost Indians (1928) is the tale of two young Native Americans caught up in a conflict between two great tribes, the Sioux and the Chippewa. What is marked is that these are not presented as cardboard caricatures but rather as an adventure/drama in which the protagonists happen to be Native American. This capability of marrying a factual education of Native American culture and history to a compelling storyline was a foreshadowing of Hollings future characteristic style of writing.

The other two books which put Holling onto the popular radar screen were a paired set of mass-market titles, The Book of Indians (1935) and The Book of Cowboys (1936). Both are notable for the historical and cultural veracity.

But all this was somewhat run-of-the-mill success preceding a startling run of five books over fifteen years starting in 1941 with Paddle-to-the-Sea (1942 Caldecott Honor) and including Tree in the Trail, Seabird, Minn of the Mississippi (1952 Newberry Honor), and Pagoo. All of these books are still in print, all were popular at the time and all remain popular among young children and independent readers today. In particular, these five have carved out a devoted following among home-schoolers for reasons to be described shortly.

Holling's books were different than those that came before him. There were certainly authors writing for children about animals and environments and science in the 1910's, 1920's and 1930's. But they were writing in a different fashion. Thornton Burgess was a very prolific author, many of whose books remain popular today. From the 1910's through to 1960 he wrote more than one hundred books for children all featuring a deep love of nature and animals. The majority of his books consisted of stories featuring anthropomorphized animal protagonists in natural settings, though he did also write reference type books for juvenile readers. There is clearly a love of nature throughout his work and deep knowledge about animals and the environment. While there is knowledge to be gleaned from his books, it does take something of a back seat to the story.

Similarly with Roy Chapman Andrews, a scientist with the American Museum of Natural History who wrote a number of books, many autobiographical, about nature and his adventures as an explorer, paleontologist, and marine biologist. These were and still are great reading but the focus is on the man's adventures and the knowledge gained is at a pretty general level.

Holling created a whole new approach. Each of his books was the product of two to four years of field and library research. Each book shares a somewhat similar structure, style and presentation, each of which were unique at the time of their writing and have rarely been well-emulated since then.

Each story is rooted in the natural world, set on the sea, rivers, the coast, and inland trails. Each story involves a physical and temporal journey. In Minn of the Mississippi, Minn (a turtle) travels over many seasons and years from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico. Paddle-to-the-Sea is the story of the journey of a wooden carving made by a Native American boy from its launching place in the headwaters of the St. Lawrence River, ultimately all the way to France. Tree in the Trail twists this sequence just a bit. Initially it is the story of the passing of history as seen by a stationary cottonwood tree located on what eventually becomes the Santa Fe Trail. But even here, there is travel as the wood from the tree is eventually made into an ox yoke and makes the journey to the end of the trail.

The visual structure of the books was characterized by a large format. Typically a page of text faces a full page color illustration. On the text page, the text is centered and usually surrounded by drawings, sketches, maps, and additional hand lettered information pertinent to the main story. Lucille Webster Holling is known to have contributed to each of these books and it appears that these embellishments were substantially hers.

This unusual structure is, I think, part of the appeal to young children. As you lie close together reading the story to a child (and these are primarily read-to stories), their eyes can roam the detailed pictures and pick out extra information from the fringes while still listening. Many children's books have now taken this to an extreme where the text looks like it has been the victim of a shotgun blast of extra information with pictures, photos, sidebars, etc., etc. Some take to it but I think most children and adults find it distracting. Holling makes it work by keeping it simple and by keeping the embellishing art work consistent with the main paintings.

The final distinctive aspect of this sequence of books is that Holling does a marvelous job of melding a narrative/fictional story line to a lot of factual information in such a way that it is seamless. The information is a part of the story - not something duct-taped on. And it is not just a few nuggets of information here and there; it is a lot of information. Read Minn of the Mississippi and by the end of the story you will have a very solid knowledge of geography and topography of the heartland of America as well as an understanding of its ecosystems and of the life cycle of a turtle all from an adventure book. This style is characteristic of Pagoo and of Paddle-to-the-Sea as well. With Seabird (1949 Newberry Honor) and Tree in the Trail, you can add a solid dose of history to the mix. It is for these reasons - art, story-telling, seamless and comprehensive information - that these books are so popular among home-schoolers. That and, of course, because children love them.

Holling passed away September 7, 1973 in Pasadena, California where he had made his home the latter half of his life.

Picture Books

Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling Recommended

Paddle to the Sea by Holling C. Holling Highly Recommended

Pagoo by Holling C. Holling and Lucille Webster Holling Suggested

Seabird by Holling C. Holling Recommended

Tree in the Trail by Holling Clancy Holling Suggested

Holling C. Holling Bibliography

New Mexico Made Easy by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1923
Sun and Smoke: Verse and Woodcuts of New Mexico by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1923
Little Big-Bye-and-Bye by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1926
Roll Away Twins by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1927
Rum-Tum-Tummy by Holling C. Holling 1927
Claws of the Thunderbird: A Tale of Three Lost Indians by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Choo-Me-Shoo the Eskimo by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Rocky Billy: The Story of the Bounding Career of a Rocky Mountain Goat by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1928
Blot by Phyllis Crawford and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1930
The Twins Who Flew around the World by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1931
Little Folks of Other Lands by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1932
Road in Storyland by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1932
The Book of Indians by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1935
The Book of Cowboys by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1936
Little Buffalo Boy by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1939
Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1941
Tree in the Trail by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1942
Children of Other Lands by Watty Piper and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1943
Seabird by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1948
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1951
Pagoo by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1957
The Magic Story Tree: A Favorite Collection of Fifteen Fairy Tales and Fables by Holling C. Holling and illustrated by Holling C. Holling 1964

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Well here is a topic on which I think I can speak with some authority; or if not authority, at least experience. My father's career was in the international oil industry and as a consequence I grew up living in a number of different countries (six countries, four continents), some of the countries more than once. My father was famous for going ahead, renting a house, getting the basics set up to receive the family and my mother coming along afterwards with three children and dog in tow.

At one time we were transferred to Tripoli, Libya and my father had indeed gone ahead. We followed a couple of months later, my mother having packed up everything at our last place of residence (Venezuela I think it might have been), and shepherded us all through to Tulsa, Oklahoma to visit family en route to the new posting in Libya. And of course this was all in the days of prop planes with long slow flights leap-frogging from airport to airport. So we were all pretty exhausted when we arrived in Tripoli. It was probably not the most auspicious of circumstances for my father then to have to share a change of plans - "Don't unpack your bags, we've been transferred again." The mean time of moving had gotten longer than the mean time of the assignment. Very fortunately the next destination was England which was sufficiently more attractive than Libya to make up for the disruption.

And that is the name of the game with moving - disruption. Disruption to routines, to certainties, to expectations of what is normal and right. When you are moving from country to country and culture to culture this is especially true. But no matter how far or near the move is, it is still fundamentally a disruption and distressing.

This was brought home to me a number of years ago. When I was fifteen I was in boarding school in England. It was almost an Edwardian throw-back. It was a for-profit school, and there were probably not more than a couple of hundred students, all expatriate kids from all over the world thrown together in an old country manor home in the sweeps and emptiness of East Anglia under the care of two Scottish headmistresses (of a certain age), Miss McFadden and Miss Petrie. They had the particular knack, with their grave miens and clipped Scottish accents, of making every child standing before them suddenly realize they were guilty of something. You stood there in stunned silence, not knowing what you were guilty of but knowing full well it was something.

Being remote from anything, the nearest village was a hamlet of not more than a dozen homes. The kitchen staff, five or six women who prepared the meals, were all local farmer's wives. One of them had a daughter, let's call her Mary, about fifteen or sixteen, who occasionally helped out in the kitchen. The girls in the school became friends with her and she became part of this tight little community.

One day the girls found her in the kitchen, clearly distressed with eyes red and puffy from weeping. All concern and solicitation, they wanted to know what had happened, what was wrong, what could they do to help. The story slowly emerged. Mary had been born and raised in the nearby hamlet all her fifteen years. She had hardly ever been anywhere. Now, her father had taken a new job and they were about to move away from all that she knew and all that she had known, all that was familiar.

The girls of the school were all attentive tenderness and concern. Being expatriates they had all known this experience of moving and disruption, of leaving that with which you are familiar and going to that which you don't know. They could all honestly and genuinely empathize with Mary. And then at some point, someone asked, where is this new town you are moving to? To which Mary answered: the next town over. She was moving about three miles.

In recounting this later, one of my friends, who had been one of the group of girls comforting Mary, said that there was a sort of stunned silence. All these girls were accustomed to moving hundreds and thousands of miles, across continents, religions, languages, cultures. To them, a move of three miles was not a move at all. And then, surprisingly, they seem to have collectively and simultaneously realized, in that particular instant, that it was not distance that mattered - it was the simple fact of disruption that bound them all together.

There is an odd conundrum related to moving with young children. The younger they are, logistically the easier it is to move; you don't have all the complications of deep friendships being left behind, etc. On the other hand, children crave certainty. They want to know what the rules are, who is in charge, and how far they can bend the rules without suffering a negative consequence. They want some predictability in their environment and when you move, you disrupt that rhythm of certainty and predictability.

It shows up in the smallest matters. When we did eventually move to Libya a second time, I was probably in third or fourth grade. We had been living in England and I was coming through the English school system and we had, in that particular year been focusing on spelling. I was no swot but did quite well in school and especially well with spelling owing to the accident of a good memory. We moved to Libya and I and my younger sister were enrolled in the Oil Company School which used an American curriculum and used primarily American teachers.

I cannot relate the anger, frustration and sense of failure that first day. As it so happened we had a little spelling quiz right off the bat. It was a sort of circle competition with the teacher reading out a word and the first student spelling it. If they got it right they stayed standing. If they got it wrong they sat down. Then the next student and the next. Around and around we went with the circle of standing spellers shrinking with each go-around. I was enjoying this immensely. And then my turn came and I was offered a word I knew well. I don't now recall what it was; some simple word such as honor perhaps. But I spelled it the English way as I had learned just weeks or months earlier, honour. Aggghh! - the frustration and humiliation at having to sit down when I knew I had spelled it right. Ah well! Good training in being flexible.

I said above that moving when the children are young is easier. That was poorly expressed. It may be logistically easier when young but that by no means that it is easy. The twenty-four hour journey starting our first international assignment, from Atlanta to Sydney, Australia with Sally and the three kids, aged four, two and three months, remains vividly fresh in my mind.

We have always attempted to position a move with our kids as an adventure - there will be new things to discover, new friends to make, adventures to be had. And that seems to have worked reasonably well over the years. They like to travel and they value the different places they have lived, but they are also very much home-bodies.

And that is one of the benefits of a move, as a shared experience it can bring a family closer together. You are thrown onto your own collective resources in a new environment and can share with one another the triumphs and disasters of adjustment knowing that it is an experience shared. The new neighbor you accidentally slighted in the mall because their face did not register with you in passing one another until too late to acknowledge them, the school rule accidentally broken because you did not know it existed, etc.

Stories that tell a child directly or indirectly what will happen to them as part of a move can be very helpful in acknowledging that there are knowable changes as well as unknowns. A well chosen book can give them a framework in which to understand a move and to make that move their own and not just some cascade of unpredictable events.

For the very young there are some picture books that outline the events of a move and acknowledge the fact that it can be an upsetting change, but that there are good things that come with it as well. The emphasis on the positive is critical. In trying to acknowledge the negative some books tend to dwell over much on the downside. For our first big move we used Stan and Jan Berenstain Bear's series, one of which is The Berenstain Bears and Moving Day which I think strikes just the right balance of acknowledgement while staying positive.

For older children there are stories which are not so much written to prepare them for a move but are about a move happening to the protagonist. I have in mind here Patricia MacLaclan's eloquently moving What You Know First, a beautiful picture book story. Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books are also great stories of a peripatetic life. You read them for the story but it just so happens that there is an awful lot of moving and adjusting to a new life that goes on in them.

What are the stories you would recommend to prepare a child for a move?

Picture Books

The Berenstain Bears' Moving Day by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain Recommended

Oh the Places You'll Go
by Dr. Seuss Suggested

I Like Where I Am by Jessica Harper and illustratde by Brian G. Karas Suggested

What You Know First by Patricia MacLachlan and illustratd by Barry Moser Highly Recommended

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

Alexander, Who's Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Robin Preiss-Glasser Suggested

Ira Says Goodbye by Bernard Waber Suggested

House on East Eighty-Eighth Street by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

Hope Was Here by Joan Bauer Suggested

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan Recommended

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and illustrated by Sybil Tawse & M. A. Claus Highly Recommended

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit and illustrated by C. E. Brock Highly Recommended

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith Highly Recommended

Heidi by Johanna Spyri and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith Highly Recommended

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

Young Adult

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck Recommended

Eleanor Estes

Born May 9th, 1906 in West Haven, Connecticut
Died July 15th, 1988 in Hamden, Connecticut

Eleanor Estes wrote eighteen children's books of which four received a Newberry Medal or Newberry Honor and 2/3rds of which are still in print more than sixty years later. Her stories are so firmly rooted in the timeless perspective of a child that they have aged hardly at all.

Born Eleanor Ruth Rosenfield, May 9th, 1906 in West Haven, Connecticut, Estes childhood was thoroughly grounded in an earlier, more rural, simpler time. Estes described growing up in West Haven in her autobiographical entry in The Junior Book of Authors:

The town of West Haven, Connecticut, where I was born, is in a hollow with hills behind it, the New Haven harbor and Long Island Sound lapping against two sides, and a small river meandering along its eastern margin. It was a perfect town to grow up in. It had everything a child could want, great vacant fields with daisies and buttercups, an occasional peaceful cow, and even a team of oxen with whose help cellars for new houses were dug.

There were marvelous trees to climb, woods where there were brooks, and springs, and wild flowers growing. There were swimming and building in the sand and fishing and clamming in the summertime, and ice and snow and sliding down hill in the wintertime, with rowboat exploration of the small river for eels and killies in the betweentime.

Despite the idyllic setting, Estes' childhood was not an easy one. One of four children, her father, a railroad accountant, passed away when she was thirteen years old leaving her mother, a dressmaker, to raise the family. The theme of straightened circumstances and everyone pitching in together, which shows up in many of her books, was a recounting of her own experiences.

Upon graduating high school in 1923, Estes joined the New Haven Library in the children's section and worked up the ranks there till becoming the Children's Section librarian in 1929. In 1931 Estes received a scholarship at the Pratt Institute Library School for a year of study. It was there that she met a fellow student Rice Estes, a South Carolinian and career librarian as well. Upon completing her studies, Eleanor Estes joined the New York Public Library where she stayed until resigning in 1940 to pursue writing full-time. In December, 1932 she married Rice Estes.

The Estes lived in the New York area until 1948, when her husband's career took them to southern California for four years. It was in California that her only child, daughter Helena, was born in 1948. They returned to the East Coast in 1952 and lived in Manhattan, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. as Rice Estes' career dictated, but always gravitating back to Connecticut where they ultimately settled.

All of Estes books are worth reading but she is noted for three key sets of stories; The Moffats series (The Moffats, The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and very belatedly in her writing career, The Moffat Museum), the Pye series (Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye) and a stand-alone morality tale, The Hundred Dresses. The Middle Moffat, Rufus M., and The Hundred Dresses each won a Newberry Honor award and Estes received the Newberry Medal for Ginger Pye.

The Moffats series is based on a family of four in the fictional town of Cranberry, Connecticut (based on West Haven) in the 1910's. The series has the easy small town feel of Robert McCloskey's Centerburg Tales, the child centricity of The Railway Children, and an antic situational humor all its own. Each book is a series of adventures, chapter by chapter, each reasonably self-contained and without significant sustained plot development over the course of the book. This makes the series ideal bedtime or naptime reading, your child going off to sleep with a smile on their face.

Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye are similarly family centric, but in this series, the action revolves around the family's two pets, in the first instance the dog, Ginger, and in the second, the cat, Pinky. Estes based these stories on actual events with her own childhood pets.

The Hundred Dresses is a really intriguing story that continues to fascinate children (and adults) today. The core story is told primarily from the perspective of Maddie about an outsider, Wanda Petronski who is teased to the point of leaving school. The Hundred Dresses is a descendant of the morality plays and leaves both children and adults thinking deep thoughts and reflecting on their own behavior. And when I say a morality play, I mean that in the old sense of the term and as a compliment. It is a story that first entertains, and then, only indirectly, instructs. Today we have an avalanche of books that are intended to instruct but end up being a beat-you-over-the-head message book with hardly any entertainment. Lots are written, many are purchased, and most sit unsullied on the shelves. You can't help feeling, having read one of these stilted and dreadfully preachy tomes, that you are the victim of authorial moral posturing with little to redeem the book at all.

Such is not the case with Estes' The Hundred Dresses. Here you have a tale that gently leads children to reflect on how their actions impact others, consider how insidious unconscious prejudice can be and think about the magnanimity of the human spirit.

Wanda Petronski is a Polish immigrant living in the wrong part of town, speaking a slightly fractured form of English, wearing the same dress to school everyday and wanting to be liked by others, but not knowing how to fit in. Peggy is "the most popular girl in the school" and is wealthy and pretty. One day when, all the girls are admiring a friend's new dress, Wanda, trying to be part of the action, exclaims that she has one hundred dresses at home in her closet. This is her downfall. Led by Peggy, all the girls begin a sustained running joke at Wanda's expense about the hundred dresses at home.

Estes shows her mettle as an author by making it clear that Peggy is not a "bad" person per se. The game Peggy develops that so tortures Wanda, is, to her mind, really just a game. 'Peggy was not really cruel. She protected small children from bullies. And she cried for hours if she saw an animal mistreated. If anybody had said to her, "Don't you think that is a cruel way to treat Wanda?" she would have been very surprised.'

This subtlety is in contrast to so many of the message books today where the author is very explicit, Person/Group X - Good, Person/Group Y - Bad: X - Victim, Y - Oppressor. Estes takes away the easy, and therefore, not real world of binary morality and instead develops a real world with which children and adults can engage. Actions and decisions are not necessarily clear or considered, things happen that we don't intend to happen, there are consequences we don't anticipate, there are wrongs we can't right. Sometimes all we can do is learn and go forward.

The tension in the tale arises from Maddie, Peggy's good friend. Maddie is not well off either, but better positioned than Wanda. Maddie is delighted to be Peggy's friend, but she is distressed to see how Peggy is treating Wanda. Distressed as she is, Maddie can't bring herself to criticize Peggy's actions for fear that she will jeopardize her own social standing and possibly even become the target of the teasing. Maddie realizes that she is, perhaps, in the worst position of all: she realizes something bad is happening but does nothing about it. Not only is her (in)action bad but the motivation for inaction is worse. She does nothing for fear of jeopardizing her standing. Her own considered judgment of her behavior is that "She had stood by silently, and that was just as bad as what Peggy had done. Worse. She was a coward."

One of the marvelous things about The Hundred Dresses is how complimentary Louis Slobodkin's illustrations are to Estes' text. Early in the story, there is a powerful demonstration of this. Estes' writes "And the girls laughed derisively, while Wanda moved over to the sunny place by the ivy-covered brick wall of the school building where she usually stood and waited for the bell to ring." On that page is a suffused picture in black ink and pink wash of a little girl in just such a position who is the very picture of wrenching isolation and loneliness. For children, whose senses are so much less calloused than those of adults, those words with that picture can be extremely moving, picture and text amplifying each other.

Wanda moves away, but her parting gift to the class of tormentors is the collection of one hundred pictures of dresses that she had drawn, with two in particular marked out for Peggy and Maddie. There is more to it than that, but this is a story of remarkable layers, meaningful and moving at each layer. Bullying, mean-girl behavior, prejudice - this is a story that makes children consider the consequences of their behavior but without all the posturing, moralizing and victimhood that so often abound.

Estes' writing style is noted for being very strong on character and description but rather inattentive to plot development. This is not entirely a bad thing. Her well rendered characters grip the imagination of children as do the wonderful descriptions of things and events. The fact that the plots are not overly complex and developed, make it much easier to follow along in a read-aloud bed-time story. Estes demonstrated through all her books an uncharacteristically strong ability to adopt the perspective and world view of a child and this is the source of much of their humor as the children clear-sightedly and with unerring logic grasp the wrong end of the situational stick every time. The Moffat and Pye books are great books for making children laugh, at the protagonists and themselves as they see the children doing that which they themselves have so often done before with inauspicious outcomes. These stories create a model for tight and supportive families and children being children and are always told in a fashion such that there is a positive resolution without any saccharine.

Eleanor Estes passed away in her home state of Connecticut, July 15th, 1988.

Independent Reader

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended

The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended

Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Highly Recommended

Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes Highly Recommended

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Highly Recommended

The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested

The Alley by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested

Miranda The Great by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone Suggested

The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes and illustratde by Edward Ardizzone Suggested

The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin Suggested

The Curious Adventures Of Jimmy Mcgee by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by John O'Brien Suggested

Eleanor Estes Bibliography

The Moffats by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1941
The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1942
Rufus M. by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1943
The Sun and the Wind and Mr. Todd by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1943
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1944
The Echoing Green by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by NA 1947
The Sleeping Giant and Other Stories by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1948
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1951
A Little Oven by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1955
Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1958
The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1960
Small but Wiry by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Louis Slobodkin 1963
The Alley by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1964
Miranda the Great by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1967
The Lollipop Princess: A Play for Paper Dolls by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1967
The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone 1972
The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Susanne Suba 1973
The Lost Umbrella of Kim Chu by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by acqueline Ayer 1978
The Moffat Museum by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by Eleanor Estes 1983
The Curious Adventures of Jimmy McGee by Eleanor Estes and illustrated by John O'Brien 1987

UPDATE: November 6th, 2008
From Esme Raji Codell's Educating Esme. Codell relates her experiences as a first year fifth grade teacher in a new Chicago inner city school. One anecdote pertains to Estes.
After lunch each day I read aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.
I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she has a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses . . . a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.
Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discretly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment but I didn't flinch.
I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."
"I . . . I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.
The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"
"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.
"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"
Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!