Sunday, June 29, 2008

Herodotus and Ibn Battutah

Tim Mackintosh-Smith has an essay in the Summer 2008 Slightly Foxed in which he alludes to a Damascene poet's description of Ibn Battutah, that 14th century traveller who in so many ways mirrored Herodotus in his travels as well as his near contemporary Marco Polo.

The wonderful description of Ibn Battutah (and all eyes-wide-open travellers) by that unnamed poet is:

. . . He it was

who hung the world, that turning wheel

Of diverse parts, upon the axis of a book.

Tennyson's Ulysses

One of the few blessings of ignorance is the pleasure derived from its banishment. Though I have had occasion to read and enjoy a sampling of Tennyson's poems, I have never made any sort of diligent reading of his works. What a pleasure then to stumble across his marvelous Ulysses.

Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

So many excellent lines in this comparatively brief poem.

And this grey spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

and that final stanza

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Woof! How did I ever miss out on this one for so long?

Sophie Masson on Reading

Sophie Masson has an article in the Summer 2008, No. 18 edition of Slightly Foxed, titled A Cat's Life. The article centers on the works of Nicholas Stuart Gray and in particular his book, The Stone Cage.

She leads off the article with:

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family and school and public events, but also in the stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly recall picking them up from the shelf - an ordinary act - and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, into another world where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility.

Russian History

What do American children think of Russia today? What image do Americans hold of this fascinating country? Those of us born before the 1980's have a hard image to shake. The future of Russia seems unclear and our memory of it before the fall of the Berlin wall is of a dour, cement-clad country with terrible potential power to wreak destruction yet unable to provide for its own people; of Krushchev banging the UN table with his shoe; of the beetle-browed Leonid Brezhnev. Red Russia. Communist Russia.

For all that 1917 held out the dream of ordering the affairs of humanity in a better and more rational way, the dream that seduced many of the best-intentioned and brightest in the West - the Revolution was just one more terrible chapter that would close, leaving the Russian people to move on - resilient in the face of hardship and tragedy in a way rarely sustained by any other peoples.

The 20th century was one of immense loss and suffering for Russia and its peoples. Seventy odd years were lost to a political system that was fated to collapse under its own inadequacies, despite all the hope and dreams attached to it. Two World Wars were fought on her territory at immense cost. Self-inflicted tragedies such as the famines of the 1930's sustained the long run of destruction. In this new century, Russia launches itself haltingly on a new and unknown path of resurrection. We can only hope that it is a path more successful than any so far undertaken.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it is all too easy to dismiss Russia as a spent force, a footnote to history. That conclusion ignores the history of the country; a history of sustained potential and repeated resurrection from catastrophe. It also ignores that it is a country of 145 million people, one of the top ten countries in size, population, economy, etc. Just as it has been an important player on the world stage in the past, I suspect Russia will be as important to us in the future. With any luck, though, our children will be dealing with a happier, more prosperous and engaged player.

If you want to expose your children to the fascinating currents of Russian history and the Russian peoples, there is unfortunately - and surprisingly, - little out there, particularly at the picture book and independent reader level. This is odd given that we had in America an acquisition of Russian territory (Alaska in 1867), immigration of some three million Russians between 1890 and the beginning of World War I, and that we have approximately a million Russian immigrants of recent years.

So what is that history? Russian written history is founded on the Primary Chronicle (also known as Tale of Bygone Years), a text written in 1113 in Kiev by a monk, named Nestor. It chronicles the period 850 -1110 and is the first record of the history of the East Slavic people. There is no known homeland for the Slavs as a people. They just show up in the records in the eight hundreds, eventually occupying the core areas we now know as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Russian history is wonderfully diverse. America may be the modern melting pot of the world, but Russia beat us to that early championship by a millennium owing in part to the number of ethnic groups that kept roaming through Russia on the way to somewhere else, some of whom stopped and ended up being absorbed in the process. The Rus (also known as Varangians), were raiders, traders and settlers out of Scandinavia (part of the Viking excursions) who settled in what is now Northern Russia. They established a form of rule over the region in the eight and ninth centuries, integrated with the local Slavic population and later spawned states such as the Kievan Rus which were the antecedents to the modern state of Russia.

The Kievan Rus adopted Christianity in 988 AD from the Byzantine Empire, establishing one of the key differences between Russia and the rest of Europe. With the fall of the Kievan state in the 11th century, Russia fragmented into a number of duchies and principalities, the most powerful of which was the Duchy of Moscow.

Russia has had a peculiar relationship with the West - neither party knowing quite what to make of the other. Western Europe has long had a view of Russia reflected in Ambrose Bierce's definition of Russian: A person with a Caucasian body and a Mongolian soul. Russia, for many, was a place of mystery, romance, barbarism, and tyranny all wrapped up as an enigma. It was an intermediate point between the truly different countries of Asia and the reasonably familiar ones of the West. Russia was always, in religion, in art and architecture, in multi-ethnicity, one step beyond different; on the way to being "Other."

It is understandable that there should be such ambiguity. Russia, flat and far reaching, the Russia of the Steppes, has always been both a place and also a point of transit. For Westerners, it mattered little that the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Huns, the Magyars, and the Mongols were not Russian. They came through Russia to attack Poland, Austria, Germany and other countries of eastern Europe..

We also easily forget that Russia not only suffered invasions from the East but also from the West. Russia was harassed and invaded by Vikings in the 10th century. Crusades were launched not only to recover the lost Christian lands of the Middle East but also to subjugate pagan lands in the north east as well. German, Danish, Swedish and Polish knights fought all along the Baltic and into Novgorod in the Northern (or Baltic) Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the duchies and principalities of Russia, for a period of some two hundred and forty years were vassal states to the Mongol Empire. The opening clash between the Russians and the Golden Horde of the Mongols occurred in 1223 at the Battle of the Kalka River and was a defeat for the Russians. Over the next seventeen years there was intermittent warfare with the various Russian principalities banding together to fight the Mongols when they appeared and then continuing their own intra-mural fights in the interims before the Mongolians finally defeated the Russians in 1240. It has been estimated that up 30-50% of the Russian population died in these invasions.

The reconquest of all the Russian territories by the Russians, usually led by the Duchy of Muscovy, was not completed until 1480. There are parallels, not frequently commented on, to the Spanish reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula occurring in the same period and which had somewhat similar consequences. Just as the Spanish conquistadors rolled from their reconquest of Granada in 1492 into the conquest of new lands discovered by Columbus in the New World, so it was in Russia. Having reconquered the Russian lands, the Russians then rolled onto to conquer most of Central Asia and the Caucasus countries over the next three hundred years, laying the groundwork for the current troubles in Chechnya.

The next four hundred years were marked by numerous memorable leaders including Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Romanov dynasty. Most of them tried to slowly transition the country from a deep entrenched feudalism to some sort of state that could mimic the vitality of the West without incurring liberty, democracy and capitalism. They attempted this feat while expanding to the south and east through conquest and while maintaining absolute monarchical powers internally

The Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese war, Nicholas and Alexandra, Faberge Eggs, Rasputin, the Winter Palace - there is so much fascinating history here. It is a pity that we don't have that much that is accessible to our youngest readers. Young Adults are well served by some cross-over literature such as Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra.

Because there are not many stories from Russian history in Picture Book form, we have instead included beautifully illustrated folktales in the hope that they will provide young readers with a taste of Russia and, perhaps, inspire a desire to know more. Or maybe we have simply overlooked good titles that are out there. What are your recommendations?

Picture Books

The Mitten by Jan Brett Recommended

The Firebird by Demi Suggested

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Kinuko Craft Suggested

The Kingfisher Book of Tales from Russia by James Mayhew Suggested

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco Recommended

Peter And The Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev and illustrated by Peter Malone and Janet Schulman Suggested

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz Suggested

The Tale of the Firebird by Gennadii Spirin and Tatiana Popova Recommended

Peter the Great by Diane Stanley Suggested

The Firebird by Jane Yolen and Vladimir Vasilevich Vagin Suggested

Colors of Russia by Shannon Zemlicka and illustrated by Jeni Reeves Suggested

Independent Readers

Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandr Nikolaevicher Afanasyev Suggested

Russian Fairy Tales by Gillian Avery and illustrated by Ivan Iakovlevich Bilibin Suggested

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse Suggested

Russia by Kathleen Berton Murrell and illustrated by Andy Crawford Suggested

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan Suggested

Catherine The Great by Nancy Whitelaw

Young Adult

The Devil's Horsemen by James Chambers

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Suggested

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser Recommended

Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser Recommended

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk Recommended

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie Recommended

Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie Suggested

Russia's War by Richard Overy Suggested

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn Suggested

War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy Recommended

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Recommended

Evaline Ness

Born April 24, 1911 in Union City, Ohio
Died August 12, 1986 in Kingston City, New York

The 1960's saw much experimentation in the field of children's illustrations with a marked increase in drawings with sharp, angular figures, muted colors and representational or cartoon-like styles. Evaline Ness, an illustrator and author of children's books thrived in this environment.

While she is principally remembered for her 1967 Caldecott winning story, Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine, her work is present across the decade but often unrecognized as being by a single artist. Ness wrote and illustrated her own books, illustrated books by others, and produced the covers for numerous well known writers. Many people know and love Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, without realizing that Ness did the original cover in 1961. Similarly, Alexander Lloyd is famous for his Prydain Chronicles, the very distinctive covers of which were produced by Ness.

The principle reason, I suspect, that Ness's work goes unrecognized is a tribute to her versatility. While her main medium might be in ink and wash illustrations, she produced art across a wide range of media including paintings, drawings, sketches, serigraphs, lithographs, woodblocks, etc. and in a variety of styles.

Ness took a circuitous path to becoming an author and illustrator. She was born in 1911 in Union City, Ohio but grew up in Pontiac, Michigan. As a child she demonstrated an early artistic streak by illustrating the stories told by an older sister with collages she made from cutouts from magazines pictures.

After high school she initially attended Ball State Teachers College to become a librarian but this course of study did not suit her. However, one of her early assignments entailed the illustration of a story, King Arthur's Court, and this experience sparked an intense desire to pursue art studies. Abandoning Ball State, Ness enrolled at Chicago Art Institute for the next two years. Continuing her meandering career path, she apparently, not being familiar with the distinction, enrolled in the Fine Arts department rather than what she truly was interested in, the Commercial Art department. Following two years of studies, she did enter the field of commercial and fashion art, producing work for department stores and illustrating for magazines, working initially in Chicago.

It was in Chicago that she met her second husband (a brief earlier marriage having failed), former Treasury Agent Eliot Ness of The Untouchables fame. If you have seen the movie, it is not actually Evaline Ness being portrayed; Eliot Ness was also married multiple times. Eliot and Evaline Ness married in 1938 and remained married till 1946. Though she subsequently remarried a third time to Arnold Bayard (a mechanical engineer) in 1959, she retained the Ness name professionally throughout her career.

She and Eliot Ness moved to Washington, D.C. where she continued her work, then enrolled in classes from 1943-45 at the Corcoran School of Art where she also taught art to children. In 1946 the Ness's divorced and Evaline Ness moved to New York. In New York she illustrated for Seventeen magazine as well as producing fashion drawings for Saks Fifth Avenue. She established her reputation as an illustrator in fashion and advertising and pursued a successful career as a freelance illustrator producing illustrations for such magazines as Sports Illustrated, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Later, Ness took a year off from her work to spend time in Italy, once again taking courses in art, this time from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome from 1951-52.

The first children's book she illustrated was the Story of Ophelia by Mary J. Gibbons in 1954. This was followed in 1957 with her illustrating a book by Charlton Ogburn, The Bridge. This seems to have been in her mind, the true launch of her children's illustration and writing career. After this book, she gave up all her commercial work to focus on children's books.

From 1958 to 1963 she illustrated close to a dozen books by other authors and firmly established her legacy as an illustrator by receiving three Caldecott Honors in a row. During this period, she spent a year in Haiti. Returning from that experience she had a collection of woodcuts for which she then created a story which became her first book, Josefina February brought out in 1963. Her feat of being recognized three years in a row with a Caldecott Honor also began in 1963. She received the award for All in the Morning Early by Sorche Nic Leodhas in 1963, followed by A Pocketful of Cricket by Rebecca Caudill in 1964 and then again in 1965 for Tom Tit Tot: An English Folktale retold by Virginia Haviland. Continuing this string of good fortune and recognition, in 1967 she received the Caldecott Medal for her sixth book as the author and illustrator, Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine.

Sam, Bangs and Moonshine is a superb book on many levels. It is well written in simple, straightforward language that is very accessible to a young child. The media is inks and wash with a combination of block colors and shapes with elements of the graphic rendered in realistic style as well. That is not inherently a style that appeals to me but the integration of the overall artwork with the story overrides what is just an aesthetic bias.

Sam is the only daughter of a widower fisherman living "on a small island, near a large harbor." She has a cat, Bangs, and a little neighbor boy, Thomas, who "believed every word Sam said." Which was unfortunate, given that Sam had as distant a relationship to the truth as a politician up for election. "Not even the sailors home from the sea could tell stranger stories than Sam. Not even the ships in the harbor, with curious cargoes from giraffes to gerbils, claimed more wonders than Sam did. She said her mother was a mermaid, when everyone knew she was dead. Sam said she had a fierce lion at home, and a baby kangaroo. (Actually, what she really had was an old wise cat called Bangs.)"

This inability to distinguish between the reality she lives and the reality she wishes, (the difference between REAL and MOONSHINE, as her father puts it) leads Sam into the position of accidentally imperiling both Thomas and Bangs.

Ness's mastery as an artist and her ability to weave together story and illustrations is exemplified at that stage in the tale when she believes she has caused the demise of her beloved Bangs. Your child is snuggled up next to you, as disconsolate as Sam. You turn the page to read the rest of the text, and there, facing you is a full page illustration of a black cat staring through a window pane with "two enormous yellow eyes." Immediately after fearing the worst, your young child's anxiety is alleviated even before you get to the text.

Her mastery as an author is also on display. It would have been easy and pat for Ness to have made Sam a hero, organizing a rescue of Thomas and Bangs. But life doesn't work that way and children know it. Instead Sam suffers as a child suffers, waiting as the consequences of the actions she set in motion play out. Waiting and not knowing. This is the kind of a story to which a child can emotionally relate; it is their life they are reading about. They know these feelings Sam is feeling.

For a parent there is the pleasure of a story well-told, but there is also the pleasure of a story that packs an emotional punch and a story that helps set some parameters for a child, in this case about truth telling, in such a way that the message is there and received but the story is not about the message. These are the best books of all. Good stories that help you shape your child's understanding of what is right and what is wrong and why it is important and why they need to do the right thing.

I had forgotten just how good this book was till I pulled it down for this essay. We read it to each of our kids as they passed through the ages of three to six and they all enjoyed it, but we were reading so many books to them. Sometimes it is easy to lose track of individual books and their effect. This was one of the special ones.

Ness continued writing and illustrating into 1980's producing some great covers (such as the Lloyd Alexander books) and other wonderful picture books but none of them are now in print. She also, ever experimenting, branched out into producing cut-out coloring books for children.

Evaline Ness passed away August 12, 1986 in Kingston City, New York. Her legacy is a number of distinctively-illustrated, well-told stories that will touch children's hearts and minds.

Picture Books

Sam Bangs and Moonshine by Evaline Ness
Highly Recommended

A Pocketful of Cricket by Rebecca Caudill and illustrated by Evaline Ness

The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Marie Pope and illustrated by Evaline Ness Suggested

Evaline Ness Bibliography

Story of Ophelia by Mary J. Gibbons and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1954
The Bridge by Charlton Ogburn and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1957
The Sherwood Ring by Elizabeth Pope and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1958
Lonely Maria by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1960
Ondine, the Story of a Bird Who Was Different by Maurice Osborne, Jr. and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1960
Listen--The Birds; Poems by Mary B. Miller and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1961
Across from Indian Shore by Barbara Robinson and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1962
Macaroon by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1962
Thistle and Thyme: Tales and Legends from Scotland by Sorche Nic Leodhas and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1962
Where Did Josie Go? by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1962
Josefina February by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1963
A Gift for Sula Sula by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1963
All in the Morning Early by Sorche Nic Leodhas and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1963
Funny Town by Eve Merriam and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1963
The Princess and the Lion by Elizabeth Coatsworth and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1963
Exactly Alike by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
Pavo and the Princess by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
Some Cheese for Charles by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
Candle Tales by Julia Cunningham and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
Josie and the Snow by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
A Pocketful of Cricket by Rebecca Caudill and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1964
A Double Discovery by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1965
Coll and His White Pig by Lloyd Alexander and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1965
Tom Tit Tot: An English Folk Tale by Virginia Haviland and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1965
Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Italy by Virginia Haviland and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1965
Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1966
Pierino and the Bell by Sylvia Cassedy and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1966
Josie's Buttercup by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1967
Mr. Miacca: An English Folk Tale by Joseph Jacobs and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1967
The Truthful Harp by Lloyd Alexander and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1967
Kellyburn Braes by Sorche Nic Leodhas and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1968
Long, Broad, and Quickeye by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1969
Joey and the Birthday Present by Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1969
A Scottish Songbook by Sorche Nic Leodhas and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1969
The Girl and the Goatherd; or This and That and Thus and So by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1970
Some of the Days of Everett Anderson by Lucille Clifton and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1970
Do You Have the Time, Lydia? by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1971
Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming by Lucille Clifton and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1971
Too Many Crackers by Helen E. Buckley and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1971
Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by Sarah Catherine Martin and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1972
Don't You Remember? by Lucille Clifton and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1973
The Woman of the Wood: A Tale from Old Russia by Algernon David Black and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1973
Yeck Eck by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1974
The Steamroller, A Fantasy by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1974
A Wizard's Tears by Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1975
American Colonial Paper House: To Cut out and Color by Evaline Ness 1975
Amelia Mixed the Mustard, and Other Poems by Evaline Ness 1975
The Lives of My Cat Alfred by Nathan Zimelman and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1976
The Warmint by Walter de la Mare and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1976
Paper Palace: To Cut out and Color by Evaline Ness 1976
The Devil's Bridge by Charles Scribner, Jr. and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1978
What Color Is Caesar? by Maxine Kumin and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1978
Four Rooms from the Metropolitan Museum: To Cut out and Color by Evaline Ness 1978
A Victorian Paper House: To Cut out and Color by Evaline Ness 1978
Marcella's Guardian Angel by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1979
A Shaker Paper House: To Cut out and Color by Evaline Ness 1979
Fierce the Lion by Evaline Ness and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1980
The Hand-Me-Down Doll by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Evaline Ness 1983
Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander and cover designed by Evaline Ness
The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander and cover designed by Evaline Ness
The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander and cover designed by Evaline Ness
The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander and cover designed by Evaline Ness
The High King by Lloyd Alexander and cover designed by Evaline Ness
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell and cover designed by Evaline Ness 1960

The Bibliographic mark of having arrived

- When you have sufficient books and a library that warrants a library ladder.

The Sunday June 30th, 2008 New York Times has an article, Ladders of Memory, by Caroline H. Dworin, on the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company.

Glad to be selling children's books in a country that has children

Interesting article in today's, Sunday June 30th, 2008, New York Times, No Babies?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Harry Truman anecdotes

Harry Truman has turned out to be one of those presidents whom history has treated with much greater respect and honor than did his contemporaries. I picked up a copy of The Wit and Wisdom of Harry Truman by Ralph Keyes at a favorite used bookstore the other day. A couple of anecdotes:

After high school Truman spent what he later called the best ten years of his life working on his family's six-hundred-acre farm. Truman regarded farming as good training for a future man of affairs. "I thought of Cincinnatus and a lot of other farm boys who had made good," he explained, "and thought maybe by cussing mules and plowing corn I could perhaps overcome my shyness and amount to something."

And also, referring to his activities as a commander of an artillery unit in World War I:

Truman earned his men's devotion by giving his horse to injured soldiers and joining the rest on foot. When a colonel passing by ordered an infantryman with a sore ankle to dismount, Truman told him, "You can take these bars off my shoulders, but as long as I'm in charge of this battery the man's going to stay on that horse." The colonel rode off.

Some anecdotes seem to be good to be real but sometimes when they are that good, they should be real.

I liked this one as well where loyalty and respect transcends politics - wish we had more of that today.

Although a partisan Democrat, Truman once supported a Republican named John Miles for county marshal. This later cost him votes when he was charged with being a disloyal Democrat. But Miles had been Truman's commanding officer in France. He'd seen him in places that made hell look like a playground, Truman told voters. He'd watched Miles and his men hold off a German attack when they were badly outnumbered. "He was of the right stuff," Truman concluded, "and a man who wouldn't vote for his comrade under circumstances such as these would be untrue to his country. I know that every soldier understands it. I have no apology to make for it."

Once you dip into a book like this, sometimes it is hard to extricate oneself. One last anecdote (maybe):

As war clouds gathered in 1940, Truman asked Army Chief of Staff George Marshall to activate him at his Reserve rank of Colonel. The General pulled his glasses down on his nose and asked Missouri's senator how old he was. Fifty-six, said Truman. "We don't need old stiffs like you," Marshall told him. "You'd better stay home and work in the Senate." When Truman became Marshall's commander in chief, his appointments secretary asked the general what he'd say under those circumstances. "Well, I would tell him the same thing," said Marshall, "only I would be a little more diplomatic about it."

BTW - Was Truman our last president not to have graduated from college?

Calendars, Human Nature and Shared Humanity

In the Emergency Room last night with a kidney stone and a wife that mocked me for my emergency pack of money, phone, reading glasses, two magazines and a book. In the event, it was good that I did have reading material as it was a number of hours before we saw the doctor.

I came across this interesting passage in Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race. He is using the Mesoamerican calendars to simultaneously illustrate both the underlying tendency of people towards diversity and at the same time the shared nature of their humanity.

This family of calendars provides a good example of a phenomenon widespread in human cultures. Few societies can do without a calendar of some kind, and a complex society needs a reasonably precise one. Once it posesses such a calendar, it may have to adjust it from time to time, but there is no need to embroider it. Our own claendar is a case in point: it works, and for the most part that is enough for us. But cultures have a way of picking on some aspect or other of their pragmatic arrangements, and elaborating them in respects that have no obvious utilitarian justification. This seems to be the case with Australian subsections; it is undoubtedly so with Mesoamerican calendars. What we see here is again a human propensity for gratuitous cultural embroidery. The reason the example is a good one is simply its dramatic visibility to anyone coming from a Western culture: it so happens that our restraint in calendric matters contrasts sharply with the extravagance of the Mesoamericans.

Yet these same calendars can also be used to illustrate the limits of cultural diversity among humans. A Mesoamerican calendar is immediately recognizeable for what it is - a calendar, not some exotic practice bearing only a faint resemblance to what in our culture is called a calendar. Moreover, it is quite obviously a calendar developed by people living on the same planet as ourselves: it takes the day for granted as the basic calendric unit and constructs a year of 365 days. Where we have trouble grasping the workings of these calendars, the reason is merely that they are intricate and unfamiliar; they are far from being so deeply alien to us that we do ot know how to begin to understand them.

New words

One of the joys of the English language is that there are always new words to discover. A couple from today.

In Michael Cook's A Brief History of the Human Race, talking about the Mesoamerican calendars:

The number twenty was very much in place in Mesoamerica because the counting system was vigesimal (in other words, the base of the system was 20, not 10 as it is with us).

And here's an old friend I haven't seen used in forever. From Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages, describing the sights, sounds and smells of living in a medieval town:

But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinntabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The American Revolution

Sometimes familiarity blocks the path to understanding. Being a reasonably patriotic country, every child in America has a general concept of the American Revolution as a seminal event in our history. The details might be fuzzy but the concept is familiar. It is the details, however, that allow us to comprehend just how astonishing, unlikely, tragic, unique and wonderful this event ended up being.

At the remove of two hundred and thirty some years, the gloss of inevitability and the patina of respectability fog our understanding. We look at George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and all those other Founding Fathers as heroes. They were, but that is also because they won. Objectively of course, they were the Ché Guevaras and Fidel Castros of the time. They sought to overthrow the natural order of things. They were traitors fighting against their country (England) and revolutionaries seeking to establish a new form of government contrary to all the civilized monarchies. Captured, they would have been executed without a second thought.

Sometimes, though, the fog of familiarity is cut through by the smallest of details. Going back to the documents of the time and looking at a bill of sale that is in pounds, shillings and pence, you suddenly realize that the American colonists did see themselves truly as Englishmen, albeit in a new country. The day-to-day accents and pronunciations were still recognizably from the reaches of the British Isles: East Anglian, Midlands, Scottish, Irish, etc.

In 1776 there were approximately nine million subjects of King George III, three million or so in the North American colonies and approximately six million in the four kingdoms of the British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). The rebellion in the North American colonies was, therefore, not an inconsequential thing. It represented a fundamental sundering of a long established (one hundred and fifty years) pattern of relations.

While the exact proportions are subject to debate and did vary by colony, it appears that the population of the colonies were somewhat equally divided in their attitudes to the events of their time: about a third were disinterested and tried to stay apart from the fray, about a third were committed to separating from the British crown, and about a third remained loyal to the crown. It is easily overlooked that the British military presence in the colonies was not solely made up of British soldiers and Hessian mercenaries but was substantially complemented by large levies of loyalist troops. Most of us remember that one of the grievances of the time was being taxed to support the British troops in North America (approximately 10,000) stationed here to defend the frontiers from Native Americans as well as the ambitions of other European powers, and another was the obligation to quarter those troops among local households. When you consider that that number of soldiers would represent some 1,000,000 soldiers in terms of today's population you can suddenly grasp the British opinion that it was only right that the colonists ought to bear a greater contribution of support through taxes.

Because the population of the colonies was small at the time, we lose perspective of the horrendous human consequences of this seven year struggle (1775 -1781). If we extrapolate the colonial population of that time (three million) to the population of America today (three hundred million), it suddenly comes into perspective - the eighty thousand loyalist American colonists that ended up migrating to Canada as a consequence of the war equates to our losing eight million refugees today.

Revolutionary War battlefield deaths and mortality are difficult to nail down but it would appear that approximately twenty-five thousand American patriots died in battle, at sea, as prisoners of war, and from disease. While this is a large number, it doesn't at first blush seem overwhelming. But again, extrapolating to our current population, it would be like losing seven and a half million soldiers today - a number that boggles the mind. Roughly one out of every ten men of fighting age died in this conflict.

Another distortion is our understanding of where the war was fought. We think of Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, Trenton, Concord and Lexington - all in the northeast. And yet as a matter of fact, the bulk of the war (four years of the seven) was fought in the South in little remembered battles such as Camden (the single largest loss of battlefield life), King's Mountain, Guilford, Charleston, etc.

There was an interesting twist to some of these battles: many Scottish and Scots-Irish emigrants in the decades leading up to 1776 had settled in the south. As a consequence, in a number of these battles, you had essentially a whole separate, more ancient and ancestral conflict being mirrored in the environment of the New World - the conflict between the Lowland and Highland Scots. The British had a number of regiments in the Americas that had been recruited from the Lowlands of Scotland facing, as in the Battle of Kings Mountain, patriot regiments made up largely of Highland Scots.

The other aspect that we often overlook is just how many wars were being fought simultaneously in the Colonies - it wasn't really just a Revolutionary War though it was that. The conflict was unavoidably a part of the world wide struggle among France, Spain and Britain - America was just one battlefield in the on-going world war. Hence, the critical support we received from the French in the latter part of the war. The French monarch had no native sympathy for a rebellious and upstart republic. It was a simple matter of the "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

As mentioned, the war of 1775 - 1781 was also a civil war, that worst and most bitter of all conflicts. Patriot neighbor fought Loyalist neighbor. Families and friendships were torn apart. The long simmering war of colonization, in part a catalyst to the issues which drove some of the grievances leading to the Declaration of Independence, continued with a new dynamic. The Native American tribes, fighting one another and fighting against the rising tide of frontier settlement, now had a whole new array of alliances to strike between the British and the Americans. The raids and sacking of frontier homesteads and settlements continued apace. This was a civil war, a world war, a war of colonial self-defense on top of being a revolutionary war.

All of this is not an effort to overdramatize the tragedy of war. That is the nature of the beast; war tells its own story. Rather this is an effort to put things into perspective - it is not simply lines of blue and red puffing away at each other on sunny battlefields. This was a long, drawn out and titanic conflict on the battlefield and in the realm of governance and philosophy that affected every resident of North America very directly.

It has affected every person worldwide born after that conflict. The successful example of the self-conscious creation of a new democratic republic has affected just about everything since then, starting most directly with the French Revolution which so quickly followed ours. This was the first time a whole diverse people had risen up against one form of government and created an entirely new form of government designed to accommodate that very diversity. There were a couple of forms of democracy around at the time such as in Iceland and Switzerland but these were primarily direct democracies and by far the exception in a world governed by monarchs.

The truly astonishing thing is the sheer abundance of intellect and accomplishment represented by the Founding Fathers. Repeated recitation of the names can blur just how unique a combination of talents was mixed into this revolutionary cauldron: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, are the tip of the iceberg - products of an age of enlightenment and reason. Fully human and with all the potential of human frailties of character but still outstanding individuals for any age.

One other element of the story of the American Revolution frequently gets glossed over - the degree to which the political aspect of the new country was a work in progress. The first rough draft of how we might govern ourselves, the Articles of Confederation ratified in 1781, failed to deliver an effective means of governance and led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and a new Constitution in 1789. The miracle of that Constitution with its branches of government, its checks and balances is a tribute to the depth of knowledge, experience, pragmatism and commitment of all the participants.

We think of our divisions now within the country as being deep but they are nowhere neat the chasms that then existed. There was of course the fundamental issue of large versus small states but there were many other divisions as well: the mercantilists versus the agrarians; the enormous number of religious sects in an age when worship was a much more fundamental part of daily life; the slave owners versus abolitionists; the wealthy (whether planters or merchants) versus the working poor. The interests of all these divisions had to be bridged in some form of compromise. That compromise - the Constitution - turned out to be remarkably robust. We think of the US as a young country and yet it is the oldest constitutional republic in the world.

Born in an environment rich in idealism this form of government is a pragmatic compromise with the realities and interests in place at the time. The issue of slavery was effectively postponed, to be addressed by a future generation. So the Constitution was not a perfect document or a model of governmental efficiency but, rather, the best that could be accomplished under the circumstances with a statement of those ideals to be attained and crucially with the capacity to self-correct, evolve and grow. Our Constitution represented not a model of static perfection but rather a means for future progress.

Below is a list of books that we hope will capture the attention and imagination of your children as they explore a time when tectonic moves were afoot that launched the world in a whole new direction:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.1

1 - Last stanza from Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Picture Books

Samuel's Choice by Richard J. Berleth and illustrated by James Watling Suggested

And Then What Happened, Paul Revere? by Jean Fritz

Where Was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May? by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

Shh! We're Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz and illustrtated by Tomie dePaola Recommendation

This Time, Tempe Wick? by Patricia Lee Gauch and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

The Boston Tea Party by Steven Kroll and illustrated by Peter M. Fiore Suggested

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand Recommended

Katie's Trunk by Ann Turner and illustrated by Ronald Himler Suggested

Independent Readers

The Fighting Ground by Avi Recommended

Toliver's Secret by Esther Wood Brady and illustrated by Richard Cuffari and Esther Wood-Brady Suggested

The Arrow over the Door by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by James Watling Suggested

My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier Suggested

War Comes to Willy Freeman by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier Suggested

April Morning by Howard Fast Suggested

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

The Founders by Dennis B. Fradin and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

The Signers by Dennis B. Fradin and illustrated by Michael McCurdy Recommended

Early Thunder by Jean Fritz and illustrated by Lynd Ward Recommended

Hope's Crossing by Joan Elizabeth Goodman

The Riddle of Penncroft Farm by Dorothea Jensen Suggested

Moon of Two Dark Horses by Sally M. Keehn Suggested

Lexington and Concord by Deborah Kent Suggested

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson Recommended

Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson Suggested

The Secret Soldier by Ann McGovern and illustrated by Harold Goodwin and Katherine Thompson Suggested

Emma's Journal by Marissa Moss Suggested

The Keeping Room by Anna Myers Suggested

Sarah Bishop by Scott O'Dell Recommended

Guns For General Washington by Seymour Reit Suggested

Cast Two Shadows by Ann Rindaldi Suggested

The Secret of Sarah Revere by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

Finishing Becca by Ann Rindaldi Suggested

Time Enough for Drums by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

A Ride into Morning by Ann Rinaldi Suggested

George Washington's Socks by Elvira Woodruff Suggested

Young Adults

American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis Suggested

American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis Suggested

Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis Recommended

The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay Highly Recommended

Redcoats and Rebels by Christopher Hibbert Recommended

John Adams by David McCullough Recommended

1776 by David McCullough Suggested

Founding Mothers by Cokie Roberts Recommended

John Paul Jones by Evan Thomas Recommended