Saturday, May 30, 2009

So nigh is grandeur to our dust

In an Age of Fops and Toys

from Voluntaries by Ralph Waldo Emerson

In an age of fops and toys,

Wanting wisdom, void of right,

Who shall nerve heroic boys

To hazard all in Freedom's fight,-

Break sharply off their jolly games,

Forsake their comrades gay

And quit proud homes and youthful dames

For famine, toil and fray?

Yet on the nimble air benign

Speed nimbler messages,

That waft the breath of grace divine

To hearts in sloth and ease.

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,

So near is God to man,

When Duty whispers low, Thou must,

The youth replies, I can.

Friday, May 29, 2009

If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade.

From Herodutus' The History.

Thus nobly did the whole body of Lacedaemonians and Thespians behave; but nevertheless one man is said to have distinguished himself above all the rest, to wit, Dieneces the Spartan. A speech which he made before the Greeks engaged the Medes, remains on record. One of the Trachinians told him, "Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." Other sayings too of a like nature are reported to have been left on record by this same person.

What have I gotten myself into?

From Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. His first night out on the ship in the open sea.

In a few minutes the slide of the hatch was thrown back, which let down the noise and tumult of the deck still louder, the loud cry of "All hands, ahoy! tumble up here and take in sail," saluted our ears, and the hatch was quickly shut again. When I got upon deck, a new scene and a new experience were before me. The little brig was close hauled upon the wind, and lying over, as it then seemed to me, nearly upon her beam ends. The heavy head sea was beating against her bows with the noise and force almost of a sledge-hammer, and flying over the deck, drenching us completely through. The topsail halyards had been let go, and the great sails filling out and backing against the masts with a noise like thunder. The wind was whistling through the rigging, loose ropes flying about; loud and, to me, unintelligible orders constantly given and rapidly executed, and the sailors "singing out" at the ropes in their hoarse and peculiar strains.
In addition to all this, I had not got my "sea legs on," was dreadfully sick, with hardly strength enough to hold on to anything, and it was "pitch dark." This was my state when I was ordered aloft, for the first time, to reef topsails.

How I got along, I cannot now remember. I "laid out" on the yards and held on with all my strength. I could not have been of much service, for I remember having been sick several times before I left the topsail yard. Soon all was snug aloft, and we were again allowed to go below. This I did not consider much of a favor, for the confusion of everything below, and that inexpressible sickening smell, caused by the shaking up of the bilge-water in the hold, made the steerage but an indifferent refuge from the cold, wet decks. I had often read of the nautical experiences of others, but I felt as though there could be none worse than mine; for in addition to every other evil, I could not but remember that this was only the first night of a two years' voyage. When we were on deck we were not much better off, for we were continually ordered about by the officer, who said that it was good for us to be in motion. Yet anything was better than the horrible state of things below.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Department of Trivia

The letter J does not appear anywhere on the periodic table of elements.

-- The Book of Useless Information by Noel Botham

Heidi is still with us

From an article, Our children won't succeed if they don't read books, by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the February 8, 2009 edition of the Times. His concluding anecdote is one of those that just catches you.

A while ago I was working on a film project about ethnic cleansing. I met a girl who had been taken prisoner when still a baby and brought up in a regimented institution. She'd been starved of all warmth yet she was personable and articulate.

I said to her, "You were in the home from a very young age. How did you know this wasn't normal? How did you know it wasn't right?"

She said - and this is the sentence that made me want to be a children's writer - "Books. I read Heidi."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans

I hardly ever hear it referenced today but I was always taken with the imagery of this poem familiar to me from my childhood and at one time a popular reciter. Perhaps it is better known in Britain than here in the US and may have greater currency there.

There is an odd parallelism between Casabianca and Whitman's O Captain. Not an equivalence but both painting a mortal portrait of maritime fathers and sons.

Heman apparently based her poem on an actual event. Giocante Casabianca was the young son of the French captain of the French ship Orient, Louis de Casabianca. At the battle of the Nile in 1798 the Orient was completely obliterated when her magazine took fire.

Casabianca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle's wreck

Shone round him o'er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,

As born to rule the storm;

A creature of heroic blood,

A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on-he would not go

Without his Father's word;

That father, faint in death below,

His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud-'say, Father, say

If yet my task is done?'

He knew not that the chieftain lay

Unconscious of his son.

'Speak, father!' once again he cried,

'If I may yet be gone!'

And but the booming shots replied,

And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath,

And in his waving hair,

And looked from that lone post of death

In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,

'My father! must I stay?'

While o'er him fast, through sail and shroud,

The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,

They caught the flag on high,

And streamed above the gallant child,

Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound-

The boy-oh! where was he?

Ask of the winds that far around

With fragments strewed the sea!-

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,

That well had borne their part-

But the noblest thing which perished there

Was that young faithful heart.


Not only a word I had never come across before but a seductive one as well. Three s's, three u's and two r's.

Main Entry: su.sur.rus
Pronunciation: su-'s&r-&s, -'s&-r&s
Function: noun
Etymology: Latin, hum, whisper -- more at SWARM
- su.sur.rant /-'s&r-&nt, -s&-r&nt/ adjective

Sunday, May 24, 2009

O Captain! My Captain!

I have never particularly taken to Whitman. Phrases and shards from long poems, yes, but rarely, other than his poem O Captain! My Captain!, have I particularly enjoyed his work. This weekend I purchased Penguin's The Portable Walt Whitman and am finding more that do strike home. I'll blog these later but let's start with Captain.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;

The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up-for you the flag is flung-for you the bugle trills;

For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths-for you the shores a-crowding;

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head;

It is some dream that on the deck,

You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

Ross MacDonal on an old house

"In the full white blast of noon, the Johnson house looked grim and strange, like a long old face appalled by the present."
The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Any widely read person always has some greater or lesser population of authors, persons, ideas or topics that reside on the periphery of their knowledge, something they have seen alluded to but of which they know little or nothing. Raffles, the gentleman burglar, was one such skirmisher between the battlefields of ignorance and my mainline of knowledge. Heard of him but couldn't have told you who wrote about him, when, or really anything else other than that he was a once famous literary character.

I couldn't have told you anything, that is, until this weekend when I picked up The Collected Raffles Stories written by Ernest William Hornung and published by Oxford University Press in 1996 and unfortunately out of print.

I have read the first couple of stories and look forward to the rest of the collection. They read very much in the fashion of a Sherlock Holmes on the wrong side of the law.

This is perhaps not surprising as Hornung's early stories were published in the Strand magazine where Sherlock Holmes also saw the first light of day. Further, Hornung married A.C. Doyle's sister Constance in 1893. The world was so much smaller then.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On Richard Dana

From the biographical note to Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. Despite having written at a young age one of the distinctive gems of American literature, and having lived to see it acknowledged as such, his life was filled with many soft disappointments.

In seeking the fulfillment of his ambitions, he was always on the high road to success; he never quite arrived.

Epistemology of Storytelling

Robert G. Picard has an interesting article, Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay, in The Christian Science Monitor. There are parts of the article with which I agree and some other parts of his analysis which I believe to be off-base. However, he does have a description in the middle about the function of the journalist AKA the storyteller.

Journalists are not professionals with a unique base of knowledge such as professors or electricians. Consequently, the primary economic value of journalism derives not from its own knowledge, but in distributing the knowledge of others. In this process three fundamental functions and related skills have historically created economic value: Accessing sources, determining significance of information, and conveying it effectively.

Accessing sources is crucial because information and knowledge do not exist as a natural resource that merely has to be harvested. It must be constructed by someone. The journalistic skill of identifying and reaching authorities or others who construct expertise traditionally gave journalists opportunities to report in ways that the general public could not.

Determining significance has been critical because journalists sort through an enormous amount of information to find the most significant and interesting items for consumers.

Effective presentation involves the ability to reduce information to its core to meet space and time requirements and presenting it in an interesting and attractive manner. These are built on linguistic and artistic skills and formatting techniques.

Today all this value is being severely challenged by technology that is "de-skilling" journalists. It is providing individuals – without the support of a journalistic enterprise – the capabilities to access sources, to search through information and determine its significance, and to convey it effectively.

In reading that, I was struck by the parallels with children's books. There are some wonderfully gifted story-tellers and illustrators working today. Even more than in the past. Yet one of the challenges is to sort the wheat from the chaff and there is an awful lot of chaff. As described by Picard, the barriers to entry for writing children's books fall and fall. The technology of creation and or self-publishing have unleashed a tide. These declining barriers mean that some voices that might once have been overlooked or ignored now have a chance for expression. But it also means a tide of mediocrity, didacticsm and self-absorption.

Our challenge as parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers is to sort through that flood (25,000 - 35,000 new children's books each year) and find the few gems scattered in the grit. At least we are all in it together as a community of readers.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An interesting observation

John Podhoretz in Commentary Magazine, in an article on the newsmagazine segment of media, makes this observation about opinion magazines versus new magazines.

More important, they are published for people who are passionate about abstract ideas, and find it invigorating, thrilling, and exciting to see them batted about. This is not the profile of the general mass reader

I wonder if this is not also pertinent to the issue of concentration of reading. 50% of the adult population in the US and Europe read no discretionary books in a year. 10% of the population would appear to be responsible for roughly 80% of books magazines, etc. that are read. I strongly suspect that this is in part culturally driven; were you raised in a reading culture? But I wonder if Podhoretz's observation isn't also operative, i.e. are the minority of intense reader's those that are also invigorated by ideas?

Computers or Books?

Well, not always in opposition. I have mentioned a neat little service, DailyLit, in the past but this month is the second anniversary of their founding and I thought I would bring attention to them again.

On the DailyLit site, you can pick from many classics (free) and they will be delivered in segments by e-mail to you. You determine the frequency and schedule of e-mails. When they first launched I tried them out and enjoyed both their selection and the experience. I usually am not a fan of electronic reading. There is nothing, from my perspective, that trumps a real live book. However, there are many titles which I might wish to read but about which I am not overly excited. From that perspective, lot's of little dollops, at five or ten minutes a pop, makes for an easy read. And if you want more, you can always have the next instalment instantly e-mailed to you.

I have not tried it with the kids yet but it occurs to me that this might be handy for them as well. They already spend enough time on the computer and I am less than confident in the uniformly high quality of what they might be exposed to. Setting them up to receive daily installments of, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, might sneak in some more interesting material into their reading parameters. Of course it might just be deleted as well but it doesn't hurt to experiment.

DailyLit also has contemporary books that are available on a commercial basis.

Origin and Evolution of Jewish Children's Literature

There are so many tributaries to the river of children's literature.

The Association of Jewish Libraries sponsored a discussion of the origins, evolution and trends in Jewish children's as part of it's observation of the Sydney Taylor Book Award's 40th anniversary. It is available here as an MP3 file and is an hour long.

The Chaco War

A little noted but dramatic, and locally consequential, war in South America in the 1930's is covered in the Summer 2009 edition of Military History Quarterly. I have seen allusions to this war a number of times over the years but don't think I have ever seen more than a two paragraph explication. I knew that it was over a large area of land of no known value and involved a horrific casualty rate for both belligerents, Paraguay and Bolivia. The article, Battle in the Barrens, is not yet posted on the internet but eventually should show up here.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) involved Bolivia's aspiration to gain access to the sea by acquiring an area of scrub land constituting half of Paraguay, which would give it a port on a river to the South Atlantic. Bolivia was twice the size of Paraguay in terms of population and much richer in terms of industry, mines, agriculture and general wealth. It spent much of the 1920's acquiring weapons and developing its army with the explicit goal of being able to take over the Chaco Region from Paraguay. Not unlike Spain, arms merchants from all over Europe were happy to provide the weapons of choice. Unlike Spain, this long running war never attracted political or military obervers or volunteers. In fact, it was scarcely reported at all despite the high human toll, and the use of many tactics and weapons that presaged World War II.

Despite it's wealth, the size of its army, the modern weaponry it had acquired, and generalship from a German World War I veteran, Bolivia's invasion was ultimately defeated by brilliant leadership on the part of Paraguay's top generals and by the raw courage and patriotism of the line soldier. But at a tremendous cost. Nearly 10% of the adult male population was killed or wounded in the war, a casualty rate hardly ever met in any other modern conflict.

President Salamanca, President of Bolivia, commenting on the performance of his military's leadership, "I have given them everything they asked for. But I could not give them brains."


Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;

He who would search for pearls must dive below.

- Dryden, All for Love, Prologue

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


There is an interesting article in this week's The New Yorker, Don't! The Secret of Self-Control by Jonah Lehrer. Interesting, perhaps, because I agree with it.

I have yet to see any sort of good study that links a portfolio of core behaviors (Pattern Recognition, Sustained Focus, Self-control, Empathy, Attentiveness, Curiosity, Imagination, Anticipation, Judgment, Critical Thinking, Prioritization, etc.) to desired life outcomes but I think that slowly, slowly evidence is beginning to emerge that there is a tight causative relationship. Already we know that diligence (work) trumps IQ as does self-control.

We also know that there is a pretty high correlation between degree of reading capability and habits and life outcomes. When you look at that list of behavioral traits, many of them are fostered by the habit of reading. It is not just a function of reading making us more knowledgeable but rather that the act of reading reinforces underlying behavioral traits which foster success.

That wicked Oscar Wilde

Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

Desert Copts

Yesterday I was looking to confirm a name of one of my father's friends and was rereading his autobiography Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names. I found the name but in doing so came across this little anecdote regarding a drilling project in Egypt:

Our proposed drill site was approximately 30 kilometers west of the highway between Cairo and Alexandria. The driving instructions to the rig were rather easy. Drive to the "Halfway House", a petrol station and restaurant - the only building on this 400 kilometer road between the two cities, and turn left. While surveying the site where we planned to drill, I did a little exploring of the area. I was roughly 20 kilometers northwest of the drill site and came across a remarkable community. I had crossed over a sand dune and saw before me a small basin oasis, perhaps 2 kilometers in diameter. In the center was what looked like a mud-walled fort straight out of a "Beau Geste" movie. I drove on down to the front door, got out of my Land Rover, and encountered "Bernard", a monk.

I had stumbled on a Coptic Christian Monastery, in an otherwise, uninhabited desert. There were about 35 monks living there, more or less self-sufficient and independent of the world outside. They had a water well which allowed them to grow crops and raise goats and sheep, all inside the one hectare area surrounded by the walls. According to Bernard, they spent six hours per day at worship or in prayer. The rest of their waking hours were spent tending the crops and animals. Bernard gave me a tour of the chapel and living quarters. The chapel was decorated quite ornately, but the living quarters gave true meaning to the word, simplistic. I didn't feel it appropriate to inquire, "why the hell are you spending your life like this", but that was certainly the uppermost question in my mind. History teaches us that men have been living in monasteries since religion was invented, but I can't even begin to understand why. Bernard invited me to join them for the evening meal. I was, however, getting a bit nervous about finding my way back to civilization before dark, so I declined, thanked him for the tour and headed back to town. It was a unique experience, best described as "baffling".

Perhaps one answer is in the environment of the desert monasteries. Last night I finished Alan Moorehead's A Late Education and in it came across this passage. Moorehead is describing the effect of the desert upon him and his companions in the early days of the war when the massive armored build-up had yet to occur:

And yet the story of the desert war seemed to write itself. There never was a place which so moved one to composition. Within an hour of arriving in the desert ideas came crowding into one's mind, and if there was no action for days together it made no difference. Life there was so completely abnormal that the first element of a newspaper story was always present: the element of contrast, the spectacle of familiar people (in this case the soldiers) reacting to a strange place. But the real reason why the war correspondents did rather better in the desert than anywhere else was because the issues were simple. There were no distractions, no cities, no railroads, shops, cinemas, markets, farms, children or women. There was no fifth column, and there were no politics. We never saw money or crowds or animals or hills and valleys. We saw the arching sky and the flat desert stretching away on every side. Consequently the small incident (as distinct from the set-piece battle) achieved a significance it would never have had in Europe or the tropics, and we saw it clearly, we saw all round it, we knew its beginning and its effect. Certiainty of detail like this seldom falls to the journalist. He works at such speed he has no time for a methodical checking of his facts and so he has to hedge, to qualify, to suggest rather than to state a fact. In the desert it was much easier. We could state a thing boldly because we saw it in isolation, and most events other than the actual battles came as clearly before our eyes as a single ship at sea. Moreover our own lives were simple.

The desert had an antiseptic effect upon nearly everyone who went there in the war. That is to say it destroyed most of the small indulgences and even the vices that eat like parasites into our lives in normal times. In this immense untenanted space it was nearly impossible to commit any of the deadly sins; the food was appalling (mostly bully beef and biscuit), liquor virtually non-existent, and so the glutton inside oneself withered away. In the complete absence of women, even of pornographic books, advertisements and entertainments, there was no stimulus to sexual desire except that which was self-induced by dreams and secret memories; and even the echoes of such vicarious, unanswered lust tended to to grow faint after a time. It was absurd to be avaricious, envious or jealous where no one had any possessions or privileges to speak of, and the desert by its very nature compelled the slothful man to bestir himself in order to remain alive. Then, too, the fear of death and wounding in this distant place was a mighty destroyer of pride. This enforced monasticism might, of course, in itself have been more deadly, more stultifying, than any sin, had not the desert provided its own distractions and its own bizarre rewards.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Late Education

Alan Moorehead is a regrettably little recollected Australian author famous for his WWII books, Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle, and The End in Africa; as well as Gallipoli, The Blue Nile, and The White Nile. I have enjoyed them all but my favorite is the marvelllously illustrated Darwin and the Beagle.

Looking for another book in my library, I came across Alan Moorehead's A Late Education, (1970) an autobiographical book that is in part a tribute to his WWII friend and fellow correspondent, Alexander Clifford. The following passage reads in such contemporary language about an almost unimagineably distant period; the early years of the Spanish Civil War. It reads like a scene from the movie Casablanca.

Anyone who was involved in the Spanish Civil War on the Franco side will remember St Jean de Luz on the Basque coast in southern France. Like the town of Riga in the Russian revolution it was a neutral staging-post on the edge of the conflict, and every traveller, whether he was a black-marketeer, a diplomat, a secret agent or a journalist would pause there for a while on his journeys in and out of Spain.

In St Jean de Luz you could get anything from a forged passport to a million-peseta small-arms contract, and it was a remarkable place for intrigue. Had the French government not kept order there would have been serious disturbances in the town, since the foreign colony and many of the French themselves were sharply divided into two camps - those who were for Franco and those who were against him - and they hated one another with a deep emotional hatred.

The centre for all this agitation was a cheerful little restaurant called the Bar Basque that still exists in the main street, and sooner or later everyone of any consequence made their way there in order to read the newspapers and pick up the latest gossip. There was no item of news about the fighting, whether it was the shipment of tanks from Russia or Moors from Morocco, the destruction of Guernica or the rising of the Fifth Column in Madrid, that was not either invented in the Bar Basque or discussed there with embellishments early in its course round the town.

Outwardly there was nothing sinister about the Bar Basque: you might have taken it as just another fashionable seaside restaurant that possibly merited a star in the Michelin guidebook. There were Basque murals on the walls, scenes of pelota players and peasants dancing the jota, and the decor was rustic walnut and red plush, all of it very comfortable and modern. People took their aperitifs under striped umbrellas in the street, where a line of horse-drawn cabs stood waiting under the trees, and then towards one in the afternoon and eight or nine in the evening the restaurant began to fill. One ate jambon de Bayonne (which was said to have lain all winter, salted and raw, maturing under the snow of the Pyrenees), langoustines, anchovies and tiny eels, angouilles, that were brought in each morning by fishing boats from the Atlantic, red and green pepper salads, jam omelettes and melons. On Thursday nights there was a cabaraet and a dance, and they served a dish of roast duck cooked with peaches, oranges and green peas. The wine was the local rose or Bordeaux, brought from the vineyards on the Garonne only three or four hours away by road, and after the meal one drank a local liqueur, pale and sticky, called Fleurs d'Hendaye.

I remember these lucullan details so well because it was at the Bar Basque that I first met Alex in 1938, and in the years that followed the roast duck, the dancing of the jota and the wine became for us symbols of the good lost life to which we hoped to return one day. Through the lean nineteen-forties we thought of the place almost as nostalgically as an ageing woman will recall some romantic moment of her past, a ball, an evening at the theatre, a holiday by the sea, when she first fell in love.


Protagoras (circa 485 BC - 415 BC) was of the era when some of Greece's deepest thinkers were laying the groundwork for much of western philosophy and culture. Born in Thrace, he wrote On Truth and On the Gods, travelled widely across the Hellenic world lecturing on grammar, rhetoric and ethics. Pericles was his patron.

For all his fame and influence, none of his books have survived. Indeed, the only thing that has come down the millenia is a single fragment. But for all that, it is a ringing and intriguing statement of belief that has figured in the writings of many of our great philosophers and men of action. Pro or con regarding his most famous phrase, he remains relevant against all the odds. His one surviving fragment?

Man is the measure of all things; of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not. Of the gods I know nothing, whether they exist or do not exist: nor what they are like in form.

Fate is disconcertingly capricious.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell to the parliamentarians of his day (1653):

"Depart, I say; and let us have done with you! In the name of God, go!"

Monday, May 11, 2009

Books - A life beyond life

From John Milton in Areopagitica A speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England.

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

Where do accomplishments come from?

An interesting essay in the New York Times by David Brooks summarizing research which I have been seeing as well that lays an increasing weight of accomplishment on the simple act of practice and repetition. I instinctively agree that serendipity and hard work are major contributors (along with personal attributes) to any particular outcome. Reading more creates better readers.

I particularly liked Brooks' comment that "Public discussion is smitten by genetics and what we're "hard-wired" to do. And it's true that genes place a leash on our capacities. But the brain is also phenomenally plastic. We construct ourselves through behavior. As Coyle observes, it's not who you are, it's what you do."

Richmal Crompton and Frances Hodgson Burnett

I love finding hidden connections and parallels. See the following blog post on the writings of Frances Hodgson Burnett (of The Secret Garden) and Richmal Crompton (of Just William series).

Not Just William at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover blog.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

People Helping People

One of the most beautiful aspects of an otherwise often times irritating and even obnoxious species is humanity's capacity for generosity and even sacrifice for strangers.

While a nearly universal trait, it is one that is particularly well established in the US. Arguments might be made as to why that is: is it our cult of the individual, our system of checks and balances grounded in the 10th amendment, our pioneer heritage where everyone needed to pitch in together? All are reasonable claims. But whatever the source, there is still the fact that America is an incredibly generous nation, whether measured by per capita giving in money, giving in hours, giving to the local community or giving to distant causes helping people in need.

It is interesting to observe this. Evolution has equipped us with exquisitely fine talents of identifying the "other", those that don't belong to our family, our community, our tribe. By definition, every culture, in defining what it is and what are its core attributes, at the same time defines what it is not and separates itself from others. Despite 40,000 years of refinement for identifying and rejecting the "other", in just a few hundred years we have slowly widened our definition of whom is human and who is worthy of respect and accord. The slow eradication of slavery, the extension of voting rights to every adult, the slow expansion of government obligation to provide some minimum form of health and income to all members, are all evidence of our basic humanity.

The greater tribute is not our collective agreements and decisions though. It shows up most startlingly and most magnificently as individual decisions to make a difference regardless of risk, and reputation and absence of reward. When people choose to do the right thing for others regardless of the cost to themselves.

This can show up in the smallest of gestures. The young be-tattooed and body-pierced seeming-thug in the mall, who jumps up to offer his arm to steady an old lady wobbling on the escalator. The enthusiastic volunteers for a Habitat for Humanity building project. The members of a children's chorus performing for the residents of an assisted living community. The generosity and commitment to our fellow citizens is around us daily in a thousand small ways.

Our childhood stories are full of tales of people helping others without expectation of return or recompense. Sometimes it is very particular: Annie Sullivan devoting her life to bringing Helen Keller out of her cell of darkness into the wide world. Sometimes it is wider and more nebulous: King Christian X of Denmark marking himself with a yellow star, inspiring his subjects to do the same, when the occupying Nazis wanted to so mark the Danish Jews. Nebulous but inspiring none-the-less.

Sometimes the heroism and generosity is nominally related to the person's job but is still above and beyond what one might expect. Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper's daughter comes to mind, as do stories beyond listing of fireman, policemen, smokejumpers, coast guard rescue pilots, etc.

War in all its tragedy creates the opportunity for man to display both his humanity along with his inhumanity. In Claire Huchet Bishop's Twenty and Ten, set in World War II occupied France, twenty young French school children take on the task of hiding ten refugee Jewish children at great risk to themselves.

For the very young there are such classics as The Little Engine That Could who makes the effort to help little children on the other side of the mountain when much more powerful and better prepared engines can't be bothered to do so. Also at the picture book level is one of my favorites, Cynthia Rylant's Silver Packages. A businessman has a car accident in the remote hills of the Appalachians in a snow storm and is rescued by individuals in the community. His thank-you is to return each year before Christmas to distribute silver packages to the children of the hills who have so little. The waves of that first rescue and his subsequent generosity ripple down the generations in this charming, quiet tale.

Then there are the biographies of people that went beyond a single act and made helping their fellow man their life mission. The stories of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton of the Red Cross and Mary Breckinridge (of the Frontier Nursing service) in Rosemary Wells' Mary on Horseback, John Flynn of the Flying Doctor Service, etc.

We can tell our children what the rules are. We can lay out the commandments. We can teach them about right and wrong. We can talk about doing the right thing. But all that amounts to bringing the horse to the water. These tales are about people that take these basics and show what it can be like to be truly human, a mensch, a model.

Let us know your suggestions for stories about people selflessly helping people.

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Young Adults

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to books for Young Adults

Picture Books

The Little Ships by Louise Borden and illustrated by Michael Foreman Highly Recommended

The Yellow Star by Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrated by Henri Sorensen Highly Recommended

The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper and illustrated by George and Doris Hauman Highly Recommended

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P. J. Lynch (CD narrated by James Earl Jones) Highly Recommended

Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty Recommended

America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven and illustrated by Mike Benny Recommended

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Recommended

Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express by Margaret K. Wetterer and illustrated by Karen Ritz Recommended

Alphabet Adventure by Audrey Wood and illustrated by Bruce Robert Wood Recommended

A Picture Book of Helen Keller by David A. Adler Suggested

Mayday! Mayday by Chris L. Demarest Suggested

Smokejumpers 1 to 10 by Chris L. Demarest Suggested

Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter and Connies Roop and illustrated by Peter E. Hanson Suggested

The Cat With the Yellow Star by Susan Goldman Rubin and Ela Weissberger Suggested

The Storm by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Preston McDaniels Suggested

Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss Suggested

Horton Hears a Who by Dr. Seuss Suggested

Storm in the Night by Mary Stolz and illustrated by Pat Cummings Suggested

Beauty And the Beast by Max Eilenberg and illustrated by Angela Barrett Suggested

The Lion and the Mouse by Aesop and retold by Bernadette Watts Suggested

Independent Reader

Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois Highly Recommended

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Incident at Hawk's Hill by Allan W. Eckert and illustrated by John Schoenherr Recommended

Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian Recommended

Clara Barton by Wil Mara Recommended

Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman Recommended

The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and illustrated by Garth Williams Recommended

The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein Recommended

Mary on Horseback by Rosemary Wells and illustrated by Peter McCarty Recommended

Knee Knock Rise by Natalie Babbitt Suggested

Fire in Their Eyes by Karen Magnuson Beil Suggested

Storm Warriors by Elisa Lynn Carbone Suggested

Dark Water Rising by Marian Hale Suggested

Darkness over Denmark by Ellen Levine Suggested

Rescue by Milton Meltzer Suggested

Blizzard by Jim Murphy Suggested

Anna, Grandpa, and the Big Storm by Carla Stevens and illustrated by Margot Tomes Suggested

Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross by Augusta Stevenson and illustrated by Frank Giacoia Suggested

Young Adult

No Greater Glory by Dan Kurzman Recommended

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson and Isaac Monroe Cline Recommended

Medal of Honor by Collier, Peter and Del Calzo, Nick Suggested

Trauma Junkie by Janice Hudson Suggested

The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger Suggested

Hiding to Survive by Maxine B. Rosenberg Suggested