danny the champion of the world

Danny the Champion of the World

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Illustrated by Quentin Blake

1975

Danny lives with his father in an old painted gypsy caravan with built-in bunk beds, a wood-burning stove, and an apple tree out back.  His father, a car mechanic with an old-fashioned country filling station, is the perfect boyhood companion and the two have an idyllic life together tinkering on car engines, making kites, and launching tissue paper fire balloons on windless nights.  At the age of 9, Danny discovers that his father has a secret life – as a pheasant poacher in Mr. Victor Hazell’s woods, Mr Hazell being the arrogant and vulgar brewery owner and property baron of all the lands surrounding the filling station.  (“As he flashed by we would sometimes catch a glimpse of the great, glistening beery face above the wheel, pink as a ham, all soft and inflamed from drinking too much beer.”)  His father initiates Danny into the art of poaching by revealing his two pheasant-immobilizing methods, The Horsehair Stopper and The Sticky danny the champion of the worldHat, both based on the pheasants’ inordinate love of raisins.  Danny invents a new method, involving raisins laced with sleeping pill powder, and he and his father try it out the night before Mr. Hazell’s annual hunting party, thus thwarting his vain attempts to be accepted by the titled upper class.  Along the way, they receive help of various kinds from the kind Doc Spencer, the upright constable, the vicar’s wife, and the local taxi driver, all of whom turn out to be unlikely members of the poaching underworld.

danny the champion of the worldOf all Roald Dahl’s books, Danny the Champion of the World is the gentlest.  It is suffused with the tender love that exists between Danny and his father, two figures drawn close since the death of Danny’s mother when he was four months old.  The book is unusual for being naturalistic – there are no witches, no giant peaches, no magical dream powders.  There are scenes that are as funny as any that exist in Dahl’s writing (witness the rising of the pheasants from the baby carriage as the effects of the sleeping pills wane), but he does not resort to the nonsense verse, silly naming, and general absurdities that are his usual stock in trade.

Roald Dahl was particularly fond of this story.  He originally wrote it as an adult short story that appeared first in the New Yorker in 1959 and subsequently in the collection, Kiss Kiss.  Although he made significant changes when he revised it for children, including the switch from two friends to a father and son, the basic plot line remained intact and whole passages were lifted verbatim from the story.  Dahl often reworked an idea – the genesis for The BFG came from a bedtime story told by Danny’s father about The Big Friendly Giant.

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little bear

Little Bear

Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

1957

In 1957, two authors, independently, set out to write a book that could help young children learn to read.  Else Holmelund Minarik, a first grade teacher on Long Island, was prompted by the dearth of interesting books for early readers, her young daughter among them.  Dr. Seuss was given a list of 348 words by his publisher and challenged to do something with them.  The results were Little Bear and The Cat in the Hat, each written with a vocabulary of fewer than 250 mostly monosyllabic words.  It is remarkable that such a limited palette could be transformed into two such divergent reading experiences.  Dr. Seuss concocted a frenetic rhyming wonder about the Cat in the Hat and his kite-flying sidekicks, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who create havoc while the mother is away.  Else Minarik invented Little Bear, a lovable creature who enjoys the pleasures that come from the imagination, friendship (with Hen, Duck, and Cat), and a loving mother.  Both books have retained their popularity for more than half a century and children should be forever grateful that their publication spared future generations the robot-like tedium of the Dick and Jane primers in which nothing ever happened (“See Spot.  See Spot run.”)

Minarik’s gift was the creation of character with an economy of words, especially memorable in the figure of Mother Bear who is wryly humorous, playful, and reassuring.  When Little Bear makes himself a space helmet and declares his plan to fly to the moon like a bird, she responds with tolerant skepticism.

little bear

“And maybe,” said Mother Bear, “you are a little fat bear cub with no wings and  no feathers.

“Maybe if you jump up you will come down very fast, with a big plop.”

“Maybe,” said Little Bear.  “But I’m going now.  Just look for me up in the sky.”

“Be back for lunch,” said Mother.

When Little Bear wanders back, pretending in his mind that he is having a lunar experience, his mother greets him, “But who is this?  Are you a bear from Earth?”  And they enjoy the shared pretense until Little Bear decides it is time to resume his true persona so he can envelop himself in the arms of his real mother.

little bear's friendElse Minarik’s writing was paired with Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Little Bear.  Both were immigrants, of sorts.  She came from Denmark at the age of four and imbued her books with her memories of an idyllic childhood in the old country.  He, the son of Polish immigrants, had a miserable growing-up in Brooklyn, steeped in tragic stories of shtetl persecution.  Sendak may have given vent to his personal demons in Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, but for Little Bear he got the tone just right for Minarik’s childhood eden.  The costumes are late 19th century with pinafores, bonnets, sweeping dresses, capes, and top hats – for everyone but Little Bear himself, who wears his own fur coat.  For the space helmet, Sendak devised an upended cardboard box with ear flaps and sprung coil antennae.  Sendak illustrated the first five in the Little Bear series (Little Bear, Father Bear Comes Home, Little Bear’s Friend, Little Bear’s Visit, and A Kiss for Little Bear) and it is best to stick with these.  Note in the last of them, Little Bear paints a picture of a Wild Thing as a gift for his grandmother.

the house of sixty fathers book cover

The House of Sixty Fathers

The House of Sixty Fathers

by Meindert DeJong

Illustrated by Maurice Sendak

1957

In 1941, a group of American pilots volunteered for a clandestine operation to assist the Chinese Air Force defend against the Japanese invasion.  Under the command of the legendary Claire Lee Chennault, the Flying Tigers became populist heroes for their piloting daring-do, renegade spirit, and success despite unequal odds.  When the U.S. officially entered WWII after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chennault’s mercenary group became the nucleus for the U.S. Air Force presence in China – the nickname and the hallmark shark mouth design that decorated the noses of the bomber planes were retained.  Meindert DeJong (pronounced DeYoung), a Dutch-American writer who was just beginning his career as a children’s author, joined Chennault’s forces in China as a military pilot and historian.  His outfit adopted a Chinese war orphan and DeJong tried unsuccessfully to bring the boy to the U.S.

This true story was the genesis for The House of Sixty Fathers.  Tien Pao, a young village boy, is separated from his parents and baby sister when his sampan is swept down the river into Japanese territory.  Accompanied only by his pig, Glory-of-the-Republic, he hides in tiny caves by day and travels through the mountains by night, reduced to eating leaves to stave off his hunger.  He saves the life of a downed American pilot and the two are befriended by Chinese guerrilla fighters who assist their escape from Japanese soldiers.  Tien Pao makes his way to the town where he last saw his family, only to find it under attack, its inhabitants fleeing in confusion.  He eventually finds refuge in the house of sixty fathers, the dormitory of the American bomber pilots, until his moving reunion with his parents.

from house of sixty fathersMeindert DeJong’s genius was his ability to convey the world through the eyes of his protagonist, whether that be a Dutch girl or a stray dog.  In this book, he views the complexity of wartime from the vantage of a Chinese peasant boy – the thrill of witnessing the routing of an advancing Japanese column by a solitary strafing plane alongside the horror of watching terror-stricken horses drowning, his disgust at a starving child eating mud along with the visceral joy of his first taste of chocolate, the selfish desperation of refugees throwing themselves upon a packed train along with the emotionless empathy of a soldier who plucks him from the crowd to safety.  With unflinching honesty, DeJong presents the fear, loneliness, and chaos of war along with the comfort of human companionship, the anchoring influence of family, and the reassurance of a pet, however porcine.  Both frightening and reassuring, this is one of the most powerful stories of wartime ever written for children.