Little Women

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

1868

Illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

For a book the author dismissed as “moral pap for the young”, Little Women has had an enduring hold. A slew of writers (Margaret Atwood, Simone de Beauvoir, J.K. Rowling, Susan Sontag, Jhumpa Lahiri, among them) claim this book as inspirational to their careers. The book is over 150 years old – it continues to attract new adherents.

In this one brilliant novel, Louisa May Alcott gave full rein to the contradictions that defined her. Born into a talented literate family, her father was a visionary transcendentalist philosopher (Emerson and Thoreau were family friends), an idealist whose “experiments” rarely put adequate food on the table. Her mother was “ballast to his balloon”, the pragmatic matriarch who sustained her daughters’ earthly needs. The father co-founded Fruitlands, a doomed utopian commune about which Louisa later wrote Transcendental Wild Oats, a satirical and very funny commentary – the diet was vegan, the shoes canvas, the showers cold, and the men urgently engaged in philosophical discussion in advance of any storm, leaving the mother and children to hastily harvest the meager crops (no root vegetables because they reached down rather than up towards the heavens). Louisa grew up in genteel destitution and was determined to avoid this fate as an adult. She wrote Little Women, a family story for girls, reluctantly, for money, and she channeled all of her own rebelliousness into Jo, her autobiographical double.

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Little Women is a family story in which not much happens, except for the transformation of four girls into young women. Meg, Jo, Amy, Beth – each has a distinctive persona and each is given time and a voice – grow up under the wing of Marmee, their wise and loving mother – the moral compass. Jo is the heroine, but the book’s richness is due to the quartet. Jo, the tempestuous willful one, chafes against the constraints imposed upon her sex and her writing aspirations, yet she is sustained by the cocoon of family with all the moralistic goodness it borrows from its Concord surrounds. She can rebel, as Louisa herself did, but she is never far from the sisters and parents who nurture her. Cozy domesticity around the hearth and a turbulent writing life in the garret – those are the opposing poles.

What Louisa preferred to write was in stark contrast to her famous novel. Under a pseudonym, she wrote gothic pulp fiction – lurid melodramatic tales featuring strong willed heroines, deceitful, intent on exacting revenge, with titles like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment. They featured sex, spies, and hashish, a far cry from the family tranquility of her books about the March family. She never made public her dual writing career lest it scare off her followers. Little Women was an immediate success and the royalties assured her (and her family) a comfortable living. Yet she disdained her readers and delighted in sabotaging their conventional expectations.

jo-and-beth-by-Jessie-Willcox-SmithLouisa was not without her share of sentimentality.  One of her three sisters died at the age of 22. She had Beth, the fictional sister, follow suit. Beth, the impossibly kind, shy, selfless girl who Jo loves deeply. Her death would wring tears from a stone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babe: The Gallant Pig

 

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Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

1983

Illustrated by Mary Rayner

Dick King-Smith arrived late at writing, having exhausted prior careers as a soldier, a farmer, and a teacher. As though he needed to make up for lost time, he was remarkably prolix over a 30+ year stint, and turned out over one hundred books, most inspired by his knowledge of the barnyard. In his banner year, he published almost a book a month. No need to read all these. Pick one, and make that one Babe: The Gallant Pig, and you will have found the silk purse.

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Farmer Hagget goes to the village fair and wins a piglet in a “Guess my weight” contest. His voluble wife, whose defining characteristic is the run-on sentence, finds pleasure in the prospect of ham for Christmas. Babe, forever ignorant of his intended fate, is taken in by Fly, the black-and-white collie who teaches him the rudiments of sheep herding. Through his friendship with Ma, the aged ewe, Babe decides to adopt politeness as his modus operandi (“’If I might ask a great favor of you,….could you all please be kind enough to walk down to that gate….’”) rather than the snapping rudeness practiced by sheep dogs (“’Move, fools!….Down the hill. If you know which way ‘down’ is.’”)   The sheep, never before addressed with respect, are only too pleased to do Babe’s bidding. Using this approach, Babe saves the herd from sheep rustlers, thus saving his own neck from any future chopping block. He later takes on two dogs who have been worrying the sheep, and in the case of Ma fatally so, and he comes close to being summarily executed when Farmer Hagget believes mistakenly that Babe is the culprit. In the climactic final chapter, when he appears at the Grand Challenge Sheep Dog Trials, he is assured a place in the annals of sheep dog (or sheep-pig) history, to the cheers of spectators and readers alike.

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Few books are honored by the films that are ostensibly made in their image. Think of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh empire as a particularly egregious example. Babe is an exception. Read the book first (needless to say), but then it is fine to see the movie. King-Smith’s animals are realistic (his pigs eat swill, his dogs snap at sheeps’ hocks, his sheep get foot rot) in all but their speech. The movie is faithful to that premise – the animals are real, but they can talk. The cast has been swollen to include a few invented characters (a dog, a cat, a duck) to round things out, and the Hagget couple has lost a bit of their nuanced complementary relationship in favor of a more stereotypic humerous bond, but these adjustments work well for the screen. And then it is a pleasure to return to the book to appreciate its more subtle workings.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

1902

Illustrated by Beatrix Potter

With characters named Jemima Puddle-duck and Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, you might think that Beatrix Potter’s tales are fluff and whimsy. But if you read the 23 little volumes in the boxed set, you will find surprising sophistication and subtle wit. There is a dense richness – of language, of nuance, of humor. Beatrix Potter wrote with a no-nonsense matter-of-fact edge, for she was familiar enough with the natural world to realize that lyrical romanticism is hardly the apposite tone. The animals in her world are very aware of their position in the food chain. Peter Rabbit’s father ended up in Mr. McGregor’s meat pie. The foxhounds, after saving the clueless Jemima Puddle-duck from the wily fox, proceed to gobble down her eggs. Squirrel Nutkin lays three dead mice (a shocking image) at the foot of the old owl as a propitiatory offering in exchange for nuts. The stories are rich because Beatrix Potter, like the best of children’s authors, understood that children are not really as sentimental as some might hope.peter57

The Tale of Peter Rabbit, her masterpiece, is a perfect story. It is an allegorical tale of the explorations of childhood, with Mr. McGregor’s garden being the delicious and dangerous world that any spirited bunny would want to experience. The story is beautifully balanced with its rise and fall structure, beginning and ending with the quiet comfort of home and mother. In between, Peter Rabbit experiences the pleasures of the forbidden feast, the fright of the chase, the despair of isolation. There is beautiful pairing of text and illustration, as can only happen when writer and artist are one and the same. What could better convey Peter Rabbit’s aloneness than the delicate image of a forlorn shoe lost among the cabbages? Where has a child’s desolation been better portrayed than in the picture of Peter Rabbit leaning against the locked garden door, one foot resting on the other, a single tear falling?peter44

Beatrix Potter’s exquisite watercolor illustrations convey the artist’s deep understanding of the natural world. Her appreciation began as a child – raised by governesses, sheltered from other children, she observed and sketched her menagerie of animals who would peter08later people her stories. As a young adult, she developed a passionate interest in mycology and her botanical illustrations of fungi and lichens were highly regarded by other naturalists. In her children’s books, her illustrations of animal characters have become iconic, but her tree trunks, leaves, rocks, and dirt are as beautifully rendered as her velvety soft bunnies.

Aside: The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, one of several image015-thumbnailstories set in Mr. McGregor’s garden, begins with an imaginative premise: “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific’”.

 

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Now We Were Very Young & Now We Are Six

 

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When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A.A. Milne

1924, 1926

Illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard

 

James James

Morrison Morrison

Weatherby George Dupree

Took great

Care of his Mother,

Though he was only three.

James James

Said to his Mother,

“Mother,” he said, said he:

“You must never go down to the end of the town,

if you don’t go down with me.”

 

The mother, alas, ignores her son’s injunction and vanishes, irretrievably: “LAST SEEN/WANDERING VAGUELY/QUITE OF HER OWN ACCORD”. In Ernest Shepard’s accompanying illustration, the young James is madly pedaling his tricycle in desperate pursuit of his flighty mother as she disappears around a corner. download-3Disobedience is one of A.A. Milne’s most memorizable poems, and one of his best. He portrays the wonderful independence of a child’s mind and the natural audacity – James James goes immediately to the royals for help, in this case King John. Children reading the poem delight in the conceit – for children who are rarely in charge, it is a welcome relief to enter a world in which the mother is leashed to the tricycle rather than vice versa, and the mother is guilty of disobedience and suffers the consequences. It is a sign of Milne’s respect for children that there is no happy resolution – the mother is gone, for good. James James is not particularly sad about his loss, but simply disappointed that his mother failed to listen to him.DdFwIR9X0AENVXB

Milne published his two volumes of poetry when his only child, Christopher Robin, was four and six. The world portrayed was that of his son, one of Nurses and Nannies, beetles and bears and the great outdoors, and the occasional royalty. These latter were whimsical and flawed. Take the ruler in The King’s Breakfast, for instance, who is thwarted in his desire for some butter for his bread. The Queen, the Dairymaid, and the cow all try to persuade him that marmalade would be preferable. The King takes to his bed, whimpering with dismay, until he finally gets his desire fulfilled. Or Bad Sir Brian Botany, an old obstreperous knight who uses his battle axe to blip the villagers on their heads – until they rise up and dunk him in the duck pond, and more.   It is a world in which children can be wonderfully entertained by not much, as when a child watches spellbound as two raindrops (James and John) race, with many starts and stops, down a window-pane.

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The Travels of Babar

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The Travels of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

1932

Illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff

More than any other children’s picture books, the original format Babar books are objects of wonder. Grandly sized, they provide the double-spread illustrations the room they need to breath. The cream colored paper gives depth and warmth to the beautifully rendered watercolor and black line drawings. The text is in cursive, uniquely mysterious for the young reader still struggling with print. These are books that demand to be read aloud, ensuring that the child’s eyes stay focused on the rich illustrations where they belong. The original editions were reproduced directly from the author’s notebooks with his own handwritten cursive – hence the unusual format. To read Babar in anything other than their original renditions is to miss the transcendent experience. The facsimile reproductions have been reprinted from time to time and can be found with some searching. Settle for nothing less.

The saga begins with the birth of Babar, whose idyllic childhood is abruptly shattered by the death of his mother at the hands of a hunter. Jean de Brunhoff did not shrink from tragedy, but he presented tribulations matter-of-factly. After a few tears, Babar quickly moves on, in this case to a French town where his first order of business is to get outfitted – in a green suit, derby hat, and spats, no less – a transformation that causes him to rise from four legs to two. Clothes figure prominently in the Babar books. Eventually, he returns to the forest where he is crowned king and marries his cousin, Celeste. After the wedding and coronation, the couple stands alone together, their backs to us, staring out at the starry sky – the only black and white illustration in the series – a moving tribute to love.

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The Story of Babar sets the stage. In The Travels of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff was able to give full rein to his inventive imagination. What begins as a honeymoon in a hot air balloon leads to a capsizing on an island, an attack by cannibals, a ride on a distractible whale, a rescue by a passing ship, and a stint as captives in a circus. When Babar and Celeste return to their native land, they find the decimation of war. In a delightfully bizarre piece of performance art, Babar transforms the backsides of the elephants with huge painted eyes, carrot tail noses, and green and orange wigs. Alarmed by such monsters, the rhinoceroses flee in panic.

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Jean de Brunhoff wrote The Story of Babar in 1931 for his own sons, basing it on a sickroom tale told by his wife. He wrote six more books over the next six short years before he died of tuberculosis. His son, Laurent, took up the Babar mantle and created a relentless stream of books. Best to stick to the pere, whose inspired brilliance and originality of style were one-of-a-kind. His books have a charming simplicity and freshness which have no equal. It is the small imaginative details which delight with each reencounter – the flying machine drawn by a flock of white doves, Zephir’s thatch-roofed rondeval on a treehouse platform, the children’s swing suspended between Cornelius’s tusks, Father Christmas riding on a zebra.

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The seven Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff: The Story of Babar, The Travels of Babar, Babar the King, The A.B.C. of Babar, Babar and Zephir, Babar and His Children, Babar and Father Christmas.

Anne of Green Gables

 

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Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

1908

Anne of Green Gables. There is no other character remotely like her. She is irrepressible, dramatic, talkative, imaginative, high-spirited, headstrong, passionate, ebullient, lively, impulsive, heedless. She is also sensitive, self-conscious, insecure, loving, generous, well-intentioned.

She first appears, waiting expectantly in a train station, as a skinny, freckled, green-eyed, redhead – a homely child. She enters the lives of Matthew and Marilla, an elderly brother and sister who had sent away for an orphan boy to help with the chores and haplessly ended up with an unlikely girl instead. She is a dreamer, bursting with imagination, exhilarated by the world. Matthew, a quiet shy gentle unpretentious and altogether good man, is quietly delighted by her. Anne recognizes immediately that though they could not be outwardly more different, they are really kindred spirits. Marilla is slower to warm. But over the course of five years, she responds to Anne’s hunger for love and eagerness to please, and comes to value Anne’s fundamental goodness and creative spirit. Anne is transformed by the undemonstrative love of Matthew and Marilla and their lives, in turn, are transformed by their act of selflessness.

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Lucy Maud Montgomery came from Prince Edward Island and her love of place is evidenced in the Anne books. She had an emotionally charged communion with nature that she bestows upon her fictional creation. Anne does not simply appreciate the natural world, she is intoxicated by it. The plot points are set pieces (Anne inadvertently dies her hair green instead of black, she unintentionally serves her bosom friend currant wine instead of raspberry cordial), but the descriptions of the Avonlea farmstead in the twilight, the apple tree allee in full blossom, the woodland flowers by the brook, as seen through Anne’s enraptured eyes, are always genuine. The setting is beautifully rendered, by author and character alike.

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Aside:

“Do you never imagine things different from what they really are?” asked Anne wide-eyed.

“No.”

“Oh!” Anne drew a long breath. “Oh, Miss – Marilla, how much you miss!”

 

The Cow Who Fell In the Canal

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The Cow Who Fell in the Canal by Phyllis Krasilovsky

1957

Illustrated by Peter Spier

The Cow Who Fell in the Canal is a quintessentially Dutch book, but like Hans Brinker, its quintessentially Dutch predecessor, it was not written by a Hollander. It was illustrated by one, and that is what confers its authentically Dutch flavor.

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The protagonist is Hendrika, a cow who grows restless, bored by her bucolic life with its monotonous cycle of chewing grass and making milk. The perpetual turning of the windmill makes her dizzy. She has the wanderlust – relieved one day when she falls into the canal, mounts an old raft, and floats her way to the city. Disembarking to the wonder of the inhabitants, she runs through the streets, savoring the novelties, until she happens upon the cheese market. There she encounters Mr. Hofstra, her farmer, who takes her back home. She returns to her pasture wearing a straw hat with streamers as a souvenir and is now content, enriched by her memories. It is a day-in-the-life story, albeit an unusual day, and it is delightfully free of morals.

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Peter Spier’s illustrations are what make this tale come alive. Like Richard Scarry, he fabricates richly detailed drawings that create a visual chorus to enliven the simple text. He conveys essence of Netherlands with a herring cart, bicycles leaning against a wall, wooden shoes, canals, and stair-cased roofs. For a child, there is much to absorb on every page.

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Spier has illustrated over 150 books and was honored with both the Caldecott Medal and the National Book Award for Noah’s Ark, a textless story perfectly suited to his delicate pen and ink watercolors. His most ambitious undertaking was People, an encyclopedic celebration of human diversity. The cover illustration includes some 500 humans and each one, even the tiny figures in the back row who are conveyed with only a few strokes, is an individual with a recognizable culture. He has a playful sense of humor, evident in the display of noses or hairstyles. He touches briefly on intolerance, inequality, and bullying and he shows a shanty town as well as a suburban neighborhood with the mansion on the hill, but the overwhelming sense is one of wonder at the splendorous variety of it all. On a single spread, he imagines how deadly life would be with soulless uniformity – army green buses, brown clothed humans, and identical boxy buildings. What a relief to turn the page and return to the colorful and exhilarating confusion of humanity. Here is a generous spirited artist who shares through his drawings his belief in the fundamental goodness of people, a characteristically Dutch attribute. All the more remarkable since Peter Spier spent several of his teenage years in Theresienstadt concentration camp.

 

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Rabbit Hill

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Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson

1944

Illustrated by Robert Lawson

New Folks coming. New Folks coming. This refrain is passed from animal to animal, from Little Georgie to his Father and Mother, to Pokey the Woodchuck, Willie Fieldmouse, the Mole, Phewie the Skunk. After a period of privation, the animals are excited that the Big House on Rabbit Hill will be occupied once again. They watch as the Man, the Lady, and their old Cat, Mr. Muldoon, take up residence, plant a lush vegetable garden, and generate a bounty of kitchen scraps. (“’You will find, Phewie,’ said Father with some heat, ‘that good breeding and good garbage go hand in hand.’”) The Man and Lady celebrate the first harvest with a feast for the animals, with the words “There is Enough For All”.

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The plot does not seem like much, but this book has staying power. Robert Lawson created, largely through humorous dialogue, a distinct assortment of animal characters, beginning with the oratorical Father, variously viewed as eloquent or insufferably verbose (“He always continued until something stopped him.”), who constantly harkens back to his Kentucky bluegrass roots. There is the highstrung Mother in a perennial nervous state, the cheerful and enthusiastic Little Georgie, the folksy and curmudgeonly Uncle Analdas whose speech is peppered with “dingblasted” and “gumdinged”, and the loyal, courageous Willie Fieldmouse whose role it is to discover that Mr. Muldoon is just a harmless puffball.

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Robert Lawson is the only creator of children’s books to have been awarded both the Newberry Award (for Rabbit Hill in 1945) and the Caldecott Medal (for They Were Strong and Good, a chronicle of his forebears, in 1941). His preferred medium was pen and ink, but for Rabbit Hill, he created soft-washed pencil drawings with his meticulous hand, quite different from the bold thick-lined caricatures of The Story of Ferdinand or Wee Gillis.

After graduating from art school, Lawson joined a group of artists and designers in the Camouflage Corps in France. The military value of concealing patterning and coloration took hold during WWI and a large group of artists (including such talents as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and Arshile Gorky) were recruited to design and paint camouflage disguises for war equipment and installations. There were no mass produced camouflage uniforms at the time, and it is remarkable that all such clothes, usually reserved for snipers, were individually hand-painted.

When the war was over, Lawson married and settled in Westport, Connecticut. He and his artist wife committed to each designing one Christmas card a day until the mortgage was paid off. It took three years. Their home, Rabbit Hill, was the inspiration for the book.

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Aside: “The warm sun had loosened his muscles: the air was invigorating; Little Georgie’s leaps grew longer and longer. Never had he felt so young and strong. His legs were like coiled springs of steel that released themselves of their own accord. He was hardly conscious of any effort, only of his hind feet pounding the ground, and each time they hit, those wonderful springs released and shot him through the air. He sailed over fences and stone walls as though they were mole runs. Why, this was almost like flying!”

Freight Train

 

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Freight Train by Donald Crews

1978

Illustrated by Donald Crews

There is something irresistible about trains: whether it be counting the cars on a long Santa Fe freight, or standing on an overpass and feeling the whoosh as a locomotive passes below, or taking an overnight with the pull-down bunks in the sleepers, or listening to a whistle in the quiet of a summer night. Unlike the obsession many 2 and 3 year olds have with backhoes and caterpillars, the fascination with trains is lifelong.

Donald Crews is an author/illustrator who has explored this fascination repeatedly, beginning with the elegant Freight Train. Born and raised in Newark, NJ, he had a father who worked on the railroad. During the summers, his mother took the children by train to Florida (it took 3 days and 2 nights) to visit their grandparents. In his dedication, Crews refers to “the countless freight trains passed and passing the big house in Cottondale”.

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Freight Train begins with a double page spread that is blank save for a track traversing the bottom and a simple introduction. On the following pages, the cars are introduced, one by one, each a different color. We see the stationary train in its entirety, and then it begins moving, the image becoming blurred as it picks up speed. The train passes through a tunnel (glimpsed through a rock window), over a trestle, past city skyscrapers, through the blackness of night and the whiteness of day, until it is gone, with only a trail of smoke marking its passage. Through its journey, the track is continuous on every page.

The text is spare and simple, yet remarkably elegant.

   “A train runs across this track.

     Red caboose at the back

     Orange tank car next

     Yellow hopper car

     Green cattle car

     Blue gondola car

     Purple box car

     A Black tender and

     A Black steam engine.

     Freight train.”

As the train begins moving, the words change rhythm to evoke the klakity-klak of locomotion. There are only 55 words, but each is perfectly placed.

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Big Tiger and Christian

Big Tiger and Christian by Fritz Muhlenweg

1950

Illustrated by Rafaello Busoni

 

Out of print for many years, this is a book that happens into hands by chance. It is read in appreciation and amazement and continues to haunt the reader for decades more. It is a book that has inspired travels and changed lives. Yet it is almost completely unknown.

 

The story begins, in part, with Sven Hedin, a renowned Swedish explorer in the grand tradition, who did much to fill in the white patches on the map of Central Asia. In the 20’s and 30’s, he lead the Sino-Swedish Expedition to Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Xinjiang, accompanied by an international bevy of archeologists, geologists, meteorologists, geographers, astronomers, botanists, zoologists. He was honored along the way by having a glacier, a lunar crater, and a butterfly (among other things) named after him.  My Life as an Explorer is a riveting travelogue.

The story continues, in part, with Fritz Muhlenweg. He was working as a young accountant with the new German airline, Lufthansa, when he was posted to Hedin’s expedition (Lufthansa’s interest was a proposed Peking-Berlin air route). He made three trips to Mongolia before settling into a career as a painter and writer.

Muhlenweg’s reverence for Mongolian culture is palpable in the tale that was inspired by his travels, and few books provide a deeper sense of place.  There are yurts, camel caravans, dunes, tamarisk trees, roasted barley, and language (try “zook, zook” if you want your camel to kneel). This is the backdrop that gives texture and depth to an adventure story that quietly enthralls. Two 12-year old boys, one European and one Chinese, go kite-flying in Peking and end up as secret couriers for General Wu. They embark on a 1,500 mile mission to Urumchi, on the far side of the Gobi Desert, by train, truck, horse, camel, and foot.  They encounter lamas, honorable bandits, dishonorable thieves, shepherds, traders, soldiers, warlords, wild monks, a nomadic girl, and a black poodle who have names like Dog, Sevenstars, Good Fortune, Affliction, Moonlight, and Thunderbolt. There is an evil villain named Greencoat and his nemesis, an outlaw king referred to as The Venerable Chief, a kind of Mongolian Robin Hood, and there is a hidden treasure in an abandoned desert city. Apart from the villain, who is irredeemably wicked, the characters are nuanced. Muhlenweg is sympathetic to even the roughest scallywags and in his hands they tend to rise to the occasion to reveal a hidden goodness.