Posts filed under ‘Weekly Themes’

Roughing It: Swiss Family Robinson

swiss family robinsonDisneyland used to have a Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. Stuck between the Jungle Cruise and the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean, this was always my favorite part of the park. Climbing the bamboo stairs up through the branches, you could see all the trappings of the shipwrecked family, from gramophone and family book collection to the ingenious sunroof that in the movie Ernst rigged over the master bed.

The Swiss Family Robinson treehouse always seemed like the ideal home to me — a fascinating blend of ingenuity and aesthetic, the product of a group of imaginative, problem-solving, exuberant minds.

And, it turns out, so is the book that originated the house. Der Schweizerische Robinson was first published in 1812 with the credited author Johann David Wyss and credited editor his son, Johann Rudolf Wyss (recognize the name? He also wrote the former Swiss national anthem). In truth, however, while Wyss senior conceived of the idea and characters and probably wrote most of it down, the junior Johann did a lot more than ‘edit’.  Senior left the manuscript completely jumbled, so Junior was required to not only reorder the story, but to add transitional and explanatory bits throughout. (continued after the jump) (more…)

May 24, 2009 at 11:18 pm Leave a comment

Cows on boats

secret-island1 After my Boxcar rant, it seems odd to kick off what is now looking like it will be Roughing It Month* with a book that could be The Boxcar Children‘s British twin — Annie to Warner’s Hallie. But while Napa-bred Hallie was the bolder and more adventuresome of that pair, in this case the English provenance means vibrancy rather than insipidity.

Blyton’s story of four kids who run from the scary adults in their life in order to survive on their own in the wilderness shares some of the weaknesses of Wilder’s. Both authors have a tendency to make their children characters into idealized little automatons, free of the heavy burden of personality. The protagonists of The Secret Island, siblings Mike, Peggy, and Nora and their picaresque friend Jack, are often shining beacons of well-bred English children (Just look at their rosy-cheeked faces on that book cover) who fall into the same stereotypical roles as Warner’s kids. But then they break out of them.

The story begins when the kids decide to run away from the abusive uncle and aunt who are taking care of them since their parents went missing in a plane crash. The abuse in the book is in some case physical, but largely based around gender roles. The girls are expected to do ‘feminine’ tasks like cooking and cleaning and are beaten when they do it poorly —  Nora gets slapped when she washes the curtains incorrectly. Mike’s burden is in the fields, where he’s expected to pull the same weight as his uncle. The strict division of these tasks wouldn’t be so remarkable in children’s literature of the era (1930’s), were it not or the children’s ambition to escape it. The most remarkable change in the children on the island is not in their self-sufficiency, but in their self-generated erosion of those gender roles.

Don’t get me wrong, once the children escape, they still maintain plenty of the division expected in a story from the 1930s. Peggy and Nora, for example, have the responsibility of preparing the food and comfortable adorning their greenwillow house while Mike and Jack are the providers who steal eggs and perform any required carpentry. But they all work together to fish and the girls plunge gleefully into caves. The boys? Well, I suppose they stick to proper boy tasks, but you can’t have everything.

The Secret Island makes use of the same “playing house” trope that The Boxcar Children does, but here the pretending is an effective escape from a dark world and a learning experience that informs the children’s future outside of the fiction. While it’s still a product of its time, Blyton’s book sure does the best it can with what its got, and that’s at least a good start.

PS. While I’m sure its not entirely legal, you can apparently read the whole book here.

*Due to field trips and stomach flu outbreaks, two things that should never fall in the same week

May 10, 2009 at 6:46 pm Leave a comment

Excuses, excuses

Unfortunately, some fairly urgent things have come up this week, so Roughing It Week will have to become Roughing It Fortnight. But no worries, camping is even more fun when it’s for two whole weeks!

To make up for my absence, here’s the International Children’s Digital Library where you can read fantastic kids books from now or a hundred years ago online (to be clear, they were not online a hundred years ago, at least from what I can tell). May I recommend you spend some time browsing through the alphabets? Not alphabetically, but through the alphabet books; you’ll find kitschy surprises like this Apple Pie alphabet from 1900. Its like “Antiques Roadshow” for Internet-addicted bibliophiles!

April 29, 2009 at 10:56 pm Leave a comment

Pitch your tents, bring your iodine tablets!

boxcar_childrenI cannot stand the Boxcar Children. This wasn’t always the case; my addiction to reading can be traced back to the first Boxcar Children book, handed to me in first grade. For two years I pulled Boxcar Children books off the shelf, devoured them, then replaced them in order – one through about 120 – and pulled the next one down. But even childhood nostalgia can’t save these books in my mind. They’re dragged inexorably downward by insipid, flat characters who seem to think childhood is nothing more than ignorant vulnerability.

“Wait!” you Boxcar defenders may say. “They live alone in a forest! They shell peas! Benny has to drink from a cracked pink cup! Poor child!”

While I agree that the first book’s best feature is life in the great outdoors, if you think that drinking from a cracked cup is roughing it for a 6-year-old, you clearly 1. Have never gone camping, and 2. Have never met a 6-year-old.

The author of the first 18 (and best) books of the series, Gertude Chandler Warner, once told her fans that the first book “raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control! That is exactly why children like it!” What she doesn’t mention is that parental – or grand-parental – supervision is exactly what the books praise. In an ultimate dismissal of children’s resourcefulness and adventurousness, the kid’s boxcar is dragged into their grandfather’s backyard, where it stands, not as a reminder of the adventures they’ve had and the challenges they overcame, but as a statement that they’ll never ever have to do those terrible things again, because now they have an adult to do all the difficult thinking for them.

To be clear, I’m all for kids having adult supervision and am against children running off into the wilderness to live all alone – I’ve read Lord of the Flies. But fiction lets us be adventuresome, and there’s no better way in kids lit to celebrate resourcefulness, quick thinking, and problem-solving than with an adventurous outdoors tale.

Thankfully, there’s plenty of treacherous expeditions and dangerous nights under the stars in the world of kids lit.Those are the escapades we’ll face this week, in Roughing It Week. So pack up your knapsack, grab a hatchet, read up on your falconry and edible mushrooms, cause we’ll be traveling light.

April 25, 2009 at 10:25 am 2 comments

Trolley Car Family

trolleycarfamilyThe Trolley Car Family, Eleanor Clymer (1947, out of print)

This story is unique in that it transplants a city family to the countryside for a summer to live in the conductor father’s retired trolley car. Here the joys of quintessential simple country life are seen through the wide eyes of city children. In one episode, a daughter buys a dummy egg used to encourage chickens to lay because she thinks it’s a toy. The book is charming and engaging for young readers (I certainly read it enough to make the cover fall off), and the unique perspective of the city family enchanted with country life fleshes out that idea of American childhood we’ve been seeing.

March 20, 2009 at 6:58 pm 2 comments

Donut Week 2: Gone Away Lake

goneawayGone Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright (1957, reprinted by Sandpiper, 2000)

Enright is a master of the small-town life, and this is her masterpiece. It was 1957’s Newbery winner, and tells the tale of adventurous siblings Portia and Foster who have come to spend the summer  (summer is always an essential element of this type of tale) with their cousin in a small midwestern town. In their inevitable wanderings through the surrounding areas, the siblings stumble upon an old Victorian resort slowing sinking into a swamp. This book transcends its genre with the artful contrast of two different Americas, separated by decades: the American summer leisure life in 1957 versus in 1907. Reading this book in 2009 becomes weirdly meta. You revel in the nostalgia of reveling in nostalgia.

The book is exuberant, escapist, and wonderful. The unexpected plot skips along, bouncing with Portia and Foster’s believable sibling relationship and touches of delightful Enright academia (Latin inscriptions on rocks? Check.) Gone-Away Lake‘s perfect outdoor summer is American childhood at its brightest and liveliest.

(PS: How great are the typefaces on this original cover?)

March 18, 2009 at 10:38 pm 1 comment

Donut Machine Week 1: Henry Reed Inc.

henryreedHenry Reed Inc., by Keith Robertson (1958, though there were sequels published through the 80s, reprinted by Puffin, 1989)

Henry Reed’s father is a diplomat in Italy who sends his 13-year-old son back to the States to live an American life during the summer. And what an American life it is! The town of Grover’s Corners (a name shared with another fictional archetypical American small town), New Jersey, where Henry stays with his aunt and uncle, is filled with the expected cast. We meet the the affable grocer, the young married couple new to suburbia, the annoying little brothers, the dogs adopted by the entire neighborhood.

Henry is an enchanting, business-minded teen, filled with American moxie and the go-getter spirit, who turns the barn (yes, the barn) into his company’s headquarters and recruits his neighbor Midge as his employee. Henry embodies the American Dream, that mythos of enterprise, all while lightly satirizing that very idea. He thinks that adding “Inc.” to his name automatically makes him a company.

The book, which spawed four sequels, is endearing and self-aware, a combination which keeps it far from the category of trite small-town fiction. Compare this Henry to another Henry of the same general era, the Boxcar Children‘s Henry Alden. Alden is 16 but seems to have no friends beyond his siblings, and his interest in girls extends just far enough to complement his sister Jessie on her perpetually new sweaters. Reed tries to engineer a weather balloon, his friend Midge handles worms and turtles with enthusiasm, and he names his dog Agony. Which Henry would you prefer to spend a summer with?

March 16, 2009 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

Donut Machine Week.

Small towns

Gee Whiz!

Well, shucks, I wanted to make this week’s theme out-of-print children’s books, but as I began researching the stories I had in mind, holy cats!, I found that they’d all  been reprinted in the last few years (Yippee!). Well, I had to find something else to write on, but what? So I put my noggin to a’thinkin’, real melon-scratching type thinkin’. And I decided to write on the books anyway. This week is nostalgia week here at SoA, a week chock-full-a great books from midcentury America as well as some whizbang words.

The books that you’ll see in the next few days are all ones I’d read over and over as a kid, but that I’d first pulled off the shelf because they were old: Beat-up books that were missing covers, with loose pages tucked in between the wrong chapters. These were the books that my mother read as a kid, too precious for my grandmother to throw away, sent instead to us over years of routine house-cleanings.

But these books have another common theme: they are all achingly quaint portrayals of the quintessential small town American life. They’re American commedia dell’arte, with predictable and comfortable casts. Mothers in these books are described as “ample,” and every evening they call the playing children back to the clean house for a warm meal before scrubbing dirty faces and putting them to bed. Fathers are breadwinners who willing offer themselves up as living jungle gyms for younger members of the family. Sisters and brothers wander unsupervised for hours through the town, discovering caves or chatting with white-capped milk men and aproned diner waitresses.

It’s easy to see why a book like this would go out of print.  Yet there are some gems that take these stereotypical plots and characters and elevate them to classics. How? Almost always with an incredibly winning child protagonist. The kids carry these novels and, in the process, become exemplars of an “American” childhood.

With all that in mind, I will present for your critical pleasure “Donut Machine Week,” a title which will suggest to those “in-the-know” what type of books I’ll be listing. They’re all stories from 1960 or earlier which mix bright, adventurous, wacky childhoods with a delicious dose of nostalgia.

March 15, 2009 at 2:44 pm Leave a comment

Read the Printed Word!
he sailed off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.