LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Real and Imagined Spaces: The Role of Ekphrasis in The Secret Garden

I read The Secret Garden for the first time two years ago, once on my own and then again shortly after with my little brother.  I had seen the film when I was little but had never read the actual book.  During the summer that I first read the book, I had just finished reading Jane Eyre and I could not help but see the many parallels between the two texts.  However, perhaps surprisingly, the one that stood out the most was the integral role that art and illustration play in both stories.  And not specifically physical illustrations on the pages, like the ones I’ve included hear by Inga Moore, but instead works of art and illustration that are describes via words throughout the novels.  This literary tool, usually used to describe a work of art or illustration with words, is known as ekphrasis coming from the Greek word meaning “description”.  Moreover, ekphrasis is, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, an “intense pictorial description of an object…a virtuosic description of physical reality in order to evoke an image in the mind’s eye as intense as if the described object were actually before the reader” (252).

With ekphrasis in mind, we turn to The Secret Garden, where art and illustration play an important role in determining the real and imagined spaces that the characters, especially Mary and Colin, inhabit.  In a way, the descriptions and importance of paintings, mostly portraits, and illustrations work in a similar vein to windows and doors, as thresholds for the characters to go between.  As I read the text again for this class, I started paying more pointed attention to wear ekphrasis surfaces and kept a running list.  I’ll be giving some of these examples throughout this post, so let’s look at what role this actually plays; why is it important?  For both Mary and Colin, painted, imagined spaces serve as a form of reality for them.  Colin for example has never really left his room.  His windows are shut, and he has no access to the outside world, to “reality”.  Instead, he contents himself, or at least survives, by pouring over illustrated picture books, in which perhaps he imagines himself living out the fictional escapades of heroes within or at least taking strolls through beautiful landscapes.  He also has the portrait, often covered up, of his mother when she was a child.  She serves as his constant “human” companion, with his nurse and maid coming in and out every once in a while. Emphasizing the fact that Colin often lives in an imaginative world, is his first encounter with Mary in which he has a hard time believing that she is even real: ” ‘Who are you?,’ he said…’Are you a ghost?…You are real aren’t you?…I have such real dreams very often.  You might be one of them.’ (74). So for Colin, the imagined,dreamlike, painted space is his reality.

Dickon, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.  He is always out in the open, always out in the real world.  We can infer that he has little contact with paintings or illustrated texts.  However his imagination thrives off of reality.  In his wanderings through the real world out on the moors, instead of a dark, gloomy, stuffy room, he takes on a sort of mystical nature.  He talks with the animals, he plays a pipe, and has a magical quality.  So unlike Colin who has to use his imagination to create his reality, Dickon uses his reality to form his imagination.  And where does Mary stand in all of this? Mary seems to be the fusion of both worlds, of an imagined reality and a reality fed by imagination.  When she first comes to Misselthwaite Manor, Mary has interesting and somewhat intimate and gloomy encounters with the portraits around the house. For example when Mary first enters the home, Burnett provides us with this description: “The entrance door… opened into an enormous hall, which was so dimly lighted that the faces in the portraits on the wall and the figures in the suits of armor made Mary feel that she did not want to look at them.  As she stood on the stone floor she looked a very small, odd little black figure, and she felt as small and lost and odd as she looked” (15).  Right away, we get a sense that Mary has some sort of strange relation with the works of art in this home, they are given an animation, a real life-like quality, as if the faces in the portraits are real people, looking at and judging Mary.  These gloomy, old portraits seem to follow Mary everywhere, and as readers we get the sense that these portraits take on a realistic, human nature, they aren’t just paintings, they are these characters that fill the house.  Another important moment is the description of Mary wandering through the house passing “hundreds of rooms with closed doors” (33) that goes as follows: “There were doors and doors and there were pictures on the walls.  Sometimes they were pictures of dark, curious landscapes, but oftenest they were portraits of men and women in queer, grand costumes made of satin and velvet…She [Mary] walked slowly down this place and stared at the faces which also seemed to stare at her.  She felt as if they were wondering what a little girl from India was doing in their house….she always stopped to look at the children… There was a stiff, plain little girl rather like herself…’Where do you live now?’ said Mary aloud to her. ‘I wish you were here'” (33).  Thus, this moment may be the clearest one, where we witness Mary using these portraits as a reality to live in, she’s staring at them and they stare at her, she even tries to hold a conversation with one.  Thus this mirrors Colin’s attempts to use his imagination to create a reality.

However, as time passes, Mary starts to open up to the “real world” outside the walls of the manor.  She gets glimpses of it at first through the windows, which serve in a way to almost make illustrations or framed paintings out of the real world, since when she’s behind the window she’s not actually outside.  And much in the same way as Dickon, who seems to fuel his reality with imagination and whimsy, Mary starts to do the same.  For the first time she starts to form relationships with real people and in real spaces, not painted ones.  However, even when it comes to her garden, it is described in a very artistic and story like way, as  “some fairy place” (53), “a world of her own” (47), it’s almost like the garden is a painting or illustration that has finally come to life.  Interestingly enough, when Mary encounters Colin they have many interactions over illustrated picture books and they share a connection through their use of their imaginations to create reality.  And when Mary begins to describe the garden to Colin, before she reveals that’s she’s actually been in it, she is indeed painting a picture for him of the garden, a picture of words, almost like doubly layered ekphrasis (this scene is on page 79).

While there are many other examples, especially a really interesting one on page 159 with Dickon’s mother in which she’s described as “rather like a softly colored illustration in one of Colin’s books” emphasizing this interplay of the painted and real, I’ll stop there as it’s getting to be a bit of a long post.  But this topic is just a fascinating one for me; the way that reality and imagination, real and painted spaces all mingle with each other in the characters of Mary, Colin and Dickon.  As a final note, the specific illustrations I’ve chosen from Inga Moore’s illustrated edition of The Secret Garden, all incorporate paintings or illustrations within the illustration which makes me thing that Moore picked up on this theme and may have delighted in creating these pictures within pictures.

While this last image does not employ the picture within a picture theme, I’ve included because it a frame where we see all three characters, Mary, Colin, and Dickon, as they are abound to cross the threshold into the secret garden. Here we see the interaction of all three of these characters, and the interplay between reality and imagination.

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Paper Thoughts: Imitation vs. Invention in Contemporary Children’s Books

For my final paper, I will be investigating the role of the classic aesthetic in contemporary children’s books. Over the past two to three years there has been a trend that has developed in the children’s book market. There has been a calling back on the classic, specifically the Golden Age classic. However, the trend has had two veins of creativity. On one side, we have what I would call an imitation of the classic while on the other side we have sparks of invention taking place that allude to the classic.

The imitation side of this trend is manifested with a plethora of “authorized sequels” such as Peter Pan in Scarlet, Return to the Hundred Acre Woods, and The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit.

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Specifically in these authorized sequels, there is no invention taking place, meaning these authors are not creating new stories which recall the classic aethestic. Instead they are slipping back into the past, attempting to recreate the specific style, tone and feel of books that are recognized as classics. In 2009, NPR published an article looking at the authorized Winnie the Pooh sequel. It started out with the sentence: “It used to be that all good things would come to an end, but these days, at least in the world of books and movies, there is always ‘the sequel’.” It went on to discuss the new novel, and in writing the article they contacted children’s literature professor, Phil Nel. His opinion on the book was very telling and plays into what I believe is at the heart of the imitation vs. invention distinction at the heart of the classical style trend:

But Philip Nel, a professor of children’s literature at Kansas State University, says based on what he could glean from the first chapter, they may have played it too safe.
“It’s almost like reading someone else’s memory of A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard,” says Nel. “It’s a pleasant memory, but why wouldn’t you read the original? It’s not like they’ve disappeared.”
The result, says Nel, is a book that feels like an imitation: “They’ve got the characters down. Pooh is ruled by [his] tummy. Piglet is timid. Eeyore tends to be sarcastic and depressed.”

Thus while you have these texts which attempt to actually imitate the classic and continue to keep an already written story alive, you have other authors that have been heavily inspired, have done their research on this period, but are creating inventive, unique and new worlds that recall the classic in style, tone and feel instead of imitating those three things. Some books that could be used as examples of this inventive vein in the trend are: Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, and Splendors & Glooms.

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Let’s take Peter Nimble as our example to investigate here what this inventive strain is doing. Merely in its title we have the name Peter which may automatically bring to mind Peter Pan, and we start to impose his characteristics onto Peter Nimble. The cover art is interesting to look at as well. The cityscape recalls London (similar to these covers of Peter Pan, click here , here , here , here and here), with the clock tower and the smoke stacks that set it in a Industrial Revolution period. We realize from the cover that Peter is blind and he must also be a thief, so perhaps we start to think about Oliver Twist. Lastly the juxtaposition of the cityscape and the fantastical background remind me a bit of Arthur Rackham who often juxtaposed the mundane with the magical. This novel also utilizes the second person address for its narrative, which is a bit of a staple with Golden Age authors, as we’ve seen with Barrie and Carroll. Lastly, as you read the text you begin to pick up on so many allusions that the author, Jonathan Auxier, melds together with his story to bring it to life, allusions include Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, the figure of the knight, Don Quixote, the figure of the pirate but one that is midway between the realistic and stylized, Oliver Twist, and the biblical story of Moses.

Lastly, with these ideas of the distinction between imitation and invention, I will also be looking at the role that nostalgia plays in all of this. Specifically it’s been really interesting to find Svetlana Boym’s definition of the idea of nostalgia. She actually breaks it up into two forms, one called restorative nostalgia and the other reflective nostalgia. These two distinctions actually work perfectly with the imitation vs invention idea that I’m developing for this classical trend. Restorative nostalgia attempts to reach back in time and restore the past in the present, which is what the imitation, “authorized sequels” are doing. On the other hand, reflective nostalgia looks back on the past, but realizes that it is impossible to really recreate the past and in doing so it is critical of this longing and is interested in the “contradictions of modernity” (Boym xviii). Thus this reflective nostalgia correlates rather well with the inventive side, because these authors are indeed looking back, but they are not attempting to restore something that is past, but instead create something new that fuses together a past aesthetic with a modern sensibility.

Cited:

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic, 2001.

Neary, Lynn. “Pooh Faithful Return To The Hundred Acre Wood.” NPR. NPR, 02 Oct. 2009. Web. < http://www.npr.org/2009/10/02/113406207/pooh-faithful- return-to-the-hundred-acre-wood >.

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Why the Feral Child Obsession?

What is a feral child?  The dictionary defines this as a child  who is in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.  Now while there are unfortunate real life examples of children who have been believed to exhibit feral qualities as we discussed in class, I will not be going into that here.  Instead I’d like to ask the question, why have we as humans had such a cultural, and ultimately literary obsession, with the idea of the feral child?

If you really think about it, this fantastical idea of the feral child goes back many centuries, with one of the earliest examples being the legend of twin babies Romulus and Remus.  These brothers were abandoned in the wild, but rescued, fed and raised by a she-wolf.  These brothers went on to supposedly found the city of Rome.  Moreover, this specific legend made its way into the cultural imagination, especially through art but also through literature.

Examples from the Fine Arts:

This is a piece of Etruscan sculpture of a she wolf, “The Capitoline Wolf”, however the small babies were actually added centuries later during the Renaissance.

In an illuminated manuscript

Romulus and Remus being given shelter by Faustulus the Shepherd, painted by Pietro da Cortona

Another depiction, this time from Peter Paul Rubens

These artistic depictions fall right into place with Rousseau’s ideas of the “natural child” and the Victorian obsession with the feral child, in that they depict these utterly angelic children, pure, clean and out in the wild as though it was the most natural thing for them to be doing; in fact as though this was actually the healthiest for them.  Of course, in reality, if in fact Romulus and Remus did exist, and were raised by a wolf, these depictions would have been very far from the truth, they would have most likely been very dirty, covered with scratches, and far from pure angelic forms.  It is interesting to note, that in each of these images where the shepherd is actually depicted, there is always slight tension created, either through shading and lighting, or in bodily movement, that creates an uneasiness in the viewer as if we should be questioning whether their “rescue” by the shepherd is indeed not a horrible event taking them away from the tranquility and beauty of nature.

And just as this story infused itself into the artistic imagination, this legend, and the idea of the feral child raised by wolves, has evolved and progressed through history, melting it’s way into all sorts of stories, flooding the literary imagination.  This topic was explored last summer, at the Children’s Literature Association Conference, during one of the talks that I really found intriguing by Professor Debra Mitts-Smith titled: Raising the Man’s Cubs: The Slipperiness of Otherness in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mowgli Stories”, Angela Carter’s “Peter and the Wolf,” Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Maryrose Wood’s The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  Professor Mitts-Smith drew on the ideas of the feral child and how they have manifested themselves in literature, especially in children’s literature.  She explored the way that the feral child raised by wolves manifests itself in the four texts from her talk’s title, stemming from the traditional and idealized Victorian feral child in the figure of Mowgli to the parody like quality of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place* to the updated and postmodern feel of The Graveyard Book **, and finally with one text that is not actually  for children, but which takes the complete opposite approach coming from a more raw, grotestque and utlimately realistic look at the feral child in Carter’s short story Peter and the Wolf.

Jerry Pinkney’s cover for The Jungle Book

(Second book in the series, but I just thought this one was perfect what with the children climbing over soldiers and biting his leg)

Thus, the feral child proves to be a fascinating trope to look at culturally throughout history, especially as it manifests itself in art, but perhaps even more curiously in children’s books, where the lines between human and animal are sometimes blurred and can be taken in sometimes fascinating, sometimes humorous and sometimes horrendous directions.

 

I’ll end with asking you to watch the book trailers for The Graveyard Book and The Incorrigible Children, enjoy!

 

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*This book, actually series, is new with the next installment coming out this September, and it plays on the tropes and voice of classic Victorian children’s books and centers on the mishaps a young governess faces in dealing with three siblings that were found in the woods, presumed to be raised by wolves, and the books are just wondeful, hilarious and beautifully written.  (Here’s a link to my review of the audiobooks, click here . I definitely recommend these books!)

**Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, is specifically inspired by The Jungle Book, and involves a child that is orphaned after his family is murdered and then he wanders (actually crawls) into a cemetery and is raised by the ghosts that “live” there.

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To Be a Puppet or Not to Be a Puppet…That is the Question

What does transitioning in and out of puppethood mean? Pinocchio spends almost the entire novel in a puppet state, and throughout the book he has ample opportunity to exert his free will and do as he pleases.  He is constantly disobeying the authority/parental figures and instead acting out on what he thinks to be his own desires.  However in the same token, while he is actively disobeying and rebelling against figures like the Wise Cricket, he is also being manipulated and used by others, predominantly the Fox/Cat team and Lampwick.

So what is Pinocchio’s deal?  Is he endowed with free will and a mind to think for himself, or is he merely a piece of wood?  I found myself wondering this throughout the text, does puppet Pinocchio have a brain, a conscience, a soul?  His actions seem to reflect an ambiguous nature, his rebellion, and his subsequent regret, seem to point to at least brain activity and possibly a conscience.  But then his redundant proclivity for falling prey to others seems to hint that maybe his seeming stupidity is not his own fault but stems from the fact that he is indeed a wooden puppet.

 

In the last chapter, Pinocchio finally becomes a “real boy”.  In this state, he is now making decisions on his own, and we can with little doubt believe that he will no longer fall prey to manipulators, he now has a brain, a heart, a soul filled with reason, that will help him discern how to act like a proper “real boy”.  In saying all of this, it seems that, in the end, Collodi’s use of Pinocchio’s transformation from puppet to boy, in retrospect, points to the correlation of his transformation from immoral to moral child.  However, it’s interesting that Collodi chooses to give Pinocchio some glimpses of a conscience and some sense of morality even in his puppet state.  Which Pinocchio will children relate to more?  Is it better to be a puppet or a real boy?  In one sense the answer is obvious, yes it’s better to be a real boy, as in this state Pinocchio finally comes into his true self and reaches his happy ending.  But on the other hand, why does Collodi spend so little time in Pinocchio’s real boy phase?  Does he believe that children are more like wooden puppets and through hardships and lessons finally transform into “real” children?

(All the illustrations are from Roberto Innocenti’s illustrated edition, among all the other editions, this one really captures the nature of the story amazingly!  To see these images larger and more from Innocenti’s version, here’s a link that has more images: http://chetvergvecher.livejournal.com/451061.html)

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Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature

 

What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In today’s world, when we read about a beautiful daughter who was virtuous in a fairy tale we immediately assume, “Wow, what sexist, awful fairy tale and Victorian writers, just because she’s virtuous means she’s automatically the most ‘beautiful’ person on earth. And then of course since her sisters are mean and bad, they are called ‘ugly’. How ridiculous!” With this mindset then, we turn on virtue, we start criticizing it, we start speaking about it in negative ways, we start mocking it.  But is there something more here? What did these authors and tales mean when they bestowed this pronouncement of beauty or  ugliness?

Is this a modern day version of MacDonald’s “princess” theory?

 

First, for modern readers, what it comes down to is the fact that in our world we have reduced beauty to someone who is physically attractive, someone that looks like a model or actress.  However beauty, like the word love, is a loaded word.  Perhaps what the authors of fairy tales or Victorian writers like George MacDonald are asking us to think about is not the fact that virtues make a person “beautiful” in the way we think of beauty.  Instead acting good, being virtuous, actually having morals, makes a person beautiful.  And it is not a surface beauty, it is a radiance that comes out, it is a joy, it is something intangible and almost imperceptible but we know it’s there.  So although the media and even illustrators choose to portray the “beautiful princess” as the perfectly shaped and attractive girl, I do not think that these authors were working at such a shallow and surface level.  George MacDonald, as a Christian, would have most likely been well versed in Christian thoughts on beauty.  He surely would have been very aware of this passage from scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that says:

Thus, with this in mind, MacDonald and others in his line of thought (ie Lewis and Tolkien), are not concerned with superficial beauty; they believed in ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and that bringing these things into your life and focusing on them could actually make a difference in your life.  That what could happen is if one thinks on what is True, they’ll become a person who is true; if they think on Beauty, they’ll become beautiful; and if they think on the Good, then they will become the man or women that they are meant to become.

Curious to read this and see how it fits in with my propositions in this post…

And what of the mean, evil, ugly characters??  In the same way that we’ve reduced the term beautiful to attractive, we’ve reduced ugly to physically unattractive.  However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many descriptions of the physical ugliness of let’s say mean sisters in fairy tales.  It is an ugliness that exudes from inside, that taints their being, that mars the way we think of them.  Granted sometimes like in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins are actually physically ugly to represent their bad behavior, but I mean they are goblins, right?! This calls to mind a scene from C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Jadis, the witch, comes to life inside of the great hall.  The children notice that as they move down the table there is slowly an almost imperceptible change that has come over all of these rulers, and the corruption that they practiced has trickled into their physical appearance (which we should note, could actually happen, trials and hardships, or joys and blessings, have a way of making themselves physically evident in our countenance).  However, the queen, Jadis, is physically beautiful, but her greed, her evilness is evident to the children, and to them she becomes ugly, but no so much on the surface but a burning from the inside.  In this way there is an illumination of the danger in correlating ugliness with physical unattractiveness.

Recently this idea of the utterly beautiful but evil woman has probably been depicted best by Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman”

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Bibliography for Charles Kingsley’s “The Water-Babies”

Below is the bibliography that informed the presentation, by Jess Ferro and Jose Cardona, that will be given tomorrow, January 22nd, on Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.

-Butts, Dennis. “Muscular Christianity and the Adventure Story”. Children’s Literature and Social Change: Some Case Studies from Barbara Hofland to Philip Pullman. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2010. 23-35. Print.

-Carpenter, Humphrey. “Parson Lot takes a cold bath: Charles Kingsley and The Water-Babies­”. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. 23-43. Print.

-Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. “Introduction”. The Water-Babies. By Charles Kingsley. 1863. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Kindle E-Book.

-Manlove, Colin. “Charles Kingsley: The Water-Babies”. Christian Fantasy. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992. 183-208. Print.

-Murphy, Ruth. “Darwin and 1860s Children’s Literature: Belief, Myth or Detritus.” Journal of Literature and Science 5.2 (2012): 5-21. Web. <http://literatureandscience.research.glam.ac.uk/media/files/documents/2013-01-17/2_Murphy_-_Darwin_and_1860s_Childrens_Literature.pdf>.

-Murray, Sabina. Tales of the New World. New York: Black Cat, 2011. Google Books. Web.

-Pope-Hennessy. Canon Charles Kingsley: A Biography. London: Chatto and Wilson, 1948. Print.

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“The most important thing we’ve learned…”

Didactic literature in human form…AH!

Looking beyond power dynamics and the intricacies of academic dialogue on the nature of didacticism in children’s books, it is necessary to remember that all works of literature, for any age, are acting on some level as teaching tools.  This teaching need not be heavy handed, with harsh morals and punishments like that found in evangelical texts for children from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  However, lessons are always being passed along through literature. Even as adults we are still learning through fiction, even if it is packaged through the pleasure of the aesthetic presentation, we are still being exposed to different perspectives and broadening our understanding of who we are as individuals and of the world we view through the lens of the novel; with every page we are learning how to be people.

With this in mind, it is essential then that stories for children actually teach them something.  However, this teaching does not need to be conventional.  It does not need to be didactic and saccharine, in fact if it is, it will fail as a book.  Children are indeed some of the toughest and honest critics and to use Stevenson’s term, a book that fails to entertain, that fails to draw in its readers will not be honored with the “children’s imprimatur” (Stevenson 118). Carpenter lays out this idea of the entertainment/morality balance in his essay, between the child’s desire for “adventure and imagination” and the adult’s desire for “moral examples” (Carpenter 1).

However in reading this essay, a statement that followed soon after this balance discussion caught me off guard.  Carpenter goes on to say that in order for a text to be successful it must indeed fulfill these two desires, however he says that every once in a while a book comes along which achieves success despite failing to satisfy both parties.  He gives Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as his example stating that is “has been loved by children and hated by adults because it is full of fun and virtually amoral” (Carpenter 1).  Was I the only one that found this strange?  It was even stranger that Carpenter failed to give any support for his statement, leaving it merely as a given that everyone finds Dahl’s novel “amoral”.  The first thing that came to mind was, I don’t know of any other book that has so many lessons and morals, some even explicitly spelled out, but in a way that is hilarious and entertaining.  Dahl creates the ideal model for children to follow in the character of Charlie, and he then has four characters that exhibit extremes of what children should not be like.  One of the most memorable excerpts from the novel is the Oompa-Loompa song directed at parents (if you’d like to hear it sung and watch it performed, it’s actually included in the Tim Burton film, check it out here):

“The most important thing we’ve learned,

So far as children are concerned,

Is never, NEVER, NEVER let

Them near your television set —

Or better still, just don’t install

The idiotic thing at all…

did you ever stop to think,

To wonder just exactly what

This does to your beloved tot?

IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!

IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!

IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!

IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND

HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND

A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!

HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!

HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!

HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!

What used the darling ones to do?

Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?

We’ll say it very loud and slow:

THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,

AND READ and READ, and then proceed

To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!”

            As I continued to think about Dahl’s novel and it’s relation to didacticism/morality and entertainment, I realized in a way, Dahl is doing for children’s books what Flannery O’Connor did for her adult readers.  They both utilize the shock factor, they stay clear of heavy-handed didacticism.  But they are in no way elevating or suggesting that readers should follow in the footsteps of the many amoral characters that populate the pages of their stories.  Instead, they both utilize the grotesque in order to shock their readers and bring a realization of how they as people should act.  Moreover the grotesque in a way brings on a sort of grace and salvation.  And in Dahl’s case this produced not only for his readers, but also for the amoral children in his story because although they are cruelly punished, they do not perish, they come out alive, but severely altered, ready to start out on a better and more enlightened path, a path which we as readers are able to take without having to actually learn it the hard way.

Works Consulted:

Humphrey Carpenter’s “Secret Gardens”

Deborah Stevenson’s “Classics and Canons”

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Jon M. Sweeney’s article from American Magazine, “Grace and Grotestque” (http://americamagazine.org/issue/701/ideas/grace-and-grotesque)

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Salutations!

At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art!

At the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art!

Hi Everyone!  My name is Jess Ferro. On my children’s lit blog I describe myself in the following way: “A Faithful Catholic, Undergraduate student, Big sister, Teacher, Closet Librarian, Lover of Children’s Literature, Art History Admirer, and Compulsive book recommender”. I just transferred to UF this past Fall from the University of Pennsylvania where I was majoring in art history.  Last year I took a year off from school and served as an art and art history instructor for a Classical Learning homeschooling program in Ocala, (where I’m from, people often think I must be from Philly since I was going to school there, but no, just from Ocala 🙂 ) which I’m still a part of this year.  During my time off, I finally made the decision to transfer to UF in order to pursue my interests in children’s literature (and was blessed enough that choosing this route would also save my parents and me a substantial amount of tuition money).  So, here at UF I’m officially considered a junior, and I’m majoring in English with a concentration in children’s literature and planning to minor in art history. I have a lot of interests, both outside and inside the field of children’s literature, but I guess with my background it makes sense that one of the topics I’m most interested in is the history and current state of illustration for children’s books.  I started a blog focusing mostly on children’s literature this past summer, and it’s been great to be able to connect with so many other bloggers in the field, mostly librarians, teachers and others with vested interests in children’s books.  But one of the greatest parts has been connecting with authors and illustrators!  So far I’ve posted two official author/illustrator interviews which was really exciting, one here with Cornelia Funke and the other here with up and coming illustrator Kasia Matyjaszek.  If you want to check out more, there’s reviews, book lists and short essays, go to Alice in Baker Street.

Really awesome building at Penn!

Really awesome building at Penn!

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Mini Pollocks

I’m really excited for this class!  The main reason I transferred to UF was to get a chance to start my studies of children’s literature as an undergraduate, so I’ve just been really excited to take as many children’s lit courses as possible.  Last semester I took two courses with Dr. Cech (Children’s Literature and Grimm’s Fairy Tales) as well as one with Prof. Ulanowicz (Literature for the Adolescent).  This semester along with our class on the Golden Age, I’m also taking Prof. Ulanowicz’s Literature for the Young Child and doing an Independent Study with her as well (with projects on the illustration/high art divide, the Catholic imagination in children’s literature and possibly one more topic).  This semester I’m hoping to continue to improve my academic writing specifically for children’s literature.  When I was still at Penn I had finally gotten a better grasp of how to write academic art history papers, but then I had to take the year off and now I’m trying to adjust to the way papers are written in the English field.   In terms of the syllabus, I’m a little bit worried about the group presentation; I actually really like doing presentations, so the part that worries me is the “group” part only because I haven’t had the best experiences with them in the past, but I think this semester will change that.  I’m honestly really excited for the entire booklist, when I saw it over Christmas break I just knew I really wanted to take the course because the list was incredible!  I’m especially excited to read The Water Babies because I heard about this book recently and was curious to read it, as well as Pinocchio and The Secret Garden.  I have a little brother who is eight and he is really excited about the list as well, I promised him I’ll try and read most of them aloud with him; we’ve already read some of them together but surprisingly he’s really excited to read them again, other than the Wizard of Oz, he’s not a fan of that one and informed me that he doesn’t plan on reading that one again!

Children’s literature means a few things for me; it’s the books that have had the biggest impact on me throughout my life because most of my favorite books are children’s books, it’s the books that I read with my little brother, the field of study that I’m pursuing, and the books I hope to one day write.  Children’s literature makes me think of classics like the ones we’ll be studying this semester, books which many believe don’t capture children’s imaginations any more but which I believe still have the power to do so.  But on the other hand it also makes me think of the fact that unfortunately, especially in the United States, the group of books that we consider to be children literature is composed of a lot of junk, books that really, if we’re being honest, aren’t worth your time.  So then for me, the classics are those books which were created at a time when both the writing and illustrating that was being done for children was truly an art form.  Writing filled with beautiful imagery, writing that was lyrical and that has the ability to create this incredible magical space between text and reader.  They are books that hold to the ideals of the true, the good, and the beautiful.  And because of these three characteristics, these books beautifully meld the moral or didactic with the mimetic and entertaining, because if the stories lived up to these ideals, in that there is something to be learned. Children pick up on subtleties, they don’t need to be hit over the head with lessons, and the classics are books which in many cases are the ideal example of the perfect children’s books, if such a thing exists.

Before I finish up with my favorite children’s books, I just wanted to address some of the questions that the above paragraph brings up: Why are we, as a society, as academics, as consumers, why are we so weary of the classics, or hesitant in general of that term?  Is it in part a belief that the new is always better than the old, and thus why should we read these outdated, irrelevant books?  Why is it that children today have such a hard time just even understanding the classics? What is it about childhood, or education, that has unfortunately changed to the point where most elementary aged children aren’t even able to comprehend or stay engaged with these texts which have been dubbed classics? I’m also interested to see the role that religion plays in this Golden Age, and digging deeper to see if these texts uphold what C.S. Lewis called the three great ancient transcendentals (these go back to Plato): the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  And also, are we witnessing an attempt to resurrect the classics, both the actual books considered classics, but also new books that are being written in the style and voice of those Golden Age classics?

So I’ll end with my favorite children’s books, it’s hard to pick so I just put down the first few that came to mind:

My two favorite picture books:

My three favorite children’s novels:

My favorite audiobook (I have a bunch of favorites, but I’m controlling myself and just putting one; but if you like audiobooks as well you can check out my top audiobook lists here and here:

And last my favorite YA novel is Between Shades of Gray (not to be confused with that other “book” Fifty Shades of Gray)

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