What I’m Reading – Trigger Warning

gaimanI love short stories, I love Neil Gaiman’s writing, and something has to break up the crushing reality of Steinbeck. It may seem odd to break up the struggle of life as a depression-era farm laborer with fantasy/horror, but it works for me. (And no, I haven’t finished Of Mice and Men. It’s only 100 pages or so, but it is really sad, okay?)

I’d already read his short story “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” (beautifully illustrated by Eddie Campbell) before I got this, but it fits nicely this collection. I’m not done with it yet (seeing as how I’m reading it concurrently with several other books), but my favorite story so far is “My Last Landlady.” It’s a wonderfully grim little bit of horror that I won’t spoil for you here.

No one needs me to tell them that Neil Gaiman is a brilliant writer. However, if you haven’t picked up Trigger Warnings yet and you like eerie stories, I’d highly recommend it.

Childhood Isn’t What it Used to Be

“You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.”
Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten”

Children have been around pretty much forever. What I find interesting is that the Western concept of childhood as a unique stage of human development only dates back to the 1600s. The more modern notion of childhood as a time of innocence distinctly separate from adulthood is as recent as the Victorian era. (It should be noted here that the literature I will be looking at was intended for a predominantly white, Christian, middle- and upper-class audience, who had the benefit of education, leisure time and expendable income. While progress was made regarding working conditions and child labor laws, Victorian ideals of the sanctity of childhood did not necessarily extend from the nursery into the factory or the slum). It is during the 19th century that fiction and poetry expressly for children came about, resulting in enduring classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Tom Sawyer, as well as the verses of Robert Lewis Stevenson and Edward Lear. Magazines for children also began to appear during this time. Above all, there is a flood of didactic literature in textbooks, nursery books, and magazines.

Didactic literature is written with moral education as its ultimate goal. As such, it can show us the virtues and vices that a society thought it important to address. Children’s literature makes this easier because the writers would want their points to come across as clearly and simply as possible for the young readers. (I’ll be using Struwwelpeter again since it’s available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg, but there are plenty of other examples to be found in used bookstores or online if you want to find your own. Often, as in the case of Harriet with her matches, Fidgety Philip, or Little Suck-a-Thumb, the particular crimes of the children are secondary to the common offense of disobedience. Harriet disobeys her mother and burns to death. Philip ignores his parents’ commands to be still at the table and pulls the dinner down on himself, depriving the whole family of their meal. Suck-a-Thumb obeys his mother right up until the point where she leaves the room, resulting in a tailor cutting off the naughty boy’s thumb with scissors. I’ve looked at disobedience before, but it really seems to hit its stride by the mid-1800s. I also enjoy that many of the stories about naughty boys and girls are in verse, while the stories about good children are in prose. The good children are not given disproportionate praise or success (goodness being its own reward), while the naughty children receive punishments that seem far more severe than their offenses merit. The good children are also infinitely more boring to read about. Let’s look a little closer at the disobedient children.

Philip isn’t a bad child that we know of, but we do know he can’t sit still. His behavior at the dinner table becomes rambunctious enough that he treats his chair like a rocking horse. It hardly comes as a surprise that it eventually rocks over backwards. It’s also natural that he grabs at the tablecloth in a last-ditch effort to right himself. Chair, child, tablecloth, and dinner all end up in a heap on the floor. Even today, this would frustrate and anger a parent, but in Philip’s world, there’s no pizza delivery, no microwave dinners. A hot dinner took hours to prepare over an iron stove or an open hearth. Let’s be honest, he doesn’t even get properly punished, when you look at the day’s labor he wasted in an instant.

Harriet is a bit more serious. We still teach children not to play with matches for this very reason (well, because they could get hurt, not because a divine fire will burn them to ash without marring anything in the house. Really, this reads more like a spontaneous combustion than an accidental fire). It’s worth mentioning that after childbirth, fire was the leading cause of death for 19th century women, so the warnings Harriet received were hardly meaningless. While sad, her death was probably a very realistic result of her disobedience within the context of history.

Worst of all, little Suck-a-Thumb… sucks his thumb. Which is very bad and wrong. Because grown-ups say so. I’ll be honest, I know it can screw up your front teeth and all, but there are a lot of weird thumb-sucking stories out there, and they all seem to result in the child losing his or her thumb. We are threatening children with maiming for a pretty minor offense. I’m not a parent and all, but it just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Maybe as adults, we should let this one go, and spend our time teaching children not to be little jerks who spill all the food off the table and get away with it.

These poems seem funny and odd looking back through the lens of 170 years or so, but they (mostly) had real lessons to teach children. The tales of good and obedient children, despite being more dull and less gory, teach kindness to animals, compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, studiousness, industriousness, and generosity, which are all pretty important things for a child to get an early grasp on. All in all, didactic literature is an effective tool to help children learn how to learn what traits their society values and how best to succeed in that environment, and it’s still used today!

Seriously, though, can we all just agree to leave the thumb-suckers alone?

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Victorian Children’s Lit – The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches

I thought I’d do something a little different today and give you a wonderful example of Victorian children’s literature. I will do a more in-depth examination of the subject soon, but in the meantime, I hope this will amuse you. This is “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches,” from Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures, by Heinrich Hoffman which was first published in Germany in 1844, and in English in 1848. Click here to find the entire collection as an ebook on Project Gutenberg.

008It almost makes me cry to tell
What foolish Harriet befell.
Mamma and Nurse went out one day
And left her all alone at play.
Now, on the table close at hand,
A box of matches chanced to stand;
And kind Mamma and Nurse had told her,
That, if she touched them, they would scold her.
But Harriet said: “Oh, what a pity!
For, when they burn, it is so pretty;
They crackle so, and spit, and flame:
Mamma, too, often does the same.”

The pussy-cats heard this,
And they began to hiss,
And stretch their claws,
And raise their paws;
“Me-ow,” they said, “me-ow, me-o,
You’ll burn to death, if you do so.”

But Harriet would not take advice:
She lit a match, it was so nice!
It crackled so, it burned so clear—
Exactly like the picture here.
She jumped for joy and ran about
And was too pleased to put it out.

The Pussy-cats saw this
And said: “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws:
“‘Tis very, very wrong, you know,
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o,
You will be burnt, if you do so.”

And see! oh, what dreadful thing!009
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair—
She burns all over everywhere.

Then how the pussy-cats did mew—
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help, ’twas all in vain!
So then they said: “We’ll scream again;
Make haste, make haste, me-ow, me-o,
She’ll burn to death; we told her so.”

So she was burnt, with all her clothes,
And arms, and hands, and eyes, and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.

And when the good cats sat beside
The smoking ashes, how they cried!
“Me-ow, me-oo, me-ow, me-oo,
What will Mamma and Nursey do?”
Their tears ran down their cheeks so fast,
They made a little pond at last.

Awesome Illustrators – Blanche Fisher Wright

Did you have this book as a kid? I did, and it was one of my favorites. The rhymes stuck with me (as nursery rhymes do), but the illustrations are truly remarkable.

Real Mother Goose 1944 editionSince the first edition of The Real Mother Goose was published in 1916, millions of children have grown up with these wonderful pictures, yet very little is known about the illustrator. Her name was Blanche Fisher Wright and she was an active children’s illustrator in the early part of the 20th century. Her illustrations were art nouveau-influenced watercolors with clear, flowing inked lines. She doesn’t stick to one particular era (at least in Mother Goose) but seems to depict a more general ideal “past,” with characters depicted in everything from medieval hose to Elizabethan ruffs to 19th century attire. To an extent, at least in my mind, her art is inseparable from the poetry. Even now, when I think of certain rhymes (“Hickory Dickory Dock,” for example) the first picture in my mind is the picture from this book.

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I’m sure that sort of association is not unusual, especially where a reader’s
literary nostalgia is concerned, but it does underscore the kind of effect illustrations can have on a reader. For nearly a century, Wright’s artwork has been inextricably linked with Mother Goose, even for children not yet old enough to read. It is amazing that she could have impacted and influenced so many, and yet could be so completely unknown.

If you happen to be unfamiliar with this edition of Mother Goose, check it out. Wright’s illustrations are warm and stunningly beautiful. It won’t be hard to see how they’ve captivated generations of children and their parents.