Another Go Set a Watchman Post

In case you maybe somehow haven’t heard, the Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman was released yesterday. I have seen plenty of comments and posts saying they will read it or they will never own a copy. I have seen plenty of reviews that say it falls far short of To Kill a Mockingbird (honestly, how could it not). I have also, just like many of you, questioned the motivation and timing of its release. If it is, however, what it is purported to be — an earlier draft of Mockingbird given a strong Revise & Resubmit by her publishers — then it is utterly fascinating.

It is a fascinating glimpse into the HOW of writing something as timeless and enduring as To Kill a Mockingbird. Personally, I don’t care whether she’s accurately captured our hopes and dreams for the future of beloved characters because — and this is very important — they aren’t the same characters. So Atticus is a racist? That’s an important stop the character made on the way to becoming the man who defends Tom Robinson. Jean-Louise’s grown-up problems fade into the sharper, more black-and-white, fair-and-unfair problems of a six-year-old. I confess, there’s something comforting about the idea of Aunt Alexandra being largely unchanged.

Some people have suggested that this new writing will irreversibly taint the old. I humbly suggest that these people are wrong in both their expectations and their extrapolations of Watchman. To be fair, it is not all their fault; Watchman was billed as a sequel, which it is not. It is billed as new, which it is not. It is a draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, beautiful, enduring novel, but it did not spring fully-formed from the mind of Ms. Lee. It took work and messiness and writing and rewriting. I think there is both room and reason to appreciate Go Set a Watchman for what it is: an imperfect stepping stone to one of the pinnacles of American literature.


What I’m Reading – Sick Day Edition

Today I am home sick from work, so I am curling up with some old favorites and some new reads. As you may have picked out, I am a fan of fairy tales and folklore, so it should be no surprise that my sick day reading looks like this:


That’s the recently-published collection of Bavarian fairy tales, a newly acquired Propp, a Norton Critical Edition, and a Maria Tatar (my hero!). I think I will be kept thoroughly amused. I’ll probably do a more in-depth piece on each after I read them.

Awesome Illustrators – Graeme Base

If you are unfamiliar with Graeme Base, I am sorry. You missed out on The Eleventh HourAnimalia, or one of his other brilliantly illustrated stories.

Snakes-and-LaddersI was first introduced to Base’s work when my mom got us The Eleventh Hour. The story is a mystery that takes place at a birthday costume party for an elephant (with a solution that even an adult might struggle to figure out), but what stuck with me was the colorful, brilliant artwork. Every page is richly detailed and filled with hints, codes, and puzzles. There’s a sealed packet at the back with all the answers, but it is well worth the struggle to figure out the answer for yourself.

Animalia is one of the best alphabet booksHORRIBLE-HAIRY-HOGS I’ve ever seen. Every page is filled with layers upon layers of things that begin with the assigned letter. The letter H, for example has the Hairy Hogs, but a closer inspection reveals honey, hamsters, a house on a hill, and even a happy face sticker. I could read this book today and probably find things I’ve never noticed before.

I’ve loved Base’s books for years, and the best part is he’s still working. For more information about Graeme Base and his books, click here. You can even follow him on Instagram!

(Would that make it an InstaGraeme?)

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?


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.


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.

What I’m Reading – Steinbeck edition

Yesterday, I stopped by our favorite local bookstore and was lucky enough to pick up three beautiful vintage Penguin Steinbeck novels.


I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, and it made a huge impression on me. I also had the opportunity last September to see the 1947 Mexican film La perla, directed by Emilio Fernández, which is based on The Pearl. So, I decided to start with the book I knew the least about, Of Mice and Men.

John Steinbeck’s characters are my favorite part of his writing. They’re wonderful, flawed, sympathetic, and relatable. Despite facing crushing poverty, cruelty, and prejudice, they constantly strive toward a better life and future. Steinbeck gives his characters hope and optimism and places them in an indifferent, uncaring world. I personally find that how the stories end is less important to me as a reader than how each character faces the obstacles thrown in the way.

mice and menI like George. He’s short-tempered and easily frustrated, but it is obvious that he cares about Lennie and tries his best to protect him. I like that he’s wary and cautious. I like his loyalty. There’s no question he’d be better off on his own, but he stays paired up with his friend.

I like Lennie. He may not be smart, but I enjoy him.

I like hope and optimism.

I’m not very far into the novel yet, but I know enough to realize Steinbeck didn’t write fairy tales. The good and pure of heart won’t triumph over cruelty and greed, but right now, George and Lennie are still looking forward to the rabbits.

What are you reading?

The McGuffey Eclectic Readers

IMG_20150512_204145 copy

When I was 3 or 4, my parents had a reprint set of McGuffey’s Eclectic readers. At the time, I assumed that these books were how everyone learned to read. It might surprise you to learn that this is not so.

Now that I am grown up, any time I find one of them in a used bookstore or an antique shop (not often), I jump at the chance to get it. So far, I have an overwhelming collection of two small volumes: a speller and the Fourth Reader from the 1879 revised edition.

So what are they?

The McGuffey Readers are a set of six graduated lesson books written by William H. McGuffey and published from the 1830s-1880s. The first volume started with pictures and simple spelling– cat, ball, dog, and the like– and the sixth contained excerpt from Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Dickens. The volumes in between had lessons on everything from etiquette to history to biology to astronomy. They were used in schools across the United States for decades. You can read more about their history here.

They are not perfect books, especially if the Fourth Reader is anything to go by. One inventive story has a girl falling asleep during her “natural philosophy” lesson only to have a dream in which water molecules are explained as sprites and fairies, which my more science-minded friends assure me is not the case. Varied as the subjects are, there is no mention of the immigrants teeming to America’s shores during the period. They’re overwhelmingly didactic, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness to a modern audience. The only mention of the Civil War (which ended only 15 years prior to the publication of this book) is a rather melodramatic ballad in which two soldiers die, each thinking of his daughter, one in New Hampshire and one in Georgia. A nosy child opens a box she’s not supposed to touch and gets a face full of snuff.

So why do you like them?

I like them because it is fascinating to see how students learned and teachers taught. There are notes to teachers in the textbooks themselves, so you can see how a lesson was meant to be implemented. They try to teach children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and diligent, and those are things every generation can learn.  And they have things like this:


That’s cool stuff. Who really teaches articulation as part of a regular core class anymore?

So on the off chance you come across a McGuffey reader, pick it up and see what’s inside. They’re an interesting glimpse into the history of American education.

Mothers: The Hidden Menace?

If you have a fairy tale relationship with your mother, there’s a good chance she’s actively plotting your death. If you’re lucky, it may just mean that she’s horribly neglectful!

Everyone knows about the wicked stepmother, especially in the Brothers Grimm tales. What many people don’t know is that some of those famous stepmothers were originally mothers. But whether they’re blood-relations or not, they’re pretty scary and manipulative villains.  In honor of Mother’s day, let’s take a look at some of the best-known wicked stepmothers and mothers. For those of you playing at home, I’m using Jack Zipes’ new translation, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.

“Little Red Cap”

Now there are older versions of this story in which there is no mother mentioned at all. In the version the Grimms published, however, the mother warns Red not to stray from the path because she could fall and break the bottle of wine meant for her grandmother who lives in the woods. This seems like a pretty routine and reasonable errand for a child. There are only two problems:

  1.  At least one wolf also lives in the woods.
  2. No one has ever bothered to explain to Little Red Cap what a wolf is.

That’s right. According to the text, Red encounters the Wolf and “didn’t know what a wicked sort of animal he was and was not afraid of him” (85). That is a pretty key piece of information to leave out, mom. And grandma. And frankly, anyone else living in a village on the edge of a forest inhabited by large predators.

Wickedness Factor: 3/10

I am giving the mother the benefit of the doubt that she didn’t deliberately try and get her kid eaten. But if parents don’t talk to their kids about wolves, who will?

The answer is wolves. Wolves will.


Cinderella’s antagonist is still a stepmother. Cinderella’s mom dies and becomes a magic tree that gives her the gowns for the ball (taking the place of the fairy godmother found in the Perrault version). The wicked stepmother and stepdaughters treat Cinderella like a servant, are very mean, etc., none of that’s new. But the stepmother’s treatment of her own daughters isn’t great. In an attempt to gain the prince for one of her daughters, she convinces each in turn to mutilate her foot to fit in the famous slipper.

Wickedness Factor: 6/10

There’s no question that her treatment of Cinderella is cruel and abusive, but when it comes down to the wire, her treatment of her own children isn’t much better. Who needs a toe if you get to be queen? Except neither gets to be queen and now your children are maimed. Well done, you.

“Hansel & Gretel”

Here’s one where the stepmother was originally the mother. Hansel and Gretel’s own mother is the one who conspires to leave them in the woods to die in order to preserve her own life. You can see why it was later changed to a wicked stepmother. The idea that a mother would do that to her own children is profoundly disturbing. However, that change causes something to be lost. It is a common theme in the Grimms’ tales for a stepmother not to love her stepchildren. While a stepmother leaving her husband’s children to starve or be eaten is still cruel, it’s nowhere near as horrific and unnatural to us as a mother doing that to her own flesh and blood. And Hansel and Gretel’s mother definitely lobbies hard for this to happen. Twice.

Wickedness Factor: 6/10

Desperate and selfish and, ultimately, futile. She dies anyway. At least in a screwed up way Cinderella’s stepmother wanted what was best for her children, not just herself.

“Little Snow White”

Again, this wicked stepmother was originally the child’s mother. She wishes for a child, bears the child, loves the child until the child is prettier than the she is, then tries to kill the child. She tries to kill her child four times. She even originally asks for Snow White’s lungs and liver so she can eat them because if you’re going to do something, you should never do it by halves.

Wickedness Factor: 10/10

She’s the quintessential fairy tale villain.

“The Juniper Tree”

If you’ve never read this story, you can do so here. Go ahead and read it now; I’ll wait.

Just to recap, this woman

  • Murders her stepson by decapitation
  • Tricks her daughter into believing the girl killed her stepbrother
  • Feeds her stepson to his father as a stew

Wickedness Factor: Mommie Dearest

Suffice to say, she is probably not getting flowers today.

Happy Mother’s Day from the Brothers Grimm and W&P!

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Trans. Jack Zipes. Ed. Jack Zipes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2014. Print.