A Library in a Phone Booth, Gipsy House, and Curious George

My good friend sends me clippings from civilization (Maryland and Massachusetts) with stories about authors and books – she knows my proclivities well.  Recently, she informed me of the seventy-fifth  anniversary of Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for makewayforducklingsbookcover   Ducklings, reminding me of the Public Garden in Boston where children clamber over the duck family.

200px-curiousgeorgefirstCurious George is also celebrating his seventy-fifth anniversary, and Alison Lobron of the Boston Globe bemoans his descent from scary to safer adventures over the years in Incurious George Finds a Safe Space.  When the original authors, H.A. and Margaret Rey, wrote , the stories were scary – about the little monkey breaking his leg when chased by grown-ups or being “snatched from his home in the African jungle.” In the late twentieth century, George’s publishers turned him into “a good little monkey” with shorter adventures.

My pile of clippings also includes a few places I’d like to visit.

A Library in a Phone Booth

1200x-1Although some of us wish cell-phone booths would become popular (Cell-Phone Booths? They’re For Real), the old fashioned phone booth is hard to find today – unless you are looking for a small  library or a coffee shop. In her article for Bloomberg, Lisa Fleisher describes the trend to turn old British red telephone boxes into lending libraries in Phone Booths Find Their Second Callingand includes a picture of an ardent borrower at the children’s collection.

Roald Dahl’s House 

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Writing Hut

Elizabeth Warkentin described Dahl’s Gipsy House in Great Missenden, England in A Phizz-Whizzing Visit to Roald Dahl’s House.  With its bespoke writing hut, birdhouse with window ledges lined with “dream Jars” (from the BFG), and lush gardens, Dahl’s country home from 1952 until his death in 1990 welcomes readers.  The town has the Roald Dahl Museum with interactive exhibits and snacks for the hungry – Bogtrotter cake with smarties and marshmallows.

My good friend also sends clippings with background on  authors of recent books – Amor Towles (A Gentleman in Moscow); J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) – but more of those later.  My clipping file runneth over…

 

 

Children’s Books by Weighty Authors

After reading Alexandra Alter’s front page article for the Sunday New York Times – “Masters of Prose, Warming Up to Picture Books” – I thought about authors who have managed both adult and children’s books successfully.

Roald Dahl, famous for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and whose children’s book The BFG  (big friendly giant) is coming out in film soon, first attracted me with his short stories about World War II (Dahl was a fighter pilot in the war) with their eerie endings.  Dahl’s “Beware of the Dog ” is one of my favorites – you can read it here.

Alter’s article mentions famous authors crossing over into writing children’s books, including Jane Smiley, Calvin Trillin, and Elena Ferrante. James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and James Baldwin are also mentioned. I’m looking forward to reading Trillin’s funny book of poetry for children and the elusive Ferrante’s scary book.

Here is a list of the titles:

James Baldwin’s Little Man Little Man

Elena Ferrante’s The Beach at Night BN-ND310_FERRAN_DV_20160317134312

James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil

Jane Smiley’s Twenty Yawns

NoFair-NoFair-coverCalvin Trillin’s No Fair No Fair  with illustrations by Roz Chast)

John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar

Kurt Vonnegut’s Sun Moon Star

And did you know Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the story of a magical car made famous by Disney, was written by Ian Fleming – the creator of James Bond stories?

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655_p0_v4_s260x420Although Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, is best known as a writer of young adult science fiction and fantasy, his new book – The Ocean at the End of the Lane – is for adult readers. Some scenes may be too scary for adults, but the story has that same weird other worldly flavor that Gaiman fans expect.

When a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral, he detours to the site of the old farm where he grew up – now a suburban housing development – and finds the old Hempstock house with the duck pond (the ocean) still there. As he stares into the “ocean,” his thoughts fade back into an amazing incident that he experienced when he was seven years old, and the duck pond had the same life energizing force as the swimming pool in “Cocoon.” The Hempstocks are a cross between the Tuck family in Natalie Babbitt’s classic and the good witches of Oz; eleven year old Lettie, with her mother and grandmother, seem to have been around forever and can save the world from “varmints” and “fleas.”

In the flashback, when the seven-year old narrator drops Lettie’s hand, as they are battling a Monster, the Monster places a worm in the arch of his foot that later takes on the form of his new beautiful blond nanny who seduces his father and tortures the boy. Only the Hempstocks can help. After excising the monster worm from the boy’s foot, Lettie discovers that a small but important part has been left behind in the boy’s heart. The ensuing battle involves an array of fantastic skirmishes with strange birds who plan to destroy the boy to get that small piece of worm. The resolution is both sad and hopeful.

Although some of the illusions are strange, and the analogies to childhood fears and adult realities are hard to miss, Gaiman mixes his tale with imaginative magic and Roald Dahl darkness, holding the reader as captive as the narrator in his fairy ring. When the story returns to the present, the narrator finds he has been watched over the years to see if his life had been worth saving.

“I’m going to tell you something important. Outside, {grown-ups are} big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have… The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane reveals the terrors and wonders that perhaps only the child within can see.

9780060530945_p0_v1_s260x420I am now reading Gaiman’s 2009 Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book – the tale of a toddler who escapes a villain who slaughters the rest of his family in the middle of the night, and is raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Since this book is targeted for a younger audience, the horror is not described, and the story quickly shifts to suspense and adventure. The graveyard has an array of ghosts – a village – to raise the little boy they name Nobody – Bod for short. He connects with older residents who teach him to read and explain their history to him (some dating back to the Celts); younger ghosts offer companionship and play. He has already made a friend who is alive, and I have just met the ghouls – one is the 33rd President of the United States (look it up) – and Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a witch. I wonder if she’s related to Lettie.

The Graveyard Book is more fun than The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but then I tend to favor the scary fantasies that are for children. Have you read it?

Reading for High Fliers

What do you read on those long flights or while waiting for your next connection? Dominique Browning in her article for the New York Times – High-Brow Lit for High Fliers? Not Me – suggests you forget about catching up on the heavy classics of great literature or “back issues of sobering magazines.”

Instead, she recommends riveting best selling authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham; plot driven mysteries by P.D. James; thrillers by Ruth Rendell. Browning advises…

Next time you are facing a long flight (and predictable delays) swap out those classics for these entertaining paperbacks. At least your trip will feel shorter.”

I still catch up on my pile of New Yorker magazines on my trips, but some of my favorite flying companions are Roald Dahl’s BFG, teen vampires from the Twilight series, and handsome dukes from romances by Catherine Coulter (but I usually hide the steamy cover).

What do you read en route?

Checklist for Writers


“What makes a good children’s writer?

  • must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading
  • must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things
  • must be unconventional and inventive
  • must have a really first-class plot
  • {tell} stories that contain a threat
  • {use} new inventions; unorthodox methods; eccentricity; secret information
  • know what enthralls children:  action, suspense, being spooked, finding treasures, ghosts, chocolates and toys and money, magic, being made to giggle, seeing the villain meet a grisly death, {seeing}the hero be a winner
  • know what bores children: descriptive passages and flowery prose

Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself ‘Is this too slow? Is it dull? Will they stop reading?’ …{If your answer is yes}, you must cross it out and start again.”

Roald Dahl presented this philosophy of writing at a lecture in 1990;  J.K Rowling paid attention (Harry Potter was first published in 1997).