Wodehouse – a world where things come right

April 22nd, 2014

‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”’

‘The mood will pass, sir.’

P.G. Wodehouse (WOOD-house) created a world without earthquakes, wars or dictators (except Roderick Spode whose ‘eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces’); where nothing mattered, except tidy trousers, and nothing broke, except engagements. He was a brilliant writer who cooked up similes like a master chef:

His legs wobbled like asparagus stalks.

She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.

Her face was shining like the seat of a bus-driver’s trousers.

Wodehouse published 90 books, writing until his death at 93 years. When asked about his technique he said ‘I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit’. All his books make me happy, but my favourite is Right Ho, Jeeves, about Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, who is ‘so dashed competent in every respect’. The chapter where  Gussie Fink-Nottle presents the prizes at a private school is a great example of slow-building comedy.

The sheer joy of stories which offer a world where things come right.– Sophie Ratcliffe (Wodehouse, Letters)

Read Stephen Fry’s tribute to P.G. Wodehouse.

 

How to Write like E. B. White

April 16th, 2014

E.B. White wrote only three children’s books and two are America’s top books (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). What was his secret? Imagination and style, yes, but he also took his time and revised a lot. (Impatience has been my biggest weakness as a writer). Charlotte is short but it took two years to write the first draft, then another year to rewrite it. It has the best opening line of any children’s book  – “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”; and perhaps the finest ending (certainly the most heart-rending). And love those rustic Garth Williams illustrations.

The ending is as beautiful, bold and full of integrity as Charlotte herself.– Guardian

In a Paris Review interview, White puts a witty spin on the need to wait a little:

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.

Love Bees

April 11th, 2014

Pollination: ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg

We can’t survive without bees and bees won’t survive unless we love them. It’s the most unique partnership between ‘wild’ creatures and humans. Honey bee pollination gives us fruit, vegetables, and pastures – let’s respect them by providing a variety of flowering plants and clean habitats (avoid pesticides, especially neonicotinoids).

Human beings have fabricated the illusion that they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services. – Achim Steiner

 Watch a sweet little film, Dance of the Honey Bee’ (Vimeo).

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Opening Sentence Quiz

April 6th, 2014

Never open a book with weather.– Elmore Leonard

…such as the famous, “It was a dark and stormy night” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The best opening sentences in children’s novels take the reader captive immediately. They introduce character, setting and problem; they fire the imagination; and are clear about what is happening:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on … that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.– Kurt Vonnegut

(Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions begins, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”)

My favourite children’s opening is from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, deftly introducing the 3Ps (person, place and problem) all in a single sentence:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Test Yourself

Match these classic openings from children’s novels to the titles below.

1. All children, except one, grow up.

2. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

3.The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.

4. Here I am, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my bedroom on Christmas Day.

5. Keith the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.

6. My father is put in the stocks again! Oh! the injustice of it!

7. When Old Tip lost his bark, Uncle Trev had to teach his horse to bark and chase the cows up to the shed for milking.

8. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.

9. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

Titles: The Iron Man, I Capture The Castle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Devil-in-the-Fog, Matilda, The More the Merrier, Uncle Trev, Peter Pan

Jacob Appel gives some more in-depth advice for crafting an effective opening.

 charlotte's web

Inside a Beehive

March 31st, 2014

A wax beehive is made and shaped by bees into perfectly hexagonal honeycomb. The comb is not only a pantry for storing honey, it’s also the bee’s kitchen, nursery, bedroom and dance floor. This photo shows cells in the comb used to store honey – the bees put a layer of white wax ‘capping’ over the honey to preserve it.

capping2

This next photo shows cells used to raise baby bees (the white larvae are visible in some cells). These larval cells are then capped so the bee can develop into an adult. Lovely photos by artist Claire Beynon (click to enlarge).

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The Curioseum – Review

March 28th, 2014

This is a wonderful collection for children aged 8-12… Museums are hives of story, both real and imagined. These 22 authors have created new stories surrounding some intriguing objects from Te Papa Museum… Raymond Huber writes one of the most memorable stories in the collection, of a unique breed of humans who mature into insects (a highly original allegory). – Sarah Forster

Photos of the curious objects which inspired the stories

Listen to the stories and explore The Curioseum.The_Curioseum_cover_large

 

Reading is Empathy

March 25th, 2014

Research shows that far being being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. – Keith Oatley (The Psychology of Fiction)

Likewise, Tolkien believed that fantasy “offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality”. When we read fiction we enter an imagined world, perhaps far from reality, but it’s the characters that we attach to. It’s this emotional connection with characters that provides an understanding of real life interactions. Children begin to develop true empathy for others from four years old and onwards – hearing and reading fiction enables them to walk in another’s shoes. An example for older children is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor which shows the young reader something of what it was like to be a black child growing up in the 1930s; an incredibly moving story of hope despite hardship.

While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. – Maryanne Wolf

 

Shrinking Man

March 17th, 2014

The classic sci-fi movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958), was about the atomic angst of the 1950s and it’s themes have not dated. The hero is exposed to a radioactive cloud and begins to shrink. Trapped in his home, he battles his cat, a spider, and a leaking tap (always a threat to the male ego). Finally, he’s reduced to his essential self and ponders his place in the universe. Watch the end of the movie here. This extract is from the closing monologue (script by Richard Matheson):

So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet—like the closing of a gigantic circle…

 

Outside Over There

March 11th, 2014

That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak

Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book (and his) – haunting, comforting, uncompromising –  nobody else combined the real and the unreal so brilliantly. In his last interview, Maurice Sendak talked about how his stories reflected his childhood (but what a curmudgeon he’d become).  Outside Over There is a  tale of separation and siblings that features a creepy ice baby (pictured).

Sendak’s books can also be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:

sendak-atoms

Reading and the Brain

March 4th, 2014

Reading a book leaves us with new neural pathways… Books can open up emotional, imaginative and historical landscapes. Gail Rebuck (Humans Have the Need To Read)

The reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed. Maryanne Wolf

Readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative… using brain regions that closely mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. Washington University

We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically. – Gregory Berns (Emory University)

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Photo: My grandson, Spencer, 5 months old

Classic Comics 3. The Beast Is Dead!

February 27th, 2014

Comics were banned in WW2 occupied France but Edmond-François Calvo secretly produced a powerful satirical comic that became a French icon after the Germans retretaed in 1944. La Bete Est Morte! is the story of the bloody European war told with Disney-style animal characters: with the French as rabbits; British bulldogs; and German wolves (Goebbels is a weasel, Himmler a skunk). La Bete Est Morte! is a forerunner of the brilliant graphic novel, Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice. Here’s an extract:
My dear little children, never forget this: these Wolves who perpetrated these horrors were ordinary Wolves … They were not in the heat of battle excited by the smell of powder. They were not tormented by hunger. They did not have to defend themselves, nor to take vengeance for a victim of their own. They had simply received the order to kill.

Classic Comics 2: Max and Moritz

February 22nd, 2014

Max and Moritz (1865) by William Busch is one of the world’s first comic books (actually, the Egyptians began the style in the pyramids). Two naughty boys create mayhem with booby-traps that torment animals and authority figures until the boys are finally punished (by ducks!) in keeping with the morals of the times. The exaggerated wickedness follows the style of Shock-headed Peter (1845).

Through the chimney now, with pleasure

They behold the tempting treasure.

Busch was the first comic artist to use motion lines to show rapid movements, such as his eye-popping piano virtuoso playing furioso:

Classic Comics 1: Quadratino

February 17th, 2014

Quadratino (1911), ‘Square Head’, is an Italian comic strip by Antonio Rubino. In each story, Quadratino’s mischief is punished by an ‘accident’ in which his head is squeezed into a new geometric shape – he rolls downstairs and it becomes a circle; a biscuit tin squashes it into a rectangle – and Mother Geometry must ‘redraw’ his square.  Maths has never been such fun! According to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die Quadratino is “the best conceptual homage to comics” because he’s a living comic strip frame. I love his cat (click image to enlarge).

War is old

February 10th, 2014

Alice Walker’s picture book Why War Is Never a Good Idea begins with the bright, comforting colours of a book for young children, but as War devastates the land the images become grim. It’s a scary message and parents will have to judge if it suits their children. The illustrations by Stefano Vitale are evocative and Walker’s words are true:

Though War is old

It has not become wise.

Though War has a mind of its own

War never knows who it is going to hit.

Walker comments: ‘War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself … It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not … Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor nonviolence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such grace and faithfulness.’

The Bull and the Dictators

February 4th, 2014

The classic Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936) remains one of the most influential children’s books (it’s never gone out of print) because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective, laid-back character who bravely chooses to be himself instead of following the aggressive crowd.

No wonder the book was

In contrast, Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the strict child-raising style of the time. His 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it is in the spirit of war-time frugality, some is just a tad excessive:

Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.

Bees Tell The Time

January 28th, 2014

LOTUSHoney bees have a body clock to keep track of time – this is vital because flowers produce nectar at different hours of the day – dandelions at 9am, for example. We have a similar inner clock but most of us rely on outer clocks to tell the time. If our devices were removed we’d probably switch to our body clock too. Bees learn very quickly: scientists trained some bees to feed (on sugar water) at 10.30am, and after that the bees turned up at exactly that time to be fed every day.

Tintin in Occupied Tibet

January 24th, 2014

Tintin in Tibet, the forgotten occupation, by comics artist, Cosey:

Other creative Tintin covers from Le Figaro.

Plant Intelligence

January 18th, 2014

Plants have between 15 and 20 senses, including smelling, tasting, and sensing light and sounds. The root tips are especially ‘intelligent’: sensing gravity, water, light, pressure, hardness, volume, nutrients, toxins, microbes, and messages from other plants. Here are some remarkable examples of plant behaviour:

  • Some corn plants emit a scent when caterpillars attack them, and the scent attracts parasitic wasps which then eat the caterpillars.
  • Many plants produce caffeine, a drug which encourages bees to remember the plants and return to pollinate them.
  • Forest trees use a ‘wood-wide-web’ of underground fungi through which they deliver food and water to other trees in need, and also signal others about insect attack.
  • Plants eat sunlight!

Read more about intelligent plants in this excellent essay by Michael Pollan.

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The Adventures of Hergé

January 14th, 2014

You must marry the wind of inspiration with the bone of graphic clarity.– Chang Chong-Jen.

The Adventures of Herge is a must for Tintin geeks although it’s not for children. It’s a Hergé (George Remi) biography done in the ‘clear line’ style of a Tintin comic book. Hergé fell in love with drawing in 1914 when his mother gave him some pencils to ‘calm him down’. The book is a fascinating insight into the influences on Hergé and the political and emotional difficulties he faced, especially during wartime working under the Nazis. Most moving of all is the story of his friendship with Chang Chong-Jen (which inspired Tintin in Tibet). Chang helped him refine his beliefs and drawing style. Before reading this book it might help to know a bit about Hergé, or to read the appendix first. Download a 5 page sample of the comic book here.

King of the Golden River

January 8th, 2014

The King of the Golden River (1841) by John Ruskin is a children’s morality tale that still speaks loudly. It’s unique among fairy tales in having a punchy environmental and social message as well as being highly atmospheric. It’s about two brothers who exploit their farmland and have no compassion for their workers:

They shot the blackbirds, because they pecked the fruit; and killed the hedgehogs, lest they should suck the cows; they poisoned the crickets for eating the crumbs in the kitchen; and smothered the cicadas, which used to sing all summer in the lime-trees.

Their fertile valley in Austria becomes a wasteland and is cursed by the Southwest Wind (illustration below by Richard Doyle). To break the curse the brothers must take holy water up a mountain to the Golden River, but they fail to help the people they meet on the journey. But a third, younger, brother gives the holy water away to needy people and as a result is saved from the fate of his brothers.

Tintin in Scots

December 31st, 2013

Dae they no ken that Tintin’s in danger?

The Derk IsleThe Derk Isle is the first Tintin book to be translated into the Scots language (which is over 1000 years old and is still spoken) and it works a treat. Familiarity with the original book, The Black Island (1938), adds to the fun but most readers will easily interpret the Scots (it’s best read aloud). There are many delightful phrases such as ‘dinna fash’ (don’t worry), ‘whit a scunner’ (what a nuisance) and ‘blackbelickit’ (drat). Snowy becomes Tarrie (terrier) and the Thompsons are Nesbit and Nesbit. The first Asterix comic is also now in Scots.

He’s a fair wunner, is wee Tarrie. There’s no a dug like him for snowkin efter crooks!

Oot ye get! An nae joukery-pawkery, mind!

 

 

 

Peake Pirate

December 30th, 2013

capatainslaughterboardNot another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beauty. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the cult novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ ( NY Times says the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See Peake’s incredible illustrations here.

Tove Jansson Sculptor’s Daughter

December 23rd, 2013

A book whose small, huge work is the healing of the divisions between the child state and the adult state; of a child-sized truth about how things connect. – Ali Smith

Sculptor's-daughterThe Christmas present I couldn’t resist opening early: Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson is a beautifully written childhood memoir that reads more like short stories. Jansson was the creator of the charming Moomin books had a Moomin-like family: affectionate, creative, and liberal. Her parents were well known Finnish artists: her father a sculptor, her mother an illustrator. She spent much of her childhood on the Pellinki islands in the Gulf of Finland. This new edition of the 1968 book is an exquisite little hardback.

 

Beautiful Christmas Book

December 21st, 2013

nativityThe Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies,  I Went Walking.

Honeycomb

December 15th, 2013

Honeycomb is one of the lightest, strongest, most efficient structures known. The comb isn’t just for honey, it’s the bee’s home: kitchen, nursery, pantry, bedroom and dance floor. Bees build these beautiful wax hexagons from flakes of wax (made in glands on their bellys) using their mouth and feet.  Each identical cell tilts back at an angle of exactly 13˚ (so honey doesn’t flow out) and cells are joined at precisely 120˚. Bees use hexagons (not squares or triangles) because they use the least wax for the most space – hexagons are found elsewhere in nature where an efficient shape is needed.

honeycomb

5 Ways To Save The Bees

December 10th, 2013

beekeeper1. Plant flowering things – bees love them
2. Avoid pesticides – especially the new systemic ones
3. Let the lawn grow long – it encourages diversity
4. Buy local honey – it’s better for you

5. Get to know bees – they aren’t aggressive if you aren’t

The Importance Of Living

December 5th, 2013

Thoughts from a remarkable book written in 1938: The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, Chinese philosopher and inventor.

On writers:

Every word has a life and a personality. A writer always has an instinctive interest in words.

Writing is but the expression of one’s own nature or character… style is not a method, a system or even a decoration; it is but the total impression that the reader gets of the quality of the writer’s mind.

A writer in the ‘familiar’ style speaks in an unbuttoned mood. He completely exposes his weaknesses, and is therefore disarming.

A literary masterpiece is like a stretch of nature itself, well-formed in its formlessness…

On readers:

The ancient peoples called books ‘limp volumes’ and ‘soft volumes’; therefore the best style of reading a book is the leisurely style. In this mood, one develops patience for everything.

I regard the discovery of one’s favourite author as the most critical event in one’s intellectual development. Like a man falling in love with his sweetheart at first sight, everything is right…

A good reader turns an author inside out, like a beggar turning his coat inside out in search of fleas… an itch is a great thing.

linyutang

Pinocchio

November 29th, 2013

Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio

pinocchiocoverPinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).

Alice in Wonderland Versions

November 23rd, 2013

John_Tenniel_Alice_and_the_Knitting_SheepAlice in Wonderland (1865)  and Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll were the first children’s novels to create a complete fantasy world. Before Alice, children’s books were mostly moralistic or religious, with titles such as ‘An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children’. The Alice books are infused with word play, parody of Victorian society, anarchy, and creepy characters (courtesy of Tenniel’s illustrations; the knitting sheep is my favourite). The books revolutionized children’s literature.

Best Alice versions:

  • Lovely hardback version with Zadie Smith’s intro and Mervyn Peake’s pictures.
  • The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner is the definitive geek’s guide.
  • Salvador Dali’s illustrated Alice is a collaboration of two of the ‘ultimate explorers of dreams and imagination’. View the paintings here.
  • The weird 1966 movie version captures the dreamy torpor of the fantasy.

 

Rare Bee Novel

November 18th, 2013

Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan  finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.  IMG_2465