Posts Tagged ‘classics’

King of the Golden River

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

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 the land 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 becomes a wasteland and is cursed by the Southwest Wind (illustration below by Richard Doyle). To break the curse the brothers must journey to the Golden River but they fail to help the people they meet on the way. Their younger brother cares for the needy and as a result is saved from the fate of his brothers.

Alice in Wonderland 150

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Alice in Wonderland (1865) is 150 years old. The book and its sequel, 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 sheep below is my favourite). Alice revolutionized children’s literature.

John_Tenniel_Alice_and_the_Knitting_SheepBest Alice versions:

  • The 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.

 

The Bull and the Dictators

Tuesday, 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”.