Category Archives: Children

Books for kids and books for those of us who still think we are kids

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I just noticed I tend to read a lot of books that were movies first or movies now. I suppose it’s my mixed obsession with cinema and literature–the two go together forever and forever and shall not be divided now.

Princess Bride is one of those unexpected books. William Goldman is, among writey-things; a screenwriter, playwright, and a fantastic novel scribbler. From the  beginning, where he tells you how his father read him The Princess Bride when he was ten and how he thinks that the book is a lesson about the unfairness of life, to the end, where he lets the whole thing close on a down note with Westley and Buttercup quarreling and the Prince pursuing them for the rest of their lives – Goldman delivers a really wonderful fairy tale of humor and irony.

Everyone has seen the movie. Everyone over the age of 25 anyway. We all know Miracle Max and Inigo’s famous catchphrase (which I will not even repeat here since its been worn to death) but the book has the happy extras that the movie doesn’t. It tells you about Inigo’s childhood, and his father’s unfair death at the hands of the six fingered man, and how he trains to become the best swordsman in the world…which then makes him depressed when he can’t find the six-fingered man to kill him…and then makes him bored being the best swordsman in the world, so he becomes a drunk.

Philosophical thought; Perhaps all drunks are just really the best something or other in their worlds, seeking revenge for old hurts and worn out by it

The book gives you the history and the motivations of each character; Fezzik’s strength, Vizzini’s brains, Miracle Max’s disgrace, Buttercup’s parents who constantly quarrel, and the King’s mumbling. There are scenes in the book, like the Zoo of Death and a lot of stuff concerning the Dread Pirate Roberts, which are fan-nnn-tastic, but not in the movie. That alone makes it worth reading.

It reminds me a lot of The Last Unicorn. Unicorn is written with tongue -in-cheek and so is Bride; a satirical fairy-tale. There are references to modern-day things, even though the whole thing is set in Renaissance-era. Goldman’s introduction is fictional. His creation of the fictional author S. Morgenstern is a literary device to add a layer to the novel. He uses the name again to write a second novel called The Silent Gondoliers (which I haven’t read yet, but looks interesting) None of the autobiographical stuff in the book is strictly true, although there is that overlay of truth mixed into it.

So basically the book begins with a list of the most beautiful women in the world. One by one, they all drop off and Buttercup, who starts out as barely in the running, grows and improves daily, until she falls in love with the farm boy, Westley, and it skyrockets her into the top five. When he goes to seek his fortune, he is captured by pirates and Buttercup (and I love this) speculates about how he may have been killed, then goes into her room and shuts the door. A month later she comes out and, because of sorrow, is now the most beautiful woman in the world. But she doesn’t give a damn.

The prince Humperdink tells her she will marry him and she asks him to kill her instead, but he doesn’t. Instead he explains that he needs a gorgeous wife to improve his social status and popularity and she will do nicely. He doesn’t care whether she loves him or not. So she agrees.

The prince cleverly plots to make the people love Buttercup, and then have her kidnapped and murdered, inciting war with the neighboring country- because the Prince is fond of two things; war and hunting.

Enter the trio of the giant, Spaniard and the dwarf, who kidnap Buttercup. Enter Westley, disguised as the Man in Black, and pretending to be the Dread Pirate Roberts. The rest of the book follows pretty much as the movie suggests. There’s a great more detail about Miracle Max, and why he got fired, and how pissed he is about it. There is a lot of interjections by William Goldman and ‘S. Morgernstern’ to explain things or comment on a particular passage.

At one point, there is even the suggestion that the reader write the publishers a letter and ask for the ‘love scene’ between Buttercup and Westley when they reunite. William Goldman explains that ‘S. Morgernstern’ declined to write a love scene because he thought people – even characters in a book – deserve their privacy. So Goldman wrote one, but his publishers argued that he couldn’t go around sticking his own words into a book written by someone else. I did a little research to see if I could find some info on the website http://www.princessbridebook.com and, sure enough, here is what you get when you put in your email address:

Dear Reader,

Thank you for sending in and no, this is not the reunion scene, because of a certain roadblock named Kermit Shog.

As soon as bound books were ready, I got a call from my lawyer, Charley–(you may not remember, but Charley’s the one I called from California to go down in the blizzard and buy The Princess Bride from the used-book dealer). Anyway, he usually begins with Talmudic humor, wisdom jokes, only this time he just says “Bill, I think you better get down here,” and before I’m even allowed to say a ‘why?’ he adds, “Right away if you can.”

Panicked, I zoom down, wondering who could have died, did I flunk my tax audit, what? His secretary lets me into his office and Charley says, “This is Mr. Shog, Bill.”

And there he is, sitting in the corner, hands on his briefcase, looking exactly like an oily version of Peter Lorre. I really expected him to say, “Give me the Falcon, you must, or I’ll be forced to keeel you.”

“Mr. Shog is a lawyer,” Charley goes on. And this next was said underlined: “He represents the Morgenstern estate.”

Who knew? Who could have dreamed such a thing existed, an estate of a man dead at least a million years that no one ever heard of over here anyway?

“Perhaps you will give me the Falcon now,” Mr. Shog said. That’s not true.

What he said was, “Perhaps you will like a few words with your client alone now,” and Charley nodded and out he went and once he was gone I said, “Charley, my God, I never figured–” and he said, “Did Harcourt?” and I said, “Not that they ever mentioned” and he said, “Ooch,” the grunting sound lawyers make when they know they’ve backed a loser.

“What does he want?” I said.

“A meeting with Mr. Jovanovich,” Charley answered.

Now, William Jovanovich is a pretty busy fella, but it’s amazing when you’re confronted with a potential multibillion-dollar lawsuit how fast you can wedge in a meeting. We trooped over.

All the Harcourt Brass was there, I’m there, Charley; Mr. Shog, who would sweat in an igloo he’s so swarthy, is streaming.

Harcourt’s lawyer started things: “We’re terribly terribly sorry, Mr. Shog. It’s an unforgivable oversight, and please accept our sincerest apologies.”

Mr. Shog said, “That’s a beginning, since all you did was defame and ridicule the greatest modern master of Florinese prose who also happened to be for many years a friend of my family.”

Then the business head of Harcourt said, “All right, how much do you want?”

Biiiig mistake.

“Money?” Mr. Shog cried. “You think this is petty blackmail that brings us together? Resurrection is the issue, sir. Morgenstern must be undefiled. You will publish the original version.” And now a look at me. “In the unabridged form.”

I said, “I’m done with it, I swear. True, there’s just the reunion scene business we printed up, but there’s not liable to be a rush on that, so it’s all past as far as I’m concerned.”

But Mr. Shog wasn’t done with me: “You, who dared to defame a master’s characters are now going to put your words in their mouths? Nossir. No, I say.”

“It’s just a little thing,” I tried; “a couple pages only.”

Then Mr. Jovanovich started talking softly. “Bill, I think we might skip sending out the reunion scene just now, don’t you think?” I made a nod.

Then he turned to Mr. Shog. “We’ll print the unabridged. You’re a man who is interested in immortality for his client, and there aren’t as many of you around in publishing as there used to be. You’re a gentleman, sir.”

“Thank you,” from Mr. Shog; “I like to think I am, at least on occasion.”

For the first time, he smiled. We all smiled. Very buddy-buddy now.

Then, an addendum from Mr. Shog: “Oh, yes. Your first printing of the unabridged will be 100,000 copies.”

* * * *

So far, there are thirteen lawsuits, only eleven involving me directly. Charley promises nothing will come to court and that eventually Harcourt will publish the unabridged. But legal maneuvering takes time. The copyright on Morgenstern runs out in early ’78, and all of you who wrote in are having your names put alphabetically on computer, so whichever happens first, the settlement or the year, you’ll get your copy.

The last I was told, Kermit Shog was willing to come down on his first printing provided Harcourt agreed to publish the sequel to The Princess Bride, which hasn’t been translated into English yet, much less published here. The title of the sequel is: Buttercup’s Baby: S. Morgenstern’s Glorious Examination of Courage Matched Against the Death of the Heart.

I’d never heard of it, naturally, but there’s a Ph.D. candidate in Florinese Lit up at Columbia who’s going through it now. I’m kind of interested in what he has to say.

–William Goldman

P.S.

I’m really sorry about this, but you know the story that ends, “disregard previous wire, letter follows?” Well, you’ve got to disregard the business about the Morgenstern copyright running out in ’78. That was a definite boo-boo but Mr. Shog, being Florinese, has trouble, naturally, with our numbering system. The copyright runs out in ’87, not ’78.

Worse, he died. Mr. Shog I mean. (Don’t ask how could you tell. It was easy. One morning he just stopped sweating, so there it was.) What makes it worse is that the whole affair is now in the hands of his kid, named–wait for it–Mandrake Shog. Mandrake moves with all the verve and speed of a lizard flaked out on a riverbank.

The only good thing that’s happened in this whole mess is I finally got a shot at reading Buttercup’s Baby. Up at Columbia they feel it’s definitely superior to The Princess Bride in satirical content. Personally, I don’t have the emotional attachment to it, but it’s a helluva story, no question.

Give it a look-see when you have a chance.

–August, 1978

P.P.S.

This is getting humiliating. Have you been reading in the papers about the trade problems America is having with Japan? Well, maddening as this may be, since it reflects on the reunion scene, we’re also having trade problems with Florin, which, it turns out, is our leading supplier of Cadminium, which, it also turns out, NASA is panting for.

So all Florinese-American litigation, which includes the thirteen law suits, has officially been put on hold.

What this means is that the reunion scene, for now, is caught between our need for Cadminium and diplomatic relations between the two countries.

But at least the movie got made. Mandrake Shog was shown it, and word reached me he even smiled once or twice. Hope springs eternal.

–May, 1987

* * * *

Use of this excerpt from _The Princess Bride_ by William Goldman may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1973, 1998, 2003 by William Goldman. All Rights Reserved.

So there you have it. A sample of his writing and saucy imagination. Now go read the book.

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Filed under Children, Fantasy, Literature

The Emily Series by L.M. Montgomery

Last summer- or maybe it was the summer before – I was reading the four huge volumes that make up the journals of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

She is my favorite author and I don’t give a damn who knows it.

The reason is – although she was only a ‘childrens/young adult author’  her books managed to contain every single thing about being human that is worth anything. I don’t know how she gathered up the simple fact that the only really interesting things in the world are (in her words) births, deaths, scandal and marriages, but she did and was able to weave her stories in such a way that they remain relevant and true to us 90 years later.

Every copy I have of all 20 of her books are dog-eared and pen-marked and well-worn. I have whole passages memorized and I believe that the only man for me is actually a conglomeration of Barney Snaith in The Blue Castle and Jane’s father in Lantern Hill.

Yes, yes, Jane’s father, but oh, Barney Snaith. You guys have no idea. Or, if you do, then you must agree with me.

In the Emily series, L.M. wrote what I consider the best of all her works. They were certainly the most autobiographical of all her books.

Reading Montgomery’s journals was an odd experience. Finding the woman behind the characters I love was often surprising. In her journals, she is lively, funny,  fond of society and people, interested in daily happenings, even weirdly snobby and racist, and always prone to fits of sadness and isolation.

She was very young when her mother died.

Interestingly, in all of her books, there is no real mother figure. If the mother exists, she is a shadow with no real character. More often than not, Montgomery’s mother-figures are Aunts and Grandmothers and older sister’s.

The character of the father is always the ideal father; loving, wise, understanding and compassionate. Lucy loved her father very much, even though he actually abandoned her to the care of her strict grandparents and moved away from her to re-marry.

It seems odd that she loved him so much, when he outright rejected her, but perhaps this was just the textbook example of the woman who idealizes the father no matter what he does.

When she was older she went to college and taught school. She was always moving from place to place, teaching and meeting new people. She had several love affairs, but her curious, intellectual snobbery pushed her to marry for intellect and not love. This turned out to be a bad decision, as the man she chose for his brains ended up making her life miserable.

When Lucy’s grandmother became ill, she went home to take care of her. Because of Montgomery’s unwillingness to turn her ailing grandmother out of the only home her grandmother had ever known, poor Lucy ended up waiting thirteen years to marry her fiance, Ewan McDonald. It was during this time, isolated on a farm in Cavendish, when she wrote her first novel and was rocketed to instant literary fame.

When she finally did marry the Reverend Ewan he turned out to be mentally ill – given to fits of ‘religious melancholy’ and erratic behavior. For the rest her life, Lucy would be stuck caring for him. His mental state, combined with the rigidity of being a minister’s wife in several narrow-minded communities, must have been extremely frustrating for the lively, educated, and sensitive Lucy.

Anne of Green Gables and the rest of her books made her a national celebrity and known all over the world, but Lucy Maud would end by committing suicide in 1942. It was a rather startling and gloomy end to an author who was always pinpointed as a ‘romantic and happy-hearts-and-flowers’ writer.

This reality, when measured against Lucy’s stories, is just what I find so interesting about her writing. The stories are light and humorous and often romantic, but when you really delve into them, there exists a much darker side.

Of course, measuring her books by our standards today, they can be passed off as a by-product of the era; a very ‘Victorian’ style with morals about temperance and an overlay of prudishness, but underneath that, there are human passions; love, jealousy, hate, grief and loneliness. Here are the things that make people really live, and, always, Montgomery’s sly and sardonic humor to give it that light feel.

In Emily of New Moon you meet Emily Starr, who is ten years old and orphaned by the recent death of her beloved father. She has to go live with her two Aunts and her odd Cousin Jimmy at New Moon Farm. She has a flare for writing and the book is made up of a series of letters to her dead father as well as anecdotes. Emily goes from little girl to young girl, establishing her world of New Moon, her strong personality full of pride, her circle of friends and family, and her ambition to write.

This book sets up Emily’s personality. She is stubborn, smart, sensitive, and imaginative. We are introduced to Ilse, wild and neglected, who becomes Emily’s best friend. We meet Perry, the hired boy, who is full of ambition and will spend the next ten years openly asking Emily to marry him every so often. She always refuses. We meet the dreamy Teddy Kent, a natural artist, with whom Emily instantly feels kismet.

Teddy’s mother, Aileen Kent, is a most interesting character. She is a widow and Teddy is all she has, so she loves him to the point of unnatural obsession. His mother has been badly burned by dropping an oil lamp. Her face is scarred, so she never leaves the house. From the start she sees Emily as a threat, and Emily feels this, but does not understand it. Mrs. Kent is a character that develops as the series goes on, and she goes from creepy to sympathetic as the reader watches her through Emily’s eyes. Indeed, as Emily goes from child to woman, her empathy for certain tragic figures in her life grows and evolves.

Montgomery was something of a genius when writing characters with tragic histories. She understood very well how things can happen to us; things that mess us up forever. It was her gift. She really saw people. Not just their surface exhibition of what they wanted to show the world, but the layers that they hid behind. It is another reason I think she was so successful as a writer.

Emily is particularly sensitive and has something she calls the flash, which she gets from time to time when she is really happy. She has psychic experiences where she sees visions. In each book, there is an episode where Emily has a vision and changes the life of someone around her. She doesn’t like these episodes, and tries to forget them when they happen, but it is a trait that lends to Emily’s special sensitivity to the world around her.

I always wonder if L.M. Montgomery wasn’t a bit of a sensitive herself. She did write about an experience she had when her best friend passed away. She was sitting in her parlor – they had parlors back then – and she suddenly felt she was not alone. She said aloud to her cat: If (her best friend) is here, then make (the cat) come and kiss me. The cat immediately got up and walked over and licked her hand. According to L.M., this was unusual, as the animal was not usually affectionate.

The second book, Emily Climbs, is set in a nearby town where Emily goes off to high school. In school, she develops as a writer, gets her first poem published, learns to live with a detestable family member, and realizes she’s in love with Teddy Kent, her childhood friend.

Aunt Ruth is another character that develops into a sympathetic person. She is crotchety, suspicious of Emily’s every move and motive, and endlessly invades her niece’s personal space. Emily has a hard time learning to live with her, but an education is important, so she toughs it out.

Then there comes the scandal. Emily, Ilse, Teddy and Perry are trapped by a blizzard one night and forced to spend the night in an abandoned house. To their families, the incident is a minor one. The ‘children’ did what they needed to do to weather the storm and no one thinks much about it, but in the town where Emily goes to high school, the gossip begins cruelly and increases. Emily is ostracized by people and asked to resign from some local charities that she has volunteered for.

It’s here that I sort of love Aunt Ruth. She goes to battle, sweeping in and calling down all those stuck-up people who would talk smack about her niece. It’s a lovely moment in the book, and although Emily doesn’t feel she will ever ‘love’ her aunt, she comes to respect her.

Teddy and Emily. Never fully got it. Teddy is not a strong character in the book. For me, he just didn’t have enough of a personality. There are many, many references to him, but Lucy Maud never really draws a full picture of him the way she does with Dean or Perry or Ilse. His figure remains this ideal of all that Emily wants in a man, but you never really understand why he’s so great. Unless it’s that he’s an artist and sensitive to beauty just like Emily.

For me, just sharing some things in common isn’t enough. There has to be something else. A contrast, if you will, so that there is a mutual sharing of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. In other words, the person should be strong where you are not, and vice versa.

I get the feeling that L.M. was trying to create a soulmate for Emily, in the sense that he’s so perfect for her we don’t even need to know why. It should be obvious. But it kind of isn’t. So no, I never liked Teddy as much as I should.

Teddy is madly in love with Emily too. He paints her face into all of his paintings of women. Despite this obvious sign that he loves her, everyone just goes about saying: Oh well, it must just be a quirk of his – left over from an old, unconscious, emotion. No big deal. I don’t know, but I’d be a tad suspicious if an artist painted everyone to look like me.

But Emily is too blind to see it, and too prideful to say anything until he says something first. The book ends with nothing said between them as Teddy goes off to Montreal and Emily gives up a chance to go to New York and work on a newspaper.

Emily stays home to write. This is a fine example of Montgomery. You might think that she arranges matter thus because Emily has to be the typical early twentieth century woman and stay home and wait for Teddy. In a way, you’d be right, but there is one very important thing about L.M.:  She has a thing about homes and about Prince Edward Island.

In her books, simple home life always wins out over glamorous big city lights.

It’s very romantic. I don’t totally agree with the idea that home is best, but I’m not Montgomery. She loved PEI. It was ‘her place’ and every one of her books is set there.She was always homesick for it; the beauty of it. It’s interesting how one can be homesick for places that one has spent very little time in. I am always a bit homesick for Paris, France, for instance, even though I have only spent a few weeks there altogether. But both times I have flown in and out of it, I have cried to leave it, and cried to touch down in it. It’s a place I will always feel is ‘home’ to me, no matter where I was born.

Montgomery always felt that about PEI, even though she actually did not live there her entire life. Certainly, as I grow older, I note the longing for ‘place’ that naturally occurs in us all. The lure of the horizon is all very well, but the world can be empty and cold, too. There is something to be said for roots.

Book three! Emily’s Quest is my favorite. In it, we have Emily, left alone on the farm while all her friends go off to Montreal and college. The book is starkly honest about her depression and despair when she is stuck home writing and getting rejected all over the place. We have her friend, Dean Priest, the older man who knew her father just hanging around and biding his time until he can catch her on the rebound.

Dean Priest. He’s a fascinating sketch. He has one shoulder higher than the other, and therefore life has not been very kind to him. Because he’s slightly handicapped, he has spent his life reading everything and traveling all over the world. He is clever, rich, tragic and about twenty years older than Emily. He meets her when she is ten. He saves her from falling over a cliff, and the two have become good friends. His brilliance appeals to Emily’s smarts, and she looks on him as something of a mentor. Its obvious through all the books that Dean is just hanging around waiting for her to grow up so he can marry her. Despite his initial creepiness, I always liked Dean more than Teddy. He is so much more interesting and tragic.

Meanwhile, Teddy is off in Montreal with Ilse, forgetting about Emily and meeting other women. He only comes back every so often, and every time, he is more and more full of himself. Emily feels the connection between them fading, but she is too prideful to try and stop it. So all she does is write and wait rather hopelessly for Teddy to grow up and figure it out.

In short, it has all the elements of a woman waiting with no end in sight – and most women have some inkling what that’s like.

Because it’s Montgomery, the series ends happily enough, but despite everything coming right in the end, there was always an element to the books that left me vaguely unhappy. I suppose, it is because the books touch too closely to real life to be really happy.

Dean’s fate, for instance, always bothered me. He was so miserable his entire life, and suffered cruelly. He doesn’t ever get what he wants.  Emily’s silent loss of hope is so intense and personal that you get the feeling that she will always be scarred by it, even after it turns out all right. By comparison, Teddy does not seem to have suffered much, he only gets his ego nicely deflated.

I suppose that it may be why I think the series is the best of Montgomery’s.  It is a very real, very touching portrait of a woman and her stupid choices, as well as her good ones. Emily is pursuing her dream. She is ambitious and clever and working steadily away at becoming a famous author, but she is also experiencing the isolation that ambition and being clever can bring. Like when one of the Popes (can’t remember which one) was given a hand-carved bed. He said: “It is beautiful, but I shall die in it.” If the Emily books were true-to-life, they probably wouldn’t turn out so well.

Montgomery knew what she wrote. She knew about pain and being alone and being left behind. She knew about how choices can ruin your life or save it.

Montgomery was a master at character. She wrote character so well, Mark Twain called her Anne (of Green Gables) ‘the sweetest creation of a child since the immortal Alice” and as one master to another, he would know.

Character is a difficult thing to write, much less master. I think it is one of the hardest things as a writer to really create life on the page. Montgomery is my favorite author because she has mastered character. Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I study her style to see what I can take from it. She draws a fine portrait of people; she lets their flaws show as well as their beauty. She writes real people and not puppets. She lets people be themselves on the page.

Because of my initial, absent-minded, sort of dreamy gaze, I generally look at people with, most people think I am never really paying attention. They are often right. If I am coming up from the depths of a book, for instance, it might take me a few moments to figure out where I am. Same as when I’m writing. I might look at you in a puzzled, irritable, way, as if I am none to sure who you are. Which I am not. At least not for a few seconds. All this a character writer does not make. But I cant help it. There seems to be a sort of invisible blanket between me and the world – a lot of the time. I don’t know what to do about it at this point. I pay attention when it matters, I guess. Like in class. And while driving. But when someone is explaining whats wrong with my brakes or what the job I’m interviewing for involves…yeah, I tend to drift off into other realms.

Lucy Maud knew how to pay attention to people. She knew what made them work, and if she didn’t, she explored it until she did. Through literature and art and social happenings of the day. She read the newspapers and traveled as much as she could. She examined her world, wherever she was, whether it was large or small. I think its the secret to writing people. Pay attention to human frailty and human strength. Figure it out. Then make it fit.

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Filed under Autobiography, Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Girly Books

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Some very adult themes here – namely death – which is perhaps why this book didn’t appeal to me when I was ten. Not only is this a coming of age book, but it is a grappling-with-thy-mid-life-crisis book as well.

When do we face our own mortality? What happens when we do realize that life is going to stop for every single one of us someday? Not just know it, but know it in your soul. Death lies in wait. Hopefully when he comes it will be when you are ready to meet him and not before, but there is no assurance of that.

Tuck Everlasting makes a point of illustrating the Wheel of Life, the natural way of birth and living and dying.

Some of my earliest memories are death-related. A friend of my parent’s – his death by drowning and his funeral; the grief of his wife. My grandfather’s funeral with the open casket. “He just looks like he’s asleep,” my father assured me. Even then I knew that what I was about to see was supposed to be something we draw away from.

But death is natural, and living forever isn’t. This is heavy stuff for a children’s book. Natalie Babbitt has written a complex story that is deceptively simple. I love the richness of her description and her flawless portrayal of a child confronted for the first time by the mystery of life and death. What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? You can’t have one without the other Tuck says, but that is just what the Tuck’s have: Life. Forever. No death. How exhausting would it be to live forever? How futile would everything seem with no limits, no end, no constraints? How meaningless everything must become.

The sadness of their fate pulls at my heart even though I know that this story could never actually happen. I suppose it is because I know that there are many, many different ways to avoid living your life – I have tried a few of them without any success, thank god.

Dying is at the end of everything, but the end is not anything I’m worried about. I made my peace with death years ago.

I suppose, when my time comes I feel something like Henry Ward Beecher when he famously said on his deathbed in 1887: “Now comes the mystery.” It’s true. No one knows what lies ahead of us, but we know where we are now.

This book contains that message. Live presently. Live in the now.

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Filed under Children, Coming-of-Age Books, Fantasy

Half Magic by Edward Eager

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time picking things up I found on the ground. Coins, bent nails, stones, seashells, sticks, weird pieces of metal and discarded tin cans. Stuff like that. Many child development psychologists will lead you to believe that children are marvelous at noticing the ordinary since they haven’t yet become jaded adults with more important things to think about and that their minds are more open to the wonders of the world… and all that blah blah blah.

But my own personal theory is that when you are a child you are simply shorter…and therefore lower to the ground, hence you naturally notice a lot more of what goes on down there than the adults, who are taller and busy looking out for buses and talking to each other about boring things, leaving you free to entertain yourself with sticks and stones and notice things nearer to your line of vision.

I’m pretty sure that’s how it works.

What I never told the adults in my life was that the feathers and rocks and tabs from soda cans I was busy collecting served the unique purpose of being carried home in my pocket and then wished on when no one was looking. I can’t remember what I wished for. A unicorn maybe. Or that the next time we went fishing we’d see mermaids. Or that I’d find a hollowed out tree and move into it, like that boy in that one book; he had a raccoon for a pet. Maybe I wished for a raccoon.

Edgar Eager must have remembered about being shorter and finding things on the ground you hoped were wishable, because the first book he wrote was about just that. The children find a magic coin and it gives them wishes. Of course, it only has so many wishes, and it has the trick of making you wish for things twice over in order to get them once – hence the name Half-Magic –  but once the children figure that out they have a terrific time and lots of adventures. They travel to Saudi Arabia and join a caravan and they go back to King Arthur’s court and hang out with Merlin. Through a series of mishaps they start a fire, Jane becomes someone else for the day, and Martha wishes herself half-there and people think she’s a ghost, which starts a riot. In the end they land themselves a nice stepfather who owns a bookshop, their mother gets to quit her poorly paid job and stay at home with them, and they get to spend the rest of the summer by the lake, which is kind of all they wanted to begin with.

The next book takes place at the lake and while they are there they have a run in with a turtle, who gives them a whole lakeful of magic.

All these books Eager wrote were based loosely on his experience of reading his favorite children’s author E. Nesbit. (She’s terrific, too...Five Children and It) He said that he, just like Nesbit, wanted to write stories about ordinary kids who get side-swiped by magic occurrences. So he did. When he ran out of stories about Mark, Katharine, Jane and Martha, he jumped into the future and wrote about their children having magic adventures.

I’ve sort of giving up excerpting since I didn’t want to have copyright issues with anything, but Eager’s books are pretty old, so I feel comfortable sharing this bit. I have to share it. It’s both funny and charming.

Excerpt:

Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she’d heard her mother say so. and the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katharine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like.

…A woman named Miss Bick came every day to care for the children, but she couldn’t seem to care for them very much, nor they for her. And she wouldn’t take them to the country or a lake; she said it was too much to expect and the sound of waves affected her heart.

“Clear Lake isn’t the ocean; you can hardly hear it,” Jane told her.

“It would attract lightning,” Miss Bick said, which Jane thought cowardly, besides being unfair arguing. If you’re going to argue, and Jane usually was, you want people to line up all their objections at a time; then you can knock them down all at once. But Miss Bick was always sly.

So there you have a sample of Eager’s awesome humor. Reflecting: I think that he is a big influence on the way I write. When I read his stuff, I notice that my fiction scribbling has the same tone as his. It’s not deliberate, but there it is. Writers. We all plagiarise each other, but what can you do? While it is about finding your own voice, sometimes your voice is just heavily influenced by those who have gone before.

I still pick stuff up. Being taller now, I don’t notice as much near cracks in the sidewalk and on the side of the road. But I still notice lots of things. Sometimes I go through my storage boxes and I find old keys, old coins, tiny, empty bottles of perfume, odd pendants – the best ones have weird symbols on them – broken pieces of ceramic, plastic figurines, bottle openers and all kinds of odds and ends I’ve picked up. Most of it I throw away in a fit of cleanliness and adult reason, but sometimes – especially when its an old coin from some far off place – I look around to make sure I’m alone – and I wish.

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Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery and the Bunnicula Series by James Howe

Today I have a headache and I have so many things to get done, I don’t know which one to do.

So I don’t think I’ll do anything.

Or so would read my Facebook status if I felt like putting it in, which I do not. I really don’t want anyone to annoy me by ‘liking’ it. (There’s nothing so annoying to me as the ‘like’ button on Facebook. For some reason. I literally spend minutes to hours of my life obsessing over how much I hate it when people ‘like’ something.)

The above has nothing to do with anything, but it helped me get started.

It occurs to me I have not written a review in a few weeks or days or however-long-it’s-been, so I am going to wing it and write a little something about James Howe.

When I was eight, or seven, or possibly six, I had a record of the story Bunnicula. I can still hear the narrator.  (Funny thing: I always remember people’s voices. I forget what they look like very quickly, but voices stay with me. Is it that way for everyone? Perhaps I should do a poll.)

Bunnicula was the story of a vampire bunny who drained vegetables of juice. I don’t know where Mr. Howe came up with this idea, but it’s absolutely brilliant. I want some of his Kid’s Writer Juice.

The Monroe family discover the baby rabbit in a shoebox at a screening of Dracula. He has markings like a little cape and he has fangs. Central to the book are the family pets, Harold, a dog, and Chester, an over-educated and neurotic cat.

The family takes Bunnicula in with open arms and finds nothing about the baby rabbit unusual. Even the weird, white vegetables that keep turning up around the house don’t clue them in. It is the highly imaginative Chester who figures out what Bunnicula really is and gets all paranoid that the cute little bunny is going to turn on the family and suck their blood. Of course, the bunny only sucks vegetable juice and in the end, Harold saves him from Chester in a dramatic moment, making Bunnicula a firm member of the family and inducing Chester to accept him and stop being so paranoid.The family takes Bunnicula to a vet and the doctor puts him on a juice diet, which stops the appearance of white vegetables and everything goes back to normal.

Each book is both humorous and slightly chilling, with the animal characters embarking on a scary mystery and saving the day. The stories usually revolve around some form of the unexplained, be it ghosts or vampires or Bigfoot.

When I was a kid I read these books over and over, which more than likely explains a few things about me.In addition to being funny, the books were semi-educational of all things paranormal.

Stacked next to my bed were books about ghosts, the Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch and unsolved crimes. I never really got into UFO’s because aliens seem farfetched and disconnected from planet earth. I was interested in earth-bound mysteries,  not strange beings who flitted about among the heavens and sucked people up in a green beam of light. Human-like apes romping through the trees I could believe in, but skinny creatures with egg-shaped heads and huge bug eyes? Come on.

Of course, now that I am older, I welcome aliens and UFO’s in with the rest of the pack. (Come on in and join the party! Nessie is here, along with the Jersey Devil and the spirits of a few Civil War Soldiers. Sorry to deny you guys entrance for so long! Chalk it up to ignorance! Would you like some punch?) The Universe is so vast, I find it narrow-minded to believe we are all alone, and although I don’t wander about in fields after dark waiting to be sucked up into a tractor beam, I heartily believe in life on other planets. The Truth is Out There and all that. You go, Spooky Mulder.

James Howe created this delightful series for all the future wide-eyed ghost-hunter nerds of America, and I’m not sure whether to thank him for it or not. But I certainly thank him for providing us with a special and unique series.

I would love to have included the 1983 audio version of the first book by the gentle-voiced Lou Jacobi. All they have now is the updated version by Victor Garber, who is not nearly as good at the different voices and sounds clipped and dull,  like he’s faking a British accent. However, while I do have the 1983 version on tape…it’s, uh, on tape.

(I am still struggling with the whole cassette to Mp3 thing.)

Meanwhile, the lengths I went to find an online version of this book was exhausting. You’d think this thing was highly classified material, the way it’s copyright protected. All I wanted to do was copy and paste an excerpt instead of laboriously copying one out, but nay. Can nothing in my life be simple?

Here is an excerpt about my favorite character and I hope you appreciate it, dear readers. Chester is telling Harold, the narrator, about the events of the previous night.

Excerpt:

I feel at this time there are a few things you should know about Chester. He is not your ordinary cat. (But then I am not your ordinary dog, since an ordinary dog wouldn’t be writing this book, would he?)

Chester came into the house several years ago as a birthday gift for Mr. Monroe, along with two volumes of G.K. Chesterton (hence the name, Chester) and a first edition of Dickons’ A Tale of Two Cities. As a result of this introduction to literature, and given the fact that Mr. Monroe is an English professor, Chester developed a taste for reading early in life…He especially likes mystery stories, and tales of horror and the supernatural. As a result he has developed a very vivid imagination.

That night…the wind and the rain had stopped and, as Chester read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, he became increasingly aware of the eerie stillness…as Chester tells it, he suddenly felt compelled to look at the rabbit. The little bunny had begun to move for the first time since being put in the cage. He lifted his tiny nose, and inhaled deeply, as if gathering sustenance from the moonlight.

…Through the silence drifted the strains of a remote and exotic music.

“I could have sworn it was a gypsy violin,” Chester told me. “I thought perhaps a caravan was passing by, so I ran to the window.”

I remember my mother telling me something about caravans when I was a puppy. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what.

“What’s a caravan?” I asked, feeling a little stupid.

“A caravan is a band of gypsies, traveling through the forest in their wagons.” Chester answered.

“Ah yes.” It was coming back to me now. “Station Wagons?”

“No, covered wagons! The gypsies travel all through the land, setting up camps around great bonfires, doing magical tricks, and sometimes, if you cross their palms with a piece of silver, they’ll tell your fortune.”

“You mean if I gave them a fork, they’d tell me my fortune?” I asked, breathlessly.

Chester looked at me with disdain. “Save your silverware,” he said. “It wasn’t a caravan after all.”

 

 

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The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764 – 1765 by Cleone Knox (Magdalen King-Hall)

Remember that really cheesy bookstore at the North Bend outlet mall? Well, maybe not. I was about twelve when I came across this book in the young adult section of that cheap bookstore. Turns out, it has a really interesting history.

It was published in London in the year 1925. The book was thought to be a recent discovery by a man who claimed to be Cleone Knox’s descendant. It was great success in England and the US, becoming a bestseller, and everyone was intrigued with the eighteenth century girl’s private diary and her detailed descriptions of famous places and people and events. Alexander Blacker Kerr was the editor and self-proclaimed descendant. He makes a lot of interesting footnotes to the diary and even writes a forward where he details the history of the family and his discovery of the diary.

One year later, the truth came out. The book was a hoax, written by a nineteen year old girl named Magdalen King-Hall. Both Alexander Blacker Kerr and Cleone Knox were pure invention. The public was outraged and the secret made headlines.

King-Hall writes a new Author’s Forward in 1966 and comments that “what halcyon days the Roaring Twenties must have been, one feels, seeing it all now as though through the wrong end of a telescope, when such a small mystery could make headlines!”

Outraged they might have been, but eighty years later, I am impressed with King-Hall’s careful research of the 1700’s, the language and the liveliness of her main character, who you instantly like because of her smarts, her spunk, and her determination to be happy and have a good time despite her domineering father, her self-absorbed brother and the frustration of not being able to marry who she wants – for a little while anyway.

The book covers the Grand Tour of a genteel Irish lady, Cleone, her father and her brother. From Ireland to England to France and then on to Switzerland and Italy; a Grand Tour was considered a necessity for the young and the wealthy. In this case, the father takes his children on a long trip around Europe, hoping that his spirited daughter will forget her attachment to the charming and roguish Mr. Ancaster. Of course, she doesn’t. But her wonderful descriptions of her travels help make life without ‘Mr. A’ (as she calls him) tolerable and diverting.

King-Hall’s fantastic sense of history is my favorite thing about this book. I don’t know if anyone reading this is a history buff, but I am. Although I know the diary is all made up, it is a historically accurate piece of work. The description of clothes (and Cleone is a teenage girl so there’s a lot about new bonnets and dresses and jewels and things) the witty language, the little things (like having her hair washed and done only once a week (yuck) and bathing and diet, staying in inns that were dirty and the difficulties of traveling by coach, and shopping) the famous people and well-known royalty referred to, the politics of each country and cultural differences – just everything.

Imagine being in London and meeting the famous painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. Imagine your father discussing him doing a painting of you. Think of being in Paris in 1764. The city is on fire with talk of new ideas and revolution. Nothing has happened yet, but the energy is there. Cleone writes of Venice, which was one of the most lively and scandalous cities in Europe at the time: “I heard things I could scarcely write down. This is indeed a gallant and loose city.”

It’s an interesting little book, and I have read it many times. Cleone goes from one adventure and/or mishap to the next and writes of it with great humor and fun. In the end she elopes with the persistent Mr. A and settles in Ireland. Her father finally comes round to forgiving her when she gives him his first grandchild and Cleone and Mr. A live a long and happy life.

Here is a bit from the very beginning. The style of writing breaks every grammatical law in the books, but it is amusing and gives you a sense of Cleone’s personality, which is the major draw to this story. The words that are capitalized are meant to be so.

Excerpt:
“March 3rd
This morning had a vastly unpleasant interview with my Father. Last night, Mr. Ancaster, who is the indiscreetest young man alive, was seized suddenly while riding home along the shore with the desire to say goodnight to me. He climbed the wall, the postern gate being locked at that late hour, and had the Boldness to attempt to climb the ivy below my window; while but halfway up the Poor Impudent young man fell. (If he hadn’t Lord knows what would have happened for I am terribly catched by the Handsome Wretch.) As ill luck would have it Papa and Ned, who were conversing in the library, looked out at that moment and saw him lying Prostrate on the ground!
No need to describe the scene that followed. My father it seems thinks me guilty of Indiscretion and Immodesty, though why I don’t know, for I was sound asleep the whole time and never heard so much as an Oath (and I dare swear there were plenty flying round!) My father said some mighty unkind things to me this morning and I wept loudly for more than Half an Hour.
Poor Mr.A. from all accounts is a Scoundrel, a Libertine and a Blackguard, and I have been forbidden ever to see, speak or indeed think of him again. Well, we shall see.”

She does see. And so does the reader, as she embarks on a year long adventure on the Continent. Incidentally, this book is out of print, so it might be difficult to find. I did manage to find a few copies by googling it. I found one that is the original 1926 version! But it was 60.00 and I am not that in love with it.

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The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton

Yes. This was an ABC-TV Weekend Special when I was eight. But it was a book first.

This has got be one of the best children’s books of all time. I read it at least twenty times when I was a kid and I finally mustered up the memory and bought a really awful copy on Amazon. But it is not the cover that counts, but what lies within.

Pierre Berton knew how to write a children’s story. Using his own kids as fodder, he created The Secret World of Og.

When I first read it, I remember feeling that it was one of those classic stories that you always had somewhere hidden away inside your head. Like in Peter Pan, when Wendy’s mother goes through her children’s minds at night and marvels over the strange things she finds there; this story is something maybe you played at, or told yourself a story about, before you had actually come across the book.

I am sure that Pierre Berton must have talked to his children, listened to their games, and paid very close attention to come up with a perfectly amazing imaginary world. Or maybe he just never lost the knack of being a kid himself.

Of course, I was eight. So I’m sure I didn’t really analyze it that specifically, but I do remember thinking that this was a familiar story, and realizing it was because it is the kind of thing I had always hoped could happen for real.

Reading Og gives me an intense satisfaction. It is the same satisfaction I got when I first read Harry Potter or anything by Robin McKinley. It is because the author just gets it. I don’t even really know what it is they get, but they do. They don’t patronize children. They get down on their level and that means all levels. They live inside the worlds they make and really love every word they write. You can feel it in the language, in the descriptions, and in the dialogue. The author is simply enjoying the hell out of telling the story.

But I digress. Imagine that.

The first thing to love about The Secret World of Og is not only the title, but the first sentence:

“There were five children, counting the Pollywog, and their names all began with the letter P.”

Isn’t that awesome? (*she says excitedly) Doesn’t it just command you to want to know more?

So the five children from the Pollywog, who is a baby and always trying to escape his playpen or highchair using the family cat as a landing pad, to Penny, the eldest and the most sensible (the one on the verge of being ‘too old’) embark on this fantastic underground adventure and find the Ogs, little green creatures who steal the comic books, games, dress-up clothes and books that careless children leave outside overnight. Ogs use this stolen stuff to imitate the games they see the children playing (like Cowboys and Indians and Superheros and so forth) except for them, the game isn’t a game at all. It is real. Needless to say, the children find themselves in a big ol’ mess when they try and rescue their little brother and find that the game that day is Wild West and he’s scheduled to die by the noose.

After some scary moments, it all ends well, and the children convince the Ogs to have some real adventures in their own world, instead of just pretending all the time.

(True story: I wanted so badly for Ogs to be real, I left my doll out in the rain one night on purpose, hoping that she’d disappear. Sadly, she did not, and I bitterly concluded that it was only a story after all, despite Berton’s dedication to his seven kids and his note that the last two weren’t born when ‘it’ happened.)

On second thought, I don’t care. I’m thirty-four and I believe in ghosts and other strange phenomena. So why not Og? I think I’ll keep hoping.

Here’s the part when the kids first get underground and see the river. I like the description because I can see it so clearly. Indeed, in one of my books (unpublished and unfinished) I created a cavern that resembles this one – except mine’s more golden. But subconsciously I must have been remembering Berton’s.

Excerpt:
“The children stood for a moment in the silence, awed by what they saw. They seemed to be in an enormous cavern so huge that they could not see the far side, so high they could scarcely see the roof. Through the cavern wound a river, like a bright, shimmering serpent. It glowed and sparkled and this glow was reflected in hundreds of pinpoints of light from the crystal rocks all around. It was the river itself that seemed to supply the soft light – a sort of twilight to which the children quickly grew accustomed. After a few moments they were easily able to pick out the various objects in the cavern: the shapes of boulders on the far side of the river, the dark walls that rose above them, and the ‘icicles,’ as Patsy called them, which hung from the ceiling, flashing and glittering in the reflected glow of the river.”

Not only is the writing beautiful, but the Berton is super funny. I can’t end this without throwing in one more sample. My favorite has to be the description of the baby, and the way that the author gives him a plotting and devious personality. I can just see Mr. Berton, sitting at the breakfast table, gazing at his infant son, and imagining out this next part. Read on.

Excerpt:
“On the afternoon that It happened, the Pollywog was in jail as usual; and as usual he was trying to escape. For his entire life, which seemed to him to have been very long but was actually only twelve months, he had been staring out at the world from behind bars.
First, there had been the crib in the hospital, into which they had popped him after he was born, and then there was the crib at home. Sometimes they would take him out of the crib and pop him in a playpen; more bars. The Pollywog would grip the bars, like a convict, and stare out at the world. He would work out elaborate means of escape and sometimes he actually succeeded in escaping. Nobody ever knew how he did it, but the fact was that occasionally he would be discovered outside his playpen or his crib or down off the high chair, which was his third prison.”

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