Tag Archives: The Amazing Bone

"Your mother can't be with you anymore…"

Dramatic tension is essential for holding the interest of jack russells

Years ago, when my daughter and I first began drawing faces together, she discovered how easily tears could be added, and she would implore me, “Mommy, draw girl crying!” and I would do the round circle head, the eyes, the down-turned mouth, and last of all, the tears. My daughter is, and was then, a happy, sociable, energetic child, but during that phase she would have watched Bambi every day if I let her. Among her favourite books were the ones I mentioned in my last post, which have happy endings but go to dark places along the way — the threat of being eaten or embedded in stone. Such stories are still the ones she wants to hear again and again, long after the cute, sweet, light stories have been shelved and forgotten.

Babar is riding happily on his mother's back when...

I like to muse about why children want these stories; when (if) they can be too much; how parents should handle the emotions they expose, and the inevitable questions they instigate. For instance, it took my daughter a long time to understand what the gunshot meant in Bambi, and to know what to do with the knowledge. When we read Babar, the story of an elephant whose mother is killed by a hunter, she immediately stopped me and asked, “Do hunters take moms away? Are there hunters in Toronto?” And for the rest of the book, she kept flipping back to that page where Babar’s mother was shot.

For weeks after the Bambi penny dropped, she’d ask, “Did you lock the door?” as soon as we got home. And then I started to hear her role-playing with her stuffed animals, and having one say to the other, “Your mother is not coming back. Your mother is never coming back.” (For a time I worried, but she is turning out just fine.)

Bambi, A Life in the Woods, by Felix Salten

First released in 1942, the movie Bambi holds up well today, and the book, originally published in Austria in 1923, is considered a classic and often referred to as one of the first environmental novels. Apparently its author, Felix Salten, wrote the story with an adult audience in mind, and indeed the Wall Street Journal reported that “you’ll find it in the children’s section at the library, a perfect place for this 293-page volume, packed as it is with blood-and-guts action, sexual conquest and betrayal.”

Salten was in his fifties by the time he wrote Bambi, A Life in the Woods, and had been writing plays, short stories, novels, and essays for years. But his books were banned by the Nazi regime in 1936, and as a Jew he was forced to leave Austria for Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1945 — just three years after Disney released the animated version of his story, featuring a white-tailed deer rather than a roe, but retaining the heartbreaking scene in which “your mother can’t be with you anymore.”

Plate I from Darwin's Expression of the Emotions

I once met a grandmother who told me she didn’t think her toddler grandson should read How the Grinch Stole Christmas because she believed it was best to expose him only to happiness at his tender age. So that he would only be happy, I guess. But not even babies are “only happy.” In fact, you might argue that happiness is one of the more rare baby emotions. It takes weeks for a baby to smile; the wait is longer for laughter. (Said Charles Darwin, upon observing his own babies for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “In this gradual acquirement, by infants, of the habit of laughing, we have a case in some degree analogous to that of weeping. As practice is requisite with the ordinary movements of the body, such as walking, so it seems to be with laughing and weeping. The art of screaming, on the other hand, from being of service to infants, has become finely developed from the first days.”)

Actually — if one is looking for good messages in children’s literature, the Grinch is a stellar example. This is one of the rare Christmas stories in which the protagonist comes around not out of self interest or self preservation, but simply because he is moved by goodness. But I’ll save that for a December post.

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Pebbles and bones: the nitty-gritty of telling good stories

Even (perhaps especially) twenty-two-year-old cats love to be read to...

My daughter, almost six now, is hungry for big books these days — she still likes a few pictures here and there, but they are not essential. And she loves a long, meaty story. Yet there are still picture books that we return to on a regular basis, and I hope we do so for some time. Among our (or maybe my?) favourites are William Steig’s books, with deliciously dark but also tender themes.

In The Amazing Bone, Pearl, a very girly I-love-everything pig clad in pink bonnet and dress, is abducted by a suave suited fox, and locked into an empty room in his hideaway while he sharpens his knives by the stove that will roast her if she doesn’t escape.  A talking bone she has found along the way is her only ally — it can speak in any language and imitate any sound there is. The premise is totally bizarre, which even Pearl realizes.

“You’re a bone,” she says. “How come you can sneeze?”

“I don’t know,” the bone replies. “I didn’t make the world.”

I love that line, and the way Steig examines the baffling human condition to resonate with adult and child alike.  Pearl’s story is full of contrasts: the bright, beautiful spring, in which Pearl “could almost feel herself changing into a flower”; the band of masked highway  robbers she encounters, carrying pistols and daggers and demanding her purse. It’s heavy stuff — you could easily take the skeleton of this story and turn it into a terrifying thriller, but the pretty pig and the talking bone and the flowers soften the edges just the right amount.

"The spring green sparkled in the spring light"

It seems Steig understood he’d have a lot more freedom with his stories if his characters were animal rather than human.  In The Minstrel Steig, Roger Angell’s New Yorker article about Steig’s life and career, Steig says, “I realized that I could get crazier with animals and have them do stranger things.” So many authors have done this — but Steig does it with wit, dignity, and style, in a highly original way.

"They all had all that they wanted"

In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Sylvester is a donkey who, in a fearful moment, uses his magic pebble to wish himself into a rock, only to find that he can’t escape back into donkeyness again. As day changes to night, season to season, doomed Sylvester loses hope and falls into “an endless sleep.” His parents grieve, wondering what’s become of him.  They weep, and they look everywhere for him as the months pass. Finally it seems impossible he will ever return.

“They tried their best to be happy, to go about their usual ways. But their usual ways included Sylvester and they were always reminded of him. They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them anymore.”

This brilliant story was Steig’s second book for children — it won the Caldecott Medal and was selected as one of the 100 Best Books of the Century by the National Education Association. The illustrations glow, and the story captures every family’s worst fear — that somehow child and parent will be separated. But there’s a happy ending, with the lovely double-all line, “They all had all that they wanted.”

Steig wrote and illustrated more than thirty novels and picture books for children, including the Doctor De Soto series, featuring a dentist mouse, and the Shrek! story, so enormously successful on film. My personal favourite, though, is the quieter Brave Irene, which features a human girl as the main character, charged with delivering a Duchess’s ball gown in a snowstorm because her mother falls ill with a cold and can’t do it herself.

So many of Steig’s stories seem in essence to be about courage and survival. What’s refreshing is that they are never sentimental, or condescending to the child reader. Steig uses words like “odoriferous,” which kids likely won’t know, but he trusts them to get what he means anyway. And they do. They have for decades.

Steig was in his sixties by the time he wrote his first children’s book. By then he’d already had a long career as a cartoonist with The New Yorker. He sold his first drawing to the magazine in 1930, and continued to contribute late into his life. So though it was a different market, I’m sure it came as no surprise that his children’s drawings were wonderful — but beyond that, he was a superb storyteller. Early in his newfound career, he wrote to an editor, “I hope you’ll understand if I tell you that I tend to be a bit ‘uptight’, even neurotic perhaps, about being edited. It’s not vanity — I don’t think I’m a great writer, or even a good one (in fact, I’m not a writer) — but I like to sound like myself when I talk or write.”

Just a week after his death in 2003, his wife Jeanne wrote a touching essay about him in the New York Times, calling him both “a champion worrier” and “the most cheerful man alive.” She claimed, “He drew from an impulse that went straight from the heart to his moving hand — and he always watched that hand with delight, wanting to see what it was up to. The interpretations others might bring surprised him. Really? he’d say, and make haste to forget whatever metaphysical visions had been assigned to him. He didn’t need them; they got in the way.”

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