Tag Archives: The New Yorker

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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"If a writer, why not write?" in which A.A. Milne shows Eeyore traits and Dorothy Parker throws up

a__a__milne

A.A. Milne, author of more than Pooh

“The only excuse which I have yet discovered for writing anything is that I want to write it; and I should be as proud to be delivered of a Telephone Directory con amore as I should be ashamed to create a Blank Verse Tragedy at the bidding of others.”

There’s a lot tucked away in this one sentence of Alan Alexander Milne’s.  The quote comes from his introduction to his  whodunit, The Red House Mystery, published in 1922. Milne was about 40 then, with a wife and young son Christopher Robin, who would soon inspire the Pooh stories for which Milne is now so well known.  You can see a glimmer of them here, in the way the words Telephone Directory and Blank Verse Tragedy are capitalized. (“I have been Foolish and Deluded. I am a Bear of No Brain at All.”)

Interesting, too, this musing on what he should and should not write. What he’d feel proud or ashamed of. He worked many years for Punch magazine, as did Ernest Howard Shepard, who illustrated Milne’s children’s stories. Milne also wrote a number of plays, an autobiography, short stories, novels, political non-fiction, and a kind of adult fairytale called Once on a Time. But the world of the Hundred Acre Wood — containing his son, and a bear, pig, donkey, tiger and kangaroo bought at Harod’s — quickly came to define him.

Milne himself lamented:

If a writer, why not write
On whatever comes in sight?
So — the Children’s Books; a short
Intermezzo of a sort:
When I wrote them, little thinking
All my years of pen-and-inking
Would be almost lost among
Those four trifles for the young.

returnI wonder what he would think of the new book by David Benedictus, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, complete with Shepardesque “decorations” by Mark Burgess. The story picks up where Milne left off, and brings Christopher Robin back from school on a new blue bicycle that all his animal friends admire. Christopher is more grown up than he was in the early stories — he knows what a thesaurus can do,  and notices things like the number of countries on his map that are coloured pink. But in some ways he remains the same: Pooh, staying with him that night, sits on a chair in the bathroom. “What he really wanted to see was whether he still wore his blue braces, and, yes, he did (but not in the bath).”

Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is lovingly and carefully created. Benedictus mimics Milne’s style effortlessly and with obvious admiration, and Burgess’s illustrations are as subtle and charming as Shepard’s were. There’s a new character, Lottie the somewhat feisty Otter, whose teeth are “sharp enough, I can promise you, when they need to be.” These are all things to admire (the but is still to come) and my daughter is enjoying the book as much as she enjoyed the original stories, maybe more, because she’s older now and getting more out of the readings. Piglet is still her favourite character (I think she sees herself in him), and she is intrigued by Owl’s spelling mistakes, something that would have been lost on her when we last read the original stories.

dorothy parker

Poor her: the Tonstant Weader

She is delighted by the very things that so famously irritated Dorothy Parker — the “frequent droppings into more cadenced whimsy,” as she put it in her scathing New Yorker review of The House at Pooh Corner back in 1928. Parker was known as the Constant Reader, but had read enough when it came to Pooh’s silly little hums and a plot that consisted of practicing one for Eeyore.

“Pom,” said Pooh. “I put that in to make it more hummy.”

And in response, Parker wrote, “it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up.”

In the words of a wise, good friend of mine: “Poor her, unable to enjoy a simple hum.”

But even Milne may have reached that stage eventually. His Pooh stories — though an “intermezzo” — became so successful that they eclipsed his other work. During WW2, demand for the Pooh stories soared, and only continued in the postwar era. Now, of course, we have tubby Disney Pooh in his too-tight red t-shirt, and any number of Pooh products are available for purchase. At one point, Milne wrote that any reference to the silly old bear was “infuriating.”

enchanted places

The real Christopher Robin

And Christopher Robin — a real person, after all — was indelibly inked into childhood by a kind but distant father who “got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders … [and] left me with the empty fame of being his son…. One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it.” (Actually Christopher Robin Milne did write three books about sharing his life with Pooh.)

It seems E.H. Shepard was similarly undone. Pooh — whose image was based on Shepard’s son’s bear, Growler — dominated, while Shepard’s other accomplishments were thrown into shadow. He drew for Punch for years, illustrated many other children’s books, including a couple of his own. He also authored two memoirs, Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life. It seems his talents — or perhap his passion — ran in the family. His son, Graham, was an illustrator, but was killed in WW2, and his daughter, Mary, illustrated the Mary Poppins books.

shepard's dream days

Grahame's Dream Days, illustrated by E.H. Shepard

I was surprised to discover my own personal link to Shepard, however tangential. Along with the lovely example at right, he illustrated a version of Tom Brown’s School-Days, the Victorian-era story about a boy at Rugby School, by Thomas Hughes. Hughes was the father of Lillian Hughes, who died on the Titanic, but years earlier had befriended my great-grandmother. My grandmother’s middle name was Lillian, in honour of her.

But back to the story at hand. As I read Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, much as I enjoy Lottie, and Rabbit undertaking a census, and the Bear with no Brain outsmarting a swarm of bees, I can’t help but think back to the way the old tale ended — with Christopher Robin’s poignant declaration that he wouldn’t be “doing Nothing” any more, and that he hoped Pooh would understand. It was mysterious, but you got the sense that he was growing up, moving on — and that it was time to do so — but that some part of him would always remain in that enchanted place with his Bear. Really it seems like a perfect ending.

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