Monday, October 10, 2011

Click these!

I'll be back later to talk about Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but for now I just want to share these two links. They're must-reads for you children's lit fans.

The first is an article from the New York Times by Maria Tatar, "No More Adventures in Wonderland." I enjoyed this article so much because her thesis is something I've never considered: that the darkness in today's children's literature is more sinister than children's lit of say, 100 years ago, because there's no silliness to balance them out, & that this is perhaps because the authors are speaking to their own adult thoughts & feelings rather than speaking to their child audience. In many ways, Barrie's Peter and Wendy (Happy 100th! I love you more & more with each reread) & Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (I love you, too) are so tragic, to me, so it's interesting to think of them as having elements that assuage grief, whereas something like The Hunger Games does not. Thoughts on this?

The second is a New Yorker article, "Broken Kingdom: Fifty Years of the Phantom Tollbooth." The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster & illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is one of the only books I don't think I could ever look at through a critical lense. I can remember exactly when I fell in love with the book, & that same kind of unabashed, innocent love is what I still feel every time I read it. I feel like a child again, & have no desire to make it mean anything more or less than that. Actually, to be honest, I fell in love with the movie first. My parents taped the movie when it came on Sci-Fi, & my brother & I probably watched it a million times before I even knew there was a book. The movie is wonderful! & that's saying a lot, considering how great the book is.

But I digress. This article is pretty great, as both an interview & a critical piece.

Feiffer and Juster, both born in 1929, are like a pair of wryly benevolent uncles, with Norton the dreamy, crinkle-eyed, soft-spoken uncle who gives you the one piece of good advice you never forget, and Jules the wisecracking uncle who never lets up on your foibles but was happy to have you crash on his couch that night you just couldn’t bear going home.

Isn't that exactly how you'd imagine them?! The interview portion of the article makes me feel sheer delight about the book all over again. Did you know Juster had synesthesia? Or that Feiffer & Juster lived in the same apartment building during the writing of the book?

The book was published in 1961, and no one had much hope that it would find an audience. “Everyone said this is not a children’s book, the vocabulary is much too difficult, the wordplay and the punning they will never understand, and anyway fantasy is bad for children because it disorients them,” Juster said, four million copies later. “I thought, O.K., it will come out, and end on the remainder table.”

I love that. I have so much respect for any author who respects kids & doesn't talk down to them. & fifty years in, it's a classic. Take that, close-minded grown-ups!

The only part of this article I find problematic - & I might be alone here - is the author's assertion that the book's stance on education makes it such a magical classic & that the "point" of the book is "that normal school subjects can be wonderful if you don’t have to experience them as normal schooling." This is such an adult viewpoint. It is true - but it is true for the adult who is handing the book to a child, not the child himself. Did anyone fall in love with The Phantom Tollbooth because they realized school could be a wondrous thing? I'm going to guess no, because I sure didn't. I feel it's that magical combination of adventure story, a marvelous cast of characters, & neverending wordplay (much like Wonderland, eh?) that makes the book so great. I learned a lot reading Tollbooth - what the words din & doldrums mean, for instance - but the celebration of a liberal arts education is such an adult reflection of the book. To a child, the story is funny, scary, magical, rollicking, cute & cuddly & at the same time monstrous (Did anyone else never know whether to think the Lethargarians were adorable or frightening?).

It's like saying the Alice books are classics because they taught Alice to question authority. Sure, the books accomplished that, but that's not why they endure. They endure because of the children who read & reread the stories hoping that Alice will be able to stay in Wonderland forever, that Milo & Tock can stay in the Lands Beyond forever, just screwing with the sunrise & hanging out with talking animals & jumping to Conclusions. No young reader of these books is happy that Alice & Milo get to go home & go to school. Or are they?

I'm going to launch into a full-blown rant if I keep going. So yeah! Read these articles! & share your thoughts if you feel so inclined.

& despite the fact that I said I have no desire to look at The Phantom Tollbooth critically, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, annotated by Leonard Marcus. So exciting.


  1. if I had a nickel for every time I stayed at home sick and laid on the couch while the TV crackled static at the beginning of the VCR's tracking our bootlegged copy of the Phantom Tollbooth I'd be a rich, rich man.

  2. i have one of my higher level students reading the phantom tollbooth independently right now! i was thrilled when he started it, but was secretly worried he would end up abandoning it, as it might be difficult with him not having english as his first language. however, he is loving it and i could not be happier! even if he doesn't get every detail and pun (as i'm sure i didn't when i first read it in 4th grade), his enjoyment of a classic makes me so happy, and who knows? maybe he'll do what i did and pick it up again a few years later and catch a whole bunch of other plays-on-words he missed the first time!

  3. I'd be rich too, brother. Now I really want to watch it! Right now!

    Kim, that is so awesome to hear! It's really interesting - in a great way, of course - that someone whose first language isn't English still can appreciate the book. I think you're very right; I didn't get all the wordplay & punning the first time I read it, I'm sure, but the adventure story is so wonderful that I think any kid would enjoy it.