In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Bard of Columbus

Dear Annie,

The time has come to celebrate James Thurber (1894-1961), best known for his essays and cartoons for The New Yorker, but also a wonderful children’s author. He was from Columbus, Ohio, not far from Cambridge, where my father, your grandfather, grew up. Grandpa always felt an affinity for Thurber – mostly because of their shared love of language – but also for the Midwestern sensibility. Four of Thurber’s books – two fairy tales, a fable, and a memoir – are wonderful family reads with children of different ages:

Many Moons
, with two editions in print, each with a different illustrator, is a read-in-one-sitting picture book. A young princess is fading away because she wants someone to bring her the moon. All the wise men of the kingdom tell the king why it’s impossible – it’s 35,000 miles away and made of molten copper, 150,000 miles away and made of green cheese, 300,000 miles away and pasted on the sky. The court jester finally asks the girl how big the moon is, and she says, “It is just a little smaller than my thumbnail, for when I hold my thumbnail up at the moon, it just covers it.” The jester gets the goldsmith to make a very small golden disk and hang it on a chain:
“What is this thing I have made?” asked the Royal Goldsmith when he had finished it.
“You have made the moon,” said the Court Jester. “That is the moon.”
“But the moon,” said the Royal Goldsmith, “is 500,000 miles away and is made of bronze and is round like a marble.”
“That’s what you think,” said the Court Jester as he went away with the moon.

The 13 Clocks
is a chapter book fairy tale, complete with evil duke, imprisoned princess, and disguised prince, as well as various magical characters. In the introduction to the New York Review of Books reprinted edition, Neil Gaiman calls it “probably the best book in the world.” Superlatives can always be debated, but the language and the story in this one are very special. It makes a great read-aloud because sometimes the paragraphs reveal themselves to be poetry as one reads. As in this scene, where the Golux, a magical ally of the prince, is figuring out a charm put on the commoner Hagga that turns her tears into jewels: if the tears are sad, the jewels are permanent, but tears of laughter soon dissolve.

“What happened on that awful day to make him value sorrow over and above the gift of laughter? Why have these jewels turned to tears a fortnight after?”
“There was a farmer from a near-by farm, who laughed,” said Hagga. “’On second thought,’ the good king said, ‘I will amend and modify the gift I gave you. The jewels of sorrow will last beyond all measure, but may the jewels of laughter give you little pleasure.’”
The Golux groaned. “If there’s one thing in the world I hate,” he said, “it is amendments.”

The Wonderful O
(also reprinted by NYRB) was one of my favorites as a child, although I now understand I must have been reading on my own for several years before I discovered it. It has held a special place in my brother’s heart as well, because your Uncle Al frequently wielded Captain Black’s threat: “ I”ll squck his thrug till all he can whupple is geep.” The book is the story of pirates from the black-sailed ship Aeiu taking over the peaceful island of Ooroo and banishing the use of the letter O. The book is all wordplay, with lots of lists of things permitted and banished
There was great consternation on the island now for people could have pigs, but no hogs or pork or bacon; sheep, but no mutton or wool; calves, but no cows. Geese were safe as long as one of them did not stray from the rest and become a goose, and if one of a family of mice wandered from the nest, he became a mouse and lost his impunity. Children lost their ponies, and farmers their colts and horses and goats and their donkeys and their oxen.
A clandestine resistance movement is organized, and of course eventually triumphs. The best way to read this book is aloud, with a child who is already a comfortable reader sitting next to you. So both of you can hear the marvels of the language, and also scan each line for the forbidden O.

And last, the perfect book to take to the beach (or wherever family vacation takes you):
My Life and Hard Times
, a thin volume of essays about Thurber’s childhood. Best known of the bunch is “The Night the Bed Fell,” one of the classic stories of American humor. I can never decide if I find that one the funniest, or “More Alarms in the Night,” which has young Jamie waking his father in the middle of the night because he has forgotten a name:
I had been trying all afternoon, in vain, to think of the name Perth Amboy. It seems now like a very simple name to recall and yet on the day in question I thought of every other town in the country, as well as such words and names and phrases as terra cotta, Walla-Walla, bill of lading, vice versa, hoity-toity, Pall Mall, Bodley Head, Schumann-Heink, etc., without even coming close to Perth Amboy. I suppose terra cotta was the closest I came, although it was not very close.
The New Jersey Turnpike has never been the same for me.

One caveat on this very funny book. I would recommend a parent reading “A Succession of Servants” on one’s own before plunging into it aloud. It’s a reminiscence about many different maids from many different ethnic groups who worked for the Thurbers. Some of the language is a century old, particularly Thurber’s rendition of black dialect. There’s nothing that screams, oh-no-can’t-do-this-one, but it would help to know what you’re getting into.

My Life and Hard Times, which was written for adults, probably works best with older kids -- maybe 9 or 10 and up. And of course grown-ups: bring it along for yourself, too.




  1. The squck line is indeed memorable. The evil pirate captain threatens his mouthy parrot repeatedly with the line: "Quiet! Or I'll squck your thrug 'til all you can whupple is geep!" Finally he carries the threat through, and the next line, predictably, is
    "Geep!" whuppled the parrot.

    What about "I'll slit you from your guzzle to your zatch"? Is that from The Thirteen Clocks?

    Uncle Al

    1. Actually, it's "... your guggle to your zatch ..."

  2. I remember the book ( which I recall the 12 clocks and the wonderful O being printed in a single volume; back to back and inverted to eachother) and it is the recollection and subsequent googling whuppling geep that brought me here. Let us not forget that grapefruit made it onto the banned list as well - under the French name Pamplemousse. Many years later I decided that Thurber's works must have been an inspiration for Terry Pratchett. Each of the throwaway lines in their alternative worlds could have been written by the other.