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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spinky and Gorky: two great guys

Dear Annie,

Mirette is so wonderful.  It was one of several Mom-gets-choked-up read-alouds in our family.  When Mirette steps out on the wire -- so daring!  so selfless! -- to help Bellini, I'd get teary every time.

Speaking of your posts, there's a great princess discussion going on in the comments back in "I only like princesses."  I know you know it's there, but I highly recommend it to our readers.

Today I want to visit two wonderful characters created by the late great William Steig.  Both guys, although for reasons beyond me, whenever I read
Gorky Rises
to my girls, they insisted that I change him to a she. This is not easy at 5 in the afternoon, snuggled up on the couch with two small warm bodies and feeling a bit drowsy. I still remember the elbows that would dig into my ribs to keep Gorky female.

In any case, Gorky, who is a clothed frog, wants some magic in his/her life, so s/he mixes up
a little of this and then a little of that: a spoon each of chicken soup, tea, and vinegar, a sprinkle of coffee grounds, one shake of talcum powder, two shakes of paprika, a dash of cinnamon, a splash of witch hazel.
After adding a bit of father's cognac, s/he finally dumps in a bottle of mother's perfume.
That did it!  The thick stuff sank to the bottom of the mixing glass and [s]he had a reddish-golden liquid full of tiny bubbles that glinted like particles of fire.  This, obviously, was the magic formula [s]he had long been seeking.
Gorky falls asleep in a field holding the magic stuff and
Whatever had kept him[/her] fastened to the earth let go its hold and Gorky's slumbering body rose in the air, like a bubble rising in water, and moved off in an easterly direction.
S/he floats high and low, attracting the attention of many characters on the ground, rising through a thunderstorm, somersaulting above the head of cousin Gogol (yep), and going on into the dead of night.  By releasing the magic formula one drop at a time, Gorky manages to descend, landing on Elephant Rock in his/her own neighborhood.  One last drop transforms the rock into an elephant, released from rockdom after ten million years (shades of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble).  Gorky's distraught parents are ecstatic to have their child back, although it takes a little convincing for them to believe the whole story.  The book is a lyrical and sweet and loving adventure.  The only time, thankfully, that my children insisted on sex change.

Spinky Sulks
, however, is on a completely different level of intensity, as is clear from the first page:
Spinky came charging out of the house and flung himself on the grass. He couldn't even see the dandelions he was staring at, he was so upset.  His stupid family!  They were supposed to love him, but the heck they did.  Not even his mother.
Spinky is angry for a host of slights, among them that his sister called him Stinky, and his brother disagreed with his assertion that Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium.  His siblings apologize.  Mom tells him she has loved him "ever since the moment he was born.  And even before that."  His father tells Spinky "he was one of the most popular of the three children."  But his sulk builds and builds.  We see him draped over a porch railing, turning away from family and friends, rejecting candy from Grandma -- all with a scowl and a frown.  This goes on for days, with Spinky holing up in a hammock, refusing to go inside.  He finally softens: "Maybe these people didn't know how to behave, but at least they were trying. Was it their fault they couldn't do better?"  He finds a face-saving way to end the standoff.
After that, Spinky's family was much more careful about his feelings.
Too bad they couldn't keep it up forever.
And for a delightful contemplation of the art of the sulk and Spinky's parallels to Achilles, see this article by Tim Noah in Slate.



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