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.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Anxiety and wonder

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I vividly remember going to see Les Mis with you, Lizzie, and Mona when the girls were maybe 8 and 9, which would put me in my early 20s.  I hadn't read the book, and didn't know the musical well, but they talked at length about the casting choices (Cosette was way too sweet; Gavroche looked too well-fed).  I love the story of your girls and Les Mis.  You never can tell what's going to stick.

My big Christmas present for Jeff this year was a book which has become an instant hit in our house, especially with Isabel.  Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays collects some of the best of Winsor McCay's groundbreaking comic strips, originally published between 1905 and 1910.

Each one is a newspaper-sized, full-page, full-color spread depicting Little Nemo (a small boy) and his adventures trying to get to Slumberland, or get to stay in Slumberland, or get back to Slumberland, a magical kingdom that exists only in the world of dreams.  For some number of panels, Nemo gets closer to his goal.  Then something crazy happens: the dream-horse he's riding gets into a race and goes too fast, and he falls off; the garden he's walking through suddenly becomes giant; the houses he passes grow legs and begin to chase him.  Things are always changing shape, coming to life, becoming unstable.  In the last panel of every strip, we see Nemo in his bed, waking up as if from a nightmare or being woken by one of his parents from a dream he doesn't want to leave.  It's an extraordinary mixture of wonder and anxiety.

So it's a giant book (and I mean GIANT) of Sunday newspaper comics from the early 1900s, which doesn't necessarily sound like the first thing a 3-year-old would gravitate towards, but these are magical.  Isabel has been asking for them every night: "More Memo, Daddy!"  When Jeff reads to her, she's totally engrossed:

Here's a glimpse of what she's so taken by:

This edition of Little Nemo is put out by Sunday Press, and is to my knowledge the most true to the size and colors of the original strip.  I grew up with an earlier edition -- a fatter, but smaller, book collecting Little Nemo comics from a larger range of years, though in less spectacular form.  Looking through this book, I was interested to see how many of the story details I'd forgotten, but how many of the images I remembered.  I think there's something about the intensity of every page that cements it in your mind.

In the earliest strips, Nemo is invited to Slumberland by a host of fairies and other dreamworld creatures at the behest of the Princess, daughter of King Morpheus, who desperately wants to meet Nemo.  He's not excited to go, and often resists; by the bottom of the page, he's usually calling for his mother.

As the series continues, and Nemo finally gets to Slumberland and meets the Princess (she's very sweet), the anxiety shifts.  Now danger comes in the form of Flip, a little fat cigar-chewing imp of a guy who doesn't like the way Slumberland has treated him in the past, and has the ability to wake everyone up and thereby make Slumberland disappear.  He's childish and dangerous, and causes Nemo to wake up when he doesn't want to.

In later strips, Nemo and Flip become, if not friends exactly, partners in crime, and are joined by a wild little jungle imp creature who doesn't speak.  They get out of Slumberland by accident and keep trying to return; there's lots of slipping and falling and slapstick humor.

Through all of it, there's a sense of the pleasure and the danger of children running amok in a world built by adults.  There are rules being enforced, but as often as not they seem random and easy to break; chaos always ensues.

We're not sure yet what Isabel is taking from it, but she's drinking it all in.

Love, Annie

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