Category Archives: Children’s Literature

If You Were Stranded on a Desert Island Would You Have Any Poetry Memorized?

In fifth grade, we had to memorize a poem and recite it to the class. I loved doing that (like that shocks you) and won second place for “A Fairy Went A-Marketing” by Rose Fyleman. I was ticked off that I didn’t get first place and told myself that it was because my poem was longer than the one recited by the girl who took first place. Hahaha. Actually, I don’t know how she did because we had to go in the hall and recite our poems privately to the teacher. This was a kindness on her part, but it would have been great to listen to all the poems.

When my kids were little I had a handful of poems I’d memorized by accident that I used to recite to them with all manner of sound effects and gestures. One of my favorites was the “Double Double Toil and Trouble” passage from MacBeth. I also loved “The Spangled Pandemonium” and “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket,” as well as a couple of e.e. cummings poems. But after fifth grade, I was neither required nor encouraged to memorize poetry. A generation or two before my time students were routinely required to do so.

In that way, they would have literature to keep them company if they were stranded on a desert island or taken as a POW. Memorization of literature is good for the mind in a way that Google can never be good for us. Here’s just one article about the subject: Why We Should Memorize.

I’ve also heard that poets who recite their own poetry at readings, rather than reading them from the page, are electrifying performers. The thought of that terrifies me. What if my mind goes blank?

AS IT SO OFTEN DOES AS OF LATE. Either my brain is suffering from an overload of iPhone, iPad, computer, and social media–or it’s starting to decay. That is why I now can be sure to complete only one poem from beginning to end without ever reading it. And it so happens that little Perry loves to listen to it ;).

THE SPANGLED PANDEMONIUM

 

by Palmer Brown*

 

The Spangled Pandemonium

Is missing from the zoo.

He bent the bars the barest bit,

And slithered glibly through.

 

He crawled across the moated wall,

He climbed the mango tree,

And when his keeper scrambled up,

He nipped him in the knee.

 

To all of you a warning

Not to wander after dark,

Or if you must, make very sure

You stay out of the park.

 

For the Spangled Pandemonium

Is missing from the zoo,

And since he nipped his keeper,

He would just as soon nip you!

I figure Perry imagines himself as the Spangled Pandemonium, wanting to nip all of us if we go after him after he breaks out of his cage and the shelter.

*I tried to look up Palmer Brown and although he wrote five books for children and apparently lived from 1920-2012 I couldn’t even find an obituary for him!

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Filed under Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, National Poetry Month, Poetry, Poetry reading, Writing

The End of the River

When I taught children’s lit at the university, I often included a Newbery Honor Book on my book list called To Be a Slave, edited by Julius Lester. The bulk of the material is from stories collected during the Great Depression through the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration set up by FDR. These stories were told by ex-slaves about their experiences under American slavery. Of course, by the time they told their stories, it had been decades since the end of slavery, so most of the storytellers had been children during the days of slavery. While the book is aimed at middle school kids, it’s really a book for adults, too. It can be read in brief readings, like poetry, because it is arranged by theme in little anecdotes or partial stories.

In New Orleans we went on a plantation tour, but it wasn’t the typical tour where the focus is on the lives of the plantation owners. Rather, the Whitney Plantation explores the lives of the enslaved. Our guide was very careful to use the word “enslaved” rather than slaves, and while it was sometimes slightly awkward, I really liked how it made us concentrate every time we heard it on the notion of PEOPLE who were enslaved. It doesn’t allow for the distancing that some people might feel using the word slaves, which is an “othering” word–a way to be different from the person being talked about.

New Orleans is important to the history of American slavery. It’s the end point for enslaved people whose situations went from bad to worse. When an enslaved person was sold from an enslaver who lived closer to the Mason-Dixon line, but sold farther south down the Mississippi River it meant that he or she would be worked harder and live in more dangerous conditions. New Orleans had the biggest slave market, so many enslaved people ended up at that market. The swamps and bayous of the area meant disease and more back-breaking work, namely growing and harvesting sugar cane.

Whitney Plantation is really just beginning to record and share the plight of the enslaved people of the south. There is much more work to be done. But I loved how they focused on the children because of the voices of the FWP/WPA storytellers. By the way, the bookstore has a great collection, including the Lester book. 

After the church with the children (sculptures), we toured the property.

 

Whitney has memorials that list the names of the enslaved, as well as a particular memorial for the babies who died by age two, which was very very sad. This is a sample of a memorial wall for the adults.

The main house was almost an afterthought after seeing some of the outbuildings, the kettles for harvesting sugarcane, and reading the memorials.

Wherever we travel, there are big beautiful houses to tour, and although this one was plainer than many, the emphasis here is long overdue. It’s a place to learn about the lives of the people who were bought and sold in order to work these plantations.

###

Today would have been my father’s 88th birthday, and it is my uncle’s 88th birthday (Dad’s twin). A week and a half ago, my aunt on my mom’s side (her SIL) entered the ER on the two-year anniversary of the day my father entered (that began his health decline). She was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia and has already entered hospice. Our family is in shock over this as we didn’t know she was ill. If you’re so inclined, please send up your prayers for Aunt Jean.

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Filed under Children's Literature, History, Nonfiction, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

Sorting and Collecting for Free

I’ve been adding social media to my life for a few years. Some types or platforms I find more useful or more appealing than others. While I have not gotten excited over Instagram, I do love Pinterest. I rarely think about the social aspect of Pinterest. I’m simply infatuated with the intriguing photos that lead to stories, more images, or recipes.

As a collector, I find it addictive to add to boards that categorize some of my favorite subjects, and I’m grateful to other Pinterest collectors for providing pins and for the ease of adding my own contributions.

Something about Pinterest reminds me of  sorting M&Ms by color before eating them. And collecting shells on the beach and sorting them by shape or color. Simple and therapeutic. Sort of puts me at the emotional age of a toddler.

M and Ms

Some of my boards are writing and reading related, as you might expect. Check out Writing, Scribbling, and Jotting for an idea of my boards. If you have a particular blog post (written by you or someone else) that you would like me to pin onto the board, type the link into the comments here, and I’ll check it out!

I have boards for that ever-present child in me (I linked to Dollhouses in case you want to see a sample):

  • Dolls, dolls, dolls
  • Dollhouses
  • Tiny beauties (miniatures)
  • Vintage toys
  • Kestner dolls
  • Children and dolls
  • Puppetry pins
  • Paper dolls
  • Doll art
  • Antique, Vintage and Old-fashioned Nurseries
  • Dionne quintuplets

I’ve got fairy tale boards called Red in the Woods and A World of Snow. The former is one of my best boards, mainly because so many artists have a version of Little Red Riding Hood! I don’t usually pin the highly sexualized ones, but there are a ton of those, too.

For my love of textiles I have Hankies and History, Lace and other fun textiles, and Buttons buttons. Really all these textiles and trimming are related to history.

For history I cultivate these boards:

The apron board is new and was inspired by blogger Sheryl Lazarus here and here.

I’ve got animal boards like Beasties (just because I love that Scottish word), Black Cats Rule, and Children and Animals.

Speaking of black cats, Kana is doing well! Here she is enjoying a little box. No box too small for this girl!

 

Art-themed boards include:

  • Art of the Scrapyard
  • Revision Art
  • Translucent beauties
  • Scrapbook and paper crafts (woefully in need of work–just like my own scrapbooking!)

Most of my recipe boards are gluten-free. I’ve even got a couple of secret boards. Subjects? Hah, that’s why they are secret.

Some people (read: hubby) might think I’m wasting my time on Pinterest, but it sure seems fun to me. And I only “play” over there for a couple of minutes almost every day.

What about you? Are you on Pinterest? Why or why not?

 

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Filed under #AmWriting, #writerlife, Books, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Dolls, Fairy Tales, Family history, Food & Drink, gluten free, gluten free travel, History, Photographs, Reading, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture

Red in the Words

I decided to leap back into prose by taking a look at the drafts I wrote for the flash nonfiction course I took in July. While I was searching for those in my closet, I ran across a few of my Red Riding Hood books.

As a fictional character, she’s been quite an influence on me and my writing.

But who is she?

There are hundreds of versions of the story and they come from many different countries. Some are old versions from traditional literature and some are contemporary retellings of the tale. Some are children’s stories; some, such as those that spring from the oral tradition, are for the general public; and some, usually feminist or sexualized versions, are for adults.

I’m guessing that most of us are steeped in the European tradition of red hooded cloak, little girl, wolf, grandmother, and woods. We might or might not think of a huntsman. Our Little Red might get a warning from her mother–or she might not. She might get eaten up just before the reader is left with a strong “moral.” She might kill the wolf in a gruesome manner. Or the wolf might run into the woods, never to return. Pinterest is full of images that resonate, so I started collecting them onto a “Red in the Woods” board. I’ve only got 35 pins so far, but there are some beauties. Many of the classic book illustrators have created Little Red art.

Arthur Rackham’s Little Red Riding Hood

Every culture incorporates some of these elements in their little red stories, but the most important part is that a little girl is threatened by a dangerous animal (usually a wolf, but in Asian countries, sometimes a tiger) and either she becomes a victim, is rescued by someone else, or she is victorious over the “bad guy.” The undercurrents involve a girl going out into a threatening world on her own for the first time and the possibility of sexual violation. But those are adult readings, of course.

Sometimes Little Red is a bad ass. Those are the best versions! One of my favorite picture books for children is Ed Young’s Lon PoPo where the Little Red protagonist is a smart, strong oldest sister who outwits the wolf and protects her siblings.

Have you ever seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods? In this version, Little Red is definitely a sexual target for the wolf, but the question becomes: is she complicit? Does she  in some way lead on the wolf? Is the red hood to draw attention? (And where does the red garment come from? Not from the girl herself). Or is that an adult male (pervert) reading–a Humbert version of Lolita? Another adult reading is that the red hood is a metaphor for Red’s vagina/clitoris/youpick.

In this clip of the 1991 Broadway show, the lyrics say a lot about our culture’s interpretation. It becomes clear that this version is about the loss of innocence.

In the Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ song, the wolf leers at Red.

There are other strange bits and pieces that show up in some Little Red stories. The wolf tricks Red into eating her Granny’s flesh. Red tries to get out of bed with the wolf by telling him she has to go pee. At that point he tells her to pee in the bed, but she says she can’t and he lets her go outside tied to a long rope. Some of these elements that seem vulgar  or creepy have been edited out of the most popular versions published in the last few hundred years. The confusion between wolf and grandmother is still with us, though. And that alone is pretty strange. Dangerous wolf looks like beloved grandmother? Beyond strange.

Is the wolf a perv or is Red a Lolita? Or is that a red herring (sorry)? Is the story really about something else?

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Filed under Books, Characterization, Children's Literature, Fairy Tales, Fiction, History, Inspiration, Writing

More Tsuris: A Cat’s Tale of Mourning

We had a close call this past week. As you probably know, I lost my father in May. Then a week and a half ago, I lost my oldest cat Mac. It’s been a rough year.

For at least a week, I actually forgot my first book,  Doll God, was published this same year! I am not kidding either. What kind of ridiculous year is this?!

Anyway, 3 days or so after Mac died, cat #2, my sweet dear Pear Blossom, stopped eating! If you have or have ever had a cat, you might know that cats cannot go without food. Their livers go haywire. It’s very dangerous. I tried everything: a dozen kinds of canned food, fresh chicken, tuna, treats, kibble, egg, tiny hotdogs for babies, you name it. I had to resort to feeding her baby food (Gerber 2nd foods are the ones you want–safe and healthy for cats) with a syringe. I could get about 5-7 ccs in her before she would let it ooze out all over the couch. Yes, the couch because she wouldn’t move from the couch. For days she lay there.

I hadn’t had much time to grieve my father before Mac became sick and died. Now I had had no time at all to grieve Mac and my darling booboo girl looked as if she were going to die.

After $1,000 in vet bills (see how blithely I just wrote that hahaha), she seems to be coming back a little. The only medical problem they found is a UTI (she and my human daughter are both prone to those). But hubby and I are sure that she is grieving Mac.

It’s understandable. She is 15 1/2 and we’ve had her for 15 years. She was inseparable from Mac in those 15 years. In fact, and go ahead and think I’m weird (er), but I have a very long kitchen counter and have 3 cat beds lined up on it. She slept there every day with Mac and Felix. Tiger prefers to sleep elsewhere. Pear refuses to lie on the counter now.

Pear Blossom as Judge Judy

I’m praying she begins to eat better. She refuses most food I offer to her. But she seems to feel a little better.

POLL RESULTS: where do creative nonfiction writers come from?

Well, that wasn’t the name of the poll, but that is sort of what I was angling for. Here is a graphic of the results:

poll results

 

What I had wanted to know is what brings people to writing creative nonfiction. I was intrigued to read that many “never or rarely” write creative nonfiction. I’m pretty sure that a lot of blogs are creative nonfiction, rather than journalism, because as bloggers we can’t help but create public personas by what we write. If we write about our own lives at all, I would call it CNF.

It surprised me that not many others wrote poetry first and then moved to CNF, but I wasn’t surprised that many started with fiction. I read another nameless article that said that writers shouldn’t write more than one genre. I think it was mainly focused on “genre fiction,” but why can’t a writer write in another genre? Judy Blume has written for children and adults, and if that isn’t crossing genres, I don’t know what is. One book opens with a little girl praying to God. Another book opens with a man playing with his penis while an adult woman and mother watches. Hah. Better know which genre Blume book you’re buying ahead of time! Marie from 1WriteWay and I discussed this recently.

Did a book ever surprise you because you expected a different genre? Was it a pleasant surprise or a shock? A penis instead of a prayer? (Or a prayer instead of a penis?)

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Creative Nonfiction, Doll God, Fiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry book, Poetry Collection, Reading, Writing

Cat Heroes

Two weeks ago, I finished reading two memoirs about cats: Homer’s Odyssey, by Gwen Cooper, and A Street Cat Named Bob, by James Bowen (and Garry Jenkins). They are similar to a book I read a few years ago, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron (and Bret Witter).

All three books feature special pet cats (that happen to be male) and were written by the pet owners. Two of the books were either ghost written or written along with the cat owner. Only Gwen Cooper is a writer, and her book shows it as it’s the most well written of the three.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the reader meets Homer, a tiny blind kitten when Cooper first took him home. I think Homer’s narrative is perhaps innately the “weakest” for memoir structure, based as it is only on Homer’s disability and his life with Cooper, but Cooper’s beautiful writing shapes a well-crafted story that begins when Cooper herself was young and underemployed. Later, when Homer and his two sister cats were home alone during the 911 tower attack and Cooper couldn’t get home to them for days, my heart was thudding for the poor cats because I’d fallen in love with Homer, as well as Scarlett and Vashti, thanks to Cooper’s writing.

In A Street Cat Named Bob, Bob is a street cat who lives with a street musician in London and becomes famous online for sitting very calmly while Bowen plays his guitar or, later, sells magazines. Bowen was a recovering drug addict who was able to pull his life together when he began to focus on making a better life for Bob. Although Bowen claims not to follow a 12 step program, it’s clear that Bob becomes Bowen’s “higher power.” The story is engaging because Bob is such a larger than life figure as seen through Bowen’s eyes. Although the book was written with a professional writer, the book is the least well written of the three and needs editing. I even found at least one run-together sentence. The story didn’t move quickly enough in a few places, but I enjoyed it and would love to meet Bob and James. Most important, it’s rewarding to see a man turn his life around because of his love for an animal.

Dewey is a library cat who saves the town library. In Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki the librarian meets Dewey when she finds the kitten who had been thrown into a frozen book chute overnight. Because the book begins with the tiny kitten saved from a horrific fate, I am immediately drawn in and engaged with the story. This is also true of Homer whose original owners wanted to euthanize him because he was blind. Bowen met Bob when Bob was already an adult cat, out on the street, so he’s never an adorable kitten in the story. But Bowen’s growing attachment to Bob is what hooks the reader.

Are these books about cats or about humans? Are they memoirs of the humans or biographies of the cats?

All three books have been successful.

Nevertheless, a few of the reviews on Goodreads didn’t like the feel good nature of the books–i.e., that a stray becomes an important part of keeping the library alive in small town America. I say those reviewers have hard hearts.

Some reviewers criticize these books for being memoirs about the writers’ lives.  Ahem. All three books are memoirs about the pet owners, although the focus is on the cat and the owner’s relationship with the cat. Well, a memoir by its definition is written by a human being about an aspect or time period of his or her life. When we write about someone else’s life and not our own, it’s a biography.

Why are these books not just biographies of cats? Why are they also memoirs by and about the humans? I feel that this is the way these books work best and someone who wants a pure story of an  animal should go read Bambi, which is an amazing orphan tale about a wild animal who doesn’t live with a human (although the original and non-Disney version does show what happens when one deer is taken in by humans).

Adult animal lovers enjoy memoirs such as the three I read because of the relationship between the animal and the human. It’s the human (sometimes humans) who grows and learns during the course of each story. The cats are amazing catalysts (sorry for the pun), muses, inspirations, and higher powers. But their ability to inspire the reader is innate to the animals. The story has to come from what the human learns from the cat. This is what makes a memoir like these more than merely a children’s story about a child thinly disguised as an animal, such as the Olivia (the pig) books. More than a biography of an animal, such as Smokey the Bear.

Or am I wrong? Is there a successful adult story about a real life animal where the plot is completely focused on the animal and not a human? I don’t mean a political satire like Animal Farm. 

The success of these books stems, in part, from the marriage of memoirs and feel-good animal stories.

One last thought about the reviews of these books. The reviewers who criticize these books for being about the lives of the pet owners tend to be very judgmental about the writers. They find them to be whiny or self-absorbed or boring–or a combination. I suspect that these complaints are because they don’t want the human intruding on the story of the animal or because they only see the story through their own narrow, darkly filtered lenses (their own self-image and their own lives). These reviews are more revealing of the reviewers than of the books or the writers, to my way of thinking. They also don’t understand that the books are structured this way because that is the way you tell a story and sell a book. There has to be conflict and resolution. There has to be suspense and pacing. I found myself getting angry at these reviewers.

What does that reveal about me ;)?

***

On a completely unrelated note, I am bummed about Doll God sales, but for a weird reason. The number of people who have told me that they have bought it (including multiple quantities) is in no way reflected by the actual total the publisher tells me that have been sold. Maybe half? So are half the people who have said they bought it not telling the truth? Is Amazon not sending correct reports to the publisher? The publisher provided me with a royalty update, so the problem isn’t with her. Any thoughts?

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Filed under Book Review, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Doll God, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Poetry book, Publishing, Reading, Writing

Formula Gets a Bad Rap

As a reader, I appreciate books with unique storylines and characters. As a writer, I try to create unique stories and poems. So why am I also drawn to books that seem to be written according to a pre-set formula?

Yeah, I know, right? Such a no-no. Definitely not “literature.”

According to my buddy Wikipedia, formula fiction is described like this:

In popular culture, formula fiction is literature in which the storylines and plots have been reused to the extent that the narratives are predictable. It is similar to genre fiction, which identifies a number of specific settings that are frequently reused. The label of formula fiction is used in literary criticism as a mild pejorative to imply lack of originality.

Still, there is a lot of comfort in finding a series of cozy mysteries where I enjoy the protagonist, the setting, and the first murder–over and over again.

Formula fiction refers to a single book or a series. A book itself can be formulaic in that it is predictable. But book series sometimes are formulaic in that they set a formula for each book of the series with the initial book. Some book series are not like this. For instance, trilogies are often completely different stories, following characters over different plotlines. But a heck of a lot of the series you see on the shelves at the library and the bookstore are formula fiction.

For instance, every Agatha Christie book I read when I was in my 20s ended on page 210. Seriously. Who knew she wrote formula fiction?!

Years ago, I liked the mix of cats and murder in The Cat Who books by Lillian Jackson Braun, so when I ran out of unread books, I turned to another cat mystery series: Mrs. Murphy by Rita Mae Brown. Mrs. Murphy is, of course, a cat that solves mysteries.  Once I read the first book in a series I like, I want to keep going in this land I know peopled by characters I know.

I’m the same way about disaster movies. Don’t give me some extravagant budget movie with Denzel and Brad (am I showing my age with them? at least I didn’t say Harrison), please. I like the cheesy ones where the mom, the dad, the boy, and the girl (sometimes 3 kids) gets separated and you know they will be back together by the end of the movie. I know just what I can count on and that the movie won’t allow something strange and “unique” to happen. I want to lie on the couch, maybe eat some popcorn, and relax.

But are reading cozies and watching low-budget disaster flicks like eating McDonald’s and bonbons? Should I figure out a way to limit my reliance on comforting formula literature and entertainment? Is consuming unique literature like eating my vegetables or swallowing my vitamins?  Maybe Nancy Drew and her cohorts ruined me and gave me a taste for formula fiction when I was just a fresh young reader. I should have read that copy of Melville’s Billy Budd I got from Scholastic instead!

The more I think about this, the more I wonder how I ever stay in “balance” in my reading!

Nancy Drew collectionWhat about you? Do you balance your reading? Do you like formula fiction or try to avoid it?

 

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Filed under Books, Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Fiction, Reading

Does This Poem Need to Sit at the Kids’ Table?

I don’t think I’ve ever told you that one of my favorite poems (I do have a few ahem) is by Delmore Schwartz.

i am cherry alive

‘I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hallowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be somone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing : It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups, because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it some day too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!”

I love the magic of this poem. It was posthumously published in 1979 as a picture book, illustrated by Barbara Cooney.

The poem has been included in poetry anthologies for children. Apparently another picture book was published in 1995 with a different illustrator, but it is out of print.

Why is it considered a poem for children only? It’s certainly a wonderful poem for children, but also for adults. After all, we know that the little girl is wrong and she will forget–most of the time.

But we adults also know that we easily can be reminded to allow the child into our adult selves!

That’s why I love dolls and cats and theatre and digging in the sand with a plastic pail and shovel.

Playing reminds us that we can be tree, cat, blossom, and a witch in a zoo! Sound a lot like writing?

How do you feel about dividing poems into those for children and those for adults?

 

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Filed under Cats and Other Animals, Children's Literature, Dolls, Poetry

The Influence of Fairy Tales

After reading Robin’s post about her granddaughters and the new Cinderella movie the other day, I was thinking about how I’ve always been influenced by fairy tales and folk tales. The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty was my earliest film-version fairy tale–and I loved both Flora and the music passionately. Not to mention how the colors changed! I mentioned Flora’s influence here.

When my daughter was little I had mixed feelings about the movies and illustrations of these old tales because I began to see the stories through my Korean daughter’s eyes. I’ve written both on this blog and on our adoption blog about these subjects in the past. The story of race in fairy tales was here where I wrote about my daughter’s notion of Cinderella as a blonde.

There are over 700 versions of Cinderella from around the world. The only countries that didn’t have true Cinderella stories were African countries, but there have been more contemporary Cinderella stories remedying that “deficit.” The oldest version of Cinderella is Chinese and developed when people still lived in caves. The size of the shoe was added in when foot binding entered the culture. Lots of icky little cultural “shoulds” like foot binding or fetishizing the size of women’s feet enter our stories without us realizing what we are teaching our children.

The tales, particularly the European ones, feature cannibalism, dismemberment, incest, and other immoral activities. Stepmothers are usually nasty creatures out to, at best, neglect their charges and, at worst, to murder them. Of course, there is a reason for mean stepmothers. There were a lot of stepmothers in the days when many women died in childbirth. And with limited incomes or primogeniture, women wanted to ensure the inheritance (and therefore survival) of their own children, not the older children of first wives. In my own family, over 150 years ago in the Netherlands, my great-great-grandfather and his brother were sent by their stepmother to live in the orphanage when their father died.

We can deny the horrors and sometimes the violence or we can delete it as Disney did, but the old tales spring from difficult lives. Does the grit and nastiness deter me from reading them? Hah. No. And, like most of us, there are certain tales that have stuck with me. Become part of who I am. I’ve written about the role of “The Princess and the Pea” in my life here and the role of Little Red Riding Hood here.

In Doll God I explored some of the tales that influenced me in my life. Not all, by any stretch, but some. Snow White, for instance. I had no idea she did influence me, but for some reason she showed up in two poems in my book! “Snow’s Locked Box” was just published in Grist Journal, which is mainly a print journal, so you would need to get a copy to read it at this time. The poem features Snow White in her coffin out in the woods. There is also a poem in the book about the Japanese tale of the stone cutter, relating it to the artist wishing to be both art and artist.

The older I get, the more I dislike violence and unhappy endings. I’d rather see Ariel end up with her prince than see the Little Mermaid as mere foam on the ocean, as Andersen first wrote her ending. I haven’t seen the new Cinderella movie or Frozen because I’m always behind in my movie viewing. But I loved Tangled and Puss in Boots, which reminds me of my cat Mac.

Nevertheless, the older tales, with all their horrors, have their grip on me. Once read, I can’t unread them. And there is no doubt that they have shown me a more complex world than Disney ever could.

What tales influenced you?

 

 

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Filed under Children's Literature, Essay, Fiction, Poetry Collection, Writing

Christmas from the Dumpster

When I was five, Mom had a few days off work over Christmas. She rolled out sugar cookie dough and let me cut out Christmas trees and reindeer with little tin cookie cutters. I sprinkled them with colored sugar before she slipped the trays into the oven.

She led me before the cardboard fireplace hung with our Christmas stockings and pulled out a Bible, which she had marked with scraps of paper tucked here and there. She read the Christmas story to me, but it was one she created herself by mixing the versions in a way that was pleasing to her. The story of the baby Jesus brought tears to Mom’s eyes. We bowed our heads and clasped our hands together and prayed a prayer from my Little Golden Book.

Dad walked in the door, carrying a box. I thought it would be a Christmas present he planned to wrap downstairs on the ping pong table which he had set up with all his gift wrapping materials and tools. But it turned out to be a box he had discovered in a school dumpster.

“I had to get out of my truck because the dumpster was so full they had boxes spilling out all over. That’s when I spotted this.” Dad crooked his index finger for me to follow and then glanced back at me. “It’s books. Maybe you can use them now that you’re in school.” Although I had only started school in September, I already knew how to read.Recently I asked my mother if she taught me to read with flashcards, the way she did my younger brother, but she didn’t remember. When I was a toddler I knew how to spell ice cream and by age 5 I could read children’s series books, but how I got from point A to B, I don’t know.

I skipped down the hall behind Dad. Peeking into the box, I saw outdated textbooks from the forties. I couldn’t wait to open them and was glad when my father left the room. When I lifted the books out of the box, they smelled like real school, not like kindergarten where you have to take a nap and can’t read. I was glad Dad drove a garbage truck and could find presents for me.

The second-grade reader had a story where the porridge left unattended on the stove poured onto the floor, out the door, and down the hill. I tried to skim and sample each book. Some of the books had poems, and they were all illustrated with water colors. Some, in the manner of Walter Crane illustrations, featured black, white, and orange.

At the bottom of the box, missing its paper jacket and like a lot of old books covered in a plain green fabric, was a fairy tale book. The stories of witches and poor sons and goblins in this book opened my mind to the world of possibilities. I would only have the book for a year because eventually it would disappear (care of my mother). Some of the stories had a habit of giving me nightmares (thank you, Brothers Grimm). Nevertheless, I am forever grateful that I had the book long enough for the fire of my imagination to be lit.

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