There is no time for despair

Bumblehill Studio 1

When the clamour of the world (and the Internet) grows harsh and cacophonous, I find it healing, grounding, and necessary to turn away from keyboards and screens, to ration the time I spend online, and to be fully present in the tactile world: in the morning light sifting through the studio, in the rising of the wind through the trees behind, in the words slowly forming in ink on fresh white paper spread out on my wooden desktop.

Drawing by Arthur RackhamInstead of flicking through Web pages, imbibing the Internet's manic energy and then coming offline feeling fractured and spent, I pull books from down the shelves and turn their rustling pages at a measured, more human pace...and my soul unclenches. My attention deepens. Something vital in me is quickened back to life. And yes, I am using a keyboard now to share these thoughts with you online, but it's not a full rejection of the Web I am after in my life. It's proportion and balance.

The Internet is a useful communication platform, and an increasingly important one...but books, oh, books more than paper and ink. They are powerful medicine. Real books, I mean. Physical books, sitting on the dusty shelves of my studio and surrounding me like old friends, dog-earred and battered with love and use, their pages thick with margin notes and underlines. How could I ever doubt that art matters? Words have saved me over and over. Words are saving me right now. Books are what I turn to when the world grows dark, and they never fail to give me strength.

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This morning, for instance, Ben Okri asks me:

"What hope is there for individual reality or authenticity, when the forces of violence and orthodoxy, the earthly powers of guns and bombs and manipulated public opinion make it impossible for us to be authentic and fulfilled human beings?"

I've been asking myself the same question all week.

"The only hope," he answers, "is in the creation of alternative values, alternative realities. The only hope is in daring to redream one's place in the world -- a beautiful act of imagination, and a sustained act of self becoming. Which is to say that in some way or another we breach and confound the accepted frontiers of things."

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Then Rebecca Solnit joins the conversation:

"Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward," she notes, "but history is not an army. It's a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later, sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope."

"To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic," adds Howard Zinn. "It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction."

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Barry Lopez pulls me out of a Western-centric point of view, reminding me of the things I share in common with people the world over:

"I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved," he says, "to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us."

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Terry Tempest Williams concurs, and affirms the role that artists play in the transmission of such stories:

"Bearing witness to both the beauty and pain of our world is a task that I want to be part of. As writers, this is our work. By bearing witness, the story that is told can provide a healing ground. Through the art of language, the art of story, alchemy can occur. And if we choose to turn our backs, we've walked away from what it means to be human."

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Then Toni Morrison takes me firmly by the shoulders and sends me back to my desk again:

Troubled times, she says, are "precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

"I know the world is bruised and bleeding," she adds, "and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge -- even wisdom. Like art."

Like art indeed.

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Studio Muse with Bone

Decoration by Arthur Rackham

Words: The first five quotes above are from the following books, all recommended: A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix, 1998); Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (Nation Books, 2005); You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (Beacon Press 2002), About This Life by Barry Lopez (Vintage, 1999), and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams, edited by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The final quote is from "No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear" by Toni Morrison (The Nation, March 2013); I owe thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for introducing me to it.  Pictures: The drawing and painting above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). The photographs are from my studio cabin, perched on a Devon hillside at the edge of a small wood.


The road between dreams and reality

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One final post on men and fairy tales to end the week:

"Men have always loved fairy tales," says fairy tale scholar  Jack Zipes, "loved to tell them, loved to hear them, loved to write them. Although the fairy tale has has been more or less labeled a female, if not effeminate and infantile, affair and been disparaged since the late Renaissance as 'feminine' -- associated with Mother Goose, gossips, witches, grannies, and foolish ladies -- more than anything else, this disparagement had to do with the Christian church's endeavor to brand secular and pagan tales as heretical and its campaign to proselytize and establish its authority through its own fantastic myths. The denigrating attitude was also connected to the development of canons of proper literature and the separation of high and low culture. Whatever was associated with women was generally excluded from high culture. Yet the fairy tale was never 'feminine,' never the property of women alone, though it might have been gendered in the way it was told and written. Men always told and wrote fairy tales. If we simply cast a glance at the prominent writers of literary fairy tales, they include mainly men, from Straparola and Basile through Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hoffman, and Andersen to Hesse, Tolkien, Ende, Coover. The classical genre has been framed by male authors, although it has certainly been challenged and surverted by women writers from the very outset in France and certainly during the last thirty-five years. And men have also joined in the subversion."

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"Why fairy tales?" asks Gregory Maguire, author of The Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and other fairy tale inspired works. "As Erik Christian Hauhaard once said, 'The fairy tale belongs to the poor.' Even when it is about the daughter of a king, she is a daughter disenfranchised, endangered, imperiled, no more in control of her destiny than those on hijacked planes or working high in magic towers. We need to practice the art of believing in survival so that when we need to survive, we recognize the concept. Why these fanciful conceits, these marmalade skies, these mutant chickens, these motherless children in fairy tales? Because by being a notch or two different than our own world, they can be noticed; they show up against the static and the smudge of dailiness. Then, when we look back at our world, we see with renewed vision, with rested eyes and restored spirits. The static isn't so impenetrable, the smudge no longer so bleary."

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"I never wanted to be a fairy-tale princess (although many gay boys do)," writes novelist Greg Bills. "I did spend real time in those stories, however. Little Red, and the Three Bears, and Jack and his Beanstalk. I found great appeal in wandering those darkly dangerous forests, roaming inside treasure caves (Open Sesame!), and climbing a vegetable ladder to a grossly oversized castle. And, of course, there was the Giant. Or Paul Bunyan. Or Dad. Or Whoever He Was. Shrugging my way back into boyhood, I can feel that extra prick of interest that encounters with giants always gave me. Jack's. Goldilocks surprised in bed by three immense bears. David's Goliath. The Jolly Green Guy. Later, Odysseus and the Cyclops, and the giant that the protagonists encounter in The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books). There was a craving there. A need. A quickening. Whatever it Was, it stirred in me.

"Fairy tales, and later fantasy books and films and comic books, offered an uregulated sanctuary not only for creatures that could not exist in actuality -- talking animals, shoemaking elves, Baba Yaga's chicken-legged house -- but for emotions that had no conceivable outlet into reality. I could not be a gay boy in a world where gay boys did not exist, but, then, hobbit, centaurs, and giants had no claim to actuality either yet still managed to survive -- on the page and in my head if nowehere else. If I could not pursue the Giant in my world, Jack could in his."

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"I don't honestly know what I think about fairy tales, because they are part of me," Neil Gaiman says simply. "It would be like trying to explain what I think of my spine or circulatory system or my eyes. The tales I read as a boy define how I see the world and how I perceive what I see; they flow through me, and sometimes still, they hold me up. I write stories as an adult in which the membrane of the world is thin and permeable and in which something more exists beneath and above and, truly, that is the world I believe in. (Do I mean that literally? Certainly, although literal means constructed of words, and it is stories, constructed of words, that we are discussing here.) The road between dreams and reality is one that must be negotiated, not walked."

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Feather on mossThe quotes above are from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from Donald Finkel's collection Simeon (Atheneum, 1964). All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Howard and Tilly in the fairy tale land we live in.


Hansel and the trail of stones

 Lorenzo Mattotti 1

From "Hansel," a remarkable essay by poet Richard Siken, which begins like this:

"Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Now how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after another, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don't need to, don't. Wouldn't that be great? Just don't make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace, and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn't true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape. Sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.

"I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war -- running, hiding, privation -- but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to -- We're Americans now -- but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is my bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and moving slowly in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn't. Here is a story where everything goes wrong, here is a story where everyone has their back against the wall, here is a story where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don't, they'll die. Here is a story, not of good and evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame. How are you supposed to fall asleep to this?

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"Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such hard times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. 'What is to become of us?' says the man. 'Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,' says the woman. The two children, awake from hunger, heard everything their parents were saying. Trust no one. You are expendable. You are a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut, we will begin to plan your demise. If I were you, were smart, I'd stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no out.

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"Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says, 'Be quiet, don't worry. I know what to do.' And with that he got up, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside....The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles outside the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak the woman comes and wakes up the children. 'Get up, you lazybones. We're going into the woods to fetch wood.' She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, 'Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner, for you'll not get any more.' Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pockets onto the path.

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"They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It is not an ax, it is a branch that he has tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, its dark, they cry, the moon rises, and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: Be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn't have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: When someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.

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"My father is reading me this story and sometimes its just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe he is innocent , or pure of heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father's house. Stupid, stupid kids. "

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A little later in his essay, Silken writes:

"There are many definitions for poetry that are useful. I like 'Poetry is language that does more than one thing' and 'Poetry is the residue of a life lived.' I use words like pebbles, like residue. You are are in terrible danger. Grab your pebbles and go. Make a trail away from doom and don't look back. It works better than I thought it would. I also believe that anything can happen in words. The teller decides. I took it to heart. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true. The Dalai Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things. And since you are always moving forward -- pushed, pulled, or just strolling along -- you might as well take note of how and where you're going. Many writers can point to an event in their lives where they gained permission to write. The story of Hansel (and Gretel) gave me a mandate to write, to describe the terrain, for myself as well as for anyone who might want to, need to, follow."

You'll find the Siken's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and I recommend reading it in full.

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The striking Hansel & Gretel pictures today are by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, created for an illustrated edition of the story originally published in France. (A later English edition, with text by Neil Gaiman, appeared from TOON Graphics in 2014.) Mattotti studied architecture when he was young but ended up in the comics field instead -- making his name with such works as Fires and Labyrinthes from the 1980s onward, and winning an Eisner Award for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2003. He also illustrates children's books (Pinnochio, Eugenio, The Pavillion on the Links, etc.), and is internationally renown as a magazine and fashion illustrator. Born and raised in Lombardy, Mattotti now lives with his wife and family in Paris.

In the video below, Neil Gaiman talks about working on the English edition of Mattotti's Hansel & Gretel, and the dark side of fairy tales.

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 Lorenzo Mattotti 11Words: The passage above by Richard Siken is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999). Pictures: The drawings above are from Hansel & Gretel, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti (TOON Graphics, 2014) -- with thanks to Charles Vess for introducing me to it. All rights to the text and imagery in this post reserved by their respective creators.


Fairy tales and youngest sons

Howard Pyle

From "The Boy Who Went Forth," an essay by novelist Christopher Barzak (in Brothers & Beasts):

Howard Pyle"I grew up reading in a home where no one read, and in that home where my older brothers (had they read) wouldn't have been caught dead with a Charles Perrault book, I grew up reading fairy tales. I was an anomoly, I think, born in a small rural town in Ohio, in a ranch house my father built on my grandmother's farm. Looking back on my childhood and adolescence, recalling the friends of my youth, I remember being aware at a young age that, among the boys I was friends with, none of them read very much. And they especially didn't read fairy tales. Watching the Disney versions was okay when we were small, but even those became off-limits the nearer we drew to our teenage years.

"And yet I counted fairy tales among my varied reading pleasures. I enjoyed comic books (Marvel rather than DC), mysteries (Poe), adventure stories for boys (Craig's My Side of the Mountain), science fiction and fantasy (Le Guin's Earthsea cycle), horror (again Poe), folktales (Irving), and fairy tales (Perrault rather than the Grimms, though I love the Grimms as well as Andersen). I didn't speak of my reading habits with my friends or family. It was private. When I read, I felt as if I could leave the world around me where -- perhaps I knew even then, in some corner of my mind -- I didn't quite fit. Why would I expose the very activity that allowed me to engage in a kind of freedom, that allowed me access to a world in which the limitations of this one disappeared and my imagination could roam past the boundaries of the life I'd been born into? I did not hide my reading, as that would only have aroused suspicion, but I did not speak about it either. I must also make clear, though, that I didn't know I was protecting something. I didn't realize that until I was older.

Bearskin by Howard Pyle

"Although I loved reading fairy tale, there was a certain kind of fairy tale I hated to discover. Tales in which two or three sons and a father act as the central characters, wherein one or two of the boys are either talented, smart, handsome, or all of these things, and the youngest or third son is a weak, strange, malformed, or stupid creature. I took an immediate dislike to these stories, but at the time I wasn't sure why. When I came across fairy tales that used this pattern of characters, though, I would pass these stories over for tales in which someone's dreams come true.

"What I did not understand then was that I had found a type of fairy tale that reflected some aspect of myself, my family, my experience in the 'real world,' and that what it reflected I did not want to see. I sought out the fairy tales that did not reflect my experience, because I didn't want to find myself in stories that were not reaffirming about my placement in the world. What the strange brothers of fairy tales showed me was that, in my family, I was this sort of child. The weakling, the strange thinker, the one set apart from social normality."

Howard Pyle

Chris gives one example of this kind of character: the second son in the Grimms' fairy tale The Story of the Youth Who Sets Forth to Learn What Fear Is, a boy portrayed as so useless that he cannot work in his destined trade and earn a living like his elder brother, and so foolish that he hasn't got the sense to be frightened in frightening situations.

The Swan Maiden by Howard PyleThe boy ventures off to learn about fear, moving through an odd series of adventures. He "spends the night among the hanging corpses of the dead husbands of a rope-maker's daughter without realizing he is keeping company with dead men, and he destroys demonic cats in a castle because he knows they are tricking him when they ask if he wants to play cards (slyly he says yes, and before they can put forth their claws he destroys them). He conquers an entire castle full of ghosts and demons and the living dead. Yet somehow this boy is considered stupid.

"The real trick of this tale is in what it reveals about the teller of the story, who I take to be a great sort of Everyman or Everwoman figure, a member of small-town agrarian society who understands the rules of that society and what is considered good and what is considered bad. We are told the second son is stupid because he has no way of earning his own bread, and because he apparently does not fear many of the things that everyone else in the society clearly sees reason to fear. He is unafraid of corpses, ghosts, and demons. He does not run when anyone with any sense would run. Of course the town and town teller, Mr. or Mrs. Everyman or Everywoman, finds the boy to be a stupid, queer sort of fellow.

"Difference, then, constitutes stupidity in the land of fairy tales."

Differences like reading. Or going to college. Or growing up to write books instead of working with one's hands.

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

Later in this fine essay (which I recommend reading in full), Christopher writes:

The Swan Maiden by Howard Pyle"It was not until I re-read as an adult the Grimms' fairy tales, as well as Hans Christian Andersen's and Charles Perraults' stories, that I came to understand why the stories of the dullard sons and brothers pierced me so keenly as a child, to the point that I would slap a book closed or flip furiously to find a different sort of tale. As an adult I was able to see that the stupid sons were stupid only in the eyes of constructed social norms, that they were not inherently useless or strange. They were, in many cases, the real heroes of their lives and the lives of their families. From Perrault's Tom Thumb, a tiny weakling among his healthy strong brothers, I learned that the smallest, weakest child could also be the one to outwit an ogre and save his brothers from certain death and his family from poverty. His smallness, his weakness, provided him with advantages and a keen intelligence that his brothers did not have.

"But it is to the Brothers Grimm boy who went forth to learn what fear was that I still return. As an adult male reader of fairy tales, I can now take some comfort and nourishment from his absurd journey, his going forth fearlessly on a path that others would turn away from. In him I've found a sort of kindred spirit."

How Three Went Out into the Wide World by Howard Pyle

The art today is by the great American illustrator Howard Pyle (1853-1911). Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Pyle drew and painted from a young age, spent three years working in the studio of F. A. Van der Weilen in Philadephia, then moved to New York to become an illustrator with the help of Edward Austin Abby and Frederick S. Church. By the time he returned to Wilmington in his late twenties, Pyle's career was well established and he was writing books as well as illustrating them, while also producing sumptuous work for magazines. Generations have now grown up on Pyle's books for children, including The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur's Knights, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates, and The Wonder Clock. (Most of the drawings in this post are from the latter.)

In 1990, Pyle established The Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art -- first in Wilmington, and then in eastern Pennsylvania near the Brandywine River. The school and the art movement it engendered -- both now known as The Brandywine School -- produced an extraordinary number of superb illustrators including  N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Jessica Wilcox Smith, and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

From The Wonder Clock by Howard PyleThe passage above is from Christopher Barzak's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The Neil Gaiman poem in picture captions first appeared in Black Heart, Ivory Bones, edited by me & Ellen Datlow (Avon Books, 2000), and was reprinted in Brothers & Beasts. All rights reserved by the authors.


Brothers & Beasts: the boys who love fairy tales too

Tilly in the Trees

Many of you will be familiar with Kate Bernheimer's fine book Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, originally published in 1998, containing memorable essays by Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, bell hooks, Joyce Carol Oates, Fay Weldon, Joy Williams, and many others. (Midori Snyder and I contributed essays to the second, expanded edition in 2002: "The Monkey Girl" and "Transformations.")

The Golden Bird by Maurice SendakLess well known than Mirror, Mirror, but equally good, is Kate's follow-up volume: Brother's & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, 2007. The book has a fine roster of writers, including Gregory Maquire, Neil Gaiman, Robert Coover, Timothy Schaffaert, Christopher Barzak, Jeff VanderMeer, and Alexander Chee, plus contributions from scholars Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes, and a fascinating introduction by Kate discussing the way the project came together.

She'd originally intended to publish both men and women in Mirror, Mirror, she writes, but "several people who greatly supported that book did not support the inclusion of men. They claimed, quite adamantly, 'No one will be interested in what men have to say about fairy tales.' Worse still, they continued, 'Men wouldn't have much of interest to say about fairy tales.'

Hans My Hedgehog & The Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was by Maurice Sendak

"But evidence of men's interest in fairy tales is vast and spans many centuries," Kate continues. "At the time I was very young and did not argue. Besides, I thought that a book gathering essays by women would be interesting too. Why not? But I always considered that book incomplete -- or, more precisely, because I am an emotional editor, I consider it unfair. Of all the literary traditions, the fairy-tale tradition is generous and spiteful  towards boys and girls, men and women -- it does not prefer one over the other. I did not like to suggest that women more than men had a stake in these powerful stories.

"Also, I felt that the assertion that men would have nothing to say about fairy tales was reflective of a two-fold prejudice: against men and against fairy tales. There was an implicit disdain for boys drawn to stories of wonder. There was also an implied disdain for fairy tales, so strongly associated with girls and the nursery.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

"Though several eloquent gender studies of fairy tales exist, one hardly encounters a popular reference to men and fairy tales -- Robert Bly's Iron John nothwithstanding. It is as if men are not allowed to have an emotional or artistic relationship to fairy tales. On the whole -- in the classroom, at conderences, or at lectures -- I find that men are not accustomed to being asked if they like fairy tales, let alone whether fairy tales have influences their emotional, intellectual, and artistic lives. "

The premise of Brothers & Beasts, Kate says, "was to reverse that poor spell."

The Three Feathers by Maurice Sendak

"While I appreciate the celebration, both in scholarship and in popular culture, of the strong female characters in fairy tales," Kate adds, "I think that, first and foremost, our devotion to fairy tales is with 'the whole of the mind' and not with our gender. Phrased differently, perhaps less controversially, it is clear that in both Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & Beasts artistic fervor comes first -- a fervor begun in childhood with a fervor for reading....

"For me, there was nothing like reading fairy tales as a child. As Maria Tatar points out in her lovely forward, 'When you read a book as a child, it sends chills up your spine and produces somatic effects that rarely accompany the reading experience of adults.' Jack Zipes, in his afterword, writes, 'The fairy tale has not been partial to one sex or the other.' Reading fairy tales -- or writing about them -- is, I can assure you, one of the few ways that adults can re-create that delicious, somatic childhood chill.

Bearskin & The Goblins by Maurice Sendak

"Yet men, so discouraged from speaking personally about fairy tales and their connection to them, may lose that opportunity -- which is a loss for us all. That is why I so badly wanted to do this book. I was surprised by the urgency the writers felt too. And I cherish the tenderness with which these writers talk about thimbles and flowers, myth makers and cowards, bears both little and big. It is the tenderness that strikes me, the tenderness and urgency here."

Brothers & Beasts is available from Wayne State University Press. I highly recommend it if it's not on your fairy tale shelves already.

Hansel & Gretel by Maurice Sendak

The art today is by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), from his two-volume fairy tale masterpiece The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm. Sendak, the child of Polish-American parents, came from a family much decimated by the Holocaust. Raised in Brooklyn, New York, he vowed to become an artist after watching Disney's Fantasia at the age of twelve. He began illustrating books in the late 1940s, then moved on to writing them as well, creating such classics as Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, and Outside Over There, and winning virtually every major award he could win.

"Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it," Sendak recalled in one interview. "I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters -- sometimes very hastily -- but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it."

The 12 Huntsman & Brother and Sister by Maurice Sendak

Tilly in the trees

Mirror, Mirror and Brothers & BeastsWords: The passage above is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Maurice Sendak's drawings are from The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, translated by Lore Segal & Randall Jarrell (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, revised edition 2003); titles can be found in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the Sendak estate. Photographs: Tilly in the trees.


True stories

Studio Muse 1

From The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and Dragon hatchling by Alan Leedenied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

Dragon by Alan Lee

On my desk

"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story 'The Unicorn in the Garden,' by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth." 

Unicorn by Alan Lee & John Howe

Studio Muse 2Words: The passage above is from "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which first appeared in PNLA Quarterly 38 (1974), and can also be found in her essay collection The Language of the Night (GP Putnams, 1979). Drawings: The two dragon drawings are by Alan Lee, and the unicorn drawing by Alan Lee & John Howe. Photographs: A quiet Friday morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


The stories we need

The Blackberry Bush

Sleepy Time Tale

“Just as the child is born with a literal hole in its head, where the bones slowly close underneath the fragile shield of skin, so the child is born with a figurative hole in its heart.  Slowly this, too, is filled up.  What slips in before it anneals shapes the man or woman into which that child will grow.  Story is one of the most serious intruders into the heart."    - Jane Yolen

As a folklorist, fantasist, and passionate advocate for the value of fairy tales, I have written many articles and talks over the years about the fairy tales I loved as a child and how they've permeated my creative life ever since. I've spent less time thinking about the other tales that colored my childhood, especially those from the earliest years, tales read to me before I could read for myself -- tales that, whatever their objective value as literature, "intruded into the heart" during that formative time.

I wish I could say my young mind was nourished on the classics of children's literature -- the original text of J.M Barrie's sly and sardonic Peter and Wendy, for example -- but like so many children growing up in the '60s I had a Peter-Pan-simulacrum, not Peter himself: a small picture book with a re-written text that had been greatly slimmed down and simplified, based on Walt Disney's Peter, not Barrie's. Likewise for Felix Salten's Bambi, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and so many other classics in 1960s adapations: they all seemed to bear Disney's stamp, whether or not Disney Studios had ever actually made films out of them.

Little Golden Book editions

I loathe such books now. And yet, I confess, as a child I swallowed them whole. The timeless magic of stories like Peter's runs deep, no matter how badly re-tellings may ravage them. I know from my taste in fairy tales -- where I had the luck to be raised on the old, unwatered-down versions -- that I would have preferred the original texts, even when the language sailed over my head; but I took what was offered, and loved Imitation Peter and Imitation Thumper and Imitation Baloo nonetheless.

Sleepy Time Tale

My memory of my pre-reading years is patchy, but my memory of the books I adored is not, the stories entwined with the sound of my mother's voice as she read them to me at bedtime. She worked during the day, and these were among the rare moments I had her all to myself, and when she seemed contented to be with me, not sadly bewildered by my existence.

What I know today, and did not know then, is that my mother was still just a child herself, having dropped out of high school when I came along (the result of a love affair gone wrong) and living under her own mother's roof. Her room was a frilly teenager's bedroom. I had the little bedroom next door, where through the thin walls I could hear the sound of her crying, night after night. I thought I was the cause of those tears, an unwanted baby who had ruined her life. Much later I learned the rest of the story: there had been a second love affair, and a second baby after me, a son, who had been taken away. Now those years of her bottomless grief made sense. But these clarifying details were hidden from the puzzled child I was, and in the tale that I wove from my ignorance I was the source of her misery and her shame, and the fact that I could not break through her sorrow seemed to confirm this as truth.

Little 'Fraid of the Dark (from the Book Trails series)

We lived at that time with my grandmother, my step-grandfather, and the three young daughters of that marriage: my aunts, but barely older than me and so they seemed more like sisters. I adored them, followed them everywhere (when they let me), and longed to sleep in their dorm-like room at the top of the house, instead of in my bed with my head under the pillows to block out my mother's crying. Is it any wonder that the first great love of my life was Peter Pan? I insisted on keeping the window cracked open at night, in all kinds of weather, but I never said why. I was waiting for Peter. I wanted to fly to the stars and away. I was certain he would come.

Peter Pan illustration

In addition to those dreadful Disney editions, when storytime came around at night I often requested the "red books": a children's anthology series from the 1920s that lived on my mother's shelves, not mine, for they'd been hers as a child, and she loved them, and I wasn't to touch them. (Or, god forbid, to color in them -- but of course I did and spent a whole week in disgrace.) When my mother died (again, much too young) the books came to me, and I still have them today: an eight volume series called Book Trails, published by Shepard & Lawrence in 1928.

Book Trails (Lawrence & Shepard, Inc. 1928)

Two things about these books strike me now. First, they are filled with poems and tales of Victorian and Edwardian vintage, full of children who lived in day and night nurseries, attended by nannies and servants, aired in perambulators and fed strange meals called "tea" (at which, I imagined, only the beverage of that name was served). In this way, I received a literary education more common to children of my mother's, and even my grandmother's, day. I can still quote reams of poetry by Walter de la Mare and Robert Louis Stevenson by heart...along with plenty of sickly-sweet late-Victorian rhymes that no one else has heard of now.

The Little White Bed That Ran Away

Second, I am struck by the fact that the tales I remember as favorites are all, every one of them, variations on a single theme: an unprepossessing child, or puppy, or princess, or fairy is overlooked, unwanted, or has no home...but by story's end they are claimed, loved, and recognized for their inherent worth.

The Story of the Three Little Doggies

The Chicks  That Stayed Up Late (from the Book Trails series)

One story I asked for again and again is a saccharine take on the Ugly Duckling theme, "The Little Fat Fairy" by Florence S. Page. In this tale, there's a little fairy so chubby and clumsy that he can't fly like his fellow fairies, or dance properly, or do much of anything at all. The other fairies tease him and he tries not to mind, but he knows there is something horribly wrong with him and he's deeply ashamed. One day a Lovely Lady comes to the forest looking for a fairy companion. They dance around her, all calling "Choose me! Choose me!" Each one is more beautiful than the next, and the Lovely Lady can't make up her mind...until she spies the fat fairy above her in the trees, hiding his ugliness from her.

"Oh you dear little thing," she cries. "I want you!"

The other fairies are shocked. "Why would you want him? He's so fat he can't dance or anything!"

"That's because he's a baby, not a fairy," says the woman. "He's a beautiful baby boy! And I'm going to be his mother."

It's embarrassing reading the tale today, so cloyingly sweet, so heavy-handedly moral. And yet, I admit, this silly story still makes my heart catch in the same old way. I am in my 50th decade now, but that unwanted child is still at my core. To be seen, to be valued, to be claimed without hesitation...that's a powerful magic indeed, and it doesn't matter that the tale is so badly written. The child I was didn't know that, or care. I read it now and I'm transported back: to that room, to that bed, to the window cracked open, to the nightly sobs of my teenage mother. And the waiting, the waiting, for someone to claim me. Peter Pan. Lovely Lady. Anyone.

The Fat Little Fairy

It's unsettling to write these words. Not because of painful emotions evoked -- I've made my peace with my past after all these years -- but because I'm a writer myself now, and these stories are challenging my deepest convictions. I believe it's important to write well for children; to create fantasy that is complex and true, not didactic tales or frivilous fancies steeped only in bathos and wish-fulfillment. Yet the sugary stories of the "red books" were true for me at that time, and I did not distinguish good writing from poor. I took what I needed, and if the tales were simplistic in the telling, they became something more in the hearing.

From the Book Trails series"I  don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children," says my wise friend Neil Gaiman. "Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn't hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it."

Little Milk, Little Cereal, and Grey Kitten Moorka

Another "bad book" I loved without reservation was  The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian Munn, published in 1953 and dismissed by reviewers as "sticky sentiment" even then. I can't say that assessment is wrong, but as a small child in the early '60s this book was my sacred text: profound, transcendent, and necessary. The story is simple. Mrs. Pig is the only animal on Bayberry Lane who never receives any mail. Each day she waits by her mailbox, hopeful, and each day the kind-hearted The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane by Ian MunnLittle Mailman, a chipmunk, witnesses her disappointment. Distressed by Mrs. Pig's loneliness, the Little Mailman comes up with a plan. The next day, everyone on the lane gets an invitation to a party...except poor Mrs. Pig, who is now sadder than ever. It turns out, of course, that the big event is a surprise party thrown by the mailman for her, after which she has so many friends that her mailbox never stands empty again.

Polly Pig, as depicted by illustrator Elizabeth Webbe, is quietly sad and quietly sweet -- descriptions I could also apply to my mother. No Mr. Pig is ever mentioned (another similarity), and she seems undeserving of the loneliness that suffuses her life until the Little Mailman comes along. I might easily have been a more selfish child, rejecting my mother and her suffocating sorrow, adding to the burden of grief she carried; but instead, through the Little Mailman, I learned about kindness, empathy, emotional generosity. If only I could be half so clever as he, I too might devise an ingenious plan to bring happiness back into my mother's life. I tried, and I tried, and I never succeeded. Her problems were larger than Mrs. Pig's. But the compassion that I learned from that "sticky sentimental" story I carry with me to this day.

The Little Mailman of Bayberry Lane

None of these are tales I would choose to grow up with. Nor would I would give them to a child now when there are so many better stories to offer, both classic and contemporary. Yet I craved these books, asked for them over and over, and found their sugary sweetness nourishing to my soul. As a writer, I cannot approve of them. They are not, by any measure of the writing craft, good: they are simplistic, soppy, and (in the case of the Disneyfied picture books) inauthentic. They are everything that as an artist I deplore.

Yet they made me the person and writer I am. And I love them still.

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A Story Book (from Book Trails)

Words: The quote by Jane Yolen is from her excellent book Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood (Philomel, 1981). The quote by Neil Gaiman is from "Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreams (The Guardian, October 15, 2013). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the pictures to see them.) The illustrations from the Book Trails series (Lawrence & Shepard, 1928) are, alas, not credited by artist.


The right books at the right time

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Here's another passage from The Pleasure of Reading on the importance "place" in a child's imagination -- in this case, not the place where the child actually lives, but the worlds conjured by a writer's words:

The Famous Five Have Plenty of Fun"Oh, the excitement of the latest Famous Five adventure," playwright Ronald Harwood reminisces, "with Biggles, Just William, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Long John Silver following close behind. I have not, except for Treasure Island, re-read them since childhood or adolescence and I've made it a condition not to re-read them now in case I am embarrassed by memory. I want to prevent the pompous adult, sensitive to what others may think, from inhibiting the impressionable child. I was, by the way, a late developer and only began reading intelligently when I was twenty.

"I should explain I was born and educated in Cape Town but my mother, born in London, led me to believe from an early age that England was the Promised Land and London Jerusalem so I was a good deal drawn to books which fed my hunger for Englishness, defined by me then, and now, as an ideal of gentleness, culture, countryside and justice.

"Enid Blyton, more than any other writer I remember, fulfilled much of that definition, those longings for England, but only in her Famous Five stories. (I could not abide Noddy or any of the others.) The Famous Five, as I remember, lived somewhere in the south of England -- Kent, I think -- and were amateur detectives who, in their summer holidays, stumbled on crimes and solved them just as it was time to go back to school. Gentle justice triumphed.

Eileen Soper

"But it was her ability to share her love of the English landscape which was, to me, her most endearing quality," Harwood continues. "Enid Blyton described the rural scene so vividly that I carry to this day what I believe to be her images of tree-tunnels and green hillsides and well-kept careless gardens. I am told now it was a sugary, middle-class idyll she created (a criticism as meaningless to me now as it would have been then), romantic, idealized, nostalgic.

"The fascinating aspect of her power, however, is that when, many years later, I went to live in a Hampshire village and walked the footpaths and climbed the hangers, my memory was jolted by her descriptions of the England in which the capers of the Famous Five took place and seemed to me accurate. I cannot say she influenced my own writing but as a reader I owe her an enormous debt; and I remember in the 1970s, when censorship was virulent in England, how shocked I was to read of librarians removing Enid Blyton from their shelves for being too middle-class or too twee or too something. They could not have known that to one immigrant, at least, she described a magical world."

Eileen Soper

Famous Five cover art by Eileen Soper

Doris Lessing lived in Iran until she was five, then spent the rest of her childhood on a farm in South Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

"I began reading at seven, off a cigarette pack," she recalls, before progressing to the books on her English-born parents' shelves. "The books I responded to then are not those I would Anne of Green Gableschose as best now. You have to read a book at the right time for you, and I'm sure this cannot be insisted on too often, for it is the key to the enjoyment of literature.

"I read children's books, some unknown to today's children. The [North] Americans: L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables books, Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did series, The Girl of Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter and its sequels. Louisa Alcott. Hawthorne. Henty. The English classics were Lewis Carroll, who I like better now than I did then, and Milne's Winnie the Pooh, which I adored then and feel uneasy about now. The hero is a stupid greedy little bear, and the clever animals are ridiculous: good old England, I sometimes think, at it again. But there was Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows cover atyThe Wind in the Willows,
and a wonderful children's newspaper, and a magazine called The Merry-Go-Round that printed Walter de la Mare, Eleanor Farjeon, Lawrence Binyon, and other fine writers. Walter de la Mare's The Three Royal Monkeys entranced me then, and still kept some of its magic about it when I recently re-read it.

"I was lucky that my parents read to my brother and me. I believe that nothing has the impact of a story read or told. I remember the atmosphere of those evenings, and all the stories, some of them long-running domestic epics made up by my mother, about the adventures of mice, or our cats and dogs, or the little monkeys that lived around us in the bush and sometimes leaped about in the rafters under the thatch, or the interaction between our domestic animals and the wild ones all around us....Parents who read to their children or who make up stories are giving them the finest gift in the world. Do we too often forget that tale-telling is thousands of years old, whereas we have been reading for a trifling number of centuries?"

Early editions of three children's classics

Vintage Children's Books, a still life painting by Holly FarrellPictures: The pictures at the top and bottom of this post are by Holly Farrell, a Canadian artist whose paintings of old books and other objects are just wonderful. The classic Famous Five illustrations are by Eileen Soper (1905-1990). The first edition of Anne of Green Gables was illustrated by M. A. & W. A. J. Claus (1914). The edition of Wind in the Willows illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard came out in 1931, though the story itself, unillustrated, first appeared in 1908. The cover design for The Girl of the Limberlost is by Wladyslaw T. Benda, the cover illustration for What Katy Did is uncredited, and the cover illustration for Little Women is by C.M. Burd. The novels were originally published in 1909, 1872, and 1868/69 respectively. Words: The passages by Ronald Harwood and Doris Lessing above are from Reading for Pleasure, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the authors, artists, or their estates.


Reading and place

The Tooth Fairy by Su Blackwell

"Reading for me is inextricably tied to place," writes Scottish author Emma Tennant about the books she favored in childhood. It's my favorite of the charming essays to be found in Antonia Fraser's The Pleasures of Reading, for Tennant grew up in a house that seems to have emerged from a novel by Elizabeth Goudge, built by her great-grandfather:

"The Victorian Gothic house -- a 'monstrosity' to some, a 'folly' to others -- to all a decidedly odd place for a person to spend their formative years, cast its long shadow over the books I read. For years no book I read came from anywhere but the bowels and lungs -- and in some cases the twisted attics -- of the Big House that crouched at the end of a valley still then clad with the last shreds of the Ettick Forest. I read up and down the house, and I knew fairly early on that I would never begin to get through it all -- even with the help of the terrifying Demonologie, property of James IV of Scotland, with its turning paper wheels to aid with the casting of spells.

Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"To begin with that ragged line of Ettrick silver birches outside my window. This was the Fethan wood, where James Hogg set fairy tales and metamorphoses: it was dangerous to walk there, to go up to the ring of bright grass and look down at the house through silver-grey trees. People came out transformed into animals -- or didn't come out at all, to be discovered years later as three-legged stools. I read the Hogg stories -- or they were read to me -- and years before I was able to go on to his great masterpiece, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the account of a man driven insane by Calvinism, by the dictates of the devil who sends him out to kill as one of the Elect -- I could feel the power of Hogg's imagination in the hills and woods and streams that enclosed the house.

Detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Once Upon a Time by Su Blackwell

"The house could be said to be like an archaeological dig, with the basement providing material contemporaneous with the discoveries of archeologists Arthur Evans or Heinrich Schliemann, and just as startling for a child to discover as it must have been for the archaeologists to unearth the foundations of Knossos or Clytemnestra's tomb. Here were Henty and Ballantyne -- and, most important of all, H. Rider Haggard's She -- all in low rooms hard to find in a labyrinth of tiled passages, cold with a strong smell of rot. Here the strong and brave of the Empire fought their battles and had their impossible adventures; and here I lingered, in disused dairies and stillrooms, reading in a world which was a dusty monument to that vanished and glorious past.

The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

Another detail from The Dark is Rising by Su Blackwell

"From the crepuscular vaults of the house there were two ways up. The back stairs led to the schoolrooms, where tubercular daughters had coughed over books of such spectacular dullness that I remember none of them -- except for the fact that some more recent incumbents had left a stash of historical romances by Margaret Irwin and Violet Needham. Here, in the abandoned schoolroom, I was drawn into a past (there were a couple of Georgette Heyers too) of phaetons and darkly scowling artistocrats and games of faro and the like, and for a while I stopped there, until the discovery of Alexander Dumas' The Back Tulip drew me down the stairs again and out into the garden. For the magnetic quality of that extraordinary book led me to search the grassy paths and flower borders for the elusive tulip -- and once I thought I saw it between two yew trees, at the entrance to the garden: a rich, gleaming black flower that would guide me somehow down the paths my own imagination was just beginning to try....

Gormenghast by Su Blackwell

"The attic had books in trunks that had split open with age -- books no-one wanted when they went off to war, or went off to get married, or had no room for anyway. Bees had once swarmed in the attic, and it's to the smell of wax that I remember finding the early Penguins: the Aldous Huxleys, a book called A Month of Sundays, which I have never since been able to trace -- and the odd Agatha Christie, which kept me up there until dark, amongst children's wicker saddles, pictures of dead aunts that no-one would ever want to look at, and a floor covering of dead bees."

The Snow Queen by Su Blackwell

The Luminaries by Su Blackwell

As an American child growing up in a series of unromantic mid-20th century houses, I longed for a Gothic pile like Tennant's, with rooms to explore and books to discover and pathways leading to fairy tale woods. It wasn't until I was grown that I finally lived in house full of history and ghosts: a Matilda by Su Blackwelllittle stone cottage, 400 years old, that I owned for two decades before I was married. That's a story for another day, however, as that was a place that shaped my adult self, not the child I was and thus the writer I became.

What house did you love in childhood? Or long for? Or perhaps still inhabit today? We've been talking about place and home this last week, and the houses in which our earliest years unfolded surely shaped our creative psyches as much as the land or cityscape around them. For me, tossed back and forth between the houses of various relatives, with occasional stints in foster care, the transient aspect of those years led to a deep obsession with the theme of "finding home, place, and family" that runs (whether I consciously mean it to or not) through all of my work. I'd be a different writer if my childhood had been stable and rooted. Not better or worse, just different.

Despite having no single place that was my home, I also associate the books I loved in childhood with places where I first read them, as Emma Tennant does in the delightful passage above. Re-reading such books can whisk us right back, for good or ill....

A potent form of time-traveling indeed.

Detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

Another detail from Matilda by Su Blackwell

The art today is, of course, by the great British papercut artist Su Blackwell, most of it created in the last year.

”I often work within the realm of fairy-tales and folk-lore," she says. "I began making a series of book-sculpture, cutting-out images from old books to create three-dimensional dioramas, and displaying them inside wooden boxes. For the cut-out illustrations, I tend to lean towards young-girl characters, placing them in haunting, fragile settings, expressing the vulnerability of childhood, while also conveying a sense of childhood anxiety and wonder. There is a quiet melancholy in the work, depicted in the material used, and choice of subtle colour."

Visit the Blackwell's website to see her utterly amazing book sculptures and installations, and go here to see a video in which the artist discusses her creative process. She also has three lovely books out: The Fairytale Princess (with Wendy Jones), Sleeping Beauty Theatre (with Corina Fletcher), and Su Blackwell Book Sculptures.

The Shell Seekers by Su Blackwell

Out of Narnia by Su BlackwellPictures: You'll find the titles of Su Blackwell's sculptures in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The passage by Emma Tennant above is from The Pleasures of Reading, edited by Antonia Fraser (Bloomsbury, 1992). All rights reserved by the author.


On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In Friday's post, and yesterday's, we've been talking about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.

Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The beautiful art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators.