Books on books

The Bed-Time Book by Jessie Willcox Smith

My own bed-time reading

Having spent the better part of the last couple of months in and out of bed again has been a bit of a blow for my writing schedule (the manuscript I thought would be done by now is still inching its way to the finish line), and my studio hours are still limited as I find my way back to health and strength. But when illness robs us of productivity, breaking down our usual routines, slowing time down to a crawl, it also gives us unexpected gifts -- and for me, that gift is the time read.  Okay, I'd rather be writing, painting, doing, not watching the world through a fever haze, or experiencing life through a printed page -- but on those days when my body fails I'm grateful to books, and to all those who write them.

Olvaso No by Berény Róbert

Reading having played a big part in my life for many reasons in addition to health, I have a particular fondness for books about books. Here are three I've read (or re-read) recently: The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford, Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and Books & Island in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. All three are memoirs, rather than literary studies; all three explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all three examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us.

Books on books

Let's start with The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford.

I first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed with literary history, cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the intervening years, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the premise of the book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that Spufford's memoir was a pioneering text, with both the strengths and flaws of form that trail-blazing entails. That said, it is still a very good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am (unlike Lucy Mangan) and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy (Mangan largely does not), and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, along with his poignant exploration of a childhood in which finding doors into other worlds was merciful and necessary.

Here's a passage from Spufford's introduction  to give you a sense of the book as a whole:

When I Grow Up by Jim Daly"I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing. I was born in 1964, so I grew up in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Kipling, and Kenneth Graham were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducting myth into the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as adults; Joan Aiken had begun her Dido Twite series of comic fantasies; Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes; Diana Wynne Jones's gift for wild invention was hitting its stride; Rosemary Sutcliffe was just adding the final uprights to her colonnade of Romano-British historical novels; Leon Garfield was reinventing the 18th century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on. There was activity everywhere, a new potential classic every few months.

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

Instead of Sleep by Tatiana Deriy

"Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were and about where we all were in history. Dr. Spock's great manual for liberal, middle-class child-rearing had come out at the beginning of the Sixties, and had helped deconstruct the last lingering remnants of the idea that a child was clay to be molded by a benevolent adult authority. The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin. And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward toward enlightenment had taken place as well. The books my generation were offered took it for granted that poverty, disease and prejudice essential belonged in the past. Postward society had ended them. 

"As the 1970s went on, these assumptions would lose their credibility. Gender roles were about to be shaken up; the voices that a white, liberal consensus consigned to the margins of consciousness were about to be asserted as hostile witnesses to its nature. People were about to lose their certainty that liberal solutions worked. Evil would revert to being an unsolved problem. But it hadn't happened yet; and till it did, the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present, from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

Puffin editions

"For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was Puffin Books. In Britain, almost everything written for children passed into the one paperback imprint. On the shelves of the children's section in the bookshop, practically all the stock would be identically neat soft-covered octavos, in different colors, with different cover art, but always with the same sans serif type on the spine, and the same little logo of an upstanding puffin. Everything cost about the same. For 17p -- then 25p and then 40p as the 1970s inflation took hold -- you could have any one of the new books, or any of the children's classics, from the old ones like The Wind in the Willows or Alice to the new ones that were only a couple of decades into their classichood, like the Narnia books (C.S. Lewis had died the year before I was born, most unfairly making sure I would never meet him).

"If you were a reading child in the UK in the Sixties or Seventies, you too probably remember how securely Puffins seemed, with the long, trust-worthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above, and sensitive boys.'  It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative. And their reach seemed universal: not just the really good books you were going to remember forever, but the nearly good ones too and the completely forgettable ones that at the time formed the wings of reading and spread them wide enough to enfold you in books on all sides."

Reading by James Charles and Storytime by Jonathan Weiss

The Reading Boy by Joseph Fielding Smith

A little later in the Introduction, Spufford lays out the premise of his memoir:

"I have gone back and read again the sequence of books that carried me from babyhood to the age of nineteen, from the first fragmentary stories I remember to the science fiction I was reading at the brink of adulthood. As I reread them, I tried to become again the reader I had been when I encountered each for the first time, wanting to know how my particular history, in my particular family, at that particular time, had ended up making me into the reader I am today. I made forays into child psychology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory. With their help, the following chapters recount a path through the riches that were available to English children of the 1960s and 1970s, and onward into the reading of adolescence. It is the story (I hope) of the reading my whole generation of bookworms did; and it is the story of my own relationship with books; both. A pattern emerged, or a I drew it: a set of four stages in the development of that space inside where writing is welcomed and reading happens. What follows is more about books that it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. "

It is a premise Spufford amply fulfills.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Bookworm by Lucy Managan, newly published this year, is constructed on similar lines, and yet is a very different kind of book. More on that in the next post.

The Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

A Book at Bedtime by Emma Irlam Briggs

Words: The passage above is from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Related Reading: Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014).


Why we need fantasy

From Billy Popgun  illustrated by Milo Winter


The following passage by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) comes from an essay published in The Horn Book fifty years ago, yet I'm struck by how relevant it still seems to be today:

"Anyone close to children -- librarians, teachers, maybe even parents -- knows they do not hesitate to come out with straightforward questions. I am beginning to learn this for myself, although the process has been a little backwards: Instead of getting to know children first, then writing books for them, the opposite is happening. It is only recently  I have had some happy occasions to meet real live children. And not only in schools and libraries. At home I often discover a few hanging around the kitchen or perched on the sofa, swinging their heels. We talk awhile, they tell me what a hard day they had, I tell them what a hard day I have had -- there's really not much difference. But they constantly surprise me. The other afternoon one little girl asked, 'What would you rather do: be a millionaire or write books for children?'

"I gave her an absolutely honest answer. I said I would rather write books for children.

From Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Milo Winter

"Of course, I added, if someone felt inclined to give me a million dollars tax-free, in all politeness I could not refuse.

"But my answer was truthful. And I believe any serious, creative person -- and this includes teachers and librarians, for I have learned how really creative they are -- would have said the same. Because -- despite our status-oriented society, our preoccupation with 'making it,' with staying young forever, buying safe deodorants and unsafe automobiles -- I think something new is happening.

"Whatever our individual opinions, I think each of us senses that as a people we are in the midst of a moral crisis -- certainly the deepest of our generation, perhaps of our history. Few of us are untouched by a kind of national anguish. And it hurts. But if we felt nothing, if nothing moved or troubled us, then I feel we would be truly lost. For isn't anguish part of growing up? Without knowing grief, how can we ever hope to know joy?

From Aesop's Fables  illustrated by Milo Winter

"In the past, we have always been able to find technical or technological solutions to our problems. They have been external problems, for the most part, yielding to external solutions. And so we are not quite used to problems demanding inner solutions. In an article on fantasy literature, Dorothy Broderick points out that the English have dealt with fantasy more comfortably than we have in America and comments that perhaps, since England is so much older a nation, the English have had time to ask Why? instead of only How?

"It is true that we haven't had long years of leisurely speculation. But, ready or not, the time for us is now. A dozen Whys have been put to us harshly and abruptly. And searching for the Why of things is leading us to see the purely technological answers are not enough.

"We have machines to think for us; we have no machines to suffer or rejoice for us. Technology has not made us magician, only sorcerer's apprentices. We can push a button and light a dozen cities. We can also push a button and make a dozen cities vanish. There is, unfortunately, no button we can push to relieve us of moral choices or give us the wisdom to understand the morality as well as the choices. We have seen dazzling changes and improvements in the world outside us. I am not sure they alone can help change and improve the world inside us.

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"We are beginning to understand that intangibles have more specific gravity than we suspected, that ideas can generate as much forward thrust as Atlas missiles. We may win a victory in exploring the infinities of outer space, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory unless we can also explore the infinities of our inner spirit. We have super-sensitive thermographs to show us the slightest variations in skin temperature. No devices can teach us the irrelevance of skin color. We can transplant a heart from one person to another in a brilliant feat of surgical virtuosity. Now we are ready to try it the hard way: transplanting understanding, compassion and love from one person to another.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"To me, one of the clearest reflections of this changing attitude is a growing appreciation of fantasy in children's literature. The climate for fantasy today is vastly different from what it was twenty, even ten years ago, when the tendency was to judge fantasy as a kind of lollipop after the wholesome spinach of reality -- a tasty dessert, but not very good for the teeth.

"Now I think we see fantasy as an essential part of a balanced diet, not only for children but for adults too. The risks of keeping fantasy off the literary menu are every bit as serious as missing the minimum daily requirements of thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. The consequences are spiritual malnutrition."

Five decades on, these words are still true. We still need fantasy. We still need folk tales, fairy tales, mythic fiction, magic realism and other forms of fantastical literature to help us "explore the infinities of our inner spirit," and re-imagine the world.

From The Wonder Garden illustrated by Milo Winter

The art today is by American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

To see more of his work, go here.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

The passage above is from "Wishful Thinking - Or Hopeful Dreaming?"  by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book, August 1968). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


News from another country

Inllustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

From Startle and Illuminate, a collection of writing about writing by Canadian author Carol Shields (1935-2003):

"The resolution to become a writer formed very early in my life, but it took years for me to to discover what I would write about and who my readers would be.

"Several layers of trust were required before I began to find my direction. I had to learn to rely on my own voice, and after that to have faith in the value of my own experiences. At first this was frightening. The books I had read as a child related daring adventures, deeds of courage. The stories took place on mountaintops or in vast cities, not in the sort of quiet green suburbs where my family happened to live. It was as though there was an empty space on the bookshelf. No one seemed to talk about this void, but I knew it was there.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger

"Gradually I understood that the books I should write were the very books I wanted to read, the books I wasn't able to find in the library. The empty place could be closed. My small world might fill only a page at first, then several hundred pages, possibly thousands. I could make up in accuracy for what I lacked in scope, getting the details right, dividing every experience into its various shades and levels of anticipation.

" Illustration by Lisbeth ZwergerI could write a story, for instance, about Nathanial Hawthorne School. About the school principal whose name was Miss Newbury (Miss Blueberry she was called behind her back). About the chill of fear children suffered in the schoolyard, about a suffering little boy named Walter who had an English accent, and whose mother made him wear a necktie to school. About human foolishness, and about the small rescues and acts of redemption experienced along the way. I saw that I could become a writer if I paid attention, if I was careful, if I observed the rules, and then, just as carefully, broke them.

"In the books I read -- and I find it hard to separate my life as a reader from that as a writer -- I look first for language that cannot exist without leaving its trace of deliberation. I want, too, the risky articulation of what I recognize but haven't yet articulated myself. And, finally, I hope for fresh news from another country, which satisfies by its modest, microscopic enlargement of my vision of the world. I wouldn't dream of asking for more."

The Tinder Box by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger, a mulit-award-winning book illustrator based in Vienna. I highly recommend her many illustrated volumes (especially her fairy tale renditions), and the lovely collection of her work from North-South Press: The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger.

Studio

The passage above is from Startle and Illuminate: Carol Sheilds on Writing, edited by Anne and Nicholas Giardini (Random House Canada, 2016). All rights to art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate.


Ursula Le Guin on the truth of fantasy

Studio Muse 1

Like just about everyone else in the Mythic Arts field, I've been rocked by the death of Ursula Le Guin -- not only one of the greatest writers of our age, but also a vital, necessary figure for my generation of fantasy writers, editors, and illustrators. We entered the field in the late '70s and '80s when women were few and still unwelcome by a daunting number of professional colleagues, readers, and reviewers. Ursula was a guiding light, encouraging some of us directly, and many more through the pages of her books. In honor of her influential presence in American Arts & Letters for half a century (her first novel was published in 1966), I've gathered together all of the posts from the Myth & Moor archives related to her work. You'll find them here. The following post first appeared on Myth & Moor two years ago.

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

Dragon hatchling by Alan Lee"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 denied 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 morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


Vade mecum

Girl Holding a Book by Gwen John

Robert Macfarlane's "Word(s) of the Day" is one of the delights of Twitter (a medium that swings from soul-enriching to soul-crushing, depending on how you curate your Twitter feed). Yesterday Robert offered vade mecum: a Latin term, he explained, meaning: "literally 'go with me'; figuratively a book that one keeps by one’s side or close to hand -- so that it may be readily consulted for guidance or inspiration. A lodestone text to which one returns. What’s your vade mecum?"

Study for The Convalescent by Gwen John

Despite my fierce passion for books, his question is one I find difficult to answer. There are just so many books that I return to again and again -- from fantasy to realist fiction, from folklore studies to nature writing, from artist and writer biographies to poetry. To chose a single lodestone text is impossible for me: influence and inspiration is everywhere. As soon as I come up with single title, a dozen others crowd close behind it, and then a dozen more.

I like these words by British novelist Ali Smith, who was posed a similar question in an interview last year:

"What book has most inspired me? The question just made my brain explode into fizzing little pieces. I can't choose one. There are so many. I think I've been by everything I've ever read one way or another, and I don't mean just books, I mean things on hoardings, things on the sides of pencils, things that catch your eye on the sides of buses, the words FRAGILE BREAK GLASS on the front of a firehose cabinet in an Italian hotel. My partner Sarah just said, stop being inspired by everything. Is this piece of newspaper really inspiring to you? Yes, I said, so don't throw it away. (She threw it away anyway, but that was inspiring too, because it inspired me to write this paragraph.) Inspiration is everywhere. It's as everday as what it means, which is literally in-breath, the act of breathing in. If we think about it like that, inspiration becomes not just natural, first nature, but how we live, how we stay alive -- a matter of heart, blood, rhythm."

Indeed.

Tabby cat by Gwen John

What do you think, dear readers? Do you have a vade mecum (or two, or three), and if so, what? 

Or does the question make your brain go into meltdown, as it does to mine? 

Interior of the Artist's Room by Gwen John

The imagery today is by the great Welsh painter Gwen John (1876-1939), who is one of my all-time favourite artists. I wrote more about Gwen back in the autumn of 2011. You can find the post here.

Gwen John by Susan Row

Girl Holding Cat by Gwen JohnWith thanks to the good folks at #WomensArt, who reminded me today of my love for Gwen's work. And, of course, to Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, The Lost Words, etc.


The Animal Helpers of T.H. White

Young Arthur by Alan Lee

From "The Beast in the Book" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, though about King Arthur, is crowded with animals. In the first chapter King-Arthur-to-be, currently known as the Wart, takes out a goshawk, loses him, and meets Merlyn's owl Archimedes.

Merlin and Archimedes by Dennis Nolan"Oh what a lovely owl!" cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so there was only the smallest slit to peep through...and said in a doubtful voice:

"There is no owl."

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

"It's only a boy," said Merlyn.

"There is no boy," said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

"Merlyn undertakes Arthur's education, which consists mostly of being turned into animals. Here we meet the great mythic theme of Transformation, which is a central act of shamanism, though Merlyn doesn't make any fuss about it. The boy becomes a fish, a hawk, a snake, an owl, and a badger. He participates, at thirty years per minute, in the sentience of trees, and then, at two million years per second, in the sentience of stones. All these scenes of participation in nonhuman being are funny, vivid, startling, and wise.

Merlyn by NC Wyeth

"When a witch puts Wart into a cage to fatten him up, the goat in the next cage plays Animal Helper and rescues them all. All animals rightly trust Wart, which is proof of his true kingship. That he goes along on a boar hunt does not vitiate this trust: to White, true hunting is a genuine relationship between hunter and hunted, with implacable moral rules and a high degree of honor and respect for the prey. The emotions aroused by hunting are powerful, and white draws them all together in the scene of the death of the hound Beaumont, killed by the boar, a passage I have never yet read without crying,

"At the climax of the book, Wart can't draw the sword of kingship from the stone anvil by himself. He calls to Merlyn for help, and the animals come.

Young Arthur by John Lawrence & Dennis Nolan

"There were otters and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares, and serpents and falcons and fishes and goats and dogs and dainty uincorns and newts and solitary wasps and goat-moth caterpillars and corkindrills and volcanoes and mighty trees and patient stones...all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his power grow.

"Each creature calls its special wisdom to the boy who has been one of them, one with them. The pike says, 'Put your back into it,' a stone says, 'Cohere,' a snake says 'Fold your powers together with the spirit of your mind' -- and:

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

Merlin by Frank Godwin & The Sword in the Stone by Walter Crane

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable.

Merlin & Arthur by Scott Gustafson

"The Sword and the Stone, which I first read at thirteen or so,  influenced my mind and heart in ways which must be quite clear in the course of this talk, convincing me that trust cannot be limited to humankind, that love can not be specified. It's all or nothing at all. If, called to reign, you distrust and scorn your subjects, your only kingdom will be that of greed and hate. Love and trust and be a king, and your kingdom will be of the whole world. And to your coronation, among all the wondrous gifts, an 'anonymous hedgehog will send four or five dirty leaves with some fleas on them.' "

Owl and Hare by Jackie Morris

The Sleeping Earth by Catherine Hyde

Words: The passage above is from Words Are My Matter: Writings About Books & Life  by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Alan Lee, Dennis Nolan, N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), John Lawrence, Frank Godwin (1889-1959), Walter Crane (1845-1915), Scott Gustafson, Jackie Morris and Catherine Hyde. The images are identified in the picture captions. All rights reserved by the artists.

Further Reading:  T.H. White by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Goshawk by T.H. White, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A previous post on White: "T.H. White: a rescued mind."
 


Running with writers

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

In his essay "Childhood of a Writer," E.L. Doctorow describes how his passion for fiction ignited when he was eight years old:

"Back home [from an appendix operation], and more or less on my feet again, I took out of the library the two great dog novels of Jack London, published together for my convenience in one sturdy binding, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, the one about a civilized dog who is kidnapped and enslaved as a sled-husky in the Yukon and, under the brutal pressures of human masters, finds freedom and self-realization in reverting to the primeval wolf ways of his remote ancestry, the other about a savage wolf who, under the ministrations of a decent human being, becomes a civilized human-friendly dog. On such tales as these he became the most popular writer in America, and he is still widely read around the world, though he sits at literature's table below the salt while the more sophisticated voices of modernist and postmodernist irony conduct the conversation.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"The tests and trials to which Buck, the dog in The Call of the Wild, is subjected, and the way he meets them and learns and grows in moral stature, make Buck a round character, while the human beings in the book are, in their constant one-note villainy, flat. This is irony too, a fine irony. Furthermore, this little speed-readers' novel, written at the level of a good pulp serial, is in fact a parody of the novel of sentimental education, not only because the hero is a dog, but because his education decivilizes him, turns him back into the wild creature of his primordial ancestry. I appreciate that now, but then I only knew that Jack London was different from the picture-book writer Aesop, he was not tiresome as Aesop was, he took animals seriously, granting them complex character as the veterinarily incorrect Aesop never did. The moral of the Jack London book was not something you knew already without having to be instructed. But it was there and it was resonant with my own life.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis"Every day, it seemed, old men knocked on the front door to ask my mother for money to help bring Jews out of Europe. Playing with my friends in the park, I had to watch out for older boys who swept up from the East Bronx to take at knifepoint our spaldines and whatever pocket change we were carrying. My father, the proud owner of a music shop in the old Hippodrome theater at Sixth Avenue and Forty-Third Street, a man who knew the classical repertoire inside and out and stocked music that nobody else had, a man whom the great artists of the day consulted for their record purchases, lost his store in the 'little' Depression of 1940. My ancient grandmother, growing more and more insane each day, now ran away to wander the streets until the police found her and brought her home. We were broke, what the newspapers called war clouds were growing darker and more ominous, my brother was of freshly minted draft age, and The Call of the Wild, this mordant parable of the thinness of civilization, the savagery bursting through as the season changed in the Bronx and a winter of deep heavy snows, like the snows of the Yukon, fell upon us, the whole city muffled and still, made me long to be in the wild, loping at the head of my pack, ready to leap up and plunge my incisors into the throats of all who would harm me or my family.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

"At one point I must have realized the primordial power belonged not to the dog, or not in fact to the dog, because around this time -- I was perhaps nine years old -- I decided I was a writer. It was a clear conviction, not even requiring a sacred vow; I assumed the identity with grace, as one slips on a jacket or sweater that fits perfectly.

"It was such a natural assumption of my mind that for several years I felt no obligation to actually write anything. My convalesence had left me flabby, out of shape, with less energy for running around. I was more disposed than ever to read or listen to radio stories, and I was now reading not only to find out what happened next but with that additional line of inquiry of the child writer who is yet to write: How is this done? It is a kind of imprinting.

"We live in the book as we read it, yes, but we run with the author as well -- this wild begetter of voices, this voice of voices, this noble creature of the wild whose linguistic lope over any sort of terrain brings it into being."

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

Photographs by Paul Croes

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis

The extraordinary imagery today is by Belgian photographer Paul Croes and his studio assistant Inge Nelis. Please visit their Behind Eyes Studio website to see more.

Photography by Paul Croes & Inge Nelis


The stories that shape us

Ponies 1

"As a child I preferred fairy tales to all other stories," says novelist Alice Hoffman (in a short essay for Waterstones). "Fairy tales seemed to trust that even as a child I could understand major concepts of good and evil, fear and cowardice, and distinguish the difference between the truth and a lie. Children realize that there are beasts who wish to do good in the world, and adults waiting in the woods who may be dangerous, and paths that should be marked, whether by bread crumbs or tears, so that we can find our way home again. In the world of fairy tales, the amazing is recounted in a matter of fact tone. One ordinary day there is a knock at the door, a rose that refuses die, a spindle that must be avoided at all costs.

Red Riding Hood by G.P. Jacomb Hood"It was the melding of the magical and the everyday that was most affecting to me as a reader, for the world I lived in seemed much the same. Anything could happen. People you loved could disappear, through death or divorce; they could turn into heroes or beasts. Such stories are perhaps the original stories, tales told by grandmothers to grandchildren from the beginning of time, an oral tradition later captured in print by authors such as Perrault and the Grimms.

"I began to read novels that, like the great traditional fairy tales, incorporated the real and the magical. Every child reader knows that magic equals power and possibility. It is the recourse of the young, the neglected, the orphaned, and the brave. Why are children attracted to magical literature? Magic contains a story within a story, the deepest truth within a thrilling tale. A child can build his or her own understanding through the symbols and language of magic as if connecting with a secret code."

Ponies 2

In a longer piece for The Washington Post, Hoffman also discussed the importance of fairy tales in shaping the particular contours of her imagination:

"I read fairy tales early on. They terrified, delighted, disgusted and amazed me. They were far more grown-up than any other children's books I read, scarily so at times. Like most children, I could feel the disturbing aspects of the stories even if I couldn't intellectually understand or articulate their underlying meanings. Still, I knew. I thrilled to them. I learned. Everything in them rang true: the unspoken sexuality  (a woman loves a beast, a girl is nearly eaten by a wolf, a frog wishes to be the husband of a princess), the violence (bad mothers, absent fathers, foul murders), the greed (the house of candy, the cage of gold). I didn't realize it, of course, but the tales were allowing me to examine fear, anxiety, desire, sorrow. It was a dangerous world, but truer to reality than anything else we were allowed -- those safe books with their happy endings....

Ponies 3

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"My initial exposure to storytelling, even before I read fairy tales, came from the stories told to me by the most down-to-earth woman I knew -- my grandmother. The two of us might have been in the market or on the subway, we might have been walking down Jerome Avenue or drinking tea with cubes of sugar in her overheated apartment, but we were also in Russia. We were dropped into her childhood, stuck in a snowstorm, running for our lives. When I heard about the wolves that howled all night, about the rivers where the ice was so thick it didn't melt until May, about men who worked so hard that they sometimes slept for a month in the winter, like bears, I was hearing the deeper truth of my grandmother's life, the complex universe that she carried with her, a very personal once-upon-a-time. This was the beginning of my life in the world of storytelling. And, perhaps, it was not unlike the very start of storytelling itself.

Ponies 6

"Do people choose the art that inspires them -- do they think it over, decide they might prefer the fabulous to the real? For me, it was those early readings of fairy tales that made me who I was as a reader and, later on, as a storyteller."

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

Words: The Alice Hoffman quotes above are from  "The Rules of Magic" (Waterstones, March 6, 2015), and an older piece on fairy tales first published in The Washington Post (alas, I no longer have the date). The quotes in the picture captions are from a wide variety of sources including Jane Yolen's Touch Magic and Marina Warner's Once Upon a Time, both of which I recommend.  All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are of Dartmoor ponies grazing on our village Commons. (Tilly is very good with these wild pony herds: she loves to watch them but doesn't chase, and she always keeps a respectful distance. ) The illustration is "Little Red Riding Hood" by G.P. Jacomb Hood (1857-1929). 


Letters, words, stories

Drawing by Chris Riddell

''Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas -- abstract, invisible, gone once they've been spoken -- and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.''

- Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things)

"A story is not like a road to follow...it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you."

- Alice Munro (Selected Stories)

"I spent my life folded between the pages of books. In the absence of human relationships I formed bonds with paper characters. I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction."

- Tahereh Mafi (Shatter Me)

Drawing by Chris Riddell

The drawings today are by the great Chris Riddell: illustrator, author, former UK Children's Laureate, and a tireless advocate for the importance of stories and art.


Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination

Lady of the Labyrinth by Kristin Kwan

Here's another interesting passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" -- an esssay examining the mysterious process of "inspiration" when writing fiction:

Firebird by Kristin Kwan"I have written fantastic stories closely based on actual experience," she says, "and realistic stories totally made up out of whole cloth. Some of my science fiction is full of accurate and carefully researched fact, while my stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things on the Oregon coast in 1990 contain large wetlands and quicksands of pure invention. I hope to show you that fictional 'ideas' arise from the combination of experience and imagination that is both indissoluble and utterly unpredictable.

"In my Earthsea books, particularly the first one, people sail around on the sea in small boats all the time. They do it quite convincingly, and many people understandably assume that I spent years sailing around on the sea in small boats.

"My entire experience of sailboats was during my junior semester at Berkeley High School, when they let us take sailing for gym credit. On a windy day in the Berkeley Marina, my friend Jean and I managed to overturn and sink a nine-foot catboat in three feet of water. We sang 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as she went down, then waded half a mile back to the boathouse. The boatman was incredulous. 'You sank it?' he said. 'How?'

"That will remain one of the secrets of the writer.

Lacemaker by Kristin Kwan

"All right, so practically all the sailing in Earthsea, certainly all the deep-sea sailing, does not reflect experience. Not my experience. Only my imagination, using that catboat, other people's experience, novels I'd read, and some research (I do know why Lookfar is clinker-built), asking friends questions, and some trips on ocean liners. But basically, it's a fake. So is all snow and ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. I never even saw snow until I was seventeen, and I certainly never pulled a sledge across a glacier. Except with Captain Scott, and Shakleton, and those guys. In books. Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people's books. If I didn't read, how could I write?

Painting in progress by Kristin Kwan

"We all stand on each other's shoulders, we all use each other's ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise. That 'anxiety of influence' stuff is just testosterone talking. Understand me: I don't mean plagiarism; I'm not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people's books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.

"If that were not so, if I though I had really stolen and used any other writer's writing, I certainly wouldn't stand here congratulating myself. I'd go hide my head in shame and wait for the lawsuit. But as it is, I acknowledge with delight my endless debt to every storyteller I have ever read, my colleagues, my collaborators -- I praise them and honor them, the endless givers of gifts."

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

For further reading on the role of "influence" in creative work, read Jonthan Lethem's excellent essay on the subject...or my mediation on influence, inspired by an interview with Didier Graffet.

Sketchbook pages by Kristin Kwan

The lovely art today is by Kristin Kwan, a painter and illustrator based in Nebraska.

"When I was growing up my family moved many times, and every new home held mysteries and secrets," she writes. "I knew there was a hidden stairway that led to unknown attics somewhere, or cellars underneath that held forgotten treasures. I knew I could get there if I just kept looking.

"That low door is still elusive, but when I pick up my pencil or paint brush, I know I can find it for a little while. When I paint I try to bring a little of that magic country back with me."

 To see more of her distinctive and magical work, please visit Kwan's website and tumblr.

Preliminary sketch by Kristin Kwan

Dragon Eggs by Kristin KwanThe passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.