The stories that shape us

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"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."

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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....

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"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.

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"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."

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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.


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.

Bumblehill Studio 2

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.