Books on Books, Part 3

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

Today's "book about books" is Lucy Mangan's Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (2018). Having made the mistake of picking it up directly after The Child That Books Built (discussed here), I confess that I had an initial resistance to Mangan's breezier style of writing, but her delightful book soon won me over. Like Spufford's volume, Bookworm blends an account of the author's childhood with bibliographic text full of information on classic books, authors, and publishing history. Her tone is witty and she wears her scholarship lightly, but her depth of knowledge about children's fiction is sound; I learned some new things about favourite books, and discovered plenty of new ones here too. 

Mangan's strength is her ability to convey the urgent, vibrant intensity of the relationship children can have with their books. For some kids, of course, books are optional; they get their daily dose of stories through television, games, and other forms of transmission. Mangan acknowledges these alien souls, but it's her fellow bookworms she addresses here: those of us for whom books were (and are) as necessary as water and food. Books, to a bookworm, aren't just ink on the page; they are living presences who share the ups and downs of our lives. They befriend us, console us, startle and change us, tickle us, frighten and devastate us. They feed hungers we didn't know we had and heal wounds we didn't know needed healing.

For a taste of Bookworm, here's a passage describing young Lucy's introduction to Tom's Midnight Garden, during Story Time at her school -- doled out bit by bit as her teacher reads it aloud at the end of each school day:

Tom's Midnight Garden cover illustration by Susan Einzig"Not until the day's work was complete would [Mrs. Pugh] begin. So I spent every day for months in and agony -- or was it an ecstasy? -- of waiting and most of 1984 wishing a short but painful death on my fellow nine- and ten-year-olds who kept delaying us by mucking about and cutting into the twenty-five minutes...on which my day's happiness had come to depend.

"Because the story of Tom Long, who is sent away to stay with relatives while his brother is ill, is exquisite. Lonely and bored, Tom discovers that when the grandfather clock in the communal hallway -- on whose casing is carved the words from Revelation: 'Time no longer' -- strikes thirteen, the magnificent garden that once belonged to the house before it was divided up into flats is restored to it -- along with the equally lonely Hatty who used to play there as a child and who becomes Tom's midnight companion. Tom gradually realises that he is returning to the 19th century, but it takes a visit from his convalescing brother, who accompanies him on one of his nocturnal adventures, to make him realise that time in the garden is moving on and Hatty is growing up. One night, he at last becomes as invisible to her as he has been to everyone else in her world. Soon after that, the garden disappears too and it is almost time for Tom to go home. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

"There is one last twist, which I'm not going to spoil for you, partly because I cannot bring myself to rob you of its power and pleasure by badly summarising it, and partly because if I had to learn, through Mrs. Pugh's meagre apportionments, the painful lesson of deferred gratification, I am most certainly going to force the experience on to others too, whenever I can.

"At the time, however, I was so locked in a battle of wills with my teacher that I restrained myself from asking my father to buy the book for me so that I could read on ahead. But as soon as Mrs. Pugh had turned the final page, I dragged him down to Dillons so that I could read the whole thing for myself -- in one sitting, free from the desire to stab Darren Jones in the heart with his ever-clattering pencil -- a process that yielded a better sense of the finely honed shape of the book and its careful, masterly pacing and let me linger over the beauty of the prose and the wealth of possibilities offered by its suggestion that the past and the present could merge into each other if only you knew where to look. And there were no nasty surprises as the shop -- not only was the book still in print, it was still Mrs. Pugh's edition that was on sale, with its properly glossy green cover, Susan Einzig's beautiful illustrations inside and out.

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

"I see now and delight in the fact that those tortured days of waiting meshed beautifully with the mood of the book. My own hungry anticipation mirrored Tom's impatient wait for his nightly doses of magic perfectly. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig"More profoundly, I responded to the sense of longing -- for companionship, for adventure, for people and places long vanished -- that permeates the whole of Tom's Midnight Garden. My distance from it -- again, being read to is far, far better than nothing but it does not compare to reading to yourself -- gave me a heightened sense of how impossible it is to absorb the books we love as fully as we want to. I bet even the Maurice Sendak fan who ate the card the writer sent him felt a sense of anticlimax afterwards.

"We can read, and read, and read them but we can never truly live there. It is an approximation so close that it borders on the miraculous, for sure, and -- unless perhaps you are an actor, and a good actor at that -- there is nothing else that even comes near it, which is what keeps the bookworm going. But still -- you are not in Narnia. You are not actually beneath the floorboards with the Clocks. You are not roaming the prairies with Laura, Mary, Ma and Pa. And yet...and yet...Tom's Midnight Garden is suffused with the pain and the pleasure of yearning. Even as he's playing contentedly in the garden with Hatty before his brother arrives, its nightly appearance and morning disappearance already points to its evanescence.  There is always a suggestion that everything is in flux, that nothing can last. The best we can hope for it to live there for a while. And accept that if yew hedges and towering trees cannot endure, happiness too is best understood as fleeting. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig"C.S. Lewis once discussed the concept of Sehnsucht -- German for what we would call 'yearning'* - and reckoned this 'unconsolable longing' in the human heart 'for what we know not' was an intimation of the divine. 'If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world will satisfy,' he says in Mere Christianity, 'the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.'

"But perhaps we're more often just made for reading. Each book was to me another world, and none more so than Tom's Midnight Garden, then or now. Because I have re-read it countless times since Mrs. Pugh closed the covers for the final time, and within three pages I am my ten-year-old self again. Within six I am with Tom in his 1950s world and after that we are both in the Victorian garden again with Hatty and the yew trees and hedges that preceded and will outlast them all. I still believe, deep in my heart, that if I wake up at the right moment one night, I, too, will be able to step out of this world and all its inconsolable longings and run wild forever in the gardens of the past. But the best I can do is live there again for a while. Which is, almost, enough. After all, if you are as close to something as you were in childhood, then you have your childhood back again, don't you? Time no longer."

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

The illustrations here, of course, are by Susan Einzig for Tom's Midnight Garden. Einzig (1922—2009) was born to an affluent Jewish family in Dahlem, Berlin, and studied art at the age of 15 at the Breuer School of Design. Two years later, as World War II loomed, she was sent to England on a Kindertransport train, where she lived in London with former Berlin neighbours. Her mother also made it out of Germany in time, and an older brother (with whom she lost contact), but her father died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Einzig studied illustration and wood engraving at the Central School of Arts & Crafts before being evacuated from London to Yorkshire, she then worked in an aircraft factory and as a technical draughtsman for the War Office. At the end of the war, she painstakingly built a successful career as a illustrator, painter, and lecturer. She produced many book illustrations over the years, beginning with art for Norah Pulling's Mary Belinda and the Ten Aunts (1945) and Mrs. Richard's Mouse (1946) -- but she's perhaps known for her later work, including illustrations for Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1962) and E. Nesbit's The Bastables (1966). Regarding her now-classic pictures for Tom's Midnight Garden, she said: "I had been to see the children’s-book editor at Oxford University Press, who looked at my work and seemed very unsure about it. However, she gave me Philippa Pearce’s manuscript to try to see if I could do it. I did two or three drawings and took them to show her, and then she asked me to do the book....I was paid just a hundred pounds for the whole thing." 

Einzig also taught art at Chelsea School of Art & Design for more than thirty years, was part of the "Soho set" of the 1940s and '50s (with Francis Bacon, John Minton, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas, etc.), and raised at least one child, her daughter Hetty, on her own. (Some biographical accounts list a son as well, but that might be erroneous.) For more information on this remarkable woman, go here and here.

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

The Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

* Though as you might expect with such a porous, abstract concept it has slightly different connotations from our word -- theirs means something more like 'life longings', particularly for a home, or homelike place that you have not necessarily experienced, or for something unnameable and indefinable. - L.M.

Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018). The cover art is by Laura Barrett; you can can see more of her lovely work here. The rest of the art today is from Tom's Midnight Garden by Philipa Pearce, illustrated by Susan Einzig (Oxford University Press, 1958). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and the artists.


Books on Books

Lisbeth Reading by Carl Larsson

Howard and I have been dealing with Long Covid since catching a mild dose of the virus last spring -- and although (touch wood) we're both getting better, 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 four I particularly recommend: The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan. Books & Island in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich. From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine-Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish.

All four weave literary studies with memoir; all four explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all four examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us. I'm planning to discuss them all this week, starting today with The Child That Books Built.

Books on books

Katherine Langrish on the Narnia books

The Child That Books BuiltI first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its original publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed into literary and publishing history, with digression into cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the two decades since, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the structure of Spufford's book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that his memoir was a pioneering text. That said, it is still a cracking good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy, and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much (for this reader) on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, and his poignant reflections on a difficult 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 Tim 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

"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. Postwar society had ended them. 

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

"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's Classics by Holly Farrell

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).

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

"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."

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

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 in this moving and insightful volume.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Wrapped in magic and stories

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. Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014). Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


Sheltering in books

The Princess and the Pea by Gennady Spirin

I've only just discovered Survival Lesson by Alice Hoffman (2013), a slim, wise, beautiful volume written after the author's treatment for breast cancer. Her advice for coping with fearsome passages of life includes turning to books for solace and escape -- a sentiment with which, as a fellow cancer survivor, I heartily concur. Revisit the stories you loved as a child, Hoffman writes:

Baba Yaga by Gennady Spirin" -- you'll love them even more now. Start with Andrew Lang's fairy books, books sorted by color. Red, Lilac, and Blue are my favorites. Sometimes I think we can learn everything we need to know about the world when we read fairy tales. Be careful, be fearless, be honest, leave a trail of crumbs to lead you home again.

"In a novel you'll find yourself in a world of possibilities. You'll find shelter there. I spent an entire summer reading Ray Bradbury. I was twelve, which can be a terrible year. It's the summer when you suddenly know you will never be a child again. Being an adult may not look so good. The world that awaits you is scary and hugh. This is when you want to stop time, be a kid, ride your bike. But everyone around you is growing up, and you have to, too.

"I remained in Bradbury's world for as long as possible. It was a place where it was possible to recognize good from evil, darkness from light. I was a cynical kid, and I didn't have much faith in the world, but I trusted Ray Bradbury. I took everything he said personally. Often I would read until the fireflies came out.

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin"I read because I wanted to escape sadness, which was a big theme in my family. My great-grandfather had been forced into the czar's army, where he served for twenty years, before he shot off his toes with a rifle so they would finally let him go. Because we were Russian, sadness came naturally to us. But so did reading. In my family, a book was a life raft.

"I've often wondered if I spent too much time inside of books. If perhaps I ended up getting lost in there. I feared that reading, and later writing, stopped me from living a full life in the real world. I still don't know the answer to this, but I'm not sure I would have gotten past being twelve without Ray Bradbury, and I know that imagining the plot for my novel The River King during a lengthy bone scan helped me get through that test. The hospital faded and I was walking through a small town where I knew everyone. I slipped into the river, past water lilies, past the muddy shore. Here was my life raft. A book."

Frog Song by Gennady Spirin

The Frog Princess by Gennady Spirin

The art today is by the great Russian-American book artist Gennady Spirin. He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, studied at the Academy of Arts in Moscow and Moscow Stroganov Institute of Art, and then worked for Soviet and European publishers before moving his family to the United States. Spirin's sumptuous watercolours -- reminiscent of traditional Russian folk art and paintings of the Northern Renaissance --  grace his numerous, award-winning books for children, including Boots and the Glass Mountain, The Children of Lir, The Frog Princess, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Fool and the Fish, Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliput, Kashtanka, The Sea King’s Daughter, Perceval, and The Tale of the Fire Bird.

To learn more about the artist, go here.

Unicorn by Gennady Spirin

The passage above is quoted from Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman (Open Road, 2013). All rights to the text and art in this post are reserved by the author and artist.


Wonder, peril, and transformation

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Oftentimes in the rural world I was raised in as a small child, huge fields would be hidden by borders of plants. Honeysuckle and wild asparagus would grow on the other side. Following the right path could lead one to a magical world, to a world of mysterious shapes, of growing things, a paradise of Snow White illustrated by Walter Cranehidden delights. In An Unspoken Hunger, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams describes moments of transformation as she revels in nature: 'In these moments I felt innocent and wild, privy to secrets and gifts exchanged only in nature...Hands on the earth, I closed my eyes and remembered where the source of my power lies. My connection to the natural world is my connection to the self -- erotic, mysterious, and whole.' The ecstasy and sense of enchantment I felt in the natural world was never talked about by grown-ups, but it was there in the stories I read.

"Fairy tales were the manuals that instructed me how to confront and cope with that world. They sanctioned the merger of fantasy and dreaming with concrete reality. They sanctioned all that was taboo in my family. Fantasy was often seen by Christian folks as dangerous, potentially Satanic. My love of fairy tales was accepted as long as it was not much talked about."

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

Wood Nymph design by Walter Crane

Little Red Riding Hood illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman:

"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. How could the trivial nature of the here and the now compare with The Six Swans illustrated by Walter Cranejourneys in which heads or hands were suddenly chopped off, bones were tied in silk and buried under trees, foolish brothers became swans, and a traveler might suddenly be beset by cruel spells, horses' heads that could speak and other twists of fate and circumstance?

"Why such tales should feel more real to me and to most child readers than 'realistic' fare is both a simple and complex phenomenon. Fairy tales tell two stories: a spoken one and an unspoken one. There is another layer beneath the words; a riddle about the soul and its place in the greater canvas of humanity. Surely every child who reads 'Hansel and Gretel' feels that he or she, too, is on a perilous path, one that disappears and meanders, but one that must be navigated, like it or not. That path is childhood: a journey in which temptations will arise, greed will surface, and parents may be so self-involved that they forget you entirely."

The Hind in the Wood

From "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold:

"One of the defining characteristics of the fairy tale...is that impossible situations are not only possible, but expected and anticipated. Disbelief is suspended -- no one questions the great wall of briars around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or that a fairy godmother appears to turn mice into men, or that a wolf can lie in grandmother’s bed. The fantastic is interspersed with the ordinary -- birds talk (as they should not) and fly (as they should) and these things occur as naturally as any sunrise or sunset. It is a sign of modern cultural loss that to accept the fantastic in such a manner is seen as a form of escapism from the real world.

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane"I don’t believe in escapism. If you love story (no matter the subject) so much that you spend every possible minute immersed within it, you are not escaping life -- story is your life. What the fairy tale offers is not escapism, but a renewed sense of wonder at the world in which we live. I think I need hardly describe why this sense of wonder is relevant to us today. Despite the advances in technology (some of which cause that very sense of which I speak), we are not so much different, as a whole, from those who first committed the oral wonder tale to paper and reshaped it to fit whatever vision or message they chose to impart to their readers. I find that most of us retain the basic human desire to believe in the impossible, the miraculous, and to hope for some sort of transformation -- in ourselves, in our lives, and in the very world around us. For no matter where or when we live, the world is fraught with peril -- much like the wild wood of old -- and we who walk through it ever hope for the miracle that will ease our path or the paths of others. The fairy tale, in whatever genre it manifests, often provides us with the very thing we seek, even though in story form. It lets us believe that, no matter how awful the circumstances, a miraculous transformation will occur that will somehow lead us out of the perilous forest and more, the fairy tale allows us to make that transformation and to make it right here in the very same world from which we have been accused of trying to escape. The fairy tale can therefore be seen as a liminal tal -- a literature through which transformation may be found in both fantasy and reality. True to its fluid nature, the fairy tale weaves a sense of wonder into both."

Drawing by Walter Crane

Today's art, once again, is by Walter Crane (1845-1915), whose work played a prominent role in the Golden Age of Illustration in Britain. To learn more about him, go here. To learn more about his illustration process, visit this interesting post on the Books Around the Table blog.

The Hind in the Woods illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Sharpening an Imagination With the Hard Flint of a Fairy Tale" by Alice Hoffman (The Washington Post, April, 2004);  and "The Fairy Tale: A Type of Transformation" by Erzebet Barthold (Cabinet des Fées, September 11, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors.


Escaping into magic

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "To Love Justice" by bell hooks:

"Fairy tales were the refuge of my troubled childhood. Despite all the lessons contained in them about being a dutiful daughter, a good girl, which I internalized to some extent, I was most obsessed with the idea of justice -- the insistence in most tales that the righteous would prevail. The evocation of a just world, where right would prevail over wrong, was a balm to my wounded spirits during my childhood. It was a source of hope. In the end I could believe that no matter the injustices I suffered, truth would come to light and I would be redeemed. Indeed, the message of redemptive love shared in so many beloved fairy tales sustained me."

Sleeping Beauty illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936):

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"If you really read the fairy-tales you will observe that one idea runs from one end of them to the other -- the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition. This idea, which is the core of ethics, is the core of the nursery-tales. The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread, upon one thread. Cinderella may have a dress woven on supernatural looms and blazing with unearthly brilliance; but she must be back when the clock strikes twelve. The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow. Bluebeard's wife may open all doors but one. A promise is broken to a cat, and the whole world goes wrong. A promise is broken to a yellow dwarf, and the whole world goes wrong. A girl may be the bride of the God of Love himself if she never tries to see him; she sees him, and he vanishes away. A girl is given a box on condition she does not open it; she opens it, and all the evils of this world rush out at her. A man and woman are put in a garden on condition that they do not eat one fruit: they eat it, and lose their joy in all the fruits of the earth.

The Frog Prince illustrated by Walter Crane"This great idea, then, is the backbone of all folk-lore -- the idea that all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative. Now, it is obvious that there are many philosophical and religious ideas akin to or symbolised by this; but it is not with them I wish to deal here. It is surely obvious that all ethics ought to be taught to this fairy-tale tune; that, if one does the thing forbidden, one imperils all the things provided. A man who breaks his promise to his wife ought to be reminded that, even if she is a cat, the case of the fairy-cat shows that such conduct may be incautious. A burglar just about to open some one else's safe should be playfully reminded that he is in the perilous posture of the beautiful Pandora: he is about to lift the forbidden lid and loosen evils unknown. The boy eating some one's apples in some one's apple tree should be a reminder that he has come to a mystical moment of his life, when one apple may rob him of all others. This is the profound morality of fairy-tales; which, so far from being lawless, go to the root of all law." 

Bluebeard illustrated by Walter Crane

From What It Is by Lynda Barry:

"There are certain children who are told they are too sensitive, and there are certain adults who believe sensitivity is a problem that can be fixed in the way that crooked teeth can be fixed and made straight. And when these two come together you get a fairy tale, a kind of story with hopelessness in it. I believe there is something in these old stories that does what singing does to words. They have transformational capabilities, in the way melody can transform mood. They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. I believe we have always done this, used images to stand and understand what otherwise would be intolerable."

Jack and the Beanstalk illustrated by Walter Crane

From "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman:

"Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you've never been. Once you've visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if 'escapist' fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in. If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

"As J.R.R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers."

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The art today is by the great English painter, illustrator, and designer Walter Crane (1845-1915). To learn more about his work, go here.

Beauty & the Beast illustrated by Walter Crane

The passages quoted above are from: "To Love Justice" by bell hooks, published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favourite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books, 1998 & 2002); "Fairy Tales" by G.K. Chesterton, published Fantasists on Fantasy, edited by Robert H. Boyer & Kenneth J. Zahorsky (Avon Books, 1984); What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly Editions, 2008); and "Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming" by Neil Gaiman (The Guardian, Oct. 15, 2013). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.