Bridge to Tangerina

Hey again. So I’m continuing to prep for the exhibition by reading old classics of children’s literature that I either don’t remember very well or somehow never got around to reading in the first place. One such book is My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

This was a fun little book – part adventure, part fantasy, part trickster tale. The story is utterly original, and told in a clear matter-of-fact style with a healthy dose of humor. It’s framed in a unique way, too – the unnamed narrator is describing the childhood adventures of his/her father, which gives a sort of tall-tale flavor to the narrative. It also makes for a weird tension between the past and present – it’s a little disorienting to keep hearing a little boy being referred to as “my father.” At its core, though, this sweet, funny, rolicking little book is about slavery.

If you haven’t read it either, here’s the gist: a little boy named Elmer Elevator (yes, really) befriends an alley cat who tells him about a remote island inhabited by wild animals. The animals have enslaved a young dragon to fly their lazy asses back and forth across the river that divides their island. Elmer is understandably moved by the dragon’s plight. Since he’s mad at his mom for kicking the cat out of their cellar, and since he’s always wanted to fly, he decides to go rescue the dragon in the hopes of getting a free ride or two. He fills his backpack with a few supplies, sneaks aboard a boat disguised as cargo and eventually makes it to the island. Once there he makes use of his wits and a handful of toiletries to trick and cajole his way past the dangerous animals and save the dragon.

Aside from a few standard-issue icky bits of the sort one expects from mid-20th c. books (i.e., the mother “whips” Elmer for bringing the cat home), the story holds up well. Here’s where the odd “my father” aspect comes in handy, I think – it puts the events vaguely in the past, but doesn’t assign it a particular era. It’s kind of a “once upon a time” effect.

The description of the dragon’s suffering under the cruel demands of the island animals is disturbing, without being too graphic – they “twist his wings” if he disobeys, and they work him relentlessly without letting him rest. He turns out to be a sweetheart, of course, and he and Elmer ride off more or less into the sunset, bound for more adventures. I haven’t read the other two books in the series, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland yet – I’ll be curious to see if anything about the narrator or the grown-up Elmer is ever revealed.

The illustrations are… perhaps a bit excessively cute for today’s audiences. They’re drawn in black grease crayon, and everything is rounded and solid and shadowed, kind of like what Chris Van Allsburg’s art probably looked like in high school. The dragon is more cartoony-cute than scary, described as having yellow and blue stripes, with red eyes, horn and feet, and golden wings. The inside illustrations are all black-and-white, though, so I guess you’ll have to take the alley cat’s word on that.

All in all, a good story, perfect for early-elementary-aged readers who are hungry for fantasy and adventure but aren’t quite ready to tackle a full-length chapter book yet.


Mary, Mary, quite contrary…

So I’m putting together this exhibition on the history of children’s literature, right? But it’s not just picking out cool books to put in the display cases. I have to write those snappy little text panels we put next to them that tell you why this particular book is important and how it ties into the theme and stuff. And to be able to do that, sometimes I actually need to have, you know, READ the book. So I’ve been reading a bunch of classic children’s books that I either haven’t read since I was the intended audience, or that I somehow missed altogether. First up: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers.

I never read this as a child, and have only dim memories of the movie. (Like, did Dick Van Dyke do a penguin dance? In Hammer pants? Or did I dream that?) So I was surprised to discover that Mary Poppins is A TOTAL BITCH.

I mean, yes, she’s magical and mysterious and compelling. But she’s also openly vain and curt and bossy, and for someone who flies around on her umbrella she’s awfully touchy about propriety. And why did she have to steal the paper stars from the children to put in the sky? That was dirty pool. And Mrs. Corry was even meaner. The way she treated her daughters made me want to punch her in the neck.

Oh, also, I read the original version where they actually meet people instead of animals on that magic compass ride. It’s not unexpected in books from that era – or really any era before like the ’80s – but it is chock full of icky inaccuracies and stereotypes: the Chinese mandarin wears a kimono, and the African family (NOT African American, mind you) speak like Uncle Remus and offer Mary some watermelon.

Overall, though, I liked the book. It’s imaginative, and funny, and Mary is an awesome character. I’d expected her to be warmer, I guess from whatever impression I took from the movie, but once I got over that I kind of enjoyed her weirdness. Oh, and the chapter with John and Barbara and the bird is exquisite. But I wonder what it would have been like to encounter the real Mary as a child. Did you read it? As a child, or an adult, or both? What did you think?


A Day in the Life

“So, eisha,” you ask, “what exactly does an Exhibition Coordinator in a rare book & manuscript library DO?”

Why, thanks for asking. Let me try to explain.

Our division has a very nice little gallery, where we put up two major exhibitions a year. We also do a few mini-exhibitions in other locations – usually just a case or two for a special event or anniversary. Occasionally we host a travelling exhibition (like the one we did of book artist Werner Pfeiffer’s works a while back). Here he is arranging his artist books in one of our display cases:

Or sometimes we display items we’ve borrowed from a private collection (like our current exhibition from Jay Walker’s Library of the History of the Human Imagination). That’s the one where I got to touch a Sputnik:



But the majority of our exhibitions are curated by one of our staff members from our own collections. As the Exhibitions Coordinator, I’m kind of like a project manager. I don’t usually select the materials or write the text – that’s the curator’s thing. I do all the practical stuff, like consulting with our conservation department on what treatment the objects might need before they go on display, and getting everything photographed for the website, and getting the text formatted, printed and mounted… Not very glamorous, and like any big deadline-oriented project it can be pretty stressful. But, hey, I get to touch Sputnik. Hell, I even got to go to Jay Walker’s house. Here’s the special library he built for his collection, with a little help from Disney on the lights and music:

This fall, though, I’m putting on my big girl panties and actually curating a major exhibition of my own. The working title is “Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: a Dark History of Children’s Literature,” and it is (I hope) going to be awesome. Of course, it’s also a LOT of work. Thankfully, I don’t have to do everything myself – I’m lucky enough to have assistance from the lovely and talented Jillian Piccirilli, who has worked with us on a couple of exhibitions (on the art of Alison Mason Kingsbury and the Jay Walker one), and has so far kept me from curling up fetal under my desk, panicking under the crushing enormity of everything that has to be done by November 7th. Here she is, helping me go through our list of books in the exhibition prep room, about to do some case layout mock-ups.

We have a table in the prep room with the case dimensions taped out on it, and we lay out the items for a specific case, figuring out what page we want the books opened to for display, arranging them to make sure it all fits together, and making notes on any holes that want filling. I have to say, we’ve got some good stuff so far. For example, this charming little book of child martyrs:

Here’s a selection of Cinderellas (clockwise from top left: American, ca. 1840; French, 1900, illustrated by Arthur Rackham; and a facsimile of the earliest American printing, ca. 1800):

And this is one of my favorite finds so far. It’s a 1790s chapbook of Sleeping Beauty that just happens to be bound next to a collection of Scottish proverbs from the same era. Just TRY to keep from reading them aloud. I DARE YOU.

So, there’s kind of a taste of what I’m up to lately. I’ll show you more cool things as I go, but I don’t want to give all the goods away before we open, so really… you should just come see it. Road trip, anyone? C’mon, I’ve even got a sofabed.


Chapter 2

So, that return to blogging went well, didn’t it?

Right. Take 2. Once more, with feeling…

It’s been an eventful couple of years. Lots of seismic shifts. I’m divorced, I have a dog, I’m in a serious relationship with a very nice guy, my job got redefined and really REALLY busy, and there’s lots of major family stuff going on, both good and bad.

Also, I just turned 39. THIRTY. NINE. YEARS. OLD. I know it’s cliché, but staring down the barrel at 40 is a wake-up call. There’s a LOT I thought I would have done by now but haven’t, a lot of ways I would like my life to be different. And there’s one big thing that’s been getting in the way for some time, and I’m so so SO tired of it. I’m tired of hiding it, and I’m tired of lying about it. So I’m coming out.

Hello. My name is eisha, and I’m clinically depressed.

Continue reading ‘Chapter 2’


well hello, there

Hey, all. Whuddup?

After a long, LONG hiatus from blogging, I decided to come back. But this time, I’m going for something a little looser, a little more random, a little more me. Stuff like: what it’s like to work in a rare books library. And how I help put together our exhibitions. And maybe a little bit on what I’m reading/watching/listening to, but probably no formal reviews. Plus, you know, random stuff that makes me happy, or pisses me off. Hopefully that’ll help me keep the burnout at bay.

I’ve so totally missed you guys.


A blog of random thoughts on libraries, books, music, movies, food, friends, and the human condition.