Archive for the 'Children’s literature' Category


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?


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