Harold Around the World

Harold and the Purple Crayon in ten different languages

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverFor Crockett Johnson‘s 108th birthday, it’s… Harold around the world!  Whether you know him as Valtteri, Paultje, Pelle, Tullemand, Harold, or something else, you can read about his adventures in at least 14 languages. I have copies of Harold and the Purple Crayon in nine languages (Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and its original English) and have found some additional covers in other languages (German, Polish, Swedish) on-line.

So, grab your crayon, draw up a chair, and take a look at the many versions of Harold!


Chinese

The book is available in at least two versions in Chinese. Here’s the one published by Hsinex International Corporation in 1987. On the cover, Harold’s skin tone is a darker shade of tan than it is inside the book (where it is the same light tan color that it is in the English-language edition).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 1987)

And here’s the one published by Jieli Publishing House in 2004.  This publisher also translated the other six Harold books — including Harold’s ABC, which must be strange to read. The letters are in English, and the items they name are English words, but all the print narrative is in Chinese — followed by a parenthetical mention of the English word named by the letter.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Chinese edition, 2004)


Danish

Tullemand!  Translated by Bibi & Thomas Winding.  Published by Gylendal.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Danish edition, 2000)

(For this copy, my thanks to Stewart Edelstein, Executor of Ruth Krauss’s Estate.)


Dutch

For the Dutch edition, one of the Netherlands’ greatest children’s writers did the translation: Annie M.G. Schmidt, author of Jip and Janneke, Tow-Truck Pluck, and many others (most of which have not been translated into English).  Published by Lemniscaat.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Dutch edition, 2011)


Finnish

Translated by Riitta Oittinen. Published by Pieni Karhu (Little Bear).

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Finnish edition, 1999)

(Thanks to Leena Reiman, who sent me this copy back in 1999 — during the earliest days of my Crockett Johnson Homepage.)


French

In French, Harold’s crayon is pink.  Translated from the American by Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray. (Really — from the American, not from the English. “Traduit de l’américain par Anne-Laure Fournier le Ray.”)

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2001)

In the latest French edition (same translator), Harold’s crayon is now violet.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (French edition, 2013)


German

According to GoogleTranslate, this German title translates to “I’m making my own world.” I don’t have a copy of this, but if I remember correctly (I’ve seen a copy with those of Johnson’s papers housed with Ruth Krauss’s), the crayon is red in this edition.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (German edition)

There’s a new German edition, which (mostly) retains Johnson’s title: “Zauberkreide” is “magic chalk,” which makes this much closer to Harold and the Purple Crayon than the above version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (current German edition)


Hebrew

Note that the binding is on the right side here. The pages are all mirror images of the English-language version.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Hebrew edition)


Italian

Translated by Giulio Lughi. Published by Einaudi Ragazzi.  Contains both Harold and the Purple Crayon and Harold’s Trip to the Sky.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Italian edition, 2000)


Polish

Translated by Tomasz Zając. Published by Media Rodzina.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Polish edition)


Spanish

Translated by Teresa Mlawer. Published by HarperCollins.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Spanish edition, 1995)


Swedish

The 1958 edition — specifically, Ole Könnecke‘s childhod copy. Note that Harold’s crayon is also red here.  As Könnecke explains, “‘Och den röda kritan’ means ‘And the red crayon.’”  Yet, he adds, “when I added a belt to Harold’s pyjama, I used a purple crayon.”

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition, 1958)

(Thanks to Mr. Könnecke for sharing this! Incidentally, if you’ve not read his children’s books, start with Anton Can Do Magic.)

The current edition, translated by Eva Håkansson.

Harold and the Purple Crayon (Swedish edition)


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On Reading the Expurgated Huck Finn; or, Why We Should Teach Offensive Novels

NewSouth's Bowdlerized edition of Mark TwainAs you may recall, three years ago NewSouth Books published an edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which editor Alan Gribben replaced the n-word with “slave,” and the in-word (“Injun”) with “Indian.” Many (including yours truly) criticized Gribben’s decision, and most critics focused on Huckleberry Finn. But who actually read his edition? As I write a chapter on Bowdlerized children’s literature, I decided to read Gribben’s expurgated Huck Finn. My central questions were: What’s the effect of Bowdlerizing this novel? How does it change? How doesn’t it change? Does it approach Gribben’s goal of creating a book that “can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages” (12)?

These are my answers. (Trigger warning: the n-word appears multiple times below. I’ve included it because it’s offensive, and I didn’t feel I could talk about the novel’s offensiveness without using the offending term.)

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (Norton Critical Edition)1. Reading an expurgated edition heightens one’s awareness of what has been changed. When listening to the radio and I hear a word that has been bleeped, silenced, or (more typically) electronically garbed, the omission stands out more than if it had not been altered. If I know the unexpurgated version of the song, my brain instinctively fills in the missing word; if I don’t know it, then the absent rhyme prompts my brain to produce an uncensored version of the lyric. The same is true with “slave” in the NewSouth Edition of Huck Finn: each time I encounter the word “slave,” I first think “Is that an expurgated n-word?”  I assume that it is, but always verify my assumption by checking my Norton Critical Edition of Huck Finn. In its many omissions, the NewSouth edition actually made me more aware of the 219 instances of the word “nigger” in Huck Finn.

2. Gribben insists that this edition “is emphatically not intended for academic scholars” (16). I take his point, and would not assume that younger readers would be reading (as I was) with a non-Bowdlerized edition on hand. However, racism is the central theme of Huck Finn. Not only is it impossible to create an “authentic” version of the novel without the n-word, but presenting this text to young readers as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn perpetuates structural racism. Using “slave” instead of “nigger” naturalizes the racism in Huck’s caricature of Jim. Retaining the n-word makes us pay closer attention to Huck’s racism: though he is less racist than some of the other characters in the book, our narrator casually slings around the n-word, too. Gribben downplays the profound significance of removing this word: “Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers” (13).

The problem is: the caustic sting is the point. Enduring the repeated offensiveness of the n-word is a core experience of reading Huckleberry Finn. Since I am neither a nineteenth-century Americanist nor a Twain scholar, I take the edition’s back cover at its word when it describes Professor Gribben as a “Twain scholar,” and notes that he “co-founded the Mark Twain Circle of America,” and “compiled Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction.” I wonder, however, if Twain scholars still think of Gribben as a Twain scholar? To claim (as Gribben does) that Huck Finn can be both “authentic” and free of its racial slurs is preposterous.

Alan Gribben3. If I am correct in identifying the pink-faced Gribben on the back cover as white, then the NewSouth edition is also a telling example of how white privilege conceals itself from itself. Gribben tries to dilute Huck’s and Twain’s racism in order to preserve a classic American novel, obscuring the ways in which (as Toni Morrison has argued) the predominantly white American canon depends upon not just blackness but upon racism. Gribben colludes in the partial erasure of racism from American literary history, perpetuating a kind of “racism lite” — what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Though Huck, Tom, the King, the Duke, and Uncle Silas all treat Jim as less than fully human because of his race, they never once — in the NewSouth edition — use the n-word when doing so. But changing the word does not change the stereotype. In the NewSouth edition, Jim may be called a slave, but the book still caricatures him as a nigger.

Even when Twain’s novel tries to assert Jim’s humanity, such as the scene in which he remembers his deaf daughter Elizabeth, it still calls him “nigger” and represents him as one. Just paragraphs prior to the Elizabeth scene, Huck hears Jim talking in his sleep about “his wife and his children,” feeling “low and homesick.” He then observes, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so…. He was a mighty good nigger, Jim was” (125). Changing that line to “He was a might good slave, Jim was” (393) not only softens Huck’s racist condescension towards Jim, but conflates racial category (“nigger”) with job description (“slave”) — and there are moments (in Twain’s novel) when Huck distinguishes between slave and nigger. For example, at the beginning of Huck’s crisis of conscience, he makes the distinction: “Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave” (168). When this passage appears in the NewSouth edition (as it does, unchanged), there’s no way of knowing that Huck is making this lexical distinction between the two terms because NewSouth replaces all instances of the n-word with “slave.”

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884)4. The distinction is important because Twain’s characters suffer from varying degrees of racism. Though he makes liberal use of the n-word, Huck is actually less racist than (for example) his father. On some (though certainly not all) of the occasions Huck uses the n-word, he is reflecting the judgment of the community. During that same crisis-of-conscience scene, he says, “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom” (168). In conveying others’ imagined evaluation of his behavior, he echoes their style of speech: in context, the n-word could be read as Twain’s criticism of those who think that people of color should be enslaved. In contrast, Huck’s father consistently denies the humanity of people of color. Pap’s use of the n-word not only offers some indication of where Huck may have learned to deploy the term so frequently, but allows readers to make a moral distinction between father and son. Pap describes “a free nigger,” a “mulatter, most as white as a white man” who is a “p’fessor in a college and could talk all kinds of languages,” and then rails against the man’s right to vote: “when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again” (27). In changing the word “nigger” to “slave,” NewSouth not only partly obscures where Huck learned his racist language, but also diminishes the full violence of Pap’s hatred.

5. Reading the word “nigger” should make you at least uncomfortable, and at most angry. Since Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is also satirical, a key emotional experience of reading is the collision between anger and humor. On the one hand, the novel has lots of satirical targets — romantic adventure narratives, religion, human gullibility, superstition in general, and (in particular) superstition in “niggers.” Its attempts at humor bump uncomfortably into its racism. The novel invites us to laugh at the superstitions of Nat (the slave who feeds Jim, on Uncle Silas’s plantation), and of Jim himself. Yet, because it presents both characters — especially Nat — as racial caricatures, the jokes aren’t funny. (Well, racists may find them funny, but other people are less likely to laugh.) Other jokes — the mocking of the King and the Duke’s con-artistry, Emmeline Grangerford’s morbid poetry — work much better. The different affective tones make for an unsettling read.

Young people should learn to read uncomfortably, to be able to cope with experiences that upset them. Huck Finn’s mix of comedy and bigotry offers an ideal occasion to do just that. In its attempts to sanitize the novel’s bigotry, Gribben’s NewSouth edition makes it harder to have that conversation.

6. Though his efforts were well-intentioned, Alan Gribben, in his NewSouth edition, attempts to conceal racism’s history and pervasiveness in American culture, while enshrining as a classic one of the books that perpetuates racism — and, in some ways, critiques racism. (I’ve dwelled on the novel’s shortcomings here, but it’s fair to call Twain a racial progressive in nineteenth-century America. Despite and because of that, it’s also fair to call both Twain and the novel racist.)

7. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic American novel and a racist American novel. Indeed, its racism can not be separated from its genius. These twin qualities provide two excellent reasons to teach it in American high schools and colleges. White Americans need to confront America’s racist past so that they can stop perpetuating that racism in the present. People of color need to learn about America’s racist past so that they can survive in America’s racist present.

Robin Bernstein, page 1 from "Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde's Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children"8. There will be those who, upon reading this, say: You’re judging a nineteenth-century novel by twenty-first century standards. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend an essay by Robin Bernstein:

  • “Signposts on the Road Less Taken: John Newton Hyde’s Anti-Racist Illustrations of African-American Children,” The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1.1 (Spring 2013): 97-119.

If you lack access to it, I will send you a pdf (my email address is at right, under “A note on mp3s”). In it, she makes the excellent point that the “that’s what everyone thought back then” argument is a weak one: “In the 1850s, some people held radically egalitarian beliefs, while others espoused white supremacy. The same is true today. What has changed is less the array of thinkable thoughts than the proportion of people espousing each belief. … But the full set of racial beliefs has remained relatively stable” (97-98). As she notes, this “relative stability of the range of racial beliefs is important because it refutes a narrative of history that falsely implies that progress is inevitable” (98). In Mark Twain’s time, all people did not hold the same beliefs. To defend Huck Finn’s racism on the grounds that they did colludes with a white supremacist understanding of history, excusing past bigotry without acknowledging the damage inflicted upon real people both past and present.

9. Gribben’s NewSouth edition not only fails to achieve its stated goals. It does real harm to those who read it. Lying to young readers is not educating them. Racist literature should of course be taught alongside other fiction and non-fiction that provide students with more accurate visions of history, allowing them to evaluate critically what they read. But lying via omission is a poor — indeed, a dangerous — solution to dealing with racism.

10. I hope it goes without saying that I welcome criticism of my analysis, above. This chapter is a work in progress. Furthermore, like Alan Gribben (if I’ve read his photo correctly), I am a white male. In the U.S., my skin color and gender allow me not only to evade the daily pain of racism, but also to benefit from it (see “white privilege” in no. 3, above). So, while I hope I’m discussing race and racism with nuance and sensitivity, I know that my own privilege may blind me to the ways I which I’m failing to do so. Where you see me failing, please call me to task. I want to know what I’m getting wrong. Thank you.

Indeed, if you’ll be at the American Studies Association conference next month, elements of the above will appear in my paper — which also addresses Doctor Dolittle, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the role of affect in teaching about all three of these novels. I’d welcome your criticism and comments there, too. The session (no. 408) is Sunday at 12 noon. And, if you’re able to come, you’ll also be treated to three much wiser panelists: Brigitte Fielder, Lori L. Brooks, and Melissa Adams-Campbell.

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A Very Special House

74 Rowayton Ave. (house number)This past Friday, I spent the afternoon at Crockett Johnson’s house — 74 Rowayton Avenue (Rowayton, Connecticut), where he and Ruth Krauss lived from 1945 to 1973. Though I wrote their biography and had seen (and photographed) the house from the outside, I’d never been inside. I’ve seen all of their homes from the outside, but — hesitant to intrude on residents’ privacy — not actually been into the homes themselves. Since I was in town to give a talk that evening, Gil and Kim Kernan (the current owners) kindly invited me to spend some time in their home. My visit was one of the happiest events occasioned by my Johnson-Krauss biography.

Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014

The experience put me in mind of Richard McGuire’s innovative six-page comic, “Here” (1989, and forthcoming in a new book-length version later this year), in that I was aware of multiple moments in time. Building upon comics’ ability to spatialize time, “Here” presents many moments simultaneously — all of which take place in the space occupied by a single room. McGuire displays scenes from 1957, and from later and earlier years; across the course of the comic, you piece together some of the lives of those who passed through the place. (Click on pictures for a larger image.)

Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 1 Richard McGuire, "Here" (1989), p. 2

Nina Stagakis, floor plan of 74 Rowayton Ave. in 1950s (drawn from memory in 2001)Upstairs at 74 Rowayton Ave., standing in the front bedroom, I thought: this is where Maurice Sendak stayed, when he came up from New York City on the weekends, to work on Ruth’s books. Downstairs, I sat out on the front porch where, in 1951 and 1952, he and Ruth worked on A Hole Is to Dig — and Dave (a.k.a. Crockett Johnson) refereed. Thanks to Nina Stagakis’ sketch (drawn from memory) of the first-floor layout, I could see exactly where, in the front room, sixty years ago, Dave sat while he created dummies for Harold and the Purple Crayon, and noticed that he could easily have looked over his shoulder and seen eight-year-old Nina, at her desk, drawing. When she was eight, her father died. She and her mother Phyllis Rowand — who were already friends and neighbors — grew even closer to Dave and Ruth. Dave built her a Nina-sized desk, and put it in his office, allowing her to draw at her desk while he drew at his. Shortly after, Dave began working on Harold and the Purple Crayon.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Crockett Johnson's desk was here, 1945-1973

Crockett Johnson’s desk was here, 1945-1973.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: view of where Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was, from Crockett Johnson's vantage point, 1954

Desk of Nina Rowand Wallace (now Stagakis) was here; from vantage point of Crockett Johnson’s desk.

front room, 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014: Nina Rowand Wallace's desk was here in 1954

Nina Rowand Wallace’s desk was here in 1954.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)While drawing Harold and the Purple Crayon, if Dave looked up from his desk and out the front window, he faced not only water (a key plot element in the book), but boats (another key element). I don’t know how much of Harold he created during daylight hours (like Harold himself, Dave often worked at night), but the windows of his office looked out onto the Five Mile River, where he docked his own boat. Today, construction partially obscures the view, but in 1954 he had a clear sight line.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): "After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."

The house is and is not as it was. The kitchen is now open to the adjacent room. What was Dave’s office is now the dining room, and what was dining room is now the living room. The third floor is now finished, and would be an ideal studio for Dave. Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak, A Very Special House (1953)The basement — where he painted — still floods in a storm, although perhaps less than it once did (the walls have been painted with sealant). When it does flood, Gil told me, water shoots out from the front wall. The basement ceiling is also a little low for a man who was nearly six feet tall. (Dave’s head would have cleared the ceiling by about six inches.)  I see why, in 1973, Dave and Ruth moved to their Westport home, where he could paint in a studio above the garage.

I also see why Ruth and Dave chose 74 Rowayton Ave. It’s cozy. Not unlike the house in which I currently live, you can stand in the living room, and look out windows on all four sides of the house. Its many windows bring in lots of light. Sitting on the porch or one of the front rooms, you can look out at the Five Mile River. Jackie Curtis — a photographer and friend of Dave and Ruth’s, who was also there on Friday — mentioned that Dave enjoyed sitting out on the porch, drinking a martini.

 Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 1959 Gil and Kim Kernan on the front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, 1959; Gil and Kim Kernan, 2014.
Nel_mimics_CJ1959_web Front porch of 74 Rowayton Ave., 2014
Yours truly, 2014; absence, 2014 (with 1959 photo on table).

74 Rowayton Ave is a private home. So, don’t go knocking on the door expecting Gil and Kim to let you in. Do, however, swing by the Rowayton Historical Society (177 Rowayton Ave., just down the street from the Johnson-Krauss house) and check out Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, an exhibit devoted to the “Creative Culture of 1950s Rowayton” — Johnson, Krauss, Sendak, Jim and Jane Flora.  It runs through the end of November.

Rowayton and the Purple Crayon, Rowayton Historical Society, 2014

Jane Flora: "Non-Consenting Adults," "Family Jewels," "Pet Hen" (all c. 1974)

It’s lovingly curated, child-friendly, and it taught me a few things I didn’t know. According to Jim Flora, Alexander Kerensky lived in Rowayton in the 1940s. I knew that several left-leaning folks moved to Norwalk (Rowayton is South Norwalk) during that time — including Johnson, Krauss, and George Seldes. But I’d never heard about Kerensky (Prime Minister of Russia’s provisional government, in 1917).

Also, I saw this great photo, taken at a 1958 Rowayton Public Library event celebrating National Library Week.

National Library Week, Rowayton Public Library, 18 Mar. 1958 (courtesy of Rowayton Historical Society)

Back row, top left, is Fred Schwed Jr. (author of Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?). Third from left is John Sharnick (journalist, TV producer). Third from right is Crockett Johnson, and far right is Jim Flora (creator of children’s books and album covers).  Front row, left to right: Phyllis Rowand (artist, illustrated some of Ruth Krauss’s books), Carl Rose (cartoonist for New Yorker & others), Ruth Krauss.  I’m not sure who the other people are, but one is probably Leonard Gross, whose God and Freud had just been published and was at the event.  If you have any guesses as to who the others might be, please let me know.

Crockett Johnson, Ruth Krauss, Jim and Jane Flora, Maurice Sendak, Phyllis Rowand, Fred Schwed, Carl Rose, and all the rest are gone. But the library and 74 Rowayton Ave. are still here. The town is more developed than it was. But it’s still here. Time changes much, but traces of the past linger on.

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Credits: first two black-and-white photos from The New Haven Register, 1959; third black-and-white photo courtesy of the Rowayton Historical Society; all color photos taken by Philip Nel. Richard McGuire’s “Here” appeared in RAW 2.1 (1989) and is © Richard McGuire. Nina Stagakis’ sketch of the 74 Rowayton Ave. floor plan — published here for the first time — is © Nina Stagakis.

Thanks to Gil and Kim Kernan for their hospitality, and to Wendell Livingston and Chris Penberthy (of the Rowayton Historical Society) for inviting me. Finally, special thanks to the University of Connecticut (especially Terri Goldich and Kate Capshaw) for underwriting both the Rowayton Historical Society talk and my University of Connecticut talk, earlier last week.

Update, 8:45 pm: Thanks to Wendell Livingston, I’ve replaced my photo of a photo with a scan of the original photo (of the 1958 National Library Week event).

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Purple Crayons in Connecticut: Two Talks This Week

People of Connecticut! This week, I’ll be giving two talks on two children’s-literature luminaries of the Constitution State — Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  One is free and open to the public, and the other is $5.  Both are lavishly illustrated.  Here’s what you need to know:


Wednesday, September 24, 2014, 4:00 pm

Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon

“Not So Simple: The Genius of Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon.”  Co-op Bookstore at Storrs Center, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT.

I’ve since changed the title to “How to Read Harold: A Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson, and the Creation of a Children’s Classic.” Yes, that’s a nod to Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s How to Read Nancy: The Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels (Fantagraphics, Nov. 2014), the book-length version of their classic essay, “How to Read Nancy” (1988). In this 50-minute illustrated talk, I offer 14 ways of thinking about Harold and the Purple Crayon. My goal in doing so is to consider how complex an apparently simple story can be, and, in so doing, offer a case study in what we miss when we underestimate, trivialize, or simply fail to look closely at children’s literature.


Friday, September 26, 2014, 7:30 pm

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

“Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature.” Rowayton Community Center, 33 Highland Ave., Rowayton, CT.

In other words, I’m giving the talk based on my biography in the town where Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss lived for nearly 30 years.

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More Expeditioners! A Chat with S. S. Taylor

S.S. Taylor, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton's LairGreat news for fans of S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners! The second book is out! OK, officially, The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair will be published on September 23, but Barnes & Noble says that it’s already shipping. So, I would guess that you can order it now — from there or (preferably!) your local bookseller. If you have not read the first book, The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon (2012), well, you’ll want to start there, of course. And then — lucky for you — you can dive right into book two!

S.S. TaylorS.S. Taylor kindly took the time to chat with me about The Expeditioners, via Gmail chat, earlier today. At only one point did I mention a spoiler, but I’ve blotted out that sentence so that you’ll need to select the text in order to see what it says. In addition to discussing her influences, her thoughts on dystopias, and other matters, I also learned that the Expeditioners will be more than a trilogy. So, that’s even better news for fans of the first book!

Enough prologue.  Here’s our conversation.

Philip Nel:  Thanks for taking the time to chat about The Expeditioners!

S.S. Taylor:  Thank YOU!

S. S. Taylor and Ben Towle, Amelia EarhartNel:  My pleasure!  First question.  Prior to The Expeditioners, you wrote mysteries, and a graphic novel about Amelia Earhart. Were there any ways in which those writing experiences prepared you for this one (if, indeed, they did)?

Taylor:  Absolutely. I think I’ve always liked writing about ordinary people who have extraordinary things happen to them. That’s pretty much the definition of an amateur detective novel and Amelia Earhart sort of fits that bill too. She was a social worker before she became a famous pilot.

Nel:  Ah. Good point. Even real-world extraordinary people (often) start as ordinary people. We just forget that fact because we only know them — or, really, know of them — because of their extraordinary achievements.

Taylor:  Exactly. That was what drew me to the early part of Amelia’s career, which I focus on in the graphic novel. She (and we) didn’t know who she was going to be yet. And obviously adventure novels for kids are about extraordinary things happening to kids, which is every kid’s fantasy. Even though Kit’s father was an Explorer, he is surprised at being drawn into this crazy adventure.

Nel:  Right, right. And you really get the sense in The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair that — hmmm, I want to phrase this in a way that isn’t a spoiler — as in a classic fantasy narrative, there are people who are “chosen” to follow certain paths.

(Incidentally, if we do get into any “spoiler” territory, I can just reproduce that part of the interview so that people have to select the text in order to read it.)

Taylor:  Yeah. It’s a trope, but for good reason. I think every kid — I know I did — feels like she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to DO, what her purpose it. Do I matter? Why am I here? All that great existential stuff that comes up around age 10 or 11 or 12. And characters who discover that they are meant for great and important things let kids try on a huge and important destiny, if that makes sense, while they figure out what their real one is.

Nel:  Heck, I think many adults feel like they don’t know what they’re supposed to do. “Do I matter? Why am I here?” I ask those questions all of the time.

Taylor:  Me too!

Nel:  Well, perhaps one day we’ll grow up and find our destiny, eh?

Taylor:  Wouldn’t it be nice if someone just said, “You? Oh you’re supposed to save the world from evil”?

Nel:  Would it?  That sounds terrifying.

Taylor:  But clear!

Nel:  True. Clear and terrifying!  A winning combination!  Well, if you survive….

S. S. Taylor, The Expeditioners, illustrated by Katherine Roy (2012)So, speaking of combinations, I wonder if you think in terms of genre at all.  Do you?  I ask because, if I had to classify these novels, I’d say they’re steampunk adventure fantasy mysteries, with a bit of science fiction, too.  (I love the attention given to the alternate world’s technology.)  They don’t neatly fit into one genre, and I like that. But, as a writer, do you worry about these labels?

Taylor:  I started out thinking of them as straight-up adventure novels. But I discovered that a lot of the things I wanted to say about the world put it firmly in SF and steampunk territory. It’s funny because I think a lot of the inspiration came out of my interest in colonialism and imperialism and sort of trying to reimagine the age of exploration with a more contemporary view of colonialism and imperialism but in order to do that, I needed to create this futuristic, SF world.

I don’t think I’m capable of writing anything that doesn’t have a mystery in it.

Nel:  Ah! I was picking up on that anti-colonialist / anti-imperialist bent.  I love it when Coleman says, “I don’t say ‘discovered’ because as far as the Arawak people who were living here were concerned, they didn’t need to be discovered. They’d been here for a long time. They hadn’t wanted to be found.”

Taylor:  A long way of saying that I don’t worry much about labels. I still describe them as adventure novels. I love Katherine Roy‘s illustrations for the book and I think she’s done such a great job of capturing that mix of genres, of old-fashioned adventure stories, but also the steampunk and SF elements.

Nel:  I’m glad you mention Roy’s art — love her work, too. Perfectly compliments your text. And, returning to what you said a moment before, having the mystery gene (if that’s what it is) is a great gift, I would think — because that sense of mystery keeps people turning the pages.

Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of ThikaTaylor:  Yeah, I loved novels like The Flame Trees of Thika and Agatha Christie as a kid and I think this is my attempt to retain some of the romance of that literature, but to hopefully ask the questions that will make readers think about what it is to be the colonized person.

Nel:  Nicely put. I was thinking of these as like classic adventure narratives from the early twentieth-century, but with a critique of colonialism instead of a passive (or active) endorsement. The first Expeditioners novel, too. They “find” this “lost” civilization, but have the good sense to let it stay lost.  OK, that’s a spoiler to anyone who’s not read the first book.  I’ll blot that out.

Taylor:  Yup. I was just reading about uncontacted people in the Amazon and how the Brazilian government is grappling with how to protect them. It’s so complicated.

Nel:  Indeed. That also brings me to another question I have. What sort of research do you do in creating the world of The Expeditioners? The world of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials was heavily influenced by the research he did into Victorian England for the Sally Lockhart books. I would guess that research on Amelia Earhart may have helped with Sukey (especially in the first book). But I’m going to guess there was a fair bit of research involved for the rest, yes?

Taylor:  Yeah. I did some research on Victorian technology, steam, clockwork mechanisms, etc., but also on the early days of petroleum exploration. I think it was more casting my imagination into this alternate world though, and saying, “Okay, if petroleum hadn’t been discovered in great quantities yet, what would have been available to people?” I also did a lot of research into fascist/totalitarian governments and how they did things, how they created bureaucracy. That was fun

And I read a lot about the golden age of exploration, trying to imagine if it had happened later than it did.

Nel:  Fun with fascism! (Well, in a fictional sense.) Indeed, if I had to add another genre to my “genre” mix, above, I notice a dystopic strain running through the Expeditioners books — food shortages, oligarchical / totalitarian government. If you’re doing research into fascist/totalitarian governments, I assume you’re conscious of that strain(?). If so, were there any particular dystopian works that inspired you?

Cormac McCarthy, The RoadTaylor:  Yeah. Like everybody else, I loved the Hunger Games, though I read it after I’d mostly written the first book. I loved The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and I’m sure that was an influence. I’ve now read some more YA dystopia, and I find it really interesting that kids are so drawn to it. Lots of people have written about this, but I think it’s both a reflection of their anxiety and maybe also some sort of desire for a fresh start or to be able to remake the world.

I think there’s something attractive to kids about a world where the usual rules don’t apply and you get to make your own, form a society.

Nel:  Yes, I’m also interested by the current popularity of dystopian fiction. As you say, it’s likely a reflection of contemporary anxieties about the world. I also wonder what dystopian fiction’s popularity (especially YA dystopian fiction) tells us about how we imagine our collective futures.

Taylor:  Yeah, when I talk to kids, I actually see that they find these stories exciting because they make adventure and freedom possible. After a nuclear holocaust, nobody cares whether you make your curfew or not! I think so much of children’s lit is about vicariously experiencing freedom and independence.

Nel:  I like your optimistic reading — dystopia can also provide the impetus to challenge the rules, to create a new and better world.  So, you know, the West kids & others are completely justified in defying authority because the authorities are corrupt.

Taylor:  Yes!

Nel:  So, I don’t have a natural transition to this question, but one thing I really enjoy about the novels is that they avoid gender stereotypes. M.K. (the youngest West child) is an inventor & engineer. Kit, our narrator and the middle West child, is introspective.  Sukey is brave.  So is Joyce.  Indeed, they all have a combination of strengths and weaknesses that aren’t especially gendered. Even the pirates – Monty Brioux has both men and women on his crew. How conscious are you of avoiding stereotypes?

Taylor:  Very conscious, though I think you have to be conscious of not being too conscious, if you know what I mean. They have to be themselves first. Part of creating an alternate world for me was about creating a world where there is less rigidity about gender roles. One of the things about having kids of my own that has been such an eye opener is how gender roles are transferred so early. I especially wanted to show girls who are capable and brave and mechanically minded, but I realized I also wanted the boys to have flexibility. That may be part of why Kit is the first person narrator.

So yeah, I’m very conscious of it and I’m happy to see that many other writers seem to be. There are a lot of brave, capable heroines on the shelves right now.

Nel:  Even the names give you flexibility.  M.K. is a girl, but the initials don’t tell you that.  And, when I started reading The Expeditiioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair, I’d forgotten whether Kit was a boy or a girl.  It took me a few pages, before a pronoun tipped me off!

Taylor:  Yeah, I’m inside his head and I really want to show his emotions and insecurities as well as his developing competence and bravery.

Free to Be . . . You and Me (LP, 1972)Nel:  Excellent! Those are helpful to see, and (since I was an insecure kid, myself), I know I’d have liked that when I was a younger reader, too.  Oh, I like your point, also, about being “conscious of not being too conscious.”  You don’t want it to seem forced (and it doesn’t!).  But, you know, since you grew up with a consciousness of gender roles — or conscious of their existence — perhaps that sort of non-stereotypical writing comes more easy to you than it may have come to writers of earlier generations?  Out of curiosity, were you a Free to Be … You and Me kid?  Did you grow up on that record or book?

Taylor:  Yes. Free to Be … You and Me, marching at ERA rallies, the whole deal. I think those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s had a better situation than kids do today, to some extent. Certainly the merchandizing has changed.

Nel:  A couple of final questions because I’ve just realized we’ve been chatting for nearly an hour.  For how long had you been planning The Expeditioners, and was it always a trilogy?  How much of the story did you know when you began, and how much do you discover as you write?

Taylor:  It’s actually a six-book series! It says trilogy somewhere but that’s not right. I had been thinking about it for maybe a year before I started writing, not terribly long. The first book really was a process of discovery. The second book was hard to write because I was actively figuring out the whole rest of the series in order to write it. I now know most of it, but I didn’t until I was about halfway through the second one.

Nel:  Oh boy!  Six books!  Well, that’s the best news I’ve had all week.  I thought there were going to be just three.  Hooray!

Taylor:  I’m glad that’s your reaction!

Nel:  Well, of course it is!  You see, Sarah, it is your destiny to write these novels.  YOU are the one chosen to do it.

Taylor:  Thank you. I feel very relieved now!

Nel:  Glad I could help you sort that out. :-)  One final question and then I’ll let you go (promise!). Can you tell your avid readers when we might expect to see The Expeditioners, Volume 3?

Taylor:  I’m working on it right now. I’m so excited about it. There’s espionage and a trek across a desert and  . . . I can’t say anything more. But, we think it will be out in spring of 2016, if all goes according to plan.

Nel:  Hoo boy!  Looking forward to it!  Thanks so much for taking the time to chat!

Taylor:  Thank you so much. I really appreciate it!

Nel:  My pleasure!


Author portrait & cover art: Katherine Roy.

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Ferguson: Response & Resources

This post has two parts: my response and some resources for teaching about Ferguson. Feel free to skip ahead to the resources section.


My Response

Watts 1965 & Ferguson 2014For two weeks now, I have been wanting to write something about the state-sponsored terrorism in Ferguson — and all that it represents (structural racism, police brutality, militarized cops, etc.). But it makes me so angry. And depressed. And fills me with despair. (Indeed, Ferguson is one reason I’ve kept a lower profile on social media lately. The horrors of the world have been too overwhelming.)

Also, where does one begin? Can’t exactly open with a joke. Q: What’s the Ferguson police’s motto? A: To protect and to serve… white supremacy.  And NO, this isn’t funny. It’s simultaneously sad and infuriating. I mean, surely I am not the only person wondering why the entire Ferguson police force has not been disarmed and dismissed? Yes, after the establishment of a competent police chief and responsible hiring practices, ex-officers would be welcome to reapply for their former jobs. But, at present, the police force there inspires no confidence whatsoever, and represents an ongoing threat to public safety. Indeed, in my fantasy solution, the United Nations sends in peacekeepers to Ferguson. I picture Canadian soldiers wearing those baby-blue UN helmets. They could protect the citizens from the local cops, until Gov. Jay Nixon and Missouri get their act together — which, frankly, means that the UN troops would be in Missouri for a long time.

Michael Brown (1996-2014)You see? I start to write, and then that turns, first, into a rant against the corrupt cops who delayed naming the officer who murdered Michael Brown for jaywalking, in order to grant themselves time to construct an implausible alibi — an alibi that quickly unraveled (because Darren Wilson didn’t even know about the robbery at the time he killed Brown). Second, it turns into an anguish I cannot articulate. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Ezell Ford. John Crawford. Trayvon Martin. But also…. James Byrd Jr. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till.  And less well-known people like Recy Taylor. And the many, many other victims of American racism — an institution as old as the republic itself.

Emmett Till & Trayvon Martin

The myth of America is that it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave. The truth is that, for most of its history, America has been a white supremacist police state. Most people have bought into the American myth so thoroughly that when you confront them with this fact, they refuse to acknowledge it. So, let me rephrase this: for most of American history, people of color have had no rights that white Americans were bound to respect. For the sake of argument, let us make the provisional (and demonstrably false) claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ended” racism. Were that true (and it is not true), then we would have 50 years in which African Americans had rights — well, sort of. Or more rights than before 1964 — um, usually. The common date for the United States’ founding is either 1789 (adoption of US Constitution) or 1776 (Declaration of Independence), but we could also use 1619 (first enslaved Africans brought to Jamestown) or 1492 (when Columbus “discovered” a continent where people already lived, and so helped kill them via smallpox-infected blankets). So, let’s do some math for each date. The percentage at the end represents the amount of American history during which people of color have had some (although certainly not full) civil rights in the U.S.

  • 1789: 50 years out of 225. 22%
  • 1776: 50 years out of 238. 21%
  • 1619: 50 years out of 395. 13%
  • 1492: 50 years out of 522. 10%

50 years of partial civil rights — or what we might call “racism lite” — is a piss-poor record for a nation that promotes itself as the world’s greatest exemplar of democracy.

What’s more, President Obama’s election seems to have inspired a renaissance in American racism. He gets elected, and then all the racists come out in full force. There’s the structural kind of racism, such as the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act, or the fake “Voter Fraud” laws designed to disenfranchise minority voters, or Stand Your Ground laws (applied unequally to white gun-owners and black gun-owners). And then there’s the more personal kind, like the many racial caricatures of Obama or, yeah, whites who murder blacks and get off scot-free.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism & Racial Inequality in Contemporary AmericaI don’t mean to suggest that Obama’s election and re-election indicate no progress whatsoever since the founding of the republic or even since 1964-1965. Even when he won the presidency in 2008, the notion of a president of color was literally unimaginable to many people — and that’s people of all backgrounds and political persuasions. I know liberals who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries because Americans would never elect a black president. Instead, I mean to suggest that the success of Obama has helped usher in a new era of “racism without racists” (to use Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term), in which the successes of a few people of color get used to deflect attention away from the persistence of structural racism — a racism personified by the police force in Ferguson, Missouri.

All of what I’ve said above has been better-articulated by others, I know.  So, now, here is what will I hope be a more useful contribution to the conversation — an aggregation of resources for teaching about Ferguson.


The Resources

I’m sure this is incomplete. Please add your own in the comments, below, and I will do my best to add them to these links.

Teaching Ferguson

Steve Sack, "The Talk," Minneapolis Star Tribune, 16 July 2013

Literature

Clay Bennett, "Community Relations." Chattanooga Times Free Press, 15 Aug. 2014

Children’s & YA Literature

Art

Kevin Siers, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Editorial cartoon. Charlotte Observer, 14 Aug. 2014

Analysis & Context

  • Charles P. Pierce, “They Left the Body in the Street.” Esquire. 22 Aug. 2014. “Dictators leave bodies in the street. Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street. Warlords leave bodies in the street…. A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society.”
  • Matt Zoller Seitz, “Different Rules Apply.”  MZS.  19 Aug. 2014.  “I went home. The other guy didn’t. That’s white privilege.”
  • Adam Serwer, “Eighty Years of Fergusons.” Buzzfeed. 25 Aug. 2014. “We have had 80 years of Fergusons. We may have more. Violence — as harmful and self-destructive as it is — sometimes works.”
  • Michael Denzel Smith, “Strange Fruit in Ferguson.” The Nation. 20 Aug. 2014. “The police didn’t hang Michael Brown, but they made a public display of his killing. They left his body lying there for all to see. The psychic toll that exerts on a community calls to mind the eerie words once sung by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root…’”
  • St. Louis American‘s Editors. “For the sake of Michael Brown.”  St Louis American. 14 Aug. 2014. “We can’t bring Michael Brown back. But we can insist on a prompt, credible, transparent investigation – under the leadership of the U.S. Department of Justice, we urge – and that his killer be brought to justice. The officer should receive the constitutionally guaranteed due process he did not give to his victim.”
  • Jesse Washington, “Trayvon Martin, My Son, and the Black Male Code.” Huffington Post. 24 March 2012. Not on Ferguson in particular but on the separate-but-unequal treatment of young black men: “Across the country this week, parents were talking to their children, especially their black sons, about the Code. It’s a talk the black community has passed down for generations, an evolving oral tradition from the days when an errant remark could easily cost black people their job, their freedom, or sometimes their life.” Thanks to Sarah Park Dahlen.
  • Janee Woods, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People.” The Root 19 Aug. 2014. “White people who hate racism should work hard to become white allies. Here are some ways for a white person to become engaged, thoughtfully and critically, in examining the crisis in Ferguson and systemic racism in America.”

Primary Resources

Jim Morin, "911? I'm being followed by a stranger, and I'm scared...." Editorial cartoon. Miami Herald, 1

Activism

As I said above, I’m sure I’ve omitted useful resources.  Please let me know, and I’ll add them. (I’ve not followed this as closely as some of you have, I know. As noted at the very beginning of this blog post, the news lately has been rather overwhelming & so I’ve had to retreat a bit from social media. Ferguson. Gaza. Ukraine. Robin Williams’ suicide. Too much to take.)

Thanks to everyone who has shared links via Facebook and Twitter. I’d not have found half of these links without you all.


Update, 3:10 pm, 31 Aug: Added a short, smart response by Robin Bernstein (@RobinMBernstein), and a cartoon by Ben Sargent.

Update, 1:35pm, 29 Aug: With thanks to Kate Slater (@slaterka), added Ezekiel Kweku’s “The Parable of the Unjust Judge or: Fear of a N*****r Nation” (under “Analysis & Context”); thanks to Julie Danielson (@SevenImp), added a coupe of pieces, including one on a foolish school superintendent who has banned classroom discussion of Ferguson; thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), added the MichaelBrownsCrime tumblr. And a few others…

Update, 9:00 pm, 27 Aug: With thanks to Libby Gruner, added Kia Makarechi’s Vanity Fair piece. Also added a few other pieces, many of which are thanks to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (@Ebonyteach), who — as I note above — is someone you really ought to follow on Twitter (though I think I actually found these pieces [Adam Serwer's "Eighty Years of Fergusons" & Shaun R. Harper's "Race Lessons from Ferguson: Back to School, Not Back to Normal."] via her Facebook feed).

Update, 8:00 pm, 26 Aug: Added the Mary Engelbreit artwork (in “Children’s & YA” section), and a link to related news stories (under “Art”).

Update, 2:40 pm, 26 Aug: Added resources from Sarah Park Dahlen (SarahPark.com), Sophylou (True Stories Backward), Sandy Brehl (@PBWorkshop), & one or two others.

Update, 10:30 am, 25 Aug: I’ve added resources culled from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post.

Update, 10:45 pm, 24 Aug: I will add, tomorrow, some great links from Kelly Jensen’s Stacked post, and from Elisabeth Ellington’s Dirigible Plum post. I’ve added a few other links.

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Kansas State University’s NEW Academic Freedom Statement

Uncensor KansasIn response to the Kansas Board of Regents’ draconian, unconstitutional social media policy, a group of concerned faculty and students from Kansas State University drafted an Academic Freedom statement, during this past summer. I was not a member of this group, but I fully endorse their statement, which can be found as no. 3 on Kansas State University’s Optional Syllabi Statements (scroll down).  For your reference, I’ll also reproduce it here:

Academic Freedom Statement

Kansas State University is a community of students, faculty, and staff who work together to discover new knowledge, create new ideas, and share the results of their scholarly inquiry with the wider public. Although new ideas or research results may be controversial or challenge established views, the health and growth of any society requires frank intellectual exchange. Academic freedom protects this type of free exchange and is thus essential to any university’s mission.

Moreover, academic freedom supports collaborative work in the pursuit of truth and the dissemination of knowledge in an environment of inquiry, respectful debate, and professionalism. Academic freedom is not limited to the classroom or to scientific and scholarly research, but extends to the life of the university as well as to larger social and political questions. It is the right and responsibility of the university community to engage with such issues.

I encourage faculty and staff at Kansas State University to adopt this statement, and faculty and staff at other Kansas universities to adopt a similar statement.

Remain Vigilant (small version)I would also encourage all Regents who voted for the Social Media Policy to be swiftly removed from the Kansas Board of Regents, since none of them have any business serving on such a body. But, that, of course, is a subject for another blog post — and has already been covered in great detail on this blog, as well as in the local and national media.

On this blog, see:

Finally, thanks to the group who drafted this statement! (I’m deliberately not naming them in this post because I don’t know if they want to be publicly identified. It’s conceivable that their work might be seen as disloyal, unharmonious, etc.)

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At the Drop of a Hat: A Dozen Essential Songs by Flanders and Swann

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann

We’ve had a lot of luck with records. Some of the songs that have made our names a household word — like “slop-bucket” — are the little series of animal songs that we’ve been writing.

— Michael Flanders, introduction to “The Gnu,” At the Drop of a Hat (1960)

The Bestiary of Flanders and SwannAs Michael Flanders says, the animal songs made him and his partner Donald Swann famous. The duo’s best-known such number may be “The Hippopotamus,” with its cheerful, waltzing chorus of

Mud, mud, glorious mud!

Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.

So follow me, follow

Down to the hollow,

And there let us wallow

In glorious mud!

Indeed, I suspect that even a few Americans know this one. I say that because, if you are English, you’re very likely to at least have heard of Flanders and Swann. If you are American, well, that’s much less likely. (In terms of Flanders-and-Swann awareness, Canadians seem somewhere in between — more than Americans, but less than Britons.) So, to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with Flanders and Swann, let’s listen to “The Hippopotamus.”

There’s even a children’s-book version of this, The Hippopotamus Song: A Muddy Love Story (1991), illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. (I haven’t seen the book, and so can’t vouch for how well or poorly the song has been adapted.)

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, At the Drop of Another HatIf you’re unfamiliar with this duo, you might think of Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) as something of a British Tom Lehrer (b. 1928), but without the cynicism. As Flanders himself observes in At the Drop of Another Hat (1964), “The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth — and our job, as I see it, is to put it back again.” They are satirists, but (usually) lack the aggression of Lehrer, favoring instead satire’s sense of play and a kind of wry, bemused judgment — or, in the case of songs like “The Hippopotamus,” more whimsy than judgment.

Though Lehrer famously set his “The Elements” to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song,” the librettist and composer of The Pirates of Penzance had a much stronger influence on Flanders and Swann. Flanders was the Gilbert, writing nearly all of the lyrics, and Swann the Sullivan, writing all of the music (and the occasional lyric). With wit, wordplay, and complex rhyme schemes, the duo wrote over a hundred songs, and between 1956 and 1967 gave hundreds of performances in the UK, Canada, and the US — plus, in 1964, a few in Australia and New Zealand. George Martin (yes, the Beatles’ producer) produced their best-known albums. David Hyde-Pierce and John Lithgow are probably the duo’s best-known contemporary fans.

Never heard of Flanders and Swann? Or care to be reacquainted? Well, here’s my (admittedly subjective) list of essential songs, complete with audio, commentary, and (when available) video. The first was “The Hippopotamus Song” (above); so, moving to the second….

2) “A Transport of Delight”

"Wanted; a crew for this bus," by Jack Maxwell. Agency: Clement Dane Studio, 1955  Published by London Transport, 1955. (From London Transport Museum)A paean to the “monarch of the road,” that “Scarlet-painted London Transport, Diesel-engined, Ninety-seven horsepower Omnibus!” Swann takes on the role of driver, Flanders the conductor, and they sing heartily, with a mix of affection and mockery.

A few allusions of note. “Earth has not anything to show more fair” is from Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.” “Army lorry” puns on the Scots song “Annie Laurie,” which includes the line “And for bonnie Annie Laurie, / I’d lay me down and dee” (“dee” being a Scots pronunciation of “die”).

3) “The Gas-Man Cometh”

The GALMI method has its flaws, as this song points out. (No, the song doesn’t use the expression “GALMI,” but that’s an acronym for “Get A Little Man In.” I’ve heard it on British sitcoms.)

4) “First and Second Law”

Showing their range, Swann and Flanders explain thermodynamics via a jazzy scat number. This is still the reason I know anything about thermodynamics. You see, Flanders and Swann are the music of my childhood. Though I grew up north of Boston Massachusetts, my parents lived in London during the latter half of the 1960s. They even saw Flanders and Swann perform there. In the U.S., borrowing the records from friends, my dad taped, on a reel-to-reel (the bulkier predecessor of the cassette recorder), At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat — though I later learned that he only taped the pieces that he liked. Fortunately, that was the majority of each record.

5) “The Gnu”

In the introduction (which I’ve omitted), Michael Flanders talks about the song’s inspiration, which involves being unable to park (or get out of his car) on the street where he lives:

The road itself is a bit of a snag. That road has got the steepest camber on it — you know, the old slope — of any road in London. It’s about one in three. If you try to park your car by the pavement, as people do from time to time, the car’s tilted, like that. Well now, that means you can only get this near-side door open a little bit, then the pavement stops it. If you want to use this door you can make a jump for it. Bad enough all up and down the road, but just outside where I happen to live, 1a (of course it would be), it’s just like the great North face of Everest. The thing’s right over on its side. You can’t get this door open at all, you’ve got to keep it full of petrol or it shows empty. I can’t use this door, I’ve got to get into this thing [Flanders’ wheelchair], you see, on the pavement.

He asks his local council about it, and they send a man round to take a chunk out of the road so that it’s level in front of Flanders’ house, thus allowing him to navigate from his car to his wheelchair and vice versa. However, ever time he arrives at his space, someone else is parked there — always the same car. “The number of this car,” he says, “I’ll never forget this number as long as I live. I’ve sat gazing at it for hours on end sometimes, thinking of nothing else. The number is 346-GNU.”

Gnu, a.k.a. Blue Wildebeest

In case you are doubtful, a gnu is a real animal. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a “South African quadruped (Catoblepas gnu), belonging to the antelope family, but resembling an ox or buffalo in shape; also known by its Dutch name wildebeest.”

6) “Misalliance”

In which two plants become star-crossed lovers, a silly premise with a plaintive melody that makes it curiously affecting.

7) “Madeira M’Dear”

A bit more risqué than the other songs here, “Madeira M’Dear” contains excellent zeugma, when one word gets used to refer to more than one word in the same sentence.  These particular lyrics often use the first word (the multi-referential one) in more than one sense. So, for example, “She lowered her standards by raising her glass, / Her courage, her eyes — and his hopes.”

Here are Flanders and Swann performing the song for American television in 1967. Flanders glosses “flat” as “apartment” for American viewers and — presumably to appease censors — changes “prowess” to “finesse.” Incidentally, if he looks a little breathless, that may be because he has only one working lung. The polio that put him in the wheelchair also took away one of his lungs.

UPDATE, 7 Aug. 2014, 1:30 pm: In retrospect, this song might better be classified among those that have not aged well (described in my caveat below). I direct readers to my conversation with Jonathan Dresner (in the comments) for precisely why.

8) “A Happy Song”

Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of a Hat (1957 version).This represents the absurdist side of the duo — also on display in such numbers as “Kokoraki.” If you enjoy Spike Jones or Mel Blanc, then “A Happy Song” is for you.  It’s one of three “Songs for Our Time” on At the Drop of a Hat, each of which, Flanders explains, is his and Swann’s attempt to write a pop hit. Of this particular one, Flanders tells the audience, “We felt that really, on the whole, in this time of crisis and political conflict, what the world needed most was another simple happy chorus song, something which expressed the feelings of all the ordinary people all over the world, and in which everyone could join.” He then pronounces the song’s nearly unpronounceable refrain, and invites people to “join in, if you wish.”

9) “The Rhinoceros”

Another reason that Flanders and Swann’s songs are great for children and adults: they expand your vocabulary, as in this song’s refrain, “the bodger on the bonce.” As a noun, “bodger” is “one who bodges; a botcher”; as an adjective, “bodger” is (in Australian slang) a term for “Inferior, worthless.” “Bonce” is a slang term for “head.” So, then, according to the lyric, the rhino has something botched on its head. (All definitions courtesy of the OED.)

10) “The Armadillo”

Who knew that Armadillos had love songs? And with such plaintive melodies, too!  (The track begins, however, with an elephant joke — the previous song on the record is “The Elephant.”)

11) “Slow Train”

An elegy for closed railway stations, this one is surprisingly poignant. As Flanders says in his introduction,

Unusual song this for us, perhaps, because it’s really quite a serious song, and it was suggested by all those marvelous old local railway stations with their wonderful evocative names, all due to be, you know, axed and done away with one by one, and these are stations that we shall no longer be seeing when we aren’t able to travel anymore on the slow train.

Blandford Forum railway station in April 1963

TheGawain provides more detail in this great post on Flanders and Swann. As he tells us, in 1963 Dr. Richard Beeching

wrote a lengthy report on the profitability of British Railways (or lack thereof) and concluded that most of the rail network made no net contribution towards any profits that could potentially be made. He duly recommended removing about half of the route mileage and rather more than half the stations. The Tories implemented the report with unusual haste for any Government; Labour largely opposed it up until the moment when they saw the overall profit/ loss account of the nation and duly decided to continue.

This cross-party enthusiasm for Beeching left very little opportunity for the pro-rail remnants of the population to express any form of opposition except by attempting to prove “undue hardship” at closure inquiries. An examination of the railways which survived on this basis (prime examples include Middlesborough to Whitby, Inverness to Wick & Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh, Glasgow to Mallaig and Plymouth to Gunnislake) show that in order to demonstrate that closing the local railway would cause undue hardship it was necessary to show that the area was devoid of alternative roads. As a result the minor rural dead loss railways going nowhere which deserved to be axed all survived, while the middling routes serving notable market towns found that the market towns were also served by roads, enabling easy closure of the railways.

The Government then proceeded to spend vast amounts of public money building roads to replace these railways which needed closing down because the Government didn’t have any public money available to spend on keeping them running.

That’s the context for this song. For more, see TheGawain’s piece or this very thorough Wikipedia essay on the song.

12) “The Sloth”

A comic ode to laziness.

A sloth

Yes, there are many other songs I could have included. Fans of Flanders and Swann will no doubt be asking: What about “Design for Living”? Where’s “A Song of the Weather”? And what about “A Song of Patriotic Prejudice”?  Fair questions.  I decided to limit myself to a dozen, but I concede that there may be a better twelve songs to introduce people to Flanders and Swann.

A few songs have not aged as well — either because they’re topical, or because casual sexism or imperialism is (happily) no longer culturally acceptable. Remarkably, there are very few such songs. So, on the one hand, “The Reluctant Cannibal” suggests that people everywhere face the same problems, such rebellious children (who, in this case, “won’t eat people”) and parents baffled by their offspring. To their credit, Flanders and Swann also avoid pseudo-primitive dialect, singing in their usual accents. On the other hand, the humor of this piece depends upon the difference between “civilized” society and the more primitive “Tropics” (they don’t provide a specific location where these cannibals reside). The song is not in the realm of, say, the first line of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” (“Chinks do it, / Japs do it. / Up in Lapland, / Even little Laps do it”), but the piece hasn’t endured quite as well as their animal songs.

The Complete Flanders and SwannInterested in learning more? I don’t think there’s an ideal Flanders and Swann “hits” collection. In any case, the live records include amusing spoken-word performances (mostly from Flanders), which would need to be either included or excised — in assembling this, I’ve mostly done the latter. You could use iTunes to create your own “hits” collection, and then (depending on your fondness for Flanders’ monologues) either retain or cut the spoken-word parts. In iTunes, you can do that under the “Options” setting of a song, by changing the start time and/or stop time.

Hat Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector's EditionOr, if you seek the full experience, then I recommend The Complete Flanders and Swann, which includes At the Drop of a Hat, At the Drop of Another Hat, The Bestiary of Flanders and Swann plus some bonus tracks, and a great booklet featuring illuminating notes and commentary by Charles Fox.  I’ve just discovered there’s another collection with more music I’ve never heard — including many performances not in The Complete Flanders and Swann. Sadly, Hat-Trick: Flanders and Swann Collector’s Edition is out of print.

Fortunately, Flanders and Swann’s many admirers have gathered lots more information for you to peruse:

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Making Mischief of One Kind and Another: Wild Things!

Betsy Bird, Julie Danielson, and Peter Sieruta's Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children's LiteratureIf you follow The Niblings (via Twitter or Facebook), you’ll know that two of us — Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) and Julie Walker Danielson (Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast) — have co-written a new book, Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. It’s out today! It’s great! Go get it!

Oh, I should probably tell you what it’s about first. Right. It has been described as follows:

With tales of banned bunnies, drunken ducks, and gay penguins, Wild Things! leads the battle against the ignorance, half-truths, and just plain foolishness that afflict so much writing about children’s literature. Punchy, lively, and carefully researched, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in books for the young. So. Stop reading this blurb, and buy the book.

Yes, that’s me, in my blurb. There are other even more notable blurbs, from the likes of Lane Smith, Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, Jules Feiffer, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.

But you don’t have to believe the blurbs. (I mean, I don’t know why you’d doubt any of us, but you could doubt us, of course….)  For the past month, they’ve been posting the deleted scenes — the many great stories that did not fit in their entertaining book — on the Wild Things! Tumblr.  You can learn of famous feuds in children’s literature, and great children’s books that were almost never published, and many other things. The stuff in the book is even better.

They also have a piece in today’s Huffington Post (in which Trina Schart Hyman gets up to mischief). And there’s an interview over at the Let’s Get Busy! podcast (where you’ll learn, among other things, where Fuse #8 got its name!).

Since I haven’t yet figured out a way to include the book’s third co-author, Peter D. Sieruta, let me do that here. He passed away a couple of years ago, while the book was in its editing phase. But you can still read his blog.

So. To conclude, the book — which I read an ARC of, last October — is out. Let’s de-romanticize children’s literature! Unleash Wild Things! in your libraries, classrooms, and homes!

[Please insert comically maniacal laughter here. Thank you.]

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Let Them Eat Pie; or, And Now We Are Four

Nerdista's Pi Pineapple PieThis blog made its debut four years ago this month — on July 23, 2010 — and it’s still here. Looking back over the past year’s worth of blog posts, I notice a few trends. The blog has retained its focus on children’s literature and comics but has also devoted more time to academia and activism.

Moving on into year 5, I’ll strive to continue to keep the blog both interesting and useful. Thanks for reading!

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