Archive for August, 2011

Preview: biography of Johnson and Krauss. First sentence & last sentence.

Crockett Johnson, "Fun at the Post Office" (from Ruth Krauss, How to Make an Earthquake)The manuscript is still going to be cut further, but — as it currently stands — here are the first and final sentences of the book.

First sentence (from the Introduction):

When a stranger knocked on Crockett Johnson’s front door one mild Friday in August 1950, he was not expecting was a visit from the FBI.

Final sentence (from the Epilogue):

There, they will find a very special house, where holes are to dig, walls are a canvas, and people are artists, drawing paths that take them anywhere they want to go.

Is that too much of a “tease”?  Yes?  Well, OK,… here’s a tiny bit more.  Each chapter begins with an epigraph from a work by Crockett Johnson or Ruth Krauss.  Here’s the first one (from the Introduction):

            “Few stories are completely perfect,” said the lion.

            “That’s true,” said Ellen, leaving the playroom. “And otherwise it’s a wonderful story. Thank you for telling it to me.”

— Crockett Johnson, The Lion’s Own Story (1963)

So, yes, technically, the first sentence is really “‘Few stories are completely perfect,’ said the lion.”  And, if we’re going to be truly precise, then I expect the last words of the book will probably come from the index.  Since the task of creating the index will not occur until after the book has been typeset, I’m not sure yet what the final entry will be, but my current guess is “Zolotow, Charlotte.”

And now, some actual news about the book:

  • Very grateful to everyone who has suggested alternate titles.  I’ve sent my leading contenders to my editor.  Should other promising suggestions come in, I will of course call his attention to them.  When we decide on the title, I will announce the winner on the blog.  Thanks to everyone who has participated!
  • Things are moving at last.  I submitted the completed manuscript at the end of 2010.  I revised it many times, with each revision turned back by the press as insufficient.  Some issues were stylistic, while others concerned length (I cut 23,000 words).  I submitted the vastly improved final version on June 16, 2011.  As of this past Friday (August 26), I learned that it is now going to the copyeditor, who — in addition to copyediting — will help trim the manuscript further.  Earlier this month, I received an epic Author’s Questionnaire: I turned in all 25 pages of it today.  Also last week, I received (form the press) the sorts of queries that signal a project moving into the next phase.  I’d mislabeled a couple of images; three other images were at scanned at too low a resolution (and so I’m working on getting hi-res ones); there were a few questions about permissions (now resolved); and so on.
  • The above is good news, but it also means that the publication date will not be April 2012 (as I’d initially reported), nor June 2012 (as I’d next reported).  Expect the book no sooner than August or September of 2012.  Thank you for your continued patience!

And thanks to everyone who has helped!  The Acknowledgements lists literally hundreds of people, some of whom are no longer with us.  Thank you to all!

Should you have the stamina, you might wish to peruse the abundance of other posts tagged…

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Invent Title for My Book, Win Signed Copy of the Book

Crockett Johnson, "How to write a book," illus. from Ruth Krauss's How to Make an EarthquakeThe title is currently The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.  Today, my editor writes that he and his colleagues “find the main title problematic. It’s lengthy and isn’t evocative to anyone who isn’t already familiar with Johnson or Krauss, and so doesn’t draw the lay reader into the text. What other possibilities are there?”

He has a point: a more pithy, catchy title might help draw people to the book.  My only problem is I don’t have any other good ideas.  So, let me appeal to you, who have not been writing this book for the last dozen years.  Perhaps you can offer a fresh perspective?

Here’s the deal.  If you come up with the best title (or if you come closest to what the press and I decide is the best title), I will thank you by name in the book’s Acknowledgements and send you a signed copy of the book — expected out in late summer/early fall of 2012.  Post your idea for the title in the comments below, though be aware that the comment may not appear immediately (it’s a moderated blog, and I’m the sole moderator!).  Or, if you prefer, you may write me directly.  I will post the winning title on the blog.  If the winner grants me permission to do so, I will also post his/her name on the blog, by way of congratulations.

To help you on your way to a winning title, here are some of my less-winning ones, with an explanation of what I think works and does not work about each.

The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.

  • What works. The authors’ best-known books appear in the title: Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon and Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig.  People who know these books may be interested to pick up a biography about the books’ creators.
  • What doesn’t work.  As my editor notes, the title is cumbersome and doesn’t appeal to the lay reader.  I worry about removing what Johnson and Krauss are best known for, but… I take his point.  If we can come up with something better, I’m all for it.

Complimentary Opposites: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss

  • What works.  The phrase describes Johnson and Krauss’s relationship.  They were complimentary opposites, and that’s why the relationship worked.  Where he tended to be calm, she was more anxious.  He was nearly six feet tall, a soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor.  She was five feet, four inches tall, exuberant, and outspoken.  And so on.
  • What doesn’t work.  “Complimentary Opposites” has no zazz.  It’s not catchy.  It doesn’t make you want to pick up the book.  Sure, it’s accurate.  But it’s also a bit of a snoozer.

Art for Life’s Sake: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.

  • What works.  It’s general, and it speaks to something about each of them: Johnson’s politically motivated work, Krauss’s work that draws from the lives of real children, works by both of them that celebrate children’s imaginations.  It’s suggestive in productive ways.  Actually, I think that one possible route to a successful title may well be taking a common phrase (“art for art’s sake,” in this case) and turning it to make it feel both fresh and applicable to Johnson and Krauss.
  • What doesn’t work.  It’s a little glib, and I’m not sure about its evocation of “art for art’s sake,” a phrase which does not quite match either of them.  I mean, it does in some ways: Krauss definitely had a need to pursue her own muse, and one could read Johnson’s Harold books as an affirmation of art for its own sake, for the sheer joy of creation.  But they were both also interested in the social dimensions of art.  So… that’s why I’m not sure.

Books Are to Write: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss

  • What works.  The title echoes Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig, which is nice.  And it’s fairly open-ended, suggesting something about their creative lives (writing books).
  • What doesn’t work.  The title doesn’t echo anything about Johnson.  And that’s a recurring problem I’ve had — I’ll come up with something that works well for one, but fails for the other.  And, since the book is a double biography, the title should speak to both Johnson and Krauss.  Indeed, I’ve considered using A Double Biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss as the subtitle, but decided that it’s too much.  Lives of works better.

Fantastic Companions: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.

  • What works.  In addition to being the title of a 1955 essay by Johnson, “Fantastic Companions” points to their relationship, and — in the word “Fantastic” — hints at fantasy.
  • What doesn’t work.  No one knows this essay by Johnson; the allusion will be lost on all except the Johnson fanatic.  And, of course, even if they did, it would only be referring to something by him… and nothing by her.

A Very Special House: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.

  • What works.  Title includes one of Krauss’s books, and (in so doing) evokes home — specifically, the house they lived in, the place they created many of their works.
  • What doesn’t work.  Title refers only to her, and not to him.  Apart from children’s book people, I don’t think A Very Special House will ring a bell.  Also, the book isn’t about their house!  For a title, this is weak.

There are many other failed titles.  I thought about trying to define them by their careers — Artist & Poet, perhaps?  But he was a cartoonist, creator of children’s books, and painter; she was a writer for children, poet, and playwright.  So, no.  Power in a Union reflects both their affiliation with progressive causes (especially Johnson’s) and to the union that is their marriage, but it makes them sound like labor organizers.  Again, no.

Well, that’s a partial list of my failures.  Think you can do better?  I’d love to hear your ideas.

Though I can’t promise that they’ll be interesting, here are other posts concerning what is currently called The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss:

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Speak, Topiary

Lane Smith, Grandpa Green (2011): cover

The capacity to surprise is a sign of a true artist.  Though famous for his visual and verbal wit, Lane Smith has written a gentle, moving book about growing old. Grandpa Green has humor, but it relegates its sole joke to a footnote.  (After reporting that in fourth grade, Grandpa Green “got chicken pox,” Smith adds an asterisk and a note to assure us “Not from the chickens.”) Minimal prose combined with a mostly green palette conveys a subtly elegiac quality, as if recollecting a near future in which Grandpa Green’s garden is all that remains of him.

Grandpa Green’s topiary depicts the major events in his life.  In spare text, the narrator — a young boy strolling through the garden — says a few words about each event.  And I do mean a few words.  Most pages have less than a dozen.  On the first, “He was born a really long time ago” has informal diction, suggesting that the boy is a confidant of ours.  Next to those words, a baby-shaped topiary appears to be crying.  Turn the page to discover that the water is fountaining up from a hose held by the boy.  That’s the first of a series of visual cues — each two-page spread has one — hinting at the scene to come.  The topiary rabbit leads us to a giant topiary carrot, because grandpa “grew up on a farm with pigs and corn and carrots…,” and, as the next two-page spread adds, “eggs.”  The illustration of a topiary egg, chick, and rooster point to the chicken-pox joke, providing occasion, on the following two-page spread, to illustrate characters from the stories he read while recovering from his illness — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Little Engine That Could.

Lane Smith, Grandpa Green (2011): "He had to stay home from school. So he read stories about secret gardens and wizards and a little engine that could."

Like the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woof’s To the Lighthouse, Smith succinctly and swiftly moves us through the years, which — in Green’s case — offers a personal history of the twentieth-century.  Rather than pursuing his dream of studying horticulture after graduating from high school, Green “went to a world war instead.”  Abroad, he “met his future wife,” married her after the war, and “had kids, way more grandkids, and a great-grandkid,” a.k.a. the narrator.  As the boy strolls through his great-grandfather’s life, gathering items that his grandfather misplaced, the physical absence of Grandpa Green gestures towards his inevitable status as memory — which, as we learn in the beautiful dénouement, is the function of the garden.  Grandpa forgets things, but “the important stuff, the garden remembers for him.”

There are other children’s books about aging and loss — notably Dr. Seuss’s satiric You’re Only Old Once! (1986) and John Burningham’s gentle Granpa (1984) — but Grandpa Green is closest to Crockett Johnson’s posthumously published Magic Beach (2005).  It’s slightly mysterious, with a light tone that keeps melancholy mostly at bay.  Grandpa Green is a book that stays with you, as do all whom we have loved and lost.

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Professional Autodidact; or, How I Became a Children’s Literature Professor

I teach children’s literature, write books about children’s literature, and direct a graduate program in children’s literature.  But I’ve never taken a single course in children’s literature, neither as a graduate student nor as an undergraduate student.  I have no formal training in the field of my alleged expertise.

So, in the words of David Byrne, “You may ask yourself: well, how did I get here?”1

Children’s literature is the reason that I became an English Ph.D., but I did not realize that until well after I earned the degree. Children’s literature made me a reader. Since I liked reading, I became an English major. Realizing, as a college junior, that reading books and writing papers was far more appealing than seeking a “real job,” I applied to graduate programs in English. Though I enjoyed writing an honors thesis on William Faulkner, the books of early childhood were more important: they instilled in me a love of reading. So, don’t blame The Sound and the Fury. Blame Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon, Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing, and Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.

A chapter of my dissertation was on Dr. Seuss. That chapter — “Dada Knows Best: Growing Up ‘Surreal’ with Dr. Seuss” — became my first conference paper (1997) and, in its revised form, my first published article (1999).2  Until I wrote that chapter, I had not been aware that one could do scholarly work on children’s literature. Vanderbilt University’s Department of English did not (and, as far as I know, still does not) offer courses in the subject. The late Nancy Walker had done some work on children’s literature, but I was unaware of this fact until after I received the Ph.D.

Though there are more opportunities for graduate study in children’s literature now, many of us in the field are autodidacts. Appropriate, perhaps, that the book that inspired me to take children’s literature seriously was written by two non-experts: Judith and Neil Morgan’s Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography (1995). Before reading it, I hadn’t known that Dr. Seuss was a political cartoonist.  Or that, during World War II, he’d worked with Chuck Jones on the Private SNAFU cartoons.  Fascinating stuff.

The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive ShocksMy move into children’s literature began by chance, but became pragmatic. The Seuss chapter was the only part of the dissertation on children’s literature. The book version, The Avant-Garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002), included a second children’s lit chapter (on Chris Van Allsburg). The other chapters were on (mostly) American literature and music for grown-ups: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo, Laurie Anderson, Leonard Cohen.  When I got the degree, I thought I was a twentieth-century Americanist.

But I couldn’t get the time of day as a twentieth-century Americanist, much less an MLA interview.  So, I reasoned, if I market myself as both a twentieth-century Americanist and a Children’s Lit specialist, then I ought to increase my odds of finding that elusive academic gig. This decision to publish and present in both fields seemed to help. Two years after receiving the degree, I had my first MLA interviews: two in children’s literature, and one for teaching with technology (I’ve had a website since 1997). Though I then only had one refereed article on children’s literature (“Dada Knows Best”), that piece plus two other under-consideration children’s literature essays — one a new Seuss essay, and the other on Crockett Johnson — proved persuasive enough to get me one campus visit. I used the Crockett Johnson piece for the job talk, and spoke of my plan to write a biography of Johnson. The combination of my slender publication record, plans for future projects — coupled, of course, with a native ability to bluff — worked. During that hiring cycle (1999-2000), I finally landed a tenure-track job … at the university where I still teach today.

For a time, I thought I would remain active in both fields.  But, as the chart below indicates, it proved impossible to keep up in both children’s literature and twentieth-century/contemporary American literature.

Gratuitous Chart of Philip Nel's Scholarly Work in Its First Decade

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2011

I taught my last “20th-Century American” class (a seminar on Don DeLillo) in 2001.  Although I continue to venture beyond books for young readers, first and foremost I am a scholar of children’s literature.

It’s taken some time for me to become comfortable making such a claim. I am a scholar of children’s literature, but I am also keenly aware of how much I don’t know about children’s literature.  On the one hand, this can be a source of anxiety (Aaah! I’m unqualified!). On the other, it can be a source of inspiration (Hooray! So much to discover!). Though I’m more inspired than anxious, one hazard of autodidacticism is acute consciousness of one’s status as disciplinary outsider.  Since I never studied it formally, I’m not always sure what I should have mastered by now; since the field is so vast, I know I’ll never master it all.

Happily, one benefit of graduate school is learning how to learn.  So, I read the relevant scholarly books and articles, regularly attend the children’s literature conferences,3 and read lots of children’s books — which, after all, is the reason I chose this line of work in the first place.

1. Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” Remain in Light (Sire/Warner Bros., 1980).

2. The conference: Second Biennial Conference on Modern Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature, Nashville, TN, 11 April 1997.  The publication: Children’s Literature 27 (1999): 150-184.

3. I go to the Children’s Literature Association, and the International Research Society for Children’s Literature.  The former is the big North American one (ChLA is international, but most members are from the U.S. or Canada); the latter is the big international one.  There are others, of course — regional ones, and ones that develop from other disciplines, such as Library Science or Education.  So, look around and find the ones that intrigue you the most.

Note: You can also read this essay on the Children’s Literature Association’s “Scholarly Resources” page — scroll down to “Pursuing a Degree in Children’s Literature” (the items are in alphabetical order).  There, you will also find a great autobiographical essay by Marah Gubar.  Its title? “All That David Copperfield Kind of Crap.”  Check it out!

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Wordplay: A Mix About Language

Wordplay: A Mix About LanguageIn North America, those of us who are teachers or students are thinking about school.  In August and September, the summer holidays end, and a new term begins.  To commemorate (or commiserate?) this season last year, I posted Dark Sarcasm in the Classroom: A Back-to-School Mix.  This year, I’m posting a mix about language.  Enjoy!

1)     The New A B C  Lambert, Hendricks & Ross (1959)      3:06

Leading the mix itself and its “ABC” section (which concludes with track 7), it’s the vocalese trio of Dave Lambert (1917-1966), Jon Hendricks (b. 1921), and Annie Ross (b. 1930).  From their album Lambert, Hendricks & Ross! (a.k.a. The Hottest New Group in Jazz!).

2)     ABC-DEF-GHI  Big Bird (1970)      1:48

On Sesame Street, Big Bird (voiced by Carroll Spinney) tries to pronounce the alphabet as a single, 26-letter word.  From Songs from the Street: 35 Years of Music.

3)     African Alphabet  Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Kermit the Frog (1991)      1:51

In another one from Sesame Street, the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo join Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson).  This song can also be found on Songs from the Street: 35 Years of Music.

4)     Alphabet of Nations  They Might Be Giants (2005)      1:27

“West Xylophone, Yemen, Zimbabwe!” They Might Be Giants’ alphabetical trip around the world, from their second children’s album, Here Come the ABC’s.  If I weren’t restricting myself to one song per artist, I would definitely include other TMBG songs in this mix.

5)     “A” – You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song)  Jo Stafford and Gordon MacRae (1949)      2:25

I don’t know much about Gordon MacRae, but Jo Stafford was a popular vocalist in the 1940s and 1950s.  With husband Paul Weston, she was also half of the deliberately off-key comedy duo Jonathan and Darlene Edwards.  This song appears on the compilation Small Fry: Capitol Sings Kids’ Songs for Grown-Ups.

6)     Alligators All Around  Carole King (1975)      1:54

From King’s great collaboration with Maurice Sendak, Really Rosie — an animated TV special that first aired on CBS in 1975.

7)     Crazy ABCs  Barenaked Ladies (2008)      3:49

Steven Page mocks Ed Robertson’s attempts to write a new alphabet song.  Appears on Snack Time!, the first BNL children’s record. Word is that the group (now sans Page) is working on a second children’s record.

8)     Dictionary  Muckafurgason (2004)      2:14

Having concluded the “ABC” section of the mix, we turn to the dictionary, courtesy of New York trio Muckfurgason.

9)     The Books I Like to Read  Frances England (2006)      2:13

“These are the books I like to read / Because reading suits me. / With every page I turn, the pictures coma alive.  / Imagination takes what’s possible to new heights.”  And the song name-checks both Harold and the Purple Crayon and Green Eggs and Ham!  From Frances England‘s Fascinating Creatures.

10)  A Noun Is a Person, Place, or Thing  Lynn Ahrens (1973)      2:57

The first of 6 songs from Schoolhouse Rock on this mix.  Since I encounter students (yes, college students) who do not know what a noun is, I often wish that these were still airing during Saturday morning cartoons.

11)  C Is for Cookie  Cookie Monster (1973)      1:29

“Hey, you know what? A round cookie with one bite out of it looks like a ‘C.’ A round doughnut with one bite of it also looks like a ‘C.’ But it is not as good as a cookie. Oh, and the moon sometimes looks like a ‘C,’ but you can’t eat that.”  Words of wisdom from the Cookie Monster.  The song appears on Songs from the Street: 35 Years of Music, and (I expect) on many other compilations.

12)  Silent E  Tom Lehrer (1972)      1:31

One of several songs that Lehrer did for Sesame Street. Available as a bonus track on Tom Lehrer Revisited.

13)  All Together Now  The Beatles (1969)      2:11

This always sounded to me a bit like a combination of a nursery rhyme and a reading primer. From the end of Yellow Submarine, where the Beatles appear on screen and talk to the audience:

14)  Onomatopoeia  Todd Rundgren (1978)      1:35

From Rundgren’s Hermit of Mink Hollow.

15)  The Noise Song  Tex Ritter (1953)      1:48

Putting onomatopoeia into practice, Mr. Tex Ritter tells us all about noises — those made by cows, pigs, ducks, sheep, railroad trains,… even college boys.

16)  Tonguetwisters  Danny Kaye (1951)      2:17

Though I expect this song appears on more than one compilation, it appears here via the 3-CD set The Great Danny Kaye.  Can anyone sing this lyric at the pace that Kaye does?  I doubt it.

17)  Tip of My Tongue  Fatcat & Fishface (2008)      2:41

Appears on the New Zealand group‘s album Dogbreath, and again on the compilation The Bestest and Horriblest.

18)  Wordplay  Jason Mraz (2005)      3:09

Cheerful pop from Jason Mraz.  Appears on the album Mr. A-Z.

19)  A Word a Day  Phil Silvers & Rose Marie (1952)      3:32

A song of malapropisms, a term named for Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775).  This particular song, however, is from a different play — the Broadway musical Top Banana (1952), with music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer and book by Hy Kraft.

20)  The Ballad of William Archibald Spooner  Logan Whitehurst & the Junior Science Club (2006)      0:55

From Logan Whitehurst’s final record (Very Tiny Songs, completed just before he passed away), a tribute to the man who gave us the term “Spoonerism.”

21)  Bob  “Weird Al” Yankovic (2003)      2:29

A Dylanesque tribute to palindromes or a palindromic tribute to Dylan?  Either way, the results are funny.  From Yankovic‘s Poodle Hat.

22)  Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla  Jack Sheldon (1976)      3:00

The second Schoolhouse Rock number on this mix addresses pronouns.  Actor, jazz trumpeter, and singer, Jack Sheldon also sang the Schoolhouse Rock numbers “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill.”

23)  Green Eggs and Ham  Moxy Früvous (1992)      3:45

From the band’s debut — a 6-song cassette.  This Canadian quartet were my favorite group of the 1990s.  Their live shows were something to behold. Below, an example of their improvisational stage shows. The song itself starts at around 4:30.  Warning to our underage listeners: in the live performance below, Jian Ghomeshi drops a bunch of F-bombs at around 7:40 or so.  The audio-only version (above) is clean.

24)  Mother Goose Étude #6  F’loom (1998)      1:20

From the band‘s self-titled debut album.

25)  Nursery Rhyme Rock  Wynona Carr (1956)      1:59

Gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll — Carr sang it all.  This is from a collection titled Jump Jack Jump!

26)  The House That Jack Built  Aretha Franklin (1968)      2:21

Continuing the nursery rhyme theme, here’s a #6 pop hit for Aretha Franklin.  The B-side of “Say a Little Prayer,” the song appears on 30 Greatest Hits (Atlantic, 1985).

27)  School Days (When We Were Kids)  Louis Jordan (1949)      2:34

The jump blues of Louis Jordan (and others) helped create the sound that would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll.”  From The Best of Louis Jordan (MCA Records, 1975), a solid single-CD collection of his work.

28)  Patty Cake, Patty Cake (Baker Man)  Fats Waller and His Rhythm (1938)      3:16

The final song in our “nursery rhyme” sequence appears on A Good Man Is Hard to Find: The Middle Years Part Two (1938-1940).  One in Bluebird/RCA’s fantastic series of Fats Waller CDs — now, alas, out of print.

29)  Maroon  Ken Nordine (1966)      1:40

The song for which Barenaked Ladies named their 2000 album appears on Ken Nordine’s spoken-word/jazz classic, Colors.  I’ve placed it here because, like nursery rhymes and playground chants, the song is as much about the sound of words as what they mean.  And, linking us to the next song, the theme of the record is Nordine trying to describe colors — the sort of task for which one might want to unpack some adjectives….

30)  Unpack Your Adjectives  Blossom Dearie (1975)      3:01

The mix concludes with four Schoolhouse Rock songs.  I generally don’t like to use so many songs from the same record (in this case, a 4-CD set), but since each track is performed by a different artist, I’ve given myself a pass here.  Here, the late Blossom Dearie — of “Peel Me a Grape” fame — teaches us about the adjective.

31)  Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here  Bob Dorough (1974)      3:02
Bob Dorough — who had previously worked with Miles Davis on “Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern)” — sang (and wrote) a number of Schoolhouse Rock songs, including “Three Is a Magic Number.”

32)  Verb: That’s What’s Happening  Zachary Sanders (1974)      3:00
“A verb tells it like it is.” In addition to teaching us about verbs, this cartoon features an African-American superhero — not a common sight on television either in the early 1970s or today.  Zachary Sanders also sang the Schoolhouse Rock song “Electricity, Electricity.”

33)  Interjections!  Essra Mohawk (1974)      3:01
“Darn! That’s the end.”  Essra Mohawk also sang the Schoolhouse Rock song “Sufferin’ Til Suffrage.”

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Study Shows Dr. Seuss Makes You Happy

Often, media headlines highlight academic research in order to make fun of it — so that people can say, “look at how these eggheads spend their time!” or “They needed a study to prove that!?”  My title (above) alludes to such media coverage, but my purpose here is to highlight a new article which argues… precisely what the title says.  Aaron Ahuvia, a professor in the College of Business at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, writes:

A felicitator is a person or thing which brings happiness to others. As with most good authors, Dr. Seuss was a felicitator in part through the enjoyment people derived directly from his work. But he was a felicitator in a more profound sense as well, because he has helped teach a particular set of values and outlook on life to hundreds of millions of children. Geisel disliked the heavy-handed moralism which was endemic to the children’s literature of his day, but many of his works nonetheless taught a moral point of view. Like that of many children’s authors, his work emphasized honesty and our responsibility to protect those weaker than ourselves. But somewhat less typically, especially for an author of his generation, his work championed personal creativity while rebuking snobbery, materialism, conformity and prejudice. It is the values that underlie Seuss’s stories, and not just the memorable rhymes and funny illustrations, which gave his work the classic status it has today. And it is these values which form the foundation of my argument that he was a felicitator. Specifically, I argue that his books had a modest but nonetheless real influence on millions of children, encouraging their imaginative creativity and discouraging snobbery, social exclusion and materialism.

The article, titled “Dr. Seuss, felicitator,” appears in the International Journal of Wellbeing, 1.2 (2011), 197-213.  You can download it from the journal’s website for free (it’s open access — just scroll down to the “full text” pdf).  I have no expertise in either business or happiness, but I like the social dimension in Professor Ahuvia’s definition of happiness.  Though I’m skeptical of our ability to track the ways in which literature influences those who read it, I also like both the optimism of his assessment and the fact that it’s qualified: he calls Seuss’s effect “modest,” and, later in this paragraph, adds, “children raised on Dr. Seuss had improved odds of growing up to be happy adults.”  “Improved odds” is, I think, the best we can hope for.

I share this article because I’m interested in the ways in which Seuss circulates in contemporary culture, from political cartoons to scholarly articles to The Simpsons — I deal with this subject in more detail in Chapter 6 of my Dr. Seuss: American Icon (Continuum, 2004).  Some examples of the range of scholarship: One essay argues (incorrectly, as it turns out) that the little cats in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1958) are examples of fractals.  Another finds similarities between apparently fantastic Seussian creatures and the natural world (this one is accurate, as far as I can tell).  Here are the citations, in case you want to look them up:

  • Lakhtakia, Akhlesh. “Fractals and The Cat in the Hat.” Journal of Recreational Mathematics 22.3 (1990): 161-4.
  • Raymo, Chet.   “Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein: Children’s Books and Scientific Imagination.”  The Horn Book Sept.-Oct. 1992.  Repr. Thomas Fensch, ed., Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr. Seuss: Essays on the Life and Writing of Theodor Geisel (McFarland & Company, 1997):  169-75.

At one point, I imagined that I would maintain a bibliography of all new Seuss — both literary criticism and any other posthumously published Seuss books.  This grew out of a desire both to correct omissions in Dr. Seuss: American Icon, and to add works published since then.  As you can see, I’ve fallen behind on updating it.  I’ll add the above article to it, and will make an effort to add others I’ve omitted, such as Kevin Shortsleeve’s smart new piece in Lynne Vallone and Julia Mickenberg‘s Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature (2011), and Charles Cohen’s new collection of Seuss’s Redbook stories (The Bippolo Seed). If you see others (and I’m sure you will), feel free to send them my way.  Thanks!

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Only an Expert

Laurie Anderson, Homeland (2010): album coverMy favorite song off of Laurie Anderson‘s most recent record (Homeland, 2010) also happens to be the most apt song to describe where America is at this moment in history.  It begins “Now only an expert can deal with the problem / Cause half the problem is seeing the problem” — a sentiment quickly ironized as the song unfolds.

Sometimes other experts say:

Just because all the markets crashed

Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing.

And other experts say: Just because all your friends were fired

And your family’s broke and we didn’t see it coming

Doesn’t mean we were wrong.

And just because you lost your job and your house

And all your savings doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for the bailouts

For the traders and the bankers and the speculators.

Cause only an expert can design a bailout

And only an expert can receive a bailout.

Here’s the full version of the song:

Performing on David Letterman in 2010, Anderson does a shorter version of the song, with a new verse on the Gulf Oil Spill.  I prefer this arrangement to the one above, though I wish it had more of the original version’s lyrics.

Here’s an earlier version of the song, performed at Lincoln Center in 2007:

Homeland is Anderson’s strongest record since Strange Angels (1989).  That said, should you be new to Anderson’s work, I would recommend starting with Big Science (1982) and Strange Angels.  Those are both more “accessible” — though, having said that, Homeland does have other songs that may immediately appeal to a new listener (notably, “Falling” and “Thinking of You”).

In conclusion, here’s a lyric from “From the Air” (which appears on Big Science):

This is your captain:

“We are going down.

We are all going down.  Together.”

And I said: “Uh-oh.

This is going to be some day.”

Stand by.

This is the time,

And this is the record of the time.

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Children’s Books by Adult Authors

James Joyce, The Cat and the Devil, illus. Roger BlachonThe title of this post is deliberately silly.  Children’s books are written (and edited and marketed and agented, etc.) by alleged grown-ups, and so — as Perry Nodelman points out — there is always a “hidden adult” in children’s literature.  This is one of the central paradoxes of a literature defined primarily by its audience.  “Children’s Literature” is written by adults, but for children — except that “for children” isn’t entirely accurate because the book has to navigate past many adults before it ever reaches the children, and thus is also written for those adults.  To say that Children’s Literature is “for children” is both true and false.  It’s literature written for a certain adult-defined concept of what “children” are, an idea that varies nationally, historically, culturally, etc.  For that matter, as Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult (2008) notes, childhood itself is paradoxical — “static as well as dynamic, always the same yet a continuing process of becoming different that does not actually result in difference until childhood is finally over” (78).  For a more thoughtful and through investigation, see Nodelman’s book, and the many other people who have expressed this idea more carefully than I.

What occasions my re-statement of this idea is Maria Popova’s post “7 (More) Children’s Books by Famous ‘Adult’ Literature Authors” (Brain Pickings, 25 July 2011) which in turn led me to Ariel S. Winter’s delightful blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie: Being a Compendium of Children’s Books by Twentieth-Century “Adult” Authors Currently Out of Print.  One might argue that Popova’s list is trying to have it both ways: James Thurber, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg are as accomplished writers for children as they are for adults.  Those of us who study children’s literature know that Hughes wrote a dozen books for young readers, and we have read Thurber’s classic Many Moons and Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories.  But it’s hard to fault Popova here: most people don’t know these facts, and (as noted in the opening paragraph of this blog post), when it comes to children’s literature, the whole audience question is a slippery fish.

Mostly, I want to call attention to Winter’s We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.  It includes many books of which I was unaware.  I mean, sure, I know Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man. But I did not know about Virginia Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot, nor Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, nor a number of the other works featured on this blog.  This is a great idea for a blog, and a useful resource for people thinking about a range of children’s-literature-related questions, such as audience, cross-writing,… and that “hidden adult.”

That is all.

Image credit: Winter’s post on James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil.

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Going Back to High School — 90 Years Back

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: coverWhat was high school like 90 years ago?  This Newtown High School Handbook provides some sense of what it was like in Newtown, Queens in 1921, when Crockett Johnson (a.k.a. David Leisk) was a student there.  No yearbooks from the Newtown class of 1924 (Johnson’s graduating class) survive, but plenty of things do: The Queens Public Library’s Long Island History Division has a class of ’24 photo, and one issue of the Newtown H.S. Lantern from the period. Via eBay, I obtained other copies of the Lantern — in which you can find Crockett Johnson’s earliest cartoons (see this earlier blog post on the subject).  Reading through copies of the Daily Star (the local paper) also helped.

I had to do a lot more of this sort of work for Crockett Johnson than I did for Ruth Krauss. She wrote about herself, and attended private schools that kept records. He did not write about himself and attended public schools. The children of the wealthy leave more traces than the children of the working class.  Anyway, this little book only yielded a couple of paragraphs in The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (forthcoming 2012 from the University Press of Mississippi), but it’s a fascinating document.

At 5 ½ in. (14.5 cm.) tall x 3 3/8 in. (8.5 cm.) wide x ¼ in. (7 mm.) thick, the book fits easily into a pocket — which perhaps contributed to the rounded and slightly frayed edges of my copy.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 2-3

Note that the aims include “Training for American citizenship” (patriotic), “Training for a life career” (vocational), and “Training for service” (civic).  I’m not sure whether Newtown High School still publishes a handbook, but the school’s website now describes it as “a school that consists of ambitious and intellectual students who are willing to do the best they can in order to accomplish their goals in life.”  That strikes me as roughly parallel to the “aims” section of the handbook.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 4-5

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 8-9

Then, the school day began at 8:55 a.m. and ended at 2:57 p.m.  Now, the day begins at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 3:51 p.m. – about 1 hour and 20 minutes longer than it used to be.  So, whether education now is less rigorous than it once was (as some contend), students at Newtown do receive it for a greater period of time than they once did.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 12-13

I find this inter-period exercise drill fascinating:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 16-17

Also: though regimented nature of the “two-minute drill” has an oddly military flavor, a little calisthenics between periods strikes me as a promising idea.  It would help wake students up a bit.  I know that, as a student, I often needed a bit of waking up.  (Since adolescence, I’ve been chronically short of sleep.)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 18-19

Note the expectations conveyed by “Home Study” and “Employment,” above.  The handbook recommends 2-3 hours (no more, no less) of study each day.  Students seeking remunerative employment “after school or on Saturdays” need to be at least 16 years old.  If they are not, then they require “working certificates.”  And check out the strict prohibition against cheating (below): “Any pupil detected in cheating will receive ZERO FOR ALL HIS TESTS THIS SESSION.”  They don’t mess around at Newtown.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 20-21

The current Newtown High School’s rules has a prohibition against cell phones.  In 1921, “The office telephone may not be used for any other than official business.  Pupil will not be summoned to answer any telephone  calls whatever; nor will telephone messages be delivered to pupils except in cases of extreme emergency, and then only through the principal.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 22-23

And the curriculum! Unlike today’s Newtown High School, there’s Biology, Chemistry,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 24-25

… and Freehand Drawing. Given his work for the school literary magazine and his later success as “Crockett Johnson,” I imagine that young Dave Leisk took these classes.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 26-27

More curricula: Mechanical Drawing, General Science,…

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 28-29

… History and Civics, and Household Arts — which, you’ll note, “may be elected by girls in all courses, as a substitute for an academic subject, and counts toward graduation.”  Just by girls, mind you.  Boys have to take the “academic subjects.”

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 30-31

The “Cookery and nursing” course in Household Arts “aims to make the girl a good homemaker and enthusiastic expert in home administration, who will put new life and interest into the old story of ‘Cooking’ and ‘Housekeeping.”  Ah, socialization — and, very likely, one reason that you’ve heard of Crockett Johnson, but not of his sister Else.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 32-33

On to English!  As a professor of English, I’m most intrigued by the one I don’t understand: “U — Unity.  Rewrite the sentence.”  Although I’ve certainly encountered sentences that lack unity, this directive doesn’t convey why the sentence lacks unity.  And I get a big kick out of “MS — Manuscript Slovenly.”  Sure, we’ve all seen these, but I expect that few of us have used this particular locution to describe their substandard condition.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 34-35

Following these rules, a “Spelling List” extends for eight pages, with groups of words in sub-lists identified by different types of common errors … all of which are (sadly) common at the college level today.  You can see the first two types above (“Possessives,” “Apostrophe for Omission”).  Below, “Capitals,” “Groups,” “EI and IE,” “Compounds,” and “Homonyms”:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 36-37

That Newtown High School was racially integrated makes particularly interesting the inclusion (in the 7th item of “Groups”) of “mulattoes, negroes.”  Such words would have been viewed as “neutral” to the faculty who assembled the handbook — “mulatto” indicated someone of “mixed race,” and “negro” described someone “black” or “African-American.”  I’m placing all of these racial terms in inverted commas because they’re social constructs: When it comes to human beings, “race” is purely imaginary (we’re all part of the human race).  However, as this handbook suggests, people deploy such imaginary categories in very real ways.  That two of fourteen examples are racial classifications suggest that these racial designations were in common use.

In addition to serving as a grammar textbook, the Newtown High School Handbook was a literary anthology.  Its “Memory Selections” offer a sense of what were considered “canonical” literary works for high school students in 1921:

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 42-43

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 44-45

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 48-49

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 50-51

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 52-53

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 54-55

Here’s a breakdown of canonical works by author:

  • 3 from William Wordsworth.
  • 2 from Robert Louis Stevenson, William Shakespeare.
  • 1 from Samuel Francis Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Russell Lowell, John McCrae, Robert Browning, Francis Scott Key, Henry Van Dyke, Edmund Vance Cooke, George Eliot, Thomas Gray, Abraham Lincoln, John Masefield, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edward Rowland Sill, John Milton, Daniel Webster, Josiah Gilbert Holland, Winifred Mary Letts.

By gender:

  • Works by men: 24.
  • Works by women: 2

By nationality:

  • Works by English authors: 15
  • Works by American authors: 10
  • Work by Canadian author: 1

By date:

  • The most recent works are Letts’ “The Spires of Oxford” (1916) and McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), both patriotic poems in support of the Allied effort in World War I.
  • The earliest works are the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c. 1603-1606) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594-1596)

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: pp. 56-57

An on it goes, up to page 128 — the final six pages are advertisements.  Had we but world enough and time (a poem not included here), I’d take you through the second half.  But we do not.  Indeed, I would be surprised if anyone is reading these final few sentences.  This is, I know, a rather long post.

Newtown High School Handbook, 1921-1923: back cover

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Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art

This piece appeared in Comic Art in 2004.  As the magazine is now (sadly) defunct, I’m posting the article here.  Until The Purple Crayon and a Hole to Dig: The Lives of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss appears in 2012, this essay is the most thorough account of Johnson’s life available.  Enjoy!

For those who prefer ’em, jpegs are below. Click to enlarge.

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 2

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 3

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 4

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 5

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 6

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 7

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 8

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 9

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 10


Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 11

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 12

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 13

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 14

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 15

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 16

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 17

Philip Nel, "Crockett Johnson and the Purple Crayon: A Life in Art," Comic Art 5 (Winter 2004), p. 18

The above article represents the state of my research in 2004.  While the essay is accurate, I’ve learned a great deal since then — so, if interested in learning more, please check out the book (due from the University Press of Mississippi in mid 2012).  Thank you.


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