Archive for March, 2013

Fighting Rape Culture: Steubenville, Activism, and Children’s Books

Laurie Penny calls Steubenville’s “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” As she says, “The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated.”  In calling it the “Abu Ghraib moment” for rape culture, Penny says, “It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.”

I hope she’s right. I hope people do confront it. To create a change in a culture that condones rape, we need more than hope. We need to act. Here’s what educators might do.

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak1. Teach Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or other young adult novels that address rape and its aftermath.  (I know there are other novels that would fit the bill, but this is the one I always teach.)  And teach these books to high school students.

Anderson’s Speak is a sensitive, thoughtful examination of rape and its aftermath. It also has many moments of dark humor: The book’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino, has an incisive wit. It’s hard to imagine a teenage male (or, really, anyone) reading this book and continuing to think that rape is somehow “OK.” That said, I realize that it’s a lot to expect a single book to change rape culture.  So, we should also…

2. Debunk myths about rape. When I teach Speak, I always tell my students the following, often framed by the comment that they probably already know this. But, post-Steubenville, I realize I cannot take that knowledge for granted. Indeed, just last week, a local weekly in Manhattan Kansas (where I live and work) published some breathtaking stupidity on the subject of rape.

So, then, here is what I do. I ask them to define rape, and we debunk the myths.

I ask: Define rape.  What is it?

  • rape myth: the person fails to say “no,” and so silence means “yes”; or “no” may mean “yes” if it’s said in a certain way…
  • rape: In fact, no means no.  Rape is sexual intercourse with someone without that person’s consent.  If you have sexual intercourse with someone and you do not have their consent, that’s rape. Two very good examples from the novel: Melinda remembering the party, back in August (133-36); Melinda imagining receiving counsel from Oprah et al (164).
  • rape myth: that men are at the mercy of their sexual drives and therefore rape when they are overly frustrated or when the opportunity arises.  That’s false.
  • rape is a crime of power, not of desire.  Rapists often speak not of their sexual arousal or attraction to their victims, but of their desire to hurt or dominate them.
  • rape myth: Rapes occur on dark deserted streets between strangers.
  • rape: In fact, a majority of rapists and victims know each other.  Rapes often occur in the home.  Many women experience date rape or acquaintance rape.  In other words, you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know.

Or, as Mallory Ortberg writes in response to CNN’s (truly bizarre) representation of the rapists as victims, “For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime.”

3. “Feminist” is not a dirty word. If you support equal pay for equal work, if you think women deserve equal treatment under the law, if you believe women deserve the right to vote, then congratulations! You’re a feminist! So. Stop apologizing for being a feminist. Stop using the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” And when someone uses a phrase like “feminazi,” call that person out. Feminism offers a critique of the power relations between the genders, and argues that there should be a balance of power. This is a good thing. It’s not fascist. It points out that women are human beings — a basic fact which the Steubenville rapists evidently did not know. Their lack of knowledge has now landed them both in jail.

4. Teach Women’s Studies in high school. As punk-rock legend Henry Rollins writes in response to this case, we should “Put women’s studies in high school the curriculum from war heroes to politicians, writers, speakers, activists, revolutionaries and let young people understand that women have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages and they are worthy of respect.” He also suggests that high schools teach sex ed, and explain to students what rape is and is not.

I read the other day of a college administrator saying that Women’s Studies should be cut because it doesn’t help students get jobs. I’ve no empirical evidence that his claim is true (and neither did he), but consider this: Women’s Studies can help keep you out of jail. It can make you a better human being. A sense of human decency and lack of a criminal record would be welcome in many places of work.

5. Teach books — fiction, non-fiction — with smart, interesting, strong, three-dimensional female protagonists, and books with thoughtful, considerate male protagonists.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is at least a start.

Children’s Picture Books and Graphic Novels

    • Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)
    • Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943). Yes, I realize that the protagonist is a snowplow, but she’s a she and a hero.
    • Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000) and its sequels.
    • Florence Parry Heide, Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated, illus. Lane Smith (2009)
    • Ellen Jackson, Cinder Edna, illus. Kevin O’Malley (1994)
    • Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)
    • Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand (1936)
    • Suzy Lee, Wave (2008)
    • Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010)
    • Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess, illus. Michael Martchenko (1980)
    • Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant (2012)
    • Antoinette Portis, A Penguin Story (2009)
    • Antonio Ramirez and Domi, Napi (2004), Napi Goes to the Mountain (2006), and Napi Makes a Village (2010)
    • Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (1991)
    • Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls (2011)
    • Bernard Waber, Ira Sleeps Over (1972)
    • Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny (2004), Knuffle Bunny, Too (2007), Knuffle Bunny Free (2010).
    • Jay Williams, Philbert the Fearful, illus. Ib Ohlsson (1966)
    • Jay Williams, The Practical Princess, illus. Friso Henstra (1969)
    • Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace (2008)

Children’s Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
    • Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (1999)
    • Beverly Cleary, the Ramona books (1955-1999)
    • Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
    • Barry Deutsch, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010)
    • Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964)
    • Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)
    • Virginia Hamilton, Zeely (1967)
    • Michael Hoeye, the Hermux Tantamoq series: Time Stops for No Mouse (1999), The Sands of Time (2001), No Time Like Show Time (2004), Time to Smell the Roses (2007)
    • Polly Horvath, The Canning Season (2003)
    • Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
    • Hilary McKay, the Casson Family series: Saffy’s Angel (2001), Indigo’s Star (2003), Permanent Rose (2005), Caddy Ever After (2006), Forever Rose (2007).
    • Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005).
    • Katherine Patterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978).
    • Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl (2009).
    • Tor Seidler, The Wainscott Weasel (1993). Seidler’s male characters tend to be introspective, & thoughtful.
    • Siena Cherson Siegel, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, artwork by Mark Siegel (2006)
    • Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)
    • Roderick Townley, The Great Good Thing (2001)
    • Jean Webster, Daddy Long-Legs (1912)
    • Vera B. Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (2001)

Young Adult Novels and Graphic Novels

    • Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-1869)
    • Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak (1999)
    • Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990)
    • Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! (2002).  A graphic novel.
    • Kristin Cashore, Graceling (2008), Fire (2009), Bitterblue (2012)
    • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
    • John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
    • James Kennedy, The Order of Odd-Fish (2008)
    • Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (1957)
    • Linda Medley, Castle Waiting (2000).  A graphic novel, repr. with an intro by Jane Yolen (2006).
    • L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels.
    • Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men (2003), A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006), I Shall Wear Midnight (2010).
    • Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1998), The Amber Spyglass (2000). Lyra is a great character, but so is Will.
    • Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now (2004)
    • Sara Ryan, Empress of the World (2001)
    • Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003).  A graphic novel.
    • Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
    • Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer (2002)
    • Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way (1997)
    • Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (1992)

Anthologies:

    • Marlo Thomas and friends, Free to Be You and Me (1974)
    • Jack Zipes, ed., Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986)

As I say, this list is not exhaustive — it’s just a starting point.  So, you should feel free to add other recommended titles in the comments section below.

6. Rape culture is a massive social problem. Changing it requires action at all levels of government, and all levels of education. If your senator or representative voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, publicize the fact that they are part of the problem. For example, in the state of Kansas, Senator Pat Roberts, Representative Tim Huelskamp, and Representative Mike Pompeo all voted against the Violence Against Women Act. We might phone their offices and ask them: Why do you support violence against women? Why do you enable rape culture? How often do you beat your wife? Why do you think spousal abuse should be encouraged?

Courtesy of Mother Jones, here is a list of the senators and representatives who voted against reauthorizing the act. All Democrats voted for it — except for Texas Democrat Rubén Hinojosa, who abstained. All Republicans voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act — except for six, who abstained from voting.

160 Republicans Voted Against the Violence Against Women Act

Here is a full list of every representative who voted against this legislation, with links to contact information: http://www.opencongress.org/vote/2013/h/55

7. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) has two ways you can get involved.  1) Donate to the #Speak4RAINN campaign, which helps rape survivors get the help they need. 2) Students can enter the “How Speak Spoke to Me” Contest. The prize? A visit to your class from Laurie Halse Anderson herself.

[Added point no. 7 & the above video on 5 April 2013.]

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Related content on this blog (Nine Kinds of Pie):

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Annotating My Brother’s Book: Some initial thoughts on Sendak’s use of Blake’s pictorial language. A guest post by Mark Crosby

In his foreword to My Brother’s Book (2012), Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Shakespeare is the major influence on Maurice Sendak’s final competed work.  But Blake loomed much larger in Sendak’s visual imagination.  He collected rare Blake manuscripts, drawings, watercolors, illuminated books, and prints, read biographies of Blake, and studied his art and poetry.  In this series of annotations (below), Blake scholar Mark Crosby shows us how Blake illuminates Sendak’s My Brother’s Book.


In terms of the visual narrative trajectory, Sendak reconfigures aspects of Blake’s visual language to chart the transition from the realm of innocence to the harsh world of experience (a transition that is, for Blake, always marked by some form of loss).

Front Cover:

Sendak juxtaposes the beautiful, a woodland scene possibly atop a hill, with the sublime of a subterranean cavern or hollow beneath that looks out on a field of stars surrounding a red sphere. The vignette not only invokes Blake’s frequent juxtaposition of pastoral landscapes with the (subterranean) sublime, such as the title page of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but also introduces the key visual motifs of stars and red sphere (sun?) that recur throughout Sendak’s book. Both motifs are conspicuous in Blake’s pictorial language.

William Blake, Title-page, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy H (1790-3)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): cover
William Blake, Title-page, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, copy H (1790-3)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012): cover

Blake deploys spheres of differing sizes throughout his pictorial work. In illuminated books such as The (First) Book of Urizen, they often represent the primordial (material) state of the titular Urizen, watched over by Los — the fallen form of Urthona, who in Blake’s mythopoetic system represents the imagination. (Many critics interpret Los as Blake’s poetic/pictorial avatar).

Plate 8, Song of Los, copy A (1795)
William Blake, Plate 11, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)
Blake, Plate 8, Song of Los, copy A (1795)
Blake, Plate 11, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)

In these instances, the spheres have a negative charge as they are objects of containment. In Blake’s longest illuminated book, Jerusalem, Blake uses spheres more positively as sources of light.

William Blake, Plate1, Song of Los (1795)
William Blake, Plate 97, Jerusalem (c. 1820)
Blake, Plate1, Song of Los, (1795)
Blake, Plate 97, Jerusalem (c. 1820)

Frontispiece:

Sendak’s depiction of two slumbering, clothed males in a pastoral setting under a radiating sun calls to mind Blake’s positive use of sphere imagery. The sleeping brothers, Jack and Guy, have a number of visual referents in Blake. When depicted in a pastoral setting, Blake’s sleeping figures are sometimes associated with animals (sheep, lions) such as Songs of Innocence, America A Prophecy and The Song of Los. In Blake’s visual language, these images represent the realm of innocence, where the ideals of play, spontaneity, and intimacy with nature haven’t yet been corrupted.  Sendak’s use of these Blakean motifs in the frontispiece similarly suggests that the slumbering brothers inhabit a pre-lapsarian realm, although they are clothed unlike many of Blake’s pre-lapsarian figures.

William Blake, America A Prophecy
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): frontispiece
Blake, America A Prophecy
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012): frontispiece
William Blake, The Song of Los
William Blake, Songs of Innocence
Blake, The Song of Los
Blake, Songs of Innocence

Sendak visually signals the end of innocence and the transition to experience in the next illustration, which compositionally draws on Blake’s depiction of himself in Milton (c. 1804-1811).  By modeling Jack’s pose after the figure of ‘William’, leaning backwards at the waist with his arms in a cruciform pose (a pose that Blake uses to denote sacrifice), Sendak is not only drawing parallels between ‘Jack’ and ‘William’ but also invoking what is a transformative moment in this particular illuminated book. In Milton, this illustration depicts a revelatory experience for the narrator that marks a transition from one perceptionary state to another, a complex and more visionary state involving the amelioration of the titular Milton into the poetic consciousness of Blake’s narrator.

William Blake, Plate 29, Milton copy B (1811)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "On a bleak midwinter's night" William Blake, Plate 33, Milton copy B (1811)
Blake, Plate 29, Milton copy B (1811)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 9: “On a bleak midwinter’s night”
Blake, Plate 33, Milton copy B (1811)

Like Blake, Sendak also provides a counterpart to Jack’s cruciform pose with Guy’s mirrored pose on p. 15. On plate of 33 Milton, Blake provides a counterpart to the illustration of ‘William’, depicting ‘Robert,’ Blake’s brother, in a mirror pose. In both designs, stars are falling into their right feet. Compositionally, Sendak’s illustration on p. 15 seems also indebted to Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children (1819-22/3).

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-22)
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "Into the lair of a bear"
Goya, Saturn Devouring His Children (1819-22)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 15: “Into the lair of a bear”

Sendak’s use of these particular poses suggests similarities between Jack and Guy’s fraternal relationship and William and Robert’s. While Robert Blake died at 24, he became a source of creative inspiration for Blake. In 1788, a year after Robert’s death, Blake claimed that his brother visited him in a dream and gave him instructions for illuminated printing: the method he used to create his illuminated books. Sendak’s use of these specific poses hints at a similar creatively productive relationship between Sendak and his brother.

Page 11: Sendak’s depiction of Jack and Guy separated by a sublime landscape (tempestuous ocean, mountains of ice) invokes particular aspects of the narrative trajectory of Blake’s mythopoetic system.  For Blake, the fall comes through division, the splintering of a unified entity into enclosed selfhoods.  Once separated these selfhoods, which Blake calls ‘Zoas’, typically remain closed off from each other, perceiving existence through limited, subjective vision. Sendak’s depiction of one brother in profile, hands covering his face, while the other brother is frozen behind a wall of ice, suggests the negative impact of subjective perception or, as Blake would call it, single vision. Sendak also gestures to way that Blake conceived of the transition from youth (innocence) to adulthood (experience) as fundamentally about loss. The two brothers have lost each other, their perceptions of each other as well as, by implication, their innocence.

William Blake, America A Prophecy, copy E
Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "While Guy wheeled round in the steep air"
Blake, America A Prophecy copy E
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 13: “While Guy wheeled round in the steep air”

p. 13: For the composition of the central figure, Sendak draws on Blake’s frequent use of clothed (skin tight, all-in-one suits) or nude figures with arms raised, typically in an elevated cruciform pose (the symbol of Christological sacrifice), and appearing to ascend.  In ‘Laughing Song’, from Songs of Innocence Blake depicts a young boy, facing away, with arms raised. The title page of Visions of the Daughters of Albion has a nude figure facing forward with arms raised, while we see variations of this figure on the title pages of America and plate 2 of VDA, and Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf. With the possible exception of America, these figures inhabit or represent the realm of innocence. Sendak suggests that this brother has yet to make the transition to experience by depicting Jack in a pastoral setting.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, copy A (1793)
Blake, Songs of Innocence
Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion copy A (1793)
William Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
William Blake, Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf (1799-1800)
Blake, Visions of the Daughters of Albion
Blake, Moses Indignant at the Gold Calf (1799-1800)

William Blake, Plate 14, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)pp. 19/23/29:  Sendak’s depiction of Guy diving ‘through time so vast’ on page 23 draws on Blake’s depiction of a muscular nude (possibly Los) diving into an abyss. There are numerous cosmic journeys in Blake’s poetic oeuvre, such as the narrator’s journey from caverns to the far reaches of the universe in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Milton’s journey from eternity to Blake’s cottage in Milton. In Blake’s design, the figure is holding onto rocks, which denote material existence.  Sendak’s depiction of figures partially obscured by horizontal lines on pp. 19/29 recalls Blake’s use of this technique in The Book of Urizen to suggest containment.

Maurice Sendak, My Brother's Book (2012): "Guy slipped dutifully into the maw of the great bear"
William Blake, Plate 4, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)
Sendak, My Brother’s Book (2012), p. 23: “Guy slipped dutifully into the maw of the great bear”
Blake, Plates 14 and 4, The Book of Urizen, copy A (1794)

p. 31: Sendak returns to the pastoral in this design, with the slumbering brothers in poses that compositionally echo the frontispiece as well as Blake’s numerous slumbering figures. The brothers are clothed again, in what appear to be flowing semi-transparent robes that draw on Blake’s regular use of diaphanous or semi-transparent robes in his illuminated books and watercolour designs, including his illustrations to Milton.  While Sendak sets the brothers in a pastoral realm, this seems to be a different from that depicted in the frontispiece and may relate to Blake’s illustration on plate 19 of Jerusalem: a realm of soft delusions that numbs creative agency.

William Blake, Mirth (1816-1820)
Blake, Plate 19, Jerusalem, copy E (c. 1820)
Blake, Mirth (1816-1820)
Blake, Plate 19, Jerusalem, copy E (c. 1820)

All Blake images are from the William Blake Archive. All Sendak images are from his My Brother’s Book (Michael di Capua/HarperCollins, 2012).


Mark Crosby is co-author, with Robert N. Essick, of the first critical edition of William Blake’s Genesis manuscript (University of California Press, 2012) and is co-editor of Re-envisioning Blake (Palgrave, 2012). He is Assistant Professor of English at Kansas State University, and the bibliographer and associate editor for the William Blake Archive, the largest and most comprehensive free to access digital repository of Blake’s works on the web.

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The Edwin Mellen Effect

Edwin Mellen Press

 

It’s Opposites Day at The Chronicle of Higher Education. The headline reads, “Edwin Mellen Press Drops Lawsuit Against University Librarian.”

Chronicle's Misleading Headline

The article reports that Edwin Mellen Press has withdrawn the suit against McMaster University and Dale Askey, BUT Edwin Mellen Press is still suing Dale Askey.  Beyond the fact that the Chronicle should have let its readers know it was celebrating Opposites Day, this development raises several questions about the allegedly scholarly press known as Edwin Mellen Press.

  1. The news release’s internal contradictions are remarkable.  Without any irony whatsoever, Edwin Mellen Press in its press release says that “EMP remains resolute that all have the right to free speech.”  How is suing a librarian for $1 million an affirmation of that principle?  For that matter, how did suing Lingua Franca over its characterization of Edwin Mellen Press uphold “the right to free speech”?  This doesn’t make any sense.  And when you follow that claim about “right to free speech” in the very next sentence with “all have the right to take steps, including legal action, to protect their good names and reputation,” you’re reminding your audience that Edwin Mellen Press launches lawsuits at its critics in order to shut them up.  So, not a very effective piece of rhetoric.
  2. Even before Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit, it did not have a “good reputation.”  As Timothy A. Lepcyzk pointed out at EduHacker, when Edwin Mellen Press launched this suit against Askey, punching the words “Edwin Mellen Press” into Google would elicit the following suggestions: “edwin mellen press quality,” “edwin mellen press review,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press vanity,” “edwin mellen press vanity press.”  Edwin Mellen’s news release speaks of “EMP’s good reputation” and of the right to protect that reputation.  However, it didn’t have a good reputation when it filed this suit, and its reputation has only declined since then.
  3. You can’t erase the internet.  When you punch the publisher’s name into Google now, you get these automatic suggestions:  “edwin mellen press,” “edwin mellen press reputation,” “edwin mellen press review,” and “edwin mellen press vanity.”  Below that, the first hit is the press’s website, but all other hits are other websites, each of which reference the press’s litigious behavior.  There are scores of articles on the Press, and they’re not flattering.  Did it seek to cement its reputation as a litigious bully or further delegitimize its allegation that it’s a “scholarly press” (a claim made in its latest press release)?  If so, then it has succeeded.  If it had other aims, it’s failed.Google: Edwin Mellen Press Vanity
  4. If the press cannot manage its own damage control, what does that say about its publicity department?  If dropping one suit (but not the other) was an attempt to control some of the damage that Edwin Mellen Press has inflicted on itself, it has instead inspired further speculation about its incompetence.  As Rick Anderson notes in his really nice close-reading of the Mellen news release, the publisher’s behavior “is simply bizarre.”
  5. This isn’t over yet.  Sign the petition!  There are currently over 3100 names on the petition.  Let’s keep those numbers rising.
  6. Finally, the Streisand Effect should be renamed the Edwin Mellen Effect. This PR debacle that the press has chosen to inflict upon itself will, I suspect, ultimately result in its undoing.  Its attempts to silence its critics have only amplified those critics’ voices.

More information on Edwin Mellen Press & Its Attempts to Silence Its Critics:

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Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss! A guest post by Charles D. Cohen

Dr. Seuss: Revell - Birthday Bird

Happy Birthday to Dr. Seuss today!

What do we know about Ted and birthdays?  We know that he wrote a birthday book.  Published on August 12, 1959, Happy Birthday To You was Ted’s first book with completely new characters in two years (since the Grinch–the two books that were published in between returned to previously created characters) and he anxiously wanted it to be a success.

Wanting to return with something special, Ted created his first full-color book.  It worked–according to a Dec. 17, 1960 article in the New Yorker, the first print run of 100,000 copies “proved inadequate… Within a few weeks, stocks of the book were exhausted, and fifty thousand additional copies were run off.”

Of course, after The Cat in the Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas came out in 1957, Dr. Seuss books were, in general, pretty popular.  By the June 5, 1960 issue of The New York Times Book Review section, a Random House advertisement celebrated that “5 out of the 16 books on the New York Times children’s best seller list are DR. SEUSS books.”

Happy Birthday to You! delivers the expected menagerie of strange animals, but this time, readers weren’t marveling at Marco or Gerald McGrew amid all of these wonders.  For the first time, Ted created a book about the prospect of YOU entering the world of Dr. Seuss and being surrounded by flower-snipping Who-Bubs and foliage-toting Hippo-Heimers, a cafeteria-carrying Smorgasboard and a time-telling fish, singing herrings and plumbing-horn blowing Zummers, and transportation beasts like Hiffers and Hooded Klopfers.

There was a particular aspect to birthdays that was important to Ted.  In “Happy Birthday To You!,” the Birthday Bird exclaims, “There is no one alive who is you-er than you.” Moreover, he explains that “If we didn’t have birthdays, you wouldn’t be you” and, if you weren’t you, “You might be a doorknob!  Or three baked potatoes!/You might be a big bag full of hard green tomatoes.”

Ted was taken with this concept of personal uniqueness throughout his life.  At a party given for his 80th birthday, he surprised guests, who had prepared speeches, with a poem of his own:

If my Daddy had shacked up

with some lady else…

just supposing, for instance,

Miss Abigail Schmeltz…

or Patricia MacPhee…

or Louella McGee…

I would not have resulted.  I wouldn’t be me!

There’d just be no telling who the hell I might be!

For example, had he foolishly eloped to South Wooster

with some floozy named Florabell Frankenstein Flooster,

I might now be writing for Simon and Schuster.

As he got older, Ted generally tried to avoid public celebrations of his own birthday, claiming that he would “observe his birthday in West Ear Lobe, Saskatchewan.”  When asked whether his fame would make him “a big noise in West Ear Lobe,” Ted guilefully replied, “You don’t know West Ear Lobe.”

In addition to his usual aversion to publicity, the problem was also that birthdays eventually become reminders of aging—a fact that Ted skewered in one of his more surrealistic birthday pieces, presented to the publisher who brought him to Random House.  For Bennett Cerf’s birthday in 1940, Ted reworked a piece that he’d written several years earlier for his alma mater’s literary-arts magazine.  It was a parody of Romantic poems like John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which Ted replaced visions of the beauty and grandeur of pentelic marble (of which the Parthenon was constructed) with his own “pentellic (sic) bilge”:

PENTELLIC BILGE FOR BENNETT CERF’S BIRTHDAY

The fine-toothed comb of Time marches on

Through the scalp of Life.

 

The dull, blunt needle of Time

Sews another button on a sadly worn pair of underdrawers.

 

In the dank, musty, spider-webbed cellar of Existence

The Superintendent of the Animate

Throws another shovel full of the Anthracite of Breath

Into the gassy, Old-fashioned Furnace of Living.

 

In the Cookie Jar of the Infinite

A sour, forgotten lump of angel cake

Becomes one year staler.

 

For every hour has sixty minutes;

Every minute, sixty cream puffs;

Every cream puff, sixty umlauts;

Every umlaut, sixty shirt sleeves…

Stitch….Stitch….Stitch….

 

A mildewed cloud leans its crutches against

The half-mast lamp post of oblivion,

And clears its throat to speak.

But no one gives ear.

Who gives a cockeyed sausage wreath!

 

Who cares if the strings of the Zither of Life

Are flecked with one more flick of Corn Flakes!

…Who cares if Cerf is thirty-umpfh

Or if he’s umpfh-and-forty!

 

O Anguish of Age!  Is there no one who cares?

 

…I care, shouts a man with a face not unkind!

I care, shouts a girl with a dancing behind!

…I care, shouts a fellow named Thidwick Hieronimus!

I care, shouts another whose name is anonymous!

 

…So come and let us frantic freshly!

Come and let us dorsal deftly!

Come and let us limber lushly

In a Grecian Urn!

 

And let us sing with throats unfurled

And tonsils blithe and snorty!

For Bennett Cerf is thirty-nine.

Good Lord!  It’s 1940!

Now it’s 2013, the 109th anniversary of Ted’s birth.  The best way that I can think to commemorate the day is with his own creation, as he created it for Revell in 1960.

Dr. Seuss: Revell - Birthday Bird with box

Enjoy the day without which Ted would have had no others.  He has meant a great deal to each of us in different ways.


Charles D. Cohen is the author of The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography (Random House, 2004), editor of Dr. Seuss’s The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Random House, 2011), and 50th anniversary editions of Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Random House, 2007) and Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories (Random House, 2008).  The images featured above are from here and here.

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Moomin Merchandise

Occasionally, publishers and authors send me children’s books. When time and interest coincide (alas, too infrequently), I review them and post my reviews here. More often, I write reviews of books I’ve bought. I do not review children’s-book-related tie-ins. I view such products with some skepticism, and have written critically about merchandising that targets children.

But I really like the Moomin products that Chronicle Books sent me — sent each of us Niblings, in fact — to congratulate us on the launch of our new blogging group. They’re adorable. Tasteful. Nicely produced. And, yes, they’re an appropriate gift for a group of bloggers who have named themselves after a minor character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

If you do not know the Moomin books, you will want to read this post before reading further.  Take your time.  I’ll wait.

Moomin Notecards (Chronicle Books)Back? Well, to continue: I find myself puzzled at why I feel more comfortable admiring my new Moomin notecards than I would, say, a package of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Why does it feel “OK” to blog about these Moomin goodies but not the latest Potter merchandise?

One could argue that it’s because Moomin marketing is less ubiquitous than Harry Potter marketing. There may be something to that argument, but the Moomins are hardly obscure.  Sure, people in the U.S. are less Moomin-literate than the rest of the world, but Jansson’s characters are globally recognized. There are books, animated cartoons, stores of merchandise, and even an amusement park (in their creator’s native Finland). So, I don’t think it’s just fetishizing a pop cultural obscurity. Moomins are world famous.

Nostalgia, then? As Julie Sinn Cassidy argues in “Transporting Nostalgia: Little Golden Books as Souvenirs of Childhood” (2008), the Little Golden Books “function as snapshots, souvenirs, or relics of an imagined ideal of childhood,” and are often marketed to adult readers as such (148). While nostalgia also underwrites Moomins’ marketability, I never read Jansson’s books when I was a child. I first read them in my mid-20s. My wife grew up on them, and — as my scholarly interests shifted to children’s literature — she introduced me to the Moomin stories.  So, for me at least, childhood nostalgia falls short as an explanation.

Moomin journal (Chronicle Books)To say that these items have been tastefully made moves us into highly subjective aesthetic areas, but the designers have created products with an aesthetic that closely matches Tove Jansson’s.  I’m sure that good design is one reason for their appeal, but it feels insufficient.

The answer comes, as it often does, from Henry Jenkins. My relationship to Jansson’s Moomin characters is that of what he calls the “aca-fan,” a “hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic.” I simply like the Moomin characters and stories. They make me happy, in the way that the Mills Brothers’ recording of “Funiculi Funicula” does, or Crockett Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon does. And Chronicle Books’ Moomin products are kinda cool.  If you’re a Moomin fan, you’ll probably enjoy these, too.

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