Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How About We Go With the Nightingale AND Janey Larkin?

Julia L. Sauer: Fog Magic, Radio Days, and a World Gone Mad

On June 22, 1937, Frances Clarke Sayers, a children's librarian, author, and college instructor, stood before an audience of fellow professionals in the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and delivered a speech entitled, "Lose Not the Nightingale". The event was the Annual Conference of the American Library Association, and Sayers was addressing the Section for Library Work with Children.

The speech was a response to a controversy that began in the 1920s concerning the standards used in evaluating children's books.  Educators -  and I am painting with very broad strokes here -  taking exception to the public children's librarian claim of sovereignty in the area, saw themselves as being the best evaluators of books for children, and were demanding more realistic books, books that reflected a child's immediate experience and environment.  Children's librarians, on the other hand, maintained that they were the best evaluators of children's books, always had been, always would be, and insisted that imaginative literature, such as traditional folklore and fairy tales, and stories that inspired children to imagine a world beyond their own, of a much broader version of reality, were the best books for children.

An important point to remember here is that in 1937, the professionals of both elementary education and children's librarianship were almost 100% female.

The nightingale Sayers referenced was from Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Nightingale.  In a nutshell, the Emperor of China discovers a nightingale, a plain little bird with the ability to produce magical songs. Word gets around, everybody gets into the act, and before you know it, the Emperor of Japan sends a mechanical nightingale, all bejeweled and bedazzling, as a present to the Emperor of China.  Everybody makes such a fuss over the new and flashier version, which, in all fairness, also sings well, that eventually the brokenhearted real nightingale flies away. Years pass, the mechanical bird breaks down, and no one can fix it. The Emperor of China becomes ill,  the real nightingale learns of his illness and returns, sings, and the Emperor lives, hopefully a little wiser, but who knows?

Sayers - broad strokes again - likened the here-and-now realistic fiction to the mechanical nightingale of the story, and the imaginative literature to the real nightingale. It was an interesting speech, heartfelt, and "lose not the nightingale" became something of a catch phrase for many children's librarians in the ensuing years.  

I'm getting to Julia L. Sauer soon, I promise. This is important.

Fast forward to 1939.

The University of California in Berkeley is the site for an ALA preconference, the Institute on Library Work with Children, sponsored by the Section on Library Work with Children. The leader and moderator was Frances Clarke Sayers.  Referred to afterwards as the Sayers Institute, the first speaker, invited by Sayers, was author Howard Pease.  Pease wrote what we would today call YA books, featuring teenage males and adventure stories involving pirates and life at sea. I could not get my hands on a copy of his actual speech, but the gist of it seemed to be Pease's belief that the predominately female world of children's books: librarians, writers, editors and publishers, were incapable of selecting or producing suitable books for for American boys, books with stories that interested boys, full blooded stories, written with vigor, books like, you know… his.

Pease claimed that this bias towards the feminine, the sweet and light, the whimsical, was evident in those books selected for the Newbery  awards, which he claimed were written predominantly by females and featured female protagonists. (By 1939, had been eight male winners and ten female winners - the tenth for the year 1939. The winners from years 1922 to 1929 were all male; the winners from years 1930 to 1939 were all female. In the years 1940 and 1941, the winners were male.) Steps needed to be taken, said Pease, immediate steps, to remedy the situation. Otherwise, today's sheltered children would be tomorrow's lacking adult; a person unable to cope with the realities of life.

List of Newbery Winners

Despite Pease's overall tone of condensation, which, face it, was simply typical for the time, and his complete tone-deafness in regards to his audience - it just might be possible that several hundred professional librarians would not appreciate being treated as incapable of judging literary merit on the basis of their gender, really, it might - he did make salient points regarding the need for more realistic fiction for young readers, points of which his audience was already well aware.  

The last major attack on the suitability of public children's librarians to evaluate books and name award winners came in 1940, from  C.C Certain, an English teacher and school library supporter who founded and served as editor of Elementary English Review, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English aimed primarily at the elementary school level.  Certain believed that teachers were the best evaluators of children's books, and devoted considerable ink in his magazine promoting his view.  Certain was not known for his cool, calm demeanor, and could, at times, be a bit over the top.  His death at the end of the year cooled the rhetoric considerably, and in the January 15, 1941 edition of Library Journal, an article entitled "Making The World Safe For The Janey Larkins"addressed the entire controversy with reason, clarity and complete professionalism.

The author of the article was Julia L. Sauer.

Julia L. Sauer (1891-1983) was born in Rochester, NY.  She attended school at the University of Rochester and New York State Library School. She was a children's librarian at Rochester Public Library from 1921 until her retirement in 1958.  In addition to Fog Magic, she authored The Light at Tern Rock (1952) and Mike's House (1966), illustrated by Don Freeman.  She also edited Radio Roads to Reading: Library Books Talks Broadcast to Girls and Boys (1939).  Sauer was the creator and pioneer of a radio show that aired book talks for children.  She also promoted preschool reading and wrote frequently on the subject of children and reading.

Sauer loved Nova Scotia, visiting every summer for years and eventually, with friend Alice Walker, purchasing some property in Little River, Digby Neck, where they built a cottage. The place and the people of Little River served as inspiration for her book, Fog Magic.

Julia L. Sauer at Wikipedia

Book #17:  Fog Magic (1943) by Julia L Sauer.  Illustrated by Lynd Ward. 107 pages.

Ten-year-old Greta Addington has a secret. When the heavy grey fog rolls in from the sea and over the tiny fishing village of Little Valley in Nova Scotia, Greta is able to walk the Old Post Road and visit the town of Blue Cove, a town that only appears with the fog, and a town that only Greta can see. Blue Cove was once a prosperous village, but something happened, and now, in Greta's time, all that's left is a series of cellar-holes where the houses used to be.

Greta's mother doesn't like her going out in the fog, but Greta's father allows it. It almost seems to Greta that her father knows more than a little about the mysterious qualities of the fog.  In Blue Cove, Greta is befriended by the Morrill family, whose daughter, Rheta, is the same age as Greta. Rheta's mother, Laura, and her husband understand where Greta is from, though how they do is never explained, and never discussed with Greta.

No matter how long the interval between Greta's visits, it is always just the next day in Blue Cove.  Greta is there when a ship is stranded between the rocks in the cove, and witness to the salvage of the ship's contents by the townspeople. She is also visiting when a young woman involved in a property dispute announces that she will walk all the way to Halifax to plead her case with young Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, who is visiting.  Finally, the day comes when Greta turns twelve, an event she has come to realize will end her ability to visit Blue Cove. Although never able to bring anything from Blue Cove back with her to Little Valley before, Mrs. Morrill gives her a kitten to take back, and seems relatively sure that the kitten will make the journey.  It does, and on her walk home, Greta is met by her father, who finally confirms that he too visited Blue Cove as a boy, and he pulls out his own souvenir, a small knife, that he received at Blue Cove on his twelfth birthday.

This is not a wham, bang, full-blooded, vigorous book, but it is a time travel fantasy, and by virtue of this fact worthy of reading, since time travel books are the best books ever written. There is no driving narrative, just a series of vignettes depicting everyday life in a maritime setting.  Despite the fact that Greta will no longer be able to visit Blue Cove, there is no feeling of sadness in Greta, no impression that the best of life is over, but instead an appreciation of what has happened, and an anticipation of what will happen, in the next phase of her life.  In my opinion, an excellent sentiment to share with young readers.  Life goes on; cherish what you had, appreciate the possibilities ahead.

Fog Magic at Amazon

In 1941, when Sauer wrote her article, anticipation of the future was filled with dread. War was raging in Europe, with new horrors reported every day, and America's eventual direct involvement was beginning to appear inevitable.

Sauer began her article referencing the war, and then stated that each individual longs to believe that in such trying times, his or her work counts in some measure against the forces at play that threaten those values that make life worth living. Librarians hold fast by their faith in the power of books to influence children.Working with others, librarians have focused their efforts on bringing children and the best of literature, classic and contemporary, together, and contributed to further developing current literature that will appeal and enlighten a child's world.

Sauer continues that while classic imaginative literature allows a child to see life steadily - the big picture - children need books about the present day to see it whole.  Children need these types of books in order to make them think about the world around them. Librarians past efforts to build international friendship through children's books, featuring children in other lands, generated an enormous supply of background books, some of which Sauer considers excellent, the majority mediocre to horrible.  Sauer has no love for children's books that beats IMPORTANT FACTS AND LIFE LESSONS! into their little heads with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Sauer states that the most pressing need currently is to produce more books about the present.  Yes, we want our children to have happy childhoods, but not to the degree that they grow up unprepared for the world they will inherit.

Sauer states that the dearth of "right now" stories is detrimental to the goal for a child to be able to see the world around him, think about that world, and relate the facts to the current situation.  There is a great need in the country to build a sympathetic understanding of the lives and problems of all the groups within the country.  The best way to do this, writes Sauer, is through good fiction, well written stories that appeal first to the emotion and then to the mind of the reader. Sauer wants to see books that question living conditions, life in mining towns, the manner in which the business of the country affects households, i.e., the effects of the economic forces on families, and more.  Prejudice in all forms - class, racial, and religious - can be and should be combatted in children's books. These books won't solve, can't solve, problems, but they can lay a foundation in young reader of tools with which to think about them, be conscience of them, and regard their existence as relevant and even pressing.

Imaginative literature is crucial for a child's development, but such literature must be combined with present day, more realistic fiction. That is Sauer's contention, and she ends her article giving an excellent example of one such book, Blue Willow, by Doris Gates.  It's a story about migrant agricultural workers, an Janey Larkin is the young daughter of the family.  Her most precious possession, which she shows to her best friend Lupe, is a blue willow china plate that belonged to her great-grandmother.  That plate represents Janey's most cherished dream, the dream of a permanent home, of stability. Sauer states that the world still must be safe for the nightingales, but before that, it must be made safe for all the Janey Larkins.

I don't think Sauer included anything in her article that the majority of individuals involved in the controversy hadn't already come to believe. She states her case clearly, and with a certain dry wit. Point by point, she counters the litany of objections to librarians as effective evaluators of children's books, and outlines defined goals for the immediate future.

Sauer does an excellent job of stating her case and outlining a solid strategy for pursuit.  I like facts, especially the ones that are true, and I appreciate opinions that are based on such.  The article was well worth the two plus hours round trip from my house to a not-so-local university library that had back copies of Library Journal. 

Just an aside on how things change. My undergrad papers involved various physical copies of Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and hours and hours at one of thirty or so microfilm readers stationed in the library. It was clear after about thirty seconds that the very helpful and very young reference librarian where I traveled to get the article had never actually held a roll of microfilm, never actually used a microfilm reader, and didn't realize until that day that the huge piece of equipment pushed forlornly into a far and forgotten corner was, in fact, a microfilm reader.  Learn something new every day.  Credit where it's due, the librarian hung around and watched as I loaded the film and got the machine up and running.  Seemed to find the entire process fascinating.  History at work, or something like it.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Lynd Ward, the illustrator, will be the subject of a post coming in the near future.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Author Who Never Met a Genre He Didn't Like (or Write)

Clyde Robert Bulla and the Power of Persistence

Starting with the publication of The Donkey Cart in 1946 and for the next six decades, Clyde Robert Bulla published nearly one hundred books for children. Aimed at readers in the third through the sixth grades, his books ran the gamut of fiction genres, and also included non-fiction, songs, musical scores and plays.

Not bad for a farm boy who dropped out of high school after his first year to help support his family. 

Bulla described himself as largely self-educated, and in his writing tried always to remember how difficult reading was for some of his classmates in the one-room schoolhouse they attended. His plots were always complex enough to interest older readers but Bulla kept the language of the story simple, direct and to the point so as not to discourage those for whom the printed page was more of a challenge.

In this, Bulla echoes today's stated purpose of Hi-Lo books, books with high-interest (more mature) themes combined with lower reading levels. I don't know that I'd classify Bulla's stories that way. Most - not all - of the content of current Hi-Lo books seem to focus on teen issues involving various types of dysfunctional situations involving drugs, alcoholism, and families, or issues involving sexuality and self-identification. Or sports. Lots of Hi-Los are about sports. These books address a vital need as a sort of last-ditch effort to get kids reading before they're out of the school system and trying to make their way in the world. The focus is on attaining competency, not creating great literature.

Bulla's protagonists, in contrast, are younger, and the language he uses to tell their stories is deceptively simple, yet so effective and so eloquent that Bulla conveys in two short sentences what a writer of lesser skill would expend two pages to much lesser effect.

I pulled several of Bulla's books to read for this post. My object was to pick one to review, but after reading them - each one a different genre - there was no way I could leave any of them behind.  That being said, today's post takes a look at three books by Clyde Robert Bulla, from oldest to most recent, every one a gem.

Let's see how he does it.

Book #14: White Bird by Clyde Robert Bulla (1966).  Illustrated by Donald Cook. 63 pages.

This is a quiet book about a young boy, John Thomas, and the man who raised him, Luke Vail, on an isolated farm Half-Moon Valley, in very early 1800s Tennessee.

After a period of heavy rain and flooding, Luke Vail, a farmer who lives alone goes down to the river and discovers a baby's cradle floating with the current, with a baby inside.  That baby is John Thomas, who Luke brings home and raises by himself, with help from his only neighbors, the childless Hannah and Will Barlow.

When John Thomas is four, the Barlows, tired of the hard life in the Valley, decide to relocate to the Mississippi Valley. They want to take John Thomas, But on the day of their departure, Luke hides with the boy, and the Barlows leave without him.

Several years pass. Luke teaches John Thomas all about farming and hunting, and teaches him to read from his only book, the Bible.  When they need supplies, Luke rides into town on the other side of the hill.  John Thomas has never been to the town.  Luke doesn't trust people, and wants to protect John Thomas from the world.  Luke gets mad when he discovers that John Thomas waved to some people on a raft traveling down the river.  He tells John Thomas to hide whenever he spots another person.

John Thomas is happy, but lonely.  He gets it in his head that he wants a dog, but Luke refuses, saying that he's only get too attached to a dog and then be sad when the dog dies.  One day, soon after, John Thomas discovers a wounded white crow, an albino, in a tree trunk struck by lightning.  Despite Luke's insistence that he set the bird free, John Thomas keeps it and nurses it back to health. One day, two men and a boy approach the farm, saying that they're looking for land to buy.  Luke is unfriendly, and the three are soon on their way, but not before the boy sees John Thomas's bird and asks John Thomas to give it to him.  John Thomas refuses, but the next day, when the three are gone, John Thomas discovers that his bird is missing.

Luke refuses to let John Thomas go after them, so John Thomas leaves on his own.  He tracks them to town, where he meets the proprietor of the general store, Dave Cressey, who allows him to stay overnight before continuing on. He meets a young girl, Isabel, and eats visits with her family, and then attends a dance and discovers that he loves music.  Finally, he tracks down the men and the boy.  The boy tells him that the white bird is gone, the men forced him to let it go.

John Thomas's goes to the clearing the boy described, meets another boy there, Nim, and learns that the bird was shot. The two talk, and John Thomas leaves the next day.  He wants to work for Dave and support himself, but Dave convinces him to go home to Luke, who has been worrying about him.  John Thomas doesn't want to, because Luke let the boy take his bird, but then Dave reminds him of all the good in Luke, and John Thomas relents.  He returns home, realizes how hard his leaving was on Luke, and gains a better understanding and appreciation for what the two of them share.

Bulla always did a great amount of research on his stories, and you can see that effort in this short book.

WIth very few sentences, the reader gets a full picture of the time and place of rural Tennessee, and the nature of the people who lived there. When John Thomas meets Isabel, he also meets Alex, a tall black man who handles the hunting dogs and addresses the little girl as Miss Isabel. Alex is a slave, also of the time and place. Show, not tell.

This is a book for younger readers that not only delivers a piece of history, but also tackles the complex themes of loneliness, isolation, love and empathy.  John Thomas is mad at Luke, but comes to realize that Luke loves him, made sacrifices for him, and sees the world in a different way than John Thomas sees the world.  It's not wrong, it's just different, and he comes by it courtesy of his own life's experiences.

White Bird at Amazon.

Book #15: My Friend the Monster by Clyde Robert Bulla (1980). Illustrated by Michele Chessare. 75 pages.

Oh, I love this book, love this book. It's a fantasy, a fairy tale, and absolutely wonderful.

Prince Hal is a disappointment to his parents, the King and Queen. He's not attractive, he's not brilliant, he is, in fact, just an ordinary boy.  The King and Queen spend very little time with their son, and keep him isolated in a tower room, where he has all types of material goods, but no companionship.

Hal is forbidden from joining the common children he sees playing outside his window, as it is not fitting for a prince to mingle with commoners.

One day, a little girl steals her way into his room. She trades a book of his for one of hers, an old book about monsters who live in Black Rock Mountain after being driven there by a king who waged war against them. When Hal says that he never heard about that in his history books, the girl replied that the king wouldn't let it be written about, since he was ashamed that any of the monsters escaped. (History written by the winners? A lesson in bias, perhaps?) Neither the girl or Hal can read the writing in the book, it's an unfamiliar script. When the Queen discovers what's happened, she has the girl whipped, the children banished, and throws the book into the fire, over the protests of the prince.

The prince, upset over the turn of events and haunted by nightmares of pleading monsters, grows pale and thin. Alarmed, his parents send him to visit his aunt, who just happens to live near Black Rock Mountain.  Hal's aunt has an odious son, Archer,  who loves to hunt and collect animals in cages. Hal tells Archer that the animals are unhappy, and need to be set free. Archer is angry and drives Hal away.  Rather than going home, Hall heads to Black Rock Mountain, where, as luck and the story would have it, he meets a young monster who is exploring Hal's world.

The young monster is Humbert, who initially fears that Hall, a Small-Eyes, will kill him. (Monsters have large eyes). He explains that his father taught him the magic of how to move between the monster land and the land beyond the mountain, Hal's land.  Despite the danger, Humbert visits continuously, because Hal's land is so beautiful. But now, through Hal's doing, the black fir tree twig that Humbert needs to make the magic work is lost, and Humbert can't go home.  Hal tells Humbert that there is a black fir tree in the garden of the palace, and to wait in hiding until Hal can get another twig and return.

Hal makes it back to the palace, passing as a commoner and as a result seeing more of the everyday life of the people, and gets another black fir twig. When he returns, he learns that Archer has captured Humbert, and has put him on display in a cage. Hal rescues him, but is injured, and the two boys make their way back to Humbert's world, passing through the The Land Between before entering the monster's world. There, Hal is nursed to health by Humbert's mother, who resents his presence because he is a Small-Eyes and puts her in danger with the other monsters.

One day, the other monsters stone Humbert's house and Hal is forced to leave, with Humbert's help. Back at the castle, he learns that Archer has been banished for a year and all of the animals set free. A doctor examines him, and declares that he has been under a spell of the Witch of the Woods, pointing to Hal's scar as proof. Hal lets them all believe that, it certainly raised his parent's estimation of him, and whenever possible, goes back to Black Rock Mountain and plays with Humbert in The Land Between.

My Friend the Monster at Amazon.

Book #16: A Lion to Guard Us by Clyde Robert Bulla (1981). Illustrated by Michele Chessare. 115 pages.

In his Historical Note at the end of the book, Bulla writes that A Lion to Guard Us was inspired by the 1609 voyage of the Sea Adventure, which with eight other ships sailed from Plymouth, England to Virginia, then an English colony. The ships were bringing supplies and men to Jamestown, settled two years previous and not in dire straits.  During the voyage, a storm drove the ships apart and the Sea Adventure was shipwrecked on an island in the Bermudas, six hundred miles from Virginia.  Using the wreckage of the Sea Adventure to build two new ships, nine months later all of the original passengers sailed to Virginia, delivering food, supplies and help to Jamestown. News of these events were published in England, some of which, Bulla claims, were read by a man who wrote plays named William Shakespeare, who went on to write a play about a ship, a storm and an enchanted Island called The Tempest.

When their mother, a servant in a London household, dies, the three Freebold children, Amanda, Meg, and Jemmy, must find a way to get to their father, who emigrated to Jamestown several years before.  Thrown out of the house where their mother was a servant, they are taken in by a kindly Dr. Crider, who books all four of them a passage to Virginia on the Sea Adventure.

During the course of the voyage, the doctor is lost overboard, so when the ship is wrecked during a storm, the three children make their own house on the island rather than live with another family.  The youngest, Jemmy, has the brass knocker of a lion, the one from their house in London, stolen from him and he goes off to find it, almost making the three children miss the departure of the two newly built ships sailing to Virginia.  But they make it, and once they arrive at Jamestown, Amanda, the oldest, finds their father, who has survived but is very ill. The family is together again.

Excellent historical fiction, very readable and a terrific read-aloud.

A Lion to Guard Us at Amazon.

Clyde Rober Bulla (1914 - 2007) was born on a farm near the small town of King City, Missouri.  He had two older sisters and an older brother.  He attended Bray School, a one room schoolhouse, an this first teacher was his older sister, Corrine.  As soon as he learned to read and write, he was fascinated with words, wanting more than anything to learn new ones, put them together, and see what he could make them say.  In 1924, he won a one dollar prize for a story about a grain of wheat in a contest sponsored by a newspaper.  He was now an official writer.

Bulla's family wasn't particularly supportive, but they weren't opposed to his goal. After his first year of high school he had to drop out to work the family farm and help support his family. He worked as a farmer until 1943. The stories that Bulla sold during the lean years of the Depression helped with the family finances. After his mother became ill, the family moved into town and Bulla went to work as a linotyper for a newspaper, also writing a column called 'People and Places.'

Bulla joined a group of writers that corresponded with each other and critiqued each others work.  Through that group, he came to know a woman named Emma Celeste Thibodaux, a teacher and writer of children's stories from Louisiana. She was convinced that Bulla, who at that point had written only for adults, should try writing for children. Bulla didn't agree, but when pressed, he did write a story based on her suggestion, The Donkey Cart. Bulla sent it to his agent, who was underwhelmed.

Thibodaux would not be deterred, and several years later, after meeting and forming a friendship with author-illustrator Lois Lenski, suggested to Bulla that he send The Donkey Cart to Ms. Lenski.  Bulla resisted, then received a letter from Lois Lenski, where she told him that Thibodaux had sent her some of Bulla's columns, and that based on those columns wanted to see his unpublished manuscript for The Donkey Cart. Bulla sent her a copy, Lenski showed it to her editor, Elizabeth Riley at Thomas Y. Crowell Company, who loved it and after considerable revisions by Bulla, published it. And asked for more.

A career was born.

Bulla spent the rest of his life traveling, researching, writing, painting and composing.  He was a huge opera buff, and collaborated on a series of "Read & Sing" books with Lois Lenski.

A side note. Clyde Robert Bulla referred to Emma Celeste Thibodaux, Em Celeste, as his best friend.  The two never met in person.

Clyde Robert Bulla Papers at University of Southerm Mississippi de Grummond Collection.

Clyde Robert Bulla Papers  at the University of Central Missouri Sadler Research Collection.

Guide to Clyde Robert Bulla Papers  from Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA) at the University of Oregon

Monday, May 11, 2015

Stories are Timeless, but Books? Not so Much.

The Dilemma of Erich Kastner's* Emil and the Detectives.

Emil and the Detectives was one of my favorites as a child. Decades after I'd last read the book, this is what I remembered.

    The cover art by Walter Trier, two boys in caps standing next to a phone booth, spying on a
    grown man wearing a derby against a brilliant yellow background.

    The author's description of how he would lie flat on the floor and stare at the ceiling, waiting
    for the pieces of the story to fall out of the sky and into his head.

    A gang of young boys chasing the man wearing a derby through the Berlin Zoo.

    Emil never eats fish, because fish makes him ill. 

That's what I remember.  The plot, I vaguely recalled, involved Emil being robbed on a train to Berlin,  identifying the man in the derby as the thief, and getting help from the gang of boys in Berlin to get his money back.

Were my memories correct?  Some were; some weren't.  I was remembering my story, after all, not the author's book. I was close on the cover art, but it was a column, not a phone booth.  Total score on the scene with the author.  A gang of boys followed and surrounded the man in the derby, but not at the Berlin Zoo. Nobody went to the zoo; it was mentioned as one of the train stops. And Emil most definitely can't eat fish.

And the plot. I did remember the basics of the plot.

So, I decided to reread the book and write a review.

First problem: none of the libraries had it in their collections. Yes; it's an old book, first published in English in 1929 from the German original, but I've found older. It's absence was surprising, but now I was curious, so I ordered a copy, making sure that it was the original version, translated by May Massee. I received it in the mail a few days later, and read it that night. Below is a synopsis of Emil and the Detectives. After you read that, we'll delve into the reason why - for this version only - you'll no longer find it in most libraries.

All is not lost.

Book #13: Emil and the Detectives: a story for children by Erich Kastner (1929).  Translated from the German by May Massee. Illustrated by Walter Trier. 224 pages.

The book begins with a short introduction by the translator May Massee, explaining the meaning and pronunciation of German names, and some of the wordplay Kastner uses in naming his characters. Emil's last name, Tischbein, means table leg. Massee also acknowledges individuals who helped her with the translation.

The second, longer introduction, is from the author. Kastner holds a conversation with the reader, telling them about how he had started another book entirely, a South Seas adventure, and then abandoned it after three chapters, lost on how to proceed. He then held a conversation with a waiter named Herr Nietenfuhr, who suggested that he write about something he actually knows about.  Herr Nietenfuhr is not the deferential sort, but Kastner concedes that he has a point. And from that conversation, he wrote Emil.

Next, Kastner introduces the cast of characters and places, with illustrations of each by Walter Trier. Then, finally, the story begins!

Emil's father died when he was five years old. His mother supports the two of them as a hairdresser in the town of Neustadt.  Money is tight, but Frau Tischbein has been saving, and there is now enough for Emil to visit his aunt and grandmother in Berlin. Emil loves his mother very much and is a good son and student, but he is not a mama's boy. Emil, along with some other boys, played a prank one day and painted a bright red nose and black mustache on the statue of the Grand Duke in the Square, narrowly avoiding capture by Officer Jeschke of the police. Emil suffers a guilty conscience as a result, but not guilty enough to confess.

Once on the train to Berlin, Emil is very conscious of the money he's carrying and worried about losing it, so he decides to pin the money to the inside of his suit jacket pocket. The train compartment is full of people, and one man offers Emil a piece of chocolate, which he accepts. Eventually, only the man and Emil are left in the compartment, and Emil falls asleep, dreaming strange dreams. Waking up as the train pulls into the station one stop prior to his own, he recognizes that he is now alone and his money is gone. Realizing that the man who gave him chocolate must have stolen it, he looks up and sees him exiting the train. Grabbing his suitcase and the flowers his mother sent for his grandmother, he takes off after the man, following him to his hotel.

While watching the hotel, he meets Gustav, the boy with the automobile horn and a born leader.  Gustav quickly agrees to help Emil recover his money, and in short order collects a gang of boys, the detectives, to help devise a plan. In the meantime, Emil's aunt and grandmother are worried that Emil was not on the train, so Emil's cousin, Pony Hutchen, gets on her bike and goes looking for him. Pony finds Emil and the detectives, gets the scoop, and goes back to reassure her mother and grandmother that Emil is fine, but will be delayed a day arriving because of personal business.

The boys decide to not only follow the thief, but surround him. When the thief leaves the hotel the next day to go to the bank, he is surrounded by boys. When he tries to exchange the stolen money for smaller denominations, Emil tells the bank teller that the money is his, the boys set up a commotion, and the bank president gets involved. Emil claims that he can prove the money is his, because each of the bills has a small hole in the corner from being pinned into his jacket.  Sure enough, the hole is there, the president calls the police, and the thief is taken to jail. Emil gets his money back, the boys get their pictures in the paper and a front page story, and Emil finally goes to his grandmother's house for a wonderful meal of macaroni and ham.

The next day, Emil learns that the thief was also a bank robber, and that there was a reward for anyone who assisted in his capture. With the reward money, Frau Tischbein travels to Berlin to join Emil, and Emil insists that she buy herself a new winter coat and a hair drying machine for her business. The grandmother then declares that in the future, never send money, only a money order, and everyone laughingly agrees. End of story.

Emil was unique in its day for the nature of the story and the style of the writing.  Emil lived in a single parent household. Money was tight. This was a working-class to lower middle class household.  Emil was a good boy but a real one who also could get into trouble. Kastner's writing style was dry, direct and never condescending to his young readers. Life was certainly full of troubles, but Kastner made it quite obvious that he believed children were perfectly capable of handling those troubles without any interference from grown-ups. The city of Berlin, large, loud and bustling, was a character itself in the story, and a fascinating one. The book was made into a motion picture by Disney in 1964.

Emil and the Detectives at Amazon

So, why is this version of Emil and the Detectives no longer a standard in children's collections?

Because the book, not the story, is harmful.

Books can be harmful, and that's the reason for the title of this week's post. Stories are timeless, but books are the product of specific individuals who exist in a set time and a set place.  Every book ever written, to some degree, considered or unconsidered, will always reflect the experiences and worldview of the author, and the vocabulary of that time.

In his Introduction, Kastner writes about a little black and white checked cannibal maid who has only a first name, Petersilie, Parsley in English.  Later on, he compares table legs to a family of little black  boys, later using the description, "…how many little darkies..."

The book's off the table, out of the stacks, and banished from the children's section.  That's not the dilemma, there's no dilemma here, just a cut-and-dried imperative. Do no harm is not exclusive to physicians.

The dilemma is whether of not we can save Emil's story, not Kastner's book. It is a wonderful, wonderful story, a story children can still read and enjoy. Is it possible?

I believe that you can save stories, if not books, in certain cases under certain conditions. But before we discuss Emil's situation, let's take a look at the original players.

Erich Kastner (1899 - 1974) was born in Dresden, Saxony (now Germany) the only child of a harness maker and a hairdresser. He attended various schools, including the University of Berlin, and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1925.  

Kastner worked as a journalist, an adult novelist, a playwright, an essayist, an editor, a prominent social critic and an author of children's books. He was drafted in 1917, and his experience was so brutal he became a lifelong pacifist and anti-militant. He also developed a chronic heart condition. He won many awards, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1960.

Kastner's father was a master-craftsman whose livelihood was swept away by industrialization. To pay the bills, Kastner's mother, at the age of 35, became a hairdressing apprentice. Kastner, who never married, was very close to his mother, and Kastner was the center of her universe. As a boy, he felt the need to succeed to deserve all her devotion. The two of them frequented the theater and opera whenever they could, sometime standing on line for hours. Kastner worked as a journalist to support his university education, and in 1928 he published two volumes of poetry and Emil, to huge commercial success. 

In 1933, Kastner witnessed the public burning of all his books except Emil by the Nazis. Despite this, he chose to stay in Germany rather than live in exile.  (Here is an interesting article from 2013 on the book burning from the British newspaper, The Independent.) Kastner felt that, as a writer, it was his professional duty to remain as a witness so at a later date he could testify as to what he'd seen. Banned from publishing in Germany, he published several works in Switzerland.  After the war he returned to Dresden, which had been totally destroyed by firebombing. He later moved to Munich, where he died at the age of 75.

The Erich Kastner Museum in Dresden contains biographical information and bibliography.

May Massee (1881 - 1966) was born in Chicago and moved with her family to Milwaukee at the age of five.  She graduated high school at sixteen, taught elementary school, then, after attending the Wisconsin Library School worked in various libraries.  In 1913, she became the editor of ALA's The Booklist, growing the magazine's and her own professional reputation until in 1922 she was invited to establish a junior books division at Doubleday in New York City, only the second to be established in the country.  In 1933, she moved to Viking Press and established a junior division there.  Eventually becoming a director, she retired from Viking in 1960, but remained visible as an advisory editor until her death of a stroke in 1966.

May Massee was a pioneer in children's publishing in many ways. One of the most prominent was her determination to find children's books that focused on life in different countries, cultures and time periods.  The May Massee Collection at Emporia State University lists all of the books published under her editorship from the years 1923 to 1963.  It's an impressive and diverse list, as Massee was also determined to include books on Native American cultures and African-American stories featuring African-American children and written by African-American writers.

What May Massee was not was a professional translator. I did not find one other instance, other than Emil, where she performed as both a translator and an editor.

Emil and the Detectives was brought to Massee's attention by Ernst Reichl, a German-American book designer.  As I mentioned earlier, in the Introduction of Emil,  Massee thanks others for helping her in the translation.  One is Donald Robinson. The other two were Rosika Schwimmer and Gretchen Gugler.  Schwimmer was a Hungarian-born journalist, pacifist, and women's rights activist.  Massee had earlier published her book of Hungarian folk tales. The two women helped Massee with the idioms and slang.  Massee's goal was to stay as close to the original German as possible, in both language and tone, and she succeeded.

Now, let's get back to saving Emil's story.

The optimal solution, author revision is out. Kastner died in 1974. I would like to believe a man living the life he did would be open to the thought. I could be dead wrong; it's simply something that I would like to believe. We are talking a few paragraphs in a 224 page book, and not even the main story itself.

The next would be to publish the book, with Massee's translation, minus the Introduction. I couldn't find any edition traveling that particular path.

The third possibility, and the one taken by Overlook Press in 2007, was to produce a new translation by W. Martin, eliminate the Introduction by Kastner, and replace it by a new Introduction by no less an individual than Maurice Sendak. Click here for the book's description.

If Overlook Press had simply removed Kastner's Introduction and inserted Sendak's, it would have been fine. But they took it one step further by using a newer translation, one that I feel significantly changes the overall tone of the story. Whether of not this is a good thing or bad thing depends on the individual.  I can say unequivocally that this is a perfectly acceptable version of Emil for your elementary libraries. I would recommend the addition, if only to ensure that children have at least an opportunity to be exposed to the story.

Sendak's introduction is wonderful. All of the marvelous original illustrations by Walter Trier are still there. What is different are the goals of the two translators, W. Martin and May Massee.

Massee wanted to be as close to the original German as possible in both tone and idiom. W. Martin states at the end of the 2007 Emil, that this version was commissioned for the twenty-first-century American reader, and White was attempting to render the story into a contemporary, colloquial American idiom.


Why would you want to translate a story, set in a very definite 1920s Berlin, with illustrations highlighting the time and place, into a contemporary anything? It's not a contemporary story. And you know what?  Kids get that, they really do get that. They understand that people in different places and at different times do not act, look, or sound the same way that they do. It's a straightforward concept.  Kids get straightforward.

In the translator's defense, I will confirm that the stated goals were achieved. I never thought I'd read a version of Emil where 1920s Berlin street kids addressed each other as "dude". Maybe I just hoped I never would. Also, most of the German names and place names are Anglicized.  Apparently, someone believed that the concept of German names in a German city would be too mind-boggling for American youth. These are the same kids that can whip off the names of every character in the Lego Ninjago universe without pausing for breath. Please.

But, the fact that I personally don't care for this version of Emil doesn't change the fact that it is the only acceptable version of the story for young readers. And I would rather see kids reading this version than no version.

How do all of you handle great stories trapped in harmful books? Do you have a favorite from your childhood that doesn't translate to the present day? I would love to hear about your experiences.

*There should be an umlaut - a two dot punctuation mark - over the a in Kastner's name.  I couldn't figure out how to put one there in Blogger.  Apologies.

Monday, May 4, 2015

In the Land of the Midnight Sun and the All-American Pastime

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service and Casey at the Bat by E. L. Thayer

When I hear the word ballad, my first thought is of a song, generally a long song, a very long song, sung by some tedious earnest young man or woman that tells a story, some sad and tragic tale of lost love or misspent youth. But not all ballads are songs.  In today's post, the two ballads discussed are literary ballads, poems that tell a story.  Rhyming is involved, and that is a good thing, because kids love and enjoy rhymes, particularly when the rhymes involve fun stuff like baseball and shipwrecks and frozen miners and blazing furnaces, and not un-fun stuff like the heartache of unrequited love or the futile search for the true meaning of life. 

For those of you seeking information on poetry, The Poetry Foundation is an excellent resource.

Both of these ballads are vintage.  Casey at the Bat was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, and The Cremation of Sam McGee appeared originally in 1907 in the collection Songs of a Sourdough.  (A Sourdough was a veteran miner from the Klondike.  Here's a fun culinary link from Parks Canada).  Both of these ballads have, over the years, appeared in multiple editions and illustrated versions.  Casey at the Bat has been presented as a silent film, several short animated films, and a television show.  Both ballads became the trademarks of live performers, the vaudevillian De Wolf Hopper performed Casey over 10,000 times on stage, beginning in the late 1880s and up until his death in 1935.  Storyteller Tom Byrne performed Sam McGee in the Robert Service Show at historic Dawson City in the Yukon for over twenty five years.  In 2006, with some revisions, Johnny Cash's spoken version of the poem was released posthumously on the two-disc set Personal File. You can listen to it  here, courtesy NPR.

So, with all this activity, you would think that these two ballads would still be widely recognizable today. But they're not, and they should be, because they're great.  

Let's fix this.

Book #11: The Cremation of Sam McGee (1986) by Robert W. Service, illustrated with paintings by Ted Harrison. 32 pages.

                                       There are strange things done 
                                                                               in the midnight sun 
                                            By the men who moil for gold;
                                       And the Arctic trails have their secret tales
                                                     That would make your blood run cold.

Poor Sam McGee.  The miner from Tennessee never struck it rich in the land of gold, and he was always cold, so very cold.  On Christmas Day, he tells his friend and traveling companion that he believes he's about to die, and exacts a promise that once he dies, his friend will cremate his body, because it is not death that Sam fears, but the awful dread of an icy grave.  His friend promises; Sam dies, and after several days of traveling by dogsled with an icy corpse, the friend arrives at Lake LeBarge, and sees the wreck of the Alice May, frozen in ice.  The friends rips up the wood from the cabin floor, feeds it into the ship's furnace, and once it begins to blaze, tosses in the corpse of Sam McGee.  He leaves, reluctant to witness the final disposition of his friend, but returns later to check that the deed is done.  When he opens the furnace door, he sees a smiling Sam, who instructs him to shut the door, because then and there is the first time he's been warm since leaving Tennessee.

Service has written a humorous ballad that tells a tall tale, and tells it well. Service nails the omnipresent environment of extreme cold in the Yukon, "…talk of cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail." Some of the language is a bit obscure, but explanations of unfamiliar phrases are included on the same page.  Moil means toil.  Marge means edge or bank. Also included on every other page is a description of some aspect of life in the Yukon, from the dry air that preserves everything, to the ice-fogs over the lake, to the use of a rocker box.

The paintings by Ted Harrison are excellent, full of color and slightly surrealistic.  Harrison provides one of two of the books prefaces, in which he explains his choice of artwork for the poem. The other preface, authored by Pierre Berton, offers some background on the poem and the life of Robert W. Service.

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, emigrated to Canada in 1890, and died in Lancieux, Brittany, France.  He married, and had one child, a daughter, Iris.  He spent over eight years in the Yukon and sub-arctic, worked as a banker, a Balkan War correspondent for the Toronto Star, drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in World War I and also served as an intelligence officer for the Canadian Army.  He was highly successful professionally and financially as an author and poet, many of his works being made into movies in the 1920s and 1930s.

Edward Hardy "Ted" Harrison was born in 1926 in England.  An art student prior to his military service in World War II, after the war he embarked on a 28 year teaching career in a number of different countries.  He and his family eventually emigrated to Canada, to the town of Carcross, outside of Whitehorse in the Yukon.  In 1993, he moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where he continues to paint and write.

Book #12:  Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 (2000) by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, copiously and faithfully illustrated by Christopher Bing.  32 pages.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.

Casey at the Bat tells the story of the mighty Casey, the best batsman of the Mudville nine baseball team.  It's a short ballad.  The Mudville nine are trailing, and two of the weakest players, Flynn and Jimmy Blake, are next in the batting order.  Surprising everyone, the two make it on base, and now it's up to Casey, mighty Casey, to knock the ball out of the park and save the day.  It's the moment the crowd's been waiting for, and Casey milks it for all it's worth.  The first two pitches, both strikes, he allows to sail by, deeming them not worthy of his efforts.  The crowd roars to kill the umpire, but Casey silences them with a single motion. Then, the third pitch is thrown, the mighty Casey swings, and…

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children's shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville-mighty Casey has struck out.

Pretty much says it all.

There is a wealth of Casey books out there, some better than others.  In my opinion, Christopher Bing's is the best of them all.  The book is total joy of the game, the illustrations, artwork, recreated newspaper articles, photographs, engravings and other ephemera are incredible. Casey was a 2001 Caldecott Honor Book.  Get it, read it, pour over it.  It's a grand slam.

It's an interesting fact that the man who wrote the most famous baseball poem in history was no fan of the game itself.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of a successful woolen manufacturer and his wife.  Ernest attended Harvard University was a philosophy major, where he contributed and was president of the Harvard Lampoon.  Classmates included George Santanya and William Randolph Hearst.  After spending a year abroad after his graduation in 1885, Thayer traveled to California at Hearst's request and became a member of the staff at the San Francisco Examiner.  It was during his tenure there that he composed Casey at the Bat, inspired by a Harvard classmate who was captain of the Harvard team.  Thayer considered Casey to be on par with the the rest of his writings for the newspaper, neither better or worse.  After Casey, it wasn't until 1896 that Thayer attempted any more literary work, four ballads for a New York newspaper.  He returned to working for the family mills and traveling.  In 1940, he attempted to begin writing again, but his health prevented him, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in August of that year. 

Ernest Lawrence Thayer biography at American National Biography Online

Christopher Bing is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a resident of Massachusetts.  His other books include Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

An interview with Christopher Bing at Publishers Weekly