“In the loveliest town of all”

Last week I finished reading Stuart Little to two of my youngest children. There was much that I enjoyed about it, but particularly near the end I was surprised by joy with this passage: the first paragraph of chapter 13:

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How wonderful! A lovely little line about a lovely little town in Stuart Little. This whole charming paragraph is really just one big sentence. There are four big clauses in the middle here, stacked like an inverted pyramid, and that last long clause does go gorgeously on and on (itself in four stacked chunks, the last of which goes gorgeously on and on).

I also like how all of that meandering meat in the middle of the sentence is tied together: we start off with “In the loveliest town of all” and after our quick guided tour of paradise we’re pulled back in for the main idea by a neat reordering of that initial introduction: “in this loveliest of all towns.” Delightful!

It’s a nearly-pastoral appreciation of bygone Americana that all leads up to a great and irrepressibly cute detail: Stuart got a sarsaparilla.

Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more perfect picture than E.B. White did here.

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Reviewed: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s New Children’s Book

A true story. Just like "UHF."

Celebrities writing books for children has already become a worn-out trend among our cultural elites, like rehab, or adopting kids from Africa.  However, “Weird Al” Yankovic’s just-released first book, When I Grow Up, succeeds despite any such baggage. 

Yankovic takes his signature zany humor–heavy on food jokes, non sequitur, and pop culture parody–and turns it into a cute story about a boy giving a show-and-tell presentation about what he wants to be when he grows up.  Like many great children’s classics (and Family Circle comics) it meanders from tangent to tangent, taking us on a silly tour of the author’s hyperactive but innovative imagination. 

It seems that any major children’s author who works in verse, as Yankovic does here, is bound to be measured against Dr. Seuss, especially when the story also involves whimsical fantasy.  Yes, they are in the same category: as an accomplished veteran of the music industry, Yankovic brings his decades of experience to create smooth cadences here, something that most other verse authors (and musicians) seem to struggle with. 

Something else that makes Yankovic unique: he reveled in nerdiness long before it was cool to do so, and his attention to technical detail shines here, meshing comfortably with invented craziness and fluid meters.  Continue reading

Recommended Reading: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

I recently finished reading this to my younger children.  I’ve presented them with some challenging stories before, but I was outright flabbergasted at how intellectually mature this classic was.

Published in 1908, this British classic tells tales of four country friends–a rat, a mole, a badger, and (most famously) a rich, pompous, adventuresome toad.  These are no flat, stock children’s book characters.  They have enough neurotic vinegar in them to make the cast of Toy Story seem like The Waltons by comparison.  Not only do they have strikingly realistic personalities, but they behave in the ways that our grandparents did, ways that make us blush today.  They don’t hesitate to insult someone, calling a spade a spade when needed, they acknowledge violence as a normal way to deal with thugs, and differences between social classes aren’t treated at all as anything unusual–just another natural part of life. 

And yet, this world that often seems rough to our “modern sensibilities” is also markedly refined compared to most of our daily ditherings.  The Wind in the Willows is so thoroughly pastoral that it practically strives to be scripture on the subject, vying perhaps to sit next to Walden and The Boy Scout Handbook on my shelf.  One chapter, in fact, dreamily describes an episode where two lost characters in the woods encounter an ecstatic ancient spirit, whose communion is powerfully glorious.  Such seemingly pagan influences struck me as odd for a book coming from the Edwardian period, but it fits in without a ripple of real inappropriateness here, not blushing in its unabashed environmentalism. 

All this has just been prologue, though, for the thing that truly makes this masterpiece stand up and demand our attention is just how amazingly literary it is.  Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Redwall

19314675A couple of years ago my wife found a big bargain sale of children’s books at a warehouse in the northeast part of town. As that covers two of our main interests (books, bargains), we went and cleaned up. Among other textual detritus on a folding table, I saw a stack of books called Redwall, on sale for a dollar. A quick survey showed it to be some kind of medieval warrior fantasy about mice, which seemed appropriate for my son, so I picked it up.

He loved it.  He loved it so much, that he’s now read a few of the sequels and wants to read more (#20 in the series just came out in October, so he’ll have plenty of fodder for a while).  Wanting to keep up with my son’s interests–and enjoy a story that was coming so highly endorsed!–I finally read it, too.

Simply splendid.  The author, Brian Jacques, writes in a mode that we rarely see: an innocent, earnest fantasy adventure that doesn’t blink from the reality of evil’s power to inflict suffering, yet never denying that goodness endures, and may do so with wonder and joy.

It’s closer to The Hobbit than to The Lord of the Rings, but is a seamless mixture of the two tones, what we might expect from children’s literature and what we tend to see in books meant more for older readers.  Jacques never hesitates to summarily kill off characters–good and bad ones–to serve his story, but the reader never doubts for a moment that the peaceful, charitable mice of the tragically besieged Redwall Abbey will prevail.  If Disney had made The Lord of the Rings, it might have looked more like this. 

Along with this unblinking yet childlike coming of age tale (for our headstrong hero must put off the silly boy mouse he was in order to save his friends), Jacques gives us his novel in prose that T.S. White would have approved of.  His writing is simple enough for most precocious children to understand, but clever and allusive enough to interest anyone who cares for good style (at one point, the young mouse is counseled by an older rabbit character–whose dialogue is rendered in a pitch-perfect harmony of British dialects, as are the words of all the minor characters–to keep a “stiff upper whisker”).  My only complaint is that Jacques is overly fond of exclamations; it got distracting. 

This Christmas, buy two copies.  One for a fantasy-loving child, and one for yourself.