alexandra alger


Archive for the tag “Childrens literature”

Stories from the Past


This book was sitting on a stool outside of a second-hand store calling to me. It was published in 1932 (there were four copyrights, and ’32 was the most recent). The name of a onetime owner—the last?—is Eulalia M. Cunningham. (I’ve heard of Eulalie but not Eulalia—lovely name. Lilting.) Her name is written on the copyright page, along with the words “Christmas 1944.” On the front page, in a more childish script, Eulalia herself (I’m guessing) wrote, “E. Cunningham, and then, having realized she forgot something, “E.M. Cunningham.” She added a Christmas sticker to the page, just the way a child would—it’s randomly placed on the left side of the page, toward the bottom—just where it happened to come off her fingers. A man and a woman in a sleigh, with a Christmas tree sticking out the back. Just think—a seventy-two year-old sticker!

The title page says the stories are selected from John Martin’s Book, which was a popular children’s magazine, aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, published from 1912 to 1933. (Thank you, Google.) John Martin was a pseudonym of founder Morgan Shepard. I couldn’t find any info on why it folded, but far bigger enterprises than this failed during the Great Depression. John Martin’s Book must’ve continued to resonate with readers if this book was available for purchase in 1944. (It’s not easy to find a ten-year-old book these days—not unless it’s an enduring classic.)

This is one dense book, with marvelous black-and-white drawings on nearly ever page. There are not just stories but poems, biographies, riddles and even pictograms.

Check this out:


I can’t figure out the meaning of the line with the feather and the flat iron. A feather sail an iron for a ship?

Riddles! These are kind of complicated. And a bit weird. Hats off to the five- to eight-year-olds who are getting these:IMG_2926

There’s always something about stories from past eras that startles or even shocks. In a few of the stories here, people get hurt, and good. “Tommy Elephant Discovers the Railroad,” a monkey named Fibber-Jibber convinces Tommy that a strange creature running along a new jungle trail wouldn’t dare hurt as large an animal as Tommy. So Tommy stands on the train tracks, in front of an oncoming train. Yikes!  He gets hit, naturally. There’s an illustration showing the elephant, head over heels, while the train rushes past. He’s not killed, which he surely would be in real life, but he’s badly bruised—-much to Fibber-Jibber’s amusement. It’s hard to imagine this was ever funny to anyone, but it must’ve been. Americans of the early 20th century clearly didn’t think of animals as stand-ins for boys and girls, the way we do today. At least not wild animals. (Perhaps that changed with Babar, published in 1931?) Fibber-Jibber gets a punishment of sorts. Using his trunk, Tommy hoses him repeatedly, until he’s a “very wet, but much wiser” monkey, who doesn’t play any more tricks on Tommy for a  “long, long, long” time.

There’s a tale called “Catskin,” which reads much like Cinderella except there’s no glass shoe and no stepsisters, and the heroine is, yes, wearing an outfit made out of—catskin! No wonder this story has slid into obscurity. Oh, and also, the cook beats the poor girl like nobody’s business. She’s forever breaking a ladle or a skimmer over Catskin’s head. Incredibly—thankfully—Catskin is always “none the worse.” She sneaks off to go to balls, where she meets a squire (not a prince, but quite good enough). Before long she marries him and lives happily ever after. With brain damage, no doubt.

There are Grimm-like stories like this one, but many others. The variety is pretty astonishing. Origin stories, such as how corn got its ear and how the woodpecker came to be. Christian stories—St. Francis convinces robbers to change their ways. A story about Mozart as a young boy. A tale about St. George and the dragon.

I can’t say the poetry impressed me, but I am impressed with the presence of the poetry. It’s so tough to get kids to read poetry today–to give it a chance!  Shepard, writing as John Martin, contributed a poem that I wouldn’t mind reading to little ones:

A Magic

One day I saw a rule hand
Rise up to strike a heartless blow,
It did not stop to count the cost,
It did not care to know.

And then I heard some gentle words;
They worked a magic, sweet and calm,
Their gentle power held that hand
So it could do no harm.

One day I heard an angry voice,
Its words would neither think no spare,
How deep they cut another’s heart
It did not know nor care.

And then your gentle words were said.
The angry voice to softness fell.
Repentance quivered in that voice
Beneath your magic spell.

Oh, it is strong, and fine, and good
To find what gentle words will do.
I’m sure that they are always best,
And bravest too—aren’t you?


The sound of E.B. White


Do you know that word? I’m reading about Shakespeare’s ability to summon “plangent feeling,” as well as “robust comedy” and “penetrating psychology” in the four history plays currently being put on by the Royal Shakespeare Co. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The admiring words come from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, whose reviews (quite good) don’t usually cause me to pause and think, “What was that?” I was sure there was a typo of some kind—could he have meant “urgent”?—but no, plangent’s a word. It means a loud, reverberating, often melancholy sound.

The plangent sound of bells. That’s the example dictionaries like to give. How about the plangent moo of a cow? The plangent drone of a garbage truck at 4 am? (That sound might be more grating than melancholy.)

The noun is plangency. That doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Doing a bit of online research, I found that Newsweek once described E.B. White’s audio-book reading of Charlotte’s Web as having “a plangency that will make you weep.”

Oh, leave it to a journalist to use a fancy, un-child-like word in a story about a children’s book! I’m allowed to complain; I was a journalist once. Still I have to admit it’s an interesting use of plangency, and if anyone could summon that kind of sound, maybe it would be E.B. White.

I like saying “plangent.” It’s not onomatopoeia, but it’s a nice meaty word. Or as Isherwood might say, muscular. I’m not picking on him, just noticing his review includes a word that seems to be in vogue as an alternative to robust, powerful, dynamic. He calls some of the scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV “muscularly staged”. When I read that, I honestly think of men with bulging calf muscles, which you might well see in a Shakespeare play involving kings and courts. I myself use “muscular” in the old way, to refer to someone’s physical state. (I’m all for bulging biceps.)

I see I’ve fallen into the habit of writing about words I don’t plan on using, instead of the ones I do. Get with the program, Alex!

P.S. David Tennant, the Scottish actor, is starring in Richard II at BAM right now. Only standing-room only tickets right now. (I’m mulling whether I could stand for two-plus hours). If you haven’t seen Tennant in the 2013 TV series Broadchurch, and if you have Netflix, and if you like murder mysteries set in small seaside English towns (and who doesn’t like those, I ask you?)—I urge you to download! There are two gripping seasons to watch, and another one being filmed this summer. He’s also incredibly good and creepy in the 2015 TV series about superheroes, Jessica Jones. “I don’t watch that much TV, I swear,” she cried plangently.

Favorite Fictional Orphans

I’m creating a character who’s parentless, a modern-day orphan. Her role models aren’t actual, real orphans (I don’t know any of those, a fortunate thing) but the long line of memorable fictional ones.

As a child I always cleaved to the orphans. Not because they’re free of parental constraints–just the opposite! I got heart palpitations at the thought of complete freedom from parents (no doubt because my parents were insanely controlling). That’s why I had to keep reading. I had to make sure these poor orphans were going to be all right.

Who are my favorite orphans? I know I’m forgetting a few, but this is a good start. In no particular order:

James, James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl (as if there is any doubt who authored this). I wanted to reach into the book and hug James—and then adopt him. Who could not root for James, whose parents die in a freakish accident and who is forced to live with his horrible (if deliciously horrible) aunts before having the most extraordinary adventure (practically) in all of children’s literature?

Anne, Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I loved Anne’s hot temper, being a hot-tempered redhead myself (and not recognizing a tired cliche). I loved her soulfulness, and her way with words. Of course, Gilbert kept me reading, too. Lucy Maud was clever to give Anne such an appealing antagonist.

Mary, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet). I didn’t like Mary, or this book, for many years. Mary was such a sourpuss! In that heartless way of children, I refused to give her break for being an orphan and alone in a strange, nearly empty house (these English and the way they ignored children!). But she grew on me, especially when she straightened out her whiny, self-pitying cousin, Colin.

Silvia and Bonnie, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, by Joan Aiken. Bonnie isn’t an orphan at first, but for most of the book her parents are missing and presumed dead, so as far as I was concerned, this was the story of two plucky orphans. What these two have to endure! When Bonnie’s parents go on a long trip, they leave the girls in the hands of a cousin, who turns out to be an imposter, an evil woman who takes over the house and sends the girls to an orphanage. How are the girls to escape—and to where? I read breathlessly.

Bod, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Bod, short for Nobody, is anything but. He’s the kind of boy a girl can’t help liking—the kind of boy who would try to figure out a way to provide a headstone for a witch who was both drowned and burned. He has all kinds of ograveyard skills, like Fading and Dreamwalking, and is clever enough to take down the man who killed his parents. Which reminds me of someone else….

Harry Potter, of course, the most famous orphan of all time (sorry, Oliver Twist and Huck Finn). He’s the only character on this list whose quest is rooted in the brutal murder of his parents. He learns more about his dead parents than most orphans do, and with knowledge comes pain and regret. James and Lily Potter may be the only fictional parents whose loss I actively mourned.

My character will come to mourn hers, but she’ll also find unexpected joy. I’m a sucker for a happy ending.

Listening to Betsy Bird

I had the honor of attending Pat Cummings’ children’s book illustration class at Parsons yesterday Not only did I get to see student writer-illustrators discuss the first pages of the stories they are working on, but I got to hear the down-to-earth-yet-droll Betsy Bird tell kid-lit publishing stories for more than an hour.

Betsy Bird writes a hugely popular blog for the School Library Journal, Fuse #8 Production, and is the city’s children’s librarian extraordinaire. She’s the New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist, which in plain English means she picks the children’s books carried at all the city’s public libraries. Wowza. And, naturally, she writes books. Her first picture book, Giant Dance Party, illustrated by Brandon Dorman, came out last year. She’s also co-authored, with Julie Danielson and the late Peter D. Sieruta, Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

Betsy is a font of information, some of it rather mind-blowing. To whit:

It can take years to get a picture book published. Betsy’s manuscript was ready to go in 2009; it wasn’t in bookstores until 2013. What happened? For one thing, her editor left (or got fired), and the new editor made all kinds of changes. I can see how that could happen. Still: four years? That’s nothing, apparently. She’s heard of people waiting ten.

If Barnes & Noble doesn’t like your book cover, the publisher is more than willing to change it.

She hates horse books! If she’ve been wondering (as I have been) why the heck no one seems to be reading Black Beauty anymore, Betsy Bird is at least partly the reason. I knew why my daughter wasn’t reading horse books—she’s scared of horses, for no good reason, mind you—but I was wondering what had happened to the whole category….

If you’re writing for kids, you’ve got to get Betsy’s book. It offers up a satisfying trove of insider stories, as well as a meaty discussion on censorship and the obstacles that have faced and still face GLBT authors.

Getting Dialogue Right

In his recently published How to Write a Novel,  middle-grade writer and former literary agent Nathan Bradford makes a key point about dialogue: Characters should speak more clearly and grammatically than real people.

Bradford writes:  “In real life, our conversations wonder all over the place, and any conversation transcribed from real life will be a meandering mess full of free associations and stuttering. In a novel, good conversations are focused, and they are, for the most part, articulate.”

He’s right. If we had to read  a character’s every “umm” and “you know” and “what’s that thing called again?” we’d lose interest fast.

It’s not as easy as taking out the umms, though. Especially if you’re developing middle-school characters, as I am. There is nothing more challenging than coming up with an authentic voice for each of my young characters. I want them to be well-spoken, but not too well-spoken. They can’t sound like mini-adults; they can’t sound like older teens, either. They have to sound like young people who are in the midst of growing up, still vulnerable but questing for independence and a sense of self. It’s a tough balance. Maybe this is why so many novels feature a verbally precocious kid who sounds like an adult. We adults love these kids–how could we not?  They’re the ones who will actually talk to us, instead of grunting or ignoring us completely–and let’s face it they’re easy to create. Easier. Nothing about writing is easy.

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