Monthly Archives: October 2011

Secrets of The Secret Garden

Because one of my favorite children’s books, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, was published 100 years ago, it is getting some much deserved attention this year. And so I very much enjoyed this delightful and informative post by Miriam Halahmy describing her experience at a Secret Garden study day in the U.K.



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Happy 50th Birthday, Phantom Tollbooth!

Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth with illustrations by Jules Feiffer, is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. To honor this grand classic of children’s literature, Random House has come out with a new edition annotated by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus who was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project.

I love that you keep the creators up front and center throughout, but now I want to know —what is your own relationship with The Phantom Tollbooth? When did you first read it, what did you think about it, and what about your son’s relationship with it? (I’m especially curious since you dedicated the book to him.

I was 11 years old when The Phantom Tollbooth was first published, and therefore just the right age to read it—but I didn’t know about the book then. In fact I did not read The Phantom Tollbooth until after I’d become interested in writing about children’s books as history, literature, and art. When I finally did so, I could not escape the thought that The Phantom Tollbooth was the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of our time. I thought this because of its brilliant word play and wit and because of the lightly held mastery of ideas that course through the book, teasing readers into thinking freshly about all sorts of things. And of course Jules Feiffer is a satirical illustrator in a league with John Tenniel.

I met Norton Juster a number of years ago because his architectural firm designed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in Amherst, MA, and I was (and continue to be) one of the museum’s trustees. When I decided to compile a collection of interviews with comic writers for kids for a book called Funny Business, I interviewed Norton. As we talked, it became clear to me that he had lots of stories to tell and ideas to expand on. So when I realized that The Phantom Tollbooth’s fiftieth anniversary was just a few years off, my idea for an Annotated edition began to take shape.

As for my son Jacob, who is 19 and a college sophomore, he read the book for the first time just recently, in the Annotated edition! Jacob has always done things in his own time and in his own way, which is why it seemed so right to dedicate it to him.

I mark-up books myself, of course, but doing an annotated edition is a whole different thing.  Can you tell us a bit about your process?  How did you begin?  How did you decide what to annotate? Did you have a set of types of annotations?  How long did it take?

I re-read the book until I felt I had “internalized” it: that is, until I knew it at an almost instinctual level. That was the first step.

As a historian, I was always on the lookout for points of connection between the book and the cultural and social history of the period it came from—the background of the Cold War, middle-class America’s flight to the suburbs, the post-war concern that corporate culture would lead to mass social conformity, among other themes.

At the same time, one of the things I love best about annotated editions is the element of unpredictability in the choice of subjects singled out for comment. So, I also watched for chances to write about offbeat topics: the history of the letter W, for example, and (in part because Tock is a watch dog) the history of clocks. In a book literally riddled with word play, I knew that etymologies and the origins of idiomatic expressions were also going to be a focus.

And I wanted to annotate Jules Feiffer’s illustrations by pairing particular drawings from the book with images from the history of art that had some specific relationship to them—and to Feiffer’s life work as a satirist and cartoonist in general. The range of visual references and influences that I identified is really pretty wide—everything from Gustave Dore to Winsor McCay to James Thurber to Will Eisner to George Grosz—and each of these artists has a solid claim to being there. I think their presence points to the true depth of Jules Feiffer’s illustration work. By implication, it also suggests how much more than meets the eye may be present in the work of any illustrator.

I spent about a year and a half on the research and writing but I was drawing on ideas and material I’d been gathering, for other reasons, for years and years. So it’s not really possible to say how long it took to write the book. Once when I asked Norton Juster if his father had been an influence on him as a writer, he replied, “Well, everything that happens to you in life is an influence.” I think he was right about that.

Several personal favorites of mine came up a number of times in your annotations.  I was expecting Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz but I wasn’t expecting Charlotte’s Web and The Wind and the Willows. I loved all the insights you provided regarding these books and some other familiar childhood works and wondered, were they completely informed by your reading of the book, did they come up in your conversations with Juster, or somewhere else?

The literary comparisons operate on different levels. There are the “affinities”—indirect, zeitgeist kinds of associations–which I think are fair game to speculate about in an informed way; these flowed from my prior knowledge of Charlotte’s Web, Voltaire’s Candide, and some of the many other books I cited. Claims of direct “influence,” on the other hand, call for reliable confirmation, whether from the author or another source. I was lucky of course to be able to go straight to the author and illustrator with questions of this kind. To my knowledge, this is the first annotated edition of a work by a living author and artist. Other annotators have not had this luxury.

You have annotations related to psychology, physics, music, art and so much more.  What were some of the most memorable journeys that you took to create the annotations in these non-literary directions? 

I became fascinated with the phenomenon that neuroscientists call synesthesia. This came into the story both because Norton Juster had told me about his childhood impulse to associate numbers with colors, and because in The Phantom Tollbooth he writes about an orchestra that generates color instead of sound. I read up on the subject in the scientific literature and in biographical accounts of well-known synesthetes such as Vladimir Nabokov.

Tracing the publication history of The Phantom Tollbooth led me back to the book’s editor, Jason Epstein, whom I interviewed in his lower Manhattan apartment. Epstein is one of the great innovators of modern American publishing: the creator of Anchor Books and the Library of America, and a co-founder of the New York Review of Books, among other ventures. No wonder he found an adventurous book like The Phantom Tollbooth well worth publishing, even though he was not in the business of publishing contemporary children’s books at the time.

I loved finding out the derivation of expressions like “short shrift” and “to make ends meet.” Almost as a bonus, Jules Feiffer and Norton Juster were both living in the neighborhood where I now live—Brooklyn Heights, New York—at the time they collaborated on The Phantom Tollbooth. So I got to do some historical time travel and learn quite a lot about what life in the Heights was like a half century ago.

I’m guessing that there was no way you could use all the annotations you did, for space reasons.  What were some of your favorites that had to be left out?

Actually, I didn’t leave out a single detail that I thought worth including. In any case, I wasn’t interested in recording every last fact that might be unearthed about the making of the book. In the spirit of the original, I thought it more important to keep things a little light and playful, and to focus more on evocative connections, for instance the Marx Brothers movies of Norton Juster’s childhood as an inspiration for his own outrageous puns. I guess it might have been fun, in the note about “infinity,” to have gone on forever…

My one real regret with regard to omissions is on the illustration side, and is due to the sometimes excessively high cost of permissions. As an illustration for the chapter about Dr. Dischord, I wanted very much to show a photograph of Groucho Marx as Dr. Hackenbush in A Day at the Races. (Jules Feiffer grew up loving the Marx Brothers too.) But MGM controls the rights to the films, and the cost of reproducing even a single still was prohibitive. I also wanted to show a photo of W.C. Fields side by side with one of the first Humbug illustrations, but could not get the Fields estate even to respond to my request. “The Annotated Phantom what…?” But Fields himself was inspired by P. T. Barnum, and the Library of Congress has a perfectly fine public-domain photo of him on its web site, available for downloading.

It must have been wonderful talking with the creators about their book, study all the materials associated with it, and then start to put it all together.  Are there any special stories or experiences that you want to tell us about?

This is a big question because I spent so much time with Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer, and in doing so got to know them both very well. Jules has a vivid, seemingly photographic memory for his childhood and early creative years. My conversations with him also led to a companion project, an exhibition of his children’s book art that will open at the Eric Carle Museum, in Amherst, on October 25th. The show is called “Growing Every Which Way But Up,” a title meant to reflect his idea that there is no one “right” way to do anything, least of all to learn to think and feel for oneself. During the research phase for the annotated edition and exhibition, I was able to locate several of the “long-lost” original drawings for The Phantom Tollbooth; as a result of that detective work, eleven of the drawings will be on view in the show; and a number of the unpublished outtakes are included in the Annotated edition. One of the drawings, as it turned out, had been stashed away in Jules’ own apartment—which is a kind of King Tut’s Tomb of more than six decades of accumulated art—all along.

Both Jules and Norton are generous people and fun to be around. They are also both dedicated book people. Jules tends to be a bit disorganized whereas Norton is a major list-maker. When Norton was writing The Phantom Tollbooth he made list after list of unusual-sounding words, synonyms, and evocative idioms that he thought he might incorporate somewhere in the book. In fact, he constructed entire scenes around some of these lists, many of which can now be found in the collection of his papers at Indiana University’s Lilly Library. It amazed me that he could start with such basic materials—like the bins of letters and words at the market in Digitopolis—and spin them into a fantasy of such scope and cleverness and originality.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently completing a book about Madeleine L’Engle, called Listening for Madeleine. It’s a “portrait in many voices” of the author A Wrinkle in Time, presented through a series of interviews with fifty friends, family members, and colleagues who knew her well. Rather than write a conventional biography, I decided to let a picture of this many-sided novelist, memoirist, and visionary emerge from a kind prism of vivid memories. My guess is that no two readers will come away with quite the same impression.

Thank you, Leonard Marcus, for this insightful interview.  And to end here’s a delightful video with a bit more from Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer, and Leonard S. Marcus.  

Also at Huffington Post.


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All My Schools

Since I’ve spent my adult life in New York City people assume I grew up here. Not so.  Very much not so. I’m a faculty brat (my dad was an academic) and we moved often — my longest time in any one school was three years until college.

Just for fun, here’s what I know and can find about all my pre-college schools:

1. I was born in Greensboro, North Carolina and, after a few rough patches we moved to Montgomery, Alabama where I went to my first nursery school of which I only remember that it was in a quonset hut.  (This was at the time of the bus boycott in which my parents played small roles which he wrote about here.)

2. After that we moved to Palo Alto for a year while my father was at the Hoover Institute and I went to the  progressive Peninsula School.

3 and 4. From there we went to East Lansing, Michigan (where my father taught at Michigan State University).  I spent kindergarten and first grade at the Marble School and grades three, four, and five at the Red Cedar School.

5 and 6. Second grade was a bit more complicated as my father had a Fulbright and we spent it in Germany where I went to two very different schools. (Just a reminder that I’m first generation American, German on both sides.) The first was the Anna-Schmidt Schule, a school with a progressive tradition.  It was a sink or swim situation regarding German and I evidently went from knowing nothing (I remember my teacher telling me to go to the window and going to the door) to being pretty fluent.  We wrote on slates and then there was a big deal when we were ready for fountain pens.  I still have my copybooks, some tearstained, from my efforts to do work perfectly.  I also have my reading books and it is interesting to see how much was expected of second graders then.  Half way through the year we moved to the country where I went to a little village school — my main memories of it are learning to knit which was quite fun!  Also, due to my parents picking up some My Naughty Little Sister and The Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse when we were in London, I became an avid reader.

7. Then my father ended up at Washington University in St. Louis and I spent sixth grade at the Flynn Park School in University City.

8. Found myself back in Germany again for seventh grade.  Having only been in St. Louis a year, terrified of the junior high I’d be returning to, and remembering how challenging it had been returning to the U. S. the previous time I begged my parents to send me to an American school and they did, the incredibly mediocre American School on the Rhine which no longer exists and so no link. (It was a Defense Department School and tried to more American than anyone in American would be. Since we had nothing to do with the Embassy it was rough for my sister and me. We lived in a German neighborhood and spent our time with Germans whereas the kids at the school had nothing to do with Germans.  My one friend’s parents were so horrified by the school that they took her out a few months in and put her in a much better international school and then I was alone for the rest of the year.  We did stuff like PE at the American Club with a teacher who taught us the hulu. Kids were incredibly mean to the German teacher and, all and all, it was a horrible year. I always thanked my parents for understanding why I wanted to go there while being sorry that I did.  If I’d been in an international school that year instead, I’d be completely bilingual, instead of just fluent.)

9. Eight and ninth grade were at Hanley Junior High in University City.

10. My dad then was invited to Columbia University so we moved once again and I spent the final three years of high school at Dobbs Ferry High School in the New York suburbs.

11.  While not for a school year, I spent the summer of 10th grade at a Swiss boarding school (something I’d long wanted to do due to my adoration of Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young).  Would have happily stayed there although my sister, two years younger, detested it.

So there you are. I can say I’m a New Yorker now, but I definitely did not have a New York childhood.

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A Few Spooky Suggestions for Neil Gaiman’s All Hallow’s Read

Betsy Bird and I had so much fun making our Last Gasp Summer Reading Video we decided to do another one — this time to promote Neil Gaiman’s fantastic All Hallow’s Read initiative. So it is now done (with another contribution by our sometimes silent partner) and you can see it for yourself at All Hallows Read: A Few Spooky Suggestions.




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Three Books I Like Reviewed in the NYTBR

Krystyna Poray Goddu thinks Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary  “…with its intricately constructed plot, well-paced suspense, credibly rendered fantastical elements, thoughtfully drawn characters and authentically detailed settings, satisfies on all levels.”

“There’s no denying it: this is one profoundly sad story. But it’s also wise, darkly funny and brave, told in spare sentences, punctuated with fantastic images …. “ writes Jessica Bruder about Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.

And Chelsey Philpot takes on Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone noting that the author “…tackles themes of longing and self-­actualization with a sympathetic understanding of her audience. Who as a teenager didn’t feel like a chimera, a mix of seemingly disparate parts forming an uncertain self?”


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Learning About Africa: What You Wish For

A new book, What You Wish For, created as a fundraiser for Book Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to build libraries for Darfur refugees living in Chad, is a unique collection of stories and poems all contributed by a celebrated authors from all over the world.  Meg Cabot, Jane Yolen, John Green R. L. Stine, and Alexander McCall Smith are among 18 writers who have taken on the idea of wishing in original and different ways.  Some of their offerings are folkloric in tone, some contemporary, some magical. The works are remarkably varied from stories, to poems to comics.  My personal favorite may be Ann M. Martin’s “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,”  but all bear reading.

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Fun with Nursery Rhymes!

I’ve the following review over at my Huffington Post blog along with a slide show of some of the panels:

Nursery rhymes tend to be relegated to the realm of the very young, remembered by adults as cute little bedtime ditties. Well let me wake you all up — First Second Books’ Nursery Rhyme Comics is indeed cute, but it is also funny, clever, and highly entertaining, filled with traditional rhymes made fresh and new. Edited by Chris Duffy (who also contributes), with an informative introduction by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus, this delightful volume consists of 50 topnotch cartoonists — among them Roz Chast, Jules Feiffer, Kate Beaton, Lucy Knisley, David Macaulay, Patrick McDonnell, Tony Millionaire, Craig Thompson, Gahan Wilson, and Gene Yang — each giving their own take on a rhyme. It is definitely one of those books for all ages — parents can enjoy reading these with toddlers on their laps while older kids are bound to enjoy poking through the book on their own. Check out the slide show to get a taste!


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Learning About Africa: Sierra Leone Joining the Conversation

Last summer while in Sierra Leone I discovered firsthand the difficulties of connecting to the Internet when the only option was via satellite. I often sat fruitlessly watching the slow crawl of a site attempting to link up and it made me become more realistic about setting up relationships with schools in Sierra Leone using the Internet, knowing how hard it would be from their end. It also made me admire all the more the Peace Corps Volunteers who were blogging, say Bryan Meeker (whose latest post “What Makes a Volunteer” is incredibly moving).

So how wonderful to learn that today Sierra Leone is getting its first fibre optic cable that will make an enormous difference in the speed, reliability, and range of its Internet connections. The details are in this Reuters article:

Sierra Leone will secure its first fibre optic connection to the outside world on Monday with the arrival of theAfrica Coast to Europe (ACE) submarine cable in the capital Freetown.

Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a devastating 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, is part of a dwindling group of countries still wholly reliant on highly expensive satellite bandwidthfor internet connections.

Numerous studies have identified cheap and fast Internet as a factor that can boost a country’s economic growth.

“The vessel that carries the fiber optic cable is currently within the shores of Sierra Leone,” Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Information said in a statement.

It added the vessel would dock and lay the cable later on Monday at a landing station by Lumley Beach in western Freetown.

When complete, the 17,000-km (11,000-mile) ACE cable will run from France to South Africa, connecting 23 countries. The cable was launched by France Telecom as part of a consortium with telecom operators in participating countries.

Sierra Leone, along with neighbouring Liberia, missed out on previous fibre optic cables laid down the West African coast, such as SAT-3.

“At that time we had a civil war, we didn’t have the opportunity to articulate the arrangement to have a landing station here,” said Senesie Kallon, deputy director general of Sierra Leone’s National Telecommunications Commission.

At present, Internet access in Sierra Leone is currently slow or expensive, and often both.

According to the National Telecommunications Commission, the country as a whole has just 155 Megabits of bandwidth, less than would serve a small American or European town.

The World Bank estimates that bandwidth in Sierra Leone costs 10 times the level in East Africa and 25 times the U.S. price. Barely one percent of the 5.4 million population have access to Internet services.

The World Bank is providing $30 million to fund the connection of Sierra Leone to the cable offshore.

“There was an opportunity to connect Sierra Leone to ACE in 2011 and if the country were to miss that it wasn’t clear there’d be further opportunities,” said Vijay Pillai, the bank’s country manager in Freetown.

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Maria Tatar on Fantasy Worlds Then and Now

I’ve long admired Harvard’s Maria Tatar for her varied work on children’s literature and folk lore. She’s done a number of fine annotated editions of classical books and tales including her latest, The Annotated Peter Pan.  Today she has a very thoughtful article in the New York Times, “No More Adventures in Wonderland” in which she contrasts the older children’s books of J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll with more recent ones such as those of Neil Gaiman,  Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, noting that while the older and newer writers are both bridging the line between adult and child, they are doing so very differently.

While Carroll and Barrie were known for spending massive amounts of time with children (something quite acceptable then, but discomforting to us today), Tatar points out that “…Carroll and Barrie knew what children wanted in their stories precisely because they were so deeply invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”

She contrasts this to current writers like Suzanne Collins who provide for their child readers,”… an unprecedented dose of adult reality in their books, sometimes without the redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic of an earlier time.”

For me all these brilliant writers who create imaginary worlds are cross-over writers. It is just that those from an earlier time have a very different orientation than those today. Carroll and Barrie were trying to create worlds of imaginative delight, safe places for readers of all ages to enter. In today’s stories,” writes Tatar,  “those safety zones are rapidly vanishing as adult anxieties edge out childhood fantasy.”

A very interesting read.


Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Children's Literature, Fantasy, Fantasy Worlds, His Dark Materials, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman

In the Classroom: 4th Grade Scholars

I’ve written before here about my classroom work with Charlotte’s Web, in particular the glorious fun I have introducing my 4th graders to a scholarly approach to reading a book. I’d never considered that you could do such a thing with a children’s book until U.C. Knoepflmacher showed me how at a life-changing NEH seminar at Princeton in 1990 and have now done it ever since with my 4th graders.

This year, for the first time, I decided to see if we could rearrange the desks into a true seminar table. It worked and you can see the results here. The kids as always are blowing me away with their discoveries; I’m thrilled at all the new amazing things (even to me after so many years) in this remarkable book. This year, after the seminar is finished, I’m going to ask them to select a few of their favorite quotes and we are going to organize them as a display. It will be so interesting to see which they select and why.


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