Is there anything lovelier than discovering a really talented, even famous writer by chance? That just happened to me with the British novelist Leon Garfield. As I browsed a local children’s bookstore, my eye was attracted to a cover, and then a stunning first sentence. I bought. I read. I read more. And then, as it happens, I heard about the jubilation in the children’s book community: Garfield is back in print!
Although he wrote in the 1960s, Garfield’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century settings, and his plots charting the intersection of England’s poor and her rising middle class, have made comparisons with Dickens inevitable. But not entirely helpful: the talents are different. Garfield is a master of terse telling. And of fantastically strained metaphors. In him the architectural structures of eighteenth-century literature blend well with the Romantic hyperbole of the nineteenth. Garfield’s vision is moral, shaped by the questions of the age in which he lived.
Of the four novels republished this year, start with Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper $6.95, 195 pp., ages 9 and up) whose title character is a young London pickpocket. The book opens with Smith’s capable pursuit of a disoriented country gentleman. Moments after he snatches the wallet, the old man is murdered. Concealed in the shadows, but not unobserved, Smith lingers long enough to learn that this is not a random killing: the murderers expected to find a document now held by the illiterate boy. A tense, book-length chase ensues. Along the way, big themes are sounded: the search for fathers; social deprivation; the mystery of inequity; and the difference, as articulated in the climax, between "justice and compassion." It’s a tribute to Garfield’s mastery and furtive wit that when Smith’s protector proves to be a literally blind magistrate readers don’t feel bludgeoned by an important symbol.
If the hairs on your head respond to Smith, turn to Black Jack (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paper $ 6.95, 197 pp., ages 9 and up) which opens at the Tyburn gallows where Smith so feared he would meet his end. There, a woman, pretending to be a widow, collects the bodies of her faux relatives and sells them to local surgeons for dissection. Only country folk in town for the day are duped into aiding her. Such is the case with young Bartholomew Dorking, whom the "widow" importunes to sit in her parlor with the executed murderer Black Jack, while she, unbeknownst to the boy, steps out to negotiate a price for such a promisingly large corpse. During this lonely vigil, the supposedly dead Black Jack rises. He compels Dorking to remove the pipe from his throat, stuffed there to cheat death. A daunting corpse, Black Jack alive is menace incarnate. At first, he stays with Bartholomew (whom he nicknames Tolly) of necessity and cruelty. But his motives shift as the young boy’s goodness, fear, and loyalty begin to work on him. There is a romantic doubling of this plot in Tolly’s courtship of an apparently insane girl who had been en route to an asylum when Black Jack overturned her carriage. (Her wealthy parents had nervously committed her to secure a sister’s engagement to the local lord.) This book poses the most fundamental question: can love change people? You’ll find Garfield’s answer nuanced and hopeful.
The transforming quality of love, and its limitations, are center stage in Chris Lynch’s new novel, Gold Dust (HarperCollins, $15.95, 196 pp., ages 10 and up). Set in an urban parochial school during the Boston busing crisis, the novel presents an uneasy friendship between Richard, a white twelve-year-old obsessed with baseball, and his new schoolmate Napoleon, a musically gifted Dominican cricket fan whose father has come to Boston to teach West Indian literature. Lynch remembers that Catholic schools in this troubled era became havens for white kids whose parents opposed busing. Napoleon is not the typical new student at Saint Colmcille’s, and those who are menace him considerably. Richard has been at the school forever. He tries to dismiss the new race and class tensions by thinking of himself and Napoleon as the Gold Dust Twins, a local version of Red Sox heroes Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. Only occasionally is Richard aware that his dreams shove aside those of his friend. Lynch does a masterful job of showing how fleetingly the boys’ love floats above, or gives them energy to fight against, the society in which they find themselves.
With the brief exception of Napoleon’s father, the absence of understanding adults in Lynch’s work will disturb some parents. But it rings true to current adolescents’ social isolation (their sense of it; and the wayward license and wasting irrelevance it bequeaths them). Our cultural moment makes one positively long for the hopefulness of Leon Garfield’s 1960s: that promise of cross-generational understanding he amply portrayed through historical portraits of young boys coming of age in the era before universal schooling.
If Garfield embodies the best hopes of the 1960s, Walter Brooks is the funniest herald of that era’s communitarian and anti-authoritarian impulses. From 1927 to 1958 Brooks, an advertising man, book review editor, and onetime New Yorker staff writer, authored twenty-six Freddy the Pig novels. These are American classics, and Overlook Press has been steadily bringing them back into print with Kurt Wiese’s fine original illustrations. This season’s offerings are the 1930 Christmas confection, Freddy Goes to the North Pole (Overlook, $23.95, 305 pp., all ages) and the 1953 Freddy and the Space Ship (Overlook, $23.95, 260 pp.), one of Brooks’s best. But you can start with any of the dozen now in print, or visit www.freddythepig.org to get some guidance from posted bibliographies, plot summaries, and opinions. There are a newsletter and T-shirts too.
What makes this beloved series so funny? Comic understatement. Pratfalls and predictable personality quirks. Brooks writes in a distinctively American style that looks both back and forward: he combines a gentle, rural humor with a subversive mockery that leaves no authority untouched. At the center of all the fun is a pig named Freddy, who lives on the Mr. and Mrs. Bean farm in upstate New York. Freddy writes poetry, solves crimes, edits a newspaper, is president and founder of an animal bank, helps establish the first animal republic, hosts Martians and teaches them how to play baseball. Oh, and he has time to be lazy too. In fact, one of the most charming things about the books is the bemused improvisations in which Freddy and Brooks engage. In the first half of the novel, Brooks typically sets up some grand plot only to lose the thread: then he, like Freddy, bumbles his way to the end.
There are other treats too. As in all good series, the stock characters of Freddy the Pig books feel as familiar as family. These include Jinx the cat, sister cows Mrs. Wogus, Mrs. Wurzburger, and Mrs. Wiggins (Freddy’s detective partner), a bombastic rooster, an ironical owl, an evil rat and his gang, a loyal old horse, an untalented lady poetess, and the virtually speechless but radiantly good farmer Bean. The more of these books you read the better: it is that much funnier in Freddy and the Space Ship when Mrs. Peppercorn forces her way onto the Mars-bound rocket and pens horrible hymns to the red planet, if you recall her poetry contests with Freddy in Freddy and the Dragon.
Halfway through Michael Hoeye’s Time Stops for No Mouse (Terfle, paper $12.95, 279 pp., ages 9 and up), I thought: Here could be a new Brooks. In this first novel, Hoeye has created a hilarious community of city-dwelling animals and an appealing hero, Hermux Tantamoq. By virtue of his honesty, dreaminess, and infinite capacity to lose nerve, the fastidious mouse watchmaker has much in common with Freddy. Hermux lives with his pet ladybug Terfle and by an ironclad routine, which includes daily coffee and donuts you can almost taste. When the fetchingly imperious mouse aviatrix, Linka Perflinger, fails to collect a watch she wanted repaired pronto, Hermux starts nosing around and stumbles into the dark side of a cosmetics industry hell-bent on finding the secret of eternal youth. Where Brooks takes comic aim at violators of the social contract-greedy captains of industry, flimflam men, cold warriors, and authoritarians of all stripes-Hoeye trains his guns on the foes of beauty in all its unpredictable and idiosyncratic glory: decorators, postmodern performance artists, body tuckers, cosmetic purveyors. If his targets seem right up to date with the current American vanitas, so does his style. The Depression-era Brooks wasted nothing. Hoeye tends to the extravagant: in names, scenes, typography (consider yourself warned), and in squandering characters who might have lived into future books. But long may Hermux wave: with a different font and an illustrator as fine as Kurt Wiese.
For edgy contemporary illustration, you won’t do better this year than Little Lit: Folklore & Fairy Tale Funnies (RAW/HarperCollins, $19.95, 64 pp., all ages) edited by cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. Spiegelman is well known (even notorious) for his New Yorker covers and his award-winning Holocaust graphic novel, Maus (Pantheon, 1991). He and Mouly, his wife, have gathered sixteen European and American cartoonists and children’s book artists to revive cartoon retellings of the old tales (Pogo’s Walt Kelly provides a 1940s example from the Fairy Tale Parade comics). While some stay close to their story (David Mazzuchelli gorgeously illustrates the familiar Japanese story of fisherman Urashima Taro; Spiegelman turns his wit on a Hasidic parable), most provide campy addenda to, or arch commentary on, the tales (notably, William Joyce takes "Humpty Dumpty" as starting point for a fresh egg story, and, in her version of "Princess and the Pea," Barbara McClintock stresses the downside of the princess’s hypersensitivity). A few offerings are probably too macabre for children, but even among those are revelations. Adult cartoonist Kaz’s version of an appallingly circular Estonian tale about greed is outstanding. It finds a lighter comic double in Joost Swarte’s brilliantly timed Danish tale, "The Leafless Tree." This collection is not for everyone, but I found it a big relief from the timidity now plaguing picture books.
In fact, I am overprepared to trust the mordant and subversive (but not the ironical) because of my belief that the rise of protective sentimentality in children’s literature correlates with what has recently been called the "last taboo" in children’s books, namely the prejudice against the subject of religion. Apparently, skittish publishing conglomerates fear the wrath of both secular, liberal consumers who think any mention of religion invites indoctrination, and conservative Christians looking for doctrinal offenses everywhere. With William Bennett the most visible purveyor of values and faith for kids, and parents suing states to remove Harry Potter from libraries because it’s satanic, who can blame them?
But I am starting to doubt my instinctive reach for those who gladly offend decorum and piety, and yet fearlessly pose the same big questions religion does. These writers do not present the only way to jump-start our sluggish sense of wonder. Sometimes they are dead wrong: British novelist Phillip Pullman, whose theodicy rage I have alternately praised and questioned in these pages (November 17, 2000), spent the autumn jetting around the United States on a book tour announcing that C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are "ugly and poisonous," and that Lewis’s Christian vision caused him to write a series that "hates life." That is inane. Lewis’s series is radiant with the love of this world. The simplest way you know this is that when you read it, you want to eat every single food mentioned: the lumps of butter, the creamy milk, the hot potatoes, even (a medievalist friend adds), the dirt that the trees enjoy.
So comes a lesson: even in our deaf age, a book engaged with the big questions need not be written in mordant, society-defying excess. Lewis’s incarnational imagination still provides a resource, one which argues that a well-realized world is one on whose behalf we ask such questions. So, on to a few of the quieter works of such imagination this season.
Gloria Whelan’s National Book Award-winning Homeless Bird (HarperCollins, 216 pp., $15.95, ages 10 and up) tells the story of a rural Indian girl, Koly, whose poor parents betroth her, sight unseen, into a family untroubled by her modest dowry. After a tense wedding ceremony, it becomes clear that her young husband is fatally ill, and that his parents sought the marriage only to get money for a healing trip to the Ganges river. He does not survive the journey, and Koly, following slave-like service to her new mother-in-law, is cast out into the homeless world of Indian widows. How she rebuilds her life-through her skills at embroidery, the chance kindness of a street boy, a visionary philanthropist, and lots of hard labor-composes the remainder of the narrative. What makes the book memorable is the counterpoint between the sounds and smells of relentless labor and the reticent, formal love that Koly extends not only to those around her but also to her inaccessible past.
Ian Falconer’s Caldecott Honor book Olivia (Atheneum, $16, ages 3 to 7) is this season’s most understated, and, at the same time, exuberant picture book. By limiting his colors to white, red, and shades of black, Falconer creates a restrained background for a very energetic young pig. Anyone who lives with a toddler will experience the shock of recognition. Others will be delighted to see the resources of high culture (most charmingly, Jackson Pollock) given a natural place in the lives of children.
The incarnational imagination need not find its only outlet in fiction. Diane Stanley’s stunning Michelangelo (HarperCollins, $15.95, ages 8 and up) is the latest of her picture-book biographies. (Her other subjects are Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Princess Ka`iulani of Hawaii, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Cleopatra, Shaka: King of the Zulus, and Peter the Great). Though I admire many things about Stanley’s narrative and visual artistry, I like best that she begins her stories with childhood and ends them with death. This allows young readers to identify with the subject, and also to see their own lives on a continuum. With Michelangelo, Stanley breaks new stylistic ground. Her decision to incorporate photographs of the artist’s work into her own pictures has been controversial, but I think it is excellent. Children get a chance to see the art works in the context of their making rather than first encounter them as highly prized products. Watching the proud and prickly Michelangelo begin his glorious work on the Vatican’s ceiling cannot but stretch a child’s understanding of the heights to which our imperfect humanity can soar.
Finally, two books explicitly about religion: Commonweal contributor James T. Fisher has written a history of Catholics in America (Oxford, $22, 174 pp.) for Oxford’s Religion and American Life series. Lively personalities and attention to Catholic influences on pop and political culture make this appealing for high school as well as college-age students. In I Believe in Water, Marilyn Singer collects twelve short stories by young adult writers, which chronicle what she calls "brushes with religion" (HarperCollins, $15.95, 279 pp., ages 12 and up). The book explores adolescent religious longing and doubt, the efforts of young people to integrate multiple religious heritages and to appropriate what seems best and true about the faith they have inherited.The title comes from Naomi Shihab Nye’s beautiful, wry story, "What Is the Dickens?" in which a teenage girl sits with a dying grandfather. She struggles not only with his impending death but with his judgment that her religious faith is idiosyncratic and thin. Like the collection’s best (I also recommend Gregory Maguire’s "Chatterbox"), Nye’s story does not impose religion on the material but lets it emerge naturally out of the drama.