Here’s a fresh new take on fairy tales, with stories oriented toward adult audiences but with enough burlesque humor to make them attractive for the very young.  One king, for example, spends tax money on cheese and crowns and “fancy socks.” Another is married to a woman who eats too much cake and “falls off her shoes.”  The happy endings carry satisfying morals that are less disciplinary than inspirational, e.g., “I learned that lesson from you, my boy!  After all, there is nothing worse than being bored.”  It’s always a positive in my book when the young teach a lesson to the older and “wiser” generation.

The book comes out officially in October 2015 and then you can read about “kings, bogs and marrying frogs–and a queen with very bad hair.”

The Annotated Alice for the 150th Anniversary



Mark Burstein has edited the new Annotated Alice, expanding the notes and adding illustrations.  I will always treasure Gardner’s first Annotated Alice, but I am completely under the spell of this new Alice, with over 100 illustrations added by Arthur Rackham, George Soper, Barry Moser, and others.  As for the annotations, you can never know too much about Alice, the Cheshire Cat, e tutti quanti.

Translating Alice into 174 Languages



Read all about Alice in a World of Wonderlands:The Translations of Lewis Carroll’s Masterpiece.  Below some extracts from the Smithsonian article, and a link to the webpage for the 3 volume study of translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.



Middle Welsh and Manx, Lingwa de Planeta and Latgalian. In its 150-year history, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into every major language and numerous minor ones, including many that are extinct or invented. Only some religious texts and a few other children’s books—including The Little Prince by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry—reportedly rival Alice for sheer number of linguistic variations.

A massive new work, Alice in a World of Wonderlands, devotes three volumes to exploring such questions. Published by Oak Knoll Press, the books include essays by 251 writers analyzing the beloved children’s book in 174 languages. The essays are scholarly but peppered with anecdotes illuminating the peculiarities of language and culture as they relate to Carroll’s book.

While the three volumes of Alice in a World of Wonderlands may seem extensive, they are no match for the continuing popularity of Carroll’s creation. Even now, new Alice translations are appearing. An emoji version came out online a few months ago, and Everson says he just typeset the first translation in Western Lombard, a dialect spoken in Italy. “I hate to say it,” he says, “I think [the project is] already out of date.”
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Getting Inside the Mind of The Child



Before reading Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I decided to reread To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that I did not love when I first encountered it.   The novel had been assigned to my son, in eighth grade at the time, and we read it together, aloud.  Imagine my shock when, the second time around, I fell under the spell of To Kill a Mockingbird, and–its imperfections aside (the ending always feels melodramatic and contrived)–would make myself stop reading from time to time to make the book last longer.

Most will agree that Harper Lee lets us see the world through the eyes of a child in powerful ways.  Scout tells the story as an adult but she slips back with ease into the consciousness of her experiencing self, seamlessly moving back to the older and wiser adult, who adds information and clarifies the child’s account.  Scout is young, yet To Kill a Mockingbird is a coming-of-age novel, a genre designation that moves the book into the YA fiction camp.  But like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (why all the birds in fiction about the young?), To Kill a Mockingbird is a book for adults as much as for the young, perhaps more for adults than children.  My discontent during that first reading stemmed in part, I believe, from the sense that you had to be an adult to understand how Harper Lee lets us go back to our own childhoods and immerse ourselves in all the perils of childhood–the injustices, the powerlessness, the transgressive energy–and also its comforts and pleasures.  When you are 13, you get that and don’t need a Proustian nudge.

To Kill a Mockingbird takes us inside a child’s mind, but it also self-reflexively sends a powerful message about the importance about perspective, identification, and empathy.  “You never really understand a  person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” Atticus tells Scout.  And the golden moment near the end of the novel, when Scout’s voice shifts into the third person and describes the events in her story from Boo Bradley’s point of view, tells us that she has internalized her father’s wisdom.  In some ways, Harper Lee’s book inaugurated an age of empathy.

Last night I went to see Inside Out, with my son, now grown up.  Imagine my surprise when he found it captivating and true, and I found the execution lifeless even as I loved the concept.  I made a quick note to myself to see it again, though this time I won’t wait fifteen years.

Pixar Post - Inside Out characters closeup


Andrew O’Hagan Goes to Disneyland and Discovers That We Are All Imagineers

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O’Hagan captures the transformative experience of going to a Disney theme park—transformative for adult and child, with adults basking in the glow of their own superlative parenting skills and children finding a world where everything is “legible, self-representational, literal and witty.” When you want ice cream, for example, you just look for a cone-shaped building with a scoop of vanilla on top of it.   A brilliant analysis that supplements and surpasses Baudrillard in its tongue-in-cheek embrace of the culture industry, consumption, and the hyperreal.

The trace of Nabokov in the writing is sheer genius, and I now fully understand why I called my book about the power of stories in childhood Enchanted Hunters.  Can you identify the paragraph below that is vintage Nabokov?

We went into the Disney California Adventure Park and found ourselves in a colored clamshell, entering the Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, a ride in the Paradise Pier section. Lights and cold air gave us the illusion of floating underwater, and Nell looked up at me to see if I was believing. “This is awesome,” I said.

“A bit awesome,” she said.

“You mean, ‘not really’?”

“I dunno. I like her face,” she said. By this point in the ride Ariel was singing “Part of Your World” and every fiber in my sick being was saying “Yes. Yes, we are.”

“I think Daddy likes it more than me,” Nell said.

Reader, I am not beyond shame. But I was so happy I wanted to cry. I suddenly needed to live in this lagoon with all these fake bubbles. Nell is one of life’s natural stylists. She might only be 11 but she knows what’s what. When we stood in front of a giant painted billboard near Mickey’s Fun Wheel, and Sophia went to take a picture, Nell started doing the Charleston and I felt that the best spirit of all the best girls resided in my daughter. She ate a corn dog and we ate popcorn and bad food never tasted so good.

My daughter responded immediately to the idea of America as a built environment and of Americans as built too, by themselves. I think we all do. I took Nell to Paradise Pier in the hope she’d feel like Dorothy in the land of Oz, and she did, seeming entitled to her own large sense of belonging in a place that she’d dreamt of. And that place, Disneyland, is then a part of parental self-creation: In America, in Disneyland, you’re all the father or mother you can imagine yourself to be, creating — along with the Imagineers — a place for childhood that is larger and purer than you remember it being the first time round. So that is an evening we will always remember, the evening we looked up and imagined the sky too must be Disney.



BN-JI233_bkrval_J_20150710131550Meghan Cox Gurdon writes about the pleasures of reading aloud to your children in the WSJ:


Certainly in the modern era there is something quaint about a grown-up and a child or two sitting in a silence broken only by the sound of a single human voice. Yet how cozy, how impossibly lovely it is! Unlike tech devices, which atomize the family by drawing each member into his own virtual reality, great stories pull people of different ages toward one another, emotionally and physically. When my children were small, I would often read with my eldest daughter tucked in by my side, the boy draped like a panther half across my shoulders and half across the back of the sofa, a tiny daughter on either knee, and the baby in my lap. If we happened to be on one of our cycles through “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s swashbuckling classic, my husband would come to listen, too, and stretch out on the floor in his suit and tie and shush the children when they started to act out the exciting bits.

“We let down our guard when someone we love is reading us a story,” Ms. DiCamillo says. “We exist together in a little patch of warmth and light.”

A patch of warmth and light: that phrase brought to mind so many scenes of storytelling by firesides that radiate heat and light, but also cast tall shadows in the dark.  There is something warm, wonderful, and comforting about stories, precisely because they are the candles that enable us to see shadows and to face down our fears.

I have been reading The Runaway Bunny and other books to my three-month-old granddaughter, and I marvel at how the words in the story enable me to communicate with her, even if she does not yet have the gift of language.

Gurdon’s article reminded me of some of my happiest memories–reading Les Miserables with my children, 8 and 10, who adored the idea of a book that big; then reading Moby-Dick with my son when he was in high school (it gave him some relief from the solitary activity of homework); and reading my children to sleep with The Wind in the Willows, the only book that actually did put them to sleep with its lyrical beauty.


Remembering a Childhood



Yes, guilty as charged.  I admit that the idea of a novel in free verse stood as a barrier between me and Brown Girl Dreaming.  I had ordered the volume after reading about the flap with Daniel Handler at the National Book Awards, but let it languish until a transcontinental plane ride inspired me to pack up a few of the unread books I’d ordered over the past months–nothing like a plane ride for reading novels.

This is the kind of book that makes you want to go back.  I found myself moving back and forth between reading as an adult and reading as a former child, and at times wishing that the book had been there when I was growing up.  “Memory is strange,” Woodson writes.  “When I first began to write Brown Girl Dreaming, my childhood memories of Greenville came flooding back to me–small moments and bigger ones, too.  Things I hadn’t thought about in years and other stuff I’ve never forgotten.”  What I love about this book is how the reader’s encounter with Woodson’s childhood memories mirrors the author’s experience in writing the book.  Reading the book and writing it trigger repeated madeleine-like experiences.

I’m reminded of how odd it is that we have this category called YA fiction–Christina Phillips Mattson has written a dissertation on the topic (Harvard 2015 Ph.D.)! This is a novel about a childhood, and it captures that childhood as powerfully as Proust or Rilke did in their time.  Today more than ever, writers of so-called YA fiction are challenging a category that was most likely coined by someone in the publishing industry.  I have not yet tracked down the origins of the term, but I suspect it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s by someone who decided that the coming-of-age novel was not “adult” reading.  Could the phenomenal commercial success of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Golding’s Lord of the Flies have had something to do with it?

On another note (I could go on and on about Woodson’s book), here’s what I posted on Facebook:

I read Brown Girl Dreaming this afternoon and what should be in it but the Selfish Giant! Woodson describes hearing her teacher read the story and going to the library to borrow a copy of it. “I read the story again and again.” She memorizes the story and recites it to her classmates, who are deeply impressed. “But I just shrug, not knowing what to say. How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me, I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.” WOW
Remember Scout’s words in To Kill a Mockingbird: “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”


The Child As Philosophy in Motion



Anthony Lane reviews Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland.  Neither Douglas-Fairhurst nor Lane unearth any secrets about Wonderland, but Lane offers a wonderfully concise tutorial on Lewis Carroll and the Alice books.

Conversations about what is real, what is possible, and how rubbery the rules that govern such distinctions turn out to be abound in the tales of Alice. Yet they are sold as children’s books, and rightly so. A philosopher will ask how the identity of the self can be preserved amid the ceaseless flux of experience, but a child—especially a child who is growing so fast that she suddenly fills an entire room—will ask more urgently, as Alice does, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different.” Children, viewed from one angle, are philosophy in motion.

And my latest favorite passage from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

`I see nobody on the road,’ said Alice.

`I only wish I had such eyes,’ the King remarked in a fretful tone. `To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!’



Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales at UCLA on May 29


 Here are some excerpts from my talk about the aesthetics of empathy in Wilde’s fairy tales:

I will focus today on two aspects of Wilde’s fairy tales.  First, I want to take up the cult of beauty promoted in them—the auratic objects that participate in a decorative regime of fin-de-siecle aesthetics.  Then I will turn to the grotesque aesthetic that competes with and in some cases annihilates the floral and metallic beauty on display. Wilde’s fairy tales remind us that aesthetics , even in fin-de-siecle art, is deeply implicated with ethical questions. The cult of beauty begins to crumble in Wilde’s work under the pressure of economic realities in which abject misery becomes a moving picture with its own aesthetic power.

 Barnett Newman once told us that “the impulse of modern art is to destroy beauty,” and Wilde’s fairy tales, while not destroying beauty, insist on hollowing out its power by investing its opposite with a powerful emotional and empathetic charge. 

Empathy and compassion have their own pleasures,  and it was to Wilde’s credit that he recognized their short-lived value and understood that we need not only to “think more” (and his fairy tales made that possible) but also do more in order to effect lasting social change.

There were many great talks at the conference, and Joseph Bristow, who organized the event, hopes to publish the papers soon.



Editor’s Tough Love



John Green still vividly recalls the opening line of a stinging critique that his editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, delivered after reading an early draft of his novel “The Fault in Our Stars.”

“The first sentence was, ‘I really enjoyed reading the first draft of this promising and ambitious novel,’ and the rest was 20 pages of her tearing it apart,” Mr. Green said. “Her editorial letters are famous for their ability to make you cry and feel anxious. They’re very long, very detailed and very intimidating.”

One of her more memorable barbs described an overwrought climactic scene as reading “like bad John Green fan fiction,” Mr. Green recalled. He changed the ending.

Mr. Green didn’t suffer an ego bashing in vain, at least. In its revised and polished final form, “The Fault in Our Stars,” a novel about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, became a monster hit.