Saturday, August 6, 2016

To Make a Family, It is Really Not so Difficult, n'est pas? 

Natalie Savage Carlson and The Family Under the Bridge

The sun is blazing, the temperature outside is in the nineties and climbing, and even the most die-hard of sun lovers are waving the white flag skyward in desperation.

Time for a Christmas story!

Not that The Family Under the Bridge, Natalie Savage Carlson's 1959 Newbery Honor Book is, per se, a Christmas story, but the month is December, the setting is Paris, and the time is somewhere in the decade of the 1950s.

Book #39:  The Family Under the Bridge (1958) by Natalie Savage Carlson; illustrated by Garth Williams. 97 pages.

With the return of the cold weather, the old hobo Armand, returns to his winter spot under the bridge tunnel of a branch of the Seine in Paris, only to discover that it's already occupied by the  three young Calcet children, Suzy, Paul, Evelyne, and their little dog, Jojo.

The children's father has died, leaving the family homeless. Determined to keep her family together, their mother, Madame Calcet, leaves her children under the bridge during the day while she works at her job, where she hopes to save enough money to eventually afford a rented room of their own.

Armand wants nothing to do with the children - starlings is what he calls them, and nothing but trouble - but the children see through his feigned gruffness and before you know it, he becomes their unofficial Grandpapa. Madame Calcet is less than thrilled with this development, she is prideful and views Armand as an undesirable, but the children love him.

While the mother is at work, Armand takes the children on walking tours of Paris, including a visit to his friend Father Christmas (a fellow hobo friend temporarily employed) at the upscale department store the Louvre.  When Father Christmas asked them for their Christmas wish, their reply is a real house. When he tells them that he cannot fit a real house on his donkey, the children become despondent.

Armand, alarmed at the children's unhappiness, tries to cheer them up, and they end up singing Christmas carols on the street while Armand passes the hat. Later that night, when the mother discovers that he let the children beg, Armand leaves in anger.

The next morning, worried about the children, he returns to the bridge, only to learn that the children have been spotted by two society ladies who want to "save" them. Armand takes the children to another friend, Mireli, a gypsy who, with her clan, are temporarily camped in a courtyard in the middle of Paris behind a a section of buildings being demolished.

The children and Armand are warmly welcomed, and Armand goes back that evening to get Madame Calcet. Upon arriving at the camp, she is horrified that her children are among gypsies, who she calls thieves and wanderers. Armand admonished her, asking her why she thinks that she is better than the gypsies. Madame replies that she is honest. Armand grants her that, but challenges her as to whether or not she is kinder or more generous. She has no answer.

On Christmas Eve, the family attends a party given by the Notre Dame congregation for the street people, and one of the gypsy men, Nikki, drives them there in his car. Armand has not been to a mass in years, but he finds himself asking God to find  roof for his homeless family.

One day soon after, a policeman comes into the gypsy camp looking for Nikki. The gypsies immediately pack up camp and depart, but they leave a tent and some food for the Calcets. Paul wanted to go with them, and when they are unable to find him afterwards, they fear that he has, in fact, joined the gypsies.

Paul returns a little while later. He hadn't joined the gypsies, he had gone to the Halles, the huge food market, trying to get a job to help his family, but the men had all laughed at him because he was so little. Armand then decides that he will get a job and help the family himself.

The policeman returns, and they discover that he didn't want to arrest Nikki, but instead, return his stolen wallet with his weekly wages and a winning lottery ticket inside. Armand tells the policeman that he's gone, and the policeman leaves with the wallet.

A newly spruced up and trimmed Armand then finds a job that, in addition to a salary, provides a four room house for the family to live. He wasn't a hobo anymore. He was a workingman of Paris.

The Family Under the Bridge at

Carlson's writing style is wonderful. With a few lines of dialogue and just the right amount of description, she creates believable characters and realistic settings. Her descriptions of the streets, shops and marketplaces of Paris immediately draw in the reader, and she smoothly integrates several historical points in along the way.

The difficulties with this book for the modern reader are several. The first is the modern child's almost complete lack of knowledge of geography. They don't know where Paris is, they don't know where France is, and they've kinda sorta heard of Europe, like, isn't that a country in South America?
(I am drawing from real life here, and yes, it is depressing).

The second is the lack of historical knowledge. Adults reading this book are cognizant - please, God, please! - of the fact that they are reading about post WWII Europe. Today's child - no.

The third difficulty is the different set of social sensibilities and social awareness between the mid-20th century and today. Reading in the context of the time is a learned skill, and no child possesses this skill. For a child to appreciate this story, an adult needs to lay a considerable amount of foundation. In my opinion, this story is worth the effort, and here is why.

The story is a family story, about a family sticking together, about a family redefining itself after the death of a father, and about a family that isn't defined by blood relations. We have no control over the family into which we were born, but we do have the ability to create the family we need and want. This is something a child needs to know, and this is why they should have this story.

Madame Calcet's actions by today's standards would be considered criminal, herself an unfit mother, and her children taken away. I don't know that it was so different then. Discussion point. Were her actions justified? What were her alternatives?

I don't know if kids today even know the words hobo or tramp. I see hobo, I think Emmet Kelly or the desperate men and boys that rode the rails during the Great Depression. Carlson's Armand is a contented hobo, living the life he choses to live. Today's kids are unlikely to view homelessness as a happy lifestyle choice. Gypsies are another unknown, and Carlson's sympathetic portrayal is still rife with references to dusky faces and beady eyes. Additional conversation will be necessary, but it's worth the effort.

I have never read anything by Natalie Savage Carlson before. My first impression after reading several chapters was that English was not her first language. The sentence structure at times, the cadence, seemed distinctly French. I was wrong, but not completely out of the ballpark.

Natalie Savage was born in 1906 in Kernstown, Virginia. Her mother, a gifted storyteller herself, was French-Canadian. Natalie's first published children's book, The Talking Cat and Other Stories of French Canada (1952), was based on her mother's tales.

Natalie had three older half-sisters and two sisters. The family moved to a farm, Shady Grove, along the Potomac River in Maryland when Natalie was very young.

At the age of four, she was sent to the Visitation Convent boarding school along with her older sisters. After three years, she returned home. Later, the family moved to Long Beach, California.

From 1927 to 1929, Savage worked as a writer for the Long Beach Morning Sun.  In 1929, she married Daniel Carlson, a naval officer, and the couple and their children lived in a number of locations: Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, & France. They also traveled extensively.

According to her biography on the de Grummond Collection website of the University of Southern Mississippi, Carlson, who wrote over thirty books for children starting in 1952, said that she writes about people of different races and nationalities because of her French-Canadian relatives who visited her family when she was young. She found the differences fascinating, and felt that by presenting different cultures to children through her books she was promoting understanding, sympathy, and tolerance.

Some of Carlson's other popular titles include the Happy Orpheline series and the Spooky the Cat series.

In 1966, Carlson was the U.S. nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen International Children's Book Award.  She died in 1997.

Natalie Savage Carlson Papers at USM de Grummond Collection.

Garth Williams may be best known as the illustrator of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, and well as Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books.

Garth was born in New York City in 1912, educated in England, and was a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London. In 1936, he won the British Prix de Rome for sculpture.

He died in Mexico in 1996.

Garth Williams' obituary in the New York Times.

Garth Williams Illustrator page on Facebook.

Question: Does anyone recognize a children's book, maybe circa 1960s, about two young brothers who left their family farm during the Dust Bowl to ride the rails? At some point, the younger brother was killed in an accident, but that's all that I remember.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Day the Storks Returned to Shora

Meindert DeJong's The Wheel on the School

Meindert DeJong was not into self-promotion.

I already love the man.

Other than the two brief entries that I found in two separate volumes of Something About the Author, one of which was a short obituary (he died in 1991), I came up empty.

According to SATA, outside of his books, the only additional information available were The Horn Book's publication of his Newbery and Hans Christian Andersen awards acceptance speeches, and one article on how to write for children for Author and Journalist.

In DeJong's words, "... before he [the author] can perform that duty of art, he has to listen for and to only one challenge: he has to listen to the cry of creativity. But he has to listen to it alone."

Good luck with that in 2016.

Authors today seem to be under a constant pressure to be out there, to have a strong media presence, a platform, to be accessible and open and approachable and on and on and on, world without end. That leaves me to wonder, how in the world do they ever get any writing done?  I remember reading an article about Alex Haley, how, when he wanted to write he would book a passage on a commercial freighter effectively isolating himself from life's distractions for weeks at a time. Since the end result was Roots, I'd say it was a good call on Mr. Haley's part.

Lucky for us, DeJong also saved his energy for what counted, and today's post is the evidence.

Book #38:  The Wheel on the School (1954) by Meindert DeJong; illustrated by Maurice Sendak. 298 pages.

Shora is a fishing village in Holland. It has some houses, and a church, and a tower, and is situated tight against a dike on the shore of the North Sea.

This is Holland of a century ago, with wooden shoes and white caps and wide-legged breeches.

There are no trees in Shora, save one well-guarded cherry tree in the backyard of a legless man named Janus, who spends his days guarding its fruit against birds and children. And because there are no trees, and because there are no wheels on any of the roofs where they could build their nests, there are no storks in Shora.

Lina, the only girl in a school of six children, wants the storks to come to Shora. Her aunt who lives in Nes has told her all about them. Lina writes a story about storks and with the teacher's permission, shares it with her classmates Jella, Eelka, Auka, and the brothers Pier and Dirk.

The children, with their teacher's encouragement, decide to bring the storks back to Shora. But with no trees, the only other way to attract them is to mount wheels on the rooftops for their nests. The problem is that there is not a spare wheel to be had in the town, so each child is sent out to look for one, especially in places they will be least likely to find one.

In the course of their search, the children all become better acquainted with the people who live in and around their small fishing village, who eventually band together to help them on their quest.

There is Grandmother Sibble III, the oldest woman in the village and the only one who remembers a time when there were storks in Shora; Janus, the fisherman who lost his legs and who strikes terror into every child's heart until he becomes their friend and supporter, the tin man, with his large family and less than stellar sales; and old Douwa, who was nearly a hundred years old and who took long walks along the dike every day.

Once Lina and Douwa recover and old wheel from the wreckage of the man's old fishing boat, only narrowly escaping drowning in the process, it then falls to the fathers to mount the wheel on the roof of the schoolhouse. They do so during the course of a weeklong storm that prevents them from being out in their fishing boats, under Janus's stern direction.

The children, and all of the town by now, are thrilled to see the wheel mounted, but worried that the storm will prevent any storks from arriving and watch the skies for any signs of the magnificent birds. In the meantime, Lina's little sister and her friend manage to get themselves locked in the tower, but the entire village except the fathers, now that the storm is over they are back out at sea for weeks at a time, turns out in search and the tiny tots are found, but not before they spot two storks "standing out in the sea".

It turns out that the storks have been trapped in a sandbar, and it's a race against time to rescue them before the flood tide starts. But rescued they are, and after being warmed by a fire, the pair are carried to the wheel on top of the school, where, after some consideration as to its suitability, they make their nest.

The storks have returned to Shora.

This was a book I fell into easily and read straight through until the end. DeJong has a  straightforward style and the ability to infuse the characters in his story with distinguishable personalities with an economy of words.

The story's not an uncommon one in children's literature; not the storks, but the coming together of people for a common goal and the inevitable consequence of better understanding and appreciation of those around us when we just take the time to actually engage with another human being.

It's a good story, and a timely one.

The setting is the world of DeJong's childhood, a world that was gone even when the book was first published in 1954. But childhood memories are some of the most powerful memories we possess, and you feel, after reading the book, that somehow Shora is still a place that exists, maybe just a little bit out of reach, but with some effort still a realistic, not a romanticized, destination. A place where people would have been content keeping themselves to themselves, but were shown the error of their ways by a little girl's wish, a wish so, "... impossibly impossible that it just had to be. "

Wheel would make a great read-aloud and serve as a golden opportunity to explain why Holland and the Netherlands are not synonymous.

The Wheel on the School was the 1955 Newbery Medal Winner.

The Wheel on the School at

Meindert DeJong was born in 1906 in Wierum, Netherlands and died in 1991 in Allegan, Michigan. In addition to the Newbery Medal for The Wheel on the School, he also was the recipient of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award, normally given to the world's best single book of fiction for children, for his overall works for children in 1962, and in 1969 he won the National Book Award in Children's Literature for Journey From Peppermint Street.

DeJong only began writing at the age of thirty-two, and his first book, The Big Goose and the Little White Duck, was published in 1938. During WWII, he was stationed in China with the U.S. Army Air Corp.

DeJong retired from writing in 1986.

Brief biography of Meindert DeJong from the New Netherland Institute.

Maurice Sendak is for another post another day.  If you haven't already, read My Brother's Book.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dick King-Smith and the Lives of Everyday People 

Crows, Corn and a Boy Called Spider in Spider Sparrow

Dick King-Smith is the author of The Sheep-Pig, which I have yet to read. The Sheep-Pig was the basis for the film Babe, which I have yet to see.  The Sheep-Pig was first published in1983 in Great Britain, and two years later it was released in the United States with the title Babe, The Gallant Pig. In 1984, King-Smith won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, a one time in a lifetime award for The Sheep-Pig.

This is an impressive accomplishment for a man who only began writing in his fifties, following his careers as a farmer and then as a teacher.

It's that farming background that comes through loud and clear in today's review for Spider Sparrow.

Book #37:  Spider Sparrow (1998) by Dick King-Smith, illustrated by Peter Bailey. 163 pages. 

Spider Sparrow's proper name is John Joseph Sparrow. Abandoned at birth, he is discovered, wrapped in an old woolen shawl, in an empty pen meant for sheep by the shepherd Tom Sparrow. Inside the folds of the shawl is a note, "PLEASE SAVE THIS LAMB". 

Tom and his wife, Kathie, have no children of their own, and with the assistance of Tom's employer, the farm-owner Major Yorke, they adopt the baby. 

It quickly becomes obvious that the child is "different".  Long, thin and sickly as an infant, he is still unable at the age of two to walk or talk. Instead, he moves on all fours, using his very long arms and legs, scurrying about like a spider, hence the nickname. And while he cannot talk, or seem to understand most of what is said to him, he possesses an uncanny ability to mimic the sounds of birds and animals, who respond to him as if he were one of their own.

Eventually, Spider masters a few phrases, his favorite being "Good un!".  His parents finally admit to each other that Spider isn't like other children.  In the language of the time, the boy is "simple", and everyone in the village knows it. In the words of the farm's manager, Percy, in discussion with Tom:

...all the village knows by now. Some'll be kind about it and some'll be cruel and some won't care - that's human nature for you. But I'll tell you one thing, Tom. Your Spider is a lucky little boy.

When Tom asks Percy just how Spider is lucky, Percy replied that the boy's got Tom and his wife for parents, and that he's happy.

By the time Spider is school age he can walk, but it's a splayed flat-footed gait, very slow, with his arms dangling before him.  He's the subject of mockery by a certain group of village boys, and one day they chase him and attack him when he falls to the ground. After that, Spider is only comfortable in his home or wandering the farm.  When he is denied entrance to the village school, his parents are secretly relieved that he won't be subject to the strain of dealing with others.

Spider continues to grow into a tall, thin teenager, but he is never strong, and always slow.  Happy to stay in his house and the farm, he is given the occasional job by Percy, who is impressed by the boy's ability with animals.

Most farm work is beyond him, but Spider excels at crowstarving, chasing away crows and other birds that try to feed on newly planted fields. Out on the farm, he's alone with the animals and at his happiest.

Spider's role at the farm expands with the advent of World War II, when many of the young men are called for military service. Percy's son is killed in action, and Major Yorke's is taken captive.

Aside from the lack of men, live goes on as before in the countryside, until one day a German plane crash lands near the farm, and the pilot is taken prisoner. But even after that event, life goes back to its old patterns of animal care and crops.

When Spider is sixteen, he catches a terrible cold and the doctor is called in. The doctor tells Kathie that Spider will be fine, but then afterwards takes Tom aside to warn him that Spider has a weak heart, and to be prepared. Shortly after, when Spider goes for a walk but doesn't return, Tom looks for him, and finds him in a shelter used during planting season. After sixteen years, Spider's heart finally gave out, but even in death, he was smiling.

Spider was happy.

Spider is the type of book I love to read but find less and less available. It's a quiet book, with nothing much really happening, where the focus is on people, and the natural rhythm of their lives.  In that it reminds me of Alcott's Little Women, a book I will read and reread just to spend time with Jo and Beth and Amy and Meg. I don't care what they're doing; I just want to see how they are.

Spider is set in a rural English village, beginning in the years following the Great War, a war that affected a good many of its inhabitants, and ending somewhere in the midst of World War II.  In his depiction of the time, place and people, King-Smith avoids any sentimentality; there is not some much as a whiff of nostalgia for some golden, simpler time which in reality only exists in revisionist memories.

People can be kind, but they can also be cruel. Life and death are a matter of course on a farm. Animals die. People die. We mourn, but life goes on. We do the best that we can.

Spider could walk, slowly, and talk almost not at all, but he was loved, and he was happy, and that is what truly mattered.

Dick King-Smith was a prolific writer, with something in the neighborhood of 125 books to his credit. The majority of the books focused on animal characters. Several of these books were adapted for film and television, most notably Babe.

King-Smith was born Ronald Gordon King-Smith in England in 1922 and died in 2011. He came from a well-to-do family that owned and operated a number of paper mills, and served in Italy in World War II. In 1943 he married Myrle, a childhood friend, while they were both in the service and they remained married until her death in 2000.

The Guardian ran an obituary on King-Smith when he died, and I'm providing the link here.  It pretty much sums up everything I've read on the man, and does a wonderful job.

I read another book by King-Smith titled The Catlady.  At some point I'll write a review, but if you get the chance to read it, do so. It's worth your time.

Dick King-Smith website.

Peter Bailey was born in India and grew up in London.  Read his biography at the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency.  Included is an online portfolio. Glorious!

Peter Bailey maintains a blog at Peter Bailey Illustrations.