Friday, December 31, 2010

"Lucky we know the Forest so well, or we might get lost"

The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner (Pooh Original Edition)I sometimes wish there were no movies based on great children’s literature. The movies in and of themselves may be fine, but I hate when the movies become substitutes for the books. So much good material is lost when that happens.

Take Winnie-the-Pooh. My four year-old announced last week that she doesn’t like Rabbit because he doesn’t believe in celebrating Easter. Me saying, “Honey, that’s not in the book,” is no argument at all, because she saw it in a movie. But our current read-aloud is The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, and I’m hoping she will absorb enough of it to know there’s way more to Rabbit than the DVD reveals. Actually, I’m hoping we can just erase most of the detritus the DVD left behind.

Last night we read the chapter titled, “In Which Pooh is Unbounced.” It begins with Rabbit’s absolutely horrible plan to take Tigger to the top of the Forest and lose him there, leave him overnight, and then rescue him, in hopes of unbouncing him. Because he’s gotten entirely too Bouncy, you see. As Rabbit says, “Because he’ll be a Humble Tigger. Because he’ll be a Sad Tigger, a Melancholy Tigger, a Small and Sorry Tigger, and Oh-Rabbit-I-am-glad-to-see-you Tigger. That’s why.”

Should I stop here to tell you how amazing A. A. Milne is? Do I need to tell you how good he is at seeing and illustrating human nature? How Rabbit is a character who can exhibit downright despicable behavior and yet somehow at the end of the story you are still able to love him? No, I probably shouldn’t do that and interrupt the story, because that would be bad writing. Much too didactic. How about if I tell you that if you haven’t read this book, whether you have children or not, (or if you have children, whether they are too old or too young for it,) please read this book! Watching Disney versions of it is not a fair substitute! Too preachy, huh? Back to the story, then.

They manage to lose Tigger, or at least leave him alone, and he promptly goes home to play with Roo. Rabbit, on the other hand, has a little more trouble.

“’Lucky we know the Forest so well, or we might get lost,’ said Rabbit half an hour later, and he gave the careless laugh which you give when you know the Forest so well you can’t get lost.”
I read sentences like that to my kids and things start bubbling under the surface of my soul. I think of pride and arrogance, and the all-too-familiar human tendency to want to squash what is different from oneself. While I continue reading the story out loud, there is this rich under-tapestry of thoughts, images, impressions, insights being woven in my heart, and the whole time I’m thinking, “Are my children hearing this? Oh, I hope they aren’t missing this!” Have you had this experience? We talk about things we read, and I ask questions and try to point a few things out, but having that feeling inside, experiencing that under-story, gaining understanding—those things happen because of the literature. I figure the more I expose my kids, and the more experience they get, the more that will happen for them, too.

It's my understanding that A. A. Milne was frustrated by how his books for children overshadowed all his other writing. I’ve only read his four children’s books. But I consider it literature for myself, too, as much as anything I’ve read that was written for adults. 

Maybe some great classic children's literature has been saved from obscurity by movie-adaptations.  Maybe it is a necessary part of culture to respond to great works and retell the stories in new ways.  I can't argue with those goals.  But at the same time, I fear that something can be lost in the process.  So, okay, you've seen the movie.  But will you read the book?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Taking a Break

I'm taking a break for a little while to celebrate Christmas with my family and get a little rest.  Hope you and yours are having a truly blessed season!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Amahl and the Night Visitors

Gian-Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS Narrative Adaptation by Frances Frost, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (1952 Hardcover 89 pages with illustrations throughout This narriative adaptation by Frances Frost preserves the exact dialogue of the opera.)A big thank-you to my friend, Joanna, for reminding me about this opera! Amahl and the Night Visitors is a one-act opera written by Gian Carlo Menotti. It was the first opera written for television, and premiered on Christmas Eve, 1951, on NBC.

This is both the Christmas story told from a distance and the story of a poor, disabled shepherd boy and his widowed mother. The pair are at the end of their resources and on the verge of resorting to begging so they will not starve to death. Amahl is a dreamer, and often gets in trouble for telling tales, so when he sees a new star in the sky one night, his mother does not believe him. Besides, she is more concerned with the fact that she cannot feed her son.

Later that night they are visited by three kings who are following the star, bearing rich gifts for the Christ Child. They ask to stay for the night, and while Amahl goes to get the neighbors the kings tell his mother about the Child they are seeking. Amahl’s mother cannot help but think of the child closest to her heart, to whom nobody will bring gifts.

After food and entertainment provided by neighboring shepherds, everybody turns in for the night. Amahl’s mother, however, is unable to sleep, haunted by the wealth surrounding her in her poverty. She tries to steal some of the kings’ gold, but is caught by their page, who awakens everybody. Amahl tries to defend her and collapses in her arms. The kings tell her she may keep the gold, that the Child they seek doesn’t need it, and they go on to describe the kind of king he will be. When the mother hears their description she breaks down, saying that she’s waited for a king like that all her life, and she wants to send Him a gift of her own. Amahl agrees, and offers the thing most precious to him—the crutch that helps him walk. He holds it out to the kings, and finds that he has miraculously taken a step without it. He has been healed. After much dancing and celebrating, he and his mother agree that he should offer his thanks to the Christ Child in person, and he joins their caravan as they leave to follow the star.

I’ve enjoyed a variety of TV Christmas specials in my life, but this one is entirely in a league of its own. You can watch it on DVD if you aren’t lucky enough to have a live production in your area, and maybe your local library has this book—adapted by Frances Frost and illustrated by Roger Duvoisin, containing all the dialogue of the opera in story form—tucked away somewhere.

Menotti - Amahl and the Night Visitors

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I once took a child to a library story time where in the course of 30 minutes the librarian read only two picture books. The rest of the time was spent singing songs about reading and doing activities that promoted reading. I, who was used to sitting cross-legged on the floor in rapt attention for book after book (yes—as an adult, too) was frustrated. After a while, this little girl wandered away from the group that was singing “I Love to Read,” picked up a book, and started looking at it on her own. She’d come to read, after all.

I get really uncomfortable with the thought that reading needs an ad campaign. My favorite approach to promoting reading is one that assumes reading is fun. It suggests, but maybe never says out loud, that reading is as elemental as breathing. It is based on relationship, and a genuine love of books. And good books. With this approach you spend very little time talking about how wonderful reading is. Instead, you share books with children—as many as you can get away with, as often as possible— because you love the books, but even more because you love the children. In other words, you don’t serve broccoli with a wrinkled-up nose, saying, “Really, it’s good for you! You’ll love it! Really!” You serve broccoli because it’s delicious and wonderful and you want to share this good thing with your children. (And if they don’t like it yet, they’re missing out, poor things!) I have been part of many library, school, and family story times where the person reading was as captivated by the books as the children were, where amid the squirms and whispers and runny noses there was an atmosphere of love and respect for both children and books.  The only interruptions were when one book was set down and another picked up.  The books spoke for themselves; it was obvious that reading was a special thing.

In her essay, “Stories,” in The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children, Katherine Paterson writes,

A teacher in Texas explained to me what she thought her task as a teacher of reading should be. For a long time, she said, we have been trying to train stoplight readers. We ask the children to read a bit of a story, stop, and talk about it. But what we should be working for is flashlight readers—readers who take a book under the blanket with a flashlight, because they cannot bear to stop reading what may very well be the best book they have ever read. If you want illumination, friends, a flashlight will beat a stoplight every time.
Is there really any more to say than that?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Swimming Lessons

Have you seen my comfort zone anywhere? Because I’ve been looking for it for quite some time. I vividly remember the last time I was there: I was pretty sure I had this mothering thing down, I felt confident I knew what I was all about as a person, my husband had a good job, everything looked set. I was sure I knew where we were going and what it would look like. I was even happy with my weight. Ahhh, 2003.

As it turns out, our little family was dangling above deep waters and we just didn’t know it yet. My kids weren’t old enough to show me that I knew nothing about mothering and was in fact a selfish, immature, bungling mess. The career change that I thought would turn us into normal (!) people actually only proved that the only molds my husband I were going to fit into were the ones in which we were made. And I won’t go into all the details, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves in the deep end of the pool.

At times it was exhilarating. For a while I was convinced that Great Things were just ahead. That’s how it goes in stories, right? You struggle through deep water and come out, shining and glorious and strong, on the other side.

I learned that when you’re in deep water you tend to start swimming. Shallow water allows you to stand still. You might make a few feeble attempts at swimming, but as long as the ground is right there under your feet there’s always the option of standing up. It’s hard to learn what swimming is like if you stand up every time you want to take a breath. So I learned about treading water, and floating on my back, and not hyperventilating while I learned the front crawl.

I kept thinking that once I learned how to swim I would get back to the shallow end of the pool. My work would be done. Sort of like in college when I would go into a violin lesson after a week of good, hard practicing, expecting some sort of celebration because I had mastered something. My teacher always acknowledged the work, but the party never happened. I had only done what I was supposed to do. He and I were both glad about it, but there was always more ahead. Mastery meant new expectations and new work, not to mention a new definition of mastery. Not an easy lesson—in violin, or in life.

So I’m swimming. Some days I love the rhythm of it, and the buoyancy of my body in the water. Some days I am so tired and discouraged I don’t think I can bring my head up out of the water one more time. Some days I spend all my energy trying to touch the bottom, other days I cling to the edge of the pool. Overall, I’m a pretty slow swimmer. I have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again, and I still tend to hyperventilate when I think about how deep the water is. But I am swimming.

2003 is easy to romanticize. The truth is that the year was shot through with the rumblings of future changes and challenges. That might sound ominous, but I don’t mean it to. I’m glad I am where I am, and I’m thankful for the changes our family has been through in the past seven years. All of them.

I fully expect that one of these days the swimming instructor is going to say, “Okay, kiddo, you’ve learned a lot. But this was just training. One of these days we’re going to take you out of the pool and you can have a go at the English Channel. But before that, well there’s no delicate way to put this…I think you should consider learning to swim without the arm-floaties.” Has anybody seen my goggles?

Monday, December 6, 2010

10 Bits of (Sparkly-Shiny) Magic

(Sometimes it’s not the thing itself that catches my breath, but the way it reflects light. I don’t know about you, but I love the way light plays, bends, bounces, reflects. How it changes what it touches.)

Remembering that grace and wonder abound if I’m willing to see it:

1. Christmas tree lights
2. Sugar
3. Dimples
4. Tinsel
5. Candle flames
6. Cobalt blue glass
7. Frost
8. Laughing eyes
9. Streetlights
10. Late-afternoon sunlight in the winter

What bits of magic have you seen or experienced recently?

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Firebird

I love The Nutcracker, but there are many other works out there that also bring together literature, art, music, and dance. If you want to broaden your children’s experience with ballet, try looking into the Firebird.

The Firebird is a character from Russian folklore—a mysterious, magical bird with fiery glowing feathers, often the object of a quest, that can bring both blessings and curses to those who find it. These sumptuously-illustrated books tell some of those traditional stories:
The Tale of The Firebird

Firebird Firebird

In 1910, Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Igor Stravinsky to write a ballet score for a new version of the tale, one that combined elements of the Firebird with an unrelated character, a sorcerer named Katschei. This was the first collaboration between the two men, and an important work from the influential Ballets Russes

Rachel Isadora and Jane Yolen have both written picture books that tell the story of the ballet, with illustrations that weave together the dance and fairy tale elements. In the ballet version of the story, Prince Ivan tries to capture the Firebird, but then releases her. Out of gratitude she gives him a feather from her tail, telling him to use it to call on her in time of trouble. She later returns to help him rescue ten princesses who are held captive by the evil magician, Katschei.

Of course, the music is an integral part of the work, so try listening to the Suite (a concert-version that is shorter than the full ballet) or even the entire ballet (about 40 minutes long, I believe.)

Stravinsky: Firebird Suite/Pulcinella SuiteThe Firebird Suite conducted by Pierre Boulez

Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (Complete Ballet, 1910) / Alexander Scriabin: Prometheus - The Poem of Fire - Valery Gergiev / Kirov Orchestra, St. Petersburg / Alexander Toradze
A recording of the complete ballet, conducted by Valery Gergiev

Or, if you can find a DVD performance, even better--there are several out there:

Return of the Firebird: Petrushka/Firebird/Scheherazade

A DVD containing a performance of the complete ballet, along with Petrushka and Scheherezade, Bolshoi Ballet, 2002