A Good Children’s Book is Hard to Find

I love illustrated children’s books. When I was a little girl, my mother had a tremendous collection of gorgeous illustrated books that she would read to me. Now that I’m older, I can’t help but to acknowledge what a profound effect they must have had on me. Through those books, I gained a life-long appreciation for beautiful art and beautiful words.

I’m not sure if my mother was just exceptionally gifted at finding beautiful books (which of course she was), or if children’s books were just a lot better then (which I think they probably were). Whatever the case may be, I just have a very hard time finding well-written, beautiful children’s books.

Yesterday I spent over an hour at our local independent bookseller and could not find a single book that I thought was worth getting. It was majorly depressing. I went through every single shelf in their children’s department and I couldn’t find anything that really spoke to my soul. Some of the books were okay (who doesn’t love “The Hungry Caterpillar”?), but they certainly didn’t speak to my imagination. The illustrations were either banal or downright bad. I did find some books by Demi Hitz which were quite pretty, and I was a little bit tempted by them. But overall, nothing really stood out. Oh…I also found a copy of “Bread and Jam for Frances”, by Russell and Lillian Hoban, which I also love. (By the way, do any of you remember the Caldecott medals they used to have for kids books? Do they still do that in the States? I have not seen any awards on kids books here in Canada, though I’m not surprised, as the choice here seems pretty dismal).

My husband picked me up afterwards and we had a long conversation about the whole experience in the car. I decided that for now I’ll just collect used illustrated children’s books, and if I want to get good books for very young children, I may just have to write them myself! I’m ready to run out and get some coloured pencils and have at it…

Does anyone else with young children ever feel like there are no books for children that are worth reading? I would love to know if any of you have found great new children’s books recently!

Walter Crane’s Beauty and the Beast

Generally speaking, I adore Walter Crane’s illustrations. They are so imaginative and I know many people have grown up with his drawings of tales from classic children’s’ literature. I have to say that when it comes to his drawings of Beauty and the Beast, I think I just might have to say I prefer Disney.

Something about the boar’s head on the Beast is just a little too disturbing. I suppose it reinforces the idea that the beauty falls in love with the beast despite his ugliness. Now that I’m a little older, I have to say I find the story exceptionally unfair. For one thing, what guy would fall in love with a girl who had the head of an animal? And what story would commend him for it? Let’s face it, in fairy tales, women are put through very different tests than men, constantly proving their “worth” by what they’ll put up with.

One of my all time favourite fairy tales is the Princess and the Pea–now there’s a girl I can identify with! Except now that I think about it, even she is forced to spend a miserable night tossing and turning on a lumpy mattress. At least she doesn’t have to endure being starved, beaten, bewitched, or married against her will, like many of the other fairy tale heroines.

Don’t get me wrong–I adore unvarnished fairy tales. But it always amuses me when I really start thinking about the deeper messages in the stories.

John Duncan’s Tristan and Isolde

Today I thought I’d share a bit about John Duncan. While Duncan does not have a great deal of name recognition, I’m sure most of you will recognize his painting of Tristan and Isolde, which is probably his best known work.

Most of John Duncan’s works show a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence, and he was extremely fond of painting Celtic subjects. Duncan (1866-1945) was born in Dundee, Scotland. The son of a cattle dealer, Duncan displayed talent for art very early and was enrolled at the Dundee School of Art at just eleven years of age. He spent much of his early adulthood traveling through Europe and studying the works of great artists, including Michelangelo, whose influence can be seen in his paintings.

Like many of our dear artist friends, Duncan seems to have led a rather unconventional, romantic and tragic existence. He was well known for claiming to hear “fairy music” while he painted–though what, exactly, he meant by this is not entirely known.

What we do know is that he fell desperately in love with a young girl who claimed to have fished the Holy Grail out of a well in Glastonbury. In spite of the heady romanticism of it all, their marriage ended tragically when Duncan’s wife left him and took their daughters with her to South Africa.

It’s a shame that Duncan seems best remembered for these two odd anecdotes. He produced a number of beautiful paintings that are still respected today (I will be posting some more tomorrow). In his own day, Duncan was well known for his writing on art, and was especially recognized for his work concerning children’s art education. He also was a regular contributor to Patrick Gedde’s influential magazine, The Evergreen. I would love to do more research on Duncan, but I’ve had some difficulty, as it appears that few books have been written about him. If anyone has come across a biography, let me know! Perhaps I’ll have to be the first to write one!

Sir Edward Burne Jones’ Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty Paintings

Sleeping Beauty is my all time favourite fairy tale. I was obsessed with the story the first time my parents read it to me and I adored the Disney film. My dad took me to see it in the theatre when I was six years old and for the next year I was obsessed with spinning wheels! We knew a lady that spun on a spinning wheel and touched the spindle to see if I would fall asleep! Oh my.

I also love Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ paintings. They always have an element of the fantastic in them. I love art that tell a story and so many of his paintings and woodcuts do! This series, entitled “Briar Rose,” is among my favourites. I think it also shows his artistic talent at its best and most mature.

Burne-Jones’s had a longstanding intrest in the story of Sleeping Beauty (or Briar Rose). He first did a tile panel of the story in 1864. Later, in 180 he did a small series of oil paintings for William Graham. In 1890 (nearly thirty years after the first series) Burne-Jones created a large set of four oil paintings that told the story of Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose). The series was purchased by Alexander Henderson, who later became the first Lord Faringdon, and installed in Buscot Park, Oxfordshire (where they still hang today). Burne-Jones’s interest in the Sleeping Beauty story of the Briar Rose began as early as a tile panel in 1864. A small series of oil paintings for William Graham followed, and then a larger set of four oils, finally completed in 1890 before being bought by Alexander Henderson, later 1st Lord Faringdon, and installed in Buscot Park, Oxfordshire.

Burne-Jones’ friend William Morris composed verses to accompany each of the paintings.

One thing that always bothers me about this series is that you never see Briar Rose wake up! Why do you think that is? You see the prince in the first picture, but the rest of the pictures focus on the sleeping kingdom. Perhaps he just wants to leave the final scene to our imaginations? Hmmm. Nevertheless, they are lovely, lovely paintings (you can click on the pictures to see them full size).

The Briar Wood
The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose.
But lo the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart.

The Council Chamber
The threat of war, the hope of peace
The Kingdom’s peril and increase.
Sleep on, and bide the latter day
When fate shall take her chains away.

The Garden Court
The maiden pleasance of the land
Knoweth no stir of voice or hand,
No cup the sleeping waters fill,
The restless shuttle lieth still.

The Rose Bower
Here lies the hoarded love the key
To all the treasure that shall be.
Come, fated hand, the gift to take
And smite the sleeping world awake.

Victorian Fantasy

I finally received a copy of Bruce Edwards excellent essay “Toward a Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Fantasy Criticism” from the library today. It is included in a volume of essays entitled The Victorian Fantasists, edited by Kath Filmer and published by St. Martin’s Press. I highly recommend the book as a whole. There are some great essays on William Morris and other great fantasy writers.

I will be doing a more in-depth review of articles from the book later, but I thought the book’s introduction by David Jasper merited some attention as well. While reading it, I had a sudden epiphany: In the same way that many of my favourite fantasy writers use a sort of idealized version of the Medieval period for the setting for their novels, many of today’s fantasists are using the Victorian times as a loose basis for their own fiction (the Steampunk sub-genre of fantasy literature is the best example of this–Golden Compass is the most obvious example of this genre that I can think of–if you’ve read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, they are also rather Victorian-inspired).

The nineteenth century is so evocative that I think we are naturally drawn to it. The world of Victorian fantasy was rich partly because of the romance and ritual that permeated everyday life. Bebe over at Peaches and Dreams made reference to this on Saturday, when she was writing about the movie Kate and Leopold. The 19th century was a time filled with ritual and thoughtful contemplation of what might today seem unimportant details. As Bebe notes, “a man spent time learning about the Language of Flowers so that when he sent (or gave) a certain lady a bouquet, his intentions would be clearly defined.” Sadly, she goes on to note that “the rituals are so unlike today, where running into a supermarket for the first plastic-wrapped, turbo-preserved bundle or dialing for a teddy bear mixed assortment is commonplace.” Sad, but true.

Of course, while the 19th century might seem romantic to us today, men like William Morris who actually lived through it were already bemoaning the rapid changes of the industrial revolution. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective. Do you think fantasy writers in the future will be inspired to write about our generation? Perhaps. I suppose you could say that the Harry Potter series is an example of this, but the stories are so infused with Medieval elements that I think it’s difficult to see them as being very contemporary. In any case, I think both the middle ages and the Victorian era will continue to hold a great deal of romantic power over readers as well as writers. How could they not?