on children’s stories
As the bee danced, it gave off the faintest scent of marzipan that mingled with the pinky-orange perfume of the hibiscus.
“Sweet…sweet,” whispered the hibiscus.
She drew her petals tightly round her, and drooped towards the sinking moon.
“Fly away now, for the honey,” she said to the bee. “Fly, so I can see you flying against the last of the yellow moon.”
“I wish I could have been a gentleman for you,” said the bee, and it flew off, towards the golden passing windows of the District Line, and the last of the yellow moon.
When I was a child my mother read to me almost constantly, and later she told me that her method was to lay my books out flat alongside each other in rows, covers beckoning with their rich oilpaint illustrations and embossed lettering, so that I could choose with more to entice me than the thin stripes of small-fonted vertical spines on a shelf. Many of these books make up the strongest memories of my childhood, and I’m interested in considering in what ways the rhythm of the language, the sometimes almost hypnotizingly measured development of the story, the aesthetics, and the fantasy of children’s books have influenced me in my thinking, my writing, and my appreciation of the world as an older person.
As a tot I loved the Frog and Toad books for no other reason than that Frog and Toad were, as it seemed to me, somewhat isolated best friends in a foresty world that I liked the looks of. Of these books I would say that their primary influence on me stems, interestingly, from the graphics: the greys and greens and browns of the watercolor illustrations seemed so cozy to me and reminded me of what my parents referred to as “lake light”, or the way that on overcast days the light sometimes looks green as though one were looking up at the sky from beneath the surface of a lake. The colors of the books pleased me and atmospheric, cloudy weather – my favorite sort to this day – still evokes the happiness I felt in reading them.
A favorite was always Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which I had on video cassette narrated by Jack Nicholson and which gave me the bizarre ability to imitate Nicholson’s nasal, ever-so-slightly-menacing voice perfectly as a six-year-old (watch all three parts of The Elephant’s Child here, here and here) and a knack for peppering my everyday conversations with vaguely out-of-place phrases (“the bi-colored python rocksnake”, “insatiable curiosity”, “the banks of the great, grey-green greasy Limpopo River”, and so on). I think these stories left an indelible mark on my way of speaking, for better or worse: they are swept along by a whimsical, pulsing rhythm, strings of adjectives that become comical in their accumulation, a pleasing cadence of repeated words and phrases, and overall a style that, even as commits itself earnestly to vividly illuminating a story, laughs at itself and in so doing mirrors the playful relationship of fantasy and reality that lies at the heart of a series of fanciful explanations for real life that is Just So Stories. They allow a child to imagine a more fantastical world behind the facts they are taught in school, and train him in the suspension of disbelief that can make life so much more interesting and funny for its duality and juxtapositions.
One of the stories that I remember perhaps most vividly is The Marzipan Pig. I think I can mark in this story the first time I felt alerted to the poignancy of solitude – I might venture to say that my own desire for solitude woke up when I heard this story over the years of my childhood, like a new baby turning its head sharply when it hears its father’s voice for the first time and recognizes it as the enunciation of murmurs it heard from within its warm darkness months before. The pig in the story, a festive candy gift to a child, somehow falls behind the couch and lies there alone for what feels like an eternity, awake in the darkness, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock and wishing someone would find it. As time passes it imagines the family’s frantic concern that it has gone missing; that upon its rescue there will be great rejoicing and celebration, but is alarmed when it realizes its toe, and then its haunch and sugary pink belly, are being nibbled at by a hungry mouse. Soon it is eaten up and the mouse emerges from behind the couch to nap in the grandfather clock. As the story goes on, taking place in one night and part of the next day, the sweetness of the Marzipan Pig passes from one body to the next in a somehow charming cycle of life and death – from the mouse to an owl to a bee to a nightblooming hibiscus and on. The nocturnal atmosphere of the story fascinated me, as did the vignette-like quality of the different creatures’ experiences and the fleeting intimacy of their interactions and unfulfilled longings (the grandfather clock who has fallen in love with the mouse who naps inside it, the owl whose bellyful of marzipan and mouse causes his heart to beat fast for the meter light of a taxicab and dance for joy, the bee and the hibiscus who court each other in the darkness, mourning the inevitable death of the hibiscus that will come with the sunlight and end their romance). The language of the story is elegant and slow, with the repetitions and lilting phrasing that lull a child into listening peacefully and hearing, between the words themselves, the life of the narrative behind them. The quiet intimacies and thoughtful privacy of the characters stuck with me because on some level I suppose I realized how much they echoed the experiences of an only child, who looks for connections all around him and, more accustomed to silence than other children, hears more deeply and in this way stumbles often upon the deeper and darker nature of his world. The Marzipan Pig deals with silence, solitude, longing, and fleeting happiness – all very adult subjects, if one considers them – in the same way that The Velveteen Rabbit, Abel’s Island, and Stuart Little do, and in a way that draws more relevance and meaning from them as one grows older.
Annie and the Wild Animals and The Girl in the Golden Bower had a dreamlike quality that made an impression on me, and brought about a sort of chilly unease that I liked and still like to this day. The two stories both involve girls who for one reason or another are left alone in houses in hostile situations, abandoned by adults and left to defend themselves against nature. In both stories, animals creep into their houses one by one and the domestic setting of the house becomes more and more overrun by the natural world. It occurred to me how dreamlike these stories are: children often dream of being left to fend for themselves, and the animals seem like clear symbols for frightening or otherwise foreign invasions of our safety. As animals appear steadily in groups of two or three per day, encroaching little by little, they mark the passage of time like seasons or daily cycles of light and dark – in other words, with the same measured symmetry that is so inherently present in nature and to which children look to guide them in their growth and development. The animals in these stories represent the awe-inspiring largeness and forward motion of nature, and I recall feeling equal parts terror and wonder at this mingling of natural and human worlds, in the same way that one is often fascinated by overgrown houses fused to the earth by vines and trees growing up through their foundations.
Phosphorescent – Wolves
The last book I’ll talk about is one of the most special to me, called The Boy & the Cloth of Dreams, which tells the story of a child whose beautiful blanket, woven for him by his grandmother to ward off nightmares, rips, leaving him vulnerable to all the terrors that seep into his sleeping mind through the hole. The story begins with a visit to his grandmother’s house, and the description of the meal they eat together and the blissful evening he spends before bedtime never left me: I was struck by their evocative aestheticism and to this day value things so much for their sensuality I think in part due to this book. The supper is described as salty, sweet, hot, cold; the evening striped with dusty sunlit columns and dark pools of shadow; the house scented with old wood and later, during the nightmares, filled with a vast darkness turning even the most familiar shapes into foreign, warped, looming mysteries. The cloth itself is a fantastic aesthetic object in itself: it illustrates the idea that the world of fantasy and reality, of the tangible and the abstract, could be connected in a physical way, giving mass to our imaginings (much like a passage of mirrors that allows for mingling of the spiritual and physical worlds). Later when, upon the instruction of his grandmother, the boy pulls threads from the moon and sun to mend the hole in his cloth, the fantasy of the story graciously melts away the reality of the situation – the distance, the actual makeup of sun and moon – like an elegant circus ringmaster bowing and pulling aside a curtain, and leaves children with only the most wonderful of aesthetics to feast their minds upon: the manifestation of the sun’s heat and the moon’s cold, reminiscent of the supper from hours before, into gold and silver strands tugged from their tapering rays in a way that could not seem more natural or perfect.
Wild Nothing – The Witching Hour
The children’s stories that meant the most to me, I’ve found, are those that brought my attention to things I still find haunting to this day: solitude, the painful loveliness of fleeting intimacy, the awful steadiness of time passing, the sensuality of light and dark and tastes and smells and temperatures, the eerie connections between the physical and metaphysical, and the imagination and its manifestation in our lives.