Children’s Literature

I read recently that classic children’s literature is being removed from schools and school curriculum.  Books like The Odyssey, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are now considered unsuitable for a child to read or to be taught.  I take exception to this.  There is great Children’s Literature out there and to be honest I don’t think that the books that claim to be written for children these days are not anything more than feel good shlock made for the child to feel ok about his or her own self as opposed to becoming self-aware that we all can always be improving.  It has been said that once you stop changing you start dying.  I think this is true.  We are people that have been put on this planet to grow first outwardly and then inwardly.  We start out being constantly in need and when we have grown old enough, we begin meeting the needs of others and this should never change.

There are some books that we should come across early in life that celebrate just letting a child be a child.  Winnie The Pooh, Peter Pan and Tom Sawyer are three of these.  Let’s take a look at these three classics.

Winnie The Pooh is heading toward his one hundredth birthday.  He is 95 this year.  AA Milne released the “silly old bear” on the world in 1926.  I doubt there are very many children in the world who don’t know of this lovable bear.  The reason, of course is the star treatment this character has gotten from The Walt Disney Studio since the 1960s.  Disney, as much as I admire the work of Walt Disney did a bit of disservice to Pooh Bear.  The book of his adventures is charming because they are not adventures at all.  Winnie The Pooh never gets his honey as is depicted in the film Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.  He really never accomplishes anything in the books, and he is perfectly content with that.  His world is the world of the very young pre-school child who also plays at all kinds of imaginary games but never goes much further than his back yard.

Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, is an adventure for all the characters.  Peter defeats Captain Hook and saves Wendy, John, and Michael.  Here we see character development in Wendy, John, and Michael as they leave Neverland knowing they will grow up.  In the book Peter’s lost boys go with Wendy and her brothers and are adapted by Wendy’s parents.  Peter however stays the same.  In the book and in the original play Peter comes back for Wendy and in a heart-breaking scene finds that she has grown up with a child of her own named Jane.  Being heartless Peter takes Jane to Neverland and we are led to believe this will go on thru time.

Tom Sawyer is probably the most read of Mark Twain’s novels by younger people.  But younger people were not his only target audience in his Preface he wrote: ‘Although this book is intended mainly for boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and how they felt and thought and talked and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.  – Hartford 1876

Mark Twain was not only writing for children but for adults too.  Any children’s book worth its salt should be able to engage the adult as well as the child.  In other words, it might be easy to read but the words and stories have depth to them that you have to look for in order to find them.

Tom Sawyer is like that.  Here is a boy longing to hold on to his childhood but being slowly drawn into adulthood.  He is a hero and an antihero at the same time.  His friends Becky Thatcher and Huckleberry Finn are names etched into our collective memory and it would be tragic if any of these names became forgotten.

As we grow older the world of children’s literature grows with us.  We begin to have complex thoughts so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with its charm and wit appeals to us.  We make friends, some of which will be life long and so The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham makes sense to us as there are no better friends in literature then Mole Rat Toad and Badger.  Our minds begin to solve problems and we begin to learn more complex math and language skills.  Even at this stage there is a book, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Most of the books mentioned in the last paragraph, in fact I think all of the books in this Blog have been made into movies, but they weren’t good movies.  The screen writers took liberties with all the books and cut out some of the best parts.  There is a stop motion animation version of The Wind in the Willows that is well worth seeing.  And the 1970s adaptation of Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker is also worth watching.  Still parts are left out and there is nothing like the book.

One book that captured my imagination in the fifth grad was My Side of the Mountain by Jean George.  Sam Gribley, a city born boy, learns to live on the land his grandfather bought in the Catskill Mountains.  That book was mostly novel, but it also taught you how to fish and other practical camping secrets.  I am no great outdoorsman, but I love a good adventure and Sam striking out on his own, building a house inside a tree and taming a falcon to help him hunt food had everything a boy could want.

There are other books that I wish I had read when I was younger but was glad, I discovered them as an adult.  Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a great American novel.  I don’t really see it as a book for children alone.  It is about four sisters growing up and sharing hard times as well as fighting and making up.  It’s really about the idea that if real love exists in a family, you can conquer the worst of times.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is another book that teaches fundamentals of life.  Those lessons are that hard work, and healthy habits are what you need to lead a good life.  It helps that it is set in an old castle on the desolate Yorkshire moors with strange secrets.

Robert Lewis Stevenson gave us the greatest high seas adventure of all time when he wrote Treasure Island.  Treasure maps, pirates, tall ships, men with one eye or leg and black spots thrill the imagination.  There is a very good film version of this book starring Christian Bale and Charlton Heston.  I still believe it is more fun to read the book first and see the film afterward.

Now we come to the father of modern fantasy the great JRR Tolkien.  While professor Tolkien was grading papers, or so the story goes, he wrote on the back of one of the exam books, “Once in a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”  And the world would never be the same.

The Hobbit was published on September 21, 1937.  It became a popular book for children and Professor Tolkien found that he had very strong base of enthusiasts for his book.  The story of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to aid the 13 dwarves to get their gold back from the dragon Smaug took the reader into a new land of Middle Earth and they didn’t want to leave. 

I first came upon the book when I spent the night at my Aunt Mary’s house.  It was sometimes in the 70s and I can’t remember why I was there.  I was put in my cousin Steve’s old room. Steve is ten years older than me, and he was already married.  I was rummaging through the bookshelf and found The Hobbit.  I started it but of course couldn’t finish it all in one night and asked if I could have it.  Steve had left it behind and as anyone knows treasure that is left behind is free for whom ever finds it.  My Aunt Mary said “no”, but I could borrow it.  So, I did and was transported myself to the best of the fantasy worlds.

I remember the first time I read the book of having a dream where the dwarves came to me and in one way or another invited me to go with them.  I remember pickaxes and ropes and climbing but that’s about all.  The Hobbit had a hold of my sub-conscious mind as well as my conscious mind.

If you look at the title of Walt Disney’s first animated feature, you’ll find that it is called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Tolkien, who was, to put simply, a professor of languages, decided that that was not the way to spell Dwarfs and changed it in his book to dwarves.  It has remained that way ever since.

Tolkien got letter after letter asking for information about hobbits and Middle Earth.  It would take him almost 20 years to publish The Lord of the Rings the first book of the sequel, The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in July of 1954.  The other two books in the trilogy would follow, The Two Towers in November of 1954 and The Return of the King October of 1955.  These books probably surprised his readers.  The light touch of The Hobbit was slowly pulled away and a darker scarier world was revealed.  Tolkien had gone form writing books for children to writing books for both children and adults.

With the publication at the subsequent popularity of The Lord of the Rings books of fantasy were no longer just in the realm of children’s literature but squarely in the world of books for adults too.  And those adults who cherished the memory of going to Wonderland with Alice now would have books that led them into strange new worlds of adventure and excitement.

I would be remiss in not mentioning here CS Lewis and his Chronicles of Narnia.  Lewis was a friend of Tolkien and an atheist.  The story goes that one day the two friends took a walk.  They both loved the old myths and legends of ancient times and Tolkien explained to Lewis that Christianity and Jesus redemptive work on the cross was the one true myth.  This argument convinced Lewis that Jesus was all that he said he was and that the Gospel’s were true.  He became an ardent follower of Jesus and wrote many books for adults on Christianity.  Mere Christianity is Lewis’s explanation of The Christian Faith.  The Four Loves is an explanation of the four Greek words for love and how they interact with Christianity.  Surprised by Joy is his memoir.  All these books are great for adults but his work for children may well out last anything else he wrote.

CS Lewis once said “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now That I am 50, I read them openly.  When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”  He also said, “Someday you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”  In Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he gave us, in seven books, the history of Narnia from its creation to its end.  He also gave us many characters to know and love.  First the children who find their way from our world into Narnia and then the inhabitants of Narnia itself, Prince Caspian, Reepicheep, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and Father Christmas himself.

The Narnia books are more than fantasies.  They are in many ways allegorical to the Christian faith.  Many people come away from reading these books with their faith strengthened and commitment to Christ renewed.  Others who read them see no connection at all between Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia and in that I believe you see the genius of CS Lewis.

There are so many other books that in children’s Literature that I could mention but if I did, we would be here for weeks on end.  The Harry Potter books that grew up with the readers as they originally were published.  Aesop’s Fables which seem to have disappeared in these days but when I was child held valuable lessons and still do if they are sought out.  Then there are the books of legends, The Greek God’s and Heroes and The Norse Gods and Goddesses.  Then there is The Matter of Britain better known as The Story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and we cannot leave off this list The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The there are the fairy tales those collected by The Brothers Grimm and those written by Hans Christian Anderson these are some of the tales that Lewis was speaking of when he said there would be a time when we are old enough to read fairy tales again.

One last thought somewhere in the late 1800’s L Frank Baum decided that American children had no fairy tales of their own.  Oh, we had our legends, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and The Headless Horseman to name a few but no magical fairy stories.  In 1900 Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and gave America it’s first fantasy.  Baum would go on to write 15 Oz books all truly delightful tales and all for American children, though, of course, the books would go on to delight children around the world.

I started this as a call to arms not to allow classic children’s literature to disappear from our schools and libraries.  Our kids shouldn’t be deprived of the lessons these books teach and adults should be at the forefront of the fight reading these books again and digesting the simple yet profound messages almost every one of these books teach.

DISNEY

It was December 1966.  I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died.  I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost.  I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.

Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember.  He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color.  We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful.  Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights.  He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.

Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life.  They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.

It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on.  It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great.  The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back.  Disney always finds a way to fly again.

I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins.  Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted.  But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters.  The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release.  Movies don’t do that today.  I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys.  Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too.  One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.

Fun fact:  Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for.  The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place.  When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day.  She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube.  That was all he needed.  He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written.  It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.

In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question.  Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy.  Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary.  Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic.  With the last important vaccine, we got a song.  What will get from what we have now?

Another fun fact about Mary Poppins.  Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio.  After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film.  Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year.  It was competing against My Fair Lady.  And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture.  Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree.  I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.

Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by.  Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.

When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film.  When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature.  The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out.  But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug.  In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.

That’s something else that needs explaining.  Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today.  There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first.  With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good.  They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one.  I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In.  I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.

The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years.  I was nine when Peter Pan was released again.  The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start.  Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Peter Pan changed me somehow.  It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before.  I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter.  We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high.  That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s.  A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to.  When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland. 

In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan.  We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things.  I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys.  The toy could only be one thing.  That box could be anything.  Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.

It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose.  (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?)   The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.

Disneyland was my big hope back in those days.  But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question.  We went on vacations.  We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada.  We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland.  The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.

A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off.  And all of us was a lot.  My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph.  I knew he was there I saw him there on TV.  They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me.  She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it.  I was terribly disappointed.  To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.

This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives.  Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights?  Disney World, of course.

!971 brought us Disney World.  This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away.  He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films.  He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be.  Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.

It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World.  12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom.  You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do.  I enjoyed every minute of that trip.  The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.

My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places.  Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us.  For some people it is great churches and cathedrals.  For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore.  Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires.  Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces.  Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one.  I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are.  In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.

The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical.  We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed.  I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now.  I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school.  Those years were hard for me.  They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was.  I fell in love with other things during that time.  Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities.  My interest in Disney waned until 1991.

In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast.  The first of these films was The Little Mermaid.  I hadn’t seen that.  In fact, I avoided it.  Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same.  I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house.  I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.

In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury.  Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song.  Disney magic was 100% back in that song.

I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes.  This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced.  Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles.  The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I.  It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant.  That was magical too.  Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film.  Disney had made magic come to life.

After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat.  I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely.  Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.

I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida.  I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special.  She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world.  Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph.  They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together.  We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property.  Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.

In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence.  Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work.  No one in the parks is an employee.  They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work.  Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience.  No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood.  I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy.  I’m not saying I was perfect at this.  I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me.  I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.

There is so much more I could say about Disney.  We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians.  There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch.  There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham.  There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage.  Disney Magic in a whole new medium.

Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.  I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me.  I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future.  At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience.  I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it.  I believe that’s what Walt would do.