Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Real Lives of Curious George, the Cat in the Hat, and Other Old Friends

Curious George, the BFG, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Could anyone ask for better friends than these? Well, sure: their authors. Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss are every bit as well known as their fictional counterparts, and you can bet that their stories are just as interesting. The biography or autobiography of a children’s author is guaranteed to be one of color and creativity, and just as hard to put down as that original book that captured your childish heart all those years ago.

Beatrix Potter’s Journal by Beatrix Potter, edited by Frederick Warne Publishers, 2006, Warne Books (Biography/ Picture Book)

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) was drawing backyard creatures, pet rabbits, and guinea pigs from her earliest years. A dreamy and creative child who loved art and nature and animals, it’s no surprise that her creations Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle became very real and dear to her. This illustrated biography, in the form of a fictional journal based on real diaries and letters, is a true gem. Flaps lift to show beautiful reproductions of artwork, envelopes open, letters unfold (the letter from Beatrix’s brother about getting the exact measurements of a pet bat is a particular delight), and sketches and other documents from Beatrix’s life are scattered throughout her handwritten journal entries. From her drawings of fungi to her relationship with her publisher Norman Warne to her purchase of her own Hill Top Farm in England’s Lake District, Beatrix Potter’s life is one filled with old-fashioned romance, understated humor, and the charming little animal critters that have been loved by readers for over one hundred years.

The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey by Louise Borden, illustrated by Allan Drummond, 2005, Houghton Mifflin Books (Biography/ Picture Book)

Curious George and his friend the Man with the Yellow Hat currently reside in picture books, television sets, and movie screens. But they got their start in a humble flat in Paris, where their creators H.A. and Margret Rey came to honeymoon and stayed to live and work. Both H.A. (Hans Alberto; 1898-1977) and Margret (1906-1996) were Jews born in Hamburg, Germany; when Hitler’s forces invaded France in 1940, the couple knew it was time to leave. Joining millions of people who fled the city and crowded the trains, the Reys made their escape on a pair of rickety bicycles—with the manuscript that would become Curious George (his original name was Fifi) strapped to Hans’ back. The book that tells of this amazing journey through France, across the Atlantic, and to New York City is a lovely work of art all by itself. Author Louise Borden conveys the Reys’ story in poetic style. Allan Drummond’s illustrations are charming and energetic, whether they show the romance of the Reys’ pre-war years or the more desperate rush to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. Photographs, letters, passport stamps, and intimate details lend authenticity to this story that has become a real legend in the history of children’s literature.

Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl, 2009, Puffin Books, originally published 1984 and 1986 (Autobiography/ Memoir) 

Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is the quintessential children’s author. From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The BFG to James and the Giant Peach, this perpetually popular author has the unique ability to tell a fantastic story. The man clearly had a wildly creative imagination, but he also lived a wildly creative life. He relates that life in two volumes: Boy and Going Solo. Boy is chock-full of antics and escapades from Dahl’s childhood—his vacations in Norway, his schoolboy pranks (including “The Great and Daring Mouse Plot”), and his eccentric family members. Savvy readers will spot not a few larks that clearly inspired his later fiction. Going Solo chronicles Dahl’s adult life, specifically his adventures in Africa working for the Shell Oil Company and his acts of derring-do as a RAF pilot during World War II. The real joy of his memoirs comes from Dahl’s distinct narrative voice—wry and tongue-in-cheek, full of dark humor and gleeful irony. Family photographs and documents dot the pages of both volumes, and the most recent edition collects the two memoirs in a single book and features lively cover art by Quentin Blake, whose illustrative style is practically synonymous with Roald Dahl’s most beloved books.

When Everybody Wore a Hat by William Steig, 2003, Joanna Cotler Books (Autobiography/ Picture Book)

William’s Steig’s autobiography is a story for children. But anyone who knows William Steig—author of the original ugly-loving Shrek!; creator of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, in which the main character spends most of the book as a rock—will understand that anything by this author will feature his trademark matter-of-fact tone and understated charm. When Everybody Wore a Hat is about Steig’s childhood in the Bronx, way back when you could see a movie for a nickel and a hat was as essential as shoes and a shirt. Through bright, childishly expressive illustrations, Steig (1907-2003) shows us life through his own eight-year-old eyes: an outing on the river with Mama and Papa decked out in stripes and polka-dots; neighborhood characters like elegant Mrs. Kingman who was “looked on by the women in admiration”; Steig’s first haircut at Ditchick’s Barbershop. There’s a healthy dose of realism as well, conveyed with a child’s simple directness: Papa yelling at the radiator when there isn’t enough heat, Mama’s tears when she receives sad news from the Old Country, and the bombs and blood of World War I. Deceptively simple but instantly engrossing, this slim little autobiography offers a slice of old-fashioned life and a look at the formative years of an inventive and irreverent author.

Bill Peet : An Autobiography by Bill Peet, 1989, Houghton Mifflin (Autobiography/ Illustrated Memoir)

In 1937, a young storyboard artist at Disney Studios got sick and tired of drawing Donald Duck over and over and stormed out, hollering “NO MORE DUCKS! NO MORE LOUSY DUCKS!” That artist was Bill Peet (1915-2002), beloved children’s author of The Gnats of Knotty Pine, Chester the Worldly Pig, and Buford the Little Bighorn (to mention just a few), and that anecdote is one of many that he relates in his self-titled autobiography. Peet got his start at Disney, becoming a lead story man for classic films like Dumbo, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, and 101 Dalmatians before his own career as a children’s book author finally brought him, fame, fortune, and artistic freedom. Peet tells his life story in pictures and words—his artistic creations dance across every page as he chronicles his childhood during the Great Depression, his storyboard presentations for the great Walt Disney, and his own studio where he wrote and illustrated his books. The insight into the workings of Disney productions is revealing and entertaining and Peet always has a sense of humor about whatever life throws his way. As engaging as one of the author’s own storybooks, Bill Peet: An Autobiography is a delightful portrait of an artist at work

Ezra Jack Keats: A Biography with Illustrations by Dean Engel and Florence B. Freedman, 1995, Silver Moon Press (Biography/ Picture Book)

He was born Jack Ezra Katz, but you know and love him as Ezra Jack Keats (1916-1983), author of The Snowy Day, Whistle for Willie, Goggles!, and many others. From his penny-pinching childhood in the Great Depression to his years inking comics for Five-Star Comics (creators of Captain Marvel) to his experiments with fabric and collage, art was a crucial comfort for Keats. In this biography, the events of Keats’ life are illustrated by his own artwork. When little boy Ezra gets picked on by bullies in his Brooklyn neighborhood, we see an illustration of a similar scene from Goggles!. When Ezra explores the city of Paris as a struggling young artist, we see a self-portrait on a colorful Parisian street. And when Ezra realizes that there are very few black children in picture books and creates his hero Peter, we see that iconic image from The Snowy Day of little Peter in his red hood looking at his footprints in the snow. Ezra’s life is reconstructed in a simple, straightforward narrative that rolls along like a storybook. It’s a heartfelt, poignant tribute to an award-winning artist, written by people who knew (Florence B. Freedman was his high school teacher!) and loved him.

Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman, 2002, Houghton Mifflin (Biography)

If you have a lasting fascination with steam shovels, snow plows, and construction sites, you probably know Virginia Lee Burton—or at least her storybook creations Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Little House, and Katy and the Big Snow. There’s also Burton herself, and she takes center stage in this elegant biography. From her student years in the early 1920s studying dance and design to the deliberate research methods she incorporated to write and illustrate her books, Burton (1909-1968) was a woman ahead of her time. She had an active career in an era when most women were housewives. She was an environmentalist before the term existed, a nature-lover who relished country living. She was an innovator in book design (Katy plows right through the text on the page in Katy and the Big Snow). She was an artist of many mediums—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to the folksy textiles created by her Folly Cove Designers. Author Barbara Elleman fills the pages of her biography with photographs, sketches, and images from the children’s books that made Virginia Lee Burton famous. The tone is highly celebratory (any trials and tribulations are very much glossed over) but the final product is a loving tribute to a talented and cherished storyteller.

The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss: A Visual Biography of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Charles D. Cohen, 2004, Random House Books (Biography)

Dr. Seuss is a household name. We all know that Horton heard a Who and that the Grinch stole Christmas. But did we know that Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991) first penned cartoons for Dartmouth College’s literary magazines in the early 1920s? Are we familiar with Geisel’s advertisements for Flit bug spray? Thanks to Charles D. Cohen’s extensive biography, we are now. The Seuss, the Whole Seuss, and Nothing But the Seuss offers a retrospective of Geisel’s life and art with a particular emphasis on his pre-children’s book days. Here we meet Geisel way back when he was a boy in rural Massachusetts, back when he was an ad man for Standard Oil and General Electric, back when he was a political cartoonist during World War II, back before he was Dr. Seuss. His whimsical animal-esque characters are present from day one, even if they are occasionally tempered by the commercial nature of his early work. And when the limits are lifted, watch out—richly reproduced examples of Geisel’s art cover the pages of this “visual biography.” Cohen lets Geisel speak for himself as much as possible and excerpts from letters, interviews, and articles tell much of the artist’s story. What ultimately comes across, in all its absurd Seusssian glory, is the very real sense of a man whose creativity knew no bounds.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Fall in Love with the Governess

A dignified manor house. Children peering through the windows of the upstairs nursery. The lord and his lady entertaining the cream of society. Servants scurrying about their duties. And somewhere in between, neither mistress nor maid, is the governess. In the Victorian era it was often the only profession available to a genteel woman of impoverished means, and if she conveniently fell in love with the handsome tutor or the even more dashing master of the house, can you blame her? Whatever her role in the household, the presence of a governess means one thing when it comes to fiction: There’s a mystery afoot, and probably lots of swooning romance too. This list of books feature governesses in the prime role; turn the pages and let these clever young ladies teach you a lesson.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, 2009, Vintage Classics, originally published 1847 (Fiction Classics)

Orphaned, unloved, poor as a church mouse, plain of face but with an indomitable spirit, Jane Eyre and the novel that bears her name has stood the test of time and become one of the great titles of Western literature. For all that, it’s still a rousing, dramatic soap opera of a story. Jane narrators in her own unmistakable and unforgettable intimate voice; she tells the reader about her neglected childhood, painful boarding school years, and finally, about accepting a governess position at magnificently gloomy Thornfield Hall. Her new charge is a sprightly little French ward; her new master is the enigmatic and charismatic Mr. Rochester. To everyone around them, Jane and Rochester are an unlikely—if not impossible—match. But the master of the house and demure plain Jane are kindred spirits with keen intellects and complex desires. Of course there is an obstacle greater than discrepancies in social standing, age, experience, and wealth standing in the way of Jane’s happiness—a terrible secret haunts Mr. Rochester’s past and may very well have infiltrated the halls of Thornfield. Author Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece is an atmospheric Gothic romance that was considered far too passionate and scandalous when it was first published in 1847. That emotion still comes roaring across the page today—especially Jane’s determined longing for a free and equal life, something so regularly denied to a woman like herself in her day. A love story for the ages, Jane Eyre is the governess by which all other governesses are judged.

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, 2010, Oxford World Classics, originally published 1847 (Fiction Classics)

Her sister’s novel about the life of a governess hit bookshelves only a few months before her own, but Anne Brontë put pen to paper on Agnes Grey long before Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre. Timing and the whims of the critics dictated that Jane was better remembered than Agnes and Charlotte better remembered than Anne (though it didn’t help that Anne died at the tender age of twenty-nine). But Agnes Grey has never been allowed to fade completely into the background. The heroine is a sheltered young woman in the bosom of a poor but loving family. To help with the finances and assert her own independence, she becomes governess for the Bloomfields. Agnes has hopes of a kind, motherly mistress and sweet, obedient charges. What she gets is the precise opposite—and she is completely unprepared for the unruly, obstinate, and even violent behavior of the children. Fed up, Agnes moves on to the upper-class Murray family. The children are older and better behaved, but their governess is more a thing than a person to them, and sixteen-year-old Miss Murray’s coquettish flirting with any and every man in sight is especially distressing. Anyone who has ever had the care of children (even well-behaved children) will instantly sympathize with Miss Grey, become completely invested in Agnes’ struggles, and hope desperately for her rescue. Anne Brontë’s aim in writing Agnes Grey was to expose the plight of the governess of her day. It was a goal she accomplished with depth and purpose and the novel still serves as an important portrait its times—not to mention a fine and elegant story.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, 2001, Modern Library Classics, originally published 1898 (Fiction Classics)

A young gentlewoman begins her career as a governess when a handsome bachelor hires her to care for his little niece and nephew. She is sent to Bly, the country manor where the children are tucked away n the care of a motherly housekeeper. Little Flora and her brother Miles are so adorable and angelic as to be called exquisite; the governess is instantly enamored of their childish charms. But before she can become a slave to their every delightful little whim, the governess sees—something. A pale face pressed against the window and a dark figure on the other side of the lake, staring with devious intent at little Flora and Miles. When she describes these mysterious watchers to the housekeeper, they are identified as Peter Quint and Miss Jessel—and the horror immediately grows, because not only are Quint and Miss Jessel bad, immoral people, but they are dead. Convinced that the children’s young souls have been corrupted, our nerve-wracked governess fights to save some remnant of goodness in the preternaturally perfect little darlings—even while the ghostly fiends strive to possess them. Author Henry James weaves a masterful web of intense suspense that still penetrates more than a hundred years later. A uniquely layered structure (an unnamed narrator is listening to a manuscript read by a fellow houseguest; the manuscript is told in first-person by the hapless governess) completes the casting of the spell; a reader can never be sure what (if anything) is real and what (if anything) is imagined. One thing is certain: The Turn of the Screw will keep you biting your nails, jumping at every noise, and absolutely glued to the page.

Set in Stone by Linda Newbery, 2006, Knopf (Historical Fiction/ Teen Fiction)

When art tutor Samuel Godwin takes up his new position at Fourwinds Manor in 1898, he finds three mysteries in the form of three attractive young women: governess Charlotte Agnew and the young ladies of the house, Juliana and Marianne. Charlotte is completely immersed in her role as genteel companion and governess and refuses to speak about her past. Juliana, fragile and pretty, seems permanently downhearted. And Marianne, with her wild beauty and high spirits, is occasionally found wandering the grounds in a strange, dream-like state of near-hysteria. The three women are captivating and charming personalities, and Samuel is irresistibly drawn to them. Charlotte is wary of the new tutor but welcomes the chance to interact with someone who, like herself, occupies a tenuous place in the household between family member and servant. As they take turns narrating alternate chapters in author Linda Newbery’s tribute to the gothic novel of the Victorian era, Samuel and Charlotte begin to uncover the web of lies, deceit, and scandal that plagues Fourwinds and its inhabitants. The first few pages alone contains enough sensational elements for an entire book, much less a single chapter: a long walk in the moonlight, mysterious rustlings in the forest, a scream in the night, and a damsel in distress who throws herself at the hero. Readers will find themselves in a frenzy of page-turning as governess and tutor slowly unveil secret after fascinating secret.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart, 2006, Chicago Review Press, originally published 1959 (Mystery/ Romance)

The de Valmys want an English governess. Lovely but alone-in-the-world Linda Martin is indeed English—but she’s also half-French. Still, she needs a job, and what harm can it do to pretend ignorance when the French language is spoken? Plenty. Linda’s new charge is Philippe de Valmy—Comte (or Count) Philippe de Valmy, inheritor of a grand title, manor, and fortune at the tender age of nine years old. He lives at the magnificent Chateau de Valmy with his stylish and chic Uncle Leon and Aunt Heloise, who are overseeing the extensive estate until Philippe comes up of age. Philippe is a charming boy, and if the de Valmys are a bit standoffish, the beauty of Linda’s new home more than compensates—especially when Raoul, Philippe’s devastatingly handsome older cousin, takes a decided interest in the pretty new governess. But when one too many “accident” threatens Philippe’s safety, Linda doesn’t know who to trust—and it’ll take more than faking not knowing French to secure her young charge’s life. Author Mary Stewart wrote Nine Coaches Waiting in 1958, but she draws from the literary tradition of the gothic romance and the story is still fraught with suspense. The gorgeous French landscape is evoked in all its beauty and the sense of secrets lurking just below the surface is detectable from the first page. Resist the charm of this romantic little thriller if you can.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, 2008, Persephone Books, originally published 1938 (Fiction Classics)

Miss Pettigrew is not a very good governess. Frequently fired or quitting in a huff, her agency has given the middle-aged, out-of-touch spinster one last chance. So when Miss Pettigrew stumbles into the stylish flat of the even more stylish Delysia La Fosse, she’s determined not to blow it—even when it becomes painfully clear that the “boy” in the bedroom is no child, but instead a fully-grown fling of Delysia’s who needs to be rushed out the door before her more permanent lover gets home. Dismayed by the loss of a much-needed job, slightly scandalized, but still game, Miss Pettigrew lends a hand—she does, after all, know how to get a late sleeper out of bed, even if she’s more used to dealing with schoolboys than playboys. Delighted by the governess’ success, fetching but flighty Delysia decides that she simply cannot live without Miss Pettigrew by her side. It’s the eve of World War II and Delysia, a nightclub singer with a string of too many fellows at her beck and call, really knows how to live it up. As Miss Pettigrew encounters the glamorous speakeasys and deliciously wicked inhabitants of Delysia’s world, she finds herself in the midst of the most exhilarating day of her life—and dreading the prospect of returning to her own hum-drum existence. Back in print after a film version was released in 2008, author Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel is a joy to read. Fresh, funny, and flirty, this single day in the life of one Miss Pettigrew is utterly captivating.

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer, 2009, Sourcebooks, originally published 1962 (Romance/ Historical Fiction)

Sir Waldo “the Nonesuch” Hawkridge is a rich, handsome, athletic figure of a man. He got his nickname because it is generally agreed that there is no such other man as he. You’d think a fellow with a reputation like that would be conceited to the gills, but Sir Waldo is a gentleman in manner as well as name: He spends his money building orphanages to shelter and educate London’s street boys. When Sir Waldo inherits Broom Hall and comes to Yorkshire to examine his new acquisition, it is entirely too much to expect the ladies of the neighborhood to ignore this paradigm of manhood. Miss Ancilla Trent is one of those ladies, but as the twenty-eight-year-old governess and chaperone to the beautiful and tempestuous Tiffany Wield, Ancilla considers herself “on the shelf” and is able to meet Sir Waldo with a measure of composure and intelligence that impresses that gentleman very favorably. Not so Miss Tiffany. She has her eyes on both Sir Waldo and the handsome cousin who accompanies him. When her wiles inexplicably fail to attract either man, Tiffany does more than put on a pout—she hightails it out of Yorkshire and makes for the big city of London. Desperate to find her wayward charge and avoid scandal, Ancilla is hot on Tiffany’s tail—and who should come to the governess’ assistance but the Nonesuch himself? Bursting with Regency flavor in the grand tradition of Jane Austen, The Nonesuch displays all of author Georgette Heyer’s considerable charms. Witty banter, impeccable historical detail, a colorful supporting cast, and a slow-burning romance make for a delightful package that will bring smiles to the lips of any reader.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, Book 1: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood, 2010, Blazer and Bray (Children’s Fiction)

Miss Penelope Lumley, smart, sensitive, resourceful, recent graduate of the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Ladies and just fifteen-years-old, is hired on the spot to serve as governess at luxurious Ashton Place. Only then is she allowed to meet her charges—three children who, due to their tendency to gnaw, nip, and growl, appear to have been raised by wolves. Lord Fredrick caught them on his estate when he was out hunting and as he says, “Finders keepers.” Penelope is not daunted by her task. She gets on swimmingly with Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia Incorrigible, as Lord Fredrick names them (or Alawooooo, Beowooooo, and Cassawoof, as they call themselves). The children respond to poetry and games of fetch, and Penelope feels sure that French, Latin, and literature cannot be far behind. But then Lady Constance drops a bombshell. The children are expected to appear at the mansion’s elegant Christmas ball. This means table manners, fancy dress, and the ability to stand still when a squirrel is spotted. As Penelope and the kiddies rise to the challenge, they begin to discover that there are many dangerous secrets at Ashton Place. There are also many nods and winks to the reader, including Lemony Snicket-esque asides from the witty narrator. But author Maryrose Wood makes her tale all her own with plenty of amusing details—her heroine’s overactive imagination, the children’s endearing mischief-making, and a tone that is droll and cheeky and thoroughly giggle-inducing. By the time the last page is turned, readers will be howling for a sequel.

Governess: The Life and Times of the Real Jane Eyres by Ruth Brandon, 2008, Walker and Co. (Nonfiction/ 18th and 19th Century British History/ Women’s History)

In the 18th and19th centuries, a woman was a spinster if she wasn’t married by her mid-twenties. If she lacked funds of her own as well as a husband, almost her only recourse to support herself—particularly if she was a gentlewoman of the upper classes—was to become a governess. As a governess, a woman lived in someone else’s home. She was responsible for the education of the family’s daughters and young sons. Neither family nor servant, she occupied an uneasy middle ground. In author Ruth Brandon’s study of the institution of the governess during the Victorian age, the lives of some of the more famous governesses are investigated. The Brontë sisters drew on their experiences for their vivid depictions of the profession in Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey. Anna Leonowens’ memoirs were the inspiration for The King and I. Mary Wollstonecraft so despised her time as a governess (even though she had to quite good in comparison to many) that she later became a journalist and promoted the then-radical idea of education and equality for women. The lives that Brandon examines did not all face the neglect and mistreatment that many fictional governesses have to deal with, nor did most of them fall in love with their masters, run mad, or face compelling mysteries and secrets. But no one, it seems, ever loved being a governess. Readers will come away educated, entertained, and thanking their lucky stars that the profession is a thing of the past—but very grateful that fictional governesses abound to teach us all a thing or two.