Shopping with your favorite characters

Sometimes the simplest things lead to very interesting discoveries.  During the course of a work project, I ran across this book.

Do you recognize the name?  Me neither.  So, since our curator is out of town, I went to google and was fascinated by what I found.

First, this book was an advertising premium.  If you bought Union Club Coffee or Russian Oolong Tea, you got a coupon for a Palmer Cox book.  This sounds like an infinitely better prize than the tattoo that come in Cracker Jack boxes.

But my history geek heart really began to soar when I discovered that Palmer Cox did a lot more than write books about funny animals.  He created the Brownies, a series of illustrated books and comics.  In the 1880s, these characters were all the rage.  The Brownies were so popular that when Kodak created its first handheld camera in 1900, they called it the Brownie.  Doing just a quick search on the web, I discovered Brownie pins, books, dolls, dishes, and of course, coffee.

Fictional characters have been selling stuff to kids (and their parents!) for a very long time.  Sometimes we assume this is a fairly recent innovation–another example of commercialism taking the world over.  Did you know that Beatrix Potter licensed a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903, less than 2 years after her books was self-published?  After Frances Hodgson Burnett published Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1885, the Fauntleroy suit became all the rage until World War I. Parker Brother issued a board game in 1915, called The Glad Game, based on Pollyanna (published in 1913).  Years ago, I ran across a game board in an antique shop.  It wasn’t terribly expensive, but out of my budget at the time.  One of my great antique shopping regrets.

Children’s literature has been big business for a long time.  Some of these books are still classics, but others have been lost.  I feel like I should have known about Palmer Cox before now.  But now that I do, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for his Brownies.  Now, if only they would be like the Brownies in the Girl Scout story and magically clean my house!

Any other examples of children’s literature intersecting with commerce before World War II?

Not quite the Secret Garden, but close enough

When I bought my house, just over a year ago, there were many things that I knew I would enjoy.  I knew I would like finally having colors on the walls, rather than apartment white and/or beige.  I knew I would like decorating.  I knew I would like having a decent sized kitchen.  Here’s what I didn’t know: I had no idea I would enjoy gardening so much.

Right after I moved in, a neighbor stopped by while I was working in the yard and said “Miss Helen had the best yard on the street.”  Hmmm.  No pressure for this new homeowner.  And there was one other slight problem: Miss Helen had been sick for a long time.  The house had been on the market for a long time.  So though the yard was landscaped, shrubs and vines and other things were really overgrown.  And there were some plants that even my parents didn’t recognize.

Last spring and summer was all about pruning, figuring out what the heck I had, and trying to keep it alive.  (Alas, Miss Helen did not invest in a sprinkler system.)  And I missed much of the good spring time gardening because I was too busy working on the inside of the house.

But this year, though it’s not quite like The Secret Garden, I’m feeling a new kinship with Mary Lennox.  Though my yard wasn’t in a walled up garden for 10 years, it had been neglected and it’s taking some effort to bring it back.  The good news is we’ve had such a wet winter and mild spring that things are blooming in a way they didn’t before.  There’s new growth on the holly in the front.  The monkey grass is looking amazing.  The pinks from last fall are huge.  And the irises have spread!  Things are starting to look halfway decent.

A friend suggested I reread The Secret Garden, since I’m getting such a kick out of spring this year.  And who am I to say no?  I picked it up a few days ago, for the first time in at least 15 years.  Like A Little Princess, there’s the terrifying moments.  Can you imagine waking up one day and realizing that everyone is gone?  Can you imagine essentially staying in bed for your entire life?  At times, it almost got a bit preachy–Dickon is almost too perfect.  And the way everyone acts around Colin just seems a little ridiculous–and really annoyed me.  But the descriptions of the garden coming to life?  The bulbs pushing through the earth?  Heaven. 

This book was published in 1909, the tail end of the Victorian era.  The Victorians loved their gardens–they were all about trying to conquer nature and bring it indoors.  As we shifted from a rural to urban society, we became less connected with the earth.  But gardens full of flowers, things that weren’t necessary for survival, but necessary in other ways, became more and more common.  Burnett seems to be picking up on this trend, but aiming it at kids who by 1909 were probably spending a lot less time playing with dirt than their parents did.  

With my recent Burnett kick, I picked up at the library Marghanita Laski’s Mrs. Ewing, Mrs. Moleworth and Mrs. Hodgson Burnett, published in 1950.  I’ve read some of Laski’s novels through the miracle of Persephone Books, so I was very intrigued that she wrote such a book.  I will admit that I did not care about (or read) the parts about Ewing and Molesworth. But the analysis of Burnett’s work, as well as the intro and conclusion were pretty interesting. Laski believed that Secret Garden was Burnett’s best book.  Check this out:  

“Most children’s books are written both about and for children who are uncomplicated extroverts.  This is really most unfair.  In character children are not really different from adults, and many of them are moody, imaginative, fearful, emotional, conscious of maladjustments with the external world.  I suppose that most writers avoid such children for heroes and heroines in the belief that glimpses of the well-adjusted norm are likely to produce a correspondingly healthy frame of mind in the reader.  They are wrong.  This literary procession of good cheerful toughs only increases the sense of isolation in the mind of the child who is not such a one.  I do not know of any children’s book other than The Secret Garden that franky poses the problem of the introspective unlikeable child in terms that children can understand and then offers an acceptable solution.”

I will admit than when I first closed Garden last night, my thoughts were that A Little Princess was the better book.  Even with the garden Magic, I just like Princess better.  And yet, after reading Laski’s essay, I’m having second thoughts.  There are an awful lot more good kids in kidlit than bad ones.  And even though Colin and Mary become good kids, they spend an awful big chunk of the book being pretty horrible.  Sara Crewe is definitely in the practically perfect camp.  But I’m not quite sure I completely agree with Laski that Garden is the only book from the “golden age” of children’s literature that features such a heroine.  But it is certainly a special book.

The copy that I read is part of my vintage collection.  The inside front cover is inscribed: “Nov. 28, 1936  11th Birthday.  Molly Clark.”  The inside back cover is inscribed: “From Aunt Molly.  Marjorie Clark.  11/3/61”  Can’t you just imagine Aunt Molly giving her copy to her neice? Doesn’t it make you smile, one generation sharing a beloved book with the next?   

Last winter, I found this statue for my garden.  She’s reading The Secret Garden.  There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that I had to have it, but after revisiting Misselthwaite, I think I love it a little bit more.

What’s left out. . .

I know the tagline at the top of my blog says “Everything I need to know about history, I learned through children’s literature.”  And I stand by my claim that my reading of certain books (over and over and over again) helped form my love of history.  But in reading books like A Little Princess as an adult, part of me just feels icky.  Because I know that there’s a whole other side to India’s history that Burnett would never have even thought about.

Honestly, I don’t know much about Indian history–I’m almost ashamed to admit how much I learned after reading most of this wikipedia article.   But as I was reading Princess, there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind–“You’re being enchanted by this glamourous vision of India, but all of this really sucked for the Indian people.”  Sara’s father, who she loved so much, was one of those white men who occupied India–and later profited from its resources.  Diamond mines, as glamorous as they sound, are horrible places to work.  Even today.

So I read these wonderful passages, and part of me was enthralled.  Who wouldn’t be, with descriptions such as this?

She did not know what being rich meant.  She had always lived in a beautiful bungalow, and had been used to seeing many servants who made salaams to her and called her “Missee Sahib,” and gave her her own way in everything.  She had had toys and pets and an ayah who worshipped her, and she had gradually learned that people who were rich had these things.

Replace the word “servants” with “slaves” and “ayah” with “mammy,” and you could very well have a book about life in the ante-bellum South.  There’s the same hot climate from which the wealthy must escape.  And perhaps this book has survived because its about India, a story in history few knew about, rather than about the American South, of which most know at least the basics.

But I digress.  Am I blaming Burnett for not being more balanced towards the Indian people?  Not at all-she wrote about what she knew.  And in this time period, few thought that what was happening in India was wrong.  Quite frankly, the way she wrote about India always made me curious about their culture.  Ram Dass is such a fabulous character.  He is human–well, as human as a fairy godmother-type can be!–which is more than we can say about most minority characters created during this era. 

But to really know about history, we certainly can’t rely solely on the images that children’s literature have placed in our heads.  I know that Laura Ingalls Wilder is frequently cited as being insensitive to Native Americans.  She’s not insensitive per se, but she’s not balanced either.  And I understand concerns about her books–they are so popular and I know that most readers won’t ever try to find out more and get the bigger story.  She is indeed creating ideas in children’s heads about the past–ideas that aren’t entirely right.

And this is part of the reason I’m championing, in my own small way, the genre of Kidlit History.  For those books written in the time–that some classify as historical fiction, but were written before there was the distance to properly assess the big picture.  There are still plenty of lessons in them, but we must acknowledge that they are biased to that one author’s experience.  Little House is not the only story of the pioneer experience, though it seems that some folks believe that it is. 

My childhood reading had extraordinary bias in it.  Almost all of the books I read were about white, middle or upper class, protestant females.  Yet, as a historian, one of my specialities is African American history.  I can’t trace that interest back to childhood reading.  But I don’t have to.  My hope for kids that read kidlit history is that this is a first step into a life-long love of history.  So, if they don’t figure out that colonial India wasn’t all about being pampered until they’re adults, that’s okay.  When they do, though, there’ll be a spark of recognition as they realize they’re discovering the rest of Sara’s story.

Trying to remember the first time. . .

I wish I was one of those people that could remember exactly how old I was when I read key books of my childhood.  I’ve been slowly reading Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey, and there are lots and lots of essays that include something like “I was 8 when I. . .” or “I discovered this book. . .” and they remember all the details.  My brain is just fuzzy around those kind of details. 

Consequently, I don’t remember when I first read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I do know it was post-Little House and pre-Anne.  I remember really liking the Shirley Temple movie and then seeing a two-pack of books in the Scholastic catalog–Princess and Anne.  I didn’t know who that Anne person was, but I had to read Princess.

However, unlike a lot of the other books I loved as a kid, I haven’t picked this one up in a very, very long time.  At least 15 years, probably more.  But I remembered really liking it–enough to see the more recent movie version and pick up interesting older editions of the book.  It was past time for a reread.

Because it can be more fun to read beautiful old editions rather than 1980s paperbacks, I pulled this version off my shelf.  And then I was completely blown away.  I had forgotten how good it was–how much was packed into this book.  How dark and scary it was.  How Sara, while incredibly good, is still far from perfect.

For those not familiar with the book (and seriously if you’re not–get to the library immediately!), it’s the story of a motherless little girl sent to a boarding school.  It’s not a horrible school, just not perfect.  However, she’s protected because her father is rich.  But he dies penniless and she becomes an overworked servant.  Burnett’s writing frequently carried me away.  I stayed up far too late one night, because once the Magic happens, I just couldn’t put the book down. 

This is a book that I really need to see if my neices have a copy of it.  They are obsessed with all things Disney Princess, which annoys me to no end.  But Sara’s thoughts about being a princess are very different from the schlock Disney puts out.  Check this passage out:

Sometimes, when she was in the midst of some harsh, domineering speech, Miss Minchin would find the still, unchildish eyes fixed upon her with something like a proud smile in them.  At such times she did not know Sara was saying to herself:

“You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution.  I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”

This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her.  While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.

“A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.

Now, isn’t that a much better way for a Princess to behave, rather than waiting around for a Prince to rescue you?

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think of Anne Shirley.  Can you imagine if Anne and Sara had gotten together, what stories they could create?  Both girls used their imaginations to escape a harsh, unloved life.  But Anne’s time of escape is just a memory in her book.  For the reader, they’re right in the midst of Sara’s need to escape.  Terrifying things happen to Sara–she had known love and safety and privilege, and it’s all yanked out from under her.  Not only is she left by her father at boarding school and apparently doesn’t seem him again (even though 4 years pass before his death), but then the money vanishes and her entire world goes topsy-turvy. 

One of my favorite passages is when she meets the beggar girl, a girl in much worse shape than she is because at least Sara has a bed and a roof over her head. 

It was a little figure more forlorn even than herself–a little figure which was not much more than a bundle of rags, from which small, bare, red, muddy feet peeped out, only because the rags with which their owner was trying to cover them were not long enough.  Above the rags appeared a shock head of tangled hair, and a dirty face with big, hollow, hungry, eyes.

As an adult, my heart breaks for these children, just as I’m impressed that Burnett doesn’t just talk about Sara’s plight, but other poor, abandoned children.  But what would I have thought as a child?  This is what I wish I remembered.  I think I would have been startled.  Kids aren’t supposed to be in situations like that.  I was safe and warm and well-fed in the Dallas suburbs.

Isn’t that romantic?

The Minnesota Post recently made a list of best Dynamic Duos–in movies, literature, history, etc.  And on it, much to the pleasure of the Betsy-Tacy Society and other BT fans is Betsy and Joe as “Literary Romantic Couples”–alongside some couples that are definitely not found in children’s literature.

And though I certainly adore the fact that Betsy and Joe are listed–after all, the last chapter of Betsy and the Great World is one of the greatest romantic cliffhangers of all time, I can’t help but think of some of the other great couples of kidlit history.  In no particular order:

Ma and Pa Ingalls.  She follows him across the midwest, each time hoping for a better life, making homes in places that must have been very, very lonely.  Until she puts her foot down.  He plays his fiddle, makes jokes, and fiercely loves his family.  As a kid, they never would have been on the list.  As an adult, I admire how they stuck together, never argued in front of the kids, and both made compromises for each other.

Anne and Gilbert.  Though they ultimately became a somewhat boring couple in the later books, the early stuff is fabulous.  From the teasing and the competition to pushing each other when both have college dreams deferred, it’s an incredibly satisfying friendship–at least for Anne.  Gilbert loves her from the beginning, and it is sometimes very frustrating how long it takes Anne to see what’s right in front of her nose.  But he’s always there–rescuing her and waiting patiently. 

Betsy and Joe.  Though mentioned above, they deserve their own paragraph.  Betsy, daughter of one of the world’s greatest families, falls in love with orphan Joe.  And there are lots of adjustments to be made, mis-understandings, the usual heartache in young love.  But the misunderstanding almost kill the reader as they wait and wait for what has to happen.  And when it does!  Again, one of the best romantic cliffhangers and resolutions Ever.

Miss Allen, the Library Lady and Charlie.  The sisters of All-of-a-Kind Family already love the Library Lady, as she is the one with the books.  And Charlie is the mysterious peddler that works with their father who brings them treats.  By accident, the girls bring them together again–discovering  a tragic love story that was rightunder their noses.  So satisfying–and a wonderful realization of childhood fantasies.  What kid wouldn’t want to help out some of their favorite adults in that way?

Mary, Dickon and Colin.  Sometimes, love triangles happen.  And though the kids in The Secret Garden don’t really get to that part of life where romance really takes off, there is definitely some jealousy going on for Colin and Dickon.  Both fall in love with Mary, for very different reasons.  But perhaps the true romance here is the garden itself and the story behind it.  Sigh.

So, what am I leaving out?  Any other fabulous romances?  And another question: how did these stories shape your own childish thoughts about romance?

When I was a kid, reading through Montgomery, I had this idea that true romance took years to develop.  Seriously, how long did it take Anne and Gilbert to finally get together?  And then there’s the story of Leslie Moore–talk about depressing.  And all the other minor characters throughout her novels and short stories–people that had to wait 10, 20 years to be with the one they loved.  Yikes! 

Or what about the unfortunate idea that the man you’re really meant for will marry your sister?  I am still not over the whole Jo/Laurie/Amy thing.  Luckily, I had no sisters.

So while there are some great models, there are some truly frightening romantic scenarios in kidlit.  Perhaps I should blame my childhood reading on my very practical attitude towards romance.  Even as I continue to believe that my Joe is out there somewhere. . .

The best presents. . .

I admit it–my favorite part of Christmas just might be presents.  And it’s not so much the receiving (though don’t get me wrong–I do love receiving), but the giving.  It’s the joy in finding just the right thing, something that is more than the sum of its parts, and seeing the reaction when it hits its mark.

Below, in no particular order, are some of my very favorite gift-giving incidents in kidlit history.  Most of them occur around Christmas, but not all of them.  Most of these scenes I first read as a child, and they certainly stuck in my head–particularly the first one. . .

Puffed Sleeves!  Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery.  Anne finally has a group of friends, but Matthew notices there’s something different between her and her friends: she’s not dressed like the other girls.  So, he does his very best to get her a fashionable dress for Christmas, first braving the store (and winding up with rakes and brown sugar) and then enlisting the help of Rachel Lynde.  And Anne’s reaction is wonderful to see:  “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment.  I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress.  I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable.  It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them.”

Why I love this scene:  First, what girl hasn’t wanted something fashionable, only to be denied because it’s not “practical”?  And then, lovely Matthew comes along and does it anyway.  Anne has been so lonely for so long, and Matthew’s gift is so thoughtful.  She was already a part of the family, but this is the first time she gets a gift where others are thinking of what she wants.  Quite a change for an orphan!  And yes, part of me still wants a dress with puffed sleeves.

The feast in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett).  Though not a Christmas gift, I can’t help but include it.  Sara and Becky are in deep trouble, and the Magic won’t save them.  But they awaken one morning and the attic has been transformed: “In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimon rug; before the fire a folding chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curius wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slipper and some books.  The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland . . . ‘It does not–melt away.'”

Why I love this scene: On the magical level, this is right at the top.  Yummy food and beautiful things!  I am amazed that neither she nor Becky heard a thing, but then, I guess that’s part of the magic.  Another moment where an orphan realizes she’s not alone.  Plus, the makeover of the attic sounds delightful–it’s like an early home makeover show.

Jo’s HairLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Marmee must rush off to tend to their sick father.  Money is tight, and so Jo sells her hair.  She insists it was the best thing to do in the situation, but does confess: “I felt queer when I saw the dear old hair laid out on the table and felt only the short, rough ends on my head.  It almost seemed as if I’d an arm or a leg off.  The woman saw me look at it, and picked out a long lock for me to keep.  I’ll give it to you, Marmee, just to remember past glories by; for a crop is so comfortable I don’t think I shall ever have a mane again.”

Why I love this scene:  Yes, Jo makes a big sacrifice for her family.  But the real reason I love this scene is the series of exclamations from her family when she reveals her shorn head.  Best line in the book: “Oh Jo, how could you?  Your one beauty!”  Makes me laugh every time.  And could anyone but a sister get away with that?

The Brass BowlHeaven to Betsy by Maud Hart Lovelace.  Mrs. Ray falls in love with a brass bowl and insists that her husband buy it for her.  Mr. Ray keeps insisting that he would never give her such a gift.  The entire family visits the brass bowl and insists that it’s right for Mrs. Ray.  On Christmas Eve, he caves, but the bowl is gone.  Panic sets in.  But on Christmas morning, the brass bowl is there–because Mrs. Ray bought it for herself!

Why I love this scene:  There’s almost a domino effect as each family member becomes convinced that the Brass Bowl is the Perfect Gift.  But Mr. Ray stands strong–until that last minute Christmas Eve panic sets in.  I just love how Mrs. Ray takes matters into her own hands.  It’s a scene that makes me giggle and rings oh so true.  On this reread, I also couldn’t help but love the following lines:   “‘I have no intention of buying it,’ Mr. Ray answered.  ‘I’m going to gie you a personal present, not a house present.’  ‘I love this new house so much that it’s practically me.”  My sentiments exactly, Mrs. Ray.

As You Like It Besty and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace.  “It was proper for a boy to give a girl only books, flowers, or candy.  It would be proper for Betsy to give Joe nothing more.”  And so she purchases the red, limp-leather edition of As You Like It.  Alas, the course of true love never did run smooth.  Tony asks Betsy to the New Year’s Eve dance first, and Betsy and Joe fight over it: “Either you’re my girl or you’re not.”  He tosses her present at her.  She opens it and realizes it is the exact same edition of As You Like It.  “Inside he had written ‘We’ll fleet the time carelessly as the did in the golden world.’ But Betsy knew he had written that before he knew that she was going to the dance with Tony.  She put her face into her hands and began to cry.”

Why I love this scene:  Well, it’s certainly not because it’s as happy and joyful as some of the other gift giving scenes.  But for an old-fashioned romantic like me?  Well, it’s perfect.  Not quite on the level of the O. Henry story, “Gift of the Magi,” it still has to mean something extra special to give the exact same present to each other.  If nothing else, it’s another sign that Betsy and Joe are made for each other.

Trinket’s First Tree  Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer.  Lucinda realizes that her little friend Trinket has never had a Christmas tree.  And one can’t just have a tree–but a party and presents too.  So she works extra hard to earn money in December and invites the whole neighborhood to surprise Trinket.  She is completely captivated.  “There is always one Christmas that belongs to you more than any other–belongs by right of festival and those secret feelings that are never spoken aloud.  This Christmas belonged to Lucinda in that way, and I think it belonged to many of her friends.”

Why I love this scene:  Lucinda is only 10, and it may be a bit hard to believe that she’s so thoughtful.  But I love the way the ornaments are almost all handmade and everyone joins in.  And it’s so easy to imagine the look on Trinket’s face when she first sees the tree.  What magic!  It’s not so much the gift, but the experience–they’ve made a wonderful memory.

Mr. Edwards as Santa Claus Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  No snow and a practically flooding creek means that Santa won’t be able to get to the Ingalls family in time for Christmas.  Luckily, Mr. Edwards meets Santa in Independence and is able to bring the gifts after all.

Why I love this scene:  First, it’s really funny.  When you read again as an adult, you sense the worry that Ma and Pa have that Christmas won’t happen as planned for his kids.  And when Mr. Edwards arrives, the story is told with plenty of ( )s and interjections and questions–exactly the kind of questions any kid would ask about Santa.  For example, when Mr. Edwards says he meets Santa, Laura asks: “‘In the daytime?’ She hadn’t thought that anyone could see Santa Claus in the daytime.  No, Mr. Edwards said; it was night, but light shone out across the street from the saloons.”  Giggle.  The presents themselves are simple–a tin cup, peppermint candy, a heart-shaped cake, and a penny.  “Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.  There had never been such a Christmas.”  What puts this tale over the top for me though is Mr. Edwards–that man knows how to tell a story and keep kids believing in Santa.

Originally, I set out to find 10, but at 7, I ran out of steam.  Do you have a favorite scene that I’ve left out?  What is the greatest kidlit history gift of all time?