Thursday, December 10, 2015

Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature, by Selma G. Lanes (2004)

Last week, we looked at Selma G. Lanes (1929-2009) and her initial book of collected essays and reviews, Down the Rabbit Hole, published in 1972.  This book was a significant watershed in serious criticism of the genre, and Your Correspondent recommends it highly.  More than 30 years later, Lanes returned with another collection of essays and reviews, Through the Looking Glass: Further Adventures and Misadventures in the Realm of Children’s Literature.  Does the latter book measure up to the former?

Actually, Lanes’ follow-up is not only worthy of its predecessor in every way, but in many instances quite superior.  Featuring essays and reviews written between the early 70s and 90s, Lanes continues to show a keen critical acumen and love for the subject.  Her voice is one that is greatly missed.
As would be expected from one of the first critical champions of Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) , Lanes writes about both his mid-and-late career triumphs with real sensitivity.  She also tackles the enigma that was Edward Gorey (1925-2000), a unique talent in children’s publishing in particular, and the art world in general.  Anyone familiar with Gorey’s spidery pen-and-ink drawings has a ‘take’ on him, but it was Lanes who described it best for me with the phrase “arctic detachment.”  She also argues, cogently, that Gorey was not a children’s illustrator at all, but rather a sometimes visitor to this realm.  Gorey’s sense of humor, his flights of fancy and his worldview were too mordant, too bizarre and too bleak for children, and many of his best books (The Gilded Bat comes to mind) are children’s books in name only.  Lanes summarizes his peculiar charm nicely.
Also excellent is Lanes’ chapter on the latter life of Beatrix Potter, who, once she was married and living in the Lake District she so dearly loved, turned away from her fabulous children’s books with nary a second thought.  Oddly enough, it was American collectors and publishers who kept the cult of Potter alive, and it is largely through their efforts that she is remembered today.  Kudos to Lanes for this bit of insight.
Useful, too, is her look at the letters of fairy tale master Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) and American writer, editor and publisher Horace Elisha Scudder (1838-1902), of Boston, Massachusetts.  Scudder, in letter after letter over the course of many years, slavishly worked to get authorized editions of Andersen’s books in the US; he also sent the Great Man many of his own stories and books.  Scudder, it seems, barely registered as a human being to the Great Man, who was too involved, too remote and too icy a character to respond in any human way.  All of Andersen’s heart, it seems went into his work, with nothing leftover for the man himself.
Lanes writes perceptively on the drawings of Ernest H. Shepard (1879-1976), who brought A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh to graphic life, and was the ideal artist for Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.  Shepard, it seems, understood whimsy (Milne) and English countryside philosophizing (Grahame), and was able to capture both with his pen.  Also valuable is Lanes’ chapter on New Yorker writer E. B. White (1899-1985), who also wrote the classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.  Lanes argues that his brevity, style and honesty were all reflections of his inner self; a man who finely hones his talents and his emotions until they were worthy of a public airing.  White is a type much missed in the contemporary world.
But Lanes’ best chapter, as in the previous book, is on the evils of the culture of Political Correctness and how it neuters literature and emotion, and how poisonous it is in particular to children’s literature.  On one hand, Lanes bemoans an atmosphere that seeks to find intolerance when there is none.  She is against expurgated versions of Dr. Doolittle, The Five Chinese Brothers, and the illustrated Yankee Doodle because she believes that children (a) are smart enough to understand historical context and (b) read for insights on character and not to underscore racial prejudices.  On the other hand, she also (rightly) abhors books that exist for no other reason than to make certain groups of people feel better about themselves.  As Lanes wisely put it: Now propaganda is an entirely legitimate and worthwhile endeavor when undertaken in a life-enhancing cause.  But those of us who choose books for children should be both willing and able to recognize the difference between propaganda and literature.
There is a great deal more in Lanes’ book (including insight on Winsor McCay, historian Roger Sale, and an excellent essay on Harry Potter written shortly before her death), and all of it smart, wise and very, very human.  Through the Looking Glass is still in print, and can be found at Books of Wonder in New York and online.  If you are even remotely interested in the subject, get it.

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