Monday, May 24, 2010


GEORGE PLIMPTON MADE A NAME FOR HIMSELF by being like no one else. He founded The Paris Review, he played with the Detroit Lions, he boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson, he played on the PGA Tour--all as an amateur--he was with Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was shot, and he hawked Intellivision on television. But in 1952, at the age of twenty-five, Plimpton faced a very common situation: he was graduating from university and had no idea what to do with himself. Or more accurately (but just as common), he knew he wanted to be a writer, but he didn't know what to do as a day job.

Luckily for him, a friend he had known since grade school got in touch to ask if he would be interested in moving to Paris to act as editor-in-chief for a new small literary magazine. His friend was Peter Matthiessen (later to win two National Book Awards, among other things), and the small literary magazine was soon to be called (with Plimpton's input) The Paris Review. But there was no money in running a small English language literary magazine from France. (In fact, just the opposite. It was a constant question of where would the money come from?) But another founding member of the Review and its first art director, William Pène du Bois, had already made a nice career for himself as a children's book author and illustrator. He had won the Newbery Medal in 1948 for The Twenty-one Balloons. Whether it was by example or by suggestion, George Plimpton followed Pène du Bois's lead, and wrote what was to be his first published book, a children's novel, The Rabbit's Umbrella (1955) with illustrations by William Pène du Bois.

"YOUNG BOY SITTING IN A LARGE ARMCHAIR: Well, now that you've finally decided to tell me a story, what sort of people are you going to tell me about?"  This framing conceit, that the book is told to a specific boy who interjects as the plot does or does not suit his interest, sets up the tone of the book exactly: cozy and casual, irreverent and slightly nonsensical. The narrator replies:
"The characters in the story you're about to hear include Mr. and Mrs. Henry Montague; their son Peter; a pet-shop owner called Mr. Perkins; Mr Otway, the streetcar motorman; Mr. Delaney, who is a police officer; and finally, a doctor, Doctor Trimble...But may I hasten to add that other characters in my story that might interest you more include an enormous dog named Lump, three robbers--Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely--a number of shouting parrots, and a rabbit with an umbrella."
This unlikely cast of characters live in the small American everytown Adams, a map of which is provided on the endpapers and often referred to, despite it being almost wholly obscured by the slumbering rabbit of the title. It is a bucolic and welcoming place.

There, one of the town's longest standing institutions is threatened by the imminent vote of the mayor's council to discontinue trolley service, and to allow for the sole operational trolley to be converted into a diner. Its operator Mr. Otway, Officer Delaney, and Doctor Trimble, trolley enthusiasts of childlike proportions, are much distressed by this impending doom.

At the same time, nine-year-old Peter Montague, proud owner of  a single passenger pedal car and son of the thimble manufacturer Henry Montague, decides he wants a dog. Mr. Montague, knowing his wife abhors dogs, gives his permission as long as Peter obtains his mother's permission. Due to the fine showing a poodle had recently made at a tea Mrs. Montague had attended, she unexpectedly gives her approval. And so, eight years before the appearance of Clifford the big red dog, Lump enters the stage.

And on the outskirts of town, in an old haunted house, the cowardly and incompetent burglars, Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely have set up house.

The three robbers have never succeeded in stealing anything of note, and are, as a result, so famished, that all of their burglaries take the shape of a meal Punch prepares with whatever food stuffs are at hand.

And so, when Mrs. Montague sees how enormous Lump is--"'Mr. Perkins says it's probably a very large type of poodle'"--she demands that he be returned, even though Peter has already fallen in love with the dog. The mayor's council finally votes to end trolley service in Adams. And Mr. Bouncely, appalled that Pease and Punch's complete take home haul from their burglary at the Montague residence is a chess pawn and a pincushion with one pin in it, demands that they return to the Montague's and burgle something big.

And so the stage is set. Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely enter the Montague's, but are startled and grab the first big thing at hand: Lump. Still panicked, they make their escape in Peter's peddle car.

Lump lets out "a wild, drawn-out cry of fright and misery and dejection and anger; and this cry rolled across the meadows and the forests like a thunderclap." It brings Mr. Otway, Officer Delaney, and Dr. Trimble in pursuit on the trolley car. When they arrive, Lump has subdued the criminals, and Officer Delaney makes the arrest.

Lump is now a hero, and therefore socially acceptable to Mrs. Montague (which means Peter can keep him). Punch, with his experience cooking under severe circumstances, suggests that the trolley be converted into a moving restaurant with himself as cook, and after Dr. Trimble defends him in court (by simply talking about how insulted the real dregs of society would be if Pease, Punch, and Mr. Bouncely were given the badge of burglars), the town puts that plan into effect, saving the trolley and rehabilitating the criminals. Happy ending.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that The Rabbit's Umbrella is on the other end of the literary spectrum from what Plimpton was himself editing in the first issues of The Paris Review. As he assured his parents in a letter dated March 20, 1954:
Here is another Paris Review, the fifth. I'm not sure as usual that you're not going to be shocked by most of the content...The contents, you'll be glad to hear, are hardly reflections of my own character, which remains merry enough and full of hope and enthusiasm. You'll have to wait for The Rabbit's Umbrella for proof, which in its way may make you laugh twice, or even three times, and I doubt will be considered the product of a tormented mind....
When The Rabbit's Umbrella first appeared, Plimpton's bio read, "George Plimpton, an American in Paris..." When the book was reissued many years later, the bio had been altered to, "George Plimpton wrote The Rabbit's Umbrella soon after he went to Paris to edit The Paris Review..." So the dichotomy between the serious but untested work at The Review and the humor of the children's book was very strong at the outset. In both bios, Plimpton goes on to tell the story:
When I first came to Paris I happened to frequent a restaurant where the proprietor's pet was a dog the size of a young bear...One day in the restaurant I happened to read of a burglar who'd climbed in the window of a house he thought deserted and found himself in the middle of a small party...I suppose the big dog and the burglar stuck in my mind...."
Despite the seemingly two different worlds that Plimpton's early work seemed to straddle, it was William Pène du Bois who no doubt acted as midwife to both. Russell Hemenway, director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress and a friend and witness to Plimpton, Matthiessen, Pène du Bois at the creation of The Review, said:
Billy Pène du Bois is the reason there is something called The Paris Review, I'm convinced. Because even though the first issue didn't have much content, it looked great, and it looked great because Billy Pène du Bois worked over the stone with the printer for days...This was no amateur. He spoke French, and he had six or eight children's books in circulation and was one of the great illustrators. He had great style. The Paris Reveiw looked great. That's what everyone talked about.
It was William Pène du Bois who designed The Paris Review's logo, an eagle holding a pen and wearing a Phrygian hat, in some ways, as humorous as a rabbit with an umbrella that had holes for its ears to stick through.
     YOUNG BOY: But there are more things I want to know. I want to know about the rabbit with the umbrella.
     Well, in that case we'll have to have an epilogue.
     YOUNG BOY: What is an epilogue?
     It's used to explain what hasn't been explained, to tie up loose strings, and generally to tidy up the book. Turn the page and you'll see.
The rabbit with the umbrella never explicitly appears in the novel. They are referred to by Dr. Trimble, whose claims, the reader knows, are suspect. But in the epilogue, Plimpton makes the rabbit the manipulator behind the scenes, the person pulling the strings, in short, the rabbit with the umbrella is Plimpton himself.

All background research and quotes that weren't from The Rabbit's Umbrella come from the delightful George, Being George: George Plimpton's life as told, admired, deplored, and evnied by 200 friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, rivals--and a few unappreciative observers edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr.

William Pène du Bois is indeed a master, and he has not made his last appearance on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie by a long shot. To see, for now at least, all of his illustrations from The Rabbit's Umbrella, visit my Flickr set here. For a cover gallery of Pène du Bois's work, see Page Books.

And as an epilogue of sorts (really a post script), I share the cover illustration by Pène du Bois of My Brother Bird by George Plimpton's Aunt Evelyn Ames (one of Plimpton's two Aunt Evelyn Ames's), whose maiden name, Perkins, Plimpton lent to the pet shop owner who sold Lump to the Montagues.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, May 17, 2010


WHEN JULIAN AND QUENTIN BELL'S family newspaper The Charleston Bulletin began publication in 1923, it was the second private newspaper some family members had known. The first, The Hyde Park Gate News, had been run the generation before by Julian and Quentin's mother Venessa Bell, with uncle Thoby Stephen, and aunt Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, in 1923, was already an established author and publisher, and a member of The Bloomsbury Group, the influential intellectual collective made up of the Woolfs, the Bells, and their friends. Her greatest works--Mrs. Dalloway (1925), The Common Reader (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927)--were just ahead of her, written at the same time her young nephews were publishing The Bulletin. But despite these "adult" affairs, when fifteen-year-old Julian and thirteen-year-old Quentin solicited submissions from family members, Aunt Virginia, perhaps with memories of The Hyde Park Gate News in mind, took the time to contribute.

"The result," Quentin Bell writes in the afterward to the 1988 Hogarth Press edition of The Widow and the Parrot,
was a tease. We had hoped vaguely for something as funny, as subversive, and as frivolous as Virginia's conversation. Knowing this, she sent us an 'improving' story with a moral, based on the very worst Victorian examples.

"SOME FIFTY YEARS AGO Mrs Gage, an elderly widow, was sitting in her cottage in a village called Spilsby in Yorkshire." News reaches the destitute woman that her brother has died and left her a house, all of his belongings, and three thousand pounds sterling. She borrows money from the village clergyman in order to make the trip to her brother's (now her) home in Rodmell to survey her new belongings.

In Rodmell she finds that the house and all of its contents are in pitiful condition, disused and worthless. The only thing of any value is a seaman's parrot who only repeats the phrase, "'Not at home.'" She feeds the parrot, and resolves to go directly to Lewes in order to retrieve the three thousand pounds from her brother's solicitors.

At the solicitor's offices, however, Mrs Gage is asked to take a seat. "'You must prepare to face some very disagreeable news,'" the solicitor begins. "'Since I wrote to you I have gone carefully through [your brother] Mr Brand's papers. I regret to say that I can find no trace whatever of the three thousand pounds.'"

Broken, and now in debt to her clergyman with no means to repay him, Mrs Gage makes way for her brother's (now her) home. On the way back to Rodmell, night falls. All is pitch black when Mrs Gage comes to the dangerous ford on the river that lies just outside of town. But "at that moment a wonderful thing happened. An enormous light shot up into the sky..."

The flames offer enough light for Mrs Gage to ford the river and make her way into town. There, however, she finds that it is her house that is burning. "'Has anybody saved the parrot?"' she cries, and the neighbors, assuming she's crazy with grief over her losses, lead her to a neighboring cottage, where she is put to bed.

Then, in the night, there is a tap at the window. It is the parrot, alive and eager for Mrs Gage to follow him, which she does. He leads her to the smoldering ruins of her brother's cottage, and through a series of taps and pantomimes, directs Mrs Gage to remove the bricks from the ground where her brother's hearth used to be. Beneath she finds the missing gold sovereigns. They are enough for her to live out the rest of her life in comfort with the parrot as a companion.

Moral: "Such is the reward of kindness to animals."

THE WIDOW AND THE PARROT remained locked away in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over fifty years. It at last saw publication as part of the year long celebration honoring one hundred years since Virginia Woolf's birth, in the July 1982 issue of Redbook.

What might have been more startling than the text even, was the revelation shown in a reproduction of the first page of the holograph, that Woolf was the story's first illustrator. But it should not come as too great a surprise that Virginia occasionally dabbled in the visual arts (even if only as a doodler). After all, Virginia's sister (Julian and Quentin's mother) Venessa Bell was a painter who designed the book jackets and sometimes provided interior woodblock prints for many of Virginia's books. Quentin provided most of The Charleston Bulletin's illustrations, and his son Julian (named for his uncle who died in the Spanish Civil War) offered the more fully realized illustrations in the children's book edition of The Widow and the Parrot (seen above).

In fact it's interesting to compare Julian's book illustrations (from Hinton's The Heart's Clockwork):

With his grandmother Vanessa's (from Woolf's Kew Gardens):

Despite how public they made or make their lives, the Woolf/Bell's work never strays far from the family.

Background information for this post comes from Quentin Bell's "Afterword" in the Hogarth Press edition of The Widow and the Parrot, the notes to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf where the text of The Widow and the Parrot is currently available, and from Peter Robins's and the BBC's articles on the acquisition of The Charleston Bulletin archive by The British Library.

Julian Bell is a painter and art historian. His 2007 book Mirror of the World: A New History of Art was released to rave reviews. He has illustrated other books (see my Flickr set here for more from Hinton's book), but the widest selection of his art can be found on his website.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


ALMOST AS THOUGH THEY WERE TRADING PLACES, the birth in 1924 of James Baldwin, the author of Go Tell It on the Mountain,  prefigured the death of James Baldwin, the writer of over fifty books for children, by a matter of months. At the time of his death in 1925, the name James Baldwin was known to millions of children. They read his books in school, and they read his books for fun. Not only had he written over fifty of his own books, but as an education editor first at Harper and Brothers and then at the American Book Company, he oversaw countless other works, edited numerous anthologies, and wrote instruction books for teachers on how to use literature in the classroom. It was estimated at one time, that Baldwin had been involved in over fifty percent of all children's books then used in schools.

Baldwin believed that moral instruction should come through a study of classical literature. Much of his output, starting with his first full length fiction for children The Story of Siegfried (1882), consists of retellings of well known stories. As he says in his introduction to his bestselling Fifty Famous Stories Retold (1896): "There are numerous time-honored stories which have become so incorporated into the literature and thought of our race that a knowledge of them is an indispensable part of one's education."

It was with this attitude that Baldwin wrote in 1897, the series known as The Baldwin Readers, which were used in many schools, and were one of at least three readers series that Baldwin either wrote or co-wrote. Other representative Baldwin titles include, Old Greek Stories (1895), Old Stories of the East (1895), A Story of the Golden Age (1902), and The Wonder Book of Horses (1903).

Most of Baldwin's work is now in the public domain, and much of it can be viewed online, often as scans of original volumes complete with their phenomenal illustrations. With such tremendous circulation, however, it is no surprise that Baldwin was often reissued and often re-illustrated. See my Flickr sets for examples of art by Peter Hurd, student and son-in-law of N.C. Wyeth, from later editions of The Story of Siegfried and The Story of Roland than the editions scanned by Google.

THE PHENOMENAL BEST IN CHILDREN'S BOOKS series published by Doubleday Book Clubs from 1957-1961--something of a minor league for children's book illustrators with stories drawn by artists such as Maurice Sendak, Ezra Jack Keats, Peter Spier, and Barbara Cooney--includes eighteen Baldwin stories in total.

Volume 26 reprints "Alexander and Bucephalus" from Fifty Famous Stories Retold as "A Horse for a Prince" illustrated by Don Freeman, the creator of Corduroy. Because the illustrators' names are not included on the title page in Best in Children's Books (they only appear on the dust jacket flaps and at the actual entries), brilliant illustrators often have "lost" work hidden away in the forty-two volume series. I have found no other reference to this work by Don Freeman, and so I take this opportunity to share it now.

IN ANOTHER WE TOO WERE CHILDREN, MR. BARRIE chance meeting, Don Freeman, long before he invented his famous teddy bear with the missing button, wrote and illustrated several articles on Beauford Delaney, the mentor and father figure of the African-American writer James Baldwin. Freeman and Delaney maintained a warm relationship (and on Freeman's side, a deep respect for Delaney's art). For more on their relationship, and to see scans of Freeman's illustrated article on Delaney from the April 1944 issue of Newstand, visit Don Freeman's website, maintained by his son.

Biographical information was taken from The Baldwin Online Children's Project (where you can see a photograph of the educator himself), and from an article on the History of Literacy's website. A brief history and thoroughly cross-referenced index of the Best in Children's Literature series can be found here.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.


JAMES BALDWIN SHOT to international fame with his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). It is a bildungsroman about a slight African-American boy growing up in 1930s Harlem. It is a novel about childhood, but it is a novel for adults. Twenty-three years later, long established as one of the most important African-American writers, Baldwin wrote another story of childhood, Little Man Little Man (1976). It is also the story of a boy in Harlem, but this time, Baldwin addresses it directly to its subject, children.

Little Man Little Man introduces the world of four-year-old TJ. For him, his block in Harlem is his world.
This street long. It real long. It a little like the street in the movies or the TV when the cop cars come from that end of the street and then they come from the other end of the street and the man they come to get he in one of the houses or he on the fire-escape or he on the roof and he see they come for him and he see the cop cars at that end and he see the cop cars at the other end.
WT, TJ's surrogate older brother, Blinky, the girl across the street, Mr. Man, the janitor, and his wife Miss Lee, the next door neighbor Miss Beanpole, and his parents: these are the people that fill TJ's life. He can bounce his basketball so high and catch it. He can run to the corner store for Miss Lee, and even to the store several blocks away for Miss Beanpole."He going to be a bigger star than Hank Aaron one of these days."

The story is told in black American joined with the language of children. The present flows easily to the past.

The illustrations were done by Yoran Cazac, a French artist, and Baldwin's close personal friend. Cazac asked Baldwin to be godfather to his third child, and Baldwin dedicated his novel If Beale Street Could Talk (1974) to Cazac.

TJ was based on Baldwin's seven-year-old nephew who went by TJ. In the novel, after his monumental trips to the store, and his interactions with WT and Blinky, TJ's day is shattered, literally--"It like a big explosion, like a bomb falling on him."--when a glass bottle falls from the top of his building and lands on his head. TJ is unharmed, but in racing to his aid, WT slashes open his foot through the hole in the sole of his shoe.

The children manage to get WT to the basement where Mr. Man sets him on his bed. Miss Lee is sent for, and when she arrives, she attends to WT's wounds. While the children see her as a healer--"'Did you used to be a nurse?'"--the adult reader understands that Miss Lee is an alcoholic, and it is she who dropped the bottle. The event casts a somber pall over the day until Mr. Man puts on his record player and Blinky begins to dance, which starts TJ to dancing, and soon all of them, the adults included, are laughing away.

THE NOVEL IS DEDICATED to the eminent African-American artist Beauford Delaney. Baldwin met Delaney when he was fourteen, the first self-supporting artist he had ever met, and like Baldwin, Delaney was black and homosexual. Delaney became a mentor to Baldwin, who often spoke of him as a "spiritual father." In later years, as Delaney succumbed to mental illness and was unable to care for himself, Baldwin legally acted in the role of family to oversee his affairs. It was Delaney who introduced Baldwin to Yoran Cazac in Paris.

Outside of the scant information above, taken from James Baldwin: A Biography by David Leeming, I have been unable to uncover more about Yoran Cazac. If anyone knows anything further, please get in touch and I will append it to this post. To see more of Yoran Cazac's art for Little Man Little Man, see my Flickr set here.

For a much superior treatment of Little Man Little Man, see Julius Lester's New York Times review.
I wish I could love this book, because I love James Baldwin. But it is a slight book, and it was written by a man I will always honor [and] cannot alter this assessment. Children's literature is a province of its own, a fact which the literati do not take seriously enough.
For more on the relationship between James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney, see Rachel Coehn's beautiful A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists.

And in a We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie chance meeting, when Chinua Achebe received a UNESCO travel grant in 1963, he chose the United States as one of his two destinations with the particular hope of meeting James Baldwin. Baldwin was in France at the time, and Achebe was much disappointed. But many years later, in 1980, the two men met at an African Literature Association conference in Gainesville where they had both been asked to speak. Achebe speaks warmly of the occasion in his remarks made at a commemoration ceremony at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It is reprinted in James Baldwin: The Legacy, edited by Quincy Troupe.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Friday, May 7, 2010


ONE LAST THING TO SHARE with regards to Chinua Achebe's children's books.  This article in the Daily Independent from this past January entitled "In Search for Viable Content for Children." The article outlines the history of Nigerian children's literature and postulates on its future. Two of Chinua Achebe's books are mentioned as exemplars of the form.

AND I HAVE POSTED another Richard Erdoes (a.k.a. the illustrator of James Joyce's The Cat And the Devil) book on my Flickr set: What's Inside? (1968) by Barbara Shook Hazen. The cover appears below.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


THE FLUTE is one of two picture books published by Chinua Achebe in 1977 (for information on the other, see The Drum). Like The Drum, The Flute is an adaptation of a traditional Igbo folktale.

A man takes his family of two wives--the senior wife with many children and the other wife with just one--to work on their distant farm at the border of the human and the spirit lands. They are careful to return home before nightfall when the spirits come out to tend their own crop of yams. Upon returning home, however, the only son of the younger wife finds that he has forgotten his flute in the fields. It is a flute he made with his own hands, and he is determined to retrieve it despite his parents' pleas to stay home.

When he reaches the farm, the spirits are indeed out. Their leader speaks: "'Taa! Human boy! Who sent you here? What are you looking for? Foolish fly that follows the corpse into the ground, did nobody tell you that we are abroad at this time?'"

The boy explains he has returned for his flute that he made with his own hands. The spirit asks if he would know this flute when he saw it, and the boy answers yes. The spirit leader then produces a golden flute, which the boy rejects, a shining flute, which the boy rejects, and finally the boy's beaten bamboo flute, which he claims.

The spirit leader demands a song.

The spirits are pleased and offer the boy one of two pots. The boy chooses the smaller pot, which proves to provide food and riches for his family.

But the senior wife is jealous of these rewards. She takes her eldest son and his flute to the farm, and contrives for the flute to be left. She sends her son to retrieve it from the spirits. On meeting the spirits, this son chooses the golden flute when it is offered. Then, when the spirits give him the choice of jars he chooses the large jar. He brings the pot to his mother, who securely locks them in their hut before opening the jar.

"Immediately leprosy, smallpox, yaws and worse diseases without names and every evil and abomination filled the hut and killed the woman and all her children." The next morning, on hearing no noise from the hut, the father races to open the door. He only just manages to close it before any of the unnamed evils enter the world.

THE FLUTE WAS ILLUSTRATED by Tayo Adenaike, one of the seven artists that make up the Nsukka Group, a collective of Nigerian artists based out of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

The Nsuka Group are characterized by their inclusion of uli design in their artwork, a traditional art form practiced by Igbo women as body designs for special occasions. Despite uli's history, the Nsuku Group is made primarily of men. They use European techniques and materials joined with uli to craft a Nigerian art style that incorporates Igbo culture.

To see all of Tayo Adenaike's illustrations for The Flute, see my Flickr set here. For other books by Chinua Achebe, see Chike and the River, How the Leopard Got His Claws, and The Drum.

Information on Tayo Adenaike came from the website of The National Museum of African Art's exhibit The Poetics of Line, and the website Heavensgate.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


STARTING WITH HIS FIRST NOVEL, THINGS FALL APART, Chinua Achebe incorporated traditional oral folktales into his writing. It was instrumental in how he shaped a distinctly African voice in modern African literature written in English. In that book, the longest spoken story is "Tortoise and the Birds," in which the tortoise tricks the birds into allowing him to come with them to a feast in the sky where he then, through wordplay, manages to claim the entire feast for himself. The tortoise, in Igbo and other African traditions, is a trickster animal, a deceitful character who breaks traditional norms either for his own gains or simply for the fun of it. Consistent with his belief that an African writer's responsibility is to rekindle an appreciation of African culture, Achebe turned to the tortoise again in one of two adaptations of Igbo folktales for children that he published in 1977, The Drum.

"Long, long ago, when the world was young, all the animals lived together in one country. In those days there were not as many tortoises as there are today but only one tortoise, Mbe, the ancestor of all tortoises..."

In this idyllic world, a time of famine comes. Tortoise, in desperation, journeys out in search of food. At last he comes upon a palm tree with "thrice four hundred" ripe palm fruits. Atop this palm tree, one of the fruits slips from Tortoise's hand. Unwilling to give up even one of these succulent fruits, Tortoise descends. But the fruit has fallen into a hole, and Tortoise follows.

Tortoise has found his way into the Spirit World, where a spirit child has just eaten his fruit. Tortoise demands recompense and in payment, and the spirits give Tortoise a drum. Upon returning home, Tortoise finds that the drum can provide an endless supply of food.

After a week of feasting, at last certain that the food will not run out, Tortoise decides to share his riches under the condition that the animals make him king. So starved are the animals that they agree. Tortoise, who has decided that beating a drum is beneath a king's dignity, assigns elephant to beat the drum at his coronation ceremony. But the elephant beats the drum too hard.

The drum is broken. And with no drum, no king. "'What's the good of a king without a food drum?'"

So Tortoise returns to the Spirit World. He tricks the same spirit child into eating another of his palm fruits, and then parlays that insult into another drum. But this time, the spirits allow him to choose his drum from many. Tortoise chooses the largest drum, of course.

Upon his ascent, Tortoise tests the drum, and "masked spirits with bundles of whips appeared from nowhere and began rushing and jumping around and hitting at everything in their way." They are followed by wasps and bees. Tortoise is badly beaten and stung; it takes days to recover.

When Tortoise regains consciousness, he chooses to share his new "gift" as he did his old. He makes a big show out of holding back the drum until the time is right, but his "subjects" chant, "We! Want! It! Now!! The! King! Of! Drums!!" Tortoise, after locking himself safely in his hut, complies. "As for the animals, what they saw that evening has never been fully told. Suffice it to say that they dragged themselves out of Tortoise's compound howling and bleeding."

IN "ACHEBE ON EDITING," an interview that first appeared in World Literature Written in English, Achebe says that The Drum is a story from tradition that "I decided to make a political making the tortoise want to use the power that he has over the other animals to attempt to become their king." In this way, Achebe makes Tortoise a prototypical post-colonial leader who may initially have good intentions, but in the end is corrupted by power, and brings only terror to his people. Achebe goes on:
I don't think I have altered the meaning and flavour of the story. In my own estimation what I have done is to make it applicable to our situation today. And I believe that this is what the makers of these traditions intended to do - to tell stories that would be applicable to that day...

To see all of Anne Nwokoye's illustrations for The Drum, see my Flickr set here. For other books by Chinua Achebe, see Chike and the River and How the Leopard Got His Claws.

Tomorrow: Chinua Achebe's The Flute

Background on Achebe's composition of The Drum, including quotes from "Achebe on Editing," came from Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto and The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia by M. Keith Booker.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


HOW THE LEOPARD GOT HIS CLAWS (1972) started as a manuscript written by John Iroaganachi in 1967 called How the Dog was Domesticated. When it was published five years later under its final title, the book was credited to Chinua Achebe first, Iroaganachi second. But its authorship is even more complicated.

The complete credits read: How the Leopard Got His Claws by Chinua Achebe and John Iroaganachi with The Lament of the Deer by Christopher Okigbo, illustrated by Per Christiansen. Those are a lot of names for one thirty-five page children's picture book. To understand why, you need to have a basic understanding of modern Nigerian history, most specifically an understanding of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.

But before a very rudimentary and poorly informed history lesson, the book.

The animals live in edenic peace with the leopard as king. Only the dog has sharp teeth and the other animals mock him for it. One day, the deer approaches King Leopard about constructing a common shelter from the rain. All the other animals embrace the plan...except for the dog who keeps out of the rain in his cave (and the duck, who doesn't mind getting wet).

The rest of the animals work hard, each contributing to the construction, and at last complete their work. At the celebratory feast to celebrate the opening of the hall, King Leopard says, "'This hall is yours to enjoy. You worked very hard together to build it. I am proud of you.'"

But then the rains come, and the dog is forced from his cave to seek shelter in the animals' hall. When the deer challenges the dog's right to use the shelter, the dog attacks.

The deer calls for help.

The leopard, who was away at another village, returns, but without teeth or claws, he is quickly vanquished. His subjects refuse to rally behind him, but rather capitulate to the dog and name him their king.

The leopard, injured and alone, leaves. He makes his way to a blacksmith, and says, "'I want the strongest teeth you can make from iron. And I want the most deadly claws you can make from bronze.'" He then goes to thunder, and says, "'I want some of your sound in my voice....Even a little bit.'" Upon hearing his story, both consent, and he returns home armed and ready.

Back home at the shelter, the leopard devastates the dog and subdues his former subjects through fear. They try to claim that he has always been their king, but he announces that the former peace they knew is no more, and from then on he will rule through fear.

The dog runs to the human hunter and offers to be his slave in return for sanctuary from the leopard.
Today the animals are no longer friends, but enemies. The strong among them attack and kill the weak. The leopard, full of anger, eats up anyone he can lay his hands on. The hunter, led by the dog, goes to the forest from time to time and shoots any animals he can find. Perhaps the animals will make peace among themselves some day and live together again. Then they can keep away the hunter who is their common enemy.
IN EARLY 1967, Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo, the poet and friend who had solicited Chike and the River from Achebe for Cambridge University Press, started Citadel Press to, according to Ezenwa-Ohaeto in Chinua Achebe: A Biography, "publish relevant works by Africans for children, thereby encouraging the exploration of the oral traditions of the people." One of the first manuscripts they received was How the Dog was Domesticated by John Iroaganachi. In that version the dog was a good fellow who was enslaved. Achebe, however, was seized by the manuscript, and promptly rewrote it, turning it into the quite different story above.

In July of 1967, the Biafra region in south eastern Nigeria seceded, declaring itself the Republic of Biafra. When Nigeria sent troops to reclaim Biafra, a civil war began that would last for two and half years. Achebe and Okigbo resided in Biafra. Okigbo joined the army to support Biafra and in September 1967, he was killed. His death ended the newborn Citadel Press.

In January 1970, the war ended with Biafra once again part of Nigeria.

In post-war Nigeria, there was much discontent and Achebe often found himself in opposition to the government. Friends, Arthur Nwankwo and Samuel Ifejika, started Nwamife Books in order to publicize the horrors of the civil war. Achebe was included in their first publication, an anthology The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria. It was through this association with Nwamife Books that How the Leopard got his Claws at last saw print.

Okigbo, who had become something of a martyr, had written the Lament of the Deer for the book before his death, and while short and less than inspiring, its inclusion was of great importance. And during the war, the Scandinavian countries had been sympathetic to Biafra, which was how the Norweigian illustrator Per Christiansen was brought on as illustrator, making what seems a simple animal fable into an international book grown out of war.

Tomorrow: Chinua Achebe's The Drum

Background on Achebe's composition of How the Leopard Got His Claws came from Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto and The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia by M. Keith Booker.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, May 3, 2010


WHEN HIS DAUGHTER STARTED PRESCHOOL IN NIGERIA IN 1965, Chinua Achebe was alarmed to find how much racism was built into the books she was exposed to at school. Even when the teachers, who were predominantly white, presented the material with no personal bias, the stories themselves contained racial stereotypes that portrayed Africans as primitive and superstitious. Achebe was, at that time, the recognized voice of modern African literature ever since the publication of his novel Things Fall Apart (1958). As editor of the African Writers Series and director of external broadcasting at the Nigerian Broadcast Service where he founded the Voice of Nigeria, he was a major cultural leader. It was in this capacity that his good friend and former classmate, the poet Christopher Okigbo, then serving as the manager of the Cambridge Press for West Africa, approached him about writing a children's book.

Achebe had given a lecture in Leeds the year before entitled "The Novelist as Teacher." He said his role as a novelist was "to help my society regain belief in itself and put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement." With this purpose in mind, Achebe saw himself as a teacher as well as a novelist. And while he had intended his "teachings" for people of all ages, his work had so far been addressed to adults. His experience as a parent, however, showed him that he could not ignore Nigeria's children. So as a novelist and as a concerned father, he wrote Chike and the River (1966).

Chike and the River is a sixty-page chapter book intended for middle readers with illustrations by Prue Theobalds. Chike, a Nigerian boy, moves from his native village of Umuofia to the city of Onitsha to live with his uncle.

In the city, Chike is overwhelmed by how different life is from what he had known in Umuofia. "In Umuofia every thief was known, but here [in Onitsha] even people who lived under the same roof were strangers to one another." His uncle is stern, and the friends he makes at school are mischievous, often leading Chike astray.

From his first day at school, the children talk about one thing: Asaba, the city on the opposite bank of the Niger River. It can be reached by ferry, "sixpence to go over and sixpence to return." But Chike has no money.

After many ill-conceived plans for acquiring the necessary ferry fee, Chike stumbles on the idea to wash the cars of people waiting to cross the river. "When he had finished [washing the car] he told the owner [who] ... brought out a handful of coins and gave one to Chike. ... Chike's dream had come true; at last he could go to Asaba."

Once in Asaba, Chike is disappointed by how unimpressive the town is. But when he decides he has seen enough, he finds that he has missed the last ferry back to Onitsha. With no place to stay, Chike takes refuge in the back of a lorry.

The lorry turns out to belong to a gang of thieves. Chike overhears the thieves make arrangements with a night watchman and then load their lorry with stolen goods. Chike avoids discovery, and in the morning when he awakes, "He was amazed by what he saw. A man tied to a mango tree."

It is the night watchmen, who begins to tell the police that he had been overpowered by thieves. But Chike steps up, "'I saw the thieves...This man helped them.'" Chike's testimony leads to the arrest and conviction of the thieves, and Chike becomes a hero.

Chike and the River suffers from strong didacticism and that workshop woe "telling" instead of "showing." Achebe acknowledged that he found writing for children difficult, and the difficulty feels like the awkward discomfort some adults get around children. The book's final paragraph shows this well:
So Chike's adventure on the River Niger brought him close to danger and then rewarded him with good fortune. It also exposed Mr Peter Nwaba, the rich but miserly trader. For it was he who had led the other thieves.
Such a pat ending and overt tying off of loose ends comes across as either lazy or exasperated, a desire to just be done with it. Achebe discovered what will be something of a theme on We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie: an ability to write for adults does not necessarily translate into an ability write for children. With his next three children's books, Achebe chose a mode more suited to his audience and his purposes--picture books about talking animals.

Tomorrow: How the Leopard Got His Claws.

Background on Achebe's composition of Chike and the River came from Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto and The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia by M. Keith Booker.