Tuesday, April 30, 2013


THE THING ABOUT POSTHUMOUS WORKS is that it can be difficult to asses a "newly discovered" story in the appropriate context in a writer's career. A little over two weeks ago, I wrote about Sylvia Plath's "first" children's book, The Bed Book, which was written in 1959 but published in 1976. It was twenty years before Plath's second children's book, The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit was released in 1996, but that book was also written in 1959 in the few months that constitute Plath's "career" as a children's writer.

At that time, Plath did not yet have children of her own, although becoming a mother was very much on her mind. Her husband Ted Hughes had taken to writing for children on their honeymoon in 1956, and had started to publish children's stories in periodicals in 1958, which is what inspired Plath to try her hand at children's work as well. But while Plath tried to publish The Bed Book in her lifetime, her other stories were mostly tucked away.

It was not until a German publisher delved into Plath's papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in the hopes of putting together a new short story collection that The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit came to light. Plath's sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes brought the book to Plath's publisher Faber who immediately announced that they would bring it out as a book illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner.

THE IT-DOESN'T-MATTER SUIT TELLS THE STORY of seven year old Max Nix, the youngest of seven brothers, and his deepest wish: to own his own suit.

Max and his large family live in the mountain town of Winkleburg, and everyone has a suit except Max. "Now Max did not want a suit just for work (that would be too plain) or just for weddings (that would be too fancy) or just for skiing (that would be too hot) or just for summer (that would be too cool). He wanted a suit for All-Year-Round."

As the youngest of seven, however, Max is last in line for everything, and it doesn't look like his chances of acquiring a suit are all that good. Then one day, the postman delivers a box whose label has gotten wet, so that the only name legible was Nix. No one knows who the box is for, nor can they imagine what it contains. When at last it is opened, "there in the grey box with a wreath of white tissue paper around it lay a wooly whiskery brand-new mustard-yellow suit with three brass buttons."

As per usual, Papa Nix gets first dibs. He is very excited, determined to wear the suit the next day to his job at the bank. "He thought how it would be to wear the woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow suit to work. Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg." However, as he thinks more about it, he decides it might not be professional to wear such a bright suit, and announces, "'I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit.'"

So it passes on to Paul. Mama Nix has to make some alterations, but "when she was through, the suit fitted Paul to a T. He decides to wear it the next day for skiing. "Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg." But none of his friends where a suit like that, and he decides, "I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit.

So it passes on to Emil who is going to sled in it, but thinks of his friends, and decides he is "too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit," as does Otto, and then Walter, and Hugo, and finally Johann. And so, at last, it passes to Max.

Max wears the suit the next day, and he doesn't care that no one in Winkleburg has ever seen a suit like it: IT DIDN'T MATTER. He goes on to wear the suit while doing a lot of the things his brother's felt they couldn't do in the suit: skiing, riding his bike in the rain, ice-fishing, sledding, fox-hunting. And as for the potential difficulties wearing the suit in those situations could create: IT DIDN'T MATTER.

In the end, all of the people in the town, even all of the animals in the town, admire Max's marvelous suit.

OUTSIDE OF THE UNBELIEVABLE PREMISE, that a seven year old boy would want a suit more than anything in the world, The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit is a delightful book. It contains many repetitious refrains, like "Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg, and "I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit," which I'm sure young children would enjoy.

The book is included in 2001's Collected Children's Stories with illustrations by David Roberts, the black and white illustrations in this post.

The little background material I found came from a 2005 Horn Book article by Lissa Paul, a 1995 article from the Daily Mail (London), and a 1995 announcement in The New York Times.

COMING SOON: Sylvia Plath's Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen.

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Friday, April 19, 2013


TODAY MARKS THE THREE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. The number of posts has gone down each year, but my commitment to the blog has never wavered. I'll be back with more Sylvia Plath in the next week or two. Today, I am in Los Angeles for the LA Times Book Awards, so keep your fingers crossed for me. If you are in the LA area, I will be at the LA Times Festival of the Books tomorrow, so come and say hi. Thanks for reading all this time.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


IT MAY BE HARD TO RECONCILE the idea of Sylvia Plath, the patron saint of suicide, the confessional chronicler of depression, with her children's books. That a woman who expressed so little happiness in all her other works had hidden away light, silly verses and stories is jarring. Perhaps that is why it was not until over a decade after her death that any of them appeared.

Written in 1959, but published in 1976, The Bed Book was the first of Plath's children's books to see print. Encouraged by Atlantic Monthly Press editor Emilie McLeod, Plath took the idea of fantastical beds, and composed an almost Seussian poem of imagination.

She wrote in her journal for May 3, 1959:
"I wrote a book yesterday. Maybe I'll write a postscript on top of this in the next month and say I've sold it. Yes, after half a year of procrastinating, bad feeling and paralysis, I got to it yesterday morning, having lines in my head here and there, and Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue very real, and bang. I chose ten beds out of the long list of too fancy and ingenious and abstract a list of beds, and once I'd begun I was away and didn't stop till I typed out and mailed it (8 double-spaced pages only!) to the Atlantic Press. The Bed Book, by Sylvia Plath. Funny how doing it freed me. It was a bat, a bad-conscience bat brooding in my head...A ready-made good idea and an editor writing to say she couldn't get the idea of it out of her head."
Emilie McLeod loved it, but she suggested removing the two children, Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue who had acted as a framing narrative. Plath rewrote the book within a week of receiving McLeod's edits, and was very optimistic that it would soon be accepted for publication. She dedicated it to her friend Marcia Plumer's adopted twins.

That Plath herself still had no children of her own (despite The New York Times's erroneous claim that The Bed Book had been written for Plath's children) was still a source of much anguish to the young poet. Her husband Ted Hughes had turned to writing children's books at the same time. (He went on to have a long successful career as a children's writer, a subject for a future We Too Were Children.) Writing in her journal of both his and her books, Plath mourned, "And no child, not even the beginnings or the hopes of one, to dedicate it to...My god. This is the one thing in the world I can't face. It is worse than a horrible disease."

Plath had to wait until the middle of August until she got back definitive word about the fate of her book. Little, Brown, then the publisher of Atlantic Monthly Press books, felt "that the book is not simple and basic enough, that some of the beds are too farfetched, and that it has more appeal to adults than to children." At the time, while Plath had published many poems and stories in magazines, she had not yet published a book, and so could not rely on her name to carry the book through. Emilie McLeod was genuinely sorrowful that she had to pass on the bad news.

THE BED BOOK THAT EVENTUALLY DID APPEAR deserves none of Little, Brown's criticisms. It begins:
Beds come in all sizes--
single or double,
cot-size or cradle,
king-size or trundle.

Most Beds are Beds
for sleeping or resting,
but the best Beds are much
more interesting!
Plath said in her journal that she had chosen ten beds, but in the final book there seem to be a few more than that. Of course, she may have intended some of these beds to be the same bed. They are: a bed for fishing, a bed for cats, a bed for acrobats, a submarine bed, a jet-propelled bed, a snack bed, a spottable bed, a tank bed, a bird-watchers bed, a pocket-size bed, an elephant bed, and a North-Pole bed.

The Bed Book was later included in Plath's Collected Children's Stories with different illustrations. In the original book, illustrator Emily Arnold McCully infuses her pictures with warmth, depicting a sort of nostalgic idyll.

But the later pictures by David Roberts come closer to the zaniness the book intends.

The collected version also retains additional verses that had been cut from the book's first appearance. Why those particular lines had been removed is unclear.

Jack Prelutsky included an excerpt from The Bed Book in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, but the book itself fell out of print. It would be twenty years more before another one of Plath's children's works was published

In addition to Plath's own published journals, background information for this post came from Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander.

COMING SOON: The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit by Sylvia Plath

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Friday, April 5, 2013


IN HONOR OF THE NEW OZ MOVIE, I've contributed this beautiful Wonder Books edition to the greatest kids' book blog there is, Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves. Click the link to check it out. Head on over to my Flickr to see the whole book.

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